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Books in this Series
Too Close for Comfort
Guilty as Sin
Jack Be Nimble
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Six Feet Under
1.Six Feet Under
No Rest for the Wicked
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Rough Justice, Chapter 1
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Too Close for Comfort, Guilty as Sin and Jack Be Nimble are the first three books in the Knight and Culverhouse series.
To find out more about this series and others, please head to adamcroft.net/list.
DS Wendy Knight stared at the crime-scene photograph of Ella Barrington. Ella's swollen purple face looked lifeless as her head sat indented in the mud. Blood had trickled from her nose and dried onto her lips. Her eyes had the appearance of glass, almost doll-like.
It wasn’t how Wendy had expected to spend her morning, but she had waited to be called onto her first murder case for a long time. DCI Jack Culverhouse, in his usual inimitable style, was giving a run-down to the rest of the investigation team.
‘Ella Barrington, aged twenty-one. Prostitute.’
Wendy smiled to herself and gave a small shake of the head. Culverhouse’s reputation preceded him: he always got to the important details first.
‘Discovered by an early commuter at Mildenheath Train Station at six-thirty this morning. We've got a combination of strangulation and suffocation, according to the SOCO boys. Oh, and her throat was slashed, too. We've no way of telling yet what actually killed her, but I think we can rule out a tragic accident.’
A nervous chuckle rippled through the incident room.
‘All forensics can say at this stage is that it's almost certain she died on the spot where they found her — there’s mud under her fingernails which matches indentations in the ground, and it doesn’t look like she was dragged there after she’d died. Her throat was cut, but they reckon that was done after she’d died.’
‘Which direction?’ Wendy asked.
‘Which direction was her throat cut in? You said they knew.’
‘From left to right, apparently, but I don't see what difference it makes at this stage, Knight.’
Wendy knew that one could tell a lot from the direction of a cut. ‘It makes quite a bit of difference, actually. It makes him right-handed.’
‘What?’ Culverhouse asked, seemingly put out that someone so new to murder investigations should have the audacity to show him up like that.
‘You said her throat was cut from left to right. That means the killer must have been right-handed.’
‘Listen to me, Knight. I've not got time to listen to your theories on bloody forensics — that's why we've got those dickheads in white suits crawling all over the body.’
‘I was only saying—’
Culverhouse shot a telling stare in Wendy's direction. That was her cue to shut up and listen.
‘The body was easily identifiable. She’s known to most of the response units, and let’s just say the desk sergeants have had to deal with her a fair few times. Besides which, she had her driving license on her in her purse, which made identification somewhat easier.’
‘She still had her purse on her?’ Wendy asked.
‘Correct. Any more bright theories you’d like to enlighten us with, Knight? Apart from the bleedin’ obvious, I mean.’
Wendy thought twice before saying anything.
‘That means the killer wasn't motivated by money or stealing her possessions,’ Culverhouse said. ‘Our motive wasn’t theft. Boys and girls, we're looking at a cold-blooded prossie killer.’
Wendy was amazed that Culverhouse had ever managed to scale his way up the apparently politically-correct modern police force. She recalled a story she had been told by a colleague when she mentioned that she was looking to join CID. Legend had it that Culverhouse's wife had done the dirty on him and run off with his child, leaving him with a deep hatred of women. She had heard that he would go out of his way to make sure that prostitutes and female petty offenders would be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent of the law, even if it meant the odd con getting away with murder — sometimes literally. Of course, she also knew that the working environment of the modern police service meant that rumours and supposition were rife.
There was an air of intrigue around the SIO; there was no denying that. Wendy, though, had always been wary of DCI Jack Culverhouse and his hard-cut reputation. Now, on her first real murder case, she knew she was going to need all the help she could get. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end.
Debbie Weston, a middle-aged Detective Constable who’d was also relatively new to CID, whispered to Wendy, her blonde hair arced over her eye as she tilted her head. ‘I really don't know how he stays so calm and jokey. I'd be bricking it if I had to lead a murder investigation.’
‘It's a case of having to, Constable Weston. Murders are simply business. You can't let it get personal or it'll eat away at you until there's nothing left,’ Culverhouse barked. Debbie Weston was a new addition to the department and would have to learn the hard way about Culverhouse's legendary supersonic hearing. She got the impression that he spoke with a voice of experience.
The ringing phone pierced through the hubbub in the incident room. DS Frank Vine leaned across the desk and answered it.
‘It's for you, guv.’
DCI Culverhouse strode confidently towards the desk and listened to the voice on the other end of the line for a few seconds.
He sighed, before murmuring a ‘thank you’, replacing the handset and turning back to the now-silent incident room.
‘They've found a second victim.’
