Jenny O’Brien’s latest Detective Gaby Darin, Lost Souls, is out now. To celebrate, we want to give you the chance to read an exclusive extract from the new book. Be warned – you will need to know what happens next!
Lost Souls – Chapter 2
Monday 3 August, 7.05 a.m. Rhos-on-Sea
Acting DI Gaby Darin glanced down at the screen of her mobile, a frown firmly in place. With Owen Bates, her DC, still on paternity leave until later today, she was the senior officer on the North Wales Major Incident Team and as such available 24/7 whether she liked it or not. She didn’t mind covering but she wondered why they always phoned her when she was about to sit down to eat. Porridge was bad enough but cold it was a thick, unpalatable, paste-like gloop.
‘Ma’am, it’s Jax Williams. We have a runaway girl.’
Gaby leant back in her chair, breakfast forgotten, her mind full of another missing girl, a mystery they’d solved only a short time ago: twenty-four years too late. There couldn’t be a second one surely – not so soon. But, hand resting on her brow, she knew she shouldn’t be surprised at the news, only her reaction. Instead of the adrenalin that usually soared through her veins at the thought of a new case, all she could come up with was a deep sense of disappointment. It suddenly felt as if she was losing her identity with each successive crime, as if someone was taking a chisel and chipping away. Gaby Darin: acting DI. Not Gabriella: sister, friend, lover.
Last week had been a good week, the best week in ages. Her relationship with Rusty Mulholland, the resident pathologist, was continuing to blossom. Still only friends, she could see that changing to something more but only if she was allowed the opportunity of cultivating their growing rapport.
‘Ma’am, are you there?’
With a huge effort, Gaby pulled herself together. It wasn’t like her to wallow in self-pity and it certainly wasn’t like her to daydream about red-headed pathologists with startling blue eyes and a temper that was on an even shorter fuse than her own. She was there to fulfil the role she was paid for. If she didn’t like it, she could always . . . She shook the thought away. No. She couldn’t!
‘Yes, sorry, Williams. It must be a bad line,’ she said, crossing her fingers behind her back as the easy lie slipped through her lips. She wasn’t going to tell him the truth. ‘Go on, you were saying?’
She grabbed her keys from the centre of the table and, heading into the hall, picked up her bag and jacket from the newel post, careful to avoid the mess that was currently her lounge. Painting the wood panelling that lined the bottom half of the room at the weekend wasn’t the greatest of ideas but, with work being quiet, she’d optimistically thought that she’d be able to get it finished in the evenings after work, refusing to dwell on the image of cosy meals for three while she continued getting to know Rusty and his young son, Conor.
‘We got the call about thirty minutes ago. Elodie Fry, age ten. Her mother went to wake her this morning only to find that her bed hadn’t been s-s-slept in,’ he stuttered, heaving air into his lungs. ‘After phoning around and a quick search, she rang us. I’m heading over to interview her.’
‘I’ll meet you there – and, Jax, grab Amy. The sooner we get a FLO involved the better. It’s times like this that family liaison officers come into their own.’ She pushed against the front door to check the latch had caught, making a mental list, which she started to tick off in the maelstrom that was now her mind. ‘And get Marie and Mal involved ASAP. They can get the search underway while we wait for Owen.’
‘Did you want me to give him a ring too?’
Owen. Her fingers gripped her keys, the hard, cold metal biting into the soft flesh of her palm. How would he take another missing girl after the recent ordeal that his wife and unborn child had gone through? How would he stand up to the pressure when he’d nearly decided to throw his career away? There was only so much she could do to protect him on a case like this.
‘No, let me contact him. You’ve enough to do. What’s the address?’
Ystâd golygfa’r môr, or Sea View estate, was the largest housing development in Colwyn Bay. A mixture of social housing, the sprawling concrete jungle had a reputation that struck fear into the hearts of the coppers who had the misfortune to attend any of the frequent call-outs. But as with most of these estates the inhabitants got on with their own business, the few bad ones spoiling it for everyone.
Number 312 was a narrow, two-bedroomed house with distant views over the Welsh coast and bordered by a wasteland of tarmac littered with potholes and the odd dolls’ pram along with the usual detritus of cola cans and sweet wrappings. But the house was different again. While small and cluttered, it was spotlessly clean. The sofa and recliner chair were arranged around a small TV, the mantelpiece over the three-bar electric fire displaying unframed photos, all of the same pretty blonde girl. But Gaby wasn’t interested in the girl’s appearance, not yet. All her attention was on the faded middle-aged woman currently leaning forward on the sofa, a long, low keening sound coming from her mouth.
