One Saturday, August 24, 2019 Dee Afterwards, Pauline said she hadn't even noticed Charlie was missing until I woke her. The car had been in the drive but there'd been no sign of him when I'd let myself in to clean. I've got my own key and I'm often here before they're up. I prefer it, to be honest. I can just get on with my job. I'm almost done before they even realize I'm about. The invisible woman, my husband jokes sometimes. But he's right. I can vanish when I walk through a client's door. 'Course, they hear me hoovering or moving furniture, but most of them act as though I'm not there. It's like on Downton Abbey when the servants materialize through hidden doors to dust the chandeliers while the family is discussing Lady Mary's latest scandal. But there are no secret doors or belowstairs at the places I clean. I'm at the other end of the scale. I mean, the Perrys live in a caravan. "Luxury park home," Pauline had snapped the first time I called it that. "Travelers live in caravans, Dee. And this is only temporary until we finish the big house." The big house. When you see it from a distance, it does look special. But close up, it's a different story. It's crumbling, one brick at a time. There are great big holes in the roof, and ceilings are coming down inside. It ought to be condemned, my husband says, but Pauline still makes me polish the brass knocker and letter box. I suppose it helps her kid herself that she'll be living in it soon. The things people do to make life bearable. Front, that's what they all put on. The shiny outside that hides the filth. You should see what I see: the fat-caked ovens, the shit-streaked toilets, the stained mattresses. And hear what I hear-who has money problems or fungal infections. But you won't. Part of the job is not to tell. "Charlie!" Pauline suddenly yells from her bedroom. "Haven't seen him," I call back, and put my head round the door. "Well, he's not here," she says, pulling his folded pajamas out from under his pillow. "Right," I said. "I took one of my pills last night-I must have been asleep when he came in. And when he got up," she says. But I can't smell the lingering sour breath of Charlie's secret last glass. I've been opening the window in the tiny room as soon as I can when I do in here-and helping him hide empties from Her Majesty. This morning the bedroom is filled with the salty stink of sweat and sex. And they don't. Have sex, I mean. Charlie can't manage it, according to Pauline. But someone can. There's talk in town about Bram, the gardener, who's up here a lot. And does no gardening. "He's supposed to be buying me a new dress in Brighton today. He promised," Pauline wails. "I've been stuck in this bloody caravan for days." She's used the C word. She's properly furious. "I'll get on with the kitchen," I say. She pulls a face and nods. I should say something straightaway. That I saw Charlie last night. But there'd be questions. Don't get involved, I tell myself. It's none of your business. And you've got enough going on. I fill the bucket with soapy warm water while I try not to think about my own problems: about the rent that needs paying next week, Liam's lack of work. And my family creeping back into my life after all these years. Making me remember. The bucket overflows and splashes onto my feet. Come on, Dee. It'll all be okay, I tell myself. And Charlie'll turn up in a minute, won't he? BEFORE Two Wednesday, August 7, 2019 Seventeen days earlier Charlie He could see his daughter through the window. Head cocked so that her hair fell over her face. Listening for the beep of his key locking the car door. She'd know he was there already, would have heard the car pull up, but he didn't rush. He watched as she moved slowly from the window to the door, steadying herself on surfaces, ready to welcome him. Charlie Perry levered himself out of the car and pressed the key fob. His daughter smiled and raised her hand. He went to wave-still an automatic gesture after all these years-and let his hand drop. Instead, he tapped his greeting on her window and marched up the steps. "Good morning, Mr. Perry," the new woman on the desk cooed at him. He'd asked them all to call him Charlie at the beginning but they'd just smiled. It wasn't that kind of place. The staff at Wadham Manor didn't wear those awful carer tunics-all pink polyester. Here, it was crisp white shirts and smart trousers. And disposable aprons only when the need arose. There were yellow roses on a central table in reception, replacing last week's fat pink peonies. Charlie