"What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?"
-- George Eliot
"Number twelve, that's it, right there," Strike said, pointing.
Robin parked the Land Rover and they sat in silence for a moment, necks craned to study the small, run-down house through the rain-speckled windscreen.
"Lights are on," Robin observed. "Somebody's home."
A shadow moved behind the front curtains. Strike nodded. "Yeah. Looks like we've had a bit of luck."
They exchanged a look, and Robin gave him a wan smile. "You're sure you want to do this?" she asked softly.
"Yeah," Strike said again, opening the Land Rover's door. "I owe it to her."
"All right, then."
"C'mon." He stepped heavily onto the road and slammed the car door. "Won't take long."
Robin opened her umbrella and hurried after Strike as he lumbered across the street, stretching his coat collar up around his neck to shield it from the rain. The shadow at the window, which had been moving back and forth, halted abruptly when Strike knocked on the door. A small parting appeared in the curtains, and though Robin couldn't see the person who'd parted them, she could imagine the jolt of surprise and apprehension whoever it was must be feeling to see the large, imposing figure of Strike on their front step.
Strike saw the flick of the curtains in his peripheral vision, but resisted the urge to turn his head. The rain was coming down hard enough that his hair was already soaked, and cold water was dripping down his collar. He shivered as he knocked on the door again, more forcefully this time. The lock clicked and the door opened just enough to reveal a sliver of a woman's face. "Yeah?" she said.
"We're looking for Maggie Reid," Strike said.
"And you are?"
"Name's Cormoran Strike." He gestured at Robin. "This is my partner, Robin Ellacott. Just here for a quick chat."
The door wavered for a moment, as though the woman were trying to decide whether to slam it shut in their faces. She took a quick, sharp breath. "You a copper? Let me see some identification."
"We're not with the police. Just have a few questions for Maggie Reid. Won't take more than a minute."
"Questions about what?"
"Mind if we come in?" Strike asked, jerking his chin up toward the sky to indicate the rain. "Bit nasty out here."
The eye peering at him through the crack in the door looked them over from head to toe: first Strike, then Robin. "Hang on," the woman said irritably, shutting the door. They heard the grinding of the safety chain being undone, and the door was jerked open to reveal a tired-looking, middle-aged woman with dark hair tied up in a kerchief. She held a can of Mr Sheen in one hand and a limp cloth in the other. She moved aside as they stepped across the threshold, raising the hand with the cloth. "That's far enough. Last thing I need is your muddy footprints all over the place," she said, adding, "Leave it open," as Strike turned to close the door. "And I warn you, the neighbour's got a dog mean enough to rip your bleedin' arm off if I give a shout."
"Fair enough," Strike replied with a shrug. "Long as we're in the dry."
Robin closed the umbrella and propped it against the open door so it wouldn't drip on the thin carpet. She glanced around the room. The furniture and decorations looked older than she was and showed signs of wear, but everything was spotlessly clean. A whiff of citrus scented the air. It was probably a warm, airy room when the sun was out, but with the curtains drawn and only the dim light afforded by a pair of lamps bearing heavy shades, the dark corners gave Robin an eerie prickle of discomfort.
"You Maggie?" Strike asked, turning back to the woman.
"Can I ask your name, then?"
She hesitated. "Susan," she said, without making eye contact. Strike wondered briefly if this was actually her name. She had no reason to lie to them that he knew of, but nor did she have any reason to trust them.
"Susan's good enough, I reckon."
"Suit yourself," Strike replied. "Is Maggie here?"
Strike felt a twinge of annoyance at the woman's curt replies. "Do you know when she'll be back?" he asked, working hard to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
"She won't," Susan said matter-of-factly. "She's dead."
Strike's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "When did that happen?"
"Two weeks ago. Heart attack." Susan turned to deposit the cleaning materials onto a small table next to the threadbare sofa. "It's taken me that long to get this place back into some kind of shape that I can let it out again."
"You own this house?" Robin asked.
"Yeah." Susan sank into an armchair but did not ask them to take seats; apparently, their shoes were still too wet to make the nicety compulsory.
"How long did Maggie live here?"
Susan cocked her head and looked off into the distance for a moment. "About… four years, I think. No, five."
