The Crime Writers' Association

Trick of the Eye - Louise Harnby

‘Maybe they bricked it up and skimmed it but it was there.’

Laura Hughes swears there was a door but I’m looking at concrete. On the other side is a room that never sleeps. The call centre runs twenty-four seven and one of the night-shift crew would surely have noticed a man dragging a terrified woman through the wall and into that room. No one saw a thing.

‘It was right there, I’m telling you.’ She scuffs her feet against the gravel, a petulant child in grown-up skin. ‘You think cos I was on the puff I couldn’t see straight. But I saw it.’

And I believe her.

My gut and a ticking clock tell me to.

The gut thing is down to Hughes. She’s clean as a whistle, never been on our radar. Keeps herself to herself. Simply, I have no reason to doubt her.

The clock thing is down to our anonymous abductee. The trail goes colder with every hour that passes and we’ve already lost precious time.

My only witness is a puff-head, that’s true. But she hasn’t tried to hide it and that tells me her habit is probably an old friend whose limits she knows.

Still, I need more before I can call in a bunch of hardhats to destroy the wall and find this mystery door.

‘You mind if we go back to yours?’ I point towards my car. ‘I read the report you gave the uniforms but I want to see for myself. Show me what you saw, how you saw it.’

She nods, offering me just the twitch of a smile. ‘We can walk. It’s not far.’

~ ~ ~

Hughes called 999 at 1 a.m., claiming she’d seen a woman being pushed through a door on the side of the TeleCare building. By a man – she could tell by the way he moved. The woman had been hunched up, holding herself like she was winded or wounded, maybe both.

The beat cops arrived nine minutes later. Three cars trawled the surrounding side roads and the gravel lane by the wall of the call centre while two officers talked to Hughes.

At first, they ignored the half-toked doobie on the coffee table … just let the witness tell her tale. She sounded straight enough.

She’d been taking a piss. Saw the abduction through the window. Stopped her mid-flow, she said.

Then they checked the view from the bathroom window.

And that’s when time started to leak.

Because there was no way you could see out of that window if you were sitting on the bog.

The two officers, tired after a shift’s worth of lip from the drunks and the junked, decided Hughes was talking out of her weed hole. Rather than addressing the discrepancy, they bade her a polite goodnight.

Me, I don’t like loose ends. I caught this one at seven-thirty this morning and called Hughes. Asked her how come she’d seen what she’d seen from a too-high window.

‘But I was standing,’ she told me.

Hughes, it turns out, is transitioning. Still stands to pee. And why wouldn’t she? Each to their own. I’m a bloke and happy to be one but I’ve always preferred to sit.

I don’t blame my colleagues, not entirely. They should’ve checked, but Hughes has a small frame and delicate features. I’d never have guessed. Her evolving body fits her like a glove.

~ ~ ~

We arrive at her place and go straight to the bathroom.

‘Walk me through it,’ I say.

Hughes gestures for me to stand in front of the toilet as if I’m taking a pee. ‘Now look out the window.’

She’s on the fourth floor and the pane isn’t frosted. I can see the TeleCare building clearly, also the gravel lane and the wire fence that edges the residents’ car park below.

‘I know it was late, but see? There’s three lampposts. You can’t tell now cos it’s daytime but the third one on the right is busted. It’s right in your line of sight. The door was directly behind it.’

I bend my knees and adjust my neck just a little to the left, positioning myself so I can get the line.

‘What the fuck are you doing, Inspector? No wonder I never felt comfortable in a man’s body. I’ve been pissing wrong all these years.’

I feel like a dick but there’s a method to my madness. ‘I’m six foot one. You’re five eight at a push. The view’s a little off. I want to see it like you saw it.’

We swap places and she frowns. ‘You’re right. I must have been a bit more stoned than I thought. Maybe I was standing further back. Now I know why there’s often piss on the floor.’

I go over to the window and look at the call centre. Perhaps Hughes had been a little fuzzy on her feet. Or maybe I’m missing something.

‘Clock’s ticking. I’m going to take some photos.’

‘You still believe me, then?’ she says.

I move back in front of the toilet and take out my phone. Shift my position as I snap … a step back, then forward, bend at the knees then straighten my legs, covering all the angles since I can’t be sure exactly where Hughes stood. The lamppost is my frame of reference because that’s the one thing she’s sure about.

