Strike’s cigarette lay in the crevice at the side of his mouth, smoke creeping into the cold ozone-laden air. The round bastions of St Mawes castle lit by spotlights glowed golden against the indigo sky and cast long ghostly shadows. As a child, he would walk along the road that went up to the top of the village from the castle to where he lived with his Aunt and Uncle. He and his friends would play on the grass that surrounded each side of the castle. Behind the towers, lay the slate grey sea, white-tipped, marred in places by industrial tankers, far out, near the horizon. His eyes narrowed as he tracked the ferry bobbing across the Fal estuary passing where Pendennis castle stood guard on the other side of the estuary marking the Falmouth peninsula. Outcrops of rock crawled into the sea and a few wintering birds swooped overhead.
He’d been back in St Mawes for the past twenty-four hours which had felt a long time already. Lucy and her family were also staying with his Aunt and Uncle for Christmas. Claiming they were desperately missing a Cornish Christmas, Ilsa and Nick had changed their plans at the last minute but Strike suspected they were here to give him moral support. Over the last month, he had endeavoured to continue the pretence that he was coping without Robin. But his best friends had known him for a long time and neither Nick or Ilsa let him try to pull the wool over their eyes for very long.
“You’re allowed to miss her you know, you can say it, you could even talk about her rather than pretend she doesn’t exist,” Ilsa had reproached him after he brushed her off once too often.
“Obviously she’s lost a lot of blood but the damage to her right kidney has been repaired and the wound has been cleaned. She’ll go down to Intensive Care while she recovers. She may be in here for a couple of weeks depending on how long her recovery takes,”
The doctor’s words had faded out a bit once he finally heard the word ‘recovery’. Strike was left with the sharp chemical smell of the hospital that was underlined with the musk of human excretion. He rubbed his face with his fingers, his elbows on his knees. Ilsa and Nick sat next to him on the blue vinyl institutional seats, stroking the back of his shoulder as she registered his shock.
“Will there be any permanent complications?” Nick asked as Strike seemed incapable of logical thought.
“No, she should be fine – we just need to keep an eye on her as there is a chance of infection,”
“When can I see her?” Strike’s voice trembled now that he tried to use it.
“Give us half an hour to get her down from surgery, someone will come and let you know,” the doctor turned on his heel and strode off to the next desperate patient and traumatised family members.
“Corm…I need to tell you something. Robin was going to tell you tonight and I feel awful about it but…” she stopped as Strike didn’t give any signal that he had heard her.
“What?” he sounded defeated as if nothing could be worse than when she had called his mobile to say they were on their way to the hospital. Robin had been stabbed – again. This time she was unconscious, she’d lost a lot of blood, the ambulance woman was working on her. All this Ilsa had sobbed out to him as he had stood helplessly in the middle of a council estate where there were no taxis – the nearest station two and a half miles away. It had happened in one of the most high-end department stores in central London, not on an estate in Hackney. She wasn’t being stalked by some crazed killer, instead, she’d been out with a friend shopping. This scared him more than anything. There was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
“We weren’t just at Selfridges to look around the sale. We were also there to meet Charlotte,“ Ilsa waited a moment until she saw his expression flicker in recognition that he heard her, his brow tightened, “She didn’t want Charlotte to be harassing you or her anymore and I…I agreed, probably even encouraged her…which could probably constitute as interference,”
Strike’s brow flashed up and down, he wasn’t surprised by the last bit, he shook his head and he heard Nick swear for him but he added, “Bloody hell, Robin…and she says I’m over-protective, why didn’t she tell me before?”
Ilsa looked at him. Not wanting him to feel any worse than he did already, by reminding him he wasn’t the easiest person to tell something to, especially when you could guarantee he wouldn’t agree with your point of view.
“Hmm…fair point…what happened?”
As Ilsa filled him in he began shaking his head but by the end, he nodded slowly, gradually accepting, Charlotte had taken up enough of his life and he wasn’t going to do it anymore by holding the fact they went to – threaten her, frankly - against Ilsa…and Robin.