Terror and excitement surged through Wendy’s body. Ever since she was a young child, Wendy had longed to work in CID and revelled in solving murder mystery books and television programmes long before the end of the story. Every budding detective dreamed of their first serial-killer case, but there was absolutely no way she could have ever prepared for the brutal reality and sheer panic she felt right now.
The surge of terror sank to the pit of Wendy's stomach, giving her little warning as she vomited violently into the toilet basin. The relentless deluge stopped her from even catching her breath, as if desperately trying to expunge the terror and anxiety from within her.
Wendy had always assumed she would follow in her father's footsteps. She recalled overhearing her dad telling her mum about the people he’d locked up that day. Street cleaning, he called it. Of course, that lack of confidentiality would result in disciplinary action today, but Wendy's father came from a different world.
There were words she didn't know at the time: rape, prostitute, dismemberment, mutilation. But as she grew older and learnt to fill in the gaps, it served only to further fuel her desire for justice and the sense of awe and excitement at the thrill of the chase.
She remembered seeing her dad’s ID card sat on the hall table after he returned from the station each night. She had never told him, but she used to creep downstairs every evening and polish it with her nightie. She chuckled to herself now as she recalled it.
Wendy always escaped to the dream world of her childhood under times of stress. It was a safe haven where there were no criminals, no rapists and no murderers. If there were bad people, her father would have dealt with them; she had no fear on that front. Now, her father wasn’t there to pick up the pieces. Not only that, but the person tasked with dealing with those problems was her.
Before long, reality had set in again and Wendy longed to be back in her dream world. The thought of these young lives being ended so horrifically had her retching into the toilet again.
As she returned to the incident room, Culverhouse was ready and waiting like a creature ready to pounce on its prey. The animalistic similarities did not go unnoticed by Wendy.
‘Nice of you to join us, Knight. I've had Weston all round the fucking station looking for you.’
‘Sorry, guv. Nature called.’ The mere mention of nature had Wendy smirking at the creature stood before her.
‘There's nothing funny about your fucking bowel movements, Detective Sergeant Knight,’ he boomed in an embarrassingly loud voice. ‘We've got a double murder investigation on our hands and you're part of this team. Next time you want to bugger off and sit on the bog for twenty minutes, you ask me. All right?’ Wendy felt firmly put in her place.
‘Right,’ Culverhouse continued. ‘Now we need to get moving on this one. DS Wing and DS Vine — I want you onto the MO. Explore the connections between the two murders. SOCO seem to think there are some, but we need to know more. Knight, you're coming to the Common with me. We're going to view the scene before forensics get their grubby mitts all over it. Weston and Baxter, you're coming too.’
Wendy raised an eyebrow. Luke Baxter was barely out of his two-year probationary period, let alone an officer with any sort of CID experience whatsoever. To Wendy, he was little more than a work-experience boy. A black rat who had wormed his way into a suit for the cachet. Why on earth was Culverhouse taking an inexperienced woolly-back to a murder scene? To what looked like a serial murder scene at that. She had had the misfortune of working with Baxter before, outside of CID, and knew what a slimy git he could really be. She thought twice about commenting and realised she had nothing to lose.
‘Yes, Knight, he is. Do we have a problem with that?’
‘Not at all, guv. I just thought maybe there was some paperwork he could be getting on with here. We're getting snowed under already.’
Shit. She'd only spent a few hours in the company of Culverhouse and already she was turning into a bigot.
‘Baxter's going to be a part of this team, Knight. He's going places and he needs to experience certain things. You catch my drift?’
Wendy's mind wandered to a time when she had first seen a dead body not long after joining the police force, when she was still on the response team in her probationary period. A woman beaten to death by her husband. She could vividly recall her thoughts and feelings as she first entered that living room.
It was the smell that had hit her first. That foul, rotten stench seared through your nostrils and stayed with you for the rest of your life, hiding somewhere deep within and pouncing in your least guarded moments. Dreams were a particular favourite moment for the beast to pounce. She remembered seeing the body lying on the floor in a mishmash of colours. The blonde hair, the brown dried blood, the blue skin. Oh god, that blue, lifeless skin. The sight and smell had made her sick then, too.
Wendy never ceased to be amazed at how a dead body could look so different to a sleeping, living person. It was as if with the passing of life, a light had gone out somewhere. In the absence of any other credible evidence, this gave Wendy her spiritual belief. If we are simply bags of bones and blood, Wendy thought, how can there be such a distinct lack of soul and being in the empty shell of a dead person? As humans, we instinctively know someone is dead just by looking at them. She knew there had to be a reason behind this.
