CUT TO THE BONE
Meg – Present day
The road swooped into the valley, its sun-beaten tarmac melting into the hillside. The car smelled of petrol and hot plastic, and the steering wheel stuck to my hands. DS Jai Sanghera was sprawling in the passenger seat beside me, legs thrown apart, head back, and we were embroiled in a pointless argument in which I’d found myself defending his girlfriend for a reason I could no longer remember.
Jai’s manspreading was reaching such critical levels it was impeding my access to the gearstick. ‘I know you’re hot,’ I said. ‘No need to turn it into performance art.’
Jai dragged himself forward to fiddle with his air vent. ‘Let’s just agree to disagree, shall we? I think if Suki’s serious about me, she should try harder with the kids; you clearly don’t. We’ve got a missing person to focus on.’
I eased my foot off the brake and let the car accelerate through the treacly air. The wind curled round my damp face, and my shirt flapped against my stomach. I fanned myself, trying to let the tension dissipate.
In the distance I could see the dazzling surface of Ladybower Reservoir. We were heading for a valley to its east that looked like a huge meteorite crater, but had probably been caused by some dramatic event in the last ice age. The hot summer had turned the grass yellow, and the bowl of the valley was surrounded by rocks. They jutted up like teeth, as if we were driving into a gaping mouth. In the centre, where the tonsils would have been, was an ugly industrial building.
I forced my tone to be friendly. ‘What do we know about her?’
Jai took a long breath and when his voice came out, it was normal, not pissed off. ‘Eighteen-year-old girl. She was working at the abattoir overnight and when they got in this morning, her car was still there but no sign of her. You know who she is though?’
‘No. Who is she?’
I looked at him for a beat longer than the driver should, our disagreement forgotten. ‘The Violet Armstrong?’
‘Yep. Bikini-barbecue-babe Violet Armstrong. Poster girl for carnivores everywhere. Missing from an abattoir.’
‘Jesus. What was she doing at an abattoir?’
‘I think she works there. Bit weird, I know. Especially with someone as controversial as her. It’s when “turning up in one piece” is way too literal.’
‘Thanks for that, Jai. No doubt there’ll be some banal explanation involving a dodgy boyfriend or a runaway pig.’
Jai laughed and I felt the atmosphere loosen. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘If I was a pig I’d run away from her and her barbecue tongs.’
On the horizon, tendrils of smoke drifted upwards, reminding me we were near the wildfire. ‘This weather’s got to break soon,’ I said. ‘We’ll get monsoon rains.’
‘Most of which will no doubt end up in my basement.’
I hadn’t yet been inside Jai’s new house, even though it was round the corner from mine, but he seemed obsessed with his damp basement. Maybe he’d been droning on to Suki about pumps and that was part of her problem.
We followed a narrow lane through gates into a concrete yard. A slab-sided grey building sat in front of us, sanitised and anonymous, giving away nothing about what went on inside.
‘Are you going to be okay with this?’ Jai said.
My head filled with images from abattoir videos posted by animal rights groups and shared by my friends on Facebook, just to improve my mental well-being and sleeping patterns. I didn’t need to see the real thing, especially in my current state of mind. Or hear it. This abattoir did pigs. Pigs squealed.
‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘I’m more worried about the missing girl.’ But it struck me like an electric shock that I wasn’t that worried about the girl – at least not to my usual PhD-level. Was I so worn down from watching Gran die that I’d lost some vital part of myself? It scared the hell out of me. If I didn’t care about my job to the point of virtual mania, who even was I?
‘You do know she’s famous because she barbecues burgers in a bikini?’ Jai said. ‘A phrase I wouldn’t advise saying when drunk.’
‘Yeah. She simultaneously dumps on feminism and animal rights in an impressive double whammy.’ I could keep the banter going while I had my mini existential crisis, but our camaraderie felt forced. I’d thought I was doing the right thing by being super-nice about his girlfriend, thus removing any question of whether I liked him a little too much for a colleague, but I’d obviously got it all wrong.
We pulled up in the yard and heaved ourselves out of the car. The sun sliced through the hot air, making the car windows so shiny it hurt to look at them. A few uniforms were buzzing around. We had a lot of missing person calls, but this one had triggered a red-button-push.