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Inky Seas

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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.

“Snoring?”

“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,”

“Poor you,”

 


  

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Over her final few days in hospital Robin had sunk into an oppressively dark mood. Strike knew this was probably down to the amount of morphine she had been forced to take over the last few weeks. She drifted from speaking in just a few monosyllables to silence and back again. Then from the dark clouds of her mood came flashes of a growing anger with herself, Strike, her parents, the doctors.

Michael returned to take her and Linda back to the family home. Robin had point-blank refused to leave the hospital in a wheelchair. So, his arm had supported her around her waist as she had very slowly escaped the hospital.

At the car, Strike refused the comfort of the front seat and folded himself behind the passenger seat prepared for a cramped journey so that he could stay as near to Robin for as long as possible. She had watched the wet London streets blur away until they had hit motorway. Robin unclipped the seat belt and lay on her side, shoeless feet up on the seat, propping her head on Strike’s lap. Strike traced the overly thin limbs of her body with his palm. Eventually, she pulled his arm around her shoulders and held his hand to her cheek. If she hadn’t forgiven him, at least she still loved him. She slept the rest of the way which made him feel less guilty. 

That night had been the first time they had slept in the same bed in over a month. Robin had tucked herself into his arms, her face nuzzled into the beard on his neck, her too thin legs tangled with his. They had both indulged in the littlest of intimacies that they had missed. The sound of his heartbeat under her ear. The smoothness of the soft plane of her back under her nightshirt. She stroked fingertips through the hair on his chest and pressed her lips against the base of his throat. He nuzzled the space behind her ear and massaged the arch of her foot. Noses touching, blue and green eyes locked together, they savoured the moments they had left together before he went back to London the next morning.

All too soon it arrived and her tearful but indignant expression, as she lay under the blanket in the living room, made him feel his own stab of guilt as he walked away. But, he just couldn’t give her and the business the attention they needed. They had both agreed he was protecting their future but acceptance of this was a hard stage to find.

 


 

 

Days later, Strike was just about to pick up his mobile where it lay on the little table to call Robin when there was an uncertain knock on the flat door. Friends and family rarely visited or even met him at the flat apart from Robin, so Strike opened the door cautiously. Al stood in the hallway and smiled relieved when he saw that, yes, his brother lived here.

“Bruv, good to see you,” Al clapped in on the arm as he stepped into the attic space, "Just wondered if you wanted to go for a drink?”   

“Oh…yeah!” Al had purposely caught Strike out, he could have hardly had said no when l could see the empty flat and noise of the TV made it clear Strike was in for the night. A phone call and Strike could have said he was out on a job. As he pulled his coat on he caught Al casting an assessing gaze around the attic flat with a serious intensity. When his eyes went back to Strike again he saw a look of admiration in his younger half-brother and Al gave him his usual congenial grin, “Shall we get going then?”

Thirty minutes later they had both finished their first drinks in The Tottenham and were on to their second. Strike with his usual Doom bar and Al with a bottled beer. Strike was trying to relax after remembering that he still hadn’t called or texted Robin.

Al also seemed on edge when he said, “So, Vanessa told me Robin’s gone back up to - ”

“Yorkshire?” Strike finished for him, “So was that a professional conversation or…”

“Definitely ‘or’,” Al looked sheepish, “I really like her,”

This sounded more like an admission to himself rather than trying to convince Strike who smirked and nodded, “Well don’t mess it up, I’m thinking of asking her if she wants a job, doubt she’ll take it as I can’t match a police salary.”

Al’s eyebrow lifted and for once Strike noticed a resemblance in their shared mannerisms.

“You’re extending the business?”

“Thinking about it – too much work now for just me and Robin – one of the offices has come up for rent in the building, so I’m thinking of taking on the lease.”

Al smiled broadly, no doubt taking some of the credit for his brother’s success as he given the offer of their father’s loan in the first place, “What will you do to finance it?” Al’s voice had a hint of excitement. His insight into Strike's living conditions was clearly evidence Strike was not in the financial position to fund expansion himself.

“Go to the banks,” Strike was brusque, wishing he’d never brought the subject up.

 


 

 

Soon Strike found himself back in Masham. His thirty-seventh birthday had passed mid-week and he was relieved not to be in London, he didn’t have to make excuses to family and friends. At the house, Strike could tell Robin’s laughter and smiles were forced and if she thought no one was looking, the shadows appeared and her moon-pale face lost its aura, her expression sad and pained. He knew she missed her job and London but her sense of desperation seemed out of place compared to when they had been in Masham in October.

They had walked to the King’s Head in the evening and Robin pointed out the constellations that could be viewed in the dark sky which were usually hidden by the immense glow of Central London. He put his arm around her waist and as she tucked her head against his shoulder, she gave him a small smile. Probably the first genuine one of the day, he thought.

Strike’s dessert of treacle pudding and butterscotch sauce was put in front of him, Robin did not have the appetite for one.

“Wait!” she said and felt about in the pockets of her coat on the chair. From a hand came a candle which she stuck in the top of it. When she looked up at the withering expression on his face, it had been the first time he had heard her ringing laugh again, “Light it then!” Robin rolled her eyes, exasperated

His eyes carried their usual look of disdain as he lit the candle, but there was a smile underneath,  “ Cheers, Robin,” he said without a hint of genuine pleasure which made her laugh again.

“Don’t forget to make a wish!"

And he blew out the candle, quickly removing it from the pudding so he could start to eat.

“What did you wish for?”

“Can’t tell you, won’t come true,”

She nodded with a knowing smile.

“You know I wanted you to stay with me in London don’t you?”

Again, she nodded but her eyes dipped away from his. He held his hand out to her over the table. She took it and sighed, she seemed to be struggling with her thoughts.

“What’s going on?”

“I’m not upset with you for leaving me here – anymore…”

They exchanged smiles. Robin breathed in deeply, “It’s being in that room again,”

Strike eyes narrowed confused.

“Do you remember I told you I couldn’t leave my room after…the rape,” she had forced those two words out not letting them defeat her, “well, it was for months - I didn’t leave the house in a year. After Laing when I came back I started to have nightmares again and the old feelings came back. I didn’t tell Matthew,” Strike tilted his head, unsurprised, “Or mum – I didn’t want them using it to discourage me,”

“You didn’t tell me either,”

“You say that now, but at the time what would you have done if I did?”

His features shrunk and he looked away.

“I feel like I’m trapped in that feeling again, that they’ll always be someone to make me feel powerless – like nothing,”

The weight that compressed Strike’s chest forced the air out of him, “You didn’t say anything in the hospital when we talked about you coming here,”

“I knew you felt terrible enough already - ”

“No, Robin, never spare me my feelings for the sake of your own, okay?” he squeezed her hand knowing what would get her to properly talk about how she felt, “It’s the same for me and hospitals, can’t stand them - I should have realised...” 

“Don’t be silly – last time we were here I was fine – how could you know?”

“No…I was talking about after Laing attacked you – I should have listened to what you wanted, not thought I knew best,”

That night he and Michael moved her things into Stephen’s old room. And later, when she slept with her head on his chest he carefully reached over to the bedside table so as not to disturb her. He picked up his mobile and texted Al. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it later.

 


 

 

Strike pushed himself off of the wall and turned to look back at St Mawes. By now the multi-coloured lights around the harbour had flickered on. They weren’t the only ones, they twinkled from almost every house. The sea sparkled with light reflected from the village and the now bright moon. He had no choice but to change his plans to spend Christmas with Robin and her family because crises came in pairs. An appointment with her GP had turned into a cancer scare for his Aunt Joan. They were all on tenterhooks awaiting the results till after Christmas, so Lucy had demanded they all spend this Christmas together. He had not needed forcing but unfortunately, it was too late notice for Robin to change her plans too. 

His slipped his mobile out of his pocket and dialled Robin’s number.

“Hello,” her voice sounded warm and pleased.

“Can’t believe you’re not here to get me through this,” he grumbled.

“Greg that bad already?”

“Why do you doubt me, he's bought a bloody kayak in the middle of winter – tell me where he’s going to do that when he’s back in Bromley?”

“Hmm,” she giggled and he smiled at the sound of it.

“Where are you now?” Robin asked

“There’s a castle down the road from where my Aunt and Uncle live and you can look out across the River Fal to Falmouth,”

“Good view?”

“Pretty good – I know what I’d rather be looking at right now,” he murmured into the phone. He hadn’t seen her for a month, even though he had sorted out the immediate issues of her absence from work, things had become chaotic again which had been another reason why he didn't have the patience for his extended family. 

“Are you going to be able to wrap your presents without me?”

“I asked the shop assistants to do it,”

“You're very resourceful!”

“Why do you sound breathless – are you okay?” His voice became concerned.

“It fine – I’m just out for a short walk,”

“And here’s me thinking it was the sound of my voice,”

But as he waited for her to rebuke him, he realised the call had gone dead. Bloody reception is rubbish down here, he thought as he tried to get his mobile to call her back. 

Suddenly he felt the sudden jab of two hands at his waist and jumped. His mind seemed to slow down from the shock, had Jack come down the hill to find him?

And then he heard her laugh and spun around.

“Robin?” her cheeks were tinged pink by the cold and her full lips curved into a smile.

He pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her, “How did you get here?

“I managed to get a ticket all along, I just wanted to surprise - ”

But he’d already pulled her closer, his hand tangled in her hair. Robin clasped his face and she leant towards him, her soft warm lips against his cold mouth. His eyes closed and he breathed in her fresh scent. It was a sweet kiss full of tenderness and comfort until their longing for one another became more insistent.

 

Chapter Text

Robin climbed quickly back under the covers, the house was cold but it was early Christmas Eve morning, hopefully, the heating would come on soon. Strike’s snoring had woken her up but now it had receded into random snuffles. She shifted herself closer to him, so her cheek lay against his back, she breathed in the warm just-washed smell of his sweatshirt and wrapped herself around him, running her fingers over the hair on his stomach .

Over the last two weeks, she had started jogging again – well walking and a bit of running; her appetite was back to her mother’s relief and she felt much more relaxed. The thought of getting back to work had driven her but so had the thought of him. He slept so soundly she could risk giving his body a squeeze. She no longer felt afraid or guilty about what she wanted or her feelings. The time she had spent in the hospital and Masham had stolen away the fun and joy of finally being together.

The intensity of what happened had proved the faith she had in their bond and she’d had to admit to herself the reason it was like no other. Robin did not believe in soulmates but when she thought of being with Strike she thought it would be hard to find anyone she could enjoy being with more, felt more herself with or trusted more, even with all his faults and her own. They had developed a level of intimacy that she certainly hadn’t achieved with Matthew. And it didn’t all have to be on Instagram to prove to her friends that her life was just as on track as theirs was, which had been Matthew’s preoccupation.

Back in September, Robin was returning to the office from an early morning stakeout. She’d heard Strike call her name as she walked down Denmark Street. He was stood outside Wunjo’s about to light a cigarette with the woman who worked there. She was probably a couple of years older than Robin and a lot shorter. The woman’s sense of grungy fashion and back-combed bleached beach hairstyle was very cool. She looked like the incarnation of an urbane and sexy wannabe rock star – someone with more in common with his mother. In fact, if Robin thought about the women she knew of all had some kind of public persona – IT girl, supermodel and Radio presenter. Robin felt like a frump in her leggings, flat shoes and mac. Strike stepped in close to the woman, bent his head to spark his lighter against her cigarette, cupping his other hand around the growing flame.

Bugger.

Where the fuck had that smile come from?

Robin had certainly never seen it. It wasn’t just in the way the corners of his mouth lifted only slightly, lips parted. It was in the flash of his eyes, the quirk of a brow and the sleepiness of the hooded eyes.

Their fingers touched as the woman pouted to suck on her cigarette, making sure it had caught alight while she maintained eye contact with him. He didn’t seem to be as hyper-aware as he was when his and Robin’s proximity to each other entered personal space, not even flinching away. She could count the number of times they had touched on one hand but with this girl, there was no reservation. She reasoned with herself that she had never even seen Strike flirt with Elin on the occasions she had been to the office.

She didn’t ever want to see him do that with anyone else again. 

Robin’s stomach turned over and her heart and lungs stopped working for a moment. Shit. 

“What do you want?” she had asked him forcefully as she neared them. He took an unconscious step backwards and the light went out, the girl blew smoke from her lips while smiling at Robin who guiltily smiled back at her. When she turned to Strike, he was taken aback as she was rarely short with him. The anger drained out of her leaving a tightness in her chest. That was when she had realised that it wasn’t anger she had been consumed by it was jealousy. Her face blazed red and she mumbled to Strike that she would see him in the office and stepped out into the road.

“Robin!” 

She felt a hand grab the fabric of her mac and pull her back as a bus sped towards her. Robin could barely turn her head to look at him as she waited for the bus to pass, she desperately tried to appear normal, “Thanks, see you in a minute.”

In the solitude of the office, she considered the fact that she hadn’t had any interest in dating. This wasn’t due to Matthew. As soon as she had been back at work she hardly thought about him as she was so caught up in all the things she was now freely able to do. When she did it was to feel guilty but she never missed him. Robin had always been aware of how men looked at her but had never enjoyed the attention. She had learnt to deflect, to be friendly but reserved. Even single, strangers flirting with her left her feeling cold. She only ever went on dates as a favour to a friend, to keep them company if their own date did not go very well.

Then it had occurred to her how many times in the early hours of the morning she had texted Strike about something work-related because she couldn’t wait until the next morning to tell him, only for him to text her straight back. She had even caught herself daydreaming about his imagined response if she asked him to go for a drink with her after work or a meal. Occasionally she would wonder, if I look at him now will he be looking at me? Will he be grinning? What is he thinking? The worse recollection was the time she had counted the freckles along his cheek as she sat on the table looking down at him while he focused on the CCTV they were both supposed to be viewing. It was all ridiculous. She was ridiculous. He was clearly not interested in her.

The door opened and he had walked in, oblivious to the fact that she was frozen in place, too worried about whether he would be able to read her thoughts on her face. But her realisation of her attraction towards him flooded her entirely. It had never been prompted by Matthew’s suspicion or her mother’s and friend’s intuition. It had been there dormant all along, just biding its time until she could finally be honest with herself about what she wanted. She had dipped her head, grabbed her bag and made excuses, when there were already two sandwiches tucked into her bag, that she had forgotten to get them lunch and left.

Once she had worried Strike would think she was too fragile to be investigator material. Now she fancied the man who was still technically her boss. Could she be more of a stereotype?

Robin could smile about it now as Strike moved in his sleep onto his back. Because Strike had been a stereotype too – he’d fallen in love with his secretary. She lent on her elbow to trace the freckles and tired sunken eyes. The last few weeks away had made this all feel unreal, this morning she felt like herself again and she bent down to kiss him awake.

The scream shocked Strike immediately out of sleep and he sat upright grabbing Robin as he went, checking the scream was not coming from her. His face had a sleepily blank look as if it hadn’t caught up with his thoughts.

With the childish giggling and adult shouting that followed, he fell back against the mattress. Robin stayed upright, laying one hand on his arm and stroking his forehead.

“Fuck…I’m sorry,” he groaned turning to face her, half his face buried in the pillow.

“You alright?” Robin murmured. She hadn’t failed to notice the bewildered expression on his face. For a moment he had been somewhere else.

“Mm…What time is it?” He opened an eye. The light coming through the curtains was dimly grey.

She turned her head a little to see the alarm clock, “Seven-thirty,”

“If they’re bloody awake at this time, what time are they going to wake up tomorrow?” Strike mumbled, “Wish you’d stayed in Masham?” his voice still sleep-hoarse. Her spun-gold hair was slightly mussed from sleep, her translucent skin glowed. She was beautiful.

He felt her cold hands slip under his sweatshirt and she pulled it upwards over his head as her hands traced the edge of the curve of his ribs, “Didn’t have you in Masham,” she murmured, looking at him from under her lashes. She leant against him and he felt her soft breasts concealed by her silk nightshirt press into his naked chest. Robin’s hands cupped each side of his face and she began to kiss him. Urgent kisses that caught each other’s lips, sucked in the tip of each other’s tongues. Strike’s hand glided to the base of her spine pulling her into him and she threw her leg over him, so she could grind his erection against herself. She pushed her head back into his hand as he massaged her scalp.

They hadn’t made love since Robin’s attack, she had not made any move to on the two occasions they had managed to spend the night together. She had been tormented by her memories of the time after her rape. Strike had left it to her to initiate when she felt ready. His mind had been happy just to be with her, his body, however, was another matter.

“Uncle Corm – get up!” They sprung away from each other, pulling clothes back into place, sitting up and making sure they were under the covers as the door burst open. His eldest nephew Thomas stood in front of Jack and the youngest Oli.

“Ughh - kissing!” Oli giggled, covering his face with his hands.

Robin laughed and Strike groaned.

Thomas who was ten looked just as disgusted, “Mum said to tell you breakfast is ready,” he told them and disappeared, bored already after the satisfaction of scaring them to death.

Jack and Oli walked straight in and jumped up onto the bed. Strike groaned. Oli had already taken a shine to Robin, who had practice with boys from growing up with brothers, the day before. He forced his way into the space between her and Strike, demanding a cuddle and a game of eye-spy from her. Jack sat next to Strike showing him the army game on his iPad. Strike turned to look at Robin, Oli had his hand on her shoulder and had tucked his head between her chin and neck as he scanned the room for the answer to her clue. Over the top of the littlest boy’s head Strike caught Robin’s blue eyes. She laughed at his exasperated expression and lifted her hand to ruffle Strike’s tight curls, which looked none the worse for it.

 


 

 

“Unlucky, Oggy mate!” Nick muttered at the bar of the Rising Sun. Lucy had innocently said how sweet it was that his nephews had sat in bed with him and Robin that morning. Nick had caught his best friend’s look of barely concealed frustration, “How long has it actually been? Must be getting painful,” he was laughing so hard, he spluttered the top of his fresh pint over himself.

“Ha!” Strike retaliated.

They carried the trays of drinks out to the tables in the beer garden, where Aunt Joan, Robin and Ilsa sat looking out over the harbour. Strike was relieved that Lucy was following the boys down to the small beach, probably to watch Greg struggling to kayak.

“Have they found anything yet?” Strike asked

“No, I don’t think so – the divers have come back up to the harbour to talk to the police but they’re not doing anything,” Robin answered.

While they had been sitting outside having a cream tea lunch, a police car with blue lights flashing and siren wailing had passed them and driven over to the harbour. The boys had been excited, and Ted had gone down to see what the fuss was about. There was a yacht in the bay. Only strange because earlier it had been turning around, its sails up. Some locals had boarded the boat only to find it unmanned. The boat was custom built and belonged to the owner of the posh Bolventor Hotel on the quay, David Scutari. Further investigation had unearthed that he was not in his suite at the hotel and his family had any clue where he was. So, he had been reported missing this morning.

By now the lifeboat service was also there and Ted who had been a lifeboat volunteer himself had gone over again to see what was happening. Robin had smiled at Strike when Ted had risen again from the table to leave in the middle of lunch – their resemblance was not just physical.

“I wonder if he fell off drunk?” Ilsa pondered, “You know what he’s like,” But she was met with two blank looks from Nick and Robin. Robin looked at Ilsa to Strike waiting for someone to gratify her curiosity.

“He’s a Londoner like a lot of the people who have bought holiday homes here but he treats the town as if he is the local landowner and it’s an extension of his empire,” Joan grumbled, Strike felt she had the right to after seeing her friends’ families having to move out of Cornwall as they couldn’t afford to live in their hometown.

Strike was well aware that David Scutari had a reputation around the Roseland Peninsula. Tourism had been good for the village when the fishing had come to an end but it didn’t benefit those who had lived there all their lives. The largest industry was tourism and the Government invested very little in the area so once the summer season was over there were no jobs for people either. It had benefitted the southerners who had brought up cheap houses with their city bonuses and turned them into holiday homes, most of the businesses now were not Cornish owned but had been gentrified. The locals that were left despised Scutari because of the decisions he had forced through with the town council.

“Also, he’s a functioning alcoholic so he is just about able to keep up a veneer of respectability but he thinks he’s a bit of a ladies man when he actually has a tendency to sexually harass women,”

“He sounds awful,” Robin linked her arm through Strike’s and intertwined her fingers with his. She leant into his warm thick jumper absorbing his body heat.

“Are you alright? We don’t have to sit here if you’re too cold,” he murmured, freeing his hand and wrapped his arm around her.

“I like it,” she looked up at him and his eyes travelled from her blue-grey eyes to the pout of her lips and back again as he remembered her kisses that morning.

The camera phone clicked before he had a chance to notice. He closed his eyes and dipped his head down so his forehead was against Robin’s who laughed at him.

“Bloody hell Lucy, can you stop with the pictures!” he grumbled.

“Corm!” His Auntie reprimanded him for swearing and Robin smirked at him.

“I have to record Robin as a new member of the family – you don’t mind do you, Robin?”

“It’s got nothing to do with Robin if I don’t want my photo taken every five minutes!”

“Oh, stop whining,” Robin teased, his mouth agape, “You’ll survive,” and she kissed him and Lucy took another picture.

“ ’Suppose that made it better,” he murmured into her ear.

Joan was looking along the quay, the wind blew strands away from her sleek grey bob, “Ted’s coming back now,”

Ted and Joan were both in their early sixties. Robin had been nervous as Lucy had driven her from Truro to St Mawes. She had never gelled with Matthew’s parents and that should have been warning enough that they were never going to work. Lucy had noticed straight away that Robin wasn’t her usual self and could guess why.

“They are going to love you, Robin, you don’t need to worry,”

Lucy had been right. Within five minutes she had been made to feel comfortable and Joan set about getting to know Robin. Ted was warm but like Strike didn’t speak unless he felt it was necessary. Strike really was the image of the older man if a little taller and slimmer. Robin found it fascinating watching them talk easily with one another, their close relationship clear to anyone. Strike did have a father, just not his biological one.

“Alright?” Joan asked Ted as he sat on the picnic table.

“No, sea rescue helicopter’s been called out and they want volunteers with their own boats to search the coast, thought I’d take the boat out – Corm?” it wasn’t a suggestion but more an expectation, “Anyone else wants to come?" 

“Nick, Ilsa you up for it?” Strike asked. Robin looked at him her mouth compressed into a line.

He put his hand on her thigh squeezing it, his voice quiet and consolatory, “It’s going to be cold and wet, it’s the last place you need to be right now,”

Nick had watched her face fall, “ ‘fraid he’s right Rob, I can’t even swim so I’d be up for you going instead of me but your immune system will still be weak from the infection,”

“I know,” Ilsa sympathised, “It’s a pain in the what-not having a doctor around, I’ll stay here with you, give us a chance to catch up,”

Robin sighed in acquiescence and Strike winked at Ilsa.

 

Chapter Text

They had gone back to the house to change their clothes before driving down to the boatyard. Strike's reticence at not allowing Robin to come was not just due to her recovery. He hadn't been out on a boat since he had lost his leg. This was going to be a test for him. He wasn't ready yet for her to see him flounder any more than she had done already. Neither Ted and Nick mentioned whether he would be alright they just expected him to get on with it and that was how he liked it.

Strike quickly smoked a cigarette out of the window, "You're doing that too much lad," Ted stated, eyes firmly on the road, "Better if you didn't do it at all," Ted's did not reserve his opinion when it came to Strike's nicotine habit especially with his recent worries about Joan.

"Yep,"

"You don't smoke Nick?" Ted pointedly asked the doctor.

"No, Ted disgusting habit,"

Strike turned to look back at Nick shaking his head as his old friend laughed silently.

 

Getting the boat ready had taken half an hour and soon, before he got the chance to think about it, they were out on the creek heading towards the mouth of the Percuil. The old wooden motorboat mowed through the grey-green water. Ted had been given the area they were to search back in St Mawes. He steered the boat while Strike and Nick sat port and starboard on the benches. The trip downriver was smooth, the water almost still. When they reached St Mawes the family stood on the harbour wall waiting for them to pass. The boys waving manically at them. Robin's red-gold hair lifted and twisted in the wind as she stood with Ilsa. He wondered if she had forgiven him yet.

Soon they were at the mouth of the river and the breakers grew. The spume and rise of the water hitting the boat from both sides. Now the boat was tilting up and down over the deep furrows - the waves too strong to slice through. Water sprayed upwards and splashed on the deck, on Strike and Nick as they began to search the sea with their binoculars. Strike's boots kept him upright on the slippery deck. After a while, he forgot that he had any reservations at all. Now he was covered in a mist of wet the winter cold began to bite at his face, the short beard gave little protection.

"You've done this before then?" Nick asked when Strike had explained what to do.

"Hmm - first time was a kid. Dragged out to sea by the current,"

"Bloody Hell - did you find them?"

"No - found by another boat."

The boat tracked around St Anthony's Head, the white elegant lighthouse seemed to look down at the little boat with disdain at the task it was trying to accomplish. Strike searched the rocks although they had probably been looked at, if there was a body, the sea may not release it.

Ilsa and Robin walked up the quay to Lower Castle Road and headed to the Bolventor Hotel. Its brick was painted white as if it was on a Greek island rather than on the English coast. But the building was a combination of several houses. It overlooked the mouth of the river and the water sparkled indigo against the green and brown fields on the finger of land on the other side.

They were shown to a table on the terrace and were given deep blue fleece blankets to keep warm against the wind. Robin looked out to the lighthouse where they had watched the boat disappear around the headland. She tried to quell the disappointment and anger she felt at not be able to go with them, her curiosity about the body lingering.

"How has it been at Ted and Joan's?"

"Absolutely fine - they're lovely people,"

"Sorry, I meant, how has it been with Corm at Ted and Joan's with Lucy, Greg and the three boys,"

"Oh!" Robin laughed, "I think he's coping for now - there was a moment with Greg this morning, he'd made some underhand crack about whether Cormoran would be able to not mess up this relationship like all the others, I thought I saw steam coming out of Cormoran's ears! He's trying to keep a lid on it, for Joan,"

Ilsa's laughter died as quickly as it started, "It must be hard for her the waiting,"

"I think she's just trying to enjoy having her family around her,"

Ilsa's face was suddenly etched with pain, "They were lucky - not that Leda died - but before that, Corm and Lucy spent a lot of time with them over the years, they haven't missed out not being able to have children themselves,"

Robin took Ilsa's hand and squeezed, Ilsa spluttered a laugh and shook her head as if her hurt was foolish, "Shall I change the subject?"

Ilsa nodded.

"Did you ever meet Leda?"

"A couple of times here and at Corm's eighteenth birthday but Nick knew her better. I don't think she was just her groupie persona, when she was young there weren't obvious ways out of Cornwall or many opportunities here, I mean look at my Mum," Ilsa had been the first person in her family to go to University. Her mother had married young and had never had a job. "But she was always warm to me the times I met her, kind and interesting to talk to, lots of stories and she was interested in the world, she encouraged Corm to get himself to University. No one here did that for me,"

"It plays on my mind that Whittaker is still out there, I agree with Cormoran, it's more than likely he killed her. When I met him that time he was chilling and he seems to have got away with it. He was so cruel to that girl he was pimping - I wouldn't be surprised if she was in a lot of danger,"

"But what can you do?"

"I've been going to Catford every week since the summer - not while I've been ill though," Ilsa had gasped at Robin's admission, "Just to check that the girl - Stephanie…is well, keep an eye on Whittaker is up to,"

"Bloody hell! Does Corm know?"
Robin lifted an eyebrow. If it wasn't so serious Ilsa would have laughed at this appropriation of Strike's mannerisms.

 

He could see people already searching the little golden beaches that were tucked into the crevices of the limbs of rock that stretched out and bathed themselves in the sea. White dunes spread along the shore that had long crumbled into the sea. Portscatho sat on the craggy rock, all white fisherman cottages where hardly anyone lived permanently just the summer blow-ins. Gerrans church watched over the two villages. They trailed the coastline towards where Nare's Head had abandoned a part of itself and had left it forgotten, Gull's rock had been left abandoned in the sea, with only the white-grey birds to keep it company. One gull was held aloft by the current of the wind, still in the air with wings outstretched, as if held by an invisible thread. The dark cliffs of the headland gave way to more beach. The sea was more ultramarine here in the protection of the cove, translucent near the rocks.

Gull Rock seemed to be trying to raise itself out of the consuming ocean, its white-tipped shards stretching to the sky. The waves smashed against the harsh rock in a wide-arching spray of white, as the wave receded Strike caught a flash of unnatural colour against the mottled grey-green rock.

The body had been thrown over the rock. Then another wave of white bubbling froth crashed over it and sucked it back into the sea.

"Ted!" Strike shouted and pointed.

Ted manoeuvred the boot as close as he dared, unable to go up to the rock itself. The body was dashed against the rocks again.

Strike could hear Ted report their position on the radio over the slap and rush of the sea. He and Nick scoured the water for a sighting of the body as the water lulled. Then in an utter fluke, they heard a thud against the hull. Nick threw down his binoculars and leant dangerously over the side. The body was face down, legs and arms floating downwards as if the man was looking down at something below him. Strike slid across the wet floor but as he sank to his knees he managed to grab hold of Nick. He stayed half holding on to the boat and half holding on to Nick who had hold of the man's clothing. Ted hurried to join them and they lugged the body over the side, "Good lads," he huffed.

The overweight body sprawled over the deck face down. The thin hair plastered to the scalp. The clothes had nearly been pulled off by the current, revealing the man's curved belly. Nick checked the body over for a pulse but the man was clearly dead. They turned the body over. David Scutari's misted eyes stared at them, unseeing, through half-open lids, mouth agape open as if in mid-sentence. His cold skin unnaturally tan in winter had a bluish tinge and was covered in garish red grazing, cuts and livid bruising - the winter sea and cruel rocks had done a lot of damage.

"It's him," Ted stated,

 

Robin looked at her watch to see how long they had been searching. Both her and Ilsa's eyes drifted to the crag of rock to check for the boat.

"So, you'd start back on your degree in April?"

Robin nodded, "Yes as long as I've applied to the Open by March,"

"I'm really pleased you've decided to finish it,"

"I'm hoping it will be useful when I look back at Laing and the police were doing nothing, for us to have had that kind of insight may have meant we didn't waste so much time on Brockbank and Whittaker. I know it's with the benefit of hindsight but he'd already attacked his wife with a knife,"

"Still, look what you managed to achieve with Brockbank!"

"I know but it cost people their lives,"

"And you're sure you want to move in with Vanessa? You don't need to feel you're in our way,"

"I know but when you got married you probably thought you wouldn't need to have a housemate again!"

"Was Corm pleased about all your news?"

Robin pulled a face.

"So, I'm the first to know?"

Robin nodded, "I wanted an unbiased opinion, also the right time has not arisen yet, "

"Well, what if he asks you to move in with him?"

Robin's chest tightened at the thought he might ask her, "In the attic flat? It's as big as your living room and dining room put together! We'd kill each other long term and I don't think he'd want to move out - it's so convenient for him, why are you pulling that face?"

"He really missed you, I'm not so sure he won't ask,"

 

The red and white of the Royal Navy Culdrose helicopter appeared from the west. As the stuttering flap of the propellers Strike had to remind himself he on the deck of his uncle's boat. The helicopter was not coming for him. He wasn't bleeding out, half a leg obliterated.

"You alright?" Nick tried to be nonchalant.

Strike grunted an affirmative in reply but had to sit back on the bench for a moment, Ted had rushed back to the radio. Above them, he could see the rescue team in their orange jumpsuits leaning from the opening looking down at them and the body lying untouched and prostrate. The propellers moved so fast they appeared to flicker as the helicopter descended down as far as it could.

With their legs in an L sit, they abseiled downwards. Followed by cradle to pick up the body with. Strike stood to help them lift and strap the body. As he would have done years ago he gave them the details of how they had found him in staccato sentences before they hoisted the body into the air.

The three men stood watching until they were alone in the ocean again the sound of the propellers slicing through the air becoming fainter. Strike already felt the nag of the question of how Scutari had ended up like a piece of driftwood on the ocean he had known so well.

