PROLOGUE: HASTINGS, 1912
Stan entered stage left. Of course he did; he was the villain. Villains always enter from the left, the Good Fairy from the right. It’s the first law of pantomime. But, in this case, Stan Parks (the Wicked Baron) came running onto the stage in answer to a scream from Alice Dean (Robin Hood). He came quickly because Alice was not normally given to screaming. Even when Stan had tried to kiss her behind the flat depicting Sherwood Forest she hadn’t screamed; instead she had simply delivered an efficient uppercut that had left him winded for hours. So he responded to the sound, in his haste falling over two giant toadstools and a stuffed fox.
The stage was in semi-darkness, some of the scenery still covered in dustsheets. At first Stan could only make out shapes, bulky and somehow ominous, and then he saw Alice, kneeling centre stage, wearing a dressing gown over her green Principal Boy tights. She was still screaming, a sound that seemed to get louder and louder until it reached right up to the gods and the empty boxes. Opposite her something swung to and fro, casting a monstrous shadow on the painted forest. Stan stopped, suddenly afraid to go any further. Alice stopped screaming and Stan heard her say something that sounded like ‘please’ and ‘no’. He stepped forward. The swinging object was a bower, a kind of basket chair, where the Babes in the Wood were meant to shelter before being covered with leaves by mechanical robins (a striking theatrical effect). The bower should have been empty because the Babes didn’t rehearse in the afternoon. But, as Stan got closer, he saw that it was full of something heavy, something that tilted it over to one side. Stan touched the basket, suddenly afraid of its awful, sagging weight. And he saw Betsy Bunning, the fifteen-year-old girl who was playing the female Babe. She lay half in, half out of the swinging chair. Her throat had been cut and the blood had soaked through her white dress and was dripping heavily onto the boards.
It was odd. Later, Stan would go through two world wars, see sights guaranteed to turn any man’s blood to ice, but nothing ever disturbed him quite so much as the child in the wicker bower, the blood on the stage and the screams of the Principal Boy.
ONE: BRIGHTON, 1951
It was snowing when Edgar Stephens woke up. The view from his window, the tottering Regency terraces leading down to the sea, was frosted and magical. But the sight gave him no pleasure at all. He hated snow. He still had nightmares about the Norway campaign, the endless march over the ice, his companions falling into the drifts to freeze where they lay, the moments when the bright white landscape seemed to rearrange itself into fantastical shapes and colours, the soft voices speaking from the frozen lakes: ‘Lie down and I’ll give you rest for ever.’ They hadn’t had the proper gear then either, reflected Edgar, pulling on a second pair of socks. The Norwegian troops had skis and fur jackets; the British had shivered in greatcoats and leaking boots. Well, he still didn’t have a pair of snow boots. It wasn’t something that you needed as a policeman in Brighton, generally speaking. But today was different. Today was the second day of searching for two lost children. A search made a hundred times grimmer and more desperate by the soft white flakes falling outside.
Edgar squeezed his multi-socked feet into his thickest shoes. Then he put on a fisherman’s jumper under his heaviest coat. As a final touch he added a Russian hat, given to him years ago by Diablo. He knew that he looked ridiculous (he must remember to take it off before he got to the station) but the hat made a surprising amount of difference. As he slipped and staggered down Albion Hill, holding on to parked cars and garden fences, his head at least remained warm. The Pavilion was a fairy-tale wonder of snowy domes and minarets. The Steine Gardens were smooth with snow but as Edgar tried to cross the road he slipped twice on hard-packed ice. As he limped down the alleyway by the YMCA building (once the home of Maria Fitzherbert, the secret wife of the Prince Regent, and said to be linked to the Pavilion by a secret tunnel), he wondered if they would be able to get any cars out at all. He’d have to get on to the army barracks in Dyke Road. Perhaps they would be able to lend him a jeep or two. They really needed to search on the downs and in the parks but the snow might make that impossible. The children had now been missing for forty hours.
When he reached Bartholomew Square, he was exhausted and his feet were soaking. In the lobby he met his sergeant, Bob Willis, apparently disguised as a deep-sea fisherman in waders and oilskins.
‘Nice hat, sir.’
Damn, he’d forgotten to take off the Russian hat. Edgar snatched it from his head, its wet fur feeling unpleasantly like a living animal.
‘Is anyone else in?’ he asked.
‘One or two,’ said Bob, sitting down and starting to pull off his waders. ‘The super’s snowed in in Rottingdean.’
‘Let’s hope he’s the only one. We need every man we can get.’
‘Charming.’ Turning round, Edgar saw Sergeant Emma Holmes, the latest recruit to CID and recipient of a lot of teasing about her name, her sex and just about everything else, really. Not that this seemed to bother her. She was unfailingly calm and professional. This, combined with her white-blonde hair and blue eyes, gave her an almost Nordic aspect although, as far as Edgar knew, she had been born and brought up in Brighton.
‘Man as in person,’ said Edgar, wondering if he was making things worse.
‘Why not just say person then?’ said Emma mildly, taking off her duffle coat.
Edgar was about to answer when Bob’s waders came off with a hideous squelching sound.
‘Let’s get ready for the morning meeting,’ he said.
At least he knew not to ask Emma to put the kettle on.
Edgar addressed the team promptly at nine. A few people had been delayed by the weather but most had struggled in, some of them walking long distances through the snow. Edgar knew that this was indicative of the strength of feeling about this case. As he summarised the investigation so far, he was aware that every eye was on him. These people cared, not just because they were police officers and it was their job to care. They cared because there were children involved and even the most unimaginative plod could put themselves in the position of parents waiting for news, watching the snow outside and knowing that it was covering up precious clues. Knowing, too, that their children were outside in the cold, alive or dead.
Mark Webster and Annie Francis had gone missing some time on Monday afternoon. Mark was twelve and Annie thirteen. They had come home from school and had spent some time playing with other local children in Freshfield Road, a long residential street that led all the way up to the racecourse. It was thought that Annie and Mark had then gone to the corner shop to buy sweets. The parents weren’t worried at first; the children were old enough to look after themselves after all. It wasn’t until night had fallen (early in these dark days of November) that Sandra Francis knocked on Edna Webster’s door and suggested searching f...