breathed in the purified air overlaid with wood polish and allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. It was a faade-he knew that; of course he did. Wadham Manor was still an institution but he'd let five-star reviews-"more like a country house hotel than a residential home"-and fresh flowers sell it to him. And it was what his girl deserved. What he owed her. "Good morning!" he sang back. He couldn't remember her name but he'd make sure he asked someone. Always important to get names right. "How are you? And how is Birdie today?" "Good-she did brilliantly with the new physio yesterday. She'll be so happy to see you." Except she can't, Charlie wanted to say. Birdie hadn't seen him for almost twenty years. "I'll go through," he said. "Of course. And I'll tell Mrs. Lyons you are here. There's a note that she needs to speak to you afterward." Birdie hugged him close when she opened the door to her apartment. ÒWow! Did you fall in a vat of aftershave, Dad?Ó She laughed and held her nose. "What do you mean! Don't you like it? It's very expensive." "I bet it is. Did Pauline pick it?" "She said she was sick of my old stuff. I needed updating." "I liked the old stuff. You smell like an airport duty-free now." "Ha! Shut up and make me a coffee. There's a good girl." He watched as she organized cups and milk in her kitchen area, tucking her beautiful dark hair behind her ear as she chatted. You'd never know she can't see, he found himself thinking. But he knew. I'm lucky to still have her, he told himself. His mantra. "So how was the new physio yesterday?" His daughter's sunny smile clouded over. "Physio?" she muttered. "You had a session in the morning." Gently, gently. Let her cover if she wants to. "Oh, yeah. Nice. I think." They both knew that her unreliable brain had let go of the information. Charlie reached for the folder that recorded all the things her memory couldn't. "Says here, you were working on balance and strength-and that he had to tell you off for swearing." "Dad! It does not say that," she giggled. "It does," he teased. He loved making her laugh. "There's a list of words used. Some I haven't heard since I was last in the East End." "Shut up! Here's your coffee. What's the therapist called? I can't quite . . ." Charlie skipped to the end of the report. "It's, er, it's Stu." And his hand seemed to lose its grip on the handle of his mug. Coffee dripped onto the page, obliterating the name. "That's it. Stu," she said. Charlie held his breath and watched for a memory to flicker across her face but there was nothing. It meant nothing to her. It'd been wiped, like every detail of that night. The razor-sharp brain that had earned her a place at Oxford to study law had been catastrophically blunted in a matter of minutes. Fifteen minutes, the ambulance crew had calculated. She'd stopped breathing for the time it took him to drink a gin and tonic and her whole life had changed. When she emerged from her coma, she remembered nothing. She was lucky. It had never left Charlie. Mrs. Lyons was hovering when he came out, brutally tweaking the flower arrangement into shape. "Ah, here you are," she chirped as if he was a favorite guest. He wasn't. "Now, then," she said as she seated him in her private drawing room, "we really need to get this bill settled, don't we?" "I will be transferring the money tomorrow, Mrs. Lyons," Charlie said. "I am very grateful for your patience." "Well, that is good news but I'm afraid that is what you said on the last occasion. And on the other occasions we have had to discuss this matter." "As I explained last time, I have had a slight liquidity problem-I don't want to bore you with the details-but the money will be in place." He could feel the prickle of perspiration in his hairline. "You have my word." Mrs. Lyons's mouth hardened and she stood, smoothing her dress over her jutting hip bones. "Fine. But I cannot emphasize enough that this will be our last conversation on the subject. You are now six months in arrears and I'm afraid I cannot extend our more than generous terms any further. I feel you are taking advantage of us, Mr. Perry." "Charlie, please." "Perhaps you should be looking for alternative accommodation for Birdie, Mr. Perry." HeÕd yanked a tissue from a fake ormolu box on Mrs. LyonsÕs desk as he left and was wiping at the sweat under his eyes as he walked to the main door. "Is everything all right?" the receptionist called to him. "Oh, yes. Bit of hay fever. All splendid, thanks." "Birdie's such a lovely girl." Girl. He