‘Unfortunately, I do.’

~ ~ ~

I leave Hughes in her flat and head back to the lane. Check the third lamppost. The bulb’s broken.

I’m half-glad. Instinct says this is not attention-seeking behaviour on Hughes’s part but the physical confirmation is gratifying. I’m half-sad, too. A woman’s in trouble and I can’t make this lone report of her abduction work without the damn door.

I walk up the lane, scouring the gravel for something out of whack, then head down, checking out the wall as I go. It’s long, eighty feet of ugly – grey concrete stained black from soot, and white from moisture and pigeon shit. At ten-foot intervals, hoarding panels advertise a timber yard, self-storage, cheap mobile data packages. The one to the right of the no-door concrete boasts of the council’s plans for an expanded bus service. Bawdy – yellow text on a hot-pink background – but it provides welcome relief from the grime.

I look up and down the length of the wall, sensing something off, but the itch dissipates when a flabby guy with man-boobs rounds the corner at the bottom of the lane and starts whining about the disruption to service.

The nasty bastard in me wants to ram him against the wall and slap him around, tell him that someone has been taken, that her life could be on the line. But I’m a twenty-first-century copper so I bite my tongue, talk about procedure and apologize for the inconvenience.

The missing woman … I don’t even know her name.

~ ~ ~

It’s back to the station for a debrief. Then I get my team to work. Thirty minutes later we re-huddle.

Pete’s up first. ‘No new missing persons. And the hospitals have no traumas or gunshot wounds that match our vic.’

‘Maybe they’re not in a local hospital. Or maybe they don’t come from around here.’ It’s Alex, the annoying new kid. ‘I could ring around.’

Chelle’s got a list of names associated with the call centre – who owns it, works in it, staff shifts – but there’s nothing weird leaping out.

‘Have you cross-checked to see if any of them have previous?’ says Alex.

Previous. Please.

‘“Nothing weird” means I’ve got it covered,’ says Chelle with a gentleness I admire and object to simultaneously.

‘I called the council to report the broken lamp.’ Alex again. Like he’s expecting a round of applause. Little shit.

The adrenaline lag’s making me grumpy. My gut’s still telling me I need to follow this through but I’m running out of reasons to justify it.

A uniform from the front desk pokes his head around the door. A guy from the call centre wants to make a formal complaint.

Fuck this.

‘Alex, why don’t you observe? Good experience.’

He’s thrilled. So am I. He’ll be out of my hair for an hour.

~ ~ ~

Ten minutes later, he’s back.

He leans in close, whispering words like they’re state secrets. ‘Sir, there’s something I need to discuss with you urgently.’

‘Just spit it out, for Christ’s sake.’

He snaps back but my tongue hasn’t erased the almost giddy look from his face.

‘The complaint … it’s not about this morning – the interviews and whatnot. It’s about last night in the lane. A racket started around two-thirty. Went on for half an hour.’

I remember the moobed whiner. Disruption to service.

‘Call the council. Find out what they were doing.’

I give him a good-work pat on the shoulder and head for the interview room.

~ ~ ~

It’s the whiney guy. Can’t tell me much, just that there was a lot of clanging and drilling that made dealing with already furious customers even more difficult.

Again, I appease him as best I can, then go back to the department. Alex tells me the council had no work scheduled. Something’s warding off the surprise I should be feeling.

The photos I snapped from Laura Hughes’s bathroom show three irregularly spaced lampposts. I sense a veil lifting. Nothing solid, not yet, just a glimpse at what might lie beneath.

‘Pete, see if you can track down any images of TeleCare and the lane. Google Earth maybe. Chelle, you’re with me.’ I catch Alex in the corner of my eye. ‘You too.’

~ ~ ~

We park at the bottom of the lane and walk over to the first lamppost. I scuff away the gravel at the base with my foot. The cement footing is stained with moss and dirt. Same with the second post. We head for the third, the broken one that Hughes mentioned. Chelle pushes away the stones with her boot.

The base is different – some kind of reinforced polymer. I push against the lamp. It holds steady but there’s give in the footing. I pull the post into my chest, gripping it with both hands, and lift. It’s four metres long yet no heavier than a rotary washing line.

‘It’s a trompe l’oeil.’

‘A what?’ says Alex.

