A fidgety silence settled over the group of police officers, all of them sergeants, sitting restlessly at tables in a stark, well-lit room. This was the date and time set for the dreaded OSPRE Inspector's Examination, Part One: the multiple-choice part of the exam that decided which sergeants were eligible for a chance at Part Two—and future promotion—and which were stuck at their current rank for at least another year. The examination should have begun ten minutes ago. But it hadn't, and so far, no explanation had been offered to the dozens of nervous examinees.
One sergeant was less edgy than most. Detective Sergeant James Hathaway was secure in his ability to pass the test, in all probability with a ranking of Excellent. Any edginess he felt was due to uncertainty about when he'd be able to relax with a cigarette, rather than uncertainty about the subject matter. But not everyone was so confident. DS Macklin, who'd only recently attained her current rank, was less certain than she had been months ago when she applied to take the exam. At the time, it had seemed ambitious but doable. Now, it merely seemed ambitious. DS Fordham, who had failed the test last year, looked as though he'd pulled an all-nighter, always a mistake the night before a big exam. How Fordham had ever made sergeant, Hathaway didn't know, and it was unlikely he'd get any farther. The passing rate for second-time takers was very low and Fordham had to be well past fifty and was utter rubbish as a detective, in James's opinion. Sergeants Greaves and Lipton, normally such close mates as to be nicknamed "The Twins," were polar opposites: Greaves looked glum—hopeless, really—and Lipton was chattering away at Hargrove on his other side, manic and zooming on adrenaline. For her part, Hargrove was staring straight ahead, probably not hearing anything Lipton was saying. A single mother, every step up the ladder was a struggle for her and although she was bright and in her mid-forties, she had so far only made sergeant. Too many distractions, James thought. Not likely to stay the course if she doesn't pass this. Others in the gathering showed a wide range of emotions, but most were from other stations throughout Oxfordshire and the West Country and Hathaway did not recognize them. But he knew each one had a story, and each one had worked hard to get to this point.
James shook his head. What a motley bunch.
Full thirteen minutes after the scheduled start time, a member of the examination staff entered the room and moved to the front. The low conversation came to a nearly complete stop.
"I'm sorry for the hold-up; one of our assessors has been delayed. We've brought in a replacement who is now here, and if you'll all take your seats, we'll get underway. And in three very short hours, you'll get your lives back." There was nervous laughter at this feeble humor. But something in his tone caught Hathaway's attention. There was an undercurrent of worry that told him the delay was something more significant than a nonfunctioning alarm clock or a flat tire.
The assessors filed into the room and took their places, stationed at various locations in the room. They would monitor the taking and scoring of the examination, and make decisions about the borderline cases.
Hathaway's placid exterior cracked for a moment when he recognized one of the assessors: his own Chief Superintendent, Jean Innocent. He caught her eye and cocked his head in inquiry. Surely, she would have mentioned that she was one of the assessors. In fact, he was certain her name was not on the list of assessors he'd received, because he would have reported a possible conflict; that was why they were sent the names ahead of the exam. The answer hit him a moment later: she must be the substitute, brought in at the last minute.
She gave him a stiff smile of acknowledgement and then took her place, blanking her expression to stare through him and all the other sergeants there. Hathaway made a mental note that he needed to report the potential conflict before he left the testing centre.
And the examination began.
"Come." Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent looked at her office door expectantly as it opened, and smiled when the lanky form of her favorite detective sergeant—not that she'd admit it—crossed the threshold. "Ah, Hathaway. Is this about the Inspector's examination? How do you think you did?"
He blinked, not expecting this topic. "Erm, I'm sure I did fine Ma'am. Yeah, fine. No, I wanted to see you about something else."
"Then what can I do for you?"
"Ma'am, it's about the Swanson case. Well, and DS Stevenson, too. I keep thinking these disappearances strike a familiar chord, but no one else I ask thinks that. I was wondering if you thought so. With the notes and all . . . ?"
James was referring to his most recent case assignment, the rather sudden and unexpected vanishing of DI Swanson—the absent assessor. A cryptic note had been sent to the station Tuesday—the day of the exam—bearing Swanson's name and reading simply, "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" By this morning, nearly a week's time had been lost because Innocent, thinking this was a simple matter of tracking down where Swanson had wandered off to, had at first assigned the case to the team of what she privately considered to be her least competent detectives. She regretted that decision now, as well as her delay in reassigning it. Your mind's not on the job, Jean. Get it together.
