The beautiful bride, who had not once smiled in the entire service, was suddenly beaming.
“I do,” said Robin in a ringing voice, looking straight into the eyes, not of her stony-faced new husband, but of the battered and bloodied man who had just sent her flowers crashing to the floor.
Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith
Strike had not known just how tense he was until the wave of relief at seeing Robin’s beaming face hit him. The knot in his stomach untwisted itself and his rigid shoulders relaxed as he realized that she wasn’t going to kick him out, that she even seemed happy to see him. The half-formed visions of shouting and tears, recriminations and accusations that had preyed on his mind seemed silly now; Robin was not the type of woman to make a scene, even if he had been the last person on earth she wanted to show up at her wedding.
He watched as the couple exchanged rings, then went into the vestry to sign the register. It was clear, even from his position at the very back of the church, that Matthew was furious and attempting, though failing, to hide it. His clenched jaw, the angry red flush creeping up the back of his neck, the firmness of his grip on Robin’s elbow; the accountant was not, it seemed, happy to see Strike. To hell with him, Strike thought. He couldn’t give two shits about Matthew’s comfort or pleasure, as long as he didn’t take it out on Robin, who luckily seemed to be oblivious to her groom’s icy displeasure; or perhaps she was choosing deliberately not to notice it.
As the recessional filed down the aisle and the happy couple passed the back of the church where Strike was still standing, Robin caught his eyes once more and flashed him a brilliant smile. Strike had only a moment to grin back before she was past him, Matthew’s grip still firm on her arm, pulling her into the churchyard.
As soon as Strike himself stepped out into the fresh air he lit another cigarette, ignoring the half-curious, half-angry glances that he was attracting from the guests that he moved past. Robin was firmly in the middle of a crowd of well-wishers, the photographer beginning to direct the wedding party to form up for the portraits. There was clearly no way that Strike would be able to work his way through the crowd to catch her attention, so he drifted back towards where Shanker was waiting with the car. He was just stepping into the square when he heard Robin’s voice behind him, shouting his name. He stopped and turned; she was jogging towards him, lifting the hem of her gown off the ground with one hand and waving off the disgruntled looking photographer with the other. Strike dropped his cigarette and ground it out as Robin reached him, cheeks pink and chest heaving slightly. He could see her expression change to a sort of fascinated horror as she came close enough to see his injuries clearly.
“What on earth happened to your face?”
Strike grinned down at her.
“Had a bit of a run in with the Shacklewell Ripper,” he said, casually, unable to resist a bit of macho swagger. He was gratified by Robin’s horrified gasp, and continued,
“It’s alright, he’s in the nick. Got him last night.”
This was clearly news to Robin, who he supposed would have had more important things to do this morning than to look at the papers or watch the news. Her burning curiosity about the case far outweighing her desire to exchange apologies, she eagerly began to question him; Strike, however, wasn’t about to let himself be sidetracked. He knew they had only moments before she was pulled back into the wedding fray, and he wanted to say his piece.
He held up his hand to silence her, and said, “Listen, I know I said that if you didn’t call back I’d leave you alone, but I just wanted to tell you in person how-“
It was Robin’s turn to interrupt him. “When did you say that?”
Strike blinked, thrown off the flow of the apology he had rehearsed in his head over and over on the ride up. “What?”
“That – about calling you back.”
“Well, on the voicemail I left you,” Strike said, confused, then hesitated. He had thought that she had remained silent deliberately, that she was too angry to accept his apologies, but he could tell by her expression that she had never heard the voicemail he left. He caught sight of Matthew in the distance, standing rigid with folded arms, glaring, and in an instant knew what must have happened. That little shit. Pushing down the surge of anger he felt, for her sake, he continued his apology. “It’s not important. Listen, it was dead wrong of me to fire you, and to – say what I said. If I could take it back I would.”
Strike paused, but Robin said nothing. She looked worried, her features set and her eyes downcast, like she was bracing herself for bad news.
After several moments of silence, Strike realized that she wasn’t about to speak, that he would have to state it plainly. “So… will you come back to work?”
Robin met his eyes again, clearly surprised. “You haven’t replaced me?” she said, the smile beginning to return to her face. It was Strike’s turn to be flabbergasted.
“Replaced you? Of course not. Why would I?”
She looked at him as though he had lost his mind. “I saw the article. The one in the Sun. About you… looking for a new Girl Friday.”
Strike groaned inwardly. He hadn’t expected her to see that bit of nonsense, since he had never once seen her willingly pick up the Sun.
“That wasn’t meant as a real advertisement, I promised Culpepper a hell of a favour to get him to put it in. It was for the killer, to get him off your scent and keep him on me,” he explained.
The dawning comprehension and relief on Robin’s face caused a stab of guilt to Strike; he could imagine how hurt she would have been at the dismissive tone of the article, at his list of ideal qualifications for his fictional new assistant.
She still had not answered him. “So…?” he prompted.
Robin’s face was once more radiant with joy as she said, “Of course. Of course I’ll come back.”
They stood in the square grinning at each other, until the sound of Robin’s wedding party shouting for her broke the moment. She glanced around and called out, “One minute!” before turning back to Strike. “Are you coming to the reception?” she asked.
Strike shook his head. “Better not. Don’t want to ruin that too. I might knock over the cake next.”
“You didn’t ruin it!” Robin said, clearly struggling to hold back laughter.
“Anyway,” Strike continued, “Shanker drove me up here. He’ll be wanting to start back.”
Robin looked around and noticed Shanker for the first time where he had been sitting in the car, watching them. She waved cheerfully, and Shanker pulled his upper body out of the car window to wave back.
“All right then,” Robin said, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to convince him to stay. “I’ll see you in two weeks?”
Strike nodded. “Yeah.” Feeling that this was not quite enough, he added, “Congratulations, by the way. You look nice. Pretty.”
Without warning, Robin threw her arms around Strike’s neck, hugging him fiercely. Startled, it took Strike a moment of hesitation before he returned the hug. Turning her head, Robin whispered a tearful “Thank you,” in Strike’s ear. She released him, turned, and fled back to her new husband. Strike stood and watched her go, the bright sun glinting off her hair flying behind her. He caught Matthew’s furious eye, gave him a jaunty wave and a grin, then walked back to the car.