 

"Ladies, is everything to your satisfaction, would you like more drinks?"

Robin and Ilsa looked up at the incredibly handsome man. He was well over six foot, blonde and was not wearing the costume of all the other wait staff. Instead, he wore a cable knit pale grey jumper with the sleeves pushed up revealing strong tanned forearms and black washed-out skinny jeans that made his legs impossibly long and lean.

"We're fine thanks," Robin stated making eye-contact but sounding firm.

"It's Christmas Eve - please let me offer you something on the house?" he looked back into the dining room and waved his hand, "I'm Peter - Scutari,"

Robin raised her eyebrows. He was clearly then a relative of the man Strike had gone out to search for. Why was this man not doing the same? Peter held his hand out to Ilsa who shook it and then he put the full strength of his enigmatic gaze onto Robin. She took his hand and gave a cool look back.

"I haven't seen you both before, are you staying in the hotel?"

"No, we just came in for some afternoon drinks," Ilsa said.

He nodded, "Have you come down from London,"

"Well, Ilsa is from St Mawes originally but yes,"

He looked at Ilsa as if trying to place her.

"You won't remember me, you must have been about 8 when I left?"

"Oh okay, so it's Ilsa and - ?"

"Robin."

"Robin - that's a unique name, a winter bird," He slid onto a chair at their table clearly thinking they would be grateful of his company. Robin surreptitiously rolled her eyes at Ilsa who covered her laugh with a hand.

"We're sorry to hear your…father? Has gone missing?"

"Not my father…step-father. I'm not worried - he's just got drunk and left his boat untethered,"

"But I thought the family didn't know where he was?"

"Well, shall we say that's a normal occurrence…please don't concern yourself. When he finally comes back he'll be angry with everyone for making such a fuss,"

Robin thought of Strike, Nick, Ted and the many others searching for the man instead of being with them on Christmas Eve.

"So, what do you both do in London?"

Robin found it hard to conceal her sigh.

 

Once back at the boatyard in St Mawes, the police were waiting to take their statements.

"Corm, do you remember Gwenifer?" Ted introduced the uniformed policewoman.

Strike froze as he looked at the plain clothed police officer he had been to school with. She hadn't changed much at all, her blonde hair was tied up in a perfectly smooth bun so the impact of her perfectly balanced features hit you straight away also she still carried a constrained air. Gwenifer had been the girl every boy fancied at school from primary through to secondary. But she had not gone out with any of them. In cruel and vindictive vengeance, the boys that had been turned down by her fostered her reputation for being a prude. After one impromptu party at Porthbeor beach, she had offered Strike a lift home with her. That was when Dave Polworth his oldest friend had started a long-standing joke that Strike had been the one to take her long-protected virginity. Strike had vehemently denied it and then after the years had passed done so with exasperation.

"Corm, so good to see you - been reading about you in the paper!" Gwenifer smiled up at him. There weren't many in the police who were as happy to see him, it made a nice change as he bent down to receive a markedly warm hug.

Gwenifer informed them that the body of Scutari had been taken to the Royal Cornwall and had been pronounced dead. They made arrangements with her to go to the station and give their statements after Boxing Day.

"I know this is going to be difficult for our small village but we need to tell the family so can you not say anything until we've had a chance to do it. Someone's on the way to the house now," Gwenifer said.

They agreed and she left, all of them knowing full well this was going to be hard to achieve.

Chapter Text

Strike overheard Robin’s voice coming from the spare room. He walked along the hall to the open door but stood just outside, against the wall. She was reading a story to the boys, using different voices as she did when she improvised a character at work. They had made a fort on the floor roofed in by a tent made by a bed sheet. Robin lay on the floor of pillows and cushions. Oli’s eyes were sleepy as he lay in her lap listening, his head on her chest. Jack sat next to her and was leaning against her arm, his eyes following the words as she read. Strike recognised every word that described how the boy in the story, Ben, had tried to abandon his new dog in the park because he had thought it wasn’t as exotic as the one he had conjured up in his mind. He had shouted at the dog to go and pushed it away.

“…the dog had got up; he was moving away; he was slipping out of sight. Then, suddenly, when Ben could hardly see, he saw clearly. He saw clearly that you couldn’t have impossible things, however much you wanted them. He saw that if you didn’t have the possible things, then you had nothing.

He watched as tears started to streak Jack’s face but the boy quickly wiped them away before Robin noticed. But had he looked at her he would have seen, as Strike did that her eyes were moist and glistening too. And it wasn’t until now that Strike was hearing these words again, a lot older and he hoped wiser, that he fully appreciated their meaning.

Suddenly knowing what he had lost – whom…he had lost, Ben shouted. Brown!’ He heard the dog’s answering barks, even before he could see him. The dog was galloping towards him out of the dusk, but Ben went on calling…” Robin’s voice had broken mid-sentence and her tears fell too now but unashamedly as she read to the final line of the book. Strike knew what was coming, that Ben would take the dog home with him and would love it.

Strike stepped into the room, Robin looked up towards the sound of steps on the floorboards and finally noticed him.

“Oh! I didn’t realise you were back,” Robin struggled to move as Oli had fallen asleep as soon as he had heard the final word.

They heard Lucy call that it was bedtime and Jack began to walk towards the door.

“That was one of my favourite books when I was your age,” Strike told Jack.

His nephew smiled at the man he hero-worshipped, glad that he was like his uncle in yet another way, “I’ve read it five times!” 

“You’re a clever lad,” Strike wondered what would have happened to him if his own uncle had not been there or shown any interest in him. He felt a pang of regret that he’d punished Jack for something he couldn’t help. So Robin could get up without waking up Oli, Strike walked over to the fort and bent down to scoop up the small child in his arms, placing him on the mattress.

“You found him then?” She read the sombre expression of his face as she pushed herself up from the floor.

He gave a nod. Lucy knocked on the door, she had come to collect Oli. Strike filled them both in.

Robin looked off into space, “Peter Scutari was sure he had just gone off to what he implied was a girlfriend's,”

Strike shook his head bewildered as to who she was referring to.

“He’s David Scutari’s step-son, he was talking to us when we went to the Bolventor for drinks. I was surprised he was just carrying on as if nothing had happened,”

Lucy looked shaken and white, the unexpected death of a parent too close to home, “How horrible for them,” She turned and walked out, Strike assumed she probably didn’t want to give it any more thought. He followed Robin out of the room and she waited with her hand on the knob to close the door quietly behind him.

“I don’t think Peter Scutari liked him very much,”

Strike shrugged, “He wouldn’t be the only one around here and he was related to him,”

Robin gave him a look of mock disapproval. Strike glanced furtively up the hall and caught Robin's hand leading her into their room. Once inside he dropped into a seated position on the bed and grabbed her around her thighs, pulling her down towards him so she bent over and he kissed her cheek, thinking of the tears that he felt he had caused by hurting her all those months ago when he had sacked her. She tilted her head and kissed his cold and salty lips warming him back up in no time.

 


 

 

The Victory Inn was crammed with locals all talking about the day’s big news. Tom, Strike and Nick were pulled into conversation after conversation with people wanting every detail from the unenthusiastic men.

Strike was trying to work his way to the end of the pub where Robin sat with the others. Just as he finally reached the table and put the drinks down he felt a hand slap him on the shoulder.

"Come down for another go at Gwenifer Arscott then Diddy?"

Strike turned to see his oldest friend Dave Polworth. Strike grinned widely at the much shorter but stocky man. His head was shaved leaving some blonde stubble and he had a broader Cornish accent than Strike and Ilsa.

"Alright Polworth," Strike said as his friend gave him a half hug. Then Strike stepped aside to reveal Robin. Polworth looked sheepishly at him remembering what he'd just said to Strike. But Robin smiled brightly up at him ignoring the comment.

"So, according to Mum, Scutari was known to be having an affair with a woman in St Just. She might not have been the only one either," Ilsa said in a hushed voice to the rest of their group.

"That bloke was always a creep. Penny and I went for a meal there in the summer and he blatantly flirted with her right at the table," Polworth informed them

Ilsa and Robin shared a look while everyone looked at Penny who had begun to continue the story.

"We left pretty sharpish after that. What I didn't tell you at the time was that you were getting the car he did his own version of 'Indecent Proposal',"

"What?" Ilsa was shocked. Robin looked disgusted.

"Yep - it wasn't in the millions but tens of thousands," Penny said to the other women as an aside.

"Well if you told me I might have considered it, think of the diving holiday I could have gone on," although Penny was even smaller than Polworth she had a sharp elbow that dug him in the side.

"His stepson Peter spoke to us at the hotel this afternoon. He asked Robin if she wanted to go out for a drink, it was much suaver though and a lot less creepy," From under his lashes, Strike looked at Robin but she didn't look back at him or say much just gave a humourless laugh at Ilsa's comment.

After a lot of laughter and quite a few drinks to try to get back into light-hearted moods it was nearly time to leave for the midnight mass service. Strike turned from his conversation with Polworth and Nick to Robin who was laughing hysterically at something that Ilsa had said to her. He looked down at her from dark, hooded eyes, smiling fondly at the sight of her enjoying herself again.

“We can go back if you’re tired?” he said so only she could hear.

“Neither of us are tired," Robin smiled, "I don’t want to seem rude,”

“No one will mind – you’ve been ill. Anyway, they’ll just think I’m being a miserable sod,”

She laughed but nodded, her blue-grey eyes absorbing his look of hunger. So, Strike made their excuses. He was right, his friends were used to him just taking off at a moment’s notice. 

 

They left the pub walking up the quay back to the house.

“It’s lovely here,” Robin observed transfixed by the sparkles of light against the black and furrowed water.

“Yeah, it’s the only real home I’ve ever had although I could bloody do without the hills now. And it’s bloody boring once you’re a certain age – my mother used to say if she went to hell it would be a Sunday in St Mawes,”

Robin laughed,” What would your hell be?”

“Babysitting those three terrors,”

“They’re not that bad – I think Greg winds them up and then Lucy gets so stressed out, she’s not the same when you’re alone with her,”

“Hmm… well, you’re right about Lucy. Jack’s not bad, you certainly had a calming effect on them,"

“Positively soporific in Oli’s case,”


“What would your hell be?” he said before he had thought about it, “Sorry, Robin I...

Robin shook her head dismissively. As usual, he was more sensitive about the rape than she was. He thought that this was probably how you coped with something like that. You had to file it away in your brain, so it didn’t continually rise to the surface with every ill thought out comment by others. Likewise, he had not even considered those hours, minutes and seconds that had felt like a very real hell in Selly Oak as his answer.

“Probably collecting dog poo from a bin to impress the boss,”

“Trying to impress me, were you?” Strike’s voice became husky and low again as his arm tightened around her, pulling her closer into the warmth emanating from him and she slipped her arm around his waist.

“Ha ha! I didn’t need to try,” she smirked up at him, her eyes glinting sapphire in the dark. He turned his head and kissed the silk of her hair.

They had reached Lower Castle Road and Robin surreptitiously looked into people’s windows at the interior magazine décor hoping none of the families inside would catch her being nosy, only Strike noticed.

“They do that on purpose to show off,” he mumbled.

Where the road narrowed Robin soon ran out of windows to spy into. Here there was a garden above the road, the only houses hid behind walls as they began to line the rocks below, directly looking out over the water. A carport had replaced one of the gardens and its wall was at seat height. Strike was walking with a determination she thought wasn’t just about getting up the hill as quickly as possible. Robin pulled him to a standstill and he groaned. She sat on the wall so they could look out over where the winter moon lit the water, the only sound the crashing of the water against the rocks.  Strike eyes narrowed as he took in the apprehensive look on her face.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong I just want to tell you about some of the decisions I’ve made.”

Strike turned his full concentration on to her face. Even now she had to get used to having a partner who listened to her without wariness or calculation, just curious about what she had to say.

“I want to finish my degree,”

His brow raised slightly in surprise and she knew why. She had pushed and pushed for him to allow her to take on further responsibilities at work. This would not give her the time to be as involved as a partner should be. Robin began to explain her reasons and he nodded without interrupting her.

“If it’s part-time we can work around it Robin – bloody hell, just realised how senior you’ll be to me once you’re Dr Ellacott Forensic Psychologist – we’ll have to take my name off the door there’ll be no room with all your letters,”

She laughed, “I didn’t say I’m going that far,”

His eyes levelled with hers, “You will,”

Robin's chest constricted as she took in how much he supported her, how much faith he had in her abilities. She smiled at him, taking his hand in both of hers and leaning her cheek against the warm wool of his coat sleeve, “Also, Vanessa’s flatmate is moving out and she wondered if I wanted to take over her room. So, I said yes. I’m coming back with you to London, so I can get my stuff moved in. Mum and Dad are bringing the rest of my things after New Year’s. So, I’ll be back to work next week.”

“You’re coming home?” the words had left his mouth before he got the chance to think about them. They didn’t have a home together. She had just told him she’d arranged to live with Vanessa. He could understand the various reasons she hadn’t asked to live with him. But he’d had plans he had wanted to talk to her about over Christmas.

Robin had also noticed his use of the word and looked at him warily, “If you meant London, then yes?”

“No, I meant to me,” Strike’s words were hushed and serious.

Robin tilted her face up towards him, so she could brush her lips against his. Soon their hands were tangled in each other’s hair and their kisses were more desperate. His hand caught her jawline and drew her face back.

“Why don’t we get a place together?” he waited for her reaction.

She searched his face and she thought he looked a bit scared but it had to be said, “I think your protective instinct is kicking in but I’m very flattered,”

“You think I’m rushing things!” his eyes widened, this was not something he had ever heard before. Then he pressed down the corner of his mouth in annoyance that she wasn’t sure was pretend, “Ha...you always think I’m being protective and not just that I love you. I think I did too good a job keeping you at arm’s length," He drew in a breath, "I’ve never asked anyone that before." Robin looked up at him with surprise and he sensed her disbelief. He looked down and away from her momentarily before his dark eyes found hers, "You know that book you were reading to the boys?"

She nodded and waited.

He breathed out raggedly, “I just think we have to take the possible things, all of them,”

“All of them?"

“For a long time, I thought if we were together it would mess everything up – it didn’t. I’ve changed my mind in the last few weeks about a lot of things. I nearly lost you again. I just want us to get on with our life together. I’m ready if you are too,”

Robin blinked and watched his reaction to her words, “I’m terrified I’ll let myself get lost in us. Like I did with Matthew",

“But I’m not Matthew and you’re not Charlotte. I don’t think we’re so bad together," he smirked.

“Not so bad, hey?” and she nudged into him.

 “I think we’re bloody brilliant,” he murmured, his lips against her hair.

Robin chuckled, she remembered how she had felt that morning, she wanted to start her new life and that had to include him, “Well, when you put it like that?”

 

When they finally walked back into the warmth of the house, Joan and Lucy sat together on the sofa watching Christmas Eve television.

“Not going to midnight mass?” Joan directed the question at Strike.

“No – Robin’s not feeling up to it,"

Joan began to fuss over Robin, offering her tea but she assured them she was just tired and said goodnight before going to their room.

“Lucy, if you want to go too, I’ll keep an eye on the boys,”

“That would be lovely,” Joan looked at Lucy in surprise. Lucy gave Strike a sceptical look, usually, she had to employ emotional blackmail and outright pleading to get him to spend any time with the boys. Joan went out to the hall to get her coat on.

“I try to do the right thing and you think I’m up to something,” Strike grumbled.

“You blame me?”

“No – “

“Well, Charlotte never used to…”

“Stop or you’ll make me regret it, I know – you love Robin,”

Lucy clearly had decided to take a good thing when she got it and clamped her mouth shut. Giving him a mischievous grin, she added, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,”

“You’ve got three kids, so…”

Lucy playfully slapped him on the arm as she went past to catch up with Joan.

He walked along the corridor to check on the boys who all appeared to be fast asleep even though it was Christmas Eve. He looked at his watch and worked out they had an hour and a half till everyone got back. Robin had agreed to move in with him. Now she was waiting for him in their room. He smiled.

Chapter Text

Robin opened the bedroom door and felt the handle already turning under her hand. Strike must already be on the other side of the door. Sitting next to him all evening had been almost agonising. His long thigh had pressed against her's and his arm had casually encircled her shoulders, his hand drifting occasionally to stroke her waist or the small of her back under her jumper. Occasionally, when everyone else was completely absorbed by the conversation his hand would fall to her leg, running his fingertips up her thigh or his lips would whisper against her ear, alluding to what he imagined them doing when they got back. Her fingers slipped from the handle and her arms fell limply to the side as the door was swung slowly open. Strike had reached up to lean a hand against the top of the door frame, his other hand tangling into her hair. She heard his heavy sigh as her hands seized the open neck of his shirt and she pushed him back into the room. Once he was inches away her lips went immediately to his collarbone. His breath shuddered when her lips trailed up his throat, his skin warm. Strike's free hand grazed her back and over the curve of her bottom where he gripped her flesh and jerked her forwards against him. Robin's hands pulled at his shirt as she undid the buttons, a few popping off as she gave up and simply pulled the sides apart. She heard their satisfying patter as they dropped to the floor and he groaned into her hair.

 

Robin placed her hands over his thick shoulders but he kept her waiting for a kiss, watching her from under the shadows of his hooded eyes. She ran her lips along the seam of his smirk, savouring the sensation of Strike’s slightly chapped lips. Instead of starting a kiss, he rubbed the scruff of his beard against her cheek making her giggle at the ticklish sensation and leaning away from him to escape it. Pushing the door shut with his back, he momentarily turned away to lock the door behind them, if any little children woke from their slumber he didn't want them accidentally walking in on whatever was coming next. When he turned back to her, his gaze was slightly dazed as he met her bright blue-grey eyes. His parted lips closed in order to travel over her faintly pink cheek to her full lips where she kissed his scarred top lip, the thickest part of his lowest lip until his control broke and he held her face in one palm while the other pulled her closed to him. His lips left hers and she sighed and they skimmed downwards to where her pulse fluttered in her throat. Robin felt the same pulse echoed between her legs. Then his mouth was below her ear moving downwards an inch to gently suck, feeling the beat of her heart against his tongue. She twisted against him so that the tingles from her nerve endings flared across her skin and she gasped, “I’ve missed you,” she murmured and he chuckled against her skin.

 

Robin’s hands brushed over his chest pushing off his shirt and his stomach made an involuntary drop. Strike grabbed at the bottom of her top and tugged it over her head. He looked down at their bodies as his fingers curled around her breast and his thumb rubbed across her hard, pink nipple. Deftly undoing his belt buckle, she sighed in frustration as she remembered his boots. She dropped to her knee to undo them and he massaged the back of her head with his fingertips. Once his socks were off, she pulled down his trousers and boxers in one, running her nails from the outside to the inside of his thighs and the edge of his groin as she stood up.

 

His eyes burned over her as she got rid of her own jeans, his head bending downwards to lay his forehead against hers. Strike savoured the anticipation of touching all that smooth naked skin and Robin left her expensive underwear on because she had fantasised about him taking them off for her for weeks. Through her sheer black bra, he could see her breasts were full again, after losing even more weight than before the wedding. Their weight and tight budding nipples commanded to be held and caressed. Her eyes flickered to his heated expression and Robin felt goosebumps appear on her skin as his wolfish gaze travelling over her body.

 

Robin closed the flat of her palm around his hardness, her nails against the soft skin below. Strike groaned as his hands tangled in her abundant fiery hair. Once her hand began to slide up and down the length of his shaft, the creases she loved appeared around his eyes and mouth as he smiled slowly, lifting his head to look at the way she bit her lip in concentration. His lips began to trace the velvet swell of her skin at the scalloped edge of her bra. Robin pushed her fingers through his hair, scrapping her nails against his scalp. As his mouth closed over her nipple he drew it into his mouth through the tulle until she whimpered. His hands grabbed the straps and he pulled them down hard so her breasts fell free from the encasing cups. Then his tongue was against the silk of her skin, licking and sucking as he rubbed the palms of his hands along her back to quickly undo the clasps.

 

Robin’s hands lifted Strike’s face back to hers and their kisses were frantic as one tried to possess the lips of the other. He pushed her backwards until her legs were against the bed. His hand drifted down and his fingertips dipped into the little keyholes that went down in a line from the top seam of her knickers and over her mound. With a shaky intake of breath, she kissed the curve of his smile, and once his lips parted, stroked her tongue against his. She reached down with her fingertips and dragged her nails up the length of his penis. His hand cupped her cheek and the tip of his thumb slipped into her mouth where she sucked and bit.

 

Strike groaned, “Stop…” he said taking Robin’s hand away from the head of his erection, “I won’t be able to last much longer if you keep doing that,”

 

She smiled, pleased with how she made him feel, a consequence of him pretending she had no effect on him for so long. She let him go and dropped onto the bed. Laying on her back, she lifted her legs, leaning one foot on his chest and the other on his shoulder, as he bent over her, running his hands over her creamy skin. His eyes held hers from beneath his brow and his lip curled at the side as he saw the keyholes went past the centre front of her panties and through the gusset.

 

He clasped her elegant foot and parted her legs to look at her moist, pink secret centre through the fine fabric. He suddenly felt a flash of possessiveness over her and seeing she was ready for his touch he threw her legs over his shoulders and leant his leg with the prosthetic on the bed keeping his foot on the floor. Robin felt her clit pulsate as she watched the tip of his tongue dart out, unconsciously licking his lips. “Cormoran,” his name came out as a demand for an end to the anticipation.

 

His head dipped between her thighs and she felt his breath on her opening and his beard tickled against her inner thigh which elicited a quiver. Strike’s tongue slipped through the keyhole in her panties, one at a time, smiling as he moved his mouth away even as Robin lifted her hips to try to stop him breaking contact. However, much he loved her in sexy lingerie he had been without her for so long he wanted her naked skin against his. Strike reached for Robin’s underwear, fingertips from both hands looped into the keyhole openings and he pulled each side until he’d ripped them apart, wondering whether she had chosen this design for this purpose. Once he had discarded them, his palms swept along the sides of her legs until his mouth found her again and he ran his tongue along the full length of her opening, before focusing on stroking her to seek her next tremble, her next quiver. Robin’s head fell back against the bed, her fingers gripped the bedspread. When she half swore and half said his name, he sucked her clit and replaced his tongue with twining, swirling fingers that caressed her into a storm surge of bliss that had her crying out and bucking against his hand. Once the breakers of her orgasm subsided she tugged at his hair for him to stop his efforts and allow her to relax for a moment.

He pushed himself up until his hands were either side of her shoulders and their gaze held one another’s, “The reality of doing that is so much better than just the thought of it,” Strike murmured.

She laughed gently, looking away shyly and traced a line down the skin down his spine and ran her nails over his hairy left buttock. Robin then urged him to roll onto his back against the pillows on the bed and she carefully but hurriedly took off his prosthesis as he trailed kisses over her arms, her back, her breasts, whatever he could reach. With him seated, both legs on the bed she climbed onto his thighs to face him, taking him in her hand she rubbed the tip of his erection against her folds. He groaned and rubbed himself against her caress until he was sliding into her. She sat upright and he pulled back to watch her face as she ground herself onto him. Strike placed a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed Robin until she leant back with one hand propping her up and the other held onto the back of his neck. She began to slide back and forth and he held her bottom in both his large hands to support her so she could make sure he rubbed against her inner wall in just the right way. But as he held her gaze, he leant closer and closer towards her, not wanting their intimacy to be broken. Her breaths came in sighs and soft moans. He silenced them by capturing her mouth with his.

 

“Fuck Robin…” His hand fell between their legs and he stroked his thumb against her clit until she could feel the build at the base of her spine again. He pushed her back against the pillows. His pace quickened and he swivelled his hips so that she was lifting her hips to meet his, desperately trying to chase that evasive feeling that crawled around inside her. She grabbed his face between her hands and kissed him, sucking his lip hard and swirling her tongue his. She clenched her inner walls as she began to shudder her release, forcing herself not to twist uncontrollably away from the intensely pleasurable response. Strike’s movements became more frantic and he panted his loss of control into her ear as he came.

 

  

Later their legs tangled together, his arm wrapped around her waist and Robin looking down at him from where she was propped her head up with her hand, her fingers stroking his face, his hair, he turned away from her to see what the time was.

 

“It’s Christmas,” he looked back up at her, tucking a loose, tousled stand of hair behind her ear.

 

“Mmm…” Robin was surprised that he'd notice.

 

“How do you feel about opening a present now?” he smiled.

 

Before she could protest he had dragged his boxers towards him with his foot and put them on.

 

When he returned to the room she could hardly see him for roses. Red roses – she had seen a bouquet like it before from Matthew when he was trying to get back into her good graces after cheating on her. Cormoran surely must have remembered this, she thought, he had been with her at the time and he had a knack for remembering the smallest of details. Why would he want to remind her of this? He placed them next to her on the bed and sat down on the edge. Then she realised. She felt a guilt-ridden sickness - remembered how they had rotted abandoned on the floor by the desk, she had no idea what happened to the unopened card.

 

“They were from you,” her eyes were moist, her voice thick. He had given her no sign they were from him, “Why didn’t you say something?”

 

He smiled at her, his head angled slightly away from her, “Your reaction to them was quite something if you remember!”

 

“Oh! And I just left them there for weeks and I didn’t even open the card!

Robin herself had a good memory for detail and she remembered how she had bookended that weekend with jealousy over Strike going back to Elin after their time travelling up and down England had been equally fulfilling and strangely soothing. She had wanted to talk to him, to call him. He had been thinking of her too then. She remembered how she threw them in the bin after he’d spent another night with Elin and wasn’t listening to her about Brockbank. She laughed to herself.

 

“Why did you get them for me – before I mean?”

 

“Cheer you up, say thank for taking me to Barrow and doing such a good job,”

 

“But fifty red roses! And the card?”

 

His eyes glimmered as he measured her reaction, “No declaration of love but… looking back…I was an obvious idiot. That’s probably why you thought they were from Matthew, so I felt too embarrassed. Thought you might possibly open the card when I wasn’t there,”

 

“You loved me even then?” her hand stroked the side of his face and he grinned at her.

"Just couldn't admit it to myself,"

She dragged her eyes from his and sat up on her knees, taking the envelope stuck between the roses.  He moved to sit behind her, surrounding her with his legs, stroking her back. She ripped the envelope open. The card was simple with a mistletoe block print and inside was a simple Merry Christmas, All my love, Cormoran. But, inside there were thirteen smaller envelopes dated each month of the coming year and one for December 2011. She sat back in his arms and he kissed her shoulder.

 

She quickly ripped it open.

 

It was a thick document and at the top read Business Proposal, the introduction explained the intention to expand Ellacott and Strike. The document had taken a lot of work with estimates of figures, drawings of how to improve the two offices – two? There was also a draft contract to let the other office downstairs and a contract for a two bedroom flat by the canal in Mile End with pictures.

 

“Bloody hell Cormoran, I wish I’d opened that other card…” as the temptation to cry overwhelmed her and tears slid down her cheeks, his arms cirlcled her, pulling her in closer.

Chapter Text

On the way to the beach for a Christmas morning walk, the wrenching sigh of Strike's yawn broke the quiet chatter in the car.

"Didn't you sleep well love?" Joan asked from the back seat where she sat next to Robin talking about how much she appreciated the Betty's Taste of Yorkshire gift basket Robin had bought them for Christmas.

"Not really - kept getting woken up all night," he grumbled, watching the road out of creased eyes through the windscreen, his chin buried into the lapels of his coat as the heaters hadn't warmed the car yet. He thought he felt Robin's eyes burning a hole through the headrest at the back of his head.

"I know, but the boys were just over-excited," Joan's instinct had always been to placate his irritability.

"Mm…not just the boys," he mumbled.

"You enjoy Christmas too then Robin?" Joan asked.

"I love it," she replied, giving Joan a bright smile.

Strike turned back between the headrest and the window to catch her eye, raised his eyebrows, his mouth pulled up on one side to give her a half grin. She looked away to try to hide the smile she desperately wanted to repress so as to not give him the satisfaction of successfully teasing her.

"Cormoran's bluffing - he told me he doesn't mind babysitting the boys tonight, so you can all go to the Victory,"

Strike's head whizzed round to look at Robin accusingly.

"Really Corm?" Joan sounded nicely surprised, "That would be lovely," and she leant forward to pat his arm.

He forced his grimace barely into a smile and caught Robin's sparkling eyes with a warning sideways look. Ted had pulled into a car space and turned off the engine, Robin opened the door and jumped out failing to mask a laugh. Strike followed her quickly out of the car, forgetting that his right leg wasn't as flexible as it had once been and twisted his knee, grabbing hold of the rook of the car to steady himself. Robin looked back at him after hearing his groan of pain but he looked back at her rather too mournfully, so she could tell he hadn't hurt himself badly and she smirked, "I have no sympathy, you deserved it," she called back to him haughtily.

While Ted and Joan got out of the car, Strike limped over to where Robin stood. looking over the top of the cliff at where the low tide joined Pendower and Carne beaches into one immense stretch of clouded sands. The ocean, indigo, crashed against the stark landscape of dark jagged cliff in white, foaming rolls. Robin's hair caught in the wind, an inferno of tendrils explored the air in front of her face. Strike felt a contraction in his chest. He stepped into her view and caught the curling solar flares of hair between his large fingers and smoothed them back behind her ears running his thumbs over the small earrings in her earlobes and along her smooth jawline, "To tell you the truth even if I wind up having to look after three kids tonight, I still might not easily fall out of love with you,"

"Well, you've not done a good job of it so far," Robin kissed his asymmetric nose, "You'll be safe, Lucy won't want to leave them on Christmas day,"

Grabbing his hand, she led him along the path down to the beach. Ted and Joan walked ahead arm in arm. Strike put his arm around her shoulders, "So glad you'll be back at work this week, Glen has been great but to be honest, it's not been the same,"

"Oh, yeah?" She smiled up at him, waiting for him to elaborate.

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and smiled back, "No one else appreciates the client nicknames,"

"And?"

"Things just don't run as smoothly, and I don't mean paying the bills and buying the biscuits before you say anything! Talking things over with you, getting your input, the way you challenge me - I run more smoothly,"

She slipped her arm around his back and squeezed. Strike, looking at his family, gave a glum sigh, Ted and Joan were now standing with Lucy, Greg and the boys were trying to outrace the waves in their wellington boots. So, Robin stopped short of joining them - Greg was starting to even grate on her nerves by now. She looked down at the pebbles littered in the sand, turning them over with her boot, trying to find suitable flat stones, "Can you skim a stone?"

He gave her a withering look.

"Okay, well I bet I can skim them further than you," she challenged him.

"Remember I spent a lot of my childhood here, whereas you were riding ponies and going to gymkhanas," he teased.

She raised her chin, holding his gaze, "We'll see, you can go first,"

The surface was calm beyond the small breakers of the retreating water. They skimmed their stones three, four, five times, both resorting to cheating by stealing a kiss, or distracting with a caress just at the opportune moment as the other focused on the perfect throw. And the distracted, never once tried to stop the distracter. Lucy, watching surreptitiously from afar, nudged her aunt and smiled, gesturing over to a brother who seemed plainly happy. Neither his aunt or sister had the same sense of anxiety that it would end inevitably with Strike being in pain or that there would be no end to it and they would have to repeatedly watch him suffer.

Robin herself thought that she hadn't seen Strike grin quite so much but still adored the way there would be a flash storm shift in his expression. The antithesis between the characteristic sullenness as he focused on trying to beat her, to his boyish moments made each expression more charming and Robin's final win out of three meant she could finally claim her reward of a deep, lingering kiss.

"Uncle Corm!" Jack came running towards them, oblivious to any other preoccupation his uncle may have had at that moment, "Can you teach me to skim a stone?"

Robin watched Strike look hesitantly at Jack, she recognised the lift of the brow and the tightness around his mouth at his fear of doing something wrong. She decided to keep quiet and folded her arms in front of her to keep warm while she stood still a few steps back and watched them. Eventually, Strike fished in his pocket for a stone, explained and modelled to Jack how to curve his finger around the edge, then helped him with his stance to throw the stone. After a few unsuccessful splashes of sea water, Jack shouted with glee, looking up at his uncle happily, when a stone finally skimmed the uneven surface with one bounce.