The file she had handed over to Hathaway and his boss, Detective Inspector Robert Lewis, was discouragingly thin. The few known facts of the case mimicked those surrounding the disappearance of DS Stevenson over two years earlier, after which a similar note was received: "My near'st and dearest enemy." The file for that case was also thin, and when leads failed to arise as the months passed, the case had slipped in priority. But it had been revived when Hathaway identified the similarities.
But James's intense focus changed from the case to his Chief Super when he realized her eyes were somewhat red and puffy, and she was unwrapping a pottery vase she had pulled from a carton on her desk. Several unfamiliar pieces stood on that surface, and two framed photographs that Hathaway had never seen before were leaning against the wall. He concentrated his attention on the vase, picking it up when she set it next to the other things on her desk.
"Interesting glaze, I've never seen something like this before . . . Not typical for wood-fired, I think?" Hathaway looked up at the Chief Super, his thumb lightly brushing an angry black streak across the otherwise placid, pebbled surface of the vase. Metallic red flecked the streak, catching the light as he turned the piece over to check the artist's mark: a capital T with a branch partway down on the right side, like a T and an F grafted together.
Innocent studied him, appreciatively. "You know ceramics, Hathaway?" When Hathaway tipped his head slightly in acknowledgment, she continued. "Yes, wood-fired, but this style is extremely uncommon. I was told the artist adds organic elements and the metals in them produce unpredictable results. Sometimes, they're not so attractive. Other times . . ." she trailed off, her attention caught for a second or two, and she seemed lost in her thoughts.
"'Other times', Ma'am?" James prompted, masquerading the concern in his voice as interest in the vase.
"Other times, they capture the beauty of a world we can only wish to live in." She stared past Hathaway, past the vase and the window and past everything else currently in view.
Hathaway paused, unsure of how to offer support to his superior officer, but feeling the need to do so anyway. He scanned the things she had brought in. "Ma'am . . . are these new pieces?" His tone left little doubt that he sought very different information.
She frowned a moment, then he could see her release the guard on her caution. She needed him to be trustworthy. And he knew he would need to exercise his seminary training in discretion.
She must have been satisfied by what she saw in him. "No, James, they're not new. These are things I've had at home and I wanted to bring them here to protect them." She cut off the questions that rose to his lips, anticipating them easily. "Mister Innocent and I have had a bit of . . . rough sailing, of late. We agreed over the weekend to put some enforced distance into our marriage, not for too long, I hope. He's supposed to be staying at our London flat for the week; he'll be back early Friday." She took the vase from him and studied him a while, seeing if he understood and accepted the terms on which she would offer further information.
Inhaling audibly, she continued. "Some of the things I own remind me of the time before I was married. Those that are precious to me, I want to ensure are safe in case my husband—" she seemed to check herself at the utterance "—decides to confiscate or possibly destroy my personal property."
Hathaway maintained his mild countenance, and this encouraged her to continue. "This vase, for example . . . I spotted this in an art gallery while I was at an administrative conference in Edinburgh a few years back. Not that I have extraordinary memories of the conference, but it serves to remind me of the days when I was a mere detective constable in that lovely old city. Northumbrian artist, if I recall correctly. I couldn't afford anything like this then, so I had no mementos to cherish from my time in Edinburgh." She monitored Hathaway's expression the way a tiger monitors the activity of its next prey.
Hathaway blinked. "I didn't know you served in Scotland, Ma'am."
Her expression softened a little. "Yes, I was in 'Auld Reekie' for a year or two before moving onward." She reflected. "Onward and upward, right?"
Hathaway smiled reflexively. "Which brings me back to my initial question, Ma'am. Do you see a similarity between the disappearance of a detective several years ago in Edinburgh and the disappearances of Swanson and Stevenson?"
She furrowed her brow. "I'd forgotten about that. What was that, three or four years ago? DI . . . Foster, wasn't it?"
Hathaway nodded with the satisfaction of having an answer to that niggling question of the officer's name. "And there was a note sent to the station with a Shakespearean quotation like this one. Any idea if they ever solved it, Ma'am?"
She pursed her lips to help her concentrate, but could not pull any more information from her mind. "Let me phone one of my old colleagues, I think he's still up there, and I'll get the details, alright?"
