“She wouldn’t just go—she isn’t like that!”
“But you said you had a row and told you she was leaving you.”
“I know that, but. . .”
The trouble with being a senior police officer is that while you have masses of experience to draw on, you also grow a strange instinct for when things don’t smell right.
That was the case with Michael. He was convinced that his girlfriend had disappeared against her will, and no one would believe him, including me. But something told me there was more.
On the face of it, Helen Bailey had done everything you would expect someone to do if they wanted to take a solo trip around the world, as she’d told everyone she was going to do. She’d left her job at the bookshop, having given notice, she’d arranged to leave her rented flat, and she’d withdrawn a large sum of money from her bank account. All her belongings, including her passport, had gone with her on the appointed day of leaving her erstwhile home. She had no immediate family, but she’d told her boyfriend, Michael Hastings, that she wanted to break up with him and get away from her old life, ‘once and for all’ and discover new things and a whole new life that didn’t include him. And so she had apparently done so.
No amount of explaining that anyone over the age of eighteen (Helen was twenty-six) was free to do anything, go anywhere, live as they wanted, would dissuade Michael from believing that she had either come to a bad end or was currently in some kind of danger.
“I’m very sorry,” I told him firmly. “I wish there was something I could do. But if Helen didn’t want to keep in touch with you, then it’s her decision.”
Indeed, Michal struck me as a ‘clingy’ kind of individual, with his unblinking stare, stutter, frown of concern and obsessive obstinacy. Small wonder that Helen had wanted to get away from him. Anyway, since she had evidently gone abroad, as she’d told him she’d planned to do, I had no way of contacting foreign police forces to check up on her whereabouts, for a start, I didn’t even knew which country to contact.
The day’s drama, which had me escorting poor Michael out of the police station, and him begging, in tears, for me to do something, had upset me a lot. Okay, the man was very odd, and also unreasonable, but I felt sorry for him. The loss of his girlfriend Helen, had reminded me of my own loss. After forty years of happy marriage, Jean had died last year, and now all our plans for my imminent retirement made no sense anymore.
We had bought a little cottage on the coast, about an hour’s drive away, and Jean had spent her last few years decorating the place, choosing curtains, and planning our idyllic retirement. Now the place just reminded me of Jean’s hopes and aspirations for the time when we could be together all day, that now could never be. I was planning to sell it, for my few friends were here, in the city, so what was the point in moving away?
That evening I got a phone call from one of the neighbouring cottages.
“Bob? I thought I should tell you, the lights have been coming on and off in your house. I thought it was odd, because your car wasn’t outside, so I knocked on the door, but there was no one at home. Is anyone staying there?”
“Oh hell,” I answered friendly Janet, the lady next door, whom Jean had struck up a firm friendship with. “Well I certainly haven’t been there, no one has. Hope there hasn’t been a break-in. Otherwise it has to be some kind of electrical fault. I’d better come down and take a look.”
But on the drive down, I couldn’t fathom what kind of electrical fault could cause such a phenomenon. And it was odd, since before buying the place it had passed an electrical safety survey.
Sleepy Hollow, the cottage’s nameplate beside the front door, stood out in the pitch dark in my car headlights as I pulled into the drive, parked and went in.
Just for an instant I thought I could smell Jean’s perfume. I switched on the hall light.
And then it went off again. Then on. Three times it happened.
What on earth was happening?
I checked the front and rear doors, all the windows, indeed any possible point of access and everything was secure. No signs of a break-in whatsoever.
In the living room, I noticed a book had fallen from one of the shelves. I walked across and there was The Count of Monte Cristo, one of Jean’s favourite books, she’d read it again and again.
Weird. How come it had fallen down?
The light in the living room went off, then came on again, three times. And then I swear I heard that old Bobby Vee song, ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’. It had been a favourite of ours, a song that I remembered from childhood, and Jean I used to sing along with it when we were at school.
That’s when I remembered that Jean was a much nicer person than me, and had always been taken in by the most blatant liars, considering that some ‘unseen god’ would always unmask a villain, as in the words of the song: that a liar is spied on by the ‘stars in the sky’. But she wasn’t naive in a bad way, she just had no instincts for recognising ‘wrong uns’. She would always help anyone she could. Indeed her innate kindness was one of the reasons why I had loved her.
Next day I thought it couldn’t do any harm to visit the bookshop where Helen Bailey had worked, to see if any of her colleagues could shed any light on her disappearance.
No one seemed to know her very well, but a rather sly young woman with a permanent scowl, April, had whispered to me that “Helen and Oliver had a thing going once,” pointing to a bespectacled balding individual with a drooping moustache who was on a ladder, stacking books on a shelf. “It ended badly. But for goodness sake, don’t tell him I said anything. Oliver is a right weirdo.”
But when I talked to Oliver he seemed a harmless soul. He smiled noncommittally, telling me what all of them had said: that he hadn’t known Helen very well and had no idea where she had gone.
As I was leaving the bookshop something made me pause. When I turned around, Oliver had his back to me, but his shelf stacking had gone into a faster mode, and as he moved sideways I noticed a bead of sweat on his forehead. I was beside the fiction shelves and a book slid off onto the floor, for no apparent reason. I picked it up.
It was ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The story of the man who has been falsely imprisoned and exacts revenge on his captors.
The same book that had fallen from the shelves in my cottage.
That’s when I knew.
After several hours in the police station, Oliver eventually admitted that he had abducted Helen on the day she was leaving work. Passionately in love with her, he’d overpowered her and driven her to his isolated house, where he had chained her up in the cellar, hoping that when she ‘saw the light and admitted her love for him’ he would be able to release her and they’d live happily ever after.
When she came out of hospital and learned that it was Michael’s persistence against the odds that had been the reason for her release she saw him in a new light, and last I heard she’d decided to delay her world trip.
And me? I thought again about selling our cottage by the sea. The electrician never found anything wrong with the lighting.
And as I settled down to watch telly on the following Saturday evening in the living room of Sleepy Hollow I thought I heard ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’ coming from somewhere.