Wendy hated murder scenes. Just because she’d never had to work on a murder investigation itself, she had attended her fair share of suspicious deaths. Although she tried to appear nonchalant every time, inside she was a quivering wreck. Now it was Baxter's turn. That slimy, goody two-shoes had been nurtured and fathered by Culverhouse ever since he joined the force. Butter wouldn't melt in Baxter's mouth as far as Culverhouse was concerned.
Yeah, let him experience it. Let him see it. Let him see it, the bastard.
The grass on Mildenheath Common was a yellowing colour. The scorching summer had been particularly unkind to it that year, with the inevitable hosepipe ban having come into force in mid-July.
As they crossed the grassy area from the gravel car park to the crime scene, Wendy couldn't help but smirk at the horror that Luke Baxter was about to experience. The warm weather would make the smell even worse, even if the death was fairly recent. The putrefaction would usually begin a few hours after death, with the organisms in the digestive tract multiplying and producing gases and odours. In this weather, though, that’d happen even quicker. During particularly hot periods, an adult human could become a skeleton in two to four weeks.
Upon reaching the body, the foul, pungent smell hit Wendy like a ten-tonne truck, and Luke Baxter even worse.
‘You all right, Luke?’ Wendy asked innocently.
Wendy could see Baxter's face turning a pale shade of green before her very eyes.
‘Yeah, fine. Just a bit… you know. The weather and that. Bit pongy.’
‘I’m sure you'll be fine.’
The body lay lifeless on the ground, just as Ella Barrington's had. Her body had started to swell — a sure sign that putrefaction was well under way, and her face was crawling with maggots.
‘He's had a right good go at her, guv,’ a man in a white suit said.
Wendy never ceased to be amazed at the specialist talent of some of the SOCO boys — stating the bleeding obvious.
‘We can see that. What have we got?’ Culverhouse asked.
‘You'd be better off asking what we haven't got. She's been suffocated, strangled, and her throat has been slashed. Sound familiar? Someone wanted this woman dead, and they weren't going to mess about with it.’
‘What else do we have?’
‘Well we're pretty sure that it's the same guy who did Ella Barrington, if you ask me. Which, of course, you didn’t. There are a number of patterns that link the two. I'd go out on a limb to say they’re definitely linked.’
‘Fantastic. You always know how to brighten my day, you SOCO lot. Tell me more about these patterns.’
‘Well, there's still a lot we need to look at. I can tell you that the killer was almost definitely right-handed.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘See these slash marks? You can see the entry point of the knife and the way the pressure has been applied. We can tell from the knots, too, on the ropes tied to her wrists and ankles. They were almost definitely tied by a right-handed person.’
Wendy shot a wry smirk in Culverhouse's direction. It was met by a faint, but definite grudging nod of acceptance.
‘You noting this down, Baxter?’ Culverhouse asked.
No answer. Culverhouse spun around to where Luke Baxter had been standing. He was gone.
‘Fucking hell, that's all we need. Did anyone see him move?’
‘Nothing, guv. He was stood behind us all, so he could be anywhere.’
‘You're really helping, Knight. You're really fucking helping,’ Culverhouse said.
The officers split into three groups and spread across the common to look for Luke, while two SOCOs stayed at the crime scene. Wendy and Culverhouse were in a pair, and headed toward the wooded area at the edge of the common.
‘Permission to say I told you so, guv?’
Culverhouse's silence told Wendy everything she needed to know. As they approached the edge of the common, Culverhouse began to call out. Wendy could sense exasperation in his voice. Or was it desperation?
Luke Baxter came jogging out of the copse in front of them.
‘Yeah? What is it, guv?’
‘Where the fuck have you been? We've got a sodding search party out for you!’
‘Sorry, guv. I, uh, wanted to explore the wider area a bit more. Get a feel for the crime scene, you know.’
Culverhouse's eyes moved towards the vomit stain on Baxter's jacket.
‘Got a feel of this morning's breakfast at the same time, did you?’ he asked.
Wendy was delighting inside as Baxter's face turned an impressive shade of red.
As they returned to the body, Culverhouse continued his conversation with the SOCO.
‘Right. Where were we?’
‘The interesting thing, Jack, is that the killer has made no attempt to conceal either this young lady's body, nor that of Ella Barrington. As you can see, we're wide out in the middle of the common. We'd usually expect to find a body buried or at least hidden in the undergrowth. It's almost as if he wanted her to be found.’
‘He?’ Wendy asked.
‘Oh, yes. We're almost certainly looking at a man. The brutality of the struggle is evident and, with the greatest respect, there's no way a woman tied knots like these.’
‘Do we have a positive ID yet?’ said Culverhouse.
‘Yep, she still had her bag and purse on her. It doesn't seem as though your man made any attempt to steal anything. She's Maria Preston. One of your men said she was a well-known local prostitute.’
