431: Free Man

I was sitting on a grey plastic chair on one side of a square table, the back of my head touching the wall if I leaned back. Opposite me was an empty chair where my recently-acquired solicitor would have been sitting if she hadn’t been standing on the table.

They were attractive legs, slim and shapely. And an extremely short skirt. I kept my gaze averted.

I had accepted Cherry Hinton as my legal representative even though I’d never met, never spoken to her and definitely never asked for her. But she had appeared in my time of need and who was I to reject a helping hand.

“Archie sent you, didn’t he?”

“That’s right,” Cherry Hinton said, her stockinged feet slip-sliding around on the tabletop. “Mr Larwood expected you to get yourself into trouble, and he’d rather you didn’t attract the kind of attention that might get you thrown into an unmarked van and driven to the nearest private airfield.”

Was she trying to frighten me?

“Why would anyone want to kidnap me?”

Cherry clambered down from the table with two AA batteries and the plastic cover of the smoke alarm in her hands. She heaved her misshapen leather shoulder bag off the floor and clawed out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

The small room we were in had been reluctantly handed over to us for a confidential client-lawyer meeting as was required of the police by law. The law being something they enthusiastically used as a blunt instrument on others but very begrudgingly applied to themselves.

It was small, narrow and had lots of no smoking signs plastered across the walls. I could also hear the sound of someone crying in an adjacent room. Probably one of the coppers who’d been told he could no longer post his views on immigrants on his social media accounts.

“I have no idea,” said Cherry. “I don’t ask unnecessary questions. Mr Larwood wants you out, so I’m going to get you out.”

The first drag on her cigarette deposited an inch of ash into the smoke alarm cover-cum-ashtray. A look of satisfaction passed over her face. She was around forty. No make-up, unsympathetic grey eyes, curly hair.

Unlike the women I had known so far — all of who were around my age and who had the look of someone who knew what to expect and planned to fight for what they deserved — Cherry had the look of someone who had seen it all and didn’t really give a shit anymore.

“What I do know,” said Cherry, taking a last drag and grinding out the butt, “is that four years ago twenty people disappeared, all at the same time. It created quite the kerfuffle. Vanished into thin air. One of them was Mr Larwood’s daughter.”

“Yes,” I said.

“People have more or less forgotten about it, as people do, but once it becomes common knowledge that you have somehow reappeared, there will be interest.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Not just from the public, but from various government agencies. Those two you were having a chat with, did they look like normal detectives to you?”

“I’m not sure what normal detectives look like.”

“They don’t look ripped with good skin and expensive haircuts, I can assure you.”

“If they aren’t police then who are they?”

“Oh, they’re ‘police’, just not the kind who work in a place like this. I told you, government agencies will be interested. This is just the start. And in the future, it won’t just be our government.”

She was being quite vague and yet somehow very clearly getting across the idea that I was in a lot of trouble.

“Other governments? Why would they care?”

“Who knows,” said Cherry. “This is the brief I’ve been given. Keep you out of the limelight as long as possible. Mr Larwood would like you to consider coming to work for him, but he won’t force you. He thinks once you realise the situation you’re in, you’ll come to him of your own volition. I don’t know. Most people who end up like you don’t realise the truth until it’s already too late. Here’s the number you can contact him on.”

She slid a business card towards me across the table.

I picked up the white card which had Archie’s name and phone number on it in black print. Nothing else.

“I still don’t see why—”

“Earthquakes,” said Cherry.


“Each of the locations the twenty went missing from were connected by tremors. That’s how they were identified. All of them were in England and they happened at the exact same time.”

I sat there trying to understand what that meant. Our exit from this world had been noticed and connections had been made. Judging from Archie’s reaction, the unnatural nature of that exit had caused some interest.

Quite possibly, they had more information from previous events of a similar nature. They might even know exactly what had happened to us and what had caused it. I could see why they would see me as someone they wanted to talk to.

But Archie hadn’t thrown me in a van with a hood over my head and taken me to an undisclosed location for a chat. Did that mean he was a good guy?


It meant he was up to something and I was still within his reach so he didn’t have to play rough. Not yet.

Which was good.

If there was more than one interested party, I would have the upper hand in negotiations.

“Luckily for you,” said Cherry, “they chose to approach you within a familiar framework. Police making inquiries. Authority figures you will feel intimidated by. We can use that against them.”