At the sound of their brother's success, Oli and Thomas also came running and Robin acquiesced, joining in by helping the boys to choose their stones and adjust their throws as the rest of the adults came to join them. When Oli became over-wrought at his lack of success, verging on tears, his bottom lip trembling, Robin distracted him by picking him up, "Come on Oli, big kids don't cry on Christmas day - give me a smile,"

The little boy's mouth stayed determinedly downturned and he focused on his brothers who were nor skimming their stones more often than not. "No, you're not going to smile?" He shook his head, "Oh well, I'll have to tip you into the water,"

The howl of his "No!" only broken by his giggling, echoed along the beach. Strike watched them out of the corner of his eye as Robin tipped Oli, head first, towards the water and the little boy screamed with laughter, eventually asking her to do it again and again. Strike caught himself laughing when she hadn't noticed the strength and speed of a rolling breaker and it crashed over her boots. She began to run away with Oli in her arms, joining in with her own shrieks as the little boy flung his arms out in convulsions of giggles. Her feet soaking wet she looked up, shaking her damp hair from her eyes she caught him watching them in amusement. He noticed Robin's smile back was shy and she looked away quickly. Annoyed with the thoughts that had pervaded his mind, he went back to his natural scowl as he was aware that he'd looked at her in a way he had never wanted to…no…dared to, look at anyone before.

 


 

 

Robin's phone beeped as Strike pulled up the zip on her nude chiffon cocktail dress, back in the spare room. She was starting to wonder if the strapless dress was too dressy for Christmas lunch but Strike turned her around in his hands and from the enamoured look on his face she could tell he appreciated the way the draping and subtle ruching accentuated her curves. His hands followed where his eyes had been and Robin had to grab his forearms as his fingers descended to the knee length hem and began to lift it.

"I thought last night was too much for you," she laughed as she stepped out of his embrace and he groaned.

"Robin, getting up at nine after having four hours sleep was too much for me,"

"Getting old," she teased and it hit a sore nerve, Strike tried to hide his grimace by bending down to grab his shoes, sitting on the edge of the bed he put them on.

She went over to his side of the bed, which helped distract Strike from his bruised ego as she bent over and stretched to retrieve her phone from her pillow. She swiped the screen when she saw it was a message from Vanessa and as she walked back to fetch her own shoes she reached down to the back of his neck, fingers raking through the back of his hair and he lent towards her to receive a tender kiss that made him feel a bit better.

Robin swiped up the shoes she had been given by Strike for her birthday from her bag. Again he was easily distracted from his own task, by watching her putting the sky-high heels on from a standing position. A throng of memories of her naked in those shoes made his breathing sound slightly heavier as he gaped at the low-cut neckline of her dress made more revealing from the bent over position she was in. Her eyes darted up just to catch him in the act of drawing in his bottom lip and licking it. She rolled her eyes at him and he gave her a sheepish grin, "What?" his tone feigned innocence.

She sat next to him on the bed to fasten her shoes, flicking her hair over her shoulder and passing Strike her phone which she hadn't yet looked at, "What did Vanessa say?"

He turned the phone over and the photographs she had been sent to her email came into view. Strike didn't answer her, as she glanced at him she noticed his brow rise and eyes widen. Robin looked over his shoulder to see, "Oh! Must be getting serious, meeting the parents," she was hesitant and she tried to sound neutral but her voice wavered on the last word.

It was Vanessa, with Al, which vaguely surprised Strike as the little he'd ever talked about women with Al had proved his younger brother's attitude to relationships as rather flippant but the look he gave Vanessa said otherwise. But it wasn't this that had his attention, it was the fact that they weren't alone. Rokeby sat on the other side of Vanessa with Al's mother. He flicked through the three images which had been taken today, some featuring his other half-siblings.

He held out the phone to her, looking past Robin, avoiding her eyes and stood up, walking only a few paces to be out of the room.

Robin looked at the empty doorway and down at the last photograph again. She had got to know Al quite well on their nights out and his visits to the hospitals. Robin observed that in this one his smile for the camera was strained, although he definitely looked infatuated with Vanessa in the rest. So, some good had come out of her illness. This was cropped more closely on the four and in contrast to the other three Rokeby looked decidedly older - his skin yellowy, almost waxen behind the coiffured hair and designer clothes. She scrolled down to look at the message Vanessa had added.

Merry Christmas! Hope you arrived in Cornwall alright and you're still feeling well. Have a lovely day today - you deserve it. I've missed you loads and have lots to tell you - these pics are just a taster to make sure you come back to London. Let me know whether you're still definitely going to take the room, I suspect from Al that might not be the case now. Al asked if you can pass on a Merry Christmas to Corm from his dad and family and tell him that Jonny is looking forward to seeing Strike on Wednesday.
See you soon,
V x

 

Robin felt a guilty stab although Vanessa didn't seem too worried that Robin might not be living with her now. She was surprised that Strike had told Al about his plans, although they had been seeing more of each other while they had been running surveillance on Red. But she had to check the message more than once to be sure she wasn't mistaken that Rokeby expected to meet Strike.

Robin walked around the small room collecting things that needed to go into her handbag, her heart helping to pulsate the feelings of irritation through her at a rapid rate. As she ticked her possessions off her mental list she also went through the possible reasons Strike would be finally meeting his father. The loan had been paid off months ago, only slightly delayed by Robin surveillance course which had meant Strike was unable to overpay for a while. Then she thought of the plans they had gone through the night before for the expansion, which had been much of the reason why neither of them had slept.

She had asked him how they were going to fund it and he had not answered and when she had looked away from the proposal he had fallen asleep. Considering he had been so evasive in the past when asked something he didn't want to or wasn't ready to talk about, she now realised that he had probably been faking. He had even been snoring. When he had woken her an hour or so later it hadn't been the first thing that came to mind. Robin shook her head in annoyance and sat back down on the bed to give herself time to properly think before she acted.

She could go and confront him now, just show him the message and wait for his reaction. He would always tell her the truth, he was unscrupulous honest to his own detriment sometimes. Strike would just avoid telling her for as long as possible. But, she told herself, this wasn't a text about an affair, this was a text about a father he did not know, had rejected any advances of reconciliation from. Robin knew he had a good reason - he didn't trust Rokeby and had no reason to, which is why she had refused to speak to him about it on Al's behalf.

For him not to tell her meant that he thought she would either disapprove of his reasons or she supposed, if it all went badly he wouldn't have to go over it forensically with her. But, if it was to borrow more money than he would have to tell her, so perhaps he did mean to but was waiting till a more appropriate time. Although she hoped he was actually enjoying himself and wasn't just putting on a brave face, she was more than aware that spending time with Lucy's family was a point of stress for him. Waiting until he was ready to talk was her best course of action.

Chapter Text

Apart from a photograph of David Scutari and a bouquet of flowers on a tall stand in reception that had Strike grinning at Robin, rather than an obligatory sombre expression, the Bolventor Hotel showed no signs that their Christmas Day hosting would be spoilt by the death of its owner. The dining room was now elegantly decorated with vintage streamers, Chinese lanterns and twinkling fairy lights. They were shown to their large table where Ilsa and Nick sat with Ilsa’s mother who was Joan’s oldest friend. Strike sat next to Ilsa, sacrificing Robin to be a buffer against Greg, who then sat at the end of the table so that he and Lucy were within easy reach of all of the boys. Jack sat next to Robin instead, so Strike felt less guilty.

A small woman, in her early thirties, walked over to their table. Robin noticed her sophisticated air, she had dark corkscrew curls tamed into a bob and wore a grey classic Chanel jacket and vintage style dress. The only deviation from the grey was her patterned scarf and pink lipstick. She smiled at Robin and put her hand on Lucy’s shoulder who turned around and let out an exclamation of mild surprise, “Genevieve!”

Robin realised this was David Scutari’s step-daughter, the manager of the Bolventor.

Lucy’s voice became hushed, “I am so sorry about Mr Scutari if I can do anything while I’m here,” her expression conveyed her sympathy.

Genevieve’s face remained a mask of what Robin assumed to be professional friendliness as she smiled back at Lucy, “Thank you, Lucy, it’s so good to see you, even in these circumstances,” she turned to look generally at everyone on the table, “Joan, it’s lovely to see you and Ted. Oh, my goodness, Ilsa is that you? And Cormoran! It’s lovely to see you all, I hope you have a lovely time today, Merry Christmas.”

After the people she knew had greeted her, Lucy introduced the other faces around the table and Genevieve gestured to a waiter before she began to take a special interest in her old friend’s children. The wine was brought over to them and water for the boys, “Just let me know if you need anything else,” Genevieve said before she smiled uneasily, squeezing Lucy’s shoulder and then walked away.  

Lucy began to tell Robin that she had managed to get a table at such late notice as she had grown up with Genevieve Scutari. Their shared experience of not having their fathers as a regular fixture in their lives had bonded them together until Genevieve had left the town to go to Prep School. The hotel had been booked up months ago but when Lucy told her about Joan, Genevieve Scutari had made special arrangements to fit them in.

Robin had never spent a Christmas dinner away from her own family, even Matthew had preferred them to his own family’s Christmas and she thought of them sitting down to her Dad’s roast without her. If he had died days before, Christmas would certainly never had carried on as normal in their house, business or no business. Robin knew that not all families fit the stereotype as hers did, right this minute she felt like she was becoming part of one that was a case in point, but she was truly surprised that neither of his step-children seemed upset by Scutari’s death.

Strike caught the tension in Robin’s face and cupped her hand between his, “Okay?” he murmured, and she nodded, smiling warmly at him. Her moment of melancholy seemed to have passed.

Strike let Ilsa and Robin tease him over how quickly he had demolished the salmon and caviar starter. The meal was delicious apart from one omission.

 

“There aren’t any Yorkshire puddings!” Robin whispered to him when their main meals arrived. His lips pressed into a disgruntled straight line in complete agreement with her own disappointment.

“This is far from a Christmas dinner, I mean, you might as well call Christmas off - no bloody Yorkshire puddings!” he mumbled. His lips curved into a small smile and he looked down at her from under his dark lashes, “Let’s go back now and I’ll make it up to you,”   

She laughed, “I think I’ll survive,”

Once the meal was over and Father Christmas had visited to give out presents to the children, everyone was invited to a large sitting room for drinks and mince pies. Ted, Strike and Nick sat on a couple of sofas about their hopes for the Boxing Day football matches when a man Strike’s age walked over and stood to wait for Ted’s attention.

“Alright Adrian, sorry didn’t see you there, were too busy weighing the Arsenal’s chances tomorrow,” Ted held his hand out to the man.

“Corm, good to see you mate,”

Strike shook the man’s hand held out towards him, he vaguely remembered him.

“Heard you both found Scutari yesterday,”

“Adrian took over from me as a lifeboat volunteer,” Ted explained, “Yep, out by Gull Rock, sit down Adrian,” Ted gestured to the empty seat next to Nick.

“Police are thinking it was a suicide,” Adrian sat with his elbows on his knee and spoke in a hushed voice, “Recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, they think he had probably killed himself,” his eyebrows rose and fell.

 

“Terrible,” Ted shook his head, Strike thought that the recent events in their own life was making the news of the death of this hated man more poignant for his uncle. Not that he was finding the thought of his aunt’s impending test results, something easy to think about himself.

 

A picture of the man’s marked body appeared in Strike’s mind. It was bothering him but he hadn’t yet been able to give it due consideration. He knew Adrian could just be spreading local gossip and that the police may have just been looking into the different possibilities by process of elimination, especially as Strike thought they wouldn’t be able to do an immediate autopsy, not with Christmas and the way services down in Cornwall were chronically underfunded.

“Did you hear if there was any evidence of suicide – a note perhaps?” Strike thought it was unlikely the man had done it randomly if he had a terminal illness and it was likely he would have wanted to explain his actions to his family.

“Can’t say I did,” Adrian looked a bit irritated that Strike had asked, mistaking it for combativeness.

Ted continued the conversation explaining how they had found the body and Strike excused himself to find the toilet. First, he looked around for Robin but there was no sign of her. He had stayed at the hotel a few times with Charlotte and remembered vaguely the direction of the toilets. As he walked down the hall, he overheard Robin’s voice coming from one of the other sitting rooms. Thinking she had come down here perhaps with Ilsa and Lucy Strike walked over to the door. As he looked in he stopped before crossing the threshold, he realised she wasn't talking to anyone he knew.

Robin had walked down the same hall about twenty minutes prior to Strike and ahead of her had seen Peter Scutari. He was staggering towards her, a hand on the wall to prop himself up as he held a bottle of gin in his other hand. Robin considered going back to the sitting room but told herself, pull yourself together.

“Robin!” Peter slurred in greeting as he neared her, “You didn’t say you’d be here for Christmas dinner,” he stepped towards her but this time nearly lost his footing. She caught him under his arm just in time. “Sorry, can y’u jus’…” he gestured with his head to the open door that led into an empty smaller sitting room.

As soon as he was standing near a sofa he let himself fall into it. As Robin turned to walk away, he grabbed her wrist. Her eyebrows pinched together and he let go immediately.

“S…sorry…I yam sorry Robin,”

“Will you be alright here?” she asked out of her habitual kind nature.

At that, she saw him try to blot the tears that had gathered in his eyes, “W’uld y’u mind sittin’ with me for a while? S’all been a bit of a shock,”

She remembered how certain that he had been that his stepfather was probably just with a girlfriend and that he hadn’t seemed to think that much of him the day before. Perhaps this showed his deeper feelings that had surprised him in grief, “Shall I get you something? A coffee perhaps?”

“Yes I supp’se I should ‘fore the guests see me – Guinevere’ll go mad, if y’u jus’ ask recep-shun they’ll bring us some,”

Once she told the receptionist who the coffee was for, the slightly aloof woman seemed to bustle into action. Five minutes later the same woman brought them the coffee on a tray, probably so that as few of the staff as possible were aware of the state he was in. Robin thought she saw a few signs of infatuation from the young woman’s nervous body language. Peter made a further request to the woman, “Don’t say anything to Ms Scutari please Lyn,”.

Lyn gave him a sympathetic smile and nodded.

 

Robin made sure Peter drank two cups successively, “Are you feeling a bit better - considering?” she asked, desperate now to get back to the guests sitting room, she didn’t want to be stuck as his shoulder to cry on, even if his stepfather had just died, he had a knack for making her feel uneasy

“I supp’se y’u think I’yam a bit of a fool seein’ me like this,”

“No, you’ve had a bit of shock, a lot of people would,” Robin replied sympathetically.

“No’ y’u though, y’ur not tha’ kind o’ girl,”

“You’d be surprised,”

Robin poured him the last of the coffee and took it over to him, she didn’t want to sit next to him on the sofa, so standing over him waiting for him to finish the cup.

He began to laugh again but this time it was embarrassed laughter and he covered his handsome face with his hand.

“Le’mme make it up to y’u for being drunk all over y’u, c’me out for a drink tomorrow night?” the coffee was working as there was considerably less slurring but his hand reached out and he caught her hand.

She pulled her fingers from his immediately, “No, Peter,” he looked disappointed and she stood up, “I think you should probably go to bed, I’ll tell the receptionist to get someone to help you,”

He didn’t acknowledge that she had said anything and Robin quickly left the room.

 

As she turned back toward reception, she saw Strike was leaning against the wall waiting for her. He walked over to her, looking darkly though the doorway as he passed it, “You okay?”  

She nodded, he put his arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head and they walked to reception together, Robin filling him in on Peter’s inebriated state.

“It’s the shock of sudden death I suppose,” she concluded, and Strike shrugged.

Robin went over to the receptionist’s desk while Strike walked over to the toilets. Strike was used to men flirting with his girlfriend, he’d had to be with Charlotte who actively encouraged it. But there was something about Peter that irked him. Perhaps it was the fact that he reminded him of a blonde, more successful version of Matthew. Tall, fit, good looking and with all his limbs intact. He caught himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. Again, the last few months hadn’t helped him to lose weight, worrying about Robin and working overlong hours again. But, his face was losing the dead tired look he’d had when he had arrived in Cornwall, although he still would never be pretty. As he walked back into reception, Robin had their coats in her arms, “Fancy walking back?”

Strike gave her a half smile and took the coats from her. He held Robin's open for her so she could put it on.

Outside, she put her arm around him as they walked along the quay, dodging the families on Christmas walks with new bikes and dogs straining on leads and other couples walking arm in arm against the wind that had descended on the village. They turned right in front of the Rising Sun and walked along the side of the Idle Rocks Hotel. Strike led her through a gap where some benches were sat on a small lookout over the inlet. Robin tucked herself under Strike’s arm and given the privacy that the angle of the wall of the Idle Rocks gave them from onlookers walking along the quay, she placed her hand over his cheek and pulled him towards her. His face and kiss warmed her and Strike was no longer thinking about how he compared to Peter Scutari. Robin pulled away and leant her head against his shoulder.

“You seemed to get a bit sad for a moment at dinner?” Strike ran his fingers through her hair.

“Surprisingly, I felt a bit homesick, which shows I’ve spent too much time there recently. I’ve still had a lovely time here though, with you,” she didn’t want him to think for a moment she wanted to be anywhere else.

“I think I’ve enjoyed this Christmas more than any other. I probably shouldn’t have with Joan and everything but having you here has been - ” he pushed the strands of hairs that had blown across her mouth out of the way, “There was a moment when you were so ill I didn’t think you'd…” he didn’t finish but kissed her again. Their lips moved over each other’s slow and lingering.

“Hopefully next year we can go to Yorkshire,” Strike offered.

“Or just us,” Robin added and he kissed the palm of her hand, his eyes holding hers, “What were Christmas’ like with your Mum?” she asked tentatively.

Strike’s eyes closed for a moment and he rubbed his brow, “The last ones, with Whittaker, were…well you can imagine,’ he felt her squeeze his hand, “When I was nine we never had a Christmas because one of her boyfriend’s thought it was a materialistic load of propaganda to pacify the masses. But she would try her best – I mean she never cooked us a Christmas dinner, we just had whatever there was but she’d always try and get us the presents we wanted and we’d play board games. St Mawes’ Christmases were more what you would expect, more enjoyable as a kid but…Leda wasn’t there” he sighed, what could he say, he had come to terms with the fact that nothing could change what had happened.

“I didn’t mean to - ”

Strike cut her off, “I’m alright,” he pulled the lapels of his coat over his throat. His eyes wandered towards Scutari yacht which was still anchored in the harbour. Police tape tied to the grab rail flapped in the wind. He wondered what state the inside of the yacht had looked like, “A local at the hotel said that the police are considering Scutari’s death as suicide,” Robin wasn’t sure whether Strike was purposely changing the subject, this made her a bit concerned about the Christmas present waiting for him at the house, Strike continued, “I’m not so sure, something about the markings on his body – they weren’t all caused by the rocks,”

She raised her eyebrows and nodded, absorbing the implication of his words, “You think he was murdered. It’s been bothering me all day that none of his step-children seemed concerned he was dead. Peter was drunk but he didn’t explicitly say anything about Scutari,”

“Maybe he wasn’t drunk because of his father’s death, maybe drinking is just what he does,”

“Not so sure – the receptionist was pretty shocked, although he was worried about his sister finding out,”

“Perhaps Gwenifer Arscott will be at the Victory again tonight, she might be willing to let me in on what’s actually been going on in the investigation, she’s the policewoman who took our statements yesterday,”

“I remember her from the pub,” she could tell that he was trying to conceal something about the police woman from her by the evasiveness of his eyes. Remembering what Dave had said the night she met him, she could guess what it was as she had enough experience of him trying and failing to hide past conquests from her. Robin tried to repress the curve of her mouth, so he didn’t notice, she would let him carry on the pretence for a while longer, “You’re babysitting tonight don’t forget, maybe I’ll ask her,”

His eyes slanted as he looked at her from the corners of his eyes, “Lucy said no, so your revenge fell flat,”

“Doesn’t trust you.”

“She shouldn’t,”

Robin pulled his face towards hers again and rubbed her check against his before her leant her head on his shoulder and breathed in his clean, fresh smell mixed with the smokiness of his cigarettes, “We should start going back, Christmas presents are soon, I want to give you your's – don’t even think it,” and she rolled her eyes at his immediately raised brow.

“Wait,” Strike put his hand on her shoulder, so she stayed seated, “I want to talk to you about something before we go back to the house,”

Robin tried to keep her face neutral and not give any clue that she had been expecting this, “Mm…”

“You know don’t you – about Rokeby, you’ve got that look,”

“Really? I was trying hard to hide it, Vanessa gave it away,” she opened her phone and showed him the message.

He nodded slowly once he had read it, “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Thought you’d tell me you when you were ready,” she was always careful not to say dad or father as these were words Strike never used himself.

Strike’s hand cupped Robin’s head and he pulled her towards him and pressed his lips against her hair.

“I’m going to ask him to lend us the money to expand, Al’s already greased the wheels,”

“Why Rokeby rather than the bank? They’d lend us the money now surely,”

“It’ll save us a lot of money in interest and we’ll get the money quicker. I don’t want to lose out on Crowdy’s office,” He paused and let out a sigh, “But, I also thought about what you said months ago,” he didn’t go any further than this immediately and his eyes left hers to look out over the harbour to the expanse of sky.

Robin nodded knowing it was hard for him to get this far, she stroked the hair on the back of his hand, “He’s wanted to see you for a long time,” Robin flicked back through the photographs looking again at the picture of Rokeby and his yellow tinged skin, Al’s and his mother’s pained expressions.

“I know – if he wants to say something I’ll hear him out, not promising I’ll turn into the prodigal son though,”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, it doesn’t mean it wipes out the fact he neglected you,”

She watched his features tighten across his profile at her words. He had tried to adapt and be self-sufficient in his life but trying to ignore his different wounds would always keep him at a distance from everyone that loved him. She slipped both arms around him, hoping to warm him inside and out.

“Has everyone got tea or coffee?” Ted asked as they all crushed onto sofas, armchairs, dining room chairs or the floor. Excitement seemed to radiate from Strike’s nephews in waves and they sat, legs-crossed, staring at the presents spread around the tree, deep in the act of judging how many were for them.

“Are you ready boys?” Joan asked, “Sure you don’t want to wait until tonight,”

Jack and Thomas laughed. Oli shrieked a “NO!” and was quickly told off by his mum.

Joan began handing the packages out, starting with the boys and within five minutes the room was awash with Christmas wrapping paper, tags, ribbons. Oli was so distracted with his first present he forgot about the mounting pile next to him. Strike watched the excess that the children received, it was an alien experience to someone who, form the time he had lived with his mother to the present, had very few possessions.

By now Joan was onto the adults and Strike had received the ubiquitous presents for males from his sister, new clothes including socks, a beard kit supposedly from his nephews and a scarf and gloves from his aunt and uncle. He gave Robin a wan smile as he placed the vape that his uncle insisted he started to use on top of his pile of impersonal presents on the floor.

Robin shook her head at him, “I’m on their side.” She had been given a new bottle of her favourite perfume, a new blouse and some fairings from the boys, which Strike was already ripping open.

As Strike munched on the biscuit he felt relieved that soon this would be over and they could make their way over to the Victory to meet their friends. Robin put her hand on his left knee to push herself out of where she had sunk into the over soft sofa. She and Lucy left the room and Strike took the chance to steal another biscuit. Minutes later Lucy and Robin carried in a huge rectangle covered in wrapping paper. They brought it over to him and propped it in front of him on the floor. He looked at her quizzically as he could tell it was going to be something framed from the shape of the present but was unsure what it could be.

“Lucy, sit down next to Cormoran so you can see it too,” She had asked that it was put into a cardboard box as she knew Lucy would be picking it up for her in London.

Strike looked up at Robin and then at Lucy whose eyes were decidedly glassy.

“You know what it is? Is it something to do with Leda?”

Robin gave a satisfied smile, as his desire to know what it was matched that of his nephews’ ten minutes earlier with their own presents.

Lucy groaned, “Your impossible Stick! Stop trying to guess, I know what it is but I’ve not seen it yet - would be nice if I got to see it on Christmas day!”

Robin was used to Strike’s look of suspicion when receiving a present, he always gave presents with a watchful eagerness as if savouring the response to what he seemed to hope would be a perfect present and she had to admit always was. Whereas, it seemed as if he questioned her ability to do the same for him, which was irritating as she too had been successful in the past. But, as she cast her eyes down to the pile of clothes, she now understood why that might be, “Open it!” she urged.

He tore down the centre and ripped the paper sideways partially revealing a black and white photograph of a fat toddler, it was Strike. He had never seen the photograph before. His younger self’s mouth was downturned and partially open in a cry, while he sat on someone’s slim leg. He pulled back the paper on the left-hand side of the frame and his young mother was slowly revealed.

“Oh my God!” Lucy breathed, her hands flying to her cover her mouth, “It’s…she’s beautiful Robin,”

It had been taken in a studio and his mother was dressed in jeans, smart heeled shoes and a blouse and scarf, her long dark hair framed her beautiful face. Here she was a world-weary new mother not just a semi-naked groupie but a woman who had a sense of humour about what life had dealt her and love for the child she held so carefully.

Robin smiled at Lucy, happy that it had made her happy, “I got you this as well,” she handed her a small photo frame with a copy of the photograph inside, “It’s not as big but I thought you might like one,”

Ted and Joan had stood up to see and Ted’s fingers swept up the tears that welled in his own eyes. Joan had her hand on his arm. Robin turned to look at Strike who still had not spoken and she noticed she wasn’t the only one waiting for his reaction.  Strike had either been rendered dumbstruck or was on the verge of a sulk – it was hard for Robin to tell.

“Where did you find it?” His voice was husky.

“I did a bit of research - ” Robin began, smiling demurely.

Lucy interrupted her firmly, “She did a lot of research Stick,”

But Strike already looked suitably impressed.

“I had to track down the name of the photographers who had photoshoots with your mother. He’s died but his son looked through his catalogue and found this,” she explained.

“It’s…” Strike observed the way the photographer had captured Leda’s personality, intelligent and self-possessed, “It’s great,” He held his arm out so that Robin would sit down next to him, “Thank you,” and he took her hand, brushing his lips against her hair, “You’re incredible,” he murmured while everyone else moved on to the next present.

“There were other photos but this was my favourite,” a smile played on Robin’s lips.

“Mm?” Strike searched her face, trying to work out what she was thinking.

“In the others, you were smiling and laughing – this one was more you,”

Chapter Text

The white brick façade of the Victory Inn was bathed in golden light and this had given the outside seats the appearance of warmth. Strike was at the far end, one leg tucked under the picnic table but he hadn’t bothered trying to swing his prosthetic over and instead sat with the upright between his legs. By the time Robin and Strike had arrived, the others had already decided to sit outside after being cooped up for most of the day. The only positive side of global warming meant that it had been a surprisingly mild day and the blanket of cloudy night held at bay the nastiest of the winter’s biting cold. With his back to the window of the pub, he had the benefit of some shelter and residual heat.

He dragged deeply on his cigarette. After promising Robin this would be the last packet before he tried the vape out, he intended to enjoy it. In the current climate of his Aunt and Uncle’s house, it was easier to go along with their hope that he could stop, then, as he would have normally done, fought it. Once he was back in London he could start again and at least he could say to Robin he had tried. Dave, Ilsa and Penny sat opposite him, speaking in excited voices that were heightened by a day’s alcohol consumption.

“She’s perfect for you mate, miles ahead of the others. Not an ounce of flake! And, Ilsa says she saw Milady off,” Polworth did not hold back once Robin had disappeared inside to get the next round with Nick and he felt it was safe to share his opinion of her.

“A sentiment I’d already made clear, thanks,” Strike tried to grasp back a thread of self-respect Ilsa’s anecdote had unravelled.

“Yeah, but you can’t be trusted, Diddy,”

Strike sighed, not sure whether he felt mostly annoyed or amused, “But I’m not a moron,”

“No, you’re not,” pointing at him and then at herself, “ ’Cause you finally listened to me,” Ilsa slurred slightly.

 

“I didn’t think it was going to be rammed again, it’s Christmas day!” The heat in the interior of the pub had enveloped Robin in a comforting embrace. Raised voices, chattering, laughing and the odd shout merged into a singular conversation of a tight community who in the winter months enjoyed having their small village to themselves.

“As you might have noticed, Robin, St Mawes breeds a steady stream of hard drinkers. Tonight, I will mostly be spending my time peeling Ilsa off the floor,” Nick grinned as they split the drinks between their two trays, “Don’t know why you’re laughing, she at least isn’t six foot four!”

Robin chuckled, “I’ve already had to deal with that but he’s done the same for me,”

Nick stared at the drinks before carefully putting the tray back down, “I probably shouldn’t say this Robin but Ilsa might need some cheering up, expect her to get very drunk,”

Immediately, Robin understood what Nick was referring to from the tension in his own face, caused she suspected, by a sense of misplaced guilt, “Okay, I’m on it – but I am sorry, you both deserve a family so much. But she’s only just started the treatment, right? So…” Robin held up her crossed fingers.

Nick gave her a smile of gratitude before he picked up the tray again.

 

Robin’s anecdotes weren’t doing Strike any favours either.

“I swear I could smell a whiff of massage oil coming off of him!” Robin stage-whispered conspiratorially to Ilsa, her eyes sliding over to him to get the full benefit of his reaction.

“Sometimes I wonder why I ever bloody introduced you two,” Strike moaned. He watched the two of them chuckling, shaking his head. Ilsa leant against Robin, as she was getting to the stage where she couldn’t hold herself up.

‘Diddy, you dirty bugger!” Polworth said in less of a jeer and more of a shout of encouragement.

Although Nick appeared to be momentarily shocked and Strike gave him an incredulous look, “What? You didn’t deny it?” his old friend tried to excuse his lack of loyalty.

His friends seemed to think that Robin was the epitome of butter-wouldn’t-melt, even though as she looked up at him, her eyes glinted mischievously.

“Nothing to deny mate! It was clearly the fantasy of an imagination inflamed by jealousy,” he teased Robin before looking around at the others, and added more seriously, “One of the women that worked there met up with me later and gave us the contact for Brockbank.”

At the mention of the paedophile, the conversation moved on and Strike looked down at Robin, “Clearly, I wasn’t the only one that got the distinct impression I was in there – ”

“Sod off!” indignant, Robin nudged his arm with the side of her body.

“No use rubbing up against me now - it’s eight months too late,” he shot back, aggrieved but he was smirking with his brow raised and his arm slid around her back holding her close to him.

His eyes, in the shadows, glinted in such a way as to render his words as purely affected, especially when his fingertips trailed their way along the top of her thigh. Robin’s eyes flickered from his eyes to his parted lips and back again. She moved her face closer to his, he seemed as caught up in the moment as her but she only kissed him on the cheek quickly. When she pulled back, he smiled as he looked away. At that moment he felt it was impossible to look at her if he was going to be able to stay at the table, rather than get away as fast as possible with Robin and back to their room.

When he felt more in control he looked down at her again tilting his head fractionally to the side before he said huskily, “I can tell you’re thinking about it,” his raised mouth turning into his toothy grin as he watched her smile irrepressibly and look away embarrassed, finally able to break eye-contact with Strike.

Polworth, unaware of what was happening on the other side of the table cut in, “Robin, watch out – here’s another one that thinks, for some reason, that gorilla body would be sexy covered in oil!” he goaded Strike, as he had spotted Gwenifer Arscott walking up the path towards the entrance of the pub.

“Right now, she’s welcome to him,” Robin gave Strike a superior glance as she suspected he would be able to read her actual thoughts if she gave him half a chance.

He ducked towards her kissing her on the forehead before she could get away, then whispered, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” next to her ear. Louder he said “Anyway, I – ” Strike grabbed the edge of the table to push himself up but Robin put her hand on his arm, when he looked up, Gwenifer had walked past the entrance and directly over to them.