He had barely pulled himself into the passenger seat before Shanker hit the gas. As they pulled out of the square, Shanker glanced sideways at Strike’s thoughtful expression. “Hope that was worth the trip, Bunsen.”
Strike lit another cigarette, refusing to let himself dwell on how beautiful Robin had looked with roses in the gentle waves of her hair, on the way her dress had clung to her curves, on how soft those curves had felt pressed briefly against him, or on the faint scent of her perfume that now clung to his grubby Italian suit. “It was,” he said, then flicked on the radio.
It was the ninth day of Robin’s honeymoon, and she was bored out of her skull. Alternating between lying on the beach and floating in the pool had been novel for the first two days, and the all-inclusive bar had gotten her through the next two, but she had now finished all three of the books she had packed and the forced inactivity was driving her mad.
It didn’t help that Matthew was clearly enjoying himself immensely. He had, after all, been the one who had picked the Cuban resort, and, Robin thought angrily, had clearly picked it with reference to his own taste before hers.
Also not helpful was the massive row they had had on their wedding night, once Robin had had the chance to look at her phone and piece together exactly what had happened to the message Strike left her. They had called an uneasy truce once they arrived at the resort, but things had remained tense, and Robin had welcomed Matt’s announcement last night that he was going to spend the next day on a deep-sea fishing excursion.
Now she sat on the edge of their enormous hotel bed, hair still damp from a dip in the pool, contemplating the phone and debating with herself. Matthew would be furious if she called Strike, she knew. But then again, he needn’t know. And it was no business of his who she called. If she wanted to catch up with what had happened while they were away, that was her own lookout. Mind made up, she snatched the headset and dialed before she could change it again.
The line rang only twice before Strike’s gruff voice answered.
“Hey,” she said, then, “It’s Robin.”
There was a long pause before Strike answered, but when he did she could hear laughter in his voice. She relaxed.
“I thought you were supposed to be on your honeymoon.”
“I am!” She protested. “I just - I couldn’t wait any longer, I’ve got to know what happened with Laing!” Robin had snuck away from Matthew to the resort’s internet café to scour the web for news about the Shacklewell Ripper’s arrest, but the stories had been frustratingly vague.
Sitting in a deli thousands of kilometers away, Strike grinned. He was frankly surprised that she had been able to hold out for this long without hearing the full story.
Robin was a good audience; she listened attentively as he laid out the logic he had used to arrive at the conclusion that Laing was the killer, and gasped at all the right moments as he told her about their confrontation. After he finished, they were both silent as she digested the horrific details.
It was Strike who broke the silence. “Are you satisfied now?” he teased. “Going to go do your honeymoon properly now that you’ve got all the gory details?”
Robin hesitated. There was something else, something that had been weighing on her mind. She screwed up her courage; better to say it now and get it over with. “I – I also wanted to say something. About coming back to work.”
Strike felt a stab of dread in his gut. Had she changed her mind? “What is it?” he asked, tone guarded.
Robin took a deep breath. “If I come back you have to promise not to – to push me aside if it’s dangerous. You have to see that I can protect myself, that it’s my choice to run the same risks that you do.”
Strike sighed with relief. “Yeah, all right,” he said, easily.
“You have to mean it, not just say it,” Robin said, frustrated. He had agreed to quickly; it was clear that he hadn’t actually thought about what she had said.
“I do. I do mean it,” he reassured her. “You’re my partner. I won’t try to sideline you again.” Because you won’t listen if I do, he added to himself. A small flicker of righteous indignation made him counter her request with one of his own; “And you have to promise not to go behind my back again. If you’re going to do something stupid and reckless at least let me know so I don’t find out from someone like Carver.”
Robin supposed this was a fair point. “Ok. Yes. I promise.”.
They both paused; not seeing a way that she could reasonably prolong the conversation, Robin murmured, “I’ll see you on Monday, then?”
“See you Monday,” was Strike’s cheerful response.
She hung up the phone, and wandered out to their room’s balcony overlooking the gardens. She could hear the shouts of the rowdy group of Canadian students in the main pool, and the faint sound of waves hitting the shore from behind the tree line. As she leaned on the railing, hot sun beating down on the back of her neck, Robin felt suddenly utterly, profoundly alone.
Monday morning saw Robin maneuvering carefully through the ever-present construction on Tottenham Court Road in high spirits. In the final days of her honeymoon, she and Matthew had managed to get along and even have fun together; and since she had managed to avoid him finding out about the phone call she had made to Strike, they hadn’t argued at all upon their arrival home. It wasn’t as if she was lying about it, she reflected. Neglecting to share small, unimportant details was just one of those little smoothing-overs that kept a marriage functioning. Even the overcast, drizzly weather that had greeted her upon her exit of their flat couldn’t dampen her mood. In fact - she winced as her loose skirt happened to brush against the nasty sunburn on her thighs – she welcomed the gloomy English weather. She had had more than her fill of sunbathing.
As she walked up the clanging metal steps to the office, she paused in surprise as she saw Strike’s massive form moving through the frosted glass of the door. It was unusual for him to be in the office before she was even when she was running late; today she was early.
After a brief hesitation, Robin swung open the door. Strike looked up at her from where he was in the middle of making tea; for a moment, a strange awkwardness hung in the air between them.
“Morning,” Strike said, and handed her a mug of tea.
“Morning. Thanks.” Robing felt less strange with something to hold in her hands. She shrugged her bag off her shoulder and hung it up before she sat down. Instead of disappearing into the inner office, Strike dropped down onto the couch, wincing as the leather squeaked underneath him. There was a sheaf of neatly stapled paper set squarely in the middle of her desk.
“What’s this?” she asked, picking it up.
“An new employment contract,” Strike said. Robin shot him a look of surprise and then started to flip through the pages, brow furrowed.
He continued, “You’re officially a Junior Partner now. For a year while we finish your training, then you become a full partner in the business. Also, a raise.”
Robin felt a flush of pleasure at these words. It sounded so official, so important. She pressed her lips together to stop herself from smiling, to look professional and serious.
“Can we afford this much?” she said, looking up from her scan of the contract.