“Would you really have been there anyway?
Ilsa nodded and Strike shrugged.
“It was a 50% off sale,” she added with such a sombre tone he managed a half-laugh.
“Robin? It’s Mum…” Linda leaned closer to Robin. Her daughter was tucked tightly under the still neat covers which, Strike thought, was a testament to how dead to the world she had been since her operation yesterday. Usually, he had to fight for a corner of the duvet some nights as she wrapped herself in a cocoon as she slept. The steady beeps of the monitor continued in the background as Linda cajoled her into consciousness.
Watching them closely, Michael sat on the other side of the bed, sighing deeply when Robin croaked hoarsely, “Mum?” she seemed confused and her eyes flitted around the room taking in the strange surroundings of the intensive care monitors that hung from the ceilings like robotic arms. There were two more people breathing with life support machines, one alone and the other’s partner sitting close by, head in hands as Strike had been.
Her mother explained to her where she was and what had happened the day before, “Do you remember any of it?”
Robin’s brow furrowed slightly and she shook her head.
“Hello, Love,” Michael had put his large hand on her shoulder. She turned and managed to look at him, her mouth began to turn at the edges.
“Cormoran’s here too,” Linda explained, Strike was still slumped in his chair as Robin’s blue-grey eyes slowly turned to him.
“Cormoran…that’s a funny name…” she croaked, looking at him in a curious but clearly confused way.
Michael and Linda looked at one another and then to Strike. The same question on each of their faces.
“Joke!” Robin rasped, smiling weakly at him.
Strike slowly became aware that he was awake when he opened his eyes Robin was lying on her good side, watching him sleep. It was dark in the room and it must have been close to the end of visiting hours.
“As always,” Robin teased affectionately, “It’s comforting. I miss it at night time,” she reached her hand out to him. Strike pulled the chair closer to the bed, took her hand and kissed the palm. She rested it against the side of his face, stroking his beard with her fingertips and he rubbed his cheek against her soft skin, holding her hand against him, “I’ll have to miss it in the daytime too soon,”
Strike gave a slight turn of the head, uncomprehending.
“You have to go back to work tomorrow…”
He began to shake his head.
“We’ll go bankrupt if you stay here with me, I’ve messed things up enough already for you by getting myself put in here - ” her words quickened and her face became a bit pinched, she was starting to sound a bit panicky and distressed.
“Stop it - I doubt the woman you saved thinks you messed anything up,” he stroked the damp flame of hair from her clammy forehead. It wasn’t in Robin’s make-up to stand passively by when she thought it was in her power to help another person.
“Look, Mum’s here, the doctor’s say I’m doing well and you have to go back to work,”
“Am I cramping your style?” Strike gave her a half smile.
“Don’t. I know you care about me, I know you’re worried. I remember what you said about the last time this happened. But you know you have to too,”
Robin’s parents had stayed with Ilsa and Nick for a week until Michael had to return to Yorkshire to go back to work. Linda insisted she would stay in London even though Robin said she would be alright without her. Strike had diligently visited Robin every day, texting her when he had a spare moment. She had been told that the kidney seemed to be healing well.
And then one night, after feeling too nauseous to eat her dinner she began to vomit until all that was left was black bile. Her body temperature had dropped and her usually pale skin was chalk white, the healthy pink tint of the cheeks, replaced by a neon bluish tinge. Strike had tried to hold her in her arms as her body convulsed and she fell back after each one sent shockwaves through her body. Soon she really didn’t know who he was, who her mother was or where she was, and the blood tests came back confirming she had sepsis.
Linda had hugged Strike in the corridor after the nurse grimly told them how severe it was – that now Robin was fighting for her life. She was a stage below sepsis shock and if that happened her major organs could shut down – with her kidney being damaged already her prognosis was not good.
Even now the thought of her deathly pale face made him shudder – he had not considered that he could ever feel as shocked as when he had seen her covered in the red ink of the rape alarm. He pulled his coat closer around him as if it could protect him from the stinging bite of his memories, as it did the inclement cold.
