The police released Ben Anders later that same day. Mackenzie phoned to tell me.
‘I thought you’d want to know,’ he said. He sounded tired and flat, as if he’d been up most of the night. He probably had.
I was in my office at the surgery, retreating from the emptiness of my house. I didn’t know how I felt at the news. Pleased for Ben, yes. Yet there was also an unexpected sense of disappointment. I’d never really believed Ben was the killer, but on some level there must have been an element of doubt. Or perhaps it was just that as long as the police were questioning a suspect, regardless of who it was, there was a small hope of finding Jenny. Now even that had gone.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Nothing happened. We’re satisfied he couldn’t have been at her house on the afternoon she went missing, that’s all.’
‘That’s not what you thought earlier.’
‘We didn’t know earlier,’ he said, tersely. ‘He wouldn’t tell us where he was at first. Now he has, and it checks out.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘If he’d got an alibi, why didn’t he tell you straight away?’
‘You can ask him that yourself.’ He sounded irritable. ‘If he wants to tell you, he will. As far as we’re concerned, though, he’s in the clear.’
I rubbed my eyes. ‘So where does that leave us?’
‘We’ll carry on pursuing other leads, obviously. We’re still looking at forensic evidence from the house, and-‘
‘Forget the official bullshit, just tell me!’ Silence came down the line. I took a deep breath. ‘Sorry.’
Mackenzie sighed. ‘We’re doing everything we can. I can’t tell you any more than that.’
‘Are there any other suspects?’
‘What about Brenner?’ At the last moment I decided not to mention seeing him that morning. ‘I’m still certain he was the one who tipped you off about Ben Anders. Isn’t it worth talking to him again?’
Mackenzie failed to conceal his impatience. ‘I’ve already told you, Carl Brenner’s got a alibi. If he was responsible for the false lead then we’ll tackle him about it later. Right now I’ve got more important things to do.’
The despair I’d been trying to hold at bay was in danger of swamping me. ‘Can I help?’ I asked, knowing what his answer would be but hoping anyway.
‘Not right now.’ He hesitated. ‘Look, there’s still time. The other women were kept alive for three days. There’s every reason to think he’ll follow the same pattern now.’
Is that supposed to make me feel better? I wanted to shout. Even if Jenny were still alive, we both knew she wouldn’t be for much longer. And the thought of what she might be going through in the meantime was unbearable.
After Mackenzie rang off I sat with my head in my hands. There was a knock on the door. I straightened as Henry came in.
‘Any news?’ he wanted to know.
I shook my head. I couldn’t help but notice how tired he looked. Which wasn’t surprising, really. Since Jenny had disappeared I’d given up any pretence of seeing patients.
‘Are you OK?’ I asked.
‘Fine!’ But he couldn’t sustain the show of energy. He gave a wan smile and shrugged. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m managing. Really.’
I wasn’t convinced. There was a gauntness about him he couldn’t conceal. But as bad as I felt about leaving him to run things by himself, right now all I could think about was Jenny, and what might happen in the next twenty-four hours. Anything else seemed too distant to contemplate.
Seeing that I was in no mood for company, Henry left me alone. I tried to go through my forensic reports on Sally Palmer and Lyn Metcalf, on the off-chance that I’d find something I’d missed. But that simply led my imagination in a direction I was trying hard to avoid. I turned my computer off in frustration. As I stared at the darkened screen I was struck with a conviction that there was something important I was overlooking. Something that was staring me in the face. For a moment it felt tantalizingly close, but even as I clutched for it I could feel it slipping away.
The need to do something pulled me to my feet. I grabbed my mobile phone and hurried out to the car. There was only one place I could think of to go.
But even as I set off the feeling that I was missing something obvious refused to die away.
Ben Anders lived in a large brick cottage on the edge of the village. It used to belong to his parents, and after they’d died he’d lived there with his sister until she’d married and moved away. He’d often said the place was too big for him, that he should sell up and buy somewhere smaller, but had shown no inclination to do so. When all was said and done, it was his home, too big or not.