As the old school friends said hello, Robin cast her eye over the policewoman who had been the focus of Polworth’s ribbing of Strike. Her shiny pale blonde hair that fell straight down her back and her delicate features were like a doll’s. She was very attractive and Robin realised that at the basis of what seemed to be a long-standing joke between Strike and Polworth, was perhaps some friendly competitiveness.

“This is my partner, Robin,”

Robin gave her a friendly smile. It was barely returned.

“Gwenifer? Did you want a drink?” Polworth asked.

“You don’t have to do that Greg,”

Robin noticed she was the first person apart from his wife who called him by his first name. Coming from Gwenifer it was a clear snub.

“It’s fine, we’re just getting another round. What do you want?” Polworth seemed to be trying hard to keep the encounter friendly.

“Gin and tonic please, oh and Corm? Can we have a quiet word, about Scutari?” the last two words were said hurriedly as if for clarification and she glanced at Robin.

“Was just about to ask you the same thing actually,” he replied and got up, following her down the lane towards the quay without a glance back. Robin watched him go, her mouth in a grim line.

Oblivious, Polworth sniggered and Ilsa joined in. Nick, who was staying sober, so he could get his wife home in one piece, was the only one to catch Robin’s exasperated expression and he smiled kindly at her. She picked up her drink and took a large swig of wine.

“Wha’s wrong?” Even drunk, Ilsa eventually managed to read Robin’s tense face.

“Cormoran is talking to Gwenifer about something to do with Scutari,”

“And?”

Robin gave her a meaningful look, waiting for Ilsa’s usually quick-firing brain to catch-up.

“Oh - he thinks Scutari was murdered – why didn’t he take you?”

“Good,” Nick encouraged Ilsa, “You’re there finally,”

 

“I know what you mean about the injuries and we haven’t confirmed that it is suicide anyway - the post-mortem won’t even take place until tomorrow,” Gwenifer told him in a hushed voice

“Thought he was talking crap, it’s Christmas Day,” Strike took a drag on his last cigarette, and let out the smoke in a quick stream, “The other thing is, how did he get so far out to sea if he fell off the boat in the harbour? I checked and the tide came in overnight, you’d have thought the body would have been found upstream,”

Gwenifer was nodding, “Well, there was also blood on the boat, but we have to wait for it to be confirmed as Scutari’s,”

 

“So, it was the last party of the summer and we were all down on Great Molunan Cove,” Polworth began telling the story as if it was worthy of great drama, “It’s behind St Anthony’s lighthouse, tucked out of the way of prying eyes at night you see,” he winked in case she didn’t.

“Corm had a crush on Gwenifer since he had come back from London on that occasion, how long was it Ilsa, that time?”

“Think we got him for a year before they went off to live with Leda again,” Ilsa added, “That was when Whittaker had come into their lives, so Lucy was back pretty sharpish.”

Robin nodded, that would have made them all about sixteen at the time.

“From what I remember Corm wasn’t the only one with a crush,” Penny chipped in.

“Okay, okay, most of the fifth-year boys and some of the girls fancied her!’

“Including you!” Ilsa added.

Polworth smirked grudgingly, “Including me, but Corm was the only one she asked to go back to St Mawes with her. She was driving and from what I remember she was scared to go down the country roads on her own,”

“Only got country roads down here for miles, so not sure why she was scared,” Ilsa clearly hadn’t believed a word of it.

“So, is that it?” Robin laughed, “She gave him a lift home,”

“Oh, I think she gave him a ride that’s for sure, he bloody denied it the next day, but he was all blushes,”

“Cormoran! Blushing?”

“Precisely Robin!”

 

“How long are you around for?”

Strike was curious as to her intention for asking, was it to get their statements or did she want to get rid of him in case it was confirmed that Scutari had been murdered, “Have to go back to London on Tuesday,”

“Do you have to go back right away?”

“Got a meeting Wednesday I can’t get out of,”

“And if we paid your expenses to come back, would you be interested in consultancy work?”

Strike’s brow shot up, he wasn’t used to the police actually wanting him around. He supposed that this was the result of catching an infamous serial killer rather than the murderer of an obscure writer, “You suspect it’s murder too then,”

Gwenifer nodded, “Can you come in tomorrow and I’ll go through the case file with you?”

“No…er…my aunt might not be well, that’s why we’re all down at the same time,”

“I’m sorry – send her my best wishes,”

“Thanks, we can probably come in on Tuesday before we leave and I’m sure Robin won’t mind staying while I go back alone,”

“Robin?”

“Yep, we’re partners in the business,”

A look of confusion crinkled the space above Gwenifer’s nose, “So, not romantic partners?

Strike was beginning to feel uncomfortable – their work had not required this explanation before, “Both.”

Gwenifer shook her hair out of her face where it had been blown by the wind which was starting to pick up, “Right, well I’m not sure the boss will pay both your fees and your girlfriend’s,”

Strike’s mouth twisted at the pejorative tone and phrasing in which she had spoken, “She’s been my business partner longer, Ellacott and Strike. She was an integral part of all the cases, I wouldn’t have solved them if it wasn’t for her,”

“Maybe we should just hire her then,”

“She’d impress you and she’s only been doing it a year – one of the D.I’s we’ve worked with in London wanted to recruit her,”

Gwenifer laughed, “Alright, alright – I don’t need a eulogy about her. Come by on Tuesday and we’ll see what the superintendent says. As long as he’ll fund it, I’m happy,” she was smiling up at him, her eyebrow arched, “So, it must be a serious relationship if she’s your business partner,”

“It is,” and he looked out onto the harbour to pull on his cigarette, anticipating where the conversation was headed.

“So, have you been back up to St Anthony’s Head yet?”

Strike glanced down to see a playful look on her face, “It’s not somewhere I go every time I come back,” He knew not to be drawn in by her sweet, doll-like looks, inside was a shrewd but ruthless mind that knew how to be cruel.

“So, you’ve not taken Robin there then?”

He looked at her plainly, “I’ve never taken anyone there,”

Gwenifer smiled, “Well, it was a long time ago so I can’t remember all the insignificant details. I probably did take you there,” suddenly Gwenifer had seemed too close to him and then her hand enclosed over the upright collar of his coat, smoothing it flat, “Same old Corm, impenetrable,”

He looked away from her, hoping to try to hide his grimace until her hand fell away, using both hands to pull his collar back up he stepped towards the pub. He heard her following behind until she was back in step with him.

“Still as evasive,”

He caught a glimpse of rose-gold glowing, caught in the warm light of the pub, “No, I think I’ve been pretty clear – I’m not a concupiscent sixteen-year-old anymore Gwenifer,”

“Concupiscent? Your Oxford education hasn’t deserted you then,”

Strike winced, pushing heavily on his stump to get up the hill and end this conversation as quickly as possible. He barely listened to her inconsequential chatter about their teenage years. Instead, he was seriously questioning the sense in working for her. But one job like this, if successful, could lead to more. He could handle Gwenifer’s advances as he had those of other women he had worked for and with but the fact she was doing it with Robin so clearly in the picture, suggested she hadn’t changed from the pushy and arrogant teenager she had been. It was not the best mix if you had to work alongside someone, he thought.

 

Strike was unsurprised when only a few minutes after they had joined the others outside the pub, Gwenifer smiled sweetly at Polworth and picked up the drink he had bought her. She pointed towards him with it, “I still remember when you took off all your clothes at nursery and pooed on the grass because you wanted to be a dog,”

Involuntary gasps, interjections and yelps of laughter circled the table. Polworth’s eyes narrowed but Gwenifer continued to eyeball him.

“Mate, sit down,” Polworth told Strike without looking at him, “I’ll get another round in,”

Strike could tell Polworth had been pushed too far, “I’ll help,” and after finding out what everyone wanted, they left the table to go to the bar.

Robin picked up her glass and sipped her red wine.

“So, Robin isn’t it?”

“That’s right,”

“You work for Corm then?”

“Yep, nearly two years, I love it”

Gwenifer nodded and under her gaze, Robin felt she was being assessed but wasn’t sure for what, “Oh, he said a year,” Gwenifer raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, as an investigator, but I was his assistant before that,”

“What? Like his secretary?” Gwenifer sounded shocked.

Robin felt her chest tighten and her cheeks flush although she knew she had nothing to feel ashamed about, “Yes at first. Then I became an investigative partner,”

“Sounds like you really…worked yourself the ladder,” Gwenifer snorted putting a suggestive emphasis on her words as she gave Robin an arch look.

Penny looked uncomfortable and Robin could feel Ilsa grow tense beside her which wasn’t a good sign as it confirmed Robin’s fears that Gwenifer’s innate maliciousness was redirected towards Robin.

“Well, yes, through hard work. I had got halfway through a psychology degree. So, I had some insight into the cases and I think I eventually proved myself to Cormoran, he wasn’t exactly easy to convince,” she kept her tone light and neutral.

Even so, Gwenifer seemed to recoil, “Oh no, I didn’t mean anything,” she now looked at Robin as if she was being hypersensitive, though Robin had done her utmost to appear tolerant of Gwenifer’s remarks.

Robin glanced at Ilsa whose chin was balanced in her hand, the alcohol weighing her down, but she managed to raise an eyebrow at Robin. When she turned back Gwenifer’s gaze looked over Robin’s shoulder. Strike had appeared coming through the door of the pub carrying the drinks with the corner of his mouth lifted at something Polworth had said behind him. His gaze fell to the tray of drinks, focusing on not spilling the drinks and the familiar wrinkles at his eyes had appeared, he looked up at Robin as he placed the tray on the table grinning widely at her.

“Corm told me you’ve been an invaluable help to him,” Gwenifer continued, this time a lot more affably.

“Robin, tracked down a paedophile who’s now locked up, she stopped him continuing to abuse two little girls he was living with and probably countless others now he’s off the streets,” glassy-eyed Ilsa was still able to speak with force and clarity.

“Wow, what happened?” Gwenifer’s tone and body language had made a surprising volte-face which Robin wasn’t prepared for.

So, this woman was going to be nice to her in front of Strike but alone Robin would be treated to much the same as Polworth. Robin wasn’t about to let that happen. So, she took Gwenifer at her word and told the table, with a good dose of humility, about Shanker and her visit to Alyssa’s. By the end of it, Polworth and Penny were in amazement and Gwenifer looked a bit embarrassed. But, none of their reactions were as gratifying as when she looked up at Strike and he was looking back at her, his eyes crinkled with the gentle smile he gave her. Robin winked at him and the corners of his mouth lifted a little further.

“I’m going to go, early start tomorrow,” Gwenifer’s voice broke his gaze and he turned to her as she stood up.

“Okay, we’ll see you tomorrow then,”

“Looking forward to it,” Gwenifer replied, smiling up at him and finally glancing at Robin, “It was great to see you all again,”

People nodded around the table, Polworth avoided it by taking a long sip of his drink and Robin gave him a sympathetic smile before looking up at Gwenifer.

“It was lovely to meet you,” she beamed at Gwenifer whose porcelain doll’s face looked utterly wrong-footed before she gave her a quick smile back and walked away up the lane.

Chapter Text

“Well Diddy, you certainly left her wanting more – that cart-horse-blood effect all over again!” Polworth surmised, turning away from Strike’s raised eyebrow, “Robin, you alright love?”

Robin’s shoulders were slightly slumped and her smile at Polworth failed to completely ignite, “Sure – she was hard work though,”

“What happened?” Strike tried not to sound too perturbed as he didn’t want Robin to feel any anxiety about working with Gwenifer as he would be in London.

“You dealt with her just right,” Ilsa patted her on the back.

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Robin gave an irritated laugh.

“Well?” Strike pressed, with a perplexed head shake.

Robin gave an annoyed sigh, she placed her palm on his thigh to show it was not directed at him. She was irritated with herself for letting it get to her and didn’t want to appear to be telling tales, “She was being catty – she didn’t say anything explicitly, but she wasn’t very nice,”

“Shit!” He said under his breath, unsurprised after Gwenifer’s comments to him, this was precisely what he had wanted to avoid.

Robin was the nicest and kindest person Strike had ever come across. To their detriment, certain people thought this was an open invitation to try to get the upper hand over her. Over the time they had known each other, Strike had seen her become more and more confident in dealing with this. He, himself, had been reproved by her forthright assertiveness in his worst combative moments with her more than once.

“She’s asked m…us whether we want to consult on Scutari’s death in the likelihood the autopsy comes back as murder. If she’s going to be like that we won’t be able to do it,”

“We can do it,” Robin asserted, refusing to let Gwenifer’s issues with her get in the way of the business, it was exactly the kind of thing Strike had been worried about before their partnership had crossed into a romantic relationship.

As he observed Strike’s reaction, being his eldest friend Polworth felt he knew his tells pretty well and his eyes lit up, “You bloody have shagged her!” he smiled wryly.

Strike began to grumble expletives.

Ilsa looked around Robin at him, “In twenty–one years you’ve never admitted it,” she breathed in a hushed voice.

“And I’m not saying I slept with her twenty-one years ago now,” he said, seemingly brushing off their suspicions. When he looked at Robin though, who remained silent, she nodded knowingly. Strike looked away sharply.

 

Later, he followed Robin, Ilsa and Nick along Chapel Terrace where they were staying with Ilsa’s parents. Ilsa had dissolved into tears nearing closing time and they had all decided it was actually best for them all to start making their way home. His leg had started to protest at the steep incline and if he had a choice he would not have come up with them but Ilsa was hanging on one side to Robin’s arm while Nick held her around the waist. Strike had offered to take Ilsa’s other side but Robin had frostily refused him.

The narrow lane held many memories for Strike as it was where his Aunt and Uncle had lived before moving to the larger bungalow on Upper Castle Road. They arrived at what had been when they were young, Ilsa’s gate. It was painted a traditional pale blue and the wall was whitewashed. It was one of the larger fisherman cottages. The garden, where they had played together with Polworth during idyllic summers, burst with brightly coloured fireworks of fauna and flowers. It was all very far from the dirty, rundown squats of London and the new age commune in Norfolk.

Ilsa had begun telling Robin how much she loved her, how happy she was that Strike had her in his life and this had extended to Strike, around whose neck, she flung her arm and whispered in his ear instructions on how he had to treat Robin well. Finally, Nick was pulling her onto a bench in the front garden while she started to weep. He held her, kissing her hair before looking up to wave a goodbye at them half-heartedly, Nick’s sad smile lit up by the garden Christmas lights.

Strike turned away and after a few steps let out a sighing groan.

“She’s so sad,” Robin remarked more to herself and her powerlessness to help her friend who had given her invaluable supported her over the last few months.

“Hmm…” Strike replied, “Life has no easy fixes.”

He waited for Robin to slip her arm through his but she didn’t and her steps became faster than his so that she walked ahead of him. Usually, she was much more conspicuously considerate and patient, falling into step at whatever pace he was able to go at on any given day. He’d become so accustomed to it, even though he still gave off warning waves for her not to help him when he faced a challenge due to his leg, he wondered at himself that he was missing it now it had been withdrawn.

He tried not to feel irritated with her for being moody, especially as he suspected why. The spectre of Sarah Shadlock still loomed in Robin’s conscience. But there was no reason for her to work herself up about Gwenifer or any other woman. There would only ever be Robin.

“It’ll be good for us to take on this consultancy job – might open a few doors back in London again,” He said trying to engage her.

But, it wasn’t jealousy of Gwenifer that niggled at Robin. She stopped and looked back at him, it was professional jealousy of him, “So, it’s definitely us who will be consulting, not just you,” she tried to keep her anger in check, he had over a decade of experience more than her, if they only wanted him should she feel resentful? The problem was, she reminded herself, that he hadn’t helped matters.

Strike decided it was best not to try and save her feelings by lying, it was possible she would see right through him, “I made it clear that we come as a team,”

“Did you though? Because when you left to talk to her, you did just that - you left, leaving me outside the pub,”

He was only just now realising the extent of which she was hurt by their interaction with Gwenifer today, “I’m sorry Robin, I just got carried away - ” he rubbed his forehead with two fingers, “You’ve not been at work for months and I suppose I’ve got used to doing things on my own again,”

“Okay,” she conceded, “But is she happy about working with me too?”

His wince answered for him. Robin’s perceptiveness about people had always impressed him but sometimes it made for uncomfortable conversations he’d rather he could avoid. She started walking again, albeit a little slower this time.

“You’ve slept with her,” Her voice and face carried no emotion.

“Yeah,”

She stopped still and whirled her head around her hair flying about her shoulders tempestuously, “Bloody hell Cormoran, why am I having to drag that out of you? Always the avoidance with you! I think it’s sweet what a gentleman you’re being about it, usually, there’s always some veiled brag about your conquests. It must have been serious then? She was a complete nightmare tonight, I’m not - ”

He had seen that colourless look on Robin’s face before. He stepped forward and clasped her arms with his hands pulling her to him, jolting her out of her agitation and folded his arms around her. This wasn’t anything like Charlotte’s jealous, unwarranted antagonism where she sought drama and a warped reassurance of his love. This was his fault.

“You know it's still not easy for me to talk about stuff straight away. I wasn’t trying to hide it from you. I would nev - ” he stopped before he had to say that stupid twat’s name, “But I couldn’t say anything to you in front of that lot, I’d never lived it down – you’ve seen what she’s like, she’s a bloody snob,”

Finally, he saw her full lips curve into what was, frankly, a mocking smile but he didn’t care as long as she was no longer distressed. He lifted his arm up and she tucked herself under it, slipping her arm in its usual place around his waist. He took a few, what was now painful, steps and concern flashed across Robin’s face as she noted him wincing again. She began to feel awful for making him walk up here and not slowing down when she knew he was struggling.

“Everyone fancied her at school. She never really noticed me until we were teenagers – I was a glamourous Londoner by then,”

“Right,” Robin smirked.

“So, the night Polworth thinks he’s pinned it down to, well, it was actually much later. Leda’s murder trial…had gone to shit. I’d joined up. And - Charlotte was sleeping with someone else.”

“Gwenifer was down one weekend from University and that was that. It was just the once, she went back, and I left that week. Good job too, I realised I didn’t really like her that much.”

“That’s not so bad, why the secrecy then?”

“Enjoy winding Polworth up of course! He can’t stand not knowing, even though he thinks he’s getting at me,”

Robin thought she could suspect why this was not something he wanted to be subjected to his friend’s ridicule. But she stayed quiet on that point, “You two. Your banter knows no bounds,”

“Alright, yes, immature. But - ” He stopped still, he was aware he was limping and he needed a moment, “Hold on,” He pulled her into his arms until she was facing him, she hooked her hands into his deep pockets, “I’ve told her that I’m completely not interested but it was hard to be my usual, direct self in the circumstances. But, I’ll make it crystal clear to her if she carries on being horrible to you that we can't stay. Best way for her to get over it though, is to see you at work, so how would you feel if all goes well tomorrow, you stay here and start the job with Gwenifer and I go to London alone?”

Robin tried not to feel bad that she didn’t feel very guilty about staying here but rather excited about working on the case on her own, “That’s fine,” but her agreement was out of her mouth so fast that Strike laughed, “But, are you going to be - ”

Strike cut across her, “Great, that’s decided then.”

Robin’s brow furrowed.

“I’ll be alright,” he turned away from her, his face impassive and looked down into the dark abyss of the end of the lane.

Robin did not pursue it, choosing to wait until after he had met with Rokeby before she asked him any questions. Strike, on the other hand, wanted to avoid voicing his own thoughts about the meeting with Rokeby as they were still malleable, transitioning between the many conflicting emotions that he tended to bury about his father. Also, he did not want to prolong the conversation about a subject he could think about alone, during the train journey home and while he was in the flat.

Robin suspected his intentions but with the additional help of a few bottles of beer, she had no doubt. She pulled him back to look at her, running the fingertips of her leather gloves through the short scruff of his beard, “You’ll call me if you need me though?” she urged.

Even though his eyes momentarily flickered away from hers he raised his brow in acknowledgement of her thoughtfulness and murmured, “Can’t I call you even if I don’t need you?”

“You’ll always need me,” she countered, the pad of her thumb brushed the flat angles of his lips and she reached up and pressed a quick kiss there, until she felt his face relax again into a grin, deepening the lines in his cheek.

“Although I have to say, I didn’t get annoyed when Peter Scutari was flirting all over you at the hotel today,” he teased.

“You saw that?” she looked at him warily until he nodded. “Just to remind you, I wasn't jealous,” she sighed, “ And, I didn’t say anything about Peter Scutari because what you’re not so good at, is tempering down the over-protectiveness,”

His lips pursed in a smirk, “I know you can look after yourself,” he slid his hands up over her coat, scarf and cheeks until his fingers were in her hair and he brushed his lips against hers, “I know Matthew was not - ” he stopped all talk of the twat once he saw the recognition in Robin’s eyes, “But I’m a monogamous man me, always have been, I’m committed to it,”

“I know, as I said, not jealous,” Robin’s arm wrapped around his neck and his held her closer to him. Robin pushed down the urge to smile at his words but as he lowered his head, she noticed his eyes were almost black as they glinted with a sudden resolve. She watched as the edge of his tongue moistened his lips, which always made him appear boyish. Her eruption of giggles was suppressed by the sensation of the back of his fingers. as he brushed them down her cheek. His fingertips stopped under her chin and lifted it to burnish his lips against the swell of hers.

Robin’s perfume and leisurely kisses made his head feel at once intoxicated and a burning rush which sent his body alight. His hands clutched her upper arm and he stroked the wool of her camel coat. His free arm reached for the curve of her lower back, pushing her into him until they were one warm bundle of thick coats, scarves and gloves. Too warm. Too many layers. The winter fabrics were no replacement for the velvet of her skin.

He still felt stupefied, even after three months, that she wanted to pull his lapels so their kiss deepened and arch herself in his arms so that her curves caressed his chest, his hands. The thought of the next three days without her lengthened in front of him like the weeks that they had spent apart already. The bed that waited for them at his Aunt and Uncle’s seemed as far away as London compared with the urgency he felt as their kisses became more breathless.

Robin’s solution was to start to unbutton Strike’s coat but his hands dropped to stop her, his voice was gruff, “This way,”

He walked ahead guiding her, as her soft warm fingers seemed to tremble in his rough palm. He fumbled in his coat pocket for the key to what was now his aunt and uncle’s holiday let. He was sure that there was one extra key on the fob. He turned and Robin dangled the keys in his face and he took them, placing his arm over her shoulders.

“Can’t believe I forgot about this,”

She frowned curiously.

“This is the key for the old house,”

“The cottage?”

“Yes, the cottage that is completely empty,” he bent down to kiss the delicate skin at her earlobe, sucking gently at the quickening pulse beneath, “The cottage with no one listening ears, so, when we make love, you can let me know how much you appreciate it without leaving bite marks,”

“There were no bite marks,”

“Let’s get inside and I’ll show you,”

Chapter Text

Unsurprisingly, Joan’s hatchback and only a few other vehicles were on the wet car deck of the King Harry ferry at 10:00 am on Boxing Day morning. Robin was up on the viewing deck while the ferry made its sedate way across the river. The regular clink of the chain that heaved the ferry measured the increments of progress across the mirrored Fal. Tucked away in the small valley a couple of huge cargo ships were laid up. Their stillness in the haze of mist, faded paint and the bloody rust that ran out of portholes gave them a macabre air as they towering over the ferry, blighting the otherwise verdant and tranquil woods that surrounded the water. She turned away to walk back down to the main deck to join Strike who was leaning over the barrier. She was relieved to see he seemed to have a thicker density of mist around him, so he was obviously using the vape again. 

Strike sucked in double the amount of vapour than he normally would smoke from a cigarette, desperately trying to stave off the cravings that had put him in an irritable mood most of the morning. Whoever had chosen the vape knew him well enough to get the highest concentration of nicotine, although he sighed remembering how Robin had told him brightly that over time he was supposed to reduce that too. He wondered if he could muster the courage to tell her today that he didn’t think giving up smoking would last beyond their trip to Cornwall. He certainly hadn’t been able to do so this morning in order to go down to the Coop and get a new packet of Bensons and Hedges. 

Although, being honest with himself, he hadn’t wanted to disrupt the electric charge that seemed to stir the air of the small cottage when they had forced themselves awake, cloistered from the interruptions, demands and responsibilities that came with staying at his Aunt and Uncle’s home. He knew that Joan would have liked them to spend the day continuing the Christmas celebrations in the house but Strike’s limit had been reached concerning Greg’s chippiness and his sister’s interference. He had assured Joan he would be back for dinner and mentioned that if they got this job it would mean he would be around at least for a couple of weeks. Even though she was delighted by this, after the freedom of last night’s pleasurable exertions, he still planned on asking if they could continue to stay at the cottage. 

“Are you thinking about the meeting?” Robin appeared beside him now that they were nearing the sloping cement jetty for the ferry. 

Strike turned to look down at her, eyebrow raised, his dark eyes swept over her and his lips quirked into a small smile. Images of the night and this morning flipped through Robin’s mind and she was sure Strike had been imagining something similar.

“Did I ever tell you how impressed I am by how focused you always are?” She put her hand in his and they walked together back to the car.

“I’d say that was the gist of many of the things you might have mentioned over the course of last night,”

A pang of guilt squeezed inside her chest as she watched Strike limp slightly towards the passenger door. Their walk up the path the night before and the additional activity at the cottage meant Strike had to have a long bath this morning to try and soak away the soreness and it clearly hadn’t worked completely. She knew there was little point in mentioning it until they were back in St Mawes and she’d have more help to offer than mere sympathy. His stoicism still impressed her, as long as he didn’t let it go too far into self-neglect. He caught her watching as he pulled himself into the car. “What?” Strike asked as they settled themselves in the car seats, “Are you wondering how you managed to pull this prime specimen of manhood?”

“Every day,” she laughed but knew behind his self-deprecation was a good dose of insecurity about himself. Robin lifted her hand to run her fingers over his beard and her thumb trailed over his lips. As he took in her warm look of love and respect, his lips lifted into a self-conscious smile but his eyes drifted safely away from her gaze and she laughed gently, “You’re easily embarrassed this morning?”

“You make me feel like a piece of meat sometimes. I’m just a wallflower me, just not used to so much female admiration,”

Robin gave a sound of disbelief, “Didn’t notice that you were that offended last night!”

He looked at her with a wide grin. Robin started the engine readying the car to make its way from the ferry and up the twisting road that rose steeply up the small valley.

The ferry slid to a grinding halt on the jetty as one of the crew pushed open the gate and Robin was the first to drive the small car off. Strike’s face turned serious and he leant his head back on the rest closing his eyes, “I think you should lead the meeting,”

“Really?” Robin tried to repress the excitement in her voice and sound calm.

“Yeah, I’m not going to be here for a few days after tomorrow,” he ignored the sudden drop in his stomach as he didn’t want to think about why, “So Gwenifer is going to have to start taking you seriously. Might as well start off on the right foot, ‘specially as I buggered it up so much last night,” he gave her a rueful smile.

As she effortlessly turned sharply around the bend she asked, “You’re not just doing this because I was angry yesterday?”

“Course not,” Strike lied.

Robin had become wise to his tells and after checking there was nothing coming towards them on the narrow road she gave him a fleeting look of derision.

“Okay, okay. Yes,” he raised his eyes, “But only because you were right,”

 His begrudging tone reassured Robin of his usual implicit honesty.

“Was that the right answer?”

“Always,” Robin laughed.

 


 

 

While Strike’s statement was taken about finding the body, Robin perused the notes she had written that morning concerning the fee they would need to negotiate to ensure both of them staying in Cornwall was viable. Otherwise, she would be in the car with Nick and Ilsa on her own way back to London after New Year. Also, there was a list of the key information they needed from the police if all went well. Re-reading her words kept her mind off of the kamikaze butterflies diving in her stomach.

When Strike finally walked towards her along the corridor she was so engrossed she didn’t notice he was back, “You good?”

Robin looked up with a start to see Strike suddenly stood over her.

She shook her head, “Sorry, yeah – it’s just been a while since I’ve been at work,"

He nodded with understanding and gave her an encouraging smile, “You’ll be fine,” 

“Corm!” Gwenifer called to him from the end of the corridor and gestured for them to join her.

Robin caught his eye and he covered his smile by rubbing his beard when she rolled her eyes.

Robin stood up and together they strode towards the police inspector. Once Strike had stepped close enough, Gwenifer had moved towards him, giving him two brief air kisses.

Robin made sure her tone was warm, “Good morning, Gwenifer,”

“Robin,” Gwenifer nodded and gave her a very brief saccharine smile before leading them to the Superintendent’s office.

Robin thought to herself that she had achieved a small victory in forcing Gwenifer to treat her with at least the pretence civility.

“Sir, this is Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin…”

“Ellacott,” Robin filled Gwenifer's pause, although she did not think the woman was portraying herself in the best light as a detective if she possibly could not remember someone’s name.

Holding her hand out to the besuited man in his late forties, she was relieved when he smiled back as he shook her hand.

He introduced himself, “Superintendent Michael Trevena,”

Robin watched as his eyes scanned her up and down. She tried to keep her expression neutral rather than glare at him as she was tempted to. He clearly was not going to be much help to Robin either.

Superintendent Michael Trevena was an old-school policeman, relegated to the sleepy cathedral city of Truro, thankfully he turned his attention to Strike, “Cormoran Strike hey?”

Strike looked embarrassed for the second time that morning as he held out his hand.

“You’ve bloody done well for yourself! Decorated war hero! Famous private detective! And one of our very own from St Mawes I hear,” Trevena shook Strike’s hand vigorously, “Based in London now though, can’t help that I suppose. We’ve been left to fester here, haven’t we Arscott?”

Gwenifer nodded, her eyes averted, embarrassed Robin thought and logged it away to consider later. Superintendent Trevena gestured for them to take a seat and sat behind his desk clearly drawing a line of authority between them.

“Bloody forgotten about down here and once we have it confirmed in the autopsy that it’s murder they’ll be on our backs about getting an arrest. Scutari was a well-connected man, bloody conservative donor! We just don’t have the expertise or the funding to be able to get a result quickly, so Gwenifer suggested we involved you and your partner,”

“The Serious Crime Unit has taken a bit of a hit in funding and it’s not been helped that we’ve had a few retirements and one of my best DS’s is on maternity leave so the team lack inexperience,” at this moment Gwenifer choose to look at Robin before her gaze drifted back to Strike, “The problem is the Home Office think we're all just summer holidays and cream teas rather than murder. To be honest murder rates are low and we’re mainly dealing with violent crime and rape.”

“Frankly we can do without any interference from any other force, we’re already lumped in with Devon - this way we stay in charge and get the credit,” Trevena prodded his desk with his finger, “They might then give us some extra funding permanently. The Chief Constable has said he can release funding for you once the autopsy comes back this afternoon." His voice became low and conspiratorial, "He’s after promotion - a Londoner." Strike smirked at the latter phrase as if it explained the Chief Constable's ambitions and recognised the man thought he was talking to a like-minded fellow Cornishman with a fear of anyone not from the county and he nodded non-committally. Trevena continued oblivious, "These are the daily rates for consultancy and we’d like to take you on for a fortnight, as I said we need urgent results,” Trevena held out the paper towards Strike but Robin took it.

She scanned the figures and slowly drew in a breath so as not to give away her shock as she worked out the sums. This was nearly double Strike’s hourly rate and twenty times her own. She passed it casually over to Strike.

“That seems fine,”

“Any further expenses you’ll need to claim, Gwenifer can tell you how to do that,”

At this Strike cleared his throat, he sounded as if he was almost choking. This was a huge step for the agency and made all their hard graft worth it. The last time the agency had seen this kind of money was when he’d taken on John Bristow as a client but the killer had his own selfish reasons for offering a double fee. Whereas, if all went well, this could lead to further work. Robin, a little ashamed of own thoughts of the lucrative nature of this case, reminded herself that there was a dead man to think about.