Strike was touched by her concerned expression, by the way she put the welfare of the business above her own comfort; he knew that she had to budget very carefully because of the small amount he paid her, and had therefore given her the largest possible raise he could afford.
“We’re back to a wait list,” he reassured her. “They’ve been knocking down the door since the news about Laing’s arrest.”
Strike, in desperate financial straits and furious at the police, had finally agreed to give Culpepper a paid exclusive, contingent on Strike’s identity as the source remaining secret. He still felt a slight twinge at the betrayal of his usual rule of strict discretion, but reminded himself that he was no longer bound by the rules of the SIB. Frankly, he felt that Carver’s incompetence had earned the man a measure of public humiliation. Culpepper’s piece, published the day after Robin left for her honeymoon, had resulted in a tsunami of irritating media attention but, more importantly, a flood of potential clients.
Robin was still reading the contract, her mug of tea forgotten.
“You can take that home to show Matthew before you sign it, if you want,” said Strike. Though he would not admit it aloud, one of his motivations in putting together a proper contract had been to make it harder for Matthew to pressure Robin to leave; making her status in the business official would, he felt, add a greater sense of permanence to their partnership.
“No need,” Robin said. She had already signed the bottom of the final page and was tucking the contract into her bag. She silently delighted in the thought of showing it to Matthew when she got home; it would, hopefully, silence his constant criticism of her small wage and Strike’s supposed disregard for her abilities.
“Also,” Strike said, as he heaved himself off the couch and crossed the small office, “there’s this.” He gestured curtly at the door to the inner office. Confused, Robin swiveled around in her chair and got up to see what he was pointing at. The bubble of pride that she had been nursing since seeing the words ‘full partner’ written down in black and white swelled; beside the inner office door had been fastened two brass nameplates. The first said ‘C.B. Strike’. Beneath it, engraved in solid black letters on the second plate, was ‘R. V. Ellacott’.
“We’ll have to share the office,” Strike said, as Robin reached out to trace her name. “But it’s not like we’re both here very often, we’ll make it work. And in a few months we’ll be able to hire a receptionist, at least for part-time, but until then we can still use the desk out here when we have to.”
Robin cleared her throat. “Yes, that will work,” she said, trying not to show just how much his offer of an equal share of the inner office meant to her.
“I thought you might want to use your maiden name at work,” Strike said. In fact, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to order ‘R. V. Cunliffe’ as the inscription. “Makes it harder for the nutters to track you down.”
Robin rolled her eyes at Strike’s use of the unflattering term, but couldn’t help agreeing with his reasoning.
Strike had been rummaging in the filing cabinet; he extracted two files and passed them to Robin.
“You’ll be the primary on these,” he said. “The first one is going to be here at ten, so we have some time to brush up your interviewing techniques.”
Robin squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. The awkwardness she had felt upon entering the office was gone, replaced with a mixture of quiet pride, gratitude to Strike, and an overwhelming determination to prove that he had not made a mistake in asking her to come back.
It was half twelve before they stopped for lunch. The door shut behind Robin as she stepped out to the shop to get sandwiches, and Strike leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. It had been a good morning; Robin had been her usual empathetic self, handling her client – a middle-aged schoolteacher terrified that her partner was cheating – with a gentleness that Strike himself had never seemed to be capable of.
Strike hoped that he had been successful in convincing Robin that he meant what he said on the phone a week ago; that she was his partner, that he would not sideline her again. He certainly intended to keep that promise. Unless another homicidal lunatic gets her in his sights, he thought. But they could have that argument when it came up. Until then, he was determined to demonstrate how much he valued her work, and their partnership. He owed her that.
The door to the office opened, and he looked up, expecting to see Robin. Instead, a young black woman edged into the office. She was pretty, with large brown eyes and a mass of hair that was twisted into large braids and gathered into a bun on top of her head. Her scuffed sneakers, low slung jeans and battered messenger bag screamed ‘student’.
“Is this the private detective’s office?” she asked, but before Strike could answer, he heard Robin’s steps on the stair behind the girl, and her red-gold head rose into view.
“Cormoran, they were out of the ham, so I-“ Robin stopped short as she registered the presence of a third person in the office.
“Yes, this is the detective’s office,” Strike said, addressing the young woman. “I’m Cormoran Strike, and this is my partner, Robin.”
“Hi,” said Robin, holding out her hand. The girl released her tight grip on her bag’s strap to shake it.
“Hi,” she murmured. “My name’s Natalie.”
“What can we do for you, Natalie?” Strike said.
“I need help. I – I think my dad might be in trouble. I need you to find him.”
He frowned. “Have you gone to the police? They would be better equipped to –“
“No. I can’t. He’s a policeman. I’m not supposed to be in contact with him while...” Natalie paused, clearly having some internal struggle, before she continued, “he was undercover and he’s in trouble. I know he is. I can’t go to the police.”
“I’m sorry,” Strike began, “but I don’t think we can-“
“Can you give us a moment, Natalie?” Robin grabbed Strike’s arm and towed him into the inner office, shut the door and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“You’re not actually going to refuse to help her, are you?”
Strike spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Robin, my name is poison with the police right now. We wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near this guy. Plus, cops take care of their own. If he is actually in trouble, the Met will do more to protect him than we ever could.”
Robin snorted in disbelief. Since her only experience with the Metropolitan Police was seeing them proven wrong by Strike no less than three times, she did not hold a high opinion of their abilities.
“There are actually some competent cops out there, you know,” Strike said, amused.
Robin ignored this. “Cormoran, she needs help. She’s clearly scared,” she said, but Strike was now shaking his head angrily.
“We can’t just take on clients because we feel sorry for them!”
“Bloody hypocrite!” she gasped. “You take people on because you feel sorry for them all the time!”
Strike scoffed, but couldn’t actually formulate a response for this accusation. It was, annoyingly, pretty accurate.
“We can at least try,” Robin pleaded. “If we find him and there’s nothing wrong then we’ve brought his daughter some peace of mind, and if we can’t find him then we’ll at least know we did the best we could.”
“Fine,” Strike sighed. “But this isn’t pro-bono, she’ll have to pay like everyone else.”
Ignoring his scowl, Robin flashed him a triumphant smile and opened the door.
“We’ll be happy to help you, Natalie. Come in and tell us what’s happened.”