I’d only been there a couple of times before, for an after-hours drink after the Lamb had shut, and as I parked outside the heavy wooden gate closing off the high stone wall, I thought it said a lot for the depth of our friendship that I’d never visited the place before in daylight.
I didn’t even know if he’d be home. And, now I’d arrived, I half-hoped he wouldn’t be. I’d come out here wanting to hear his version of why he’d been arrested, but I hadn’t actually thought about what I was going to say to him.
But I put any doubts out of my mind as I knocked on the door. The house was built from pale brick, not pretty but with an attractive solidity to it. A big garden, tidy without being fussy. White windows, a dark green door. I waited, then knocked again. When there was no sign of life after a third attempt I started to turn away. I didn’t leave, though. I don’t know if it was just reluctance to go back to waiting or something more, but somehow the house didn’t seem empty.
There was a path running around the side to the back. I followed it. Part way along there was a dark splash of something on the ground. Blood. I stepped over it. The back garden was like a well-kept field. At the bottom of it was a cluster of fruit trees. A figure was sitting in the shade underneath them.
Ben didn’t seem surprised to see me. There was a bottle of whisky on the table next to him, a rough-hewn affair of unplaned timber. A cigarette burned itself to ash on the edge of it. Judging by the level in the bottle and the flush on his face, he’d been here for some time. He continued pouring himself another drink as I approached.
‘There’s a glass in the house if you want to join me.’
‘I’d offer you a coffee. But, frankly, I can’t be arsed to get up.’ He picked the cigarette up, looked at it and stubbed it out. ‘First one in four years. Tastes like shit.’
‘I heard. Thought it might be the fucking press again. Had two reporters round here already. Some loudmouthed copper gave them the wink, I expect.’ He gave a lopsided grin. ‘They took some convincing that I’d rather be left alone, but they got the hint eventually.’
‘Is that where the blood on the path came from?’
‘There was some spillage involved before they accepted my “no comment”, yes.’ Apart from his careful enunciation he didn’t sound drunk. ‘Bastards,’ he added, his expression darkening.
‘Hitting reporters might not be the best idea you’ve had.’
‘Who said I hit them? I just escorted them off my property, that’s all.’ A shadow clouded his face. ‘Look, I’m sorry about Jenny.’ He sighed. ‘Sorry. Shit, that doesn’t come close, does it?’
I wasn’t ready to acknowledge condolences. ‘What time did the police release you?’
‘Two or three hours ago.’
‘Why did they let you go?’
He eyed me over his glass. ‘Because I didn’t have anything to do with it.’
‘So why are you sitting here getting drunk?’
‘You ever been taken in for questioning for murder?’ He gave a laugh. ‘ “Questioning” – there’s a fucking joke. They don’t question, they tell. “We know you were there, your car was seen, where did you take her, what have you done with her?” Not much fun, I can tell you. Even when they let you go they act like they’re doing you a favour.’
He raised his glass in a mocking salute. ‘And then you’re a free man again. Except you know people are going to be looking at you and thinking, “No smoke without fire,” and how they never trusted you anyway.’
‘But you didn’t have anything to do with it.’
I saw the muscles in his jaw bunch, but when he spoke his voice was still calm. ‘No, I didn’t have anything to do with it. Or what happened to the others, either.’
I’d not intended to interrogate him, but now I was here I couldn’t seem to help it. He sighed and shrugged, easing the tension.
‘It was a mistake. Someone told the police they’d seen my car outside Jenny’s house. But they couldn’t have.’
‘If you could prove you hadn’t been there why didn’t you do it straight away? Why make it look like you were hiding something, for Christ’s sake?’
He took another drink. ‘Because I was. Just not what they thought.’
‘Whatever it was, I hope it was important.’ I couldn’t keep the anger from my voice. ‘Jesus, Ben, the police wasted hours with you!’
His mouth tightened, but he accepted the rebuke. ‘I’ve been seeing a woman. No-one you know. She lives… well, she doesn’t live in the village. I was with her.’
I guessed the rest. ‘She’s married.’
‘At the moment. Though now her husband’s had the police calling at their house to ask if his wife can verify she was in bed with me, I’m not sure she will be for much longer.’
I didn’t say anything.
