Read an Extract from The Widow by Fiona Barton

Read an Extract from The Widow by Fiona Barton

Chapter 5

Monday, 2 October 2006

The Detective

BOB SPARKES SMILED the first time he heard Bella Elliott’s name. His favourite auntie – one of his mum’s flock of younger sisters – was called Bella; the joker in the pack. It was the last time he smiled for weeks.

The 999 call had come in at 15.38. The woman’s voice was breathless with grief.

The 999 call had come in at 15.38. The woman’s voice was breathless with grief.

‘She’s been taken,’ she said. ‘She’s only two. Someone has taken her—’

On the recording, played over and over again in the ensuing days, the soothing alto tones of the male operator could be heard in an agonizing duet with the shrill soprano of the caller.

‘What is your little girl’s name?’

‘Bella – she’s called Bella.’

‘And who am I talking to?’

’I’m her mum. Dawn Elliott. She was in the garden, at the front. Our house. 44a Manor Road, Westland. Please help me.’

‘We will, Dawn. I know this is hard, but we need to know a few more things to help us find Bella. When did you last see her? Was she on her own in the garden?’

‘She was playing with the cat. On her own. After her nap. She hadn’t been out there long. Just a few minutes. I went out to bring her in about three thirty and she’d gone. We’ve looked everywhere. Please help me find her.’

‘OK. Stay with me, Dawn. Can you describe Bella? What is she wearing?’

‘She’s got blonde hair – in a ponytail today. She’s only little. She’s just a baby . . . I just can’t remember what she was wearing. A T-shirt and trousers, I think. Oh God, I can’t think. She had her glasses on. Little round ones with pink frames – it’s because she’s got a lazy eye. Please find her. Please.’

It was thirty minutes later, after two uniforms from the Hampshire force had gone to confirm Dawn Elliott’s story and make an ­immediate search of the house, that Bella’s name came to DI Sparkes’ attention.

‘Two-year-old gone missing, Bob,’ his sergeant said as he barged into the DI’s office. ‘Bella Elliott. Not been seen for nearly two hours. In the front garden, playing, and then gone. It’s a council estate on the edge of Southampton. Mum’s in pieces – the doctor’s with her now.’

Sergeant Ian Matthews laid a slim folder on his boss’s desk. Bella Elliott’s name was written in black marker on the cover and attached with a paper clip was a colour photo of a little girl.

Sparkes tapped the photo, taking it in before opening the file. ‘What are we doing? Where are we looking? Where’s the dad?’

Safe at last. Everyone had tears in their eyes except Laura. She looked numb.

Sergeant Matthews sat down heavily. ‘The house, the loft, the garden so far. Doesn’t look good. No sign of her. Dad is from the Midlands, mum thinks – a brief encounter who left before Bella was born. We’re trying to trace him, but mum isn’t helping. She says he doesn’t need to know.’

‘And what about her? What’s she like? What was she doing while her two-year-old was playing outside?’ Sparkes asked.

‘Said she was making Bella’s tea. The kitchen looks out over the back garden so she couldn’t see her. There’s only a low wall at the front, barely a wall at all.’

‘Bit careless to leave a child that age unsupervised,’ Sparkes mused, trying to remember his two kids at the same age. James was now thirty – an accountant, of all things – and Samantha twenty-six and newly engaged. Had he and Eileen ever left them in the garden as toddlers? He couldn’t remember, to be honest. Probably wasn’t around much at that stage, always out at work. He’d ask Eileen when he got home – if he got home tonight.

DI Sparkes reached for his coat, on a hook behind him, and fished his car keys out of a pocket. ‘I’d better get out there and have a look, Matthews. Sniff the air, talk to the mum. You stay here and get things organized in case we need an incident room. I’ll call you before seven.’

In the car on the way to Westland, he turned on the radio to hear the local news. Bella was top of the news bulletin, but the reporter had found nothing that Sparkes didn’t already know.