Strike retreated to safety behind the desk, trying not to look as though he had just lost an argument. Robin ushered their newest client into one of the chairs facing the desk, and sat herself in the other. Natalie perched on the edge of her chair, her posture tense. Robin was right about one thing, Strike mused. The girl looked terrified.
Keeping his tone brisk – he wasn’t going to start taking on clients who couldn’t pay, not when his finances had so recently hit rock bottom – Strike said, “First, let me tell you about our fee structure-“
“I can pay.” Natalie interrupted him, meeting his gaze for the first time. “When Mum – when my mother died, my dad put the insurance money into a trust for me. I can afford whatever your fee is.”
“All right,” said Strike, now feeling a slight twinge of guilt. “Start at the beginning.”
Natalie Wilson, it transpired, was indeed a student in the nursing programme at King’s College London. Her father, Peter, was a Sergeant in the Organised and Economic Crime unit of the Met. He had gone undercover twice before for long periods of time; this was his third undercover assignment, and he had been gone for six weeks.
“He wasn’t supposed to contact me at all, you understand,” Natalie said, twisting her hands in her lap. “But it’s been just him and me since Mum died, and he... bent the rules a little.”
Leaning forward, she placed what Strike recognized as a cheap burner phone on the desk.
“He bought me on of these before he left each time. He called me once a week, every week, just to make sure that I was ok. But he’s missed his last two calls. He would never miss calling; something is wrong. I can feel it.” Tears had started to spill down Natalie’s cheeks; she swiped them away angrily with the heel of her palm.
Strike exchanged a worried glance with Robin. The sudden silence from a father who had previously been determined to maintain contact with his child, going so far as to break policy to do so, was concerning.
“We’ll need a picture of your Dad,” Strike said. Natalie rummaged in her bad and produced a photograph; she had clearly come prepared. Robin took the photo from Natalie and examined it. Peter had the same clear brown eyes as his daughter, but his were set under thick, furrowed brows. A large scar ran down one cheek and over his square jaw; his nose had clearly been broken at least once.
“Did he say anything odd to you, the last time you spoke? Anything that hinted that something might be wrong?” Strike asked. Natalie shook her head.
“No, nothing. Just that he would call me in a week. I told him about my course, he said – he said that he was proud of me.” Eyes still bright with tears, Natalie looked pleadingly between Strike and Robin. “I just want to find out if he’s ok, or if – if something’s happened to him. I just need you to show me that he’s all right.”
With this, Natalie got to her feet. “I’ve got to go,” she said, slinging her bag back over her shoulder.
“It might take a while to track him down,” Strike said, not wanting to raise her hopes too high. “The Met doesn’t exactly broadcast the details of its undercover operations to the general public.”
“That’s fine; just call me when you have something.” She pulled a notebook from her bag and scribbled something in it, then ripped out the page to give to Strike. “Here’s my number, and my email address.”
With a nod and a small, fragile smile to Robin, Natalie left. Strike waited until the outer door had shut before he spoke.
“It’s not going to be easy to find this guy. And it’s probably not going to be good news when we do.”
“Well,” Robin shrugged, “let’s start with eating those sandwiches, then we’ll get to work.”
“Do you really think they’ll talk to us?” Robin asked, her eyes fixed on their swaying reflections in the train carriage window. It had been four days and many hours of fruitless online searches since they had agreed to search for Peter Wilson. Now, on the first morning that neither had pressing surveillance duties for their other cases, Strike had suggested an attempt to uncover information through official channels.
“Doubt it,” said Strike, shifting his grip on the hanging strap. The tube was crowded this early in the morning, and he had been forced to stand closer to Robin than he preferred. He was becoming discomfited by the occasional press of her arm or hip against him as the carriage rocked and more commuters squeezed in at each stop.
“Then why bother?” Robin asked. “The police already hate you; is it worth annoying them if we aren’t going to get anything useful?”
“You can’t know how useful an interview will be until you’ve conducted it, Robin,” said Strike. “We might get lucky and find someone in a chatty mood. At the very least, we can see whether the subject of Wilson makes anyone nervous. Might confirm that his daughter’s right to be worried.”
They remained silent, Robin clearly deep in thought, Strike focusing on keeping his balance, until their carriage finally jerked to a stop at their station. They moved with the flood of commuters and emerged, blinking, into the bright sunlight. Strike inhaled deeply, glad for the fresh air after the cramped stuffiness of the Tube. As they started walking, Robin broke her pensive silence.
“So, how are we going to go about this?” she asked, looking sideways at her boss’s surly profile. “Convince them to tell us about Wilson, that is.”
“Divide and conquer,” Strike said. “I’ll interview their CO – commanding officer,” he reminded Robin, catching the blank look on her face. “You can feel out the rest of the unit, see if anyone’s eager to talk.”
Robin nodded. “I suppose.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Strike glance at her with his brows furrowed, clearly concerned by her half-hearted response to a task that she normally loved. Just now, however, Robin was finding it difficult to appear pleased about anything.
She was exhausted and furious with Matthew, who had insisted she attend his office’s after-work drinks last night. Since he had spent the greater part of the evening talking to everyone there but her, she was sure that he’d wanted her there not because he wanted her company, but so that he could have her hanging off his arm, as if she were an expensive accessory. He had then spent the entirety of the trip home afterwards criticizing her for what he perceived as snobbery, for an apparent unwillingness on her part to be friendly with his co-workers. The rank hypocrisy of this statement coming from him – who was so vocal about his hatred of Cormoran, who had reacted to her new contract with barely concealed disdain – had so provoked Robin that a squabble had blown up into a full-fledged row. She had thought that marriage might put an end to her having to storm out of their bedroom to sleep on the couch; the aching knots in her back and shoulders were proof that it had been a foolish hope.
She was so absorbed in her simmering anger that she almost crashed straight into Strike, who had stopped walking. She stumbled before catching herself, then looked up at the enormous tower of glass and steel in front of them.