‘Trick of the eye. Illusion.’ I look over at the wall with Laura Hughes’s invisible door. ‘We used the lamppost as the frame of reference, but someone moved it.’

‘Hang on,’ says Alex.

He runs to the bottom of the lane and paces out the distance between the first and middle posts. Then he restarts the count, passes the third post and stops about ten feet ahead. The three of us join him and move gravel around with our feet.

‘Here.’ Chelle’s boot points at another polymer footing. This one has a lid covering the hole where the post goes.

We turn around and look at the wall. Yellow on hot pink.

‘Time to get that hoarding down.’

~ ~ ~

Hard hats in Hi-Viz arrive twenty minutes later. The board’s off within a blink. Like the lamppost, it’s designed to move easily and slips off heavy-duty hooks.

Behind it lies Laura Hughes’s elusive door.

I look at the bare concrete to the right of where the board hung. There at the top of the wall is the source of the itch I’d failed to scratch earlier – a matching row of hooks. Lift on, lift off.

One of the men makes short work of the lock and the door opens outwards.

I peek in. The wall’s hollow. It’s tight but there’s just enough space for me to walk a few steps. I switch on my phone torch and aim it down the length of the corridor. Visibility’s about fifteen feet, but what’s beyond is anyone’s guess.

I come back outside. Alex bounces excitedly, begging for a look-see.

‘No. No one goes in. Chelle, get forensics down here to secure the scene. Alex, uniforms. The lane needs blocking at both ends.’

Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to conceal an entrance and confuse any onlookers. But more interesting is the corridor, which seems purpose-built. For what, I can’t be sure, but this is no standard abduction. Even planned kidnaps aren’t configured years in advance and that wall’s an integral part of the TeleCare building, not an add-on.

I call Pete. ‘Forget Google Earth. Double-check on the owner of the call centre and see if you can get any drawings, floorplans, blueprints, that kind of stuff.’

~ ~ ~

The place is swarming with police and forensics, and a crowd of civilians has gathered in the car park. I spot Laura Hughes and beckon her meet me at the fence.

‘Did she look frightened?’ I ask.

Hughes looks through me, like she’s replaying the scene in her head. ‘I couldn’t see her face but it seemed like the guy was pushing her.’

‘Did it seem like she was resisting? Pulling away, fighting with him?’

‘No, but for fuck’s sake, maybe she couldn’t. Like I said in my statement, she was all hunched up like she was hurt. Look, she didn’t seem happy about it, okay? Other than that, I dunno. Sorry.’

‘It’s fine. You’ve got us this far.’

~ ~ ~

Chelle and I don white overalls and booties.

Peter trots over. ‘No floorplan yet but Land Registry has the building going up in 1984. Planning permission was given for warehousing but I’ve got nothing on the contractors or the building work. The owner’s Davis Holdings – like Chelle said – and TeleCare have been leasing the property for the past five years.’

‘Right. See if you can find out more about the holding company. We’ve got the all-clear from the techs to go in. Stay in radio contact.’

I pick up my kit bag and take the lead. The air’s a bit musty but the corridor is drylined top and bottom and on both sides. Built to last.

We follow the line of the building, me holding an industrial torch that lights the way ahead. There’s another door about fifty feet up on the left.

I’m twitchy. This whole thing, it feels too pro. ‘Let’s up the pace. I want to find out what the fuck’s going on before we’ve got company.’

‘Company, sir? Who—’

‘Not sure – it’s just a tickle.’

We fast-walk up the corridor and reach the door.

I open the kit bag, take out the drill and break the lock.

~ ~ ~

The room is small, maybe eight by ten, and dry-lined like the corridor. Along the back wall are six chairs. A viewing gallery? A tripod and camera stand between them. Aside from that, it’s empty, sterile even. But eerie too.

Who sits in those chairs? What do they watch? Who fills the space in front of the camera?

The corridor, the hoarding hooks, the moveable dud lamppost – all of it was planned years ago. But maybe that’s not the only trick in play.

All along I’ve been thinking of the woman as a victim … that she was taken. Our witness said so. But the Hughes thing is bugging me.

For the illusion to work, they had to be sure no one was watching. The whiney guy from the call centre said the disruption started around two-thirty. The uniforms arrived at Hughes’s flat at nine minutes past one but were out by two. If it had been me watching that woman being pushed through the door, I’d have been back in the bathroom, looking out the window for, what, an hour, two? The rest of the night? I’d have witnessed them moving the hoarding board and the lamppost.

