Strike placed two pints on the table and sat down.
“Cheers,” Shanker said, seizing his and downing a third of it in one go.
Strike grinned at him and took a draught of his own. “Got that address?” he asked, and was rewarded with a toothy grin. Shanker slid a piece of paper across the table. Strike slid an envelope back.
Business thus concluded, the two old friends drank in silence for a few minutes, in mutual satisfaction at a successful transaction.
“‘Ow’s Robin?” Shanker asked. Strike smiled. Shanker always asked after Robin. He had quite a soft spot for her.
“Yeah, she’s good,” he replied. “Looking better. Divorce has come through, Ilsa said. She’s just looking more...” Strike shrugged. “..relaxed.”
Shanker nodded, pleased. There was another pause.
“Shanker...” Strike began, and stopped again. “I don’t suppose... You haven’t been putting tea lights on mum’s grave, have you?”
Shanker looked at him. “What the fuck is a tea light?”
“You know, those little tiny candles that go in jars and so on.”
“What, those fuckin’ useless things you can’t even ‘old, that women stick about the place?”
Strike laughed. “Yeah, those.”
Shanker stared at him as though he’d gone mad. “Why would I ‘ave any of those?”
Strike sighed. “Never mind, it was a long shot,” he said. “I assumed it was Lucy, but I saw her last week and mentioned it, and she didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Shanker shrugged. “Not me. ‘Ow long’s it been goin’ on?”
“Couple of months,” Strike said. “Mostly in the week, occasionally at weekends. I don’t get there all that often myself, so I’ve not spotted a pattern.”
He frowned. “I didn’t think anyone else visited,” he said. “Ilsa doesn’t, and it’s too often to be Joan.”
“Maybe someone just sticks ‘em about,” Shanker suggested.
“Thought of that. Had a wander last time I went, none on any other graves that I could see.”
“Mystery.” Shanker shrugged again. Strike didn’t reply. He didn’t like mysteries.
Life proceeded as normal. Working cases, tailing suspects, interviewing clients, filing reports. But the candles snagged in Strike’s mind, catching on his thought processes like a hangnail. It wasn’t Whittaker’s style, surely. That was even more absurd than imagining it was Shanker. Switch? Seemed far-fetched. Some long-ago fan from Leda’s modelling days who’d suddenly found the grave? Unlikely. No theory seemed to fit.
He found himself drifting towards the cemetery whenever he was near Whitechapel, and increasingly when he wasn’t, making extra trips to try to catch whoever it was. One night he arrived when the candle was still burning, and he sat and watched it and wondered how long they burned for. Couldn’t be more than a couple of hours, surely. And it looked like the slightest gust of wind would extinguish it. He looked all around but there was no one in sight.
Robin stuck her head round Strike’s office door. “We’re out of biscuits again, can’t imagine why,” she said, winking at him. “I’m going to the shop. I’ll get milk too. Need anything else?” she waved her purse at him.
Strike sighed and stretched, his current case spread out on the desk in front of him. “Don’t think so, thanks,” he said. “I’ll pop out later for more smokes.”
Robin nodded and withdrew. “Back in a mo,” she called, grabbing her coat.
Strike stood, stiff from a long couple of hours at his desk. Tea was in order if Robin was fetching more biscuits. He went through to the outer office to put the kettle on. Robin’s shoes could be heard clanking down the metal staircase briskly. He smiled. She had a renewed lightness to her step these days. It was good to see, to hear. Her glowing smile was back, the odd cheeky wink. He’d missed happy Robin. She’d been so quiet for so long, he’d almost forgotten this side of her.
Kettle filled and switched on, he glanced around for the paper. Robin had taken to buying the odd copy of the Evening Standard. One of their more well-heeled clients occasionally made the gossip columns, so they kept an eye on the news. Strike was learning far more about the celebrity world than he had ever had any interest in.
The Standard lay on the corner of Robin’s desk, under her handbag. He reached to gently move the bag, which gaped open where Robin had removed her purse from it for her trip to the shop. As his big hand closed over the top of it to draw the open sides together, Strike froze suddenly. A small package lay on its side, beneath where the purse had presumably sat. It was open, and a tea light had fallen out and nestled between the packet and the lining of the bag.
Strike stood, looking at the tea light, for a long minute. There was no way to tell if they were the same kind as he’d seen on Leda’s grave. They all looked the same to him. But why on earth would Robin carry tea lights otherwise?