They entered the building together through the revolving doors, stepping into a lobby that was cool and clean, done up in dark marble and laminated woods. Strike strode confidently towards the bank of elevators, ignoring the information desks, while Robin followed only a pace behind. Though she had become used to, and even enjoyed, the subterfuge required in their job, she retained that innate sense of deference to authority which gave her a twinge of discomfort whenever they were forced to infiltrate what she perceived as ‘official’ spaces. Strike appeared to have no such qualms, seeming perfectly certain in his right to intrude wherever he felt he needed to. Robin squared her shoulders and lifted her chin slightly, trying very hard to look as confident and self-assured as her partner as she lengthened her stride to match his own.
They entered a waiting elevator and Strike pressed the button for the seventeenth floor. Robin leaned close enough so that she wouldn’t be heard by their fellow passengers and whispered, “How do you know which floor it is?”
“Old friend works in the building,” he responded absently, his eyes locked on the flashing display of rapidly climbing floor numbers.
Strike seemed to have a never-ending supply of old friends and acquaintances willing to do him favours and provide him information. Robin felt her mood sink a little further as she considered the fact that she herself had no such useful connections, that she was ignorant of the labyrinthine structures and policies of the Metropolitan Police. Strike would not have had to explain police jargon to a more experienced partner, someone like the person he had described in that advertisement, the one he’d placed in the Sun during that miserable week that she had spent believing she would never see him again.
Though Strike had explained his reasoning behind placing the ad, and he had assured Robin that he wanted her back at work as his partner, she was still occasionally nagged by thoughts of how poorly she measured up against that stark list of requirements - achievements and skills that she would never possess.
The chime of the elevator doors startled Robin out of her moody reverie, and she was half a step behind Strike as they exited into a short hallway. At one end was a pair of glass doors, frosted into opacity; a keypad and blinking red light set to one side of them suggested that the detectives would not easily be able to gain entry. At the other end, however, the hall opened up into a large open space, and it was towards this that Strike turned. As Robin moved to follow him, he slowed and placed a hand on her arm. “Can you distract the receptionist?” he muttered. She nodded, then strode ahead of Strike.
The room that she walked into could have belonged to any of the offices in which she’d temped so many months ago, with its fluorescent lights and grubby grey carpet, clusters of desks divided by half-height partitions, and walls lined with doors to meeting rooms and offices. There was indeed a reception desk, positioned so that anyone entering would have to walk past it. Robin stopped directly in the line of sight of the young woman manning it, who frowned at her.
Robin flashed her best smile, placing one hand on the desk and leaning forward. “Hi, I wonder if you can help me,” she said in a low tone, doing her best to give the impression of someone who had secrets to confide, “I’m looking for someone…”
Behind her, Strike walked unchallenged into the maze of desks. He didn’t hesitate, but continued confidently towards the back of the room. He had never been in this particular branch of the Organized Crimes division, but he was familiar with the typical layouts of police departments. He scanned the room casually as he walked, flicking his eyes past nameplates and open doors, until he found what he was looking for.
The office at the far end of the room had large glass windows looking out onto the floor. Visible through them were a bookshelf crammed with binders and trophies, walls lined with framed photographs of men in uniform, and a large, handsome desk. Behind the desk, Strike was relieved to see, sat the man he had come to interview.
As he drew nearer to the door of the office, Strike was disconcerted to see that the officer had been watching his approach, and was staring directly at him with slightly narrowed eyes. He knocked on the door anyway, a perfunctory knock; He opened it without waiting for an answer, and strode confidently into the office, hand held out and cover story ready.
“Hello, DCI Ross? I’m--”
But before he could introduce the persona he’d cooked up, the Detective Chief Inspector cut him off.
“I know who you are.”
“Sorry?” Strike said, thrown.
Ross looked young for his position, mid-thirties by Strike’s guess; he was handsome, with wavy brown hair and clear green eyes. He leaned back in his chair, a smirk playing across his thin lips.
“Cameron Strike. The private detective,” he said, clearly enjoying having the upper hand.
“Cormoran,” Strike corrected him, dropping both his hand and the ingratiating smile he’d plastered on his face.
“How can I help you, Mr. Strike?” asked DCI Ross, ignoring the correction. His gaze holding Strike’s was calm and confident, but tinged with a hint of spiteful malice. “Here to tell me you’ve tracked down a drug kingpin and need me to tie up your loose ends? Looking for the medal you’ve earned for interfering with police business?”
Strike sighed. This was why he had always hated publicity; he would get nothing from this interview, he knew now. He’d shown up the Met one too many times, made one too many coppers look like idiots, and now no police officer in the city would be willing to answer his questions with anything other than snipes and jabs. Well, he could still feel the other man out, try to elicit some kind of response to the mention of his subordinate.
“No, actually,” he said, taking a seat in one of the uncomfortable leather and wood armchairs facing the desk. Ross frowned a little at this liberty, but Strike ignored it and pressed on. “I’m looking for someone. An officer of yours, Sergeant Peter Wilson.”
Ross was no amateur. Other than a slight upward twitch of his eyebrows, his expression betrayed no emotion other than polite disdain, and he replied smoothly, “I’m not familiar with the name.”
“Really?” said Strike. “Because there’s a photo online of you standing next to him as he accepted an award last year. Said in the caption that he was part of your unit.”
The officer’s lips tightened briefly in annoyance. “I’m not about to disclose information concerning any member of my unit, or anyone else’s, to a private citizen,” he said, swiftly changing tack. “You understand.”
“My client has some reason to be concerned for his welfare,” Strike said carefully, not wanting to reveal the fact that Natalie had been in contact with her father. “I was hoping you could offer reassurance.”
“Who exactly is your client?” Ross leaned forward, abandoning his pretense of disinterest. He looked openly annoyed now, at this intrusion into the affairs of his domain.
Strike shrugged. “Confidential,” he said, “you understand.” He looked steadily at Ross, not quite challenging him, but not backing down either.
A muscle twitched in the other man’s cheek. “Well then,” Ross said softly, “I see no reason to allow this interview to continue.”
To Robin’s frustration, the receptionist was proving to be somewhat more difficult to charm than she had expected, flatly refusing to divulge any information about Peter Wilson’s current whereabouts. Instead, she had questioned Robin sharply as to her identity, her business with the man she was looking for, and indeed how she had known where to look for him in the first place. Having failed to receive a satisfactory answer to any of these questions, the woman seemed only moments away from calling security to escort Robin from the building.