‘We'll end up with a shortage if we're not careful.’ A ripple of nervous laughter followed Culverhouse's remark. ‘Right, well it looks as though we've got our biggest link yet. Two murders, two prostitutes. Any more theories, Knight?’
That evening, as Wendy made her way to her brother's flat, she couldn't help but play the same line over and over in her head.
It's almost as if he wanted her to be found.
Why on earth would the killer want his victims to be found so easily? Why would he not want their flesh to decay, their bodies to rot so badly that the police could not identify them as easily as they otherwise could? Did he want the police to find him just as easily? The questions kept encircling Wendy's mind.
She thought back to her own personal studies into murderers and serial killers. The Green River Killer, who was thought to have killed more than fifty people in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1980s left his victims in the open on the banks of the Green River. Again, all women and mostly prostitutes. Lucien Staniak, the Red Spider, who killed eleven women in Poland in the 1960s used to write letters to the police telling them where the bodies were. For some killers, it was all part of the game.
Michael's flat was situated in a less than desirable part of Mildenheath, to say the least. The flats just off of Wiseman Road were fairly new, but still pretty drab and depressing. The Hillside estate was pretty depressing in itself, and recent “regeneration” efforts had not done much to improve its local reputation. Wendy knew, through her job, just how much of the local crime originated on the Hillside estate. It wasn’t the sort of place her brother should be, but at the stage in his life he was at, he didn’t really have much choice.
As Wendy drove through the dark, dimly lit streets, she recalled the last time she'd visited Michael's flat. Cigarette ash was sprinkled all over the sodden furniture and a mixture of blood, semen and sweat had worked its way into the filthy carpets. Wendy shuddered as she anticipated the scene she would witness this time.
She parked her car in a well-lit corner of the communal car park and made her way up the metal staircase that scaled the front wall of the building.
As Michael opened the door and she entered the flat, Wendy felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow. The siblings that had shared parents, shared a household, shared a childhood. How could they grow up to be such entirely different people?
‘It's good to see you again, Wend,’ Michael said as he closed the door behind them.
‘And you, too. How are you bearing up?’
‘Yeah, pretty good actually. That's why I called you over. I'm starting to pick myself up. As you can see, I'm already getting the flat in order.’
Wendy looked around at the muck and filth that consisted of Michael's home. Cobwebs adorned every crevice and mould was almost visibly crawling up the walls.
‘Yeah, so I see. It looks... great.’
‘Uh, no, I'm fine thanks. I can't drink coffee too late in the evening,’ Wendy lied. Drinking coffee in the evening was almost a habit for her. It had to be, if you were more often than not up all night poring over case notes.
‘Oh, right. Well I'm afraid I don't really have anything else to offer you. I've not been to the shops yet this week.’
Wendy hoped the sigh of relief wasn't made out loud.
‘And the drugs?’ Wendy asked. ‘Have you stopped the drugs?’
Michael had been a heavy user of both heroin and crack cocaine and had made life very difficult for Wendy in recent years. As the only family member he had left, she felt almost responsible for him. Even though she wasn’t, trying to work your way up through the police service and having a drug addict and petty criminal for a brother wasn’t exactly ideal. Work and family life don’t mix well at the best of times, but the previous few years had been particularly awkward.
Michael smiled and made his way through to the kitchen to pour himself a coffee.
‘Course I have. Been clean a few months now.’
Had it really been that long since she had last seen Michael? It must have been. She had rarely felt compelled to pay him social visits in the previous years, knowing that it was both a waste of time and a possible conflict of interests. Although Michael’s criminality had long been a thing of the past, she hadn’t got round to visiting him for some time. The days had turned into weeks and the weeks into months.
Out of the corner of her eye, Wendy noticed something: a syringe containing a small amount of brown liquid adorned the french dresser in the living room. Even without her narcotics training, it was pretty evident that the needle was used and had once held heroin.
She said nothing and waited until Michael returned with his coffee.
‘A few months, yeah? Then what's this?’
‘That? Oh, that's from a friend of mine. He’s homeless but comes here occasionally to score. He's not managed to kick the habit yet. I really should stop him coming over, I know. It's not a good influence.’
Wendy may only have seen Michael a handful of times in the previous few years, but she still knew when he was lying.
‘Tell me the truth, Michael. This is yours, isn't it?’
‘It's not as easy as you think, Wend. I'm trying… I'm trying.’
‘Trying? Trying? Haven’t you learnt anything, Michael? Dad would turn in his grave if he knew you were pumping this shit into your arms. Or have you started on your legs yet?’