But Hughes didn’t report seeing or hearing anything else that night. No drills, no clanging. And I’d not asked her what she did after the uniforms left because I’d only found out later about the trompe l’oeil.

You still believe me, then?

Unfortunately, I don’t.

~ ~ ~

I yank on Chelle’s sleeve and pull her through the door. Chelle gives me a spill-it look. The idea’s only half-formed but I’ll tell her what I’ve got.

‘Move. We’ll talk as we go.’

We start down the corridor and I buzz Pete. ‘Keep it casual but look around and see if Laura Hughes is still in the car park.’

‘Roger that.’

‘I think we’re being played,’ I say to Chelle, ‘and Hughes is part of it. Maybe the complainer from the call centre too. I just can’t work out why.’

‘So you think Laura Hughes didn’t see the woman being pushed—’

‘I think Laura Hughes is the woman who was pushed. Question is, if she’s under duress, why not just come to us straight instead of concocting the bathroom story?’

We reach the exit and step into daylight.

Pete’s on me straightaway. ‘No sign of Hughes.’

‘Gimme a leg-up over the fence.’

~ ~ ~

I land in the car park and sprint towards the block of flats, hoping I’m not too late. Hughes is already in the hallway as I run through the double doors. She’s dragging a case behind her but stops when she sees me.

‘Just shut it down. That’s all you have to do.’ She’s near to tears.

‘Laura, I need more.’

‘We’ve given you as much as we can. The rest is on you.’

‘We? You mean you and the guy from the call centre?’

Hughes doesn’t respond, just flops against the wall.

‘Tell me,’ I say. ‘I’ll keep you both out of it. Right now, though, all I’ve got is a camera, a concealed corridor and interference with council property in the shape of a lamppost. And only one of those things is a crime. Since I doubt you’re pissed off about the street lighting, what’s going on?’

She slides to the floor.

‘You weren’t taken, were you?’ I say.

‘Not the first time. But once is enough. There’s no out. Not for any of us. Last night never happened. I made it up. It’s just an account of what has happened God knows how many times. To me, Marky at the call centre, and everyone else. You need to do something.’

I nod towards the door. ‘Do they know where you live or can we chat about this over a brew?’

~ ~ ~

She talks while I drive …

The room’s lit so the men’s faces are in shadow as they watch. A camera records the proceedings. Maybe there’s a live feed, or perhaps it’s just swag for the punters’ goodie bags.

Sometimes it’s her on show. Other times it’s someone else; she watches from her bathroom as the performers and their audience come and go. When the gig’s done, the entrance is concealed. The heavies have it down to a fine art – under two minutes to move the board and the post. Quiet as mice, she says.

She agreed the first time because she needed the money for the drugs and the op – a life of living a biological lie had left her impatient.

She and Marky satisfy niche appetites for breasts and balls. But the so-called shows have taken an even more insidious turn. Not everyone’s satisfied with masturbation; they want to engage. And for some, pleasure comes only through pain. Slaps and spanks have become mere luxury. Torture and rape are commonplace.

‘And why stop there? How long before even that’s not enough? You’ve got to shut them down.’

I think about the flat. How hard would it be to find her, to put two and two together?

‘You own your place?’

‘Rent. Chose it for the location – I’ve got pics, but you need to say you took them.’

My phone pings and I pull over.

A message from Pete: Weird. Chief Super’s on the board of Davis Holdings.

It’s like he’s punched me, and I’m back with the chairs and who sits in them.

Focus.

I turn to Hughes. ‘Why the fake call-in last night? And even then, couldn’t you have told us about the lamppost switch?’

‘Marky broke the bulb. We wanted to see if you’d look … really look. Show us you weren’t bent. It’s got to come from you. Those men? In that room their faces are just black holes, but I can make them out from my bathroom. Recognize all of them.’

Her voice drops to a choked whisper, on the cusp of a reveal. ‘Senior politicians, a chat-show host, a borough councillor who spends more time on the TV and Twitter than in his office—’

‘Okay, so—’

‘And your boss … the big cheese. It’ll be their word against ours – a couple of pissed-off stoners with an identity crisis versus the establishment. Now do you see why?’

Unfortunately, I do.

And, Christ, do I have my work cut out for me.