“Perhaps you could just tell me where I could reach him?” Robin was feeling slightly desperate now. “I – I lost his number, you see, but he definitely told me I could get in touch with him through work,” she said, inventing wildly. The receptionist narrowed her eyes and reached one elegantly manicured hand towards the desk phone’s handset.
Robin concentrated on summoning tears to her eyes. It wasn’t hard; all she had to do was recall the hurt and rage that she’d felt last night as Matthew had accused her of being selfish, stuck-up and rude. (“Just because you’re the junior partner in a two-person detective outfit,” he had sneered, derision and mockery etching ugly lines into his handsome face, “suddenly you act like no one else is good enough to kiss the ground you walk on.”)
Robin let her face contort in misery and her voice tremble as she said, “It’s just that it – it’s quite important I speak to him.” The tears were pricking and burning at her eyes, and she could feel her face flushing. In a burst of inspiration, she let one hand drift to rest on her stomach, and watched the receptionist’s eyes follow it. “It’s… a time-sensitive problem,” she whispered.
The receptionist’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh – ah,” she stammered, and her hand stopped moving, hanging indecisively over the handset as Robin had hoped it would, so she pressed her advantage.
“God, he’s married, isn’t he?” she sobbed, hot, heavy tears rolling down her face now.
(“It’s not like you make even half of what any of them do,” Matthew had shouted, “so you’d think you’d be ashamed to act like you’re next in line for the bloody crown!”)
The receptionist rose halfway out of her chair, hovering, slightly panicked at being confronted with a sudden emotional meltdown and reaching automatically for the small box of tissues sitting on the desk. She held them out and Robin took a handful, noticing as she did that several of the plainclothes officers at the nearest cluster of desks had looked up and were watching her performance, frowning.
“I knew he was too good to be true, I knew it,” Robin wailed, voice louder, falling into her character. “I can’t believe I fell for this, not again, I’m so stupid.”
“I’ll just – I’ll just go and find someone,” the receptionist sputtered, and hurried out from behind her desk. Robin buried her face in the handful of tissues, shoulders shaking, and watched through her fingers as the receptionist joined the closest group of officers, whispering urgently and gesturing at the crying Robin. Over her ragged sobs, Robin heard the muttered “Wilson… says he told her to come”, and saw her exaggeratedly mouth the word “pregnant.” One of them, a tall woman dressed in sensible slacks with her badge pinned to her hip, glanced sharply over at Robin before detaching herself from the group to stride rapidly towards her, receptionist hurrying to keep up with the officer’s lengthy strides.
“Is there a problem here?”
Robin mopped her eyes, tissues masking the rapid, sweeping glance of assessment she made of the woman. Her thin face was stern, her brown hair tied back into a severe bun and her arms folded tightly across her chest. Robin suspected that her tears would gain little sympathy here. Before she could formulate a new approach, though, some tingle of awareness made her look up: Strike had appeared quite suddenly a few steps away, looking grim and accompanied by a tall, handsome man with an air of authority. At the sight of her tears, he cocked one eyebrow by a miniscule fraction. She gave an infinitesimal shrug in response.
“Mullins, please escort Mr. Strike from the building.” The handsome man’s voice was cool and brisk; his eyes swept over Robin, and he frowned. “And–” he jerked his head toward her “–deal with this.” He turned on his heel and strode back in the direction from which he’d come.
Mullins seemed to be the name of the severe female officer, who was now looking intently at Strike. Her gaze flickered over to Robin, then back. Had she seen their silent communication?
“Let’s go,” Mullins said, jerking her head towards the bank of elevators and gesturing for Robin and Strike to walk ahead of her. She jabbed the button and, as they were waiting for the doors to open, said, “Strike – as in the private detective?” There was something forced about her casual tone.
“That’s right,” Strike answered. Mullins nodded, but didn’t speak again.
The trip down to the lobby was silent, but as the detectives exited the elevator, Mullins grasped Robin’s arm to hold her back.
“Why are you really looking for Peter?” Her tone was low, but urgent, and something in her eyes made Robin bite back the cover story she had been about to spin.
“We want to make sure he’s safe,” she answered, her low voice mirroring the other woman’s. “That’s all.”
Mullins’ pale blue eyes were boring into Robin’s, searching for – something. Robin held her gaze, and after a moment, the other woman nodded.
“Blackbird Pub,” she said quickly, as though she was worried about changing her mind, “in an hour. It’s opposite Earl’s Court Station.” With that, the woman turned back into the elevator and its doors shut, blocking her from view.
Robin turned, catching Cormoran’s curious gaze; he had been standing close enough to overhear the muttered exchange.
“Well,” she said, shrugging, “I for one quite fancy a drink.”
I know it's been well over a year since I updated this, and I'm sorry! I've always known exactly where the story is going, and I'm going to finish it no matter what. My goal is to have it complete before Lethal White is published, so I should be posting much more regularly in the future. Thanks for hanging in there :) Thank you so much to bethanyactually, who did a brilliant job of beta-reading this chapter.
“Arrogant, bit of a prick,” Strike concluded as he held the heavy wood door of the pub open for Robin, “but not stupid.”
Robin glanced back at Strike as he followed her into the pub, letting the door bang shut behind him. “And he didn’t seem worried? When you asked him about Wilson?”
“No. Annoyed, maybe.”
She hummed in acknowledgement, glancing around the cozy pub with its red walls and dark wood wainscoting. It was busy for a weekday afternoon, and she had to raise her voice a little to be heard over the buzz of conversation. “If you want to grab a table, I’ll go to the bar.”
Strike managed to secure a table tucked in the corner of the room with a view of the door and sank into one of the battered wooden chairs. His hand went almost automatically to his right knee, still stiff and sore from yesterday’s long hours of tailing Two-Times’s newest flame across what had seemed like half of London. He was still massaging his knee when Robin appeared at his side; he dropped his hand hastily as she placed a pint of London Pride in front of him and sat down in the chair opposite. She had gotten a pint for herself as well, rather than her usual tomato juice, he noticed.
“What?” she said, seeing his raised eyebrows.
“Nothing.” He watched as Robin took a healthy gulp of her beer. “You did well back there. Quick thinking, with the tears and everything.”
“Thanks,” she said, and flashed him a quick smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I hope this woman actually has something useful to say.”