‘I’m trying! I swear to God I'm trying! Do you have any idea how hard it is to just stop after seven years? I've been doing this fucking shit for seven years, Wend. It's powerful stuff. It's not as easy as that. The methadone dulls some of it, but it’s not the same.’
‘Don't give me that bullshit, Michael. You're not even interested in trying! Even through mum's illness you carried on pumping that shit into yourself without a care in the world.’
Michael seemed visibly wounded by the mention of their mother. Sue Knight had died three years earlier from pancreatic cancer, mentally scarred by having to watch her only son slowly kill himself with class-A drugs. The initial shock of her death had seemed to jolt Michael back into reality, but grief had soon set in and he dealt with it the only way he knew how. Since then, they’d barely spoken.
‘It was the only way I knew how to cope.’
‘Cope?! Don't make me laugh! It was probably you and your addiction that finished her off!’
No sooner had Wendy uttered those words than she had immediately regretted every single one of them.
‘Wend, I called you because I need you. I need help.’
‘You've had my help whenever you wanted it for the past seven years, but nothing's changed. Nothing will ever change. How many chances can you give someone? I’m through with you, Michael. I don't want anything to do with you,’ she said through breaking tears.
Whether through anger or guilt, Wendy left Michael's flat, slammed the door behind her and headed for her car.
As she coasted through the streets of Mildenheath, Wendy played the conversation over and over in her head. She could recall every word, every inflection. It was something she seemed to make a habit of, although she wasn't quite sure whether it was the mark of a good police officer or a character trait that left her unable to forgive and forget.
Stopping at the traffic lights on Southold Street, Wendy’s eyes drifted over to the pub, The Cardinal, at the side of the road. Swinging her car round to the left, she pulled into the car park and walked into the pub.
She pulled up a stool and perused the drinks on offer, her eyes stopping at the bottle of whisky attached to the optic. She didn't even like whisky, but right at that moment it had an appeal.
‘Whisky, please,’ she said to the barman, a middle-aged bloke who looked like a rat.
‘Heavy day, was it?’ the barman replied.
‘You could say that. Can you make it a double?’ She’d leave the car in the car park, she decided. The walk home would probably sober her up anyway, and she could do with the thinking time.
The barman duly obliged and collected the money from his new friend for the evening. Despite being a town centre pub, The Cardinal never seemed to get much passing trade. It once had a reputation as a rough pub, and the exterior decor did it no favours in lifting that reputation, the blue paint peeling and flaking off the door and window frames.
‘Penny for ‘em,’ the barman said.
‘You wouldn't want to know, trust me.’
‘Copper, are ya?’
‘How'd you know?’
‘We get a lot of them in here. Easy to spot, really.’
Wendy wondered whether they ever got a lot of anything in The Cardinal. She certainly saw no reason for any of her colleagues to drink in a dive like this. Except Culverhouse. She'd bet Culverhouse would love this place.
‘It's a long story.’
Wendy thought for a moment. She could be careful, not give away too much information. ‘OK. Yes, I'm a copper. I'm attached to a murder case which is now a serial murder case. There's a nutter on the loose who's chopping down prostitutes, and we're miles from catching him because my senior investigating officer is a clueless bigoted prick. For a brief respite, I went to visit my idiot smack-head brother this evening only to find out that he's still an idiot and still a smack-head. How's that for starters?’
‘Better than most I hear, I'll give you that. First I've heard of any serial killer, though.’
‘We've only just found out ourselves. It's due to hit the papers in the morning. Will be on the front page of tomorrow night’s Bugle. Call it a sneak preview.’
‘I’m honoured. You nowhere near catching the fella then?’
‘Not really. There are still a few things to tie up.’
Wendy guffawed at the terrible pun and realised she needed another whisky.
The barman rang the bell for no-one's benefit but Wendy's. Christ, it was half-eleven. She didn't know what time she'd arrived at The Cardinal, but it was a good four double whiskys ago. With no other option, Wendy said her goodbyes and left.
The walk wasn’t an option at eleven-thirty. All she wanted to do was go to bed. She didn't think twice about getting into her car and driving home, even after her good four whiskys. Tonight, she just didn't care. In fact, the thought rather amused her.
As she reversed her Mazda out of the parking space, she realised she hadn't switched on her lights. As she fumbled to do so, she looked up and into her rear-view mirror just in time to see the large four-wheel-drive BMW meet the rear bumper with an almighty bang.
Wendy got out of her car and apologised profusely to the man in the BMW, who’d got out and was inspecting the damage.
‘Shit, I'm so sorry. I didn't see you there. Are you OK?’ Wendy asked.
‘Yeah, I'm fine. Car's a bit worse for wear, though. Christ knows how you managed that – I wasn't even moving!’
‘I’m so sorry. My mind was elsewhere and I just went onto autopilot.’