"You were friends?" Strike started to rummage in his coat pocket for his Benson & Hedges, but stopped himself a heartbeat later. It was bad enough his coat was already dripping on her floor; she was liable to throw him out on his arse if he tried to light up.
"I was closer to her than anyone," Susan said, eyes narrowing with suspicion as though she knew what Strike had been planning to do.
"Ever meet her daughter?"
She scoffed, crossing her arms defensively. "No. She had nothing to do with either one of those bloody kids since they was teenagers. Molly with her whoring, and Mason with his lies. That Mason, especially, she used to worry about him something terrible. He had diabetes since he were about six years old, and she said she was always dragging him to this doctor and that doctor for it. Bunch of quacks." She waved her hand in the air dismissively, warming to her theme. "Didn't know what they was doing, and he just kept getting worse. Broke poor Maggie's heart."
Robin thought she saw the woman's eyes begin to shine with a glaze of sympathy for her dead friend's anguish, but her expression hardened so quickly Robin wondered if she'd imagined it. "Then the little bastard started telling stories at school," Susan spat. "Said Maggie was burning the two of them with cigarettes, beating them with a hairbrush, locking them in closets for hours at a time, stuff like that." Her lips compressed into a hard line. "All lies. He was stoned out of his head half the time. Maggie was devoted to them kids."
Strike knew better. He'd seen the lines of old scars trailing up the inside of Molly's forearms. She'd had a nervous habit of pulling at her sleeves, stretching the fabric until it was loose and baggy around the base of her wrists. It was an odd sort of quirk, but a pretty benign one compared to much of the behaviour Strike had seen in his lifetime, so he hadn't given it much thought.
Not until he'd seen her nude body lying on a steel table in the morgue.
The burn scars weren't the only blemishes present on Molly's body. The letters "LOL" had been written in red lipstick across her belly – her killer's calling card. Izzy Lambert had traced the same grotesque, mirthless initialism onto four other young women, all of them prostitutes, two of them Molly's friends and companions on the streets of Soho. Strike and Robin had interviewed Molly after both murders, but she'd never given them any hint about the abuse she and her twin brother had suffered at the hands of their mother beyond that surreptitious tugging at her frayed cuffs.
The heavy weight that had taken root in Strike's chest for the past week grew heavier still. Poor kid. She'd never had a fucking chance.
The police had arrived only minutes after Molly died, their appearance delayed because Strike hadn't been able to put two and two together quickly enough to save her. Molly's body was still warm when they got there, Wardle told him later.
Strike's fault. He'd promised Molly he would do everything he could to catch the killer before he claimed more of her friends. It hadn't been enough.
Robin saw the mask of misery settle around Strike's eyes, though his aspect barely changed; only someone who knew him as well as she did could have discerned the subtle shift. The silence rippled out into the room around them, deep and uncomfortable, until Robin realised it was up to her to break it. She cleared her throat. "We're trying to find Mason," she said, gratified to see Strike's attention snap back to the present as she spoke. "Do you have any idea where he is?"
"Yeah," Susan said, with the first sign of something like pleasure Robin had seen in her attitude since they'd arrived. She stood and crossed the room to a tiny desk by the front window where a pile of post had been neatly stacked. She riffled through it, withdrawing an official-looking envelope with a pink, circular logo in the return address. "Here," she said, thrusting the envelope into Strike's hand. He turned it over to see it was addressed to Maggie Reid. The top had been slit open. "This came in today's post," Susan said. "Looked important, so I opened it."
Strike unfolded the letter to read it, and Robin watched his expression turn to stone. "Thanks very much for your time," he said gruffly, shoving the letter at Robin. She only had a moment to absorb a few phrases before Strike jostled past her on his way out the door.
"Serves the little bastard right!" Susan called after them as Robin scooped up her umbrella and dashed across the street to the Land Rover. They heard the door slam shut behind them, and then nothing but the staccato beat of the rain hitting the pavement.
Robin remembered the place as soon as they walked through the doors. Her mum had brought her here once when she was a teenager, to say goodbye to an old family friend called Marie who was dying from breast cancer. She hadn't thought about it for years, had nearly forgotten all about it, in fact, but now the memories came rushing back. Mum had brought a small vase of fresh flowers wrapped with a brightly coloured ribbon, and was mortified to discover the other bouquets arranged around the ward were all so much larger. But the slow, constant drip of morphine meant the woman in the bed was well beyond the point of caring. Robin's most vivid memory of that day was the way her mum's brave smile had faltered when she turned and saw how the cancer had ravaged her friend.