I didn’t trust Cherry at all. I don’t consider myself an expert at telling good people from bad people because that requires no skill. Everyone’s a villain in my eyes. The trick is to be able to tell where on the spectrum of evil they are.

Cherry was a professional. She reeked of it. That and fags. If she was going to use her powers to defend me, I had no doubt she would do so with maximum effort. Later, when I was her target, she would be just as conscientious at bringing me down.

Perfectly reasonable.

But the first thing was to get out of here.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m in your hands. Tell me what I need to do.”




“Okay, nice to see you again,” said Detective Sergeant Len Seymour. “I hope you had a productive talk with your solicitor.” He smiled at Cherry who was sitting beside me, chewing nicotine gum.

We were back in the big room, with the padded chairs.

“Yes, thanks,” I said. Cherry had told me to answer whatever I was asked and she would have me out of here in half an hour. I was looking forward to seeing how she was going to do it.

From what she had said, I was an object of great interest and they would not let me go willingly.

I turned to look at her. Currently, she was filing her nails.

“Good, good,” said Len. “So, back to the matter we’re here to investigate, your sudden disappearance four years ago.”

“I told you, I don’t remember.”

Len looked at his partner, who looked up from his computer screen and shook his head.

“Colin, please, we both know that isn’t true.”

Cherry shifted in her seat. “I hope that laptop doesn’t have one of those electromagnetic lie-detecting sensors built into it. I’ve heard that you people are testing them on political prisoners on that island nobody knows about because it doesn’t exist, officially. That would be both illegal, since my client has not given his consent, and also inadmissible, if you were thinking of entering it into evidence.”

Len smiled. He had very good teeth. A policeman shouldn’t have Hollywood movie star teeth.

“I don’t know what island you’re referring to, and I’m sure there are no political prisoners being held by the British government anywhere for any reason. We don’t even torture the terrorists we imprison.”

It’s never a good idea to deny using torture when no one’s mentioned it. I was starting to see what Cherry meant when she said these weren’t normal police officers.

“But let me assure you,” continued Len, “any data collected here today will be kept completely anonymous and only used for training purposes.”

“So, you are collecting data?” said Cherry. “To use as evidence.”

“Why would we be looking to collect evidence?” said DS Seymour. “There hasn’t been a crime committed, has there?”

“Whether a crime has been committed or not is irrelevant as far as my client’s rights are concerned.”

“Of course,” said Len. “But, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

“Since you mention it,” Cherry said, “allow me to tell you what someone with nothing to hide has to fear from the police. Incompetence, that’s the big one, but also corruption. Then there’s prejudice, we all know how deep that runs, and, of course, personal vendettas. Also, mistaken identity, also, leaking false information to the press, and let’s not forget lack of accountability, lack of common sense and just general idiocy.”

“Okay, but—”

“I don’t know if you’re a history buff, Detective Sergeant, but there’s a reason you aren’t allowed to barge into people’s homes without due cause, and the reason is that you have a habit of abusing any power you’re given, either through malicious stupidity or petty ignorance. So, why don’t you do your part to re-establish public confidence in your profession by actually doing the work in the prescribed manner, without shortcuts and fanciful stabs in the dark?”

DS Seymour’s lips parted the merest hint, but nowhere near quick enough.

“Let’s be upfront about this,” Cherry continued unabated, “the only reason you’re looking into this is because of curiosity. And that isn’t a legitimate reason for bothering a private citizen, is it?”

“But nineteen other people disappeared,” said Len, finally getting a word in. “Do you want us to forget about them?”

“Do you have reason to believe my client was responsible for their disappearances?”

“He must know something.”

“Do you have reason to believe he was involved in their disappearances?” said Cherry. “And if so, what is that reason?”

“This investigation—”

“Isn’t going to go any further,” said Cherry. “You asked, we answered. He doesn’t remember. Whatever weird, crazy thing happened four years ago, no one’s been able to make sense of it, and neither can my client. He didn’t know any of the other nineteen, he certainly couldn’t have visited them all on that night, not unless he had access to Father Christmas’ sleigh. What exactly do you think his involvement is?”

Poor old Len looked like he was punch drunk.

“If you want to arrest him, please do. If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask. General philosophical queries will not be entertained today.”

Cherry looked at her watch and then raised an eyebrow in Len’s direction.

A few minutes later, I was a free man.

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