Strike shrugged and leaned over to the table beside them to grab a menu. “We’ll see. You hungry?”
Their food orders placed, the pair lapsed into silence. Strike watched Robin, brows furrowed, as she stared moodily into her pint.
The silence stretched on until Strike, a bit reluctantly, asked, “You alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, not looking up.
Robin was, in fact, struggling with feelings she would have found very difficult to express. Working with Strike again over the past week had mostly been good, soothing, a return to routine after the fear and pain of the past few months. But in her anger and frustration with Matthew, Strike’s efforts to return to normalcy began to seem irritating rather than comforting. Since the day she had phoned him from her honeymoon, neither had referred to the night that he had fired her, or to Brockbank, or even to her wedding, which he’d crashed so dramatically. It was as though he wanted to pretend that none of it had ever happened, Robin thought angrily—as though everything that needed to be discussed had been, as though there was nothing more to do but to move on, leave the past in the past.
Robin felt like screaming. Why did men always act as though talking about their feelings was like being tortured with thumbscrews? She already spent her evenings pretending to have forgiven and forgotten in order to keep the peace with Matthew, shutting up and soldiering on; work was supposed to be her refuge, her freedom. “Matthew deleted the message you left,” she said, abruptly. “When – before the wedding.”
“Ah,” Strike said, not quite sure how he was meant to respond; but his face must have expressed more than he’d intended it to, because Robin sighed, her mouth twisting in annoyance.
“But you’d figured that out,” she said bitterly. “Of course you did.”
Strike shrugged awkwardly. He felt it was safer not to comment. After all, what could he say? Yes, I deduced what happened, almost instantly, because your new husband is incredibly transparent and a world-class prick? He took a drink.
In the silence between them, the laughter of the next table over seemed jarring, excessive. Robin appeared to be having some sort of inner struggle, her eyes downcast, her fingers absently toying with the cutlery laid out before her. Strike resisted a sudden, insane urge to cover her hand with his own.
“What did it say?” she asked finally, her blue eyes—mascara still slightly smeared from her earlier performance—rising to meet his, a strange vulnerability flickering over her face. “Matthew wouldn’t tell me. He said he didn’t listen, just deleted it.”
Strike paused, considering his words carefully. He had left that voicemail in desperation, fearing that he would never see her again, conscious that if something went wrong in his plan to confront Laing, he might never get the chance to. But they were partners again now, running the business together. More than that, though, she was now married. She had chosen to marry Matthew.
“That I was sorry,” he said with a shrug. “That I’d fucked up. That I wanted you to come back. Same things I said when I saw you,” he added.
“Oh.” Robin felt her face fall, a flash of disappointment as her stomach sank. Why was she disappointed? It was good, surely, that she hadn’t missed hearing – what? What had she been hoping to hear?
“Was that all?” she said, her eyes roaming over his craggy features.
“Yeah,” he lied, gaze steady. “That was all.”
Before Robin could interrogate him further, a harried waiter arrived at their table to drop their meals in front of them. Strike was glad to turn his attention to his steak and mushroom pie, which was as delicious as he’d hoped it would be.
Robin, however, seemed reluctant to let the subject drop. “Why didn’t you call sooner?”
Strike swallowed his mouthful of chips. “I was angry,” he said, honestly. “And then…” he trailed off, unable to put into words the emotions that had warred within him during that long week trapped in the office between chatty Alyssa and his own writhing guilt.
Robin was pushing her salad around on her plate instead of eating it. “You were right to be angry,” she said, her voice tight. “If it had turned out to be Brockbank, and he’d killed someone else because I tipped him off..."
Strike sighed inwardly. He had hoped that this wouldn’t come up, but he had also promised himself that he would do better, that he would treat Robin properly as his partner, not his subordinate – which meant a certain amount of uncomfortable honesty.
“I knew it wasn’t Brockbank,” he forced out. “When – that night. I already knew that it was Laing.”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Then why did you tell me that they’d found a connection?”
Strike said nothing. Robin could feel her fury mounting at his clenched jaw, his stubborn silence. The argument with Matthew was forgotten, overwritten by this fresh betrayal.
“I spent a week thinking I’d helped the killer escape,” she hissed, conscious of the fact that they were hemmed in on all sides by chattering pub-goers. “Every time I checked the news I was afraid there would be another girl murdered, and it would have been my fault!”
Strike winced. “I’m sorry.”
Robin scoffed. “You’re–” she cut herself off, staring at him, noting the way he avoided her gaze. “When did you know?” she asked, her voice quiet.
“When did you realize that it was Laing,” she said, flatly. She watched Strike fidget– drumming his fingers on the table, tipping his empty pint glass as though hoping it would magically fill itself – and waited.
“The night he attacked you,” he muttered finally.
Robin, staggered, could only stare at him, mouth open. She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. He had left her in that hospital, walked away knowing the identity of the man who had attacked her. “Why–”
“There she is,” Strike interrupted, looking over Robin’s shoulder towards the door of the pub. She twisted around; Mullins was indeed standing near the bar, her gaze roaming the busy dining room, clearly looking for them. Strike stood, his height catching the woman’s eye almost immediately. Robin saw her raise a hand in greeting and begin to maneuver her way towards them.
Strike’s eyes flickered down to meet Robin’s. “Can we deal with this later?”
Robin nodded, lips a thin line, fresh annoyance that he thought she would continue arguing with him in front of a witness mingling with the fury already boiling under her skin. With a great effort, she yanked her mind back to the case as the female detective reached them.
Strike introduced himself, reaching out a large, hairy hand, which the detective shook. “My partner, Robin Ellacott,” he added. Robin stood to greet the woman, a corner of her mind still gripping tightly to her anger, refusing to be mollified by Strike calling her his partner.
“Patricia Mullins,” the officer said, pulling out the third chair and refusing Strike’s offer of a drink.
She spoke before either Robin or Strike could. “Was it Natalie who hired you to look for him?” she asked, crisp and businesslike.
“You know Peter’s daughter?” Robin’s voice betrayed no hint that she had, a moment previously, been in the middle of a heated argument.
Mullins shook her head, her fingers drumming restlessly on the table before she seemed to catch herself, folding her hands together in her lap. “I haven’t met her yet.”