Strike was struggling with memories of his own. Medical facilities always brought him back to Afghanistan, to the agony and terror he'd known there, but this place seemed almost worse. He'd seen a lot of pain and death in those military hospitals, yes, but he'd also seen recovery. He'd seen hope. Fuck, he'd not only seen it, he'd lived it.
Here, though… here, there was only death.
The woman at the front desk gave them directions to Mason's ward, and they walked toward it in silence, Robin's umbrella leaving a meandering trail of water droplets on the tiled floor in their wake. Ironically, the rooms they passed seemed to be full of life. Dozens of people were sitting around various bedsides. Snippets of conversation floated into the corridor through open doors all around them, punctuated on one side by laughter and the other by sobs. In one room a birthday party was being held, with several guests in silly party hats passing thick wedges of cake to one another over the inert form in the bed, their eyes haunted and their smiles feigned and desperate.
Strike looked away.
A nurse was fussing with the blanket covering Mason's torso when Strike and Robin entered the ward. "Oh, hello!" she said brightly, straightening up and flashing them a thousand-watt smile. "So lovely to see you."
"Thank you," Robin whispered, nodding politely in the nurse's direction. Strike didn't acknowledge her at all, his attention riveted instead on the figure in the bed. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, really. When he'd decided to start looking for Mason, he'd had a vague notion of having a discussion of some sort with him, perhaps apologising to him for failing Molly so egregiously, though he'd never quite landed on exactly what he would say. Which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing, given Mason's state. No words, no matter how carefully constructed or rehearsed, were going to reach him now.
"We've been hoping someone would come to see our Mason," the nurse said, patting Mason gently on the shoulder. "Are you family?"
Strike barely heard the question. He'd just noticed where the blankets lay flush against the mattress about halfway down Mason's left leg. More proof of Maggie's lies. Strike didn't know much about diabetes, but he knew there were ways to manage it; if Mason's condition had gone unchecked long enough for him to lose part of his leg at such a young age, he'd clearly not been receiving much – if any – treatment. He knew Robin must have got there the same moment he did, because she said, "Oh," very softly under her breath.
She recovered quickly. "N-no," she replied, tearing her gaze away from the heartbreaking sight of that flat, wrinkled section of blanket. What must Strike be feeling, seeing that? "We're friends. Friends of his sister, that is."
"How is he?" Strike finally managed.
"He's nearly there, I'm afraid," the nurse replied, glancing down at Mason's slack face with an empathetic look.
"Just asleep, for now. He had an injection an hour or so ago which should hold him through the night. The doctor will write an order for something stronger in the morning, if he needs it." She indicated the empty IV pole standing next to the bed, and Robin remembered again watching the morphine drain from the hanging bag, drop by drop, into Marie's arm. "But even if he does wake up," the nurse continued, "he probably won't be very coherent."
The three of them stood in silence for a few moments, watching the blankets rise and fall with Mason's ragged breathing, listening to the raspy wheeze that accompanied each inhalation. It seemed to be a struggle. Robin wondered how much longer he would continue to make the effort.
"Well, I'll leave you to it," the nurse said. "There are chairs over there, if you'd like to grab a few. Feel free to stay as long as you like." She pulled the privacy curtain around the bed before she left, giving the spectre of the bed even greater prominence now that the space it inhabited was so much smaller.
Robin ducked through the curtain and dragged a few chairs back inside, and she and Strike peeled off their damp coats and took up seats on either side of the bed. She glanced again at the flattened blanket, and on impulse reached out one hand to touch the spot, smoothing away the wrinkles with her palm. Strike tracked the movement of her hand with tired eyes.
"You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I s'pose." The reply didn't do much alleviate Robin's concern for him, but she knew better than to press. She continued to stroke the blanket absentmindedly, and to her astonishment, a small grin began to curl at the corners of Strike's mouth.
"What are you smiling at?" she said, feeling the tug of an answering smile forming on her own lips.