He couldn’t bring himself to touch the contents of Robin’s bag, so eventually he just lifted it, slid the paper out from beneath it and returned it to its spot. He moved back to make the tea, his mind pondering.
By the time he’d assembled the tea and his was stewed to his satisfaction, Robin had returned with the biscuits and milk. She dropped her purse back into her handbag and hung the bag back in its place on the peg.
“Any sign of Ritchie Rich?” she asked, nodding to the paper Strike was perusing, having spread it on the counter next to the kettle. “I haven’t had a chance to look yet.”
“Can’t see any mention,” Strike said, and handed her a mug of tea.
“Thanks.” Robin took it and moved back to her desk. She sat in her chair, tucked herself in, picked up her notes, turned to her computer.
She glanced up. Strike was still looking at her. “What?”
“Nothing,” he said, and took his tea back to his office.
Strike waited until ten minutes after Robin had left, with a cheery “good night” and a swish of her red-gold hair, and then he set off towards Whitechapel. He reflected as the Tube rattled along on just how far out of Robin’s way this was. It wasn’t on her journey home at all. He must surely be wrong. She could have bought the tea lights for her flat.
That didn’t explain why she’d have an open packet in her bag, though.
The light was just beginning to fade from daytime sunshine into the orange haze of evening as he made his way slowly across the cemetery. He was circling around to approach the grave from behind. On the off chance that she was there, he wanted the chance to watch her unobserved for a minute.
Sure enough, he spotted the back of her golden head and beige coat from some distance. She was crouched in front of the stone guitar that formed Leda’s headstone. As he approached quietly, he could see the flicker of the tiny candle at her feet. He paused a little way back, watching, feeling suddenly like he was intruding. She was very still.
Strike watched Robin for a minute. What was she doing? How did she even know that his mother’s grave was here? As far as he could remember, he’d mentioned it only once in her presence, more than a year ago, on the morning the severed leg had arrived in their office. She’d been shocked and upset. Could she have remembered a detail, at a stressful time, that would have been so inconsequential to her?
A sudden warmth swelled in his heart as he stood there. However she had come to know about the grave, something was stirring her to come here, reasonably regularly, for several months now.
The breeze shifted and carried her voice to him, and he realised she was talking quietly. Curiosity overcame reticence, and he moved forward a few steps, and then a few more. Her voice was low and quiet, but he caught snatches as the breeze stirred the air.
“..been a busy week, we’ve got lots of cases on, it’s keeping him busy... ..he went to Nick and Ilsa’s last Friday...”
The trees rustled, drowning out her words. He stepped closer still.
“..Jack’s birthday, and Cormoran bought him another gun. I’m sure he does it to annoy Greg...” She laughed softly at this.
Strike stood, staring, rooted to the spot. Fondness flooded him. This sweet, kind, gorgeous woman was bringing reports on his life to his mother. Strike wasn’t in the least bit sentimental, and his visits to the grave, sporadic as they were, were usually short and silent. He didn’t harbour any belief that the spirit of Leda lingered here to listen to anything he had to say. But he was ridiculously touched that Robin did.
A magpie squawked, and Robin jumped a little and glanced around. She saw Strike and froze, her shocked gaze on his. She flushed pink and stood up, flustered, smoothing her coat down.
“Sorry,” she said, looking anxious. “I wasn’t trying to intrude. I try to come when I think you won’t...” She trailed off, confused by the way he was looking at her. His intense eyes bored into hers, making her feel exposed, a little uncomfortable, and even more flustered. She looked back at him, uncertain, her cheeks pink, her lips parted softly.
Strike moved forward without speaking, his eyes still on hers. He stepped right up to her and hesitated. She had to tilt her head a little now to look up at him.
There was a moment of silence that stretched agonisingly, and then he leaned down and kissed her.
Robin gasped softly against his mouth, taken aback by the very last reaction she had expected from him. His lips as they moved gently on hers were reverent, quiet. This was a kiss of fondness, of gratitude, of caring.
And then it wasn’t. His mouth opened over hers, his tongue brushing against hers, and she pressed forward with a little moan, her hands coming up to the lapels of his coat. His arms slid around her back and pulled her closer still, and he kissed and kissed her in the soft evening light.
Eventually Strike pulled back, smiling, and rested his forehead on hers. Robin drew shaky breaths, grinning back at him, a little dazed.
“You’re extraordinary, do you know that?” he murmured, and she flushed again and buried her face in the front of his coat.
Strike rested his chin on the top of her head and regarded the flickering tea light.