The fog crept in from the sea, suffocating the city. It descended like an invading army, consuming landmarks, choking out the moonlight, rendering Southampton a strange and unnerving place.
Empress Road industrial estate was quiet as the grave. The body shops had shut for the day, the mechanics and supermarket workers had departed and the streetwalkers were now making their presence felt. Dressed in short skirts and bra tops, they pulled hard on their cigarettes, gleaning what little warmth they could to ward off the bone-chilling cold. Pacing up and down, they worked hard to sell their sex, but in the gloom they appeared more like skeletal wraiths than objects of desire.
The man drove slowly, his eyes raking the line of half-naked junkies. He sized them up—a sharp snap of recognition occasionally punching through—then dismissed them. They weren’t what he was looking for. Tonight he was looking for something special.
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Hope jostled with fear and frustration. He had thought of nothing else for days. He was so close now, but what if it was all a lie? An urban myth? He slammed the steering wheel hard. She had to be here.
Nothing. Nothing. Noth—
There she was. Standing alone, leaning against the graffiti-embossed wall. The man felt a sudden surge of excitement. There was something different about this one. She wasn’t checking her nails or smoking or gossiping. She was simply waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
He pulled his car off the road, parking out of sight by a chain-link fence. He had to be careful, mustn’t leave anything to chance. He scanned the streetscape for signs of life, but the fog had cut them off completely. It was as if they were the only two people left in the world.
He marched across the road toward her, then checked himself, slowing his pace. He mustn’t rush this—this was something to be savored and enjoyed. The anticipation was sometimes more enjoyable than the act—experience had taught him that. He must linger over this one. In the days ahead, he would want to replay these memories as accurately as he could.
She was framed by a row of abandoned houses. Nobody wanted to live round here anymore and these homes were now hollow and dirty. They were crack dens and flophouses, strewn with dirty needles and dirtier mattresses. As he crossed the street toward her, the girl looked up, peering through her thick fringe. Hauling herself off the wall, she said nothing, simply nodding toward the nearest shell of a house before stepping inside. There was no negotiation, no preamble. It was as if she was resigned to her fate. As if she knew.
Hurrying to catch up with her, the man drank in her backside, her legs, her heels, his arousal growing all the time. As she disappeared into the darkness, he picked up the pace. He couldn’t wait any longer.
The floorboards creaked noisily as he stepped inside. The derelict house was just how he had pictured it in his fantasies. An overpowering smell of damp filled his nostrils—everything was rotten here. He hurried into the sitting room, now a repository for abandoned G-strings and condoms. No sign of her. So they were going to play “Chase me,” were they?
Into the kitchen. No sign. Turning, he stalked out and climbed the stairs to the second floor. With each step, his eyes darted this way and that, searching for his prey.
He marched into the front bedroom. A mildewed bed, a broken window, a dead pigeon. But no sign of the girl.
Fury now wrestled with his desire. Who was she to mess with him like this? She was a common whore. Dog shit on his shoe. He was going to make her suffer for treating him like this.
He pushed the bathroom door open—nothing—then turned and marched into the second bedroom. He would smash her stupid fa—
Suddenly his head snapped back. Pain raged through him—they were pulling his hair so tight, dragging him back, back, back. Now he couldn’t breathe—a rag was being forced over his mouth and nose. A sharp, biting odor flared up his nostrils and, too late, instinct kicked in. He struggled for his life, but already he was losing consciousness. Then everything went black.
They were watching her every move. Hanging on her every word.
“The body is that of a white female, aged between twenty and twenty-five. She was found by a Community Support officer yesterday morning in the boot of an abandoned car on the Greenwood estate.”
Detective Inspector Helen Grace’s voice was clear and strong, despite the tension that knotted her stomach. She was briefing the Major Incident Team on the seventh floor of Southampton Central Police Station.
“As you can see from the pictures, her teeth were caved in, probably with a hammer, and both her hands have been cut off. She is heavily tattooed, which might help with IDing, and you should concentrate your efforts on drugs and prostitution to begin with. This looks like a gang-related killing rather than a common or garden-variety murder. DS Bridges is going to lead on this one and he’ll fill you in on particular persons of interest. Tony?”
“Thank you, ma’am. First things first: I want to check precedents . . .”
As DS Bridges hit his stride, Helen slipped away. Even after all this time, she couldn’t bear being the center of everyone’s attention, gossip and intrigue. It had been nearly a year since she’d brought Marianne’s terrible killing spree to an end, but the interest in Helen was as strong as ever. Bringing in a serial killer was impressive enough; shooting your own sister to do so was something else. In the immediate aftermath, friends, colleagues, journalists and strangers had rushed to offer sympathy and support. But it was all largely fake—what they wanted were details. They wanted to open Helen up and pick over her insides—what was it like to shoot your sister? Were you abused by your father? Do you feel guilty for all those deaths? Do you feel responsible?