"You brought back some memories for me, that's all. When I was in hospital, and my leg would itch or hurt, they were always on at me not to touch it. Said it would only make it worse, I had to let it heal. But sometimes it would drive me absolutely mad. There was this one nurse, this tiny woman from Albania, who would rub circles on my blanket like that. It made just enough friction in just the right place to give me a little relief."
The admission surprised them both. Strike had never been so open with her about his injury. Their eyes met. "She took pity on me, I guess," he said with a shrug.
Robin's hand stilled. "No," she said. "She comforted you. It was a kindness."
They sat in silence after that. The rain continued to beat against the window at the far end of the room as the sky turned from a cloudy grey to an inky black. Strike left twice to smoke a cigarette, Robin left once to pee, but otherwise, neither stirred. She wasn't entirely sure why they were keeping this vigil, but Strike seemed determined to stay. She wondered what he would say to Mason should he awaken. Would he tell Mason his sister was dead? That seemed uncharacteristically cruel. Would he try to assuage his imagined negligence in Molly's death by apologising? That would be no better. She wasn't sure Strike knew himself why they were there.
The wards around them slowly emptied, and they heard fewer and fewer voices in the corridor until eventually the room was so quiet they could hear the ticking of a clock out in the corridor. Paradoxically, the quiet seemed loud enough to jar something loose in Mason, because he jerked suddenly awake. His eyes opened a crack and he began to stir. Strike gripped the bed railing, ready to hoist himself out of his chair, but a moment later Mason's eyelids fell and he sank back into immobility.
"Shit," Strike muttered. He studied the quiescent face, really noticing it for the first time since they sat down. "He looks just like her, doesn't he."
"Well, they are twins, after all," Robin pointed out.
"Yeah. But I knew a pair of fraternal twins in the army, and they didn't even look like brothers, let alone twins. He looks exactly like Molly."
At the mention of his sister's name, Mason's eyes lazily fluttered open again. "Mol?" he croaked.
Robin felt her breath catch. Mason's eyes were wide open now, fixed on a point on the ceiling above the bed, but clearly unseeing. "Mol?" he said again hoarsely. "You there?"
Without pausing to think, Robin picked up his hand, lacing their fingers together. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I'm here."
Mason swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing in his thin throat. His gaze never left the ceiling. Robin wondered what he thought he was seeing. "Been waitin' for you. Where'd you go?"
"Sorry I'm late," she said. Her tongue felt very thick in her mouth. "But I'm here now."
"Where?" Mason's head lolled in Robin's direction.
"Here," she replied, pressing their clasped hands against her heart. "Can you feel me holding your hand?"
Strike could see Robin's eyes shining with unshed tears in the half-light. Her expression was an indescribable mixture of sorrow, compassion, and tenderness, all wrapped up in an intensity he'd seen her display only a handful of times in the past. The next breath he exhaled burst into staccato puffs of air as Robin reached out with her free hand to smooth the hair off Mason's forehead. His face, already lax, seemed somehow to soften even further under her touch, and Strike felt a surge of longing so sharp it would have knocked him off his feet had he not been sitting down.
"I don’t feel so good," Mason mumbled, his eyes rolling shut.
"I know," Robin said softly. "I'm sorry." She continued to stroke his forehead, which felt warmer to the touch than she thought it should have, though his skin was dry and pale as a ghost so perhaps the fever was actually in her fingers. "You'll feel better soon," she said, her voice trembling with the lie. She could see Strike frowning from the corner of her eye, and felt her face growing warm. But she knew Mason couldn't see her flushed face, would never question the tremulous quality of her speech, if he even noticed it. Perhaps one day, if she were ever to be judged for what she was about to do, it would be called noble rather than despicable. Right at that moment, however, she felt like utter rubbish.
"What would you like to do when you finally get out of here?" she asked. "We can do anything you want."
She felt the slightest squeeze of her fingers. "Anything?" His voice was barely audible.
"You name it."
He was still and quiet for such a long time after that, Robin thought he'd fallen back to sleep. Or perhaps… She glanced quickly at his chest and felt a ripple of relief as it expanded ever so slightly with a shallow breath. A ripple of something close to regret flowed through her chest; the solace she'd hope to provide seemed to have come too late. She'd lied to this poor, sick kid – dying, actually; he was dying, right before their eyes – and it had all been for nothing.