‘It happens. Just as long as you're insured, mind!’
‘Don't worry about that. I can go one better: I'm a police officer.’
‘Well, saves me a phone call, I suppose. You on licensing, then?’
‘No, night off. I’m attached to the murder squad, actually. Wendy Knight,’ she said, proffering her hand.
‘Blimey, a real professional woman. There's a turn-up for the books. I'm Robert, by the way. Robert Ludford, seeing as we’re onto surnames already.’
The man handed Wendy his business card in a manner far too unsuitable for the occasion.
Robert Ludford ~ Chartered Accountant.
‘Blimey, a real professional man, too. There's a turn-up for the books.’
The pair chuckled as they exchanged insurance details before heading back to their cars.
‘Oh, and Wendy?’ Robert called. ‘Be careful, won't you? Whisky and cars are never a good mix. You wouldn't want to have to arrest yourself for drink-driving.’
Wendy staggered into the incident room on Tuesday morning with the most horrendous hangover. She was sure she had only had four whiskys, but it felt like forty. One of the many pleasures of getting old, she concluded.
‘Christ, Knight. You look like the back end of a horse.’
Wendy admired Culverhouse's unique concept of a compliment.
‘Thanks, guv. You don't look so bad yourself,’ she replied, clearing a pile of papers from her desk and propping her backside up on it. She cradled her cup of coffee, the steam rising up her nostrils.
‘Heavy night, was it?’
‘No, I just went to see my brother.’
‘Didn't realise smack gave you a hangover.’
Wendy shot a loathsome glance towards Culverhouse, who visibly stepped backward and raised his hands, as if in mock defeat.
‘Well, it's nice of you to join us, anyway.,’ Culverhouse said. ‘We've had Steve and Frank getting to the bottom of the MOs and there are a number of matches.’
Wendy was willing to bet money that the only thing Detective Sergeants Steve Wing and Frank Vine had been getting to the bottom of were a succession of McDonald's bags.
‘Firstly, both our victims were prostitutes. It might seem a little cliché, but I think this is probably the route he's going down. There's no evidence so far that the women knew each other, at least not from what their families and friends have told us, but we're sure it's the same guy who finished them both off. Too many patterns.’
‘What patterns?’ Wendy asked.
‘Well, each of the victims was found with a length of rope tied around their necks. The rope used for each victim was different; Ella Barrington's was a manila hemp whilst Maria Preston's was a blue plastic sort of rope. The weirdest bit is the way they were tied. Now, I'm no expert, but they weren't your usual knots. Frank was in the boy scouts when he was younger, and he reckons they were — what did you say they were called, Frank?’
‘Bowline knots, guv. Pretty handy for nooses.’
A shiver ran down Wendy's spine as she quizzed DS Vine for more information.
‘But he didn’t hang them, did he? I mean, why tie a noose if you’re not going to hang them?’
‘Nah, they weren’t hanged. There's no sign of broken necks or any kind of blunt trauma from the rope. You see, the bowline knot is often used for situations where the knot will come under a lot of strain. It's not the most common one for your average serial killer to use; it's quite a specialist knot, you see, mainly used by sailors and anyone who has ever been in the boy scouts. The interesting thing is the amount of mud that had been collected in the fibres of the ropes. It would lead me to think that he'd tied the rope around the girls' necks and dragged them to their final resting places.’
‘Shit,’ Wendy said.
‘Yeah, but that’s not what happened. The bodies themselves had shown no sign of being dragged anywhere. The mud around them wasn’t disturbed in that way. You wouldn’t drag a live body, anyway. For all its strengths, the bowline knot is very easy to untie. Besides, the mud embedded in the ropes was too localised. If they'd been kicking and screaming, much more of the rope would have come into contact with the mud than we're seeing here.’
’So what are you saying? That the rope was used for something else first?’ Wendy asked.
‘Possibly. We’re getting the mud checked, but we’re pretty sure it’s the same stuff as at the common, which doesn’t help us much. The other possibility is that Ella Barrington and Maria Preston weren’t his first victims.’
‘Shit. What about the cause of death?’
‘The throat-cutting, most likely. It seems as though the whole noose idea was some sort of perverted game; they were probably already dead at this point, as there aren’t any rope fibres under the victims’ fingernails.’
Just as Frank had finished talking, Steve Wing turned up the volume on the television. It was a local news report on the murders.
‘ – but the Police have not said whether they believe the two girls were connected in any way. What they have said, however, is that they believe the killer may strike again and urge women in the area of Mildenheath to take extra care when leaving their homes.’
As the camera cut back to the studio, Culverhouse was distinctly unimpressed.
‘Nice one, Steve. Next time maybe you can let us see the other ninety-five percent of it.’