Strike and Linda stayed up all night with her. Robin was connected, yet again, to parts of the robotic arms, an unnatural hybrid of human and machine. An intravenous drip hung from her arm and an oxygen mask covered the lower part of her face. He had battled against sleep, watching and waited for each palpitating breath, stroking her head while her pupils moved erratically behind her eyelids, her lips moving in silent discourse with herself. Between fielding phone calls and texts on both their mobiles, as all the people who loved Robin enquired for updates, Linda had told him funny stories about Robin growing up. She included Robin in their conversation as if it would keep her with them. She had told him how lucky she felt that the one daughter she had was Robin – she could never have been given a better daughter.
When Linda had fallen into a doze, Strike thought about his own run of luck that had begun with Robin slamming into him, catching her before she fell into the dark stairwell and pulling them both safely into the new morning light of the office. Surely it couldn’t have bloody run out already, he thought, rubbing his moist eyes with his fingers, but they still remained bloodshot and watery as he lifted Robin’s hand and held it against his own pale lips.
Finally, the nurses believed her vital signs had begun to turn towards their normal level and the virus was beginning to abate. Soon, Robin was able to talk to them again in short burst before sleep dragged her under. That interminable weekend finally came to an end. But it became apparent that Robin would not be able to work for a while as recovery from the kidney injury and sepsis would take months.
Strike was woken from his doze in front of his computer by a rapping on the glass of the door. He quickly got up and went to unlock it. He could see a tall, dark figure stood behind the glass.
“Hi, Corm?” Vanessa Ekwensi greeted him as he opened the door.
“Vanessa, good to see you,”
He held the door open for her and she walked in nervously.
“Been to see Robin?”
“Yes…she’s in a bad way, isn’t she?”
He nodded but was quick to push away the memory of Robin lying in the hospital bed the night before, so deflated and listless, he’d had to feed her. Her face drained of her usual excitement, sense of fun and keen intelligence by utter exhaustion.
Strike changed the subject, “Tea?”
Strike passed the cup of coffee to Vanessa, who was sat on the sofa and he lent back onto Robin’s old desk. It would always be her desk really and he felt close to her just by being in the vicinity of it. He noticed from the twitch of Vanessa’s foot she was agitated and even though there was no way the sofa was going to fart underneath her model’s figure she looked uncomfortable.
“Everything alright?” Strike prompted, Vanessa only ever came to the office if she and Robin had a night out planned.
“Well, I was just thinking, I’ve got some holiday booked - two weeks. I could come and help you out.”
But, he raised a sceptical eyebrow.
She sighed, and her bright tone disappeared, “Robin’s worried about you and I thought, if you let me help you, she could focus on getting better,”
Strike knew this to be true. Part of the after-effects of the sepsis had been to leave her feeling anxious. He was also bone tired. He was desperately juggling clients and making decisions on a daily basis on what to prioritise – who was most likely to notice they weren’t getting the service they expected. His leg was playing up again from all the additional surveillance and without Robin, he had run out of the Coolpaks days ago.
“Look Corm, this is an opportunity for me too, learning from one of the best,”
He gave her a look.
This time her voice revealed her frustration, “You must know what it’s like for me – the DS’s try to stop me doing anything that would take the glory away from them, anything I do they try and take the credit for. I’ll enjoy working under my own steam – hopefully, some of the magic will rub off,”
“Sadly, there’s no magic Vanessa, it’s still just hard bloody work. You’re sure you want to lose your holiday to tracking people who can’t control their baser urges.”
“You never know what could happen, who could walk through the door! Anyway, think what it will do for my rep at work, temping for Britain’s most famous detective,”
After the first week working with Vanessa, Strike was back on an even keel. He’s only ever seen her doing the donkey work for her male senior colleagues but now he got to see just how capable she was. He could see why they felt threatened by her. Although he didn’t sympathise with them for holding her back. She had taken over Robin’s surveillance of the rock star’s supermodel ex-wife, Red.