Helen had spent her entire adult life building a high wall around herself—even the name Helen Grace was a fiction—but thanks to Marianne that wall had been destroyed forever. Initially Helen had been tempted to run—she’d been offered leave, a transfer, even a retirement package—but somehow she had caught hold of herself, returning to work at Southampton Central as soon as they would allow her to do so. She knew that wherever she went the eyes of the world would be on her. Better to face the examination on home turf, where for many years life had been good to her.
That was the theory, but it had proved far from easy. There were so many memories here—of Mark, of Charlie—and so many people who were willing to probe, speculate or even joke about her ordeal. Even now, months after she’d returned to work, there were times when she just had to get away.
“Good night, ma’am.”
Helen snapped to, oblivious to the desk sergeant she was walking straight past.
“Good night, Harry. Hope the Saints remember how to win for you tonight.”
Her tone was bright, but the words sounded strange, as if the effort of being perky was too much for her. Hurrying outside, she picked up her Kawasaki and, opening the throttle, sped away down West Quay Road. The sea fog that had rolled in earlier clung to the city and Helen vanished inside it.
Keeping her speed strong but steady, she glided past the traffic crawling its way to St. Mary’s Stadium. Reaching the outskirts of town, she diverted onto the motorway. Force of habit made her check her mirrors, but there was no one following her. As the traffic eased, she raised her speed. Hitting eighty miles per hour, she paused for a second before pushing it to ninety. She never felt so at ease as when she was traveling at speed.
The towns flicked by. Winchester, then Farnborough, before eventually Aldershot loomed into view. Another quick check of the mirrors, then into the city center. Parking her bike, Helen sidestepped a group of drunken squaddies and hurried off, hugging the shadows as she went. Nobody knew her here, but even so she couldn’t take any chances.
She walked past the train station and before long she was in Cole Avenue, in the heart of Aldershot’s suburbia. She wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing, yet she’d felt compelled to return. Settling herself down amid the undergrowth that flanked one side of the street, she took up her usual vantage point.
Time crawled by. Helen’s stomach growled and she realized that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Stupid really—she was getting thinner by the day. What was she trying to prove to herself? There were better ways of atoning than by starving yourself to death.
Suddenly there was movement. A shouted “bye” and then the door of number 14 slammed shut. Helen crouched lower. Her eyes remained glued to the young man who was now hurrying down the street, tapping numbers into his mobile phone. He passed within ten feet of Helen, never once detecting her presence, before disappearing round the corner. Helen counted to fifteen, then left her hiding place and set off in pursuit.
The man—a boyish twenty-five-year-old—was handsome, with thick dark hair and a full face. Casually dressed, with his jeans hanging around his bum, he looked like so many young men, desperate to appear cool and uninterested. It made Helen smile a little at the studied casualness of it all.
A knot of rowdy lads loomed into view, stationed outside the Railway Tavern. Two pounds a pint, fifty pence a shot and free pool, it was a mecca for the young, the skint and the shady. The elderly owner was happy to serve anyone who’d hit puberty, so it was always packed, the crowds spilling out onto the street. Helen was glad of the cover, slipping in among the bodies to observe undetected. The gaggle of lads greeted the young man with a cheer as he waved a twenty-pound note at them. They entered and Helen followed. Waiting patiently in the queue for the bar, she was invisible to them—anyone over the age of thirty didn’t exist in their world.
After a couple of drinks, the gang drifted away from the prying eyes of the pub toward a kids’ playground on the outskirts of town. The tatty urban park was deserted and Helen had to tail the boys cautiously. Any woman wandering alone at night through a park is likely to draw attention to herself, so she hung back. She found an aged oak tree, grievously wounded with scores of lovers’ carvings, and stationed herself in its shadow. From here, she could watch unmolested, as the gang smoked dope, happy and carefree in spite of the cold.
Helen had spent her whole life being watched, but here she was invisible. In the aftermath of Marianne’s death, her life had been picked apart, opened up for public consumption. As a result people thought they knew her inside and out.
But there was one thing they didn’t know. One secret that she had kept to herself.
And he was standing not fifty feet away from her now, utterly oblivious to her presence.
His eyes blinked open, but he couldn’t see.
Liquid oozed down his cheeks, as his eyeballs swiveled uselessly in their sockets. Sound was horribly muted, as if his ears were stuffed with cotton wool. Scrambling back to consciousness, the man felt a savage pain ripping through his throat and nostrils. An intense burning sensation, like a flame held steadily to his larynx. He wanted to sneeze, to retch, to spit out whatever it was that was tormenting him. But he was gagged, his mouth bound tightly with duct tape, so he had to swallow down his agony.