The tense atmosphere was cut short with a rap at the door of the incident room.
‘DCI Culverhouse? I'm Patrick Sharp,’ the man said as he entered clutching a manilla folder full of papers.
‘The psychological profiler. I presume Chief Constable Hawes told you I was coming?’
‘I’m afraid our esteemed Chief Constable has a habit of telling me fuck all, Mr Sharp. Do come in.’
As Culverhouse took a seat next to Wendy, Patrick Sharp perched himself on the edge of Culverhouse's desk and proceeded to address the team.
‘Well, it seems as though we've got precious little time to waste, so I'll get straight into it. Despite immediate appearances, the personality of the man we're looking for is quite common amongst serial killers. The fact that he seems to leave his victims in rather findable places signals that he is trying to initiate a sort of game with the police. He's very methodical, too. The cuts to the throat and the tying of the knots were remarkably neat, and the similarities between the two murders are striking. He strikes me as a very orderly man — obsessive, some might say. The peculiar knots point to some military training, perhaps.’
Culverhouse had the look of a grandmother being taught to suck eggs.
‘However, the information I have at this time is very brief. I believe SOCO intend to provide me with some more information shortly, so I'll have more for you then.’
And with that, Mr Sharp stood up and left the room.
‘Well that was fucking useful,’ Culverhouse said. ‘I could have told you that myself.’
As the officers returned to their respective desks, many heads shaking, Wendy's phone rang.
‘DS Knight?’ she said as she held the phone between her head and shoulder.
‘Ah, Wendy. Hello – it's Robert, Robert Ludford.’
Wendy paused whilst she tried to match a face to the name through whisky-clouded thoughts.
‘From last night? Surely you remember, Wendy.’
‘Oh yes, sorry. I'm still rather tired. How did you get my work number?’
‘You gave me your card.’
“Did I? Sorry, it's all a bit of a blur. What can I do for you?’
‘Well, it's more of a case of what I can do for you, actually. I was wondering if you might like to come out for dinner one night. I know a fantastic restaurant in Walverston.’
Whisky-clouded thoughts of the impending murder investigation and her argument with Michael were not helping Wendy's mood.
‘No, I don't think that would be very appropriate. Sorry, Robert. Goodbye.’
No sooner than Wendy had hung up the phone, it rang again.
‘What?’ she barked, now getting rather annoyed at Robert Ludford’s odd behaviour.
‘Oh, hello. Is that the incident room for the Mildenheath murders?’
‘Yes, sorry,’ Wendy said, straightening herself up. ‘Who am I speaking to?’
‘My name's Mrs Connors. Alma Connors. I think I know who committed these terrible killings. I think it was my son.’
Alma Connors’ house smelt faintly of cats. As the sweet old lady guided Wendy and Culverhouse into her living room, Wendy noted that her son must be in his forties by now. Either that, or Alma Connors was a very late starter.
The house was a small red-brick mid-terrace house on Elizabeth Street, not far from the town centre, in the Royals part of town, built in the early 1900s.
‘Can I get either of you a cup of tea?’ she said as she ushered Wendy and Culverhouse into her living room.
Culverhouse quickly surveyed the scene, noting the cat smell and the bird droppings on the mantelpiece before curtly answering for both himself and Wendy.
‘No thank you, Mrs Connors. That's very kind of you.’
‘Well, I suppose I should get straight to the point, then.’
Culverhouse wished very much that she would. He wasn’t particularly good with smells.
‘As I mentioned to DS Knight on the telephone, I believe my son may be the man you are looking for in connection with the recent killings.’
‘Right. And what makes you think that, Mrs Connors?’
‘Call it a mother's intuition, if you will.’
At this, Wendy cast her eyes towards Culverhouse, knowing exactly the look she would find upon his face.
‘Mrs Connors. As much as it pains me to say it, intuition does not go down very well as admissible evidence in court. Now, if your “intuition” is the only reason for calling me and DS Knight away from a very important investigation, I would like to warn you that it could very well be considered as wasting police time.”
‘Oh no, Inspector. There's plenty of evidence, believe you me.’
Culverhouse had a feeling that Alma Connors’s definition of “evidence” may differ slightly from his.
‘You see — my son, Thomas, or Tom, as he likes to be called, was dating a young lady up until recently. Quite a nice, young lady. Very polite. However, it was quite clear, to me at least, that she wasn't your usual run-of-the-mill girlfriend.’
Culverhouse's patience was running thin. ‘Go on, Mrs Connors.’
‘Well, she was… You know… A lady of the night.’
‘You mean she was a prostitute?’ Wendy said.