“Now, I’ll let you all get on, Gwenifer can take you down to meet the team,”

  


 

 

In the corridor, Strike desperately tried to catch Robin’s eye but she was stubbornly keeping her eyes on Gwenifer, clearly not trusting herself to share a celebratory smile. The sight of that piece of paper with their daily rate had acted like a painkiller on his leg, he was sure he was actually walking a lot lighter and was no longer limping. Secretly, even to himself, he had been worried about how the agency could keep going without at least one of them in London. Now, he was able to admit this to himself, as the amount they were making would more than cover the bills. He’d texted Glen Friel to see if he was willing to do full-time hours for a couple of weeks and he had been willing. They had wrapped up quite a few of the clients before Christmas so he should be able to handle the workload alone. If any clients were desperate for the services of Strike himself they could wait for a few weeks.

As they entered the open plan office it brought back memories of his SIB days. Recent cases had brought him to the police station but usually in the sense of ‘helping police with their enquiries', not a position anyone wanted to be in but this time he was back on the right side. He was taken aback by how young most of the officers were, he and Gwenifer seemed to be the oldest in the room. Robin fit in well though and he was pleased – it would make it much easier for her to be accepted.

“All right everyone, your attention this way please!” Gwenifer waited for the few people who weren’t already staring at the rock star’s veteran son turned private detective to turn towards her, except from one young man who was on a phone call, “I’d like to introduce you all to Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, they’ll be helping us to get the Scutari case tied up,”

Gwenifer then introduced each person in the small team. Apart from her, there were two Detective Sergeants. Jess Amir, dark-haired and serious, sat with her knees crossed and arms folded neatly, scrutinising them both but smiling in a friendly way.  The other Nico Ford looked like a member of a boy band, all straw blonde hair and good looks. Once he put the phone down his eyes raked automatically over Robin and Strike fixed him with a stare until Nico cowed and looked at Jess who was equally giving him a withering look. He began to stuff a large breakfast sandwich into his mouth – maybe he wasn’t as bad as Strike had thought. Then there were the young Detective Constables, Tom ‘Tik Tok’ Curnow and Jed Rosewell, who were identikit cops, short hair and similar fashionable clothing.

“The briefing will be in five minutes,” Gwenifer instructed and they all turned back to their work, except for Nico who was feeling brave and was eyeing Strike warily, “Nico, get us some drinks. Tea?

Strike and Robin nodded and followed Gwenifer’s gesture to enter her office.

“Nico leave the sandwich alone and get a move on!” she called over her shoulder.

They took off their coats and hung them over the backs of their chairs before they sat down.

“So, as the Boss said, although the autopsy hasn't been completed yet it's just a formality and we’re already treating it as murder,” Gwenifer picked up her notebook and began scanning the pages before she began to relay information to them.

Robin and Strike flipped open their own notebooks.

“We know so far that Scutari left the Bolventor just before lunchtime on the 23rd. His family knew he was taking out the yacht as Mrs Scutari received a text from him at six pm saying he wouldn’t be back until late. When he didn’t return during the night, his wife thought that he hadn’t returned home because he was with his mistress. She told us she didn’t call or text him because she didn’t want to appear as if she cared, can’t blame the woman for at least having some pride,”

Strike raised his brows and Robin smirked as she asked, “Any idea who the mistress is?”

“Supposedly, she doesn’t know who her husband had been having his most recent affair with but she gave us the names of some of his past dalliances in town to see if he had rekindled any. The family reported him missing the following morning as he couldn’t be located at the hotel or on his mobile and then an employee informed them that the boat was untethered in the bay. Witness statements point to the boat being back in the harbour at 23:15 and it was Genevieve who called the emergency services,” 

“Who was the key witness?” Robin queried.

“A lad called Joshua Teague, he works behind the bar at the Rising Sun, was on his way home after his shift,”

“Teague…" Strike looked curiously at Gwenifer, "Not - ?”

“That’s right, Morwenna Teague’s son," Gwenifer gave Strike an assessing look but Robin noticed he remained expressionless which intrigued her more as it usually meant he was hiding his true feelings.

The tone of his next question he kept neutral, "How old is he? She must have become pregnant as soon as she left school to have a son old enough to work in a pub?" Strike wasn't sure whether what irked him was the fact he suddenly felt old or something a bit more disturbing.

"That's right, but don't worry Corm you'd been in London a while then," Gwenifer smirked when she saw Robin turn in her chair to look at him.

“What were the family’s alibis?” Robin asked as she pretended to complete some important note.

“Well, Isabella Scutari was working at the hotel with Genevieve, last minute arrangements for Christmas celebrations. Then both daughters had dinner with her in the restaurant that evening. Afterwards, Isabella claims to have been asleep in her room all night. Jed is going through the CCTV from the hotel to establish all the family’s going-ons over the last three days. Genevieve went home at about 8 o’clock but she lives alone. You may have noticed that the Roseland doesn’t have any CCTV, never needed it as it's hardly Hackney, so Tic Tok will be trying to get neighbours to establish whether they saw her,” 

Robin stifled a smile at this, she was used to having nicknames for clients rather than each other, “Does she live in St Mawes?” She saw Gwenifer give Strike a look of confusion before she turned back to Robin once she realised he too was waiting for her to respond.

“No and that’s the problem she lives in a detached house overlooking St Just creek and it’s quite isolated. Peter Scutari was in Rock on a date with a woman named…Ophelia Saville-Winstanley, he spent the night with her. The youngest daughter, Milena, well she’s only a teenager, so she was out with her friends around St Mawes and back at Bosventor with her mother and sister for dinner, then claims to also have been in her room all night,”

“Any suspects apart from the family members?  Unlike women men aren’t normally murdered by someone close to them, are they?” Robin asked the two experienced detectives.

Strike looked at Gwenifer.

“That’s right, so we need to find out who the mistress was. He also had a well-known grudge with Jon Ridley but we plan on being careful there, don’t want to rush straight into treating him like a suspect unless the evidence from the autopsy supports it or his lawyers will come down on us like a ton of bricks,” 

“Can we have copies of the family’s and all witness’s statements? The crime of scene photos and any results from forensics?” Robin rattled off.

“Sure, they’ve been getting a file ready for you this morning. We’ll join the others for the briefing and if you have more questions feel free to ask,” Gwenifer stood and they rose to follow her again, “I’ll get you that file afterwards, and let you know any additional results we get from forensics,”

 


 

As they entered the open plan space the others came over so they all had a good view of

the investigation board where there was already a photo of Scutari and the family members with notes. Nico gave Robin a smirk and he gestured to a chair next to him but then Jess waved her over to a chair and Robin sat on it. Strike leant himself against a desk and waited for Gwenifer. Rather than Nico it was Jed who brought over their tea, Strike was relieved as after the look the two men had shared he’d have expected Nico to spit in it.

“So, the results of the autopsy should be ready this afternoon, Jess, you’re coming with me and Strike,”

At this Nico huffed.

“Nico you have the mistress to go and interview, Robin can go with you,” Gwenifer waved her hand in the air dismissively.

“Actually,” Robin felt a little self-conscious interrupting but did so anyway, “Perhaps both of us could attend the autopsy, and we’ll visit witness and suspects ourselves,”

Gwenifer levelled a stern look at Robin.

“We prefer to carry out interviews without any obvious associations with the police – it allows us some…latitude,” Strike shrugged, raising an eyebrow at Gwenifer, “We can do things you can’t,”.

“Okay, I suppose that makes sense,” Gwenifer conceded and continued with the meeting.

Chapter Text

Back in the privacy of the car they had both allowed themselves some time to crow over what they had been offered by the police before beginning a sober analysis of what they had learned.

“No! You’re fishing again - ” Strike turned away from the road to measure from her expression how much she was doubting herself, "You know you were bloody great."

“I’m just worried that I missed something important?”

“You covered everything that’s important for now,” he reassured her.

He could see her assessing look in the rear-view mirror, “What?”

“You wouldn’t hold something back, you know, so the police are a step behind us?”

The deepest creases in his forehead appeared and his answer was gruff, “When have I ever done that?”

“Well, we’ve never been in this position before. But, whenever we've had anything to do with them, there’s always been…” Robin was beginning to regret ever bringing this up, “A slight element of competitiveness?”

“Not on my side,” Strike snapped.

Robin looked sceptical.

“Usually they deserve it!” he replied a bit sulkily feeling Robin was being a bit unreasonable considering he had always made it his priority to keep the police informed of any meaningful developments, “The only time I’ve ever been reticent was if we didn’t have evidence or they just wouldn’t take us seriously,”

Robin half laughed, “True, I see your point, how many times have we been in that situation?” and he looked towards her again as it was her usual ringing laughter. The soft hue of Robin’s delicately pink cheeks had been blotted away and the soft, flawless pale skin of her profile reminded Strike of the way the translucent white surface of marble statues enticed the onlooker to reach out and stroke it.

“You okay?” he tested out tenderly, wondering if she was regretting putting her foot down about going to the autopsy. Strike frowned as she gripped the steering wheel tightly. He would have normally used gallows humour to lighten the mood with a SIB colleague but from experience, he knew Robin would not appreciate it and making her nauseous wasn’t the best thing to do when she was driving. Instead, he had some pretty cheesy jokes on hand.

Her lips stayed in a straight line and her eyes remained trained on the road, “Yes, why wouldn’t I be?”

The tension in her voice made up his mind, “Well, because we’re going to the dead centre of town?”

She rolled her eyes, a half laugh escaping before she could stop herself, “That’s the best you could do? Really?”

“Yeah, so my money’s on the pathologist telling us he died from coughin’,”

Robin groaned and gave him a look of disapproval but again she had to suppress the rebellious corners of her mouth. Strike was certain he knew how to push her over the edge and he gave her his most boyish grin but she just repaid him with a gentle push of his shoulder.

“What?” Strike feigned innocence, “We’re investigating the murder of a pretty nasty bloke for all intents and purposes,” he said with an affected grumble.

“Does that matter?” She started to reproach him until she saw the playful glint in his eyes.

“Well…” He elongated the word as if he was struggling to decide and grinned at her.

By the time they had arrived at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, the pathologist, Doctor Margot Hullbridge, a blonde-haired woman of about forty and dressed in scrubs explained brightly, “I’ve already done the boring bits,”

She explained this meant photographing Scutari in situ of the body bag, removing the clothes and taking fibre samples from the skin. The body had then been washed and x-rays were taken. Even after her blithe comment, Hullbridge displayed her extensive and practised knowledge with a great deal of humility, as she set about her different tasks with an unemotional, industrious focus which had been impressive to both Robin and the much more experienced Strike. This helped Robin to settle herself and she felt a little ashamed of how unaffected she was by the sight of the dead body on the metal table. Instead, she found it riveting to watch each stage of the autopsy. She assumed it was because there was none of the gore the photographs of bodies she had seen before had come with a dose of. She noticed Strike looking down at her, assessing, and she looked away sternly.

Hullbridge examined a set of x-rays, “The only fractures are a number of broken ribs, these could have been post-mortem, I would need to remove a sample to tell but the bruising to his chest suggests they were. Nothing else seems to be broken,” This was all recorded digitally by a device near the table. She picked it up as she moved over to the body and placed it on a side table.

 

Dr Hullbridge asked her technician Aadam, a young Asian man in thick trendy glasses, to open Scutari’s mouth, deep inside was a piece of fabric. He picked up some forceps and pulled out what turned out to be a black cotton sock. Robin stifled a gasp.

But Gwenifer had heard and explained, “That was why we had an inkling he hadn’t just fallen off the boat,”

“Wonder what size the sock is?” Robin spoke her thought aloud.

“Looks quite small, not a man’s sock I wouldn’t have thought,” Margot

“So, we could be looking for a woman?” Gwenifer mused.

Strike’s eyebrow rose but before he could say anything Robin stated, “Not necessarily,” and he finally caught her eye and a flicker in his expression signalled his approval.

The pathologists began examining and describing the scratches and bruises covering the chest.

“You can tell these are not just from the rocks…” Margot began.

No one responded – it was only clear to Margo, who, once she remembered she was surrounded by laypeople looked up at them and began to explain, “All these scratches and bruising here are actually,” she pointed to red welts on Scutari’s thighs, calves, arms, head and torso, “But, if you look here and here,” she pointed to almost circular bruises to the fleshy parts of Scutari’s upper arms. These could be finger marks as if he was being pulled backwards hard. You can see scratches on the hands, his face and neck – these were made by fingernails,”

Robin could see the pale lines imprinted in the flesh, the blood long since washed off probably by the sea before even the jet of water used by the pathologists. A memory of the lines on Strike’s cheek and neck came back to her when they first met, Charlotte violently marking him in anger as hers, to do with what she liked. She felt a stab of regret at being so averse to his earlier concern.

“So, clear signs of struggle,” Dr Hullbridge continued, “Now this is probably what killed him…” she stood over his head where a red daub marked his skin. Like the fingermarks, this carried the shape of the object that had hit him here, “Bruising to the temple shows he was hit with a blunt object but we need to examine his brain to check,” She sounded very certain.

“Any idea yet what it could have been?” Strike queried, someone, Hullbridge was experienced and he guessed she would have been considering this since taking the photos of the marks earlier in the day.

“Considering he was found on a yacht, an oar or the boom, depending on the size. I’ll go down with one of your officers and have a look,” Hullbridge looked towards Gwenifer.

Gwenifer’s arms were crossed in front of her chest, almost as if she was hugging herself or her stomach, “There was nothing found on the boat by the SOC team that fits that description but I’ll get one of the team to rush the forensics reports to see if any blood was found on the boom. They’ll probably tell us that verbally actually,”

“If the murder weapon was portable it’ll probably be at the bottom of the sea by now,” Strike stated

Robin couldn’t help herself, "Bugger!" she mumbled.

“Exactly,” Gwenifer sighed and for once both women smiled genuinely at each other.

Turning back to Hullbridge who took her scalpel from the glinting tray of sterilised instruments, Robin hated to think what some of them were for. The doctor looked as if she was drawing along the skin with the small blade from behind one ear over the scalp to the other ear until the flesh parted and left a red streak of flesh. Hullbridge exposed the top part of the cranium by reflecting forward the flap of skin and hair that made up his temporal scalp over Scutari’s face. The rest of his scalp was pushed rearward. Watching the action of Scutari’s head being peeled like a piece of fruit finally provoked a clench in Robin's stomach and she breathed in and out shallowly to settle the rolling that had begun in her stomach.

“Yes,” Hullbridge sounded pleased with her deduction, “There is evidence of haematoma, the pterion artery has ruptured and the blood burst through the skull putting pressure on the brain.”

“Would he have died instantly?” Robin asked her.

“He would have been knocked unconscious and died pretty quickly without medical attention,”

Aadam turned on the electric saw which whirred into life and passed it to Hullbridge who began to saw off the calvarium in a circular motion as if Scutari was wearing a skullcap which she then removed with a squelching pop before separating the brain from its leathery covering of tissue with forceps. Unbidden, the thought of the time her family had tried haggis on Burns night came to mind. She would have to save this one for Cormoran for later to see how far she had come.

Hullbridge sliced through the stem, then she and Aadam tugged out his brain. Robin didn't imagine anything would have been worse than this, as long as she could hold it together until the end she would allow herself a guilty sense of pride.

Gwenifer had looked decidedly green by the time they had left the autopsy room and Robin, naturally helpful, had got her some water from the dispenser in Hullbridge’s office. She had looked embarrassed but thankful.

“Gwenifer, I’ll get a rush on the toxicology reports, so we should be able to get them to you later today. Now when do you want me at Perrin’s boatyard?” Hullbridge asked, unaware of the Inspector's discomfort.

Robin took the opportunity to add her own question as Gwenifer was not yet able to speak, “Well, I was going to ask if we could go and have a look at the boat, perhaps we could meet you there too?”

“Sure, makes sense,” Gwenifer looked at the time on her phone, “I need to go back to the station, I’m sure you need lunch Margot, so shall we say about three, before it gets too dark,”

Robin couldn’t help but smile at Gwenifer not including herself in the need for lunch.

Strike’s laughter at her haggis joke rang around the interior of the car and Robin joined in too, “I don’t know why you feel so embarrassed about it - you’re allowed to be human - no one expects you to be like Hullbridge. Look at Gwenifer. Look at me! When I saw Quine’s body, if it wouldn’t have messed up the forensics I would have puked on the poor bastard,”

“You never told me that?”

“As your mentor, it was important to retain an air of mystery, Robin.” and he turned away to look at something out of the window.

“You certainly managed to do that.” she smiled.

Strike pointed to a turning ahead, “Actually, is it too late to turn off here?”

A cream country pub with a thatched roof sat beside the road back to the ferry. Robin braked just in time to turn carefully off the road and into a pub car park with a sign of a punchbowl and ladle painted on it. The car park was busy with Boxing Day drinkers and it was half an hour before the end of lunch. Robin waited for him as he struggled out of the low hatchback and when he reached her his arm encircled Robin’s shoulder, her bag knocked about between them.

“I’m bloody starving,” Strike almost groaned.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would take for you to lose your appetite,”

“Semi-cup final North London derby 1991. Arsenal was beaten by Spurs 3-1. We lost our chance of the double and Spurs won the FA Cup,” he shook his head looking forlorn, “Best day of Nick’s bloody life, I couldn’t eat my burger after the game,”

Strike led his laughing partner inside and into a small bar. Luckily some people were just leaving a table in front of a small window by the log fire, it was a little out of the way from the punters lining the bar and some children sat around a chess board. The pub, with its dark beams along the low ceiling, red carpet, sage green walls with Victorian style fittings and an oak-panelled bar had seen better days and was in stark contrast to the clinical surroundings of the autopsy room. Agricultural tools and horse brasses were hung around the rustic cavernous fireplace. An oil lamp style light cast a warm glow against the dim rough plaster of the old wall and caught the brass pumps of St Austell ales lining the bar. Strike sat in a tall wooden carver chair and picked up the menu immediately, while Robin settled herself on the window seat.

“Carbonara for me, what do you fancy?” He passed her the padded plastic vinyl covered menu.

“Don’t forget we’ve got another roast dinner tonight,” Robin said over the top of it, “Can you manage both?”
Strike said nothing in reply, just raised his eyebrow and Robin laughed, “How could I ever doubt you?”

“Hollow leg, me,”

“Ha, ha!” Robin rolled her eyes, “Soup for me please and just a glass of water,”

He tutted in mock disappointment, “You’re such a goody-goody,”

While he went to the bar, Robin opened the file Gwenifer had given them, exhaling as if she’d surfaced from an underwater dive. She began flicking through the documents and arranging them out of sight on the free part of the window seat.

“Thanks,” she said without looking up when Strike came back with a pint of Tribute for himself and put the water down in front of her with a packet of crisps, which finally caught her attention, “This is why I love you,” she said, looking up at his satisfied smirk as he made himself comfortable in the chair.

“If I’d known all it would take was a packet of crisps, I’d have bought you more a long time ago,”

Popping open the pack, then tearing the foil wide open so they could share, Robin placed the crisps between them before explaining the different piles of documents she had made, “Which do you want to start with?”

“Witness statements?”

Robin reached forward, handing them over to him. He watched her settle herself back, sitting cosily at an angle in the window seat. The rain that had threatened during their drive from the hospital was slapped by the wind against the window behind her and the outside was reduced to a grey blur. Robin’s cheeks glowed pink from their proximity to the fireplace and her golden hair caught the light of the lamp above them. No wonder he had denied her beauty for so long, he would never have been able to bring himself to leave her presence.

Without looking up, Robin sensed his gaze, “Cormoran,” she admonished with a suppressed laugh.

Cormoran looked down at the report, embarrassed that she had caught him gazing at her like a love-struck teenager. Again. “Okay, I’m getting on with it,” he groaned wearily, scanning the paper again but he still couldn’t focus on a single word. His mind went suddenly blank, it was determined to drift. In recent years, happiness had been a transient state for Strike. The images of the night before replayed in his head, not for the first time that day. Her long legs wrapped tightly around his waist as she sat in his lap. Their bodies slick with sweat from their efforts to prolong the end. One of his hands gripping the soft skin of her bottom. The palpitation of her wet, pliant clit as he caressed and cajoled her. The heightened sensation as she ground herself down onto him again, in complete control of his pleasure. Her fingertips tickling his scalp. The magnetism that brought their mouths together, until all they could manage was to breathe the other’s breath. His lips crushed against hers. Her tongue sliding against his.

Strike had experienced something at that moment with Robin which he supposed he could pass off of as just incredible sex. Although, his innate honesty meant he could admit he had felt consumed by an overwhelming connection to Robin that had woven around their bodies, pulling them closer, deeper. Like the explosion that had detonated around him taking part of his leg, the air around them had shifted and he could never be the person he was before. He had pulled back wanting to watch her as their bodies had begun to shudder and they held each other when all control had gone. Her awed expression and glassy eyes showed she felt it too. He was pretty sure his own eyes had welled up. You’re a stupid fucker! But, he would have been happy for that to have been the last thing he ever felt.

Just after Charlotte married Jago Ross, Strike, alone in his flat and finally in possession of some of the evidence that would incriminate Liz Tassle, had wondered if he finally was where he was supposed to be. Getting the business up and running had been a bittersweet experience, Strike had felt he was nearly run himself and the business into the ground. Then with Robin, everything had changed. Work had become one of the most fulfilling areas of his life when he was not having to hunt down errant partners or corrupt employees. A loving relationship, beyond regular sex, had been avoided. They had only ever confirmed the feeling that he could never love again after the damage it had done him with Charlotte. Robin's engagement to Matthew had proved a barrier for the growing feelings he had towards her when he thought it was a simple attraction. He’d been selling himself short, telling himself he could only have the best working relationship of his life or a brief, superficial affair. He did not want to lose her as his work partner. Until he had realised just how much he did not want her to marry Matthew, to lose the possibility of her. That he was able to feel profound love, have it unreservedly returned and share his love for his work with Robin was beginning to make him feel as if life held more for him than he considered even before part of himself had been taken by the misguided actions of a teenage boy.

Robin was also finding it hard to concentrate. The autopsy had been difficult but she wasn’t about to admit aloud that she could do with some time cuddled into Cormoran’s warm heft, only having to be aware of the comforting feel of his soft cotton twill shirt and clean scent. His eyes were cast downwards as he read; his lashes dark against his pale skin. She tried again to count the tan freckles on his cheek where he caught the sun. When she lost count, her eyes traced the crooked line of his nose to his mouth which was pressed into a straight line. The tip of his tongue slipped between his lips which was the usual sign that he was in a state of deep concentration. She felt overwhelmingly smitten with him and couldn’t believe there had been a time when she thought herself able to be anything but.

Strike looked up unexpectedly and her darkened eyes met his and she giggled. Strike’s lips quirked upwards into a small smile feigning disparagement, “Robin…”

Finally, their mutual fascination for ascertaining the truth took over from their preoccupation with each other. They both carefully went over each of the family member’s accounts to see if there was anything Gwenifer had not mentioned and cross-referencing them against the notes they had taken earlier.

Next were the statements from witnesses who had seen him on the way to the boatyard. Scutari had left the Bolventor at around eleven in the morning and had greeted regular and Strike assumed, wealthy patrons of the hotel as they had arrived. He’d then had a temper tantrum on the quay when a car had not given way where the road narrowed outside of the Co-op. The manager had come out to diffuse the situation and Scutari had to be persuaded back into his car.

“Don’t know why he went that way anyway! It’s the slowest way to get out of town from the hotel,” Strike spat out, suspicious that like many residents along the quay, Scutari main aim had been to parade the luxury sports car.

“Cormoran,” Robin murmured, her eyes having not left the sheet of paper, “Look at this,”

Strike took the sheaves of paper Robin held out to him and scanned the pages. It was a complaint against Scutari to the police for the previous year in August. He was accused of attacking a maid, Kasia Młynarski, she had arrived from Poland in the spring and had worked at the Bolventor but she had decided not to press charges.

“Hmm…” He placed the sheets on the table, writing the maid’s name, place and time of employment and the address where she had lived at the time near Falmouth.

“I doubt she still works there,” Robin mused.

“She might have only been there for the season – ”

“Her boss tried to rape her,” Robin paused, her words had come out too forcefully, “She was probably too scared in a new country to press charges, not to mention the thought of going up against the legal team Scutari would have been able to instruct,”

Nodding at Robin solemnly, Strike sighed at his own thoughtlessness “Of course,”

He realised she understood its effects better than most people, however much he wished she didn’t. Strike knew, her reaction did not come from being over-sensitive about the subject of rape but Robin sometimes seemed to think this was exactly what he was thinking and he was glad to see her visibly relax at his response rather than her eyes narrowing any further. They were interrupted by the ringtone of his phone. He flipped it around to show Robin who the call was from and she nodded, picking up her pen and notebook.

“Gwenifer?” He listened for a moment, tucked the mobile under his chin and picked up his pen, moving the notebook so Robin could read it as he and wrote in block capitals - FORENSIC REPORT HIGHLIGHTS. She read as his hand moved down the page:

THE FINGERPRINTS FOUND ON THE BOAT
WERE SCUTARI’S AND A NUMBER OF OTHERS.
BLOOD AND DNA FOUND ON THE BOAT
DID NOT MATCH SCUTARI.
POLICE NEED TO FINGERPRINT THE WHOLE
FAMILY AND ANY OTHER SUSPECTS, FAMILY
BACK IN FOR THIS TODAY.

“Sorry, carbonara?”

Robin looked up to see a young woman had brought their lunch.

“Thanks, that one’s over there and the soup is mine,”

The waitress tutted when Strike did not acknowledge her presence with his dish and move the notebook from the table mat.

"It's fine for you to just leave here," Robin tried to diffuse her annoyance but as the waitress walked away muttering she saw she had failed.

The food remained ignored and untouched as she went back to reading the notebook and Cormoran’s hand pushed it over to her as he ended his call with Gwenifer.

LOTS OF FIBRES WERE FOUND WHICH WERE.
NOT MATCHES WITH SCUTARI'S OWN CLOTHING.
THE BOOM HAD NOT SHOWN UP ANY EVIDENCE
OF BLOOD TRANSFER.
THE SOC TEAM ALSO FELT THAT NO ONE HAD
INTERFERED WITH THE CRIME SCENE.

“Not good news, nothing stands out unless any of the family were stupid enough to leave their own blood at the scene,”

Robin picked up her spoon, “what are your thoughts so far?” she asked.

Strike had begun shovelling the pasta into his mouth while Robin blew on her first spoonful of soup.

“Could be one of his children, you know, for the inheritance, Gwenifer’s team will be finding out the details of the will. Genevieve is clearly the key player behind the Bolventor, perhaps Scutari was getting in the way of her ambitions,”

“Peter strikes me as a bit of a loose cannon, everyone else in the family managed to put on a brave face on Christmas day. The family could be quite emotionally repressed, which wouldn’t be surprising with all those rumours about Scutari but Isabella still stays with him. Perhaps he snapped or needs the money for something. He’s quite louche really,”

Strike raised both eyebrows this time, “Quite?” He filled his mouth with pasta to stop himself remarking about his own feelings towards Peter Scutari’s behaviour towards Robin on Christmas Day.

Her embarrassed smile revealed she knew what he was alluding to, “Enjoying that?”

“Mmm…want to try some?” he asked as he dug the fork back in.

The sight of the comforting creamy pasta had Robin placing her spoon back in the soup, “Yes, please,”

Strike lent over with his fork, so Robin could take a bite.

“Then there’s the number one suspect. The wife. Especially, if he was cheating on her,” bitterness tinged the end of Robin's statement.

Strike looked at her in mock horror, “Matthew got a lucky escape then!”

Robin gently kicked the metal rod of his prosthesis, and he pretended to wince. “I just can’t imagine a woman like that getting her hands dirty. But it’s completely unlikely to be a professional job from the sound of the forensic report,” Robin surmised.

“Unless they were trying to look completely amateurish to baffle the police, not hard to do,”

Robin looked away, thinking that Strike’s new relationship with the police had done nothing to improve his derogatory opinion of their habit to fall back on a lack of method.
“I think we need to talk to the family ourselves; Jon Ridley is a friend of Tom’s, so talking to him won’t be a problem. Also, the boy who says he saw the boat in the harbour is the son of an ex-girlfriend so that should help too,” He took his last mouthful of pasta and dropped the spoon in the bowl.

“And if we can find out who he was having an affair with, that’ll be helpful, I’ll talk to Joan,”

He smiled at Robin’s quick ability to understand a person’s character. After a few days with Joan, she knew his aunt's greatest weakness was gossip. When he looked up, Robin was looking at him with a wry smile.

“I think we need to come up with some secret code,” Robin said.

Strike looked at her as if he was doubting her sanity.

“So, when we meet someone you've been out with or slept with, you can cough twice and then I know,”

He chuckled and looked down at the menu again, “There’s not that many,”

Robin heard the note of false modesty, "By whose estimation?”

He gave her a soft but guilty smile and his eyes, warm and dark travelled over her face. With Robin he could tease her jealous streak without worrying the plate in front of him would be smashed to pieces. Robin, knew the game he was playing and she watched his reaction as the tip of her finger fell between her parted lips and she bit down before her lips closed over it and she pulled it out.

Robin smiled smugly as she took in Strike’s awestruck expression, “Dessert?”

Chapter Text

Leaving the car at Joan and Tom’s, Robin and Strike walked down Upper Castle Road towards the Bolventor. Strike wanted to walk Scutari’s route from the hotel to the boatyard which was on the right-hand side of the peninsula, just off the main road into St Mawes. Robin thought of the body of Scutari still. Days before the man had driven in his sports cars, worth over eight times Robin annual salary, down the picturesque Lower Castle Road to The Quay. Utterly pleased with his own sense of self, he had taken time out of his day of relaxation to get out of his car to shout, swear and threaten someone who had made the simple mistake of taking the wrong turning. Not all was well with the man, Robin thought.

“Quine wasn’t a good man but I could at least feel sympathy for how Tassle used him. With Scutari, I feel like we’re just going to find out a lot of horrible things about him,” 

“Think you’re probably right. But just think about how many times that's happened when we’ve followed someone’s spouse or looked into how people do business?”

“I know but usually when we’re on a murder case, it makes up for the seedier signs of things,” Robin eyes widened in shock at her own words, "I mean obviously murder is seedy,"

Strike slipped his arm around her shoulders and leant his cheek on the golden crown of her head, "I know what you mean."

“This is not very professional,” she murmured, slipping her arm tight around him.

“We don’t need anyone here thinking we’re still here to investigate them,”

“Right,” she looked at him sceptically.

“So, this is where Scutari had the argument,”

They came to the small Coop that was now the lifeline of the small community which was still quite isolated by modern standards. Next to it was the Roseland Gig Club which had once been a garage, the old Shell petrol pumps still stood outside it. Beyond the windows were stacked the rowing boats that Strike himself had carried out with his team each week for practice and races. His Uncle so well thought of, that there was always a space for Strike when he returned from London.

“I’ll pop in and see if the manager’s around,” Robin suggested breaking him out of his thoughts.

Strike took out his vape and lent on the sea wall. He was sure he was having to use this more than he smoked. Taking a deep, frustrated drag, he exhaled it grumpily. He visualised dropping it into the sea, telling Robin it had just slipped.

“He’ll be back in an hour,” Robin’s voice jolted him from his fantasy. “Christ!”

Her eye’s narrowed suspiciously, “Why are you so jumpy?”

Strike avoided her gaze. She looked at the vape and how he was holding it over the sea wall. She shook her head, “I was watching you, you’re doing it wrong,” she took it out of his hand.

“We can try and catch him on our way back," Strike had started to walk, "How do you know I'm doing it wrong?” his tone flinty.

“I watched a Youtube video,” she began to explain to him how to use it properly as he watched her frowning.

They walked past a row of shops which Robin supposed had probably once served the village with bread, fruit and vegetables as well as meat and fish like Reah’s of Masham, before the convenience store had moved in but which now served ice cream, fudge and a varying array of taste in holiday gifts for tourists. He took back the vape and when she asked if her advice made a difference he grunted in agreement and she laughed at him, her smile soft and her eyes sparkling. His chest tightened and he slipped his arm back around her.

As they rounded the bend outside the Idle Rocks, the wind was in their faces and Strike had to use both arms to help propel his body forward as the incline of the road rose upwards. She saw him wince and his breathing grew heavier but knew better than to give away any sign she was concerned about him.