Thank goodness for that, he thought. His feelings towards the local media were decidedly mixed.

The last time a child had gone missing, things had turned ugly when the reporters started their own investigation and stomped all over the evidence. Laura Simpson, a five-year-old from Gosport, had been found, dirty, scared and hidden in a cupboard at her step-uncle’s place – ‘It was one of those families where every Tom, Dick and Harry was a relative,’ he’d told Eileen.

Unfortunately, one of the reporters had removed the family album from the mother’s flat, so the police hadn’t seen a photo of Uncle Jim – a registered sex offender on the patch – or realized his connection with the missing girl.

He’d tried to have sex with the child but failed, and Sparkes believed he would have killed her as the detectives ran round in circles, sometimes only yards from her prison, if another member of the extended family hadn’t got drunk and rung in with his name. Laura escaped with bruising to her body and mind. He could still see her eyes as he opened the door to the cupboard. Terror – no other word for it. Terror that he was going to be like Uncle Jim. He’d called a female detective forward to hold Laura in her arms. Safe at last. Everyone had tears in their eyes except Laura. She looked numb.

He’d always thought he’d let her down somehow. Should’ve found the link earlier. Should’ve asked different questions. Should’ve found her quicker. His boss and the press had treated her discovery like a triumph, but he couldn’t celebrate. Not after he’d seen those eyes.

Wonder where she is now? he thought. Wonder where Uncle Jim is now?

Dawn Elliott was huddled on the sofa, her trembling fingers clutching a mobile phone and a doll.

Manor Road was filled with reporters, neighbours and police ­officers, all interviewing each other in a verbal orgy.

Sparkes pushed his way through the knot of people at the gate of Number 44a, nodding at the journalists he recognized.

‘Bob,’ a woman’s voice called. ‘Hi. Any news? Any leads?’ Kate Waters pushed forward and smiled mock-wearily. He’d last seen her during a grisly murder in the New Forest and they had enjoyed a couple of drinks and a gossip in the weeks it took to nail the husband.

They went way back, bumping into each other every so often on different cases and picking up where they’d left off. Not really a friendship, he thought. It was definitely all about work, but Kate was all right. Last time, she’d held on to a line in the story she’d stumbled on until he was ready for the information to come out. He owed her one.

‘Hello, Kate. Just got here, but maybe I’ll have something to say later,’ he said, ducking past the uniform guarding the house.

There was a smell of cats and cigarettes in the front room. Dawn Elliott was huddled on the sofa, her trembling fingers clutching a mobile phone and a doll. Her blonde hair was tethered off her face in a half-hearted ponytail, making her look even younger than she was. She looked up at the tall, serious-looking man in the doorway, her face collapsing.

‘Have you found her?’ she managed.

‘Ms Elliott, I’m Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes. I’m here to help find Bella and I want you to help me.’

Dawn looked at him. ‘But I’ve told the police everything. What’s the good of asking the same questions over and over? Just find her! Find my baby!’ she shouted hoarsely.

He nodded and sat down beside her. ‘Come on, Dawn, let’s go through it together,’ he said gently. ‘There may be something new you remember.’

So she told him her tale, dry sobs choking her words. Bella was Dawn Elliott’s only child, the result of a doomed relationship with a married man she’d met at a nightclub; a sweet little girl who loved watching Disney videos and dancing. Dawn didn’t mix much with the neighbours – ‘They look down their noses at me – I’m a single mum on benefits – they think I’m a scrounger,’ she told Bob Sparkes.

But as they talked, his team and scores of volunteers from the community, many still in their work clothes, were searching back gardens, dustbins, hedges, attics, basements, sheds, cars, kennels and compost heaps all over the estate. The light was beginning to fade outside and a voice suddenly cried out, ‘Bella! Bella! Where are you, lovey?’ Dawn Elliott jumped to her feet to look out of the window.