‘Yes, if you like. Now Thomas has never had many girlfriends, so I think it was all rather convenient for him. He suffers from some social difficulties, you see. Asperger's Syndrome. I'm quite sure the relationship never became sexual. Not under my roof, anyway. He used to buy her all sorts of nice gifts with the money he had saved and I think he just quite liked having a young lady friend to feel proud of.’
‘And how does this tie in with our investigation, Mrs Connors?’ Culverhouse asked.
‘Well, if I remember correctly, he stopped bringing this girl home a couple of weeks ago now. I asked him what had happened and why she didn't come over any more and he acted very evasively. He wouldn't even mention her name any more, Inspector. To go from borderline infatuation to complete ignorance in an instant struck me as rather queer.’
‘Rather queer indeed. But I must ask you again, Mrs Connors; how does this tie in with our investigation?’
‘Well, I was watching the news reports on the killings and they showed a picture of each of the young girls. I'm almost certain that the second one was Thomas's young girlfriend. Maria Preston. I think that was her name.’
‘You think it was her name?’ Culverhouse said.
‘Well, yes. That's not what Thomas told me she was called. He said her name was Lauren, but I suppose these ladies of the night must operate under all sorts of false names and secret identities.’ Alma Connors seemed nervous and uneasy at the situation which had presented itself to her, yet strangely keen to tell all.
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘I really didn't want to have to do this, Inspector. It's a terrible thing to have to report your own son to the police, but after seeing what happened to those young girls, well, I had no other choice.’
‘And you're quite sure it's Maria Preston that Tom was seeing?’
‘Quite sure, Inspector, yes.’
Culverhouse had already opened his mouth to ask Alma Connors another question when the living-room door opened. A man in his late thirties entered the room gingerly and rather nervously. Wendy supposed the man would not look out of place at a comic book convention.
Alma Connors looked rather shocked at the man's sudden entrance.
‘Inspector Culverhouse, this is Thomas, my son. Sit down, Thomas.’
‘Inspector?” Tom Connors asked nervously.
‘Detective Chief Inspector, actually. This is my colleague, Detective Sergeant Wendy Knight. Pleased to meet you, Tom.’
‘What's this all about?’
‘We'd like to ask you a few questions about a girl you might know. Known to you as Lauren, I believe.’
Tom Connors looked visibly distressed. ‘What about her?’
Culverhouse, not wanting to alarm Tom Connors, chose his words very carefully.
‘We believe she may have been involved in an accident.’
‘I don't have anything to say about her.’
‘It's not quite as simple as that, Tom. This is a criminal investigation and if we believe you may have some information which could help us, then we do need to talk to you.’
‘I told you. I don't have anything to say about her.’
‘Tom, if it turns out that you did know this woman then you don't have much choice. We'd like you to accompany us to the police station so we can have a little chat.’
‘Oh, will that be necessary?’ Mrs Connors said. ‘Only it’s best that Thomas can stick to a routine, and to places he knows.’
‘Mrs Connors,’ Culverhouse said, as calmly as he could manage, ‘if what we’ve been speaking about turns out to be of some significance, we need to do this properly.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Wendy added, hoping to placate her. ‘We’ll make sure he’s comfortable with everything.’
As they left Alma Connors' house, Wendy gasped at the fresh, cat-free air that flowed outside. She couldn't have been more pleased that Culverhouse had decided to conduct the questioning at the station. Tom, clearly uneasy and well out of his comfort zone, put up quite a resistance to Culverhouse's insistence that the conversation be continued elsewhere. A quick, sharp jab to the ribs (thankfully unnoticed by Wendy or Alma Connors) soon sorted that out.
As the unmarked Vauxhall pulled away from the house, Wendy's mobile phone rang. The conversation was brief, and she had soon put the phone back in her jacket pocket.
‘That was Mildenheath Hospital,’ she said numbly. ‘Drop me back at the station and I'll drive over there. My brother's been taken ill.’
‘Drugs overdose, they reckon. They've asked me to come in right away.’
As Wendy drove through the congested town centre of Mildenheath between the police station and the hospital, a torrent of mixed feelings flowed through her.
Although one part of her felt no sympathy for Michael — she despised drug abusers — she could not help but remember that he was her brother, after all. She knew all too well through her job that anyone could make mistakes. Right now, she was determined not to let mistakes get in the way of what they had as siblings.
The memories flooded back: visions of them riding their bikes around the cul-de-sac they’d grown up in, sitting on the grass verges playing with dandelions and making beds out of grass clippings. Mildenheath had seemed a much safer place back then. It had still had its traditional market town feel, long since lost to the traffic jams and exhaust fumes of the faceless town centre full of empty shops.
Wendy sighed inwardly at the number of charity shops and takeaways which seemed to comprise the