Eventually the stream of tears abated and his protesting eyes began to take in their surroundings. He was still in the derelict house, only now he was in the front bedroom, lying prostrate on the filthy bed. His nerves were jangling and he struggled wildly—he had to get away—but his arms and legs were bound tight to the iron bedstead. He yanked, pulled and twisted, but the nylon cords held firm.
Only now did he realize he was naked. A terrible thought pulsed through him—were they going to leave him here like this? To freeze to death? His skin had already raised its defenses—goose bumps erect with cold and terror—and he realized how perishingly cold it was.
He bellowed for all he was worth—but all he produced was a dull, buzzing moan. If he could just talk to them, reason with them . . . he could get them more money, and they would let him go. They couldn’t leave him here like this. Humiliation seeped into his fear now, as he looked down at his bloated, middle-aged body stretched out on the stained eiderdown.
He strained to hear, hoping against hope that he was not alone. But there was nothing. They had abandoned him. How long would they leave him here? Until they had emptied all his accounts? Until they had got away? The man shuddered, already dreading the prospect of bargaining for his liberty with some junkie or whore. What would he do when he was liberated? What would he say to his family? To the police? He cursed himself bitterly for being so bloody stup—
A creaking floorboard. So he wasn’t alone. Hope flared through him—perhaps now he could find out what they wanted. He craned round to try and engage his attacker, but they were approaching from behind and remained out of view. It suddenly struck him that the bed he was tied to had been pushed out into the middle of the room, as if center stage at a show. No one could possibly want to sleep with it like that, so why . . . ?
A falling shadow. Before he could react, something was passing over his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Some sort of hood. He could feel the soft fabric on his face, the drawstring being pulled taut. Already he was struggling to breathe, the thick velvet resting over his protesting nostrils. He shook his head furiously this way and that, fighting to create some tiny pocket of breathing space. Any moment he expected the string to be pulled still tighter, but to his surprise nothing happened.
What now? All was silent again, apart from the his labored breathing. It was getting hot inside the hood. Could oxygen get in here? He forced himself to breathe slowly. If he panicked now, he would hyperventilate and then . . .
Suddenly he flinched, his nerves pulsing wildly. Something cold had come to rest on his thigh. Something hard. Something metal? A knife? Now it was drifting up his leg, toward . . . The man bucked furiously, tearing his muscles as he wrenched at the cords that held him. He knew now that this was a fight to the death.
He shrieked for all he was worth. But the tape held firm. His bonds wouldn’t yield. And there was no one to hear his screams.
“Business or pleasure?”
Helen spun round, her heart thumping. Climbing the darkened stairwell to her flat, she had assumed she was alone. Irritation at being surprised mingled with a brief burst of anxiety . . . but it was only James, framed in the doorway of his flat. He had moved into the flat below her three months ago, and being a senior nurse at South Hants Hospital, he kept unsociable hours.
“Business,” Helen lied. “You?”
“Business that I thought was going to become pleasure. But . . . she just left in a cab.”
James shrugged and smiled his crooked smile. He was late thirties, handsome in his scruffy way, with a lazy charm that usually worked on junior nurses.
“No accounting for taste,” he continued. “I thought she liked me, but I’ve always been crap at reading signals.”
“Is that right?” Helen responded, not believing a word.
“Anyway, do you fancy company? I’ve got a bottle of wine that’s . . . tea, I’ve got tea . . . ,” he said, correcting himself.
Up until that point Helen could have been tempted. But the correction irritated her. James was like all the others—he knew she didn’t drink, knew she preferred tea to coffee, knew that she was a killer. Another voyeur staring at the wreckage of her life.
“Love to,” she lied again, “but I’ve got an armful of files to go through before my next shift.”
James smiled and bowed his submission, but he knew what was going on. And he knew not to push it. He watched with undisguised curiosity as Helen skipped up the steps to her flat. Her front door shut behind her with an air of finality.
The clock read five a.m. Nestling on her sofa, Helen took a big swig of tea and fired up her laptop. The first twinges of fatigue were making themselves felt, but before she could sleep, she had work to do. The security on her laptop was elaborate—an impregnable wall surrounding what remained of her private life—and she took her time, enjoying the complex process of entering passwords and unlocking digital padlocks.
She opened her file on Robert Stonehill. The young man she’d been shadowing earlier knew nothing of her existence, but she knew all about his. She began typing, fleshing out her growing portrait of him, adding the small details of his character and personality that she’d picked up on her latest bout of surveillance. The boy was smart—you could tell that right away. He had a good sense of humor and, though he swore every second word, had a ready wit and a winning smile. He was very good at getting people to do what he wanted them to do. He never queued for a drink at the bar—always managing to get some sidekick to do that for him, while he larked about with Davey—the thickset one who was obviously the leader of the gang.