‘I know, I know. I should have told the police earlier,’ he burst out. ‘Shit, I wish to Christ I had. I could have saved myself hours of fucking grief, and not be sitting here now wishing I’d done things differently. But when you get dragged out of the house and stuck in a police cell, things like that don’t always occur to you at the time, you know?’
He rubbed his face, looking drawn. ‘All because someone made a fucking mistake about seeing my car.’
‘It wasn’t a mistake. It was Carl Brenner.’
Ben looked at me sharply, a speculative light in his eye. ‘I must be getting old,’ he said after a moment. ‘Shit, I never even thought about him.’
We were both moving away from the near-confrontation, tacitly accepting the stress talking on both sides. ‘I went out to the house. Brenner wouldn’t admit it, but I’d swear it was him.’
‘He’s not the sort to admit anything. But I appreciate your trying.’
‘It wasn’t just for you. I wanted the police to be out looking for Jenny, not sidetracked down a dead end.’
‘Fair enough.’ He considered his glass, then set it down without taking a drink. ‘So what else did your inspector friend tell you?’
‘That you used to have a relationship with Sally Palmer. And that you assaulted a woman fifteen years ago.’
He gave a sour laugh. ‘It all comes back at you, doesn’t it? Yeah, Sally and me got together a while back. No big secret, but we didn’t advertise it. Not in a village like this. But it was nothing serious. Didn’t last long, we stayed friendly afterwards. End of story. The other… well, let’s say it was a youthful mistake.’
He must have read my expression. ‘Before you get the wrong idea, I didn’t assault anybody. I was eighteen and I’d started seeing a woman a good bit older than me. A married woman.’
‘I know, it’s a bad habit. I’m not proud of it. But at the time I thought it was a case of no-one missing a slice off a cut loaf, you know? I was young, I thought I was God’s gift. Then when I wanted to end it, it got a bit ugly. She threatened me, we had a row. Next thing I knew she’d reported me for attempted rape.’
He gave a shrug. ‘She withdrew the charges, eventually. But mud sticks, doesn’t it? And in case you’re wondering why you didn’t know any of this, I don’t broadcast my private life, and I don’t apologize for it either.’
‘I didn’t ask you to.’
‘OK, then.’ He straightened, threw the rest of his whisky onto the grass. ‘So that’s it. My dark secrets. Now I can think about what I’m going to do to that bastard Brenner.’
‘You’re not going to do anything.’
He gave me a slow, dangerous smile that showed the effects of the whisky. ‘I wouldn’t put money on that.’
‘If you go after him it’s only going to muddy the water even more. There’s more at stake here than some vendetta.’
Colour was mounting in his face. ‘You expect me to just forget about it?’
‘For now, yes. Afterwards…’ The thought of what ‘afterwards’ might mean was like a blow to my stomach. ‘When they’ve caught whoever took Jenny, you can do what you like.’
The heat went out of him. ‘You’re right. I wasn’t thinking. Be something to look forward to, I suppose.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Don’t think this is just the grudge talking, but have you thought about why Brenner might have told the police he’d seen me at Jenny’s?’
‘You mean apart from getting you arrested?’
‘I mean he might have had more than one reason. Like covering himself.’
‘That crossed my mind, yes. But you’re not the only one with an alibi. Mackenzie said he’d already checked him out.’
Ben studied his empty glass. ‘Did he happen to say what his alibi was?’
I tried to remember. ‘No.’
‘Well, a pound will get you a penny it was his family who vouched for him. They’re all as thick as bloody thieves. That’s one reason we’ve never been able to get him for poaching. That and the fact he’s a canny bastard.’
My heart had started beating faster as he spoke. Brenner was a hunter, a poacher known to be aggressive and antisocial. Given the killer’s track record for trapping and mutilating animals as well as women, Brenner seemed an obvious match for the profile. Mackenzie was no idiot, but faced with neither evidence nor motive there was no reason for him to suspect Brenner above anyone else.
Not as long as he had an alibi.
I realized Ben had said something, but I’d no idea what. My mind was already racing ahead.
‘What time is Brenner likely to go out hunting?’ I asked.