wanted to say she was a woman-she would be thirty-eight next week-that she should have been a top-rung barrister by now. But her injuries had frozen her in time. Her vulnerability had kept her a girl in everyone's eyes. "Yes. She is." "She's been a popular girl today. You're not her first visitor." "Really? She didn't say anything. And it wasn't in the folder." Charlie scrambled through possibilities in his head. The visitor column in the weekly diary was almost exclusively confined to him and Birdie's mother-they came on different days to avoid any awkwardness. One of Birdie's old teachers came a couple of times a year but she always let him know beforehand so he could prime his daughter. Could it have been a school friend? The girls in her set had fallen away after they'd left for university but Birdie followed a couple of them on social media. "No. Well, when I told him she was in treatment, he didn't stay." The receptionist leaned forward confidentially. "He said he'd come back one day next week, after lunch." He. Charlie's skin prickled. "Er, did he leave a name or number? I could get in touch and organize something." "No, he said not to mention his visit to her. He wanted to surprise her." "Well, make sure you call me if it happens again. I don't want my daughter bothered." When he reached the car, Charlie found his emergency packet of cigarettes, lit one with a shaking hand, and sat with his eyes closed. Three Saturday, August 10, 2019 Fourteen days earlier Dee Where the hell is my tea?" Pauline is shouting when I open the door to the caravan today. And I think she means me. I'm not your bloody servant, I think. And then realize I am. "Morning, Pauline," I call. "It's me. Charlie's just popped out to the garage. I passed him on the driveway." "He's never where I need him," Pauline snaps. "He's always out doing his good deeds, chatting up the old ladies or sneaking off to see bloody Birdie." Birdie is not Pauline's-"The product of an earlier, disastrous relationship," she tells people. "I never wanted children." Poor Charlie. Everyone says he's a saint, putting up with Pauline and driving up and down the A3 to see his disabled daughter. He doesn't talk about her in front of me. Pauline cuts him off if he mentions her and there are no photos. The only pictures in the caravan are of Pauline pouting for the camera a hundred years ago. She used to try to go out when I cleaned. There isn't room for us all in here and she hates to be reminded. She used to get all arsy with poor old Charlie, made him take her to the big shopping center in Southfold-"I can get artisan bread and that special wine I like"-but she doesn't do her main shop there. She may use posh carrier bags but she goes to the cheapest supermarket like the rest of us. But I never say anything to anyone. The mums at the school gates would love to bitch about her but I never go in for the whole "You ought to see Pauline's fridge" thing. It's a disgrace, actually. It smelled like something had died in there the other day, but when I said I'd give it a deep clean, she made a face, said she hadn't noticed a problem, said it must be a steak she'd bought for Charlie and forgotten. I don't know how I managed not to laugh. Pauline can hardly make toast, let alone a steak dinner. But people go along with her fantasy about being a domestic goddess. To her face, anyway. There are other cleaners in Ebbing but I think people choose me because I don't gossip. I've always found it's a two-way street, gossip. I mean, you've got to be ready for people to talk about you if you're dishing it out. And I prefer to keep my stuff private. People know my husband's a plumber and we have a seven-year-old son. And that I'm not a local. It's important here. In a big city, people wash in and out, but here, people stay for generations. And the "cradle Ebbers," born and bred-or inbred, as my Liam says-run things. They make the unspoken rules that mark you out as a newcomer. Like who can run the cake stall at the Christmas Fayre or have a child as an attendant in the Spring Princess Parade. We're allowed to buy and watch. But luckily there is a common enemy we can bond over: weekenders. The Ebbers hate them for invading their town and buying all the best houses for a handful of days a year. The newcomers hate them because the Ebbers do and it gives them something to talk about. Actually, weekenders are some of my favorite clients but I keep it quiet-I would lose work if people knew. Excerpted from Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.