Robert always seemed to have money, which was odd given that he worked as a shelf stacker in a supermarket. Where did he get his cash? Theft? Something worse? Or was he just spoiled by his parents? He was Monica and Adam’s only child—the center of their world—and Helen knew that he could wrap them around his little finger. Is that where he got his seemingly limitless funds?
There were always girls buzzing round him—he was fit and handsome—but he didn’t have a girlfriend as such. This was the area Helen was most interested in. Was he straight or gay? Trusting or suspicious? Who would he allow to get close to him? It was a question Helen didn’t know the answer to, but she was confident that she would figure it out. She was slowly, methodically creeping inside every quarter of Robert’s life.
Helen yawned. She had to be back at the station shortly, but there was still time for a few hours’ sleep if she packed it in now. With practiced ease, she ran her computer’s encryption programs, locked down her files, then changed the master password. She changed it every time she used her computer now. She knew it was over the top, that she was being paranoid, but she refused to leave anything to chance. Robert was hers and hers alone. And that was the way she wanted it to stay.
Dawn was breaking, so he had to move fast. In an hour or two, the sun would have burned off the thick fog, exposing those who hid within it. His hands were shaking, his joints ached, but he willed himself forward.
He’d stolen the crowbar from a hardware store on Elm Street. The Indian guy who ran it was too busy watching cricket on his tablet to notice him slipping it into his long coat. The rigid, cold metal felt good in his hands and he worked it hard now, back and forth, attacking the rusty bars that protected the windows. The first bar fell away easily, the second required more work, but soon there was enough room for a body to fit through. It would have been easier to go around the front and force his way in there, but he daren’t be seen on the streets round here. He owed money to too many people—people who would gladly take him apart for the hell of it. So he moved in the shadows, like all creatures of the night.
He checked again that the coast was clear, then swung the crowbar at the window. It splintered with a satisfying crash. Wrapping his hand in an old towel, he quickly punched out the rest of the glass, before levering himself up onto the sill and inside.
Landing softly, he hesitated. You could never be sure what you might find in these places. There were no signs of life, but it pays to be careful and he held his crowbar tightly as he ventured forward. There was nothing of use in the kitchen, so he quickly scurried into the front room.
This was more promising. Abandoned mattresses, discarded condoms and near them their natural bedfellows, used syringes. He felt his hope and anxiety rising in equal measure. Please, God, let there be enough residue inside to harvest a proper fix. Suddenly he was on his hands and knees, pulling out the plungers, thrusting his little finger inside, desperately grubbing around for a little bit of brown to ease his
suffering. Nothing in the first, nothing in the second—goddammit—and a fingerful in the third. All this bloody effort for a fingerful. He greedily rubbed it round his gums—it would have to do for now.
He sank back on the soiled mattress and waited for the numbness to kick in. His nerves had been jangling for hours now, his head pounding. He wanted—needed—some peace. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, willing his body to relax.
But something wasn’t right. Something wouldn’t let him relax. Something was . . .
Drip. There it was. A sound. A slow but steady sound, disturbing the quiet, drumming out an insistent warning.
Drip. Where was it coming from? His eyes flicked nervously this way and that.
Something was dripping in the far corner of the room. Was it a leak? Shrugging off his irritation, he dragged himself to his feet. It was worth checking out—might be some copper piping in it for him.
He hurried over, then stopped in his tracks. It wasn’t a leak. It wasn’t water. It was blood. Drip, drip, dripping through the ceiling. Spinning, he hurried away—none of my fucking business—but as he reached the kitchen, he slowed. Perhaps he was being too hasty. He was armed, after all, and there was no sign of movement upstairs. Anything could have happened. Someone could have topped themselves, could have been mugged, killed, whatever. But there might be spoils in it for a scavenger, and that was something that couldn’t be ignored.
A moment’s hesitation, then the thief turned and crossed the room, edging past the thick pool of congealing blood into the hallway. He darted his head out, crowbar raised to strike at the first sign of danger.
But no one was there. Cautiously, he stepped out and began to climb the stairs.
Creak. Creak. Creak.
Every step announced his presence, as he swore quietly under his breath. If there was anyone up there, they would know he was coming. He gripped the crowbar a little tighter as he crested the staircase. Better to be safe than sorry, so he darted his head into the bathroom and the back bedroom—only an amateur gets attacked from behind.
Satisfied that he was safe from ambush, he turned to face the front bedroom. Whatever had happened, whatever it was, it was in there. The thief took a deep breath, then stepped inside the darkened room.
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