“How much do you think these houses are worth?” Robin asked of the detached homes that overlooked the estuary and out to the English Channel. She stopped and leant against the wooden fence to take in the view. She saw Strike take deep breaths and put the weight on his left leg as he followed her lead and rested against the fence. 

 “Over a million? These aren’t even the biggest, the ones where we’re going have their own swimming pools,”

“I wonder why the family lived in the hotel rather than buy a separate home here?”

“Does seem strange,” Strike looked thoughtful and then sniffed.

“What?”

“Well… the hotel gave him a constant supply of females,”

“Mmm,” Robin’s face twisted into a grimace, "What's that over there?" Robin pointed to an old estate on the other side of the estuary, partly hidden by the twisting of the Fal, the golden stone central tower of a country house and a church spire behind it rose over the trees.

"It's the hotel Jon Ridley owns," Strike felt her sideways look and met her eyes, " "I know. It's only a short sail away," his mouth was set in a grim line and she put her arm through his and they continued along the road.

The road they had driven down in a matter of minutes was now quite intimidatingly steep through Strike’s eyes. By the time they had reached Freshwater Lane, sweat had broken out on his temples and his forehead was a mass of furrows as his heavy brows strained towards each other. Robin hoped she’d remember to make him have a bath later or his knee would be in a terrible state by the next day. Large homes with multi garages lined either side of the road and Robin now saw they were high above St Mawes, which looked like a perfect Christmas model village in the dimming light of the winter afternoon. The dog litter bins suggested people walked their dogs along this road but there were none today. They had not seen one other person on the road. Whoever walked down the road from their house would also have to walk back up it, although it was also Boxing Day, Robin thought.

“Might be worth walking this way at the same time Scutari drove up here,” Strike pondered.

“Hoping for a habitual dog walker?”

“Something like that,”

“I’ll try and do it tomorrow, once I’ve dropped you at the station,”

“It would probably have been easy for the murderer to go unnoticed along here. But someone must have been on duty at the boatyard, it wouldn’t have been so easy to get past them,”

 


 

As they stood on the quay at Perrin’s boatyard Gwenifer informed them that Scutari had bought the boatyard from Kev Perrin five years previously. He had his own key and Steve Perrin, Kev’s son, still managed the place but had gone home at lunchtime for early day closing on Christmas Eve. He had seen no one all morning apart from Scutari, “As far as Kev knew, Scutari didn’t even plan to take the boat out that day,”

The yacht looked a bit out of place surrounded by police tape. Close up they could see the cruiser yacht for all its luxurious varnished teak and glossy white beauty.  Gwen handed them plastic covers for their shoes and gloves. Strike sat on a flat bollard to slip his on while the three women managed it standing. He could see Robin trying to hide her excitement at putting on these objects just like one of the TV detectives she’d watched avidly. While her own dreams of being one had ended in her being trapped in her childhood bedroom by a real-life nightmare. She looked up and caught his smile. Her face flushed pink as she pulled on her gloves but Strike was already stepping onto the deck. He was glad that he had been able to get over his reticence of being back on a boat, but with only one and a half legs, days ago.

Robin followed him down into the cabin while Gwen and Hullbridge examined the prow. Robin guessed that the boat must have been purpose-built for the billionaire Scutari. 

“Maybe we should steal this and sail it back to London to live in,” Robin joked, “Ever feel you went into the wrong career?”

Strike gave a snort of derision.

“Doesn’t feel fair though, when you think about what the rich get paid to actually do, Scutari is a case in point,”  

“Mmm,” Strike sounded non-committal, but his mind was on the photographs that Charlotte had once been looking at surreptitiously in the society pages of one of her glossy magazines. His father hosting a party at Cannes on his super yacht - well the magazine had implied it was his and not just borrowed for the night. While his half-siblings had spent their holidays jumping off the swim deck into azure seas, he had been standing on the deck of his uncle’s small boat fishing. Although, he would never have wanted it otherwise.

There was more highly polished teak in the galley kitchen which led to a bar and two cream leather banquettes, the cushions of which were wildly displaced, with a bed at the far end which was seemingly untouched. Strike thought how there was literally everything he had in his own sparse attic flat, except this boat had been purely Scutari’s hobby rather than his home.  Although Strike’s flat was spotlessly clean and tidy, Robin had still described it once to Ilsa in his hearing as having an interior design scheme which could only be described as shabby utilitarian; the interior of the cruiser was like a luxury Fitzrovia flat in comparison.

A luxury Fitzrovia flat that had been turned upside down and shaken like a snow globe.

Numbers on cards stood dotted around the interior still marking several sparse areas where evidence had been removed from the detritus of broken green and cut crystal glass.    

“The killer was looking for something? A robbery gone very wrong?” Robin suggested. 

“Too obvious…”

“Perhaps it was just made to look that way, to distract the police or an expression of anger towards Scutari to scare him?

Strike raised his brow in agreement, “Mmm…seems a pretty amateur way to cover it up,”

Robin had begun to look at the objects on the shelves, “Meaning it could be an amateur?” she took out her phone and took a picture of the books, family photo frames and some jewellery that had looked as if it had been cast aside casually on the shelving unit on the wall.

“Corm?” Gwenifer’s voice called from the deck, “Hullbridge has found the blood,”

As he turned back towards the galley steps, Robin pulled her hair out from where it was stuck in her scarf flicking it over her shoulder. He stepped into a waft of her powdery floral perfume. While she had been gone, he had seemed to smell it everywhere, walking along Oxford Street, in a café, on the tube, even stepping into an empty taxi. For the second time that day images flickered through his head from his extensive memory: Robin, opening the door of the flat she shared with Matthew, a glimpse of white lace against her creamy skin through the buttons of her shirt, holding her in his arms as they danced in slow circles and the hollow of her throat damp with perspiration.

Looking towards her profile, he saw she was focused on the screen of her phone, checking the pictures she had taken. You also should have your entire focus on the boat you bloody idiot, he reminded himself. All Robin was aware of was Strike’s bulk in her periphery vision preventing her from getting onto the deck, “Are we going up?” she asked, glancing up at him.

He averted his eyes and knowing full well he wasn’t supposed to be doing this when they were on the job. Robin smiled to herself as she stepped in front of him and quickly went up the steps, she had seen that guiltily embarrassed look before. Strike’s eyes though weren’t falling in line with the orders from his brain as they followed the line and curves of Robin’s long legs upwards before he hauled himself after her.

Gwenifer was waiting for them at the top of the steps, “The photos and evidence taken will be in the forensic report when I get it. Over here,” Gwenifer gestured for them to follow her. Hullbridge was packing away the blood evidence she had taken and stood to explain what she had found to Strike and Robin.

“The blood trace was here, you can see there’s no damage to the boom itself,”

“No, too strong,” He looked over to the side of the boat, “But it’s too close to the boom vang to have knocked him overboard,”

“What’s that?” Robin asked, she’d never been on a boat in her life, apart from a grim day on a  catamaran on holiday with Matthew in Ibiza. He’d spent the whole day vomiting into a black plastic bag as she had rubbed his back, watching their friends dive off the edge of the boat into the azure Mediterranean.

Strike pointed out the short rod that was connecting the boom to the mast at a forty-five-degree angle. The circumference from its far end to where it connected to the boom would not be anywhere near the edge of the boat, “Could he have staggered and then fallen over the boat?” She mused aloud. 

“Definitely possible,” Hullbridge said.

“Then the mess downstairs makes no sense,” Strike uttered.

“Not at all,” Gwenifer agreed, her thoughts already there too.

Robin pursed her lips together, annoyed at Gwenifer's superior tone.

"I'm not dismissing it," Strike looked at Gwenifer, he hadn't noticed Robin's annoyance but directed the next question at her "Well?"

"The killer was looking for something but not a robbery, evidence."

"Yeah and did they find it?"

 


 

The walk back had been a lot easier, apart from the uphill short walk from the boatyard to the main road, the rest of the way was downhill. Once they began the descent downwards Robin’s snaked her arm around Strike slipping her hand into his and he smiled down at her, “How're you feeling? Not too tired?” 

“I’m fine,”

But he noticed the pale pallor of her skin, “I don’t want you wearing yourself out,”

“I know – it won’t come back,”

“But you need to look after yourself, while I’m away - ”

“I said I’m fine!” Robin snapped.

Sometimes she felt being cross was the only way to stop his sense of responsibility spiralling. She had stopped walking but he didn't notice until she pulled on his sleevs. He turned to her, taking in her tense features and stepped towards her, his hands cupping her face. She watched his eyes soften as he looked down guiltily, his thick, dark eyelashes fluttering. His vulnerable moments were so easily missed if she wasn’t paying attention.

He bent his head, so his lips were at her temple, “I’m sorry, I just…”

Robin placed her hands on his cheeks so he had to look at her “I know,” she stood on her toes and kissed him on the forehead.

 


 

 

As they neared the Co-op, Strike again felt the need to buy some cigarettes but instead, he went for another vice, “I’ll see if the manager is in there this time, I need some chocolate, want anything?”

Robin smiled shaking her head, “I’ll carry on back to the cottage if you’re not out in five minutes,”

When he didn’t appear after ten, she started towards Grove Hill. As she walked past the Victory Inn she thought she heard her name being called. When she turned she expected to see Strike or even one of their friends.

Instead, she saw Peter Scutari put an empty glass down on one of the picnic tables before walking over to her, “Robin, hi!” His smile is definitely an attempt at flirtation, she thought.

“Hello Peter,” she replied with a sombre expression, “How are you and the rest of your family doing?”

“Well, you know…I wanted to say thank you for yesterday. If it had been one of my sisters or, god forbid, my mother who had found me – all hell would have broken loose. I’m really grateful you looked after me,” He said the last bit in a tone that suggested more had happened between them than Robin just trying to sober him up, “I wondered if you wanted to come back to the hotel for an afternoon tea - as a thank you?”

Robin was torn. She had no inclination to spend another minute alone with Peter Scutari but knew it could be useful to the investigation.

“Sure, just let me send a text to my friend,”

 


 

 

Strike had snuck a look at his mobile as the manager of the Co-op relayed much the same story of what had happened with Scutari on the day he went missing. He had scanned Robin’s text and had been unable to repress a grunt of displeasure. Not averse to putting himself into dangerous situations, he saw the double standard in the fact he hated it when Robin did so and hated it even more that he couldn’t demand she went straight back to the cottage rather than go anywhere with Peter Scutari. 

As he left the Co-op, he took his mobile back out and fired off a curt, OK, to Robin. He knew his annoyance with Robin was unreasonable and probably had something to do with his growing tension about the thought of the next day. Aunt Joan would be getting her results back from the hospital and then he’d have to leave to go back to London. To see his father. To do something he thought he would never do. To ask him for money again and actually meet with him. His mobile still in his hand, he pressed the buttons in quick succession.

Thirty minutes later Strike sat in a window of the Victory Inn, starting on his second pint of Doom Bar. Two full pints were lined up opposite the empty seat in front of him.

“What’s up, Diddy?” Polworth sat down, “Penny’s not happy I’ve left her with my parents,”

“She’s got the girls to protect her,”

“Not so much – they’ve bloody been at each other throats. Never have kids mate. Cheers!”

Strike puffed out the breath he felt he’d been holding in for the last half an hour, picked up his pint and clinked it with Polworth’s and took a long sip.

“Anyway – spit it out,” Polworth only half joshed, “Better out than in. A problem aired is a - ”

A folder landed on the table in front of him and he took it before looking at Strike who just nodded. Strike turned his eyes to the lane as Polworth read through the file. Finally, he closed it, handing it back to Strike.

“All pretty sound stuff mate. Looks like you’ve been turning loads of work away in the last few months, makes sense to expand and raise your personal rates,”

“Even if Robin hadn’t been ill we still could have taken on two other investigators, had our choice of jobs and not had to take on any of the sleazy shit we’ve had to deal with over the last couple of years,”

“I can see that, so what’s the problem boy,”

Polworth and Strike had been friends since they were five years old. He knew him better than anyone. Better than even Charlotte. There was an ease between them established when they were too young to understand what pride, shame or secrets were. Strike, who wasn’t always as in touch with what was going on in his own head had been used to Polworth’s opinionated analysis of his life as a teenager. As an adult he tried to avoid it for as long as possible until he had found his own sense of understanding, then Polworth would usually just confirm it.

“I’ve asked Rokeby to lend me the money …”

 


 

The waiter took Robin’s coat and scarf as Peter held out the chair for her, “Thanks,”

“Can you bring us some tea and warm scones?” Peter Scutari was polite but the question was more of a command to his family’s employee.

“I said I only wanted tea,” Robin said.

“You’ve not tasted one yet,”

Robin gave him an exasperated smile but said kindly, “Well, I’m glad you seem to be doing better than yesterday, it must have been a real shock,” Or a Macbeth style descent into feelings of guilt, she thought, stoically keeping a sympathetic smile on her face.

Peter looked down, it was hard to tell if it was guilt or embarrassment as his eyes were hidden from view, “We hadn’t been close for a long time but I think of Dad like he was my own father. I suppose that feeling never really went away, even after - ” he came to a stop.

Robin waited but there was nothing forthcoming.

“I’m sorry to hear you hadn’t been getting on,” she virtually cooed. Don’t overdo it, Robin, her inner voice sounded a lot like Strike.

Clearly, he was the kind of person who needed or even expected this kind of attention as he started to talk again, “My real father died when I was only two, I can’t remember him at all. Dad was always good to us from the moment Mother introduced him. He never treated us differently when Milena came along. But, well, Dad wasn’t as good a husband as he was a father and that I can’t forgive him for,”

Robin nodded slowly as Peter talked and the waiter arrived with their tea and scones. 

 


 

“It nearly killed me paying him back the last time,” Strike muttered.

“I’d have thought you could have taken this to a bank,” 

“Trying to skip the interest rates,”

“The bank of mum and dad helped me out when we first got married,”

“But that’s a bit different,”

Polworth took a long pull on his pint, he was two thirds through his first pint already. He let out a sigh, his eyes avoided his friend. He’s building up to say something I’m not going to like, Strike thought.

“What’s the real reason you want to see him?”

Strike mouth twisted into something between a grimace and a smirk.

“Daddy issues finally came to a head then,” Polworth chuckled.

Strike leant back into the seat to try and rid himself of the discomfort he felt and rubbed his forehead, “Do you think you’re a good dad?”

Polworth raised an eyebrow and smirked, understanding, “Mate, no one thinks they’re a good parent - not if they’re a good parent,”

Strike laughed humourlessly.

“Have you knocked Robin up already then?”

Strike shook his head, his mouth in a straight line, “Nah, but you know I’ve never wanted kids,”

“Nor did I – just wanted to be free to scuba dive the world. I’m assuming Robin wants them.”

Strike nodded a response.

“Well, I told you, you need to lock that one down,”

Strike grinned, “I intend to but not for a while yet, she’s only just walked away from one wedding,”

“Ah, so you’re worried she’ll walk if you can’t give her what she wants,”

“She deserves everything,”

Polworth smiled, “Well then. If Rokeby turns out to be the prick you’ve always thought him to be, then tell yourself, you’ll just be better. We all try to be as good or better than our own parents - don’t mean it happens,”

Strike’s mobile beeped and he looked at the screen and drained his glass, “Rokeby is a prick,” he got up, both hands texting a quick message, Meet me at the Victory afterwards, “Want another pint?”

“It’s not like you to stick rigidly to a theory, you’re always slaggin’ off those types, although – yes, he was a prick,”

The two men laughed again.

 


 

 “Yeah, I’m a proper hipster,” Peter laughed, looking down as if embarrassed by Robin’s comment about the fact he was a Hackneyite, “Georgian flat near Victoria Park and a production company in Shoreditch, so Gen runs this place with Dad – well she did. I suppose she’ll do it alone now, I won’t be coming back here, the hotel business never held any interest for me,”

“No?” Robin took her last sip of tea. She’d managed to drink almost the whole pot while she listens Peter talk about himself.

Peter shook his head, “And Gen probably wouldn’t want me to anyway – she had enough problems with Dad interfering with her decisions. She’s been stressed out lately, the silver lining is at least that’s over,”

“Well, she works hard. I saw that on Christmas Day and it’s a lovely hotel, I’m sure he was proud of you both and your achievements,”

Peter Scutari looked at Robin and smiled, his eyes dropping to her mouth. She shifted in her chair and reached for her mobile from her bag. She quickly fired off a text to strike, Are you back at the cottage? Won’t be long now. Placing it back on the table upside down she folded her arms in front of her.  

Peter had been watching her, he opened his mouth to speak and hesitated fractionally, “Who are the people you’re with. The tall bloke – is he your…?”

“We’re business partners,” Robin wondered when he had seen them together, probably before she had found him. She needed to keep up the charade a little longer, “His sister invited me for Christmas as I broke up with my fiancé this year,” Strike always said to keep as close to the truth as possible.

“So, you’d be free to meet for a drink then?”

Robin was tempted to ask about his girlfriend on the north coast of the county and what she would think of this. Considering Peter lived in London perhaps the relationship was not a serious one. She considered for a moment what Strike’s reaction would be if she continued this deception to the point of going on a date with Peter Scutari. But when she feigned disappointment it was because she didn’t think she could be devious enough to lead Peter on in this way for much longer, “I’ve got to go back to London tomorrow,”

“Well, when I finally get back to London then?”

“Let’s see shall we, you’ve got a lot to deal with here, your mother will probably need you for a while yet,” Robin tried to get him back in the lane she needed him to be in.

After the reminder about his mother, there was a flicker of acceptance across Peter’s face, “She’s putting on a brave face, doing the right thing has always been her motto, she should have left him years ago, “ Peter looked up at Robin, “He cheated on her, all of the time,”

“That must have been awful for her,” She looked down, it wasn’t hard for her to think of something that would trigger tears and she quickly felt the overwhelming hurt easily well up inside her and concentrated hard on the feeling until tears welled in her eyes, “I’m sorry,” she dashed them away quickly, “I’m sorry, you don’t need me crying with everything you’re going through,”

Peter’s long arm stretched quickly across the table holding a napkin out to her, “Are you alright?”

“My fiancé was unfaithful, it must have been very hard for your mother,”

“It was. There were other things too.”

This was Robin’s chance if it all collapsed after this it didn’t matter she had what she wanted, “My friends – they are all from St Mawes originally and well, they said that there was a rumour about a maid - ”

Peter flushed, she couldn’t tell yet whether it was anger or embarrassment as his face was blank of expression, he tried to speak but had to clear his throat, “We always thought it a lie. He could be a complete bastard but not to the extent of ra – " A twist of the mouth stopped his sentence, "Well, the police would have prosecuted if there had been anything in it,”

Robin cut her loses and went for it, “Some women are too scared to press charges and your step-father was very rich and well-connected,”

“I’m not sure what you want me to say, it doesn’t really matter now,” she saw now from the growing archness in the planes of his face that he was angry, “The bastard is dead,”

 


 

Polworth had caught up with Strike and they were halfway through what would probably be their final pint, the time for Boxing Day dinner was drawing closer.

“Charlotte told me she was pregnant and then she lost it,”

Polworth’s brow shot up in surprise, “Bloody hell Diddy, it’s been over a year. Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Strike gave him a rueful smile, “Well, she lied anyway, she was cheating on me,”

Polworth’s mouth puckered with unspoken anger for his friend.

 “She didn’t know who the father was and was trying to keep all her balls in the air,”

Polworth guffawed at Strike’s use of words, “That was always Milady Berserko’s problem,”

Strike’s ironic smile was acerbic, “Obviously, would have been a nightmare situation,”

“Goes without saying,”

“But, I felt protective of it – immediately, then she said it was gone and - ” Strike stared into nothingness for a moment before blinking a few times.

“Well, that’s a start. It doesn’t half feel different when it actually happens – I would kill for those two madams if they don’t kill each other first,” Polworth tipped his glass and downed the last mouthful of amber liquid, “Anyway, this has been a very nice break from the parents and kids but Robin’s here, so I better be on my way,”

Strike looked up as Robin stepped next to the table, her eyes scanning the six empty glasses, “You don’t have to go Dave,” she said lightly.

“Penny’ll kill me and I need to practice walking in a straight line,”

Strike got up out of his seat and the two men shook hands, “Talk soon mate,”

“Hope it all goes well,” The smaller man placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, “Robin, I’ll see you tomorrow night with the others,” He kissed her on the cheek and walked away in a swerving arc out the door.

“Well, what have you got to tell me?” Strike asked as Robin bounced into the seat opposite.

Chapter Text

“Will Joan be upset if we’re late?”

“No, but Lucy will be another story.” Strike looked down at the watch Robin had given him for his birthday. Once back at the cottage, they had rushed showering and dressing to be able to make dinner on time. It had proved more difficult for Strike who was having to make an effort to appear not in the first stages of drunkenness, “We’re not late anyway,”

“Good!” Robin suddenly stepped to the side as they walked up Lower Castle Road and pulled him with her as she took a small path that led off of the road. She spun around to put her hands on his shoulders.

Strike looked down at her with one brow raised in mild surprise and a smile, “You want us to be late,”

In confirmation, she pushed Strike up against the wall of the side of a stone-built house which the path rang alongside. Her hands went from his chest to the sides of his throat, her thumbs stroking his beard before her lips brushed against his. But as Strike leant into her, Robin's fingers held his head away from her so that only she could decide when his lips were allowed to touch her skin, her lips, her tongue or just the air. As he leant backwards, closing his eyes and giving himself over to the warm flickering sensations her soft, plump lips aroused as they closed and opened against his, the back of his head knocked against stone and Strike’s grunt of, what Robin thought, must be pain rumbled against her mouth. She pulled away quickly, “Are you alright?”

Anesthetised by the alcohol in his blood, his fingertips raked the back of her scalp so that she pushed herself into him again, he dropped his head until it was aligned with hers and he gave a murmur of affirmation against her throat.

 

What had begun as their usual banter, had descended into physical teasing. Both enjoyed the battle to see who could have the most torturous effect on the other. Slow, sensual kisses against a doorway that could be opened from the inside at any minute, that lasted until one of them stole away, while the other was left breathless - eyes still closed.  A tongue licked fingertips, as a sweet was placed in a mouth. A hand slid past the shower curtain to trace rivulets of water that plastered dark hair against pale skin until a groan was elicited, then it slipped away before a wrist could be caught by wide fingers. Against a hardened nipple, a rough towel was rubbed. A sigh escaped pink lips before teeth reciprocated, by scrapping an earlobe and a whisper was said that when they got back there would be no touching allowed, he would only be allowed to listen to her make herself come with her own fingers, not his. 

All the sensuous taunting had led to this moment when his lips trailed their way down her throat, so he could breathe in that scent he had craved. Strike didn’t think he could put up much more resistance and broke away as he heard a small moan escape her lips. But not to tease any longer. He had reached the point where he needed fulfilment whether they were late or not. 

“Come on, I know a place,” his voice a low and husky as if he had to force out words.

“Of course you do,” Robin smirked.

His fingers stroked the flush on her cheek as he kissed her forehead. He grabbed her hand and tugged her, so she followed him further along the path that ran between two houses and then curved behind the gardens. The overhang of evergreen firs, hollies and shrubs provided a canopy that shielded them from overlooking windows. Strike’s right boot scuffed the path at just the wrong angle and he fell into Robin making her giggle in surprise and he used it as an excuse to kiss her again, “It’s just around the next corner,” he murmured against her lips.

They walked a little further trying to keep their lips in contact, laughing more than they were successful. Strike pulled her between two bushes into a clearing but two older teenagers were already there, in a clinch of their own. At the sound of adult laughter, they broke apart quickly, and looked at the tall woman and man, waiting for recognition. The teenage boy was tall, almost as tall as Strike, with blonde curly hair and dark eyes. He appeared to be relieved that Strike and Robin were no one he recognised. The girl, however, Strike and Robin recognised instantly although she was innocent of who they were. She was very pretty with a dark wave of hair and green eyes, it was Milena Scutari.

Robin made a noise as if she was going to say something to the girl, who gave them a shocked look as if teenagers were the only ones allowed to have secret trysts in the shrubbery. Then Robin remembered herself, she wasn’t supposed to know who Milena was, “Sorry, we must have made a wrong turn,” and she pulled Strike back through the hedge behind her.

The couple looked at each other as if they had been doused by a freak wave of cold water, “Bloody teenagers,” Strike only half-joked, placing his hand on Robin’s back to guide her the rest of the way to his Aunt and Uncle’s.

“What was going on there?” she whispered.

“Well, I’m sure you’re going to find out.”

 


  

Before dinner Strike had overheard Greg moaning to Lucy that his brother-in-law seemed to think that the world revolved around him. Greg’s Boxing Day had supposedly been ruined by waiting around for Strike. Also, Ted had saved watching the Arsenal match against Wolves until after Boxing Day dinner. Strike, being on his best behaviour, had felt the tension that had quickly begun to simmer on entering the house rise to a rolling boil. But Robin, bringing him a black coffee, had winked at him and rolled her eyes so the feeling dissipated. For her, it had brought back bad memories of Matthew saying exactly the same kind of thing if she arrived home late from work or had to work at the weekend.

But, it wasn’t often Ted was able to watch the football with Strike as they had done when he was younger and lived with them. So, he had mostly ignored Greg’s grumblings and now all of the male occupants of the house were crowded into the living room watching. Robin had been press-ganged by Lucy to go for a walk with her and Joan. ‘Going for a walk’ was code in front of the children for going to the pub for a drink. Strike had tried to tell Lucy that Robin watched more sport on television than he did but Robin, forever polite, brushed it off and said she would like to go.

The Gunners ran up and down the field laboriously for 90 minutes, trying to edge over the one-all-draw for at least fifty of them. They looked relieved when the whistle blew and ended it for them, even though they should have won easily. Strike had watched most of it blurry-eyed especially after wine at dinner on top of the bitter at the pub. The noise of chattering voices entered the hallway and Strike caught Robin’s eye making the universal sign for tea with his hands. Robin made a universal sign back with a couple of fingers on one hand and he smiled slowly at her letting her read his thoughts from the curve of his lips and hooded eyes so that she flushed pink and disappeared, following Joan and Lucy.

“It’s that,” Ted dropped his voice to a whisper, “Bloody Wenger!” he complained.

Jack laughed at his Great Uncle swearing in front of him and Strike laughed too, in his uncle’s opinion it was always Wenger’s fault even though he was the most successful manager in the team’s history. Although, the reason Strike had followed his Uncle’s favourite team, in the beginning, was because they were the team of the underdogs as he grew up.

“Over 10 million a year and for what? We’ve had a bloody awful - ” this time he forgot to whisper.

“Right you three, bedtime,” Greg stood up, giving Ted a disapproving look before hustling the boys up and ignoring their protests. Although Oli had begun to scream the house down that he wanted Robin to put him to bed and not his dad, Lucy had come in moments later and taken Oli’s hand trying to lead him away.

“Sorry lads,” Ted sympathised as the other boys gave him a hug goodnight.

Jack hesitated and turned to Strike whose eyes were on the television screen. He ran over to his uncle and flung his arms around him, “Night Uncle Corm!”

Strike's hand hovered in the air before he patted the boy’s back, “Night Jack, don’t let the bed bugs bite,”

Over the top of his nephew’s head, he saw Lucy smile widely. Strike had no idea where that had come from. 

“Used to say that to you,” his uncle remarked, smiling at the memory, then he returned to what was aggravating him, “We’ve had a bloody awful season!”

“You’re not wrong there – glad I missed a lot of it,” work and Robin’s illness had meant missing the games more often than not. Strike, who still remembered the excitement of Arsenal winning the double for the second time in the club’s history in 1998 tried to defend Wenger but his uncle remained unconvinced.

“That’s why I support Man U!” Greg gloated on returning to the room and picking up his mobile before, thankfully, Strike thought, disappearing back into the hall.

Ted leant forward and whispered conspiratorially, “He supports Man U because he’s a bloody glory hunter. He’s never been to Manchester in his bloody life,”

Strike half-smiled.

“It always seemed strange to me that a Cornishman born and bred supported Arsenal!” Lucy had come in, overhearing Ted’s churlish comment.

“I’ve told you - ” Ted began.

But Lucy interrupted, “Our grandfather was a gunner in the Royal Artillery at Woolwich during World War Two and that’s where Arsenal started,” Lucy feigned a yawn.

“Yes, he was and I’d expect more respect about it,” He caught Strike sharing a look with Lucy, “Especially from you!”

Strike raised his hands in surrender, “I didn’t say anything,”

“I just came in to see if you wanted another drink, I shan’t bother then?” Lucy teased Ted.

“Yes, please,” he said sulkily.

Lucy ruffled his white curly hair as she looked towards her brother.

“I’ll get them,” Strike said, starting to push himself up from the sofa.

“No, it’s fine, you’ve been working today,” she replied chippily, disappearing before he could get out of the chair.

“She was a bit upset when we told her you and Robin were going to go and stay at the cottage – took it personally,”

Strike raised his eyebrow and sniffed, annoyed and slightly guilty.

“Was everything alright when you got in there?”

“Yep, sorted the thermostat when we took our stuff over there,” If he was being honest he would have admitted to having done it already at two o’clock that morning except that had been after he had seen goosebumps appear on Robin’s naked skin.

“Good, you know the cottage is there whenever you need it. Always reminds me of being a lad, going back to there, brings my parents and your mum back again. Might bring you some comfort being there again, help you feel close to her,”

Strike didn’t say anything. If his mother’s spirit even existed, she would not be using the opportunity to haunt St Mawes.

“Do you think you’ll bring Robin in the summer or maybe even a weekend before?”

Ted’s eyes stayed on the television set but Strike knew that his Uncle was thinking about his wife’s uncertain health.

“We’ll definitely try and fit something in before the summer, Robin loves it here,”

“She’s a lovely young woman – you’ve landed on your feet there, excuse the pun – very kind and clever for starters. Joan and Lucy don’t have a bad word against her which is a bonus, not having to listen to them go on,”

Unlike with Charlotte, Strike thought.

“Very attractive too,” he winked at Strike, who shook his head reproachfully.

It didn’t look as if Greg was coming back so once Lucy had brought in their drinks, Strike brought up the subject that he had been desperate to talk over with Ted for most of the evening.

“What happened with Scutari and Jon then?”

Jon Ridley had been friends with Ted since their own school days. One had found the only prospects for adventure outside of Cornwall was to join the army. The other had found it in making money on the stock market as a broker. Ridley had then made a lot of money buying London and Cornish property cheaply after the economy crashed in the 1990s. Ridley had become a key player in promoting and selling cheap holiday homes to the Londoners who could afford it. He had arrived back home during the boom of the Noughties himself. Over this time, he and Tom had remained good friends, Jon had quickly made himself an indispensable part of the Roseland community, attracting investment for local projects or providing it himself.

“Well, you know they’ve always hated each other. Recently Scutari tried to buy up all the council flats in Summerhill House and it raised the stakes – turned into a real feud,”

St Mawes was far too small to have a council estate but it did have a block of flats on top of a shopping arcade which looked out directly to the harbour. It would make a valuable piece of real estate, Strike thought, “Wanted to develop them into more holiday flats did he?”

“Exactly. Jon put a lot of pressure on the council to stop it – lack of local social housing and that. Also, between us, he’s behind a local pressure group who campaigned to stop the sale,”

“And did they?”

Ted nodded, “Scutari was not happy. That’s when the break-ins started at the Trevalgan,”

The Trevalgan was Jon Ridley’s high-end hotel and spa overlooking the river that Robin had noticed earlier in the day.

“Also, there was a campaign of sporadic vandalism, cars, windows and spray paint on walls. Could have easily been put down to some out of control kids but you don’t get many of those around here. Then there were a number of bad reviews on the internet. Ridley’s staff looked into them and they all seemed to be fake but the damage was already done. He nearly had to sell,”

“Did Jon confront Scutari?”

“You know Jon, he doesn’t mince his words, he even got that Gwenifer Arscott on Scutari’s case but if you mean did he ever threaten him in my hearing – no. And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends,”

“So, you don’t think Jon’s capable of something like this or - ”

“Getting someone to do his dirty work for him – no, lad, I really don’t. He could have just as easily begun a campaign of terrorism himself. But he didn’t. If you want to talk to him I can ask him?”

