Martha Crossman opened the door to her local coffee shop and stepped inside.
The place was busy with the pre-work crowd — mainly businesspeople — and a powerful blast of coffee, conversation and central heating hit her straight away. The normality of the scene filled her with an intense jealousy. When Martha had last been here a few days ago, her life had seemed so normal and straightforward. Not happy — she hadn’t been happy for a long time — but at least back then she hadn’t been burdened by the secret she was now carrying.
She took a deep breath. She wanted to throw up. To run out of the cafe, find a cold, quiet spot where no one could see her, and vomit up the few scrappy contents of her stomach. If it wasn’t for her daughter, she’d end it all. There was no question. What had happened — what she’d found out — was so devastating that, in one single stroke, it had destroyed her will to live. But Lucy — dear, beautiful Lucy — was what kept her going.
That, and the need for justice to be done.
The man she was meeting, Philip Wright, was already there, sitting in a booth in the far corner next to the gleaming silver coffee machines on the counter, facing the door, with a large cup of coffee in front of him. She recognized him from the photos straight away, and it was clear he recognized her too. He gave a small nod, and she tried a smile in return as she walked over.
‘Mrs Crossman, it’s good to meet you,’ he said, getting up from his seat and shaking her hand. He was a big man in his early sixties, and his grip was firm.
‘Thanks for seeing me,’ she said, taking off her coat and sitting down opposite him.
‘Can I get you a drink of anything?’ he asked. He had a gentle demeanour, and for the first time in days she felt her burden beginning to lighten.
‘I’m OK for the moment, thanks.’
‘You said on the phone that it was extremely urgent.’
She looked round the room, making sure no one was watching her. ‘It is.’
‘I have to admit, I’m surprised. As you know, my expertise isn’t in an area where urgency tends to be an issue. And as we don’t know each other, I’m assuming this isn’t something to do with my personal life.’
‘It’s not. It’s your professional opinion I need.’
He wrinkled his brow, still not quite understanding. ‘Well, ask away.’
She put down her handbag but kept it close to her. It made her feel sick knowing what it contained, but at some point she was going to have to give it to him, otherwise there was no evidence. She looked him straight in the eye, saw a warm intelligence there, coupled with many years’ experience in what he did, and felt reassured.
Leaning forward in her seat, she started talking, keeping her voice low.