“Vanessa, this is Al,”
Vanessa walked into the office dressed up for the evening. He’d been sat in his office updating his half-brother on how Robin was doing while they waited for Vanessa as Al was going to get her signed into Shoreditch House.
Vanessa gave him the enigmatic smile of a supermodel, "Thanks for helping me out with this,"
Al who was usually able to be effortlessly charming mumbled something unintelligible. Strike saw Al’s face blanch as he turned back towards him, probably to hide his dazed reaction from Vanessa. Strike covered his smirk with his hand.
When Al got up to follow Vanessa out, Strike told him, “She’s one of Robin’s good friends, so watch it!”
“I’m not like that,” Al hissed at him.
Strike hoped he was telling the truth, that Al took after his mother rather than their father or Robin would have him. Although the news from the hospital was that she would be in recovery for weeks yet, but he knew she would bide her time.
Vanessa’s help gave Strike enough time to find and employ a long-term replacement for Robin. Glen Friel was a retired Glaswegian military policeman that Graham Hardacre had put him back in touch with. Friel had been hero-worshipped in the SIB in Germany and a younger Strike had learnt a lot from the intelligent and highly-skilled man. His sense of integrity meant that Strike had never come up against Friel’s egotism in a case in the same way he’d experienced with other colleagues, as it just didn’t exist. After retiring Glen had moved his family back to where his wife had come from in East ham in East London. So, luckily, he was happy with a temporary position. Glen was on a Major’s pension, so the pay wasn’t an issue, he was simply finding retired life boring.
Strike had given Robin the details of their new employee but he avoided being too complimentary as he knew it would be like rubbing salt into a deep wound.
“I’ve got good news for you,” he told Robin during her fourth week in hospital.
“Me too, but you first,”
“Crowdy is moving out of his office,”
Robin perked up a bit, she was still very lethargic. Strike had to usually work hard to get a smile out of her, when he did it was usually a mere lift of the corners of her mouth. He missed the warm feeling in his chest that bloomed when she turned her usual beam on him.
“I’m so relieved, that bloke is such a perv!”
Linda looked slightly perturbed, clearly, Robin had not shared any information with her mother about the lascivious attention she had been subjected to from Crowdy. At least only until one particularly intimidating death stare from Strike, when he caught Crowdy’s eyes on her bottom as she walked up the stairs. Strike had been a bit further behind and had caught him in the act.
“Who will be taking on the office?”
“Not sure –“ he moved on quickly, “So, what’s your news?”
“I’m going to be discharged - ”
“But,” Linda interjected, “She still needs to rest Corm and they’ve suggested it, only, if she has someone to keep an eye on her all of the time,” Linda’s tone suggested to him that he was to take the mother’s side against the daughter’s.
In a rare pique of temper for Robin, she raised her voice but her throat was too hoarse to carry it and it broke halfway, “Oh, I’m not a kid Mum! I - don’t - want to go back to Masham,”
“How will that work Robin? Ilsa and Nick have their jobs, they’ll be no one at the house all day,” Linda kept her voice at an even tone but she was determined.
Strike let the silence exist. He kept his eyes firmly on Linda even though the weight of Robin’s gaze fell heavily on him. The other option was his flat but again, no-one would be there either most of the time. He knew if he looked at her, the pleading expression would break his resolve but Masham was her only real option.
He felt a stab of guilt that he was not in a position to be there for her properly. He’d been happy with prioritising the job over everything else until a few weeks ago. But not bothering to care about how far he pushed himself had never extended to Robin. The job had always provided such a satisfying sense of absorption but it didn’t have to be a refuge for him anymore.
He turned a gentle look to Robin but his smile was half-hearted and she absorbed his lack of speech. She closed her eyes, probably to stop herself from crying and collapsed back into the bed. Her arms were flung over her face as the sobs she tried to hold in burst free. He had let her down again when she needed him most. His arms went around Robin to try and comfort her. Things would have to change – he never wanted to be in the position where he felt he was neglecting Robin again.