“That would be great, if he can’t do tomorrow Robin will meet him the next day,”

“Okay. Will she be alright investigating the case while you’re gone? She’s only got less than a year’s experience,”

“She’s bloody great at her job: driven. Won’t take no for an answer and learns fast,”

“I seem to remember you saying that last time you were down, how she’d saved the business from going down the toilet - you were clearly besotted with her then too!” Ted gave Strike a knowing look.

In response his nephew cleared his throat and took a sip of weak tea and scowled, averting his eyes to the television, “Well, the business is going really well now,”

“Should think so, after what you two have achieved,”

“We’re going to expand – take on another investigator, maybe two,”

“Glad to hear it, the amount of work you’ve put in – you need some time for a normal life lad,”

Strike’s smile was sceptical, “Don’t think I’m cut out for a normal life,” and he explained his plans for the agency while his uncle listened with interest and the understanding only another person with similar experience could have.

“Have the banks agreed to a loan then Corm?”

“Urm…no…I’ve asked Rokeby for another loan,” He fixed his eyes to the television again to cover the shame he felt.

Leda had given Ted and Joan the news she was pregnant with a famous rock star’s child and he had no interest in standing by her. Then Rokeby would not even acknowledge the baby that had been born. Ted had exploded into an inextinguishable rage. Even though he and Joan had been over 400 miles away in Herford, Germany at the time, he had threatened to hunt Rokeby down and make his responsibilities, “Bloody clear to him!”

The only thing that had saved Rokeby or even Ted was the fact he would never get near to the superstar, who had escaped to Los Angeles, far away from the paparazzi raptors hungry to feast on the juicy morsels of the acrimonious divorce Strike’s conception had caused.

However, over time, Ted’s attitude had mellowed and Strike had always wondered why.

“Are you going to actually meet him this time?” Ted fixed Strike with a look that made it clear he thought he should.

“Yep,”

“Good. Give him a fair chance,” Ted stated without embellishment.

“I’ve never understood why you defend him?”

“Defend him? I just don’t agree that he’s simply a callous bastard,”

“Based on what evidence?”

“Based on life, lad! Are you still the same man you were only a decade ago?” 

Strike lifted his leg so his trouser leg shifted, revealing the metal rod, “Clearly not the same man I was even four years ago! But then I’ve never been some spoilt celebrity wank - ”

“No,” Ted interrupted, “But you’ve had a taste of celebrity now – in your own right. Imagine what it would have been like in an amplified degree, in what? Your late teens? It would have made anyone a prick, even you. You’ve had the benefit of growing up working class, going to University, then the army. If anything grounds you, that should,” Ted sighed, but in the silence of the room, Strike’s face was simmering with anger, “No doubt he’s made some massive mistakes but he’s been tried to hold out an olive branch to you. If he didn’t care about you, why would he have been offended when you refused to meet him again,”

A few beats passed before the implications of Ted’s words hit home with Strike, “What do you mean ‘again’?” he asked, confused.

Ted looked at Strike. Their faces mirrored each other’s perturbed and confused expressions, “Well first there was the time when you were a kid and you told the person from the court you didn’t want to see him,”

“What?” Ted didn’t respond immediately, “I never said that,” Strike tried to affirm.

Ted put his hands on each armrest and leant forward a little, “Corm, I was there. Your mother encouraged it of course, selfish as always because it suited her. Got to keep you to herself until her attention went elsewhere. It was after that second awful visit here,”

There was a terrible silence as Strike tried to retrieve the memory from the tangles in his mind that involved anything to do with Rokeby that was contained with the cold, hard casing of those things that remained unforgivable.

“Although, of course, your mother was terrified,”

“Terrified?” Strike sat forward, his elbows resting on his long thighs.

“She thought, once the DNA test came back, Rokeby would try and get custody. Millionaire rock star against a single girl with no prospects and a certain, well – reputation – wouldn’t have been hard,"

“But he didn’t,”

“He did. Papers were filed but you told the court-appointed social worker that you hated him, he wasn’t nice to you and you didn’t want to see him again – you were six, I’d have thought you would have remembered,”

A door had closed permanently on that memory.

“You and your mother were staying with us at that point, so they let her keep you and then she whisked you and Lucy back to London,”

Strike was speechless, of all the things Leda had been, she had always been unscrupulously honest. with an openness about life that on occasion would have been better restrained. But this she had never told him. He tried to break out of the stunned silence that gripped him, “But how did you not mention it when I loaned the money from him to start the business?”

“Honestly I didn’t realise you didn’t remember it – I just thought it was one of those things you didn’t want to discuss. You were going through enough at the time lad,”

 


Chapter Text

The kitchen glowed warmly in the golden light cast by the wall lights. Joan never turned the overhead lights on anywhere in the house believing the unnatural light gave her a headache. Cormoran’s aunt had tucked a blanket around Robin, insisting that the kitchen could get very cold, even though Robin’s cheeks were almost rosy with heat and persuaded her into eating a slice of thick, buttery toast. Robin felt that there was nowhere more comforting to be, apart from her own parent’s house.

Dragging his coat over his shoulders, Cormoran pushed open the bottom of the stable door that led into the kitchen from the living room.

“Enjoyed the game?” Robin teased.

“You know we bloody lost then,” Strike walked over to where she sat, just about to take another bite of toast. He placed his hands over her shoulders, rubbing his thumbs into her shoulder blades. Robin turned her face towards him and he lowered his head until her breath tickled the scruff of his beard.  She watched as his tongue left a damp trail across his bottom lip and lifted herself slightly to meet them. But, he averted her trajectory, biting her toast and whipping it out of her hand. He was next to the garden door before she had absorbed what had happened.

The toast was gone in two bites and he swallowed, opening the door halfway, “Mmm,” he smirked.

“You’ll regret that.”

“We’ll see,” his voice called from outside before the door clicked shut.

Robin noticed Joan seemed perturbed as she entered the kitchen, assuming it must be due to the worry of her test results the following day. She had just taken in tea and toast to Ted and Greg. Robin worried that although Joan was so caring to everyone else, she was the kind of person who prioritised herself last. So, Robin started to push herself up from the pine dining chair, “I’ll see if Corm and Lucy want some.”

“Don’t worry – they will. We’ll just tell them when it’s made or Corm will say not to bother and Lucy will worry her jeans won’t take the strain.”

Robin giggled along with Joan “Still, you sit down and let me do the next lot.”

Robin cut more slices from the loaf and put them under the gas grill while Joan made herself comfortable at the table.

“I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy but there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you that would really help the case.”

Joan poured herself a fresh cup of tea from the pot, “Ask me anything love, I’ll be happy to help any way I can,”

“You mentioned that Scutari has had extra-marital affairs? And I just wondered - ” Robin hesitated, not wanting Joan to think she thought her a gossip.

“If I knew anything about them?”

Robin nodded.

“Well, I know of…” Joan looked upwards as she delved through the folds of her memory, “Three different women in the local area who have been his mistresses – sounds like quite an old word that in this day and age, but that’s what they were. He would take them to parties and flaunt them about - no thought for poor Isabella!” 

“Do you have any idea why she didn’t she divorce him?”

Joan arched an eyebrow at Robin and she saw where Strike had picked the habit up from.

“Really? She cared about the money that much she'd be publicly humiliated?” Robin had known many women in her job who had found out their husbands were unfaithful but it was usually done under the cover of lies and secrets, not out in the open. Especially as, for many of the rich women involved, it could mean a huge divorce settlement. She wondered whether if everyone had known about Matthew, whether she would have gone back to him. It suddenly dawned on her that his friends from University probably had. Even after everything, she felt sick.

Joan had arranged plates and cutlery to butter the toast that Robin took out from under the grill, “Or…to be fair, it could have been fear.” She placed her hands palm-down on the table and inhaled deeply as if she was having to build up the strength to finish the toast.

Her voice was uneasy when she finally spoke again, “Scutari had a bit of reputation – outbursts of anger, violence. Maybe Isabella was broken down by him - ”  Joan’s lips moved for a moment before words came out by their own volition in stops and starts,  “There was a girl - one of the girl’s in Lucy’s year at school - she was raped by Scutari.”  

Joan's lips were pursed as if she disfavoured her own words. Her voice cracked as she started talking again, “She told me and Lucy. But refused to go to the police. She was so frightened of him. I tried to convince her but she thought she didn’t stand a chance against him,” She shook her head as if defending herself of the memory, then looked back up at Robin, “If he was capable of doing that, who knows what kind of husband the man was,”

It had clearly been difficult for Joan to tell Robin this. But she could tell it wasn’t because Strike’s aunt knew anything of her own experience. He had kept Robin’s secret and Joan felt the weight of her own.  

Robin wanted to know the name of the girl he had raped. Feeling that she was crossing a boundary as Joan had not volunteered, she decided she could leave it till the next day. Perhaps it was better coming from Strike, “Joan? If I get my notebook, do you know the women who were his mistresses’ names and addresses?”

“Of course, certainly their names.”

After Joan relayed the information and she noted it carefully in her notebook, Robin got up to go outside and tell Lucy and Strike their supper was ready. Stifling a smile, she tried to keep her excitement about what she had to tell Strike under control in front of Joan.

 


  

Strike had taken the vape outside out of habit. He stood leaning against the bumpily rendered wall. His coat lapels were turned up to try and keep out the sharpness in the air that pierced him through any vulnerable breach of his layers of clothing. The warm air inside though had begun to be cloying. He heard the door handle being pushed down hard and hoped it would be Robin stepping out of the kitchen door, ready to go back to the cottage. Instead, lowering his eyes he saw the blonde head of his much shorter sister.

“Alright Stick?”

Christ, Strike thought, here we go. He wondered whether the word had travelled around the house about what Ted had just told him. He raised his brow, looking at her from the corner of his eye.

“You were very sweet with Jack just then, I wish I’d had my camera,” she smiled brightly, too much so to be just teasing him.

Strike almost winced from the burden of her expectation. He pulled the vape away from his mouth and exhaled a cloud of vapour, “He’s a good kid.”

Her expression became serious, “Robin’s been a really good influence on you.”

His scowl, which he half hoped she couldn’t see in the dark, expressed equal measures of suspicion and repression, “Have the boys had a good Christmas?” he tried to sound relaxed.

But Lucy, as usual, wouldn’t be deterred from her train of thought, “Well, whenever Charlotte spent any time with us, she did very little to hide the fact that she thought having kids, or should I say 'the little shits', was pathetic!”

“Don’t.”

“What have I said now? You’re not still defending the woman are you,” Lucy spoke with her strange tone of bossiness and kindness.

Strike was in no mood to listen to a redundant anti-Charlotte tirade, “It has nothing to do with Charlotte. She didn’t make me not want kids.”

“But your reasons aren’t any better– kids tie you down! Who would bring kids into this world? Oh, and the best one, I don’t know what to say to kids - won’t Robin - ”

When he cut across her, his voice came out a few decibels louder than even he had meant, “No! Don’t bring her into this. I’m never going to be a devoted father-next-door type – not for anyone!”

He hadn’t heard the door being pushed open or realised the level of volume and harshness that his voice had reached.  Robin’s face peered around its edge. Her face visibly whitened and then flushed upon hearing Strike.

She spoke gently but quite a few degrees cooler than usual, “Joan’s made tea and toast for supper.”

Strike’s eyes widened as they swivelled towards her. Brother and sister made noises of appreciation but neither could look Robin or each other in the eye. She closed the door firmly, disappearing without another word. 

“For fuck’s sake.” Strike breathed, leaning his head back against the wall.

“Don’t blame me,” Lucy sulked as if she were still thirteen and not thirty-five.

He looked down at her, shaking his head. He’d just about reached his limit. Getting on the train tomorrow suddenly seemed like the better choice than staying with his family. Tonight, they couldn’t help but say things that put him on the back foot. He put his vape in his pocket and went back inside the house.

 


 

  

Strike sighed in the cosy warmth of the kitchen as he shook off his coat. He still felt chilled by the guilt of losing his temper and perhaps upsetting Robin. She was sat with her mug cupped in her hands, a blanket tucked around her, staring despondently into space or was it from sheer tiredness? Robin blew some stray wisps of hair out of her eyes, or had they teared up? It was hard for Strike to tell in the dim light cast from underneath the cabinets. He didn’t know how to rectify the situation without making it worse at this present moment. It didn’t help that Joan was sat with her and was looking at him askance. Also, Lucy had followed him in and was now hovering.

“I’ll take this into the other room,” Lucy, for once tactful and perhaps feeling guilty, excused herself, picking up a still steaming mug and plate of buttery toast.

Robin stood up, “Actually, I’ve just got a few more things I need to sort out to take to the cottage,” Her eyes flitted between Strike and his Aunt, finally landing, “Thanks Joan, for everything, it’s been a lovely Christmas,”

His aunt reached out and grasped Robin’s hand squeezing it and smiling up at her. Then in a few long strides, she had left the room without even looking at him. Strike immediately made a move towards the hall to follow her but Joan stood up blocking his path. She leant across the table, moving the last plate and mug closer to the nearest chair.

“Corm, have your tea and toast,”

He groaned under his breath but sat at the table. Joan bent over him, giving him as brief a hug around his shoulders as she felt she could get away with before moving back to her own chair.

“Ted said you may have had a bit of a shock tonight?”

Strike demonstarted agreement with a fractional movement of his brow.

“Don’t be angry with Lucy though, she has good intentions at heart,”

“You heard too? I usually try my best to deflect her before losing my temper,” He exhaled, “I’m sorry – this is the last thing you need,”

“Don’t be sorry – life has to carry on as normal, whatever may happen tomorrow,” she covered his hand as it rested by the mug and tapped it, “Lucy just has a misguided view that since you lost your leg, she needs to look after you, the way you looked after her growing up,”

“Hmm…problem is, it’s not helpful - what with being a bloody grown-up and not one of her under-10s,” Strike demolished another half of a slice of toast in two bites.

“Mmm, but she’s right on this one,” Joan smiled, “Robin couldn’t be more perfect for you,” 

“You lot are bloody smitten,” as he tried to fight the smile that was doggedly lifting the corner of his mouth upwards.

“Can’t say you’re not, can you?” Joan teased him.

“No but she might not be that interested after that,” By now his plate was empty and he licked his finger to finish off the crumbs, ‘Maybe I’m not exactly perfect for her,” he picked up Robin’s abandoned plate and ate the crusts, she always left the best bits which was all the better for him.

Joan sighed, “After the trial, once you joined the army, it felt like you put a distance between yourself and everyone else,” Strike made to speak but Joan raised her hand stopping him, “Just be sure you’re still not doing it.”

 


  

In the bedroom, Robin was desperately trying to ignore her confusion. Strike had said things about their relationship in private that contradicted directly with what he’d just said to Lucy. It was not the first time he had done an about-face with his intentions. This time though she was determined not to allow herself to agonise over it until she tied herself up in knots. After the last few months, he’d rebuilt the trust they had lost between them when he had sacked her and beyond. She was more than aware that Lucy had a knack for turning his mood sour, although she rarely felt any sympathy towards him for allowing himself to fall into irritability quite so easily as he did. Perhaps, for whatever reason, he needed to unravel whatever mess he’d got his own head into.

She heard the slightly uneven tread of Strike’s footsteps as he entered the room.  Robin looked up at him. His eyes showed real concern but his mouth was open as if his words were failing him. This is not the time or place to discuss it, she thought and decided to change the subject to something they both felt comfortable with to tide them over until they were truly alone.

“Had a very interesting chat with Joan…” she kept her voice light.

“Oh yeah?” he decided to enthusiastically take the bait, desperate to avoid any more personal conversations surrounded by his family.

 


 

  

The walk back to the cottage had none of the playful silliness of when they had left it. Walking apart, they had taken the shortcut again down the path along the back of the gardens. Strike followed Robin, who led the way using the torch on her phone. Although she had seemed bright and cheerful after he had found her packing the last of her things, she hadn’t spoken since they had left the house. The atmosphere between them had become charged and wasn’t flowing towards the positive. Robin focused purposefully on the way ahead, hands tucked deeply into her pockets and her arms pulled in tightly against her sides. Whenever he was able to walk next to her, Strike glanced uneasily at her profile. He was trying to think of the best way to start explaining himself to her. Trying to traverse an uneven path in the dark was turning out not to be the best time to bring it up. 

As soon as his boots were on even tarmac he said, “Look, what you heard outside -”

She looked up at him barely concealing the subtle roll of her eyes, flint-blue in the darkness, then directing them slightly away.

He didn’t begrudge the fact she still felt stung, he’d lost his temper and gone too far, “What you heard was out of context. I’ve not gone back on what I said,”

“Really? Because you sounded pretty certain,”

“I lost my temper and shouldn’t have. I’ve tried for days not to do anything that would upset Joan and I ballsed it up.”

This evoked an involuntary snicker from Robin. Strike looked at her cautiously. He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand. In the shadows cast the odd garden security light the downward tilt of the lines in his face made him look bleak. Her natural sense of compassion escaped, neutralising some of her resentment. He looked exhausted, Robin thought.

“I think Lucy expects us to be married with kids by the end of the week and I was on edge.”

“You mean we won’t be,” Robin said sardonically.

“You turned me down if you remember,” Strike smirked and she smiled at him begrudgingly.

They had arrived at the front door of the cottage. Robin stood aside as Strike fished the keys out of his large pockets. They were nestled under several chocolate wrappers. The door opened into a very small porch which had once been part of a hallway but Ted had knocked down the partition wall to make an open plan living and dining room. As in Joan’s own house, there were no bright overhead lights just wall lamps which Robin switched on. The cottage was far more comfortable to come back to than his own attic flat and Strike put down the bag he had carried back for Robin, dropping onto the large yellow sofa.

“Not sure I’m going to make it upstairs,” he grumbled, lifting his legs onto the long seat, his boots just hanging off the end.

“Don’t make yourself too comfortable, you need to have a bath and sort your knee out,”

He could tell she was still cross with him from her bossy tone. As she walked past him he grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him until she was wriggling on his lap.

“I’m trying to go and run the bath,” she complained, her fingers around his wrists. holding him away from her so she could push herself back up.

His arms went limp and he gave her his best contrite half smile, “I’ll do it - just sit here with me for a minute, I need to finish telling you what happened tonight,” 

Robin turned to look at him and saw the same dejected look on his face as before, instead of any mischief.

As he repeated what Ted had told him she began to visibly and physically relax until he managed to persuade her to lie on the sofa with him. By the end of it, Robin could start to see the chain of events. She propped up her head up with her hand, her elbow on the arm of the sofa.

“Parents sometimes think they know what’s best for us,” she consoled.

The thought that Leda ever did what she thought was best for Strike was met with a momentary look of mock-disdain which altered into a half smile, “Like your Mum not wanting you to work for me?”

“Can you blame her?” Robin chuckled as he feigned offence, “More like she didn’t want me doing a dangerous job – you just want me to tell you how much she loves you,”

“Well, someone actually approves of me for once,” He looked up at her sideways and breathed in, “You still like me then?” 

“Hmm, but fishing for a compliment isn’t an attractive quality!” she bent down, kissing his left eyebrow.

He lifted his chin to kiss her at the corner of her mouth, “You seem to like it,” His reached up, sliding his hand from the nape of her neck into her hair before she could move away. Strike curved the fingers of his other hand and stroked her chin until she lowered her lips back to his.

A little while later he lay staring at the ceiling while her hand traced the crooked features of his face.

“I just can’t get my head around the fact that Leda lied for all that time – she was always too honest if anything,”

Robin tried to be diplomatic, “Ted’s probably right that Rokeby would have got custody,”

Strike turned his head towards her with a sardonic expression, “Definitely.”

“Well, how would she have known whether you meant it or not? Rokeby had hardly ever spent any time with you before then – I don’t think I would have been willing to let my child go off with a father he hardly knew for even half an hour. Biology or not, ” Robin was suddenly apprehensive as she headed into new territory, “ What were your father’s visits like? Only if you want to tell me of course.”

His fingers combed through her gilded hair, “Course I want to tell you,”

Robin looked up at him, patiently waiting as Strike swallowed, casting about for the words. With another deep breath, he began, “The first time I don’t remember because I was only a baby but all I know is that he took one look at me, saw I was nothing like him and then I never say anything of him for years,”

“But surely paternity was proved before then?”

“Took the courts a while to force Rokeby to provide DNA. So, I always thought he still didn’t want to know. Now? Who knows?” 

Strike closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Reluctantly memories pushed aside long ago but nonetheless vivid came to the forefront of his mind, “The last time I met him, I was about five. He was alright. Told me to call him Dad. Kicked a ball around with me in the park. We even went for fish and chips.”

Easy with adults, from having already lived in at least six different places within his short life, he had not been scared about the first meeting he would be able to remember with his father. He vaguely remembered the feeling of excitement as the day drew closer. Like most little children who had no real sense of time, he had hoped as he had done about Christmas that he would wake up the next day and his father would have finally arrived.  

Rokeby had arrived at the cottage door in jeans, trainers and a burgundy sweatshirt. The only rock star touches were his mirrored sunglasses in the middle of February, fur-trimmed bomber jacket and stylishly shaggy haircut. Rokeby, by then had three other children, so was quickly at ease with him but Strike had been his first-born male. So, Strike, the man of many names, had been nicknamed by his father Sonny-boy within the first five minutes.

Rokeby had brought the ball with him and suggested they went to a park. He’d asked if David could come but Aunt Joan had said no before his mother or anyone else could answer. New and unused the label was still on the leather. Strike grimaced at the thought of its price showing his age.  It had been almost too heavy for Strike to kick very far, tall for his age but also with stick-like legs. Not the kind of ball you got for a four-year-old. He remembered taking it back to London with him. But when a little older and stronger he had kicked that ball over a fence and never went to find it.

“Then nothing,”

“You never saw him again or you just don’t remember?”

“I’m pretty sure I never saw him again. Clearly, things were going on in the background I didn’t know about, but I have no memory of going to court at all.”

It was the first time Robin had ever seen Strike’s memory fail him and he was clearly discomforted by it.

“Since I was an injured veteran maybe…”

He saw Robin sceptical glance, the look of someone who had always been secure of her own parents’ love, “All I think, is that he must be curious, having a son that doesn’t show any interest in wanting to know his billionaire father.”

“Well, not unless he needs to loan money from him,” he lapsed back into quiet concentration, focusing on the fine cracks in the ceiling plaster.

Robin tapped his thigh, breaking him out of his tense silence, “What if you didn’t ask him for the loan?”

He turned and scanned her face closely, “We really need the business to properly start supporting both of us. You know…so we can actually have a life,”

“I was doing alright before thanking you very much!”

He tilted his head and rolled his eyes, “Together,”

“Mmm, I just like to hear you say it,” she smiled, “But if you feel it will get in the way, just leave it. You’ve tried to do it all on your own again – let me look into how to get the money,”

“We haven’t got long to take the lease,”

“I’ll talk to the landlord,” Then more reassuringly, “You'll be better able to judge for yourself the truth, without having to worry that you’re selling your conscience,”

Strike rubbed his fingertips against her scalp, “Alright.”

She smiled gently, “And he’s got how many other kids? Hardly someone who is not a family man?”

At the reminder of his own failing, he gave her a pained look. Her eyes held his gaze as she climbed over him and she paused to kiss him delicately on the forehead. Once she was standing she said, “Come on. Bath. Otherwise, we’ll both be sleeping on the couch.”

He laughed and swung his legs until he was in a seated position, “True, I might suffocate you in the night.”  He heard her ringing laugh as she jogged up the stairs. 

By the time he dragged himself into the bathroom the water was running. He stripped and sat on the edge to unstrap the prosthesis. As he sank into the water, he let the restorative heat relax his mind and he closed his eyes. This was certainly better than the quick shower he’d had earlier. He heard Robin come in, humming one of her favourite pop songs that he never allowed himself to remember the name of. One by one he heard the squeak of the taps as she shut them off. Her fingers stroked his beard. Then all was quiet. 

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the soft pad of her feet returned and her quiet movements as she removed her own clothes, woke him from a light doze. He cracked open an eyelid and watched her gracefully put her arms into the nightshirt she had brought into the bathroom with her. It took him a while to realise he had been holding his breath all the while the curves and planes of her body had been on full display to him. He could tell she knew he was watching. She avoided his gaze, not yet entirely unselfconscious in front of him, focused carefully on doing up her buttons.

He pulled the plug and pushed himself out of the bath. Robin paused in her new task of removing her make up to throw him a towel and pass him his crutches. He finally caught her eye in the mirror as she passed him his toothbrush, paste already applied. He smiled, a mixture of rapt devotion and gratitude that it was so easy to fall into these little, inconsequential routines with her. He didn’t think he had ever felt closer to anyone in this moment of simple domesticity. After rinsing his mouth, he pulled back the collar of her nightshirt so he could kiss the dip in her clavicle and lifted his head to watch her in the mirror for a while longer. Her cheeks bloomed pink with more than just the friction from the cotton pads and she smiled shyly under his intense scrutiny, so he finally left her to finish. 

Remembering the teasing from earlier in the evening, he pulled back the bed covers and lay on the mattress, the towel wrapped around his waist to wait for her. Propped up against the headboard, he closed his eyes for a moment against the image in the dressing table mirror of his own hairy bulk. Strike pictured her fine, long legs that were a mere hint of the gorgeousness that she’d hidden under the simple striped cotton of her shirt, or actually was it one of his? 

When Robin walked into the bedroom, she shivered from the thought of Strike’s blistering scrutiny. But as she looked over at his long body the lower half still wrapped in the towel and his left leg kicked out to the side, she realised he was dead asleep and already making snuffling noises. These got louder and more irritated as she pulled away the damp towel. She got in beside him pulling the covers over them both and snuggling into his side. Soon after turning off the lamp she had fallen asleep too, their breathing in sync.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The sound of the ringing telephone seemed alien to Strike as he looked down at the man’s grey wasted body. The mouth was still frozen in a scream and a grimy cloth bound his eyes. He had died kneeling down. His body, which lay at a strange angle on its side, was still in the huddled position he had taken to cringe away from the bullet fired at point blank range into the back of his head. Other blue-capped soldiers milled around the meadow, inspecting the thick litter of male bodies. The ringing phone became more urgent and drew Strike’s eyes away into the distance of the bleak wintery countryside. That’s when he forced his eyes open and out of the dream, back into the dimly lit bedroom.

Morning light filtered through the curtains. When they had woken up the previous morning it had still been dark. Shit, we’ve overslept, Strike thought. He realised as his phone was ringing from where he had left it in his pocket the night before they had forgotten to set an alarm. He slipped Robin’s hand off his soft, hairy belly, flipping back the covers before dropping his legs over the side of the bed and stood, balanced on his one foot. Stretching out one arm while the other clutched the edge of the mattress, he grabbed a trouser leg and pulled it towards him, allowing himself to finally land back on the bed. The display read Ted as he swiped it.

“Morning,” he said his voice thick with sleep.

“Good morning lad, did I wake you?” His uncle, on the other hand, sounded bright as if he had been awake for hours.

Strike reached behind him, drawing his fingernails along the sole of Robin’s foot until she gently kicked his hand away and turned to face the other way.

“Overslept. Forgot to set an alarm,” he said into the loudly phone for Robin’s benefit.

Robin sat bolt upright. Looking a bit shell-shocked, she picked her own phone up from where she had left it on the bedside table and checked the time. Seeing it was already 9:00 am, she looked over at Strike, concern etching her forehead and swearing quietly to herself. She was worried it was Gwenifer on the phone and that she expected them in Truro in the next ten minutes. Strike held up a hand and waved it, letting her know it was nothing to worry about. So, she kissed him on the shoulder and climbed out of bed to shower. 

“Well, I’ve rung Jon and he can see you this morning,” Ted explained.

Strike rubbed his scalp with his fingers as if it would soothe away the tiredness. It seemed as if the older his aunt and uncle got, the earlier they called him in the morning. Yet, he couldn’t feel too irritated that he’d been woken as they might have missed their other arrangements.

“He said just to go over there as soon as you want to,” Ted continued.

Strike and Ted agreed on where they would meet for Joan’s hospital appointment and he ended the call.

 


 

 

Robin realised that they had walked past Ridley’s house on a number of occasions but she had never noticed its uniqueness to the rest of St Mawes. The house was built on the slope of the headland, virtually on the edge of the sea, out of sight. All you could see of it from the road was the stone-laid parking bay that led to a blue gate, with a porthole framing a view into the garden and another more nondescript wooden gate - clearly the tradesman’s entrance. It struck her that the additional buildings of his luxury home, a summer house and a garage in addition to the large parking bay, were also eye-catching from the road with their green roofs.


Strike opened the gate and began down the descent towards the house. An arch of thick, glossy, jade bamboo rustled above the path of shadowy wooden steps and bark chipping. Robin tempted by their regimented stature stroked the silken spires. Ferns reached out and brushed Strike’s shoulders as his large frame further crowded the confined space. He stopped and turned back when he no longer heard Robin’s footsteps behind him, reaching out for her hand. She grasped his fingers and walked forwards while he stepped to the side to let her pass him. Just as she stood beside him, she looked up and smiled and it was contagious. He grinned at her, the familiar crinkles appearing around his eyes which caught the sun, glinting. Robin hesitated. Her fingers reached up to his face, traced around to the nape of his neck so she could pull him down towards her, she watched as he licked his top lip with the tip of his tongue. 

“Good morning,” she said.

His own fingers had tangled in the ends of her hair and he smoothed it down, “I really didn’t want to miss this morning with you after falling asleep last night,” he sighed dramatically and she laughed, “One day you’re going to realise I’m just a clapped-out, old bastard,”

Teasingly, her thumb tracing the bristles above his upper lip to the corner of his mouth and over his bottom lip, so that his eyes darkened, “I wouldn’t make much of an investigator if I hadn’t worked that out already but the important parts are in working order.”

He tightened his arms around Robin, drawing her upwards and he felt her lips curve into a smile against his. Strike’s hand cupped Robin’s chin as he pressed and brushed his lips against hers. He let out a groan as she broke the kiss. Knowing begrudgingly, they didn’t have enough time for this, his forehead fell to hers and then along the side of her face as she pulled away to continue down the path.

Although she had brushed off his comment, Strike watched as she easily half-ran down the stone steps towards the front of the house. There was no handrail and to make things even worse they curved. Robin stopped and turned back towards him but he avoided her gaze. His stern eyebrows gave away his discomfort as he focused on where each step should land. When he looked up finally Robin was heading towards the front door.

“Don’t bother Robin,” he called out to her and pointed to the right side of the house. She waited for him this time until he was a step ahead of her before she followed.

The path widened into a sun deck for the lower floor of the house and the small river mouth opened out to the sea ahead of them. St Anthony’s lighthouse stood out against the brown-green of the land and grey of the sky. The water was steely this morning under the grim clouds. Strike walked over to the fence, about thirty more steps led to the garden. Even though there was a handrail this time he wanted to avoid the unnecessary climb back up, “Jon?” he called out over the terraced garden.

Within moments a tall, thin, older man with sharp features, clad in khaki green with his head covered by a flat cap, walked out of the shed below, turning to look up at the house and his visitors.

“Alright Corm!” he called, waving a hand, “Just go in, I’ll be right there,”

Robin followed Strike through large bifold doors, straight into a white open-floor living area, built with huge oak beams and pillars. A gasp escaped Robin as she imagined what it must be like in the summer with the space completely open to the river mouth while occupants relaxed on a lounger. Strike turned to look at her and she smiled guiltily, embarrassed by her outburst she pursed her lips. Matthew had always been the one who wanted an aspirational lifestyle but she just couldn’t help being drawn into a fantasy about what it would be like to live here.

