her head rested in her hands. A tortoiseshell cat slept beside the cold stove but there was also a gas cooker that had seen better days and the kettle was already full so Maude found matches, lit the gas and placed the kettle on the hob. She sat down facing Tom’s mother. Mrs Rider looked up. ‘They was always on to my Jem but he was a good lad. He didn’t deserve nothing bad to happen to him. Nothing like this.’ She raised her head. ‘So what if he did get in trouble now and again? Not surprising with his dad in and out of the nick all the time.’ ‘I’m truly sorry.’ ‘Yeah!’ Maude pulled her chair closer to the table. ‘Mrs Rider, do you think someone kidnapped your son and then killed him?’ Mrs Rider shrugged. ‘Who cares? He’s dead now. It’s too late.’ ‘But do you have any idea who killed him? I’m wondering if the same man has taken my husband and . . . and he might be next. He might also be killed.’ Mrs Rider looked up suddenly, her eyes narrowed. ‘ He might have done it. Ever think of that?’ ‘Who might have done it? I don’t understand.’ ‘Your husband might have killed my son!’ Maude’s mouth fell open with shock at this outrageous suggestion. ‘But that’s ridiculous! How dare you even suggest such a thing! Of course he didn’t. Lionel would never kill anybody!’ Her voice rose slightly. ‘Don’t you ever say such a thing again! D’you hear me?’ The woman shrugged again. ‘Might have. Someone did it. They knew each other.’ ‘They did not! What on earth are you talking about? Your son was asked to deliver an envelope to Mr Brent. By somebody. We don’t know who.’ ‘By him. By your husband.’ Maude shook her head, confused. ‘You’re not making any sense, Mrs Rider. Please try to think what you’re saying. Lionel did not know your son. I’m trying to discover if the man who killed your—’ She stopped abruptly, jerking back in alarm as Mrs Rider’s fist crashed down on to the table. ‘Jem said the man knew his name. Said he called him Jem and asked him to deliver the envelope, only Jem didn’t know that . . . I mean, it was later that he realized . . .’ ‘That’s nonsense!’ Maude blinked rapidly, growing nervous. ‘Why should Lionel ask someone else to deliver an envelope to himself? Can’t you see it doesn’t make any sense?’ She sighed, ashamed that she was badgering the poor woman at such a time. ‘I’ll make you a pot of tea,’ she began but Mrs Rider was becoming annoyed. ‘I can make me own tea, thank you. If you’ve said your piece you can get out!’ She glared at Maude who, equally irritated, realized she should never have bothered Jem’s mother at such a difficult time. She rose to go but as she did so her eye caught a curling photograph on the mantelpiece. It showed a toddler sitting on the step. He was clutching a small wooden horse and smiling broadly. ‘Yes, that’s my Jem, bless his heart!’ Maude wanted to say something but she had the feeling that the best thing she could do was to leave the distraught woman in peace. She said, ‘He was a bonny baby.’ No answer. ‘Is anyone coming to help you? The Salvation Army are very good. They’re used to dealing with—’ ‘My daughter’s coming at twelve. Just go. I don’t want your help and I don’t want no sodding do-gooders snooping round my house.’ Maude cursed her own stupidity. Quietly she let herself out and closed the front door behind her. Walking rapidly away she returned to the seafront and, badly shaken by Mrs Rider’s accusation, stopped in a small café for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Leave well alone, Maude , she told herself resignedly. Leave it to the experts. Somewhere Lionel is alive and well , she told herself. DC Fleet will find him .
FIVE T he Hastings pier theatre was like most pier theatres, perched over the sea, its outside walls plastered with programmes of shows past and present, a jumble of posters