Hathaway smiled broadly. "Thank you, Ma'am." He turned for the door, but before exiting the office, he turned back. He paused before speaking, unsure if he would be overstepping an unseen boundary. But the policeman in him overcame his caution. "He's not . . . injuring you, is he, Ma'am? Mister Innocent?"
He was grateful that she smiled at his concern. "No, James. I don't think he would do that. I wouldn't let it get to that. But he does sometimes take his anger out on inanimate things that can't protect themselves."
"If you, erm . . . need anything, just say."
"Thank you, Sergeant."
Jean considered the phone for a long time before picking up the handset and dialing. She wanted to make this call herself, rather than have Mary, her sergeant, make the connection and then put it through to her. She wondered briefly if this was a good idea and almost rang off, but pushed that thought from her mind when the call was picked up, miles away in Edinburgh.
"Hello, John, it's Jean Innocent—erm, Jean McConnell. DC McConnell is probably how you remember me."
There was silence on the other end of the line.
"Or maybe you don't remember me at all." Why did she feel crushed by this?
"Oh, no, Jean, I remember you. I remember you very well. How could I forget?" His accent made it sound like "verra well." He took a breath and before she could speak, he continued, his voice gentle. "What has you calling me after all these years? Changed your mind? Or checking to see if I've matured any since we last parted?"
She could hear that he was smiling and felt herself blushing a little. "Actually, it's business, John. If you remember me, I'm sure you also remember the disappearance of DI Foster. Was that ever solved?"
He growled a little. "Not to my satisfaction. It was officially decided he made himself disappear."
"Ah. Then I definitely need your help. We've had a couple of detectives vanish, too, complete with notes sent here, quotations from Shakespeare, again. Do you know if there were any others like this?"
"Aye, we had an advocate leave with nothing but Shakespeare in the post; criminal defense counsel. No one here would listen when I said they were related. Same outcome on that one, no real result. But it wasn't my case, so I was shoved off it."
Innocent sucked in air and held it in her mouth. She knew what she wanted to do, knew she might be opening herself up to what could be nothing but trouble. But the past was long gone and she knew Rebus would respect her rank, regardless of any history between them. She found herself focusing on the vase Hathaway had admired earlier. And she made her decision.
"John, I wonder if you'd be willing to come down here and help us on this. I can make the request come from higher up if that's necessary. And you can bring a sergeant of your own, if you'd like. I'd really . . ." No, she couldn't say that. Couldn't admit that she maybe wanted to revisit those years in Edinburgh.
Rebus waited a beat for her to continue. "You'd really what, Jean?"
She was blushing intensely now, and was glad he couldn't see her. He had always been good at getting her into a state. "Erm, . . . well, I understand you've had considerable experience with serial killers. Now, we haven't found any bodies yet, and there's no evidence these cases involve suspicious deaths. But if there's a chance that's what's going on here, not only would your memory of the Foster case be useful, it would be good to have someone like you on the case, even if it's a long shot." She finished lamely. "That's what."
She could well imagine the twinkle in his dark eyes, the crooked half-smile he must be wearing at the moment.
"As it happens, I'm between cases. So make your call to DCS Templer and we'll be on our way." He knew the name would give her pause.
"DCS Templer? Gill Templer?"
"One and the same, Pet. I expect she'll remember you fondly, too. Just try not to call her any of the names you used back when you first met her, eh?"
Innocent sighed heavily. "You never did make things easy for a woman, did you, John?" Not expecting an answer—and not being offered one—she continued. "You and your sergeant grab a morning train tomorrow and ring me when you're about an hour away. I'll have a car meet you at the station. And if Gill insists on keeping you to herself, I'll get someone higher up to order it." She rang off brusquely, already dreading the call to DCS Templer. But she felt satisfied that she was making the right move, bringing Rebus down to Oxford. Maybe a bit of nostalgia would help her remember just what she found so appealing in her husband. And maybe the presence of one of her former suitors would stir him to a bit of renewed passion. This just might be my Plan B.
Hundreds of miles away, Rebus replaced the handset on the phone and stared at it for a second or two, a ghost of a smile flitting over his face. He'd give a lot for the ability to listen in on the conversation between Jean and DCS Templer. Then he looked up, across the space of the office, to where a blond, female head was bent over a desk.
She whirled around, her eyes questioning.
Her guv'nor was grinning broadly. "Pack your bags and grab your thinking cap, Sassenach! We're off to Oxford in the morning!"