Strike smiled back at her. Even he, indifferent to luxury, had been impressed when Jon had shown him around when it was first built. Although the last time he was here, he had been with Charlotte, who had been supercilious. She was used to this kind of lifestyle and in more exotic locations than Cornwall. So much so, Joan had been too embarrassed to have her stay at the house. She had arranged for them to stay here while Jon was on holiday. Charlotte had looked at it with her nose wrinkled, the furnishings were neither chic or uncomfortable enough for her cultured taste. Sometimes her relentless cynicism had bored him. Robin was no ingenue but she had a freshness about her that even made him look at the world differently.

The living room was warm from the underfloor heating and he took off his coat, laying it over the back of one of the sofas. Strike gestured for Robin to sit down, choosing a sofa that would give her the best view while they waited.

“How does your family know Jon again?” Robin didn’t think Strike had actually ever explained but she didn’t want her question to have any hint of incredulity.

“He’s been Ted’s best friend since they were at school together, he even went out with Leda when they were teenagers,” Strike explained, “But he made his money in London in the travel industry, I think he helped Leda out a bit when she first arrived in the city.”

“He sounds like he’s part of the family. Why wasn’t he at the Christmas meal?”

Strike motioned around him at the undecorated room, “Jon hates Christmas. Too commercial.”

Robin looked back in mock confusion, “A businessman who hates commercialism?”

Strike shrugged, “Jon’s not what you would expect,”

Robin’s eyes darted to check Jon was not about to come through glass doors, “So, your lack of suspicion towards him is completely objective then,”

“I wouldn’t go that far. Everyone has the capacity to act out of character with the right catalyst but no, I don’t think he’s the sort,”

Robin didn’t question Strike further as she saw Ridley’s flat cap as he walked up the steps. Jon looked up when he reached the top set and met her eyes with a warm and friendly smile.

Once Ridley closed the door behind him, he walked over to them. Strike stood and Jon clasped and shook his hand. Although a lot slighter than Strike, Ridley was almost as tall. He looked at Robin and back at Strike expectantly.

“Jon, this is my partner, Robin,”

Robin stood to shake Jon’s hand.

“You have a lovely home,” she beamed.

“Well, it’s in a beautiful setting which makes all the difference. How did you end up with this one?” Ridley inclined his head towards Strike who smirked, his eyes creasing and Robin, thinking as he was of their first meeting on the metal staircase, blushed all over again. Robin told him the story of how she had ended up working for Strike.

“Sounds like it was fate to me,” Jon laughed as she finished telling him how she had persuaded Strike to let her stay on.

“Well, Cormoran would have probably preferred it if I had asked him for the job before he had just given me a very generous parting gift!”

Jon looked at Strike in amused surprise but he just shrugged back as if he’d been powerless to do anything else, which was in fact probably an accurate reflection of what had happened.

Jon offered and then made hot drinks for them both, while he and Strike caught up on the progress of the agency.

“Catching that serial killer must have put things back on track?”

Strike caught Robin shift in her seat from the corner of his eye, her expression uneasy.

“Mmm,” Strike agreed without enthusiasm, “He probably would’ve killed those girls whether he wanted to involve me or nor but it’s still…”

Robin gave him a small smile.

“Of course, it must have been an awful time but Robin you’ve healed alright?”

“Oh yes, I’m fine,” there was no need to mention the sepsis that had nearly killed her months before.

But Strike clearly didn’t feel the same, “Well, Robin hasn't been very well the last couple of months - she should be taking it easy but she never listens to me."

Robin scoffed at him, her eyes blinking in feigned shock.

He smiled softly, unable to hide his genuine concern he changed the subject, "So, now we’re on the Scutari case,”

Ridley placed the tray of mugs on the glass coffee table and looked out over the river with a deep sigh, “Terrible thing that," He turned back to Strike, "Even though I hated the bastard. They really think it’s murder?”

“Yeah, there are some things that don’t add up,” Strike kept it vague, “We were wondering if there was anything you could tell us? Ted said he’d made a few enemies here and that you’d be the best person to fill us in.

“Well, to be honest with you both, he was a total scumbag and I won’t be the only person who doesn’t care that he is dead,” as he seated himself, he looked back over the water thoughtfully, “Why Isabella ever married him I will never understand,” Ridley tone had suddenly become acerbic.

“She always seemed to be a decent person to me,” Strike reflected.

“She is,” His face softened and Robin gave Strike an inconspicuous glance, “Well, he persuaded her to get onto the St Just and Roseland Parish Council. He thought she would fight his corner for him but she’s a woman of integrity and things didn’t go as he planned even though Isabella - ”

Ridley stopped as if the breath had been taken out of his lungs, he shook his head and started again, “Scutari’s always been a charmer. That’s how he got a foothold in the area by promising the council all sorts. And now most of St Mawes belongs to him. Remember the Searle’s?”

“They own The Victory,” Strike told Robin.

“No, not anymore, they’re gone. The pub’s now owned by Shoreline & Countryside,”

“Scutari’s company?" Strike checked.

Ridley nodded, “He built up a campaign against them until they had to sell up. Then he bought it cheap,” 

“Actually, I remember Joan telling me that now,”

Robin smirked. Cormoran had a forensic memory, he wouldn’t have forgotten if Joan had told him. He clearly just hadn’t been listening carefully to his Aunt’s tales of St Mawes.

“Then there’s the Trelawnys, they’ve gone now too,”

“The owners of The Lighthouse?” Strike remembered the maritime-themed restaurant, serving plain English cooking to tourists and locals alike.  

“Yes. He bought it and sold it on at an extortionate price to some yuppie banker who fancies himself a Michelin starred chef. The only thing that’s been kept the same is the name. Ripped the whole thing out and replaced it with blonde oak. Painted the rest damned blue and white like the rest of the village.” Ridley drank some tea and his anger cooled., “He’d started to do the same with the Trevalgan a few months ago,”

“ Jon owns Trevalgan Hotel and Spa Robin,”

Jon looked at Robin, “Yes, it’s just on St Anthony’s head across the river,” he pointed to the left across the water, “You can see it on your way into St Mawes, it has a turret?”

Robin nodded, "Yes I noticed it yesterday, it looks lovely,".

"It is, you should go over and see it if you have time, treat yourself in the spa on the house," Ridley's kind smile evaporated when he continued, “After Scutari's interference though, profits were down for a while,”.

“What do you think he was after? The hotel?” Strike eyes narrowed. The hotel had always been a stalwart of Cornwall’s tourism for decades and it attracted a very sophisticated clientele back every year. Ridley could proudly state that his chef did have a Michelin star, two, in fact, Strike thought to himself, "He'd have had to do a lot to damage its reputation."

“Revenge more like,” Ridley scoffed, “The Bolventor was just a bed and breakfast that Isabella’s family started in the 1930s. Scutari and Isabella wanted to extend by buying six other houses around the site. I bid against him each time to try and stop them and so it cost rather more than they thought it would. Then when Scutari’s company began to buy up properties in the area as holiday homes, I set up a housing association to protect properties and started helping individuals to buy properties,”

This had included Strike’s Aunt and Uncle who had borrowed the money from Ridley at a very low rate compared to a bank, which meant they could move to the bungalow once Lucy left to go to University.

“Then, when he wanted to buy the Rosemoor Villas from the council, a lot of the locals felt he had gone too far and I funded a legal battle. It was successfully challenged and Scutari wasn’t happy. It really got his back up and things began to get nasty,”

“Nasty? In what way?” Robin asked. 

They heard for the second time about the smear campaign and vandalism that Ted had outlined to Strike the night before.

“Is there anyone that would have a strong enough grudge against him to kill him?”

“Plenty, including me too probably,” Ridley gave Cormoran a deliberate look. 

Strike smiled, “Where were you the night he died?

Ridley folded his arms in front of him, although he still looked disarmingly friendly, “I was here all evening from about six,”

“Anyone who can verify that?”

“Apart from the neighbour who would have seen the lights on, no,” These were questions he knew Strike had to ask of him. He let out a sigh and looked at the floor. He seemed to have to rouse himself before he looked up again, “Off-the-record Corm, I have an alibi.”

Robin’s eyes widened at the hint of further intrigue.

“But I’ll only use it if it becomes absolutely necessary. It would prove embarrassing for the other party involved,” he looked surprisingly anxious as he waited for Strike’s response. Robin moved her gaze from Ridley to Strike.

“I can’t promise anything Jon,” his eyes flickered to Robin’s, “If I were you I would expect it to have to come out at some point. Also, the police may want to question you depending on where their side of the investigation leads. With a murder investigation, you don’t want anyone to question your alibi. Revealing one, only when things get too intense, might seem suspicious.”

Ridley’s looked concerned but he nodded, “Who are you working with Truro or Devon and Cornwall?”

“Just Truro,” Robin said.

Ridley looked towards Robin and as an explanation to the outsider, joked, “Don’t want any of these Devonian’s solving the case!”

Mock seriously, as he had never bought into the whole rivalry between the two counties himself, Strike added, “Devon and Cornwall, Robin, is like putting Lancashire and Yorkshire together and then basing everything that is important in Manchester.”

She had obviously worked this out for herself, but she nodded solemnly with a light laugh, “Right.”

Strike continued turning back to Ridley, “I think they’re trying to hold onto it for as long as they can, that’s why they’ve hired us, rather than use the budget to get someone in from the county constabulary.”

“Who are you dealing with there?”

“D.I. Gwenifer Arscott and Superintendent Michael Trevena,”

“Now that’s why they haven’t gone to the county,”

Strike looked stumped and raised his brow.

“It’s personal. Michael has suspected Scutari of laundering money from other business he has.”

“What kind of businesses?” Robin asked.

“Drugs. Michael’s been trying to get something on him for the last decade but with Scutari being a big political donor locally, he has come up against a lot of opposition, including the Commissioner at Exeter and the local MP, but you know him better as the Home Secretary, Daniel Williams-Sleater,  of course.”

Robin shifted in her seat and looked at Strike who looked equally jolted.

“Who was doing Scutari’s dirty work?” Strike asked Ridley.

“I suspect one of his people that he’s set up to deal in Truro. There have been witnesses that say as much. But the police just can’t find the link back to Scutari.”

“Are they the sort that could turn on him?”

“Perhaps, if they feel they don’t him anymore,” Ridley told Strike.

“Have you got any names?” Robin tried not to sound too enthusiastic.

There was clear interest in Ridley’s expression as he regarded Robin as if she was nothing like what he had expected, “There is a bloke in Truro that should be able to help you if you really want to track them down but keep his name out of it with the police, won’t you?”

Robin gave him a small reassuring smile and Ridley told them the name, Sean Bevan, which they wrote down in their respective notebooks. Shankers obviously existed even here. Though at that moment Robin thought he would be so out of place here, she found it hard to imagine.

 

__________________________________________________________________________________

 

Back at Joan’s car, Strike gave an imperceptible sigh as he grasped the handle of the Morris Minor. It was the colour of Parma Violet sweets that he remembered from his childhood. The car was small but it was all they had. He bent down, till he could just about fit through the small doorway with a bit of added force. As he swung his legs and folded them into the footwell, his shins against the dash he groaned audibly.

Robin laughed, “Was that your knees creaking?”

He gave her a look, “Should have bloody asked them to get us a hire car?”

“They’d have said that was what the expenses budget is for, this way we get to keep it,”

He groaned with intent this time and she laughed again. 

“It is girly though,” was Robin’s only complaint.

“Old, battered bangers are more your thing,” he said as she turned the key in the ignition. Then he felt her fingers in his hair and she was pulling him towards her and kissed his ear.

“No – rugged and adventurous,”

As she turned back to face the road and reached to put the car into gear, Strike’s large palms clasped her face and turned her back towards him.

He leant forward until his breath tickled her lips, “This is the one good thing about this car – it means we’re in a very enclosed space,”

“We have an appointment to get to,” she teased.

But Strike felt his resolve to be strictly professional at all times dissolve in the face of being away from her again for 48 hours that promised to be pretty miserable, “I know a shortcut, we have five minutes,” he brushed his lips against hers, watching her eyes flutter closed as she lifted her chin to return the gesture. But another ten minutes passed before they drove away.

 

As she drove along the road high above the town and looking out over the river Robin pressed her numb lips together, trying to calm the tingling feeling which was partly caused by Strike beard but also his gifted mouth. She couldn’t remember a time when she had just kissed as she had as a teenager. In her relationship with Matthew, it had become a means to an end, the end being sex. She shifted in the seat to try and lessen the tense sensation that had built up. She needed to be in a professional state by the time they drove up to the house where the young man, Joshua Teague, who had witnessed Scutari’s yacht in St Mawes lived. Her errant hand had a mind of its own though as it found Strike’s thigh.

“Both hands on the steering wheel, lady!” he teased, even though he was wrestling with his own pent up feelings.

Eventually, as Robin rounded about the hundredth hairpin bend of the interminable narrow lanes of the peninsula, Strike was lost in his own thoughts as he stared blankly at the rolling countryside.

“What was your impression of the way Jon spoke about Isabella Scutari?” he asked her eventually.

“He looked besotted,”

“That’s what I thought but Ted and Joan have never mentioned anything,”

“I know they’re best friends but does that necessarily mean he would have told them if they are having an affair or even if he just has feelings for her?”

Strike smirked, thinking of the badgering Ilsa had given him about Robin for months, “No, could be more effort than it’s worth, Joan would probably have a lot to say about it,” He went quiet contemplating whether Ridley, a man who had grown up with and had been Ted’s closest friend for all of his life, was capable of purposely murdering another human. Or even doing so accidentally and then trying to cover it up.

“Certainly strengthens his motives,”

Strike made a disapproving noise.

“I know, I know – means and opportunity! It’s the psychologist in me. But, it must be an awful thought for you,”

“That a man you’ve known and respected your whole life has perhaps killed someone, pretty much! But, I’m trying to keep an open mind,”

Robin didn’t speak straight away, the thought that had occurred to her was not a pleasant one. She stared at the road ahead, her mind ticking over until she got the nerve to say, “Did you ever have to kill someone?” Her voice was as neutral as she could be but she didn’t look at him. 

Strike couldn’t help the surprise widening his features, he had never thought that Robin would align the work of a murderer with a professional soldier. But it was a question he’d heard from close friends, family and even from passing acquaintances who thought they had a right to fulfil their morbid fascination. With Robin, he feared her sense of justice and morality may mean she didn’t see him in the same way. The only soldiers he knew that had no issue with the question were either functioning psychopaths or had been lucky enough to serve in times of peace. 

As he hadn’t responded straight away, she glimpsed a look at his face that was hardening from surprise into disappointment, she quickly clarified, realising with horror what he was thinking, “I…I’m not saying it’s the same thing as being a murderer,” she stated, guessing at his train of thought, “It’s just that’s what you were trained to do...and I wondered what it must have been like for you,”

His face looked pained for a moment and he spoke quickly focusing hard on the side mirror, away from her, “Not on any of the peacekeeping missions, no, we weren’t allowed to get involved. But, yeah, in Afganistan we came under fire a few times on patrol and we had to fire back. The worst time was when an Afgan policeman who had been part of the mentoring programme we were responsible for began to open fire on the station. He was an insurgent. Five men were killed before he was brought down. I got some of the trainees out, they were terrified he would target them as fellow Afghans supporting what they saw as an illegal Government,”

He paused and she waited patiently for him to continue, “I went back in and came across him in the corridor, shot him at point-blank range. No choice.”

“Did you know the men who died very well?”

“I knew all of them, some of them were friends but it was simply a case of making sure no one else died,” there was no regret or emotion in his voice, he was detached. She rested her palm over his hand for a moment but his hand was as immovable as so she took hold of the wheel with both hands again.

“Is that when you got your medal?”

The question, posed in a light-hearted way, brought him back to her. It had been a game they had played in the hospital. Robin had resorted to trying to guess how he got his medal for bravery as he had kept it so close to his chest. She came up with one outlandish possibly after another in which Strike could have possibly won his medal. In the end, she teased him that rather than show him to be brave and humble, it was getting to the point of showboating his heroism. 

The corner of his mouth lifted and he looked embarrassed, “No, it wasn’t for that either.”

 

Chapter Text

Soon Robin was rounding the hairpin bends of the twisting, narrow lanes that threaded their way through the countryside, one after another. The way out east of the peninsula had always felt interminable to Strike as a child, now he barely registered the hour It took them to drive twenty miles nor did he feel the usual frustration he did in weekday London traffic. He felt so at ease he was even able to enjoy the view of the rolling patchwork landscape. The highest points of the moors to the north were just disappearing into some low silvery cloud. He turned his head towards Robin, her eyes focused on the road and smiled gently to himself.

On the outskirts of St Austell, they entered a council estate made up of rows of identikit terraced houses, interrupted with sudden gaps to give the impression of space. The road itself was narrow though, so as to pack enough people houses into the small council estate. There was only room enough for one car to drive down at a time, so the parking bays had been built into the grass verges, probably later than the houses themselves has been built. The magnolia rendered houses had bleached in the sun and were greying, patches of plasterwork crumbled, in need of or in the process of being mended, so as to leave random pockmarks.

“What number is it again?” Robin asked.

“19” Strike said.

She drove slowly along the road as Strike crouched to scan the number of the houses on the left-hand side, their gardens littered with abandoned children’s plastic toys. One was covered in ornamental butterflies and its path lined with outdoor lights.

“Here it is,” Strike pointed it out.

Robin found a car space by an old motorhome that had collected a layer of grime and looked as if it hadn’t gone anywhere for at least a decade.

“Isn’t this a long way to come for a job at a pub?”

“Depends on how easy it is to get a job down here. You’re becoming a soft Londoner,” Strike smirked.

“You must be rubbing off on me,” She quipped back and he raised his brow in response.

They walked up the path through the neat, little garden. Someone had created colourful flower beds either side of the cement-laid path. The Teagles’ house was as strong a contrast as could be found to the riverside home they had just visited. However, the bedding plants, butterflies and lights was not enough to save it from the utilitarian dreariness of the estate. Strike knocked on the front door and turned back towards Robin. She noticed strained lines appear at his temples and forehead. A breath puffed out from between his lips.

“What’s wro – “

The door opened before she finished her question. A woman stood in the doorway. She was petite and had a straight blonde bob. Her face was fine-boned and doll-like but burnished from decades of Cornish summers. She looked at Robin blankly but her gaze was caught by Strike as he turned back to face the doorway.

“Oh my God…Corm? What are you doing here?” the woman’s hands flew to her mouth in shock, but she quickly recovered, dropped her hands to reveal an ecstatic smile.
“Hello, Mo,”

Morwenna Teagle stepped forward and leant upwards, waiting for Strike to bend so she was able to kiss his cheek and hug his shoulders. He put an arm behind her back in a half hug.

“My partner, Robin Ellacott, rang the house yesterday. We’re here to talk to Joshua.”

Morwenna looked confused for a moment as memories of her teenage past and her current predicament fused together, “Of course you’re a famous detective now. You’re the talk of St. Mawes,”

“Well, David Scutari’s probably eclipsed me now, considering recent events.”

Morwenna’s lips formed a stony grimace but she said, “Mum told me and it’s on the local news this morning. Shocking really. Anyway, come in!” Her excited smile became kind as she looked at Robin.

They followed her into a small, rectangular hallway which led into a compact yet full kitchen-diner to the left and to the right the living room, into which they followed Morwenna. It was decorated prettily with flowered wallpaper and big comfortable sofas which had been fashionable in the previous decade. However, it was all a bit faded. Morwenna gestured for them to take a seat and Cormoran settled into the armchair while Robin sat on the opposite end of the sofa. As the small woman left the room to fetch her son, Robin gave her partner an exasperated look. Strike just raised his brow and held his hands up as she looked away in contempt. Yet again she found herself in a situation where Strike had failed to warn her that he shared history with yet another woman. Tapping the arm of the chair in a tense tattoo, Strike was uncharacteristically nervous.

Morwenna came back into the living room after a few moments followed by a young man who had to bend his dark head of over-grown curly hair to get through the door. Robin, who faced the doorway, finally understood the reason for her partner’s behaviour and glanced at Strike who was yet to see the young man. She was not disappointed in his reaction as his face blanched.

“Joshua, this is Cormoran Strike, an old school friend of mine,”

Strike felt unsteady as he pushed himself out of the chair, unsure how much of it was due to his leg or the overwhelming wave of disconcertion that he had suddenly been doused with. He reached his hand out to shake the young man’s hand. The boy looked at Strike squarely in the eye and recognition flashed in his face.

“This is my partner Robin Ellacott,” quickly recovering himself, Strike gestured behind the young man to where Robin sat in the armchair. Joshua turned around and gave her a shy smile, “We’re private detectives working with the police to investigate the murder of Peter Scutari,”

Surprise and fear battled for prominence on Joshua’s face before settling in nonchalance. He gingerly sat on the arm of the other armchair.

“Thanks for agreeing to see us,” Robin tried to keep the surprise out of her voice as she realised Joshua, was the young man they had come across in a lover’s tryst in the opening Strike had pulled her into the night before. This could prove to be a very uncomfortable hour, Robin thought.

Strike, who would normally have smirked at the pink tinge blooming across Robin’s cheeks, was having issues of his own. When he had seen Joshua in St Mawes, he hadn’t given the young man a second glance. But now, in the context of Morwenna’s living room it had caused Strike to acknowledge the uneasy suspicion he had experienced over Gwenifer’s words, ‘…Don't worry Corm you'd been in London a while then’. Morwenna asked them what drink they would like, then left the room.

“So, we’re just here to follow up about what you saw the night Mr Scutari died,” Robin began as Strike sat uncharacteristically dumb.

“I gave the police a statement already,” Joshua said with a shrug.

The defensive tone roused Strike, he was back in a situation where he was more at ease, “We like to ask our own questions. In our experience the police don’t always get it right,” Strike explained.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

From experience, Strike had learnt that interviewing young people had to be handled differently to adults. They were well-versed in being cross-questioned either by their parents or teachers, so they tended to be naturally wary and curt rather than voluble. So being critical of authority tended to win some credence

“They don’t know their arse from their elbow, we just want to make sure all the facts are right,”

This resulted in a subtle shift in Joshua demeanour. His face became more open rather than the shadow of distrust that had masked his features. Features, which as Robin looked more closely, were far too pretty to be anything like her partner’s.“If you could start by telling us why you were at the harbour?” she prompted, “And if you can tell us the details so we don’t have to keep interrupting you.”

 

“Yeah. I work at The Rising Suna, on the harbour?” He directed this towards Robin, the obvious outsider, “My shift finished at half eleven. Didn’t end up leaving till just before midnight though because of the extra punters as it's Christmas. It’d been rammed all night. When I left it was a clear night and the water caught my eye, so I walked along the quay rather than go straight back to the car. Wanted to clear my head a bit. I stopped outside Onda, the little boutique?”

Strike nodded, he’d been in with Charlotte once, who had turned her nose up at everything inside even making the posh shop owner feel small.

“I was leaning against the quay wall, looking out at the estuary. There weren’t many boats on the river, so I noticed Scutari’s – it’s one of the biggest locally. Everyone knows it.”

“What did you notice about the boat?” Strike asked as he took notes.

“The lights were on. It looked secure at that point, it wasn’t drifting so must have been anchored. I didn’t think anything of it, Scutari’s an all-yearer, he’s always out there a lot. Was.”

Even after living in the area probably longer than Joshua had been alive, Scutari was clearly still seen as an outsider by locals, Robin noted. It wasn't much different in her own village of Masham. She then thought back to her own night walk along the quay with Strike and asked, “Did you notice any motor or paddle boats on the beach?”

Joshua again looked surprised. This was clearly a question he hadn’t been asked although it seemed to be an obvious one to Strike.

“There was a cluster of them by the landing dock, two or three maybe, the tide was out. Couldn’t tell you who they belonged to as the grockles have them at their lets. Could have been punters at the St Mawes or Victory? They’re had later opening hours.”

Morwenna re-entered the room with a tray of mugs, she gave each one out as she walked around the small room while the detectives continued to question her son.

“Did you see anyone on the deck?”

“No…just…the lights were on. He’d put some on the mast and I could see the light from the cabin. So you’d assume someone was onboard,”

“Then what did you do?” Robin pushed.

“Well, he stays at Mum’s when he has a late shift,” Morwenna interjected making Strike frown.

Robin tried again, “Is that what you did Joshua?”

“N-no – I got a text so I waited there,” Joshua looked from his mother to Robin, “For my girlfriend,”

Robin glanced back at Morwenna to see her reaction. The woman didn’t flinch, she nodded hurriedly as if she had forgotten this piece of information.

“Girlfriend?” Strike prompted.

“Yeah…erm…I’ve been seeing Milena Scutari for about six months,”

Strike glanced at Robin noticing the slight rise of her brow and wrote it down, “And did she meet you?” he asked.

“Yeah, she came along about ten minutes later,”

“And you watched the river all of that time?”

“More or less, as I said it was a nice night. Some people I know walked past and we said hello to each other,”

“People?” Strike nudged.

Joshua’s forehead creased with worry as he gave them some names. Strike wondered if it was because the lad was lying or whether it was simply the fear of being questioned about his whereabouts.

“Did they or anyone see you meet Milena?”

“Not that I remember – but then I wasn’t really paying attention,”

“Did Milena say anything about her Dad’s boat being out?”

“Yeah, I pointed it out to her actually, in passing like, she wasn’t that interested,”

“No? Any reason for that?”

“Probably because she was supposed to be at home – she had snuck out, so no one knew she was there, she wouldn’t have wanted her Dad to see her,”

“Ah!” Strike nodded, “Yes, Milena told the police she was home all night,”

“That’s because,” Joshua said in rush, “Her family don’t know we are still seeing each other,”

Strike narrowed his eyes slightly and waited patiently.

“When they found out, they…her parents… told Milena I wasn’t allowed to see her anymore,” He looked down, clearly hurt by the rejection.

Morwenna continued when Joshua didn’t, “They thought Joshua would be a bad influence being older and not from the London set. But Milena is a lovely girl. She bought me this necklace…” Morwenna’s hand reached up to her collarbone feeling for something that wasn’t there. Her eyes widened and then relaxed as quickly, “I must have taken it off in the bathroom and forgotten,” Morwenna smiled at Robin and she returned the smile reassuringly.

“Once Milena arrived, did you hang about the harbour much longer?” Robin asked, thinking of coming across them in the clearing and the fact that they seemed to have been there a while and didn’t seem to be in a rush to leave each other’s company.

Pink spots appeared on Joshua’s checks, “No, I saw her coming down the hill, so I had walked up to meet her. Once she saw the boat she just wanted to get away from the harbour. Then we walked up Church Hill. We were out for about an hour, it was really cold after a while and I went back to my Nan’s,”

“And Milena?”

“She insisted on going back alone, it’s not London, it’s pretty safe…usually. She wasn’t going to get raped or anything,”

Robin gave a faint shake of her head when Strike momentarily caught her eye, “How can you be sure she went straight home?” Robin said.

“She always texts me once she’s home,” Joshua had taken out his mobile and began scrolling through messages. There seemed to be a lot for just a couple of days but that was teenagers Strike supposed. Eventually, Joshua got up and stretched out so Strike could see the message littered with heart and kissing emojis. At least Joshua had the decency to look embarrassed, Strike thought.

“Is that it?” Joshua almost squeaked, “I just have to get ready to go to work,” he said in a more relaxed manner.

“Yeah, that’s all for now. If there’s anything else we’ll let you know if that’s alright?” Strike had been unable to pierce the bubble of empathy for this young man looked down upon by his posh girlfriend’s family.

Joshua nodded and Robin thanked him. He left the room and Morwenna’s eyes fell immediately on Strike, “Have you time for another tea Corm? And a bit of a catch-up,”

Strike looked at his watch, “We have to get back to Truro by two,”

“You’ll get there,” Morwenna said.

He looked at Robin.

“Another tea would be nice,” Robin smiled.

Fuelled by biscuits and fresh tea, Strike and Robin patiently answered Morwenna’s questions about their past famous cases that both had answered hundreds of times before.

“But most of the work is divorce cases and workplace issues. We’ve got a contract with a Magic Circle law firm in London so that’s made the business more stable financially,” Robin explained.

“And now working with the police?” Morwenna gushed, “I’m so pleased things are going so well for you Corm. For both of you!” Morwenna smiled with pride at Strike but tears had pooled in her eyes. Strike looked away embarrassed, but Robin caught his eye with a knowing look.

Trying to divert the conversation Strike asked, “Where are you working now Morwenna?”

“At Trevalgan,” Her answer was staccato.

“Jon Ridley’s hotel?” Strike remembered that she had worked at the Bolventor when they had been teenagers.

“Yes. He’s been very good to me. I’ve worked there for seventeen years now and I’ve been duty manager there for the last five. I’ve got Joan to thank for it actually. She spoke to Jon on my behalf after I lost my job just before Joshua was born. Isabella accused me of stealing and that was that,” Morwenna looked at Robin with a wry smile, “An easy way for them to get out of paying maternity leave.”

“Luckily, I won’t be needing that for a long time yet,” Robin said.

“Oh, I should think your partner will be obliging,” Morwenna smiled at Strike.

Robin took in Strike’s startled expression before looking back at Morwenna.

“Can’t say he was planned though,” Morwenna’s smile appeared forced to Robin, as she stared into the dust motes caught in a shaft of sunlight, “A summer fling with a surprise a few weeks after the boy involved was long gone,” Morwenna laughed without humour. Her memories of the pregnancy appeared to be bittersweet. Finally, she looked towards Strike.

“He’s very tall,” Strike said helplessly.

Realisation crossed Morwenna’s face, “Oh my God! Corm? You didn’t think?” she said with a surprised laugh.

Robin looked from Morwenna back to Strike who was still frozen with worry, Morwenna clearly seemed to think his assumption was ludicrous and she almost felt sorry for him, “Well, there’s the hair too?” Robin added, shrugging.

“You thought it too? That’s where the resemblance ends!” Morwenna was laughing and Robin began to join in.

“Yes, I noticed that – he’s far too good looking,”

“Thanks, Robin,” Strike mumbled, embarrassed. The look of indignation on his face made Robin laugh harder.

“And you a famous detective Corm!” Morwenna crowed.

The women’s laughter began to reach contagion level

“Alright, alright,” he grimaced, waiting for them to get themselves under control.

Robin, when she could catch breathe, took advantage of this moment of companionship to ask Morwenna, “We could do with your help actually Morwenna. In your job, you may have overheard something important. Jon was telling us Peter Scutari had caused some problems at the Trevalgan and other local hotels and businesses in the area. Do you know if there was anyone who would want to harm Scutari?”

“Plenty of people hated him, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill him. I didn’t have much to do with the Scutari’s though and they certainly haven’t wanted to have anything to do with the likes of us,”

“We’re also looking for women Scutari may have had a relationship with. Joan mentioned it,” Robin hoped that the shared confidence would encourage Morwenna to voice her own, “Have you heard about anyone particularly?”

Morwenna’s eyes dipped to the beige carpet and she breathed in sharply, “There is a woman who comes to the club at the hotel. I can’t tell you how long ago she was seeing David Scutari or for how long, I’ve just caught bits of different conversations and put two and two together. I might be wrong,”

“That’s fine, I’ll be discrete, nothing will come back to you,” Robin reassured her.

Morwenna looked from her to Strike who leant forward and his voice was kind. “I’ll speak to Jon don’t worry about being unprofessional, but a name would be really helpful,”

“Sales, Helen Sales,”

Robin sat back against the armchair relieved, “Thank you,”

 

“Well that was interesting,” Robin smirked as she inserted the key into the ignition and switched on the car engine. Strike looked at her from the corner of his eye, “You certainly enjoyed yourself but I’m a bit disappointed by your lack of professionalism,”

“We’ll have to come up with a new disciplinary code for the agency,”

“Laughing at the senior partner’s misfortune: make tea all week,”

“Pfft! Senior?”

“In age!”

“Right. People associated with a case under investigation turn out to be a partner’s ex or past dalliance -” She mimicked the eyebrow lift he frequently used but when she parted her lips to tell him the punishment she had for him, he leant forward and kissed her.

A little while later when she steered the car away from the kerb, Robin said, “Don’t think for a second Cormoran Blue Strike that I’ve let you off the hook,” She could just about hear him snigger over the grumble of the car’s old engine.