“Why did you want to speak with us?” Strike asked.
Mullins’ mouth twisted a little; she was clearly considering her words carefully. “I overheard a conversation between Peter’s handler and Ross,” she said slowly. “Peter had missed a scheduled check-in, and Ross said that it was under control, but…”
Robin frowned at this. Strike, however, said, “That’s normal though, isn’t it? It can be unpredictable, undercover work.”
“Usually, yes, but Peter was supposed to – he’d said that–” Patricia hesitated, bringing a hand up to rub nervously at her lips. She was hiding something, Robin was certain. As she studied the woman’s face, noticing the fine laugh lines that radiated from the corners of her eyes, the dark circles that suggested recent sleepless nights, she thought that she knew what it might be.
“How long have you and Peter been together?” she asked gently.
Strike shot Robin a startled glance, but her eyes were trained on Mullins, who smiled ruefully, her veneer of professional severity slipping a little.
“Almost a year,” she admitted, a soft smile lingering at the corners of her lips.
“A year?” Strike said, surprised. “And you hadn’t met his daughter?” He caught Robin’s frown out of the corner of his eye; the smile dropped from Mullins’ face.
“We were keeping it quiet, with work and everything. He hasn’t dated very much since his wife passed, and he can be a bit protective of Natalie, you know? He said, after this assignment, that we could…” but whatever it was that Peter had said, she did not seem to want to share it.
“And he told you he would communicate with you?” Robin prompted.
Mullins pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing. “Yes. It’s against the rules, but…” she shrugged. “It happens sometimes, you know?”
Strike nodded, but thought to himself that if a subordinate of his in the SIB had broken regulations and put an operation in jeopardy just to keep in touch with a girlfriend, he would have made his displeasure known. Loudly.
“He kept in contact at first,” Mullins continued, “but then – nothing. I haven’t heard from him in two weeks. It’s not like him,” she said firmly, looking at Robin, who nodded in understanding.
“Do you have any details of who he was investigating? Where he was located?” Strike asked, flipping open his notebook.
“You have to understand, if it comes out that I talked to you, that I shared sensitive information…” Mullins hesitated, her lips pressed tightly together. “I could lose my job. I could be prosecuted,” she finished flatly.
Strike remained silent, resisting the urge to shoot a warning glance at Robin, which was hardly needed. She, too, had sensed that it was best not to press the officer, and didn’t say a word, taking a sip of her pint instead. After a moment, Mullins sighed and leaned forwards.
“Peter was assigned to a drugs operation,” she said, voice low. “He was investigating Tottenham Mandem.”
Strike frowned. “The street gang?”
Mullins nodded. “There’s been an uptick in overdoses in the area. We confiscated a shipment of heroin that had been laced with fentanyl – it’s another opioid, very potent, very dangerous,” she explained to Robin and Strike, who nodded.
“So,” she continued, “Peter was supposed to investigate their supply chains, find out where the drugs were coming from, who was moving them.”
“Do you know any details that could help us find him? His alias, where he was staying?”
“I know the name he was using – Adrian Miller, he’d used it before. But other than that,” Mullins had leaned back in her chair and was shaking her head. “No. Nothing.”
For several minutes more they quizzed Mullins, but the detective seemed to have no further insights to offer, or perhaps she was already regretting sharing as much as she had. As she got up to leave, she paused, glancing between Strike and Robin.
“I would appreciate it if this meeting could stay between us.” She gave one firm nod, and then without waiting for an answer, turned on her heel and left, her brisk strides carrying her quickly out of the pub.
The lunch rush seemed to have finished during the interview with Mullins; the noisy table beside them had vacated, leaving behind them the detritus of crumpled napkins, dirty mugs, an empty silence. Strike kept his eyes on his nearly finished lunch.
“You’d heard of this gang before?” Robin asked quietly, looking not at Strike but out of the window beside them.
“Yeah,” he replied as he sopped up the gravy from his pie with his last handful of chips. “It was in the news a few years back, they kidnapped and tortured a couple of men.”
“With hammers and hot irons, if I’m remembering right.”
“Jesus,” Robin muttered, dropping her gaze to her half-finished salad, her stomach lurching sickeningly.
“Yeah. We’ll have to tread carefully on this one,” Strike said thickly, swallowing his mouthful of chips. He had taken his mobile out and was tapping it thoughtfully against his palm. “Shanker might be our best bet, I think he knows some people in the area. I’ll give him a call, get him to ask around.”
Robin nodded but said nothing.
Strike heaved himself up off his chair, mobile in hand, then paused, looking at Robin who was determinedly avoiding his gaze, her mouth set in a tight line.
“I didn’t tell you about Laing because–” He hesitated. Robin raised her eyebrows at him, and his next words came out almost against his will. “I knew that you would want to be in at the end, to help catch him. And you’d have had every right to be.”
This admission startled Robin, who had opened her mouth to protest angrily, and she sat back, blue-grey eyes wide.
He sighed heavily into the silence and added in a quiet voice, “I couldn’t – I wanted to keep you safe.”
She could feel tears pricking at her eyes again, and blinked them away furiously. “You should have told me,” she said, hating the traitorous tremor in her voice.
“I know,” he said softly. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Robin pressed her lips together; she didn’t think she could trust herself to speak without her voice betraying her emotions. She waited until Strike had moved away, then drained the rest of her pint. Why did she always have to be the one to swallow her anger, to accept men’s apologies, to absolve them of their wrongdoing?
He’s trying, though, she told herself, and it was true. The contract, the office, the cases that he had assigned her, the way that they’d worked together today. He had promised her that she would be his partner, and he was treating her as such, clearly making an effort to earn her absolution. He had told her the truth about his realization that Laing was the killer, too, when he didn’t have to. She remembered Matthew’s face as he denied listening to the voicemail, remembered seeing the lie written plainly across it, and sighed tiredly. She watched Strike through the pub’s window, studied his bulk as he paced back and forth on the sidewalk, limping a little, his mobile pressed to his ear and a lit cigarette held tightly in his fingers. She looked down at the empty glass in front of her, and thought that perhaps she would fetch herself a well-deserved refill.
Thank you once more to bethanyactually, who is an amazing beta reader! Thank you as well to everyone who reads and comments, I love you all!