‘Dawn, come and sit down,’ Sparkes said. ‘I want to ask if Bella has misbehaved today?’

‘Someone saw a bloke wandering about the area earlier this afternoon,’ he told Sparkes. ‘A neighbour saw him. Didn’t ­recognize him.’

She shook her head.

‘Have you been cross with her about anything?’ he continued. ‘Little ones can be a bit of a trial, can’t they? Did you have to smack her or anything?’

The intent behind the questions slowly dawned on the young woman and she shrieked her innocence.

‘No, of course not. I never smack her. Well, not very often. Only when she acts up sometimes. I haven’t hurt her. Someone’s taken her ­. . .’

Sparkes patted her hand and asked the family liaison officer to make another cup of tea.

A young constable put his head round the sitting-room door and gestured to his senior officer that he needed a word.

‘Someone saw a bloke wandering about the area earlier this afternoon,’ he told Sparkes. ‘A neighbour saw him. Didn’t ­recognize him.’


‘A bloke on his own, he said. Long hair, looked rough. The neighbour said he was looking in the cars.’

Sparkes fished his phone out of his pocket and called his ­sergeant. ‘Looks like a live one,’ he said. ‘No sign of the child. We’ve got a description of a suspicious character walking down the road – details on their way. Get it out there to the team. I’m going to talk to the witness.

‘And let’s knock on the door of every known sex offender in the area,’ he added, his gut churning at the thought of the child in the clutches of any of the twenty-two registered sex offenders living on the Westland council estate.

Hampshire Police Force had about three hundred offenders on its patch, a shifting population of flashers, voyeurs, doggers, ­paedophiles and rapists who disguised themselves as friendly neighbours in unsuspecting communities.

Across the road, at the window of his neat bungalow, Stan Spencer was waiting for the senior detective. Sparkes had been told he’d started an ad hoc Neighbourhood Watch a few years back when the spot in which he felt he was entitled to park his Volvo kept being taken by commuters. Retirement held few activities for him and his wife Susan, apparently, and he relished the power a ­clipboard and nightly patrol gave him.

Sparkes shook his hand and they sat together at the dining-room table.

The neighbour referred to his notes – ‘These are con­temporaneous, Inspector,’ he said and Sparkes suppressed a smile. ‘I was watching out for Susan coming back from the shops after lunch and I saw a man walking down our side of the road. He looked a rough sort – scruffy, you know – and I was worried he was going to break into one of the neighbours’ vehicles or something. You have to be so careful. He was walking past Peter Tredwell’s van.’

Sparkes raised his eyebrows.

‘Sorry, Inspector. Mr Tredwell is a plumber who lives down the road and has had his van broken into several times. I stopped the last one. So I went outside to keep watch on the man’s ­activities, but he was quite far down the road. Unfortunately, I only saw the back of him. Long dirty hair, jeans and one of those black anorak things they wear. Then my phone rang indoors and by the time I came back out, he’d gone.’

Mr Spencer looked very pleased with himself as Sparkes noted it all down.

‘Did you see Bella when you went down your path?’

Spencer hesitated, but shook his head. ‘I didn’t. I haven’t seen her for a few days. Lovely little thing.’

Five minutes later, Sparkes perched on a chair in Dawn Elliott’s hallway and scribbled a press statement before going back to her sofa.

‘Have you got any news?’ she asked.

‘Nothing new at the moment, but I’m going to tell the media that we need their help to find her. And—’

‘And what?’ Dawn said.

‘And that we want to trace anyone who was in the area this afternoon. People who might have been driving or walking down Manor Road. Did you see a man walking down the road this afternoon, Dawn?’ he asked. ‘Mr Spencer across the road says he saw a man with long hair, in a dark coat; someone he hadn’t seen before. It might be nothing . . .’

She shook her head, tears sliding down her face. ‘Was it him that took her?’ she said. ‘Was it him who took my baby?’