Then, in a voice so soft she had to lean in close to hear it, he said, "Wanna… go back. To Brighton."
"Sure," she said. "Sure, we can do that. We can… we can get ice creams and go on the rides, and maybe build another sand castle. I'll wear that floppy hat that made you laugh, remember? And this time, I won't be so afraid to put my feet in the sea." The details were from a holiday her family had taken in Brighton when she was a child (Martin had been the one too scared of the water to take a chance on dipping his toes), but she knew he was too far gone for it to matter. There was a framed photo from that holiday on the wall in her parents' home, and she thought she would never be able to look at it the same way again.
Mason said something that sounded to Strike like "R..K," and Robin nodded and grasped his hand even more tightly.
"Yeah, sure," she said. "We can go to the arcade, too. Of course. We'll bring all our pocket money and spend the lot. Just like when we were kids. Okay?"
With the slightest trace of a smile on his lips, Mason murmured, "'Kay."
He didn’t speak again.
She could feel it the moment the life left his body. She couldn't say what was different in the feel of his hand in hers, or in the way his skin felt under her fingertips where she continued to caress his forehead, but she knew at once the vessel that had been his body was now empty. His hand was wet with her tears when she raised it to her lips for a tender kiss before settling it back down again at his side. She looked up at Strike for the first time in what felt like hours, and saw the thunderstruck expression on his face. He took a shuddering breath that signalled he was about to speak, but she held up her hand to stop him. The very last thing she needed from him just now was the blistering rebuke she knew she deserved but couldn't bear to hear.
"Go get the nurse," she said, suddenly feeling immensely tired and far older than her years.
Strike stuffed a handful of tenners into a donation box they passed on their way out.
The rain hadn't slowed by the time they got outside. If anything, it was raining harder. The pavement glistened with puddles of water, constantly in motion with the jostling of falling raindrops. The Land Rover was visible in a circle of light at the far end of the car park, illuminated by a flickering street light. Strike plodded slowly along behind Robin, who appeared oblivious to the puddles splashing her practically to the knees as she walked, head down and shoulders hunched beneath her umbrella. Strike's head was whirring with the images of Robin holding Mason's hand, the echoes of her compassionate words as she helped him ease his way through his transition, and when he heard Robin choking back the sobs he knew she didn't want him to hear, he decided the time had finally come.
"Wait," he said, catching up with her at last at the side of the Land Rover as she fumbled in her pocket for the key. Leaning back against the car, he pried the umbrella out of her hand and held it aloft over both their heads, drawing her in against his chest with his free arm. She collapsed into him, arms stiff at her sides, as he arranged his coat around her so her face rested against the dry shirt beneath. He could feel her shivering as though the air temperature were cold enough for snow instead of thick with rain, and in obedience to a command he couldn't have resisted if his life depended on it, Strike bowed his head to press a gentle kiss to her forehead.
"God, Robin," he sighed into the softness of her skin. "You are amazing."
The feel of him against her was a comfort. The warmth. The broadness of his chest. The press of his arm around her back. The solidity of him, the strength. Robin let her body go gradually limp, felt her arms slide around his waist as though someone else were controlling them. Some part of her had always known it would feel like this if he held her, and even as he pressed her close, she dreaded the moment he would let her go.
"I lied to him," she said, her voice breaking. Her cheeks itched with tears, and she resisted the urge to dash them away like a child. "Who lies to a dying person? What kind of horrible —"
"No," Strike replied hoarsely, shaking his head. Robin looked up sharply, and Strike thought he had never seen such raw emotion in her eyes before. Her nose was red, her cheeks splotchy and tear-stained, yet even so she looked so beautiful Strike felt his breath hitch. He felt suddenly light-headed and stupid, half-drunk with the heat of her body, and he pulled her in closer, close enough that it was no effort to bend low enough to brush his lips against hers.
"No," he said again. The rain hammered on the umbrella above their heads. Robin's eyes were huge in the glow of the streetlight, but he noticed her shivering had stopped. "You comforted him," he said. "It was a kindness."
And then he kissed her properly. For a long time. And they both knew that no matter where in the world they might be, or whomever they might be with, they would never walk in the rain again without remembering this moment.