Jax dipped his head to whisper in Gaby’s ear. ‘Ms Anita Fry, ma’am. She’s been like that ever since we arrived. I’ve sent Mal and Marie a copy of the most recent photo for distribution and DS Potter is on her way.’ He turned, adding over his shoulder, ‘I thought I’d make her a cuppa. S-s-she looks as if she needs it.’
Gaby nodded in agreement, her gaze pinned to the woman in front of her. About forty, and dressed in jeans and a loose top the colour of an overripe avocado, Ms Fry had the complexion of someone who’d had several knocks over the years: her jawline saggy, her skin that pasty tone of too little time spent out of doors. Life was hard for some families, none harder than in this room.
As an experienced detective, it took a lot to engage Gaby’s sympathies. She’d seen far too much of the human race to ever believe what was in front of her. She’d been lied to and conned in both her personal and professional life far too many times to take people on trust. But if anyone was going to engage her compassion it was this woman.
‘Hello, Ms Fry. My name is DI Gaby Darin.’ She dropped into the chair opposite, leaning forward, her clasped hands dangling between her legs, the line of her favourite navy Zara jacket bunching around her shoulders. ‘I’ve already pulled a team of officers together to scour the neighbourhood but I need to ask you some questions that will help us. To begin with is there any reason you can think of that might have made Elodie decide to run away? And are there any friends or family she might have gone to stay with?’
‘No one calls her Elodie. It’s Ellie and she’s not like that. She’d have no reason to run away.’ Ms Fry raised her head from where she’d been staring down at the floor, her eyes red-rimmed and her skin coated in dark shadows that long predated her missing child. ‘We’re a team, her and me. A tight little unit. She’d never have just upped and left like that. She’d have had no reason. Yes, money’s tight but we still manage to get by.’
‘What about school? Is she happy? Friends?’
‘Happy enough. She likes it, would you believe? I don’t know where she gets it from but she’s clever too. There’s even talk of trying for a scholarship next year at St Elian’s College.’
‘And friends?’ Gaby reminded her softly. ‘Anyone she might have gone to stay with?’
‘But why would she? There’d be no need and certainly not in the middle of the night,’ she said, her tone taking on the shrill note of someone on the edge. ‘There’s really no one apart from her best friend, Heather, and even then they don’t see much of each other. Only in school and for the occasional playdate. Outside of her ballet lessons – she’s mad on ballet – she spends the rest of the time either reading or out with me.’
‘I believe you’re a cleaner.’ Gaby watched her stiffen.
‘And what if I am? It’s a good, honest job.’
Gaby spread her hands only to clasp them together again. ‘It certainly is. An essential one,’ she replied, relieved to see Anita visibly relaxing in front of her. An aggressive witness – and witness was what she had to view her as – was the very last thing she wanted. Time was precious. The most precious thing where a missing child was concerned. They needed clear, accurate information and they needed it fast – it was up to Gaby to get it. ‘So, what about anyone else she might have decided to slope off to see? Any siblings? What about her father or even a boyfriend?’
‘There’s no one. No father. He was never on the scene. No siblings, and a boyfriend at ten? Come on. She’s not interested in boys and, even if she was, there isn’t the time in her day for her to go and chase them.’ Her features hardened, frown lines forming deep tracks on either side of her mouth. ‘And before you ask, I don’t have a boyfriend either. They’re far more trouble than they’re worth.’
Gaby took a sneaky glance at the plain, black-strapped watch on her wrist, her mind on the investigation. The seconds were ticking by. No one knew more than her what little time they had left if there was to be a happy resolution. But she still had questions that needed to be answered.
‘Tell me about yesterday then. Anything that you can think of to spark her running away?’
‘I’ve already told that officer on the phone earlier. Yesterday was a normal day. Nothing happened. We got up. Ellie stayed in her room until lunchtime finishing up a crafting project and reading. After lunch we headed out to the beach for a walk. We came home, had tea and slobbed out in front of the TV. The exact same as every other Sunday.’
No, not the exact same or otherwise your daughter wouldn’t be missing. But instead all she said was, ‘And there was no trouble at school? No bullying?’ Gaby rose to her feet and walked over to the mantelpiece to study the photos: the ‘thin as sticks’ limbs, and eyes that dominated the girl’s heart-shaped face. ‘She’s very slight. No problems with depression? Eating all right?’
‘Ellie eats like a horse, Detective. You probably can’t believe it,’ Anita said, tugging at the pool of flesh around her middle. ‘But I used to be the same.’
Gaby smiled briefly. ‘I can well imagine. So . . .’
But she didn’t get to finish her sentence. Anita sprung to her feet, quite unaware of the look of desperation etched across her cheeks. Gaby knew what she was going to ask. Every single relative of a missing person asked the exact same question, their words layered with the same frantic tone. They were asking the one question they knew it was impossible to answer at this stage but still they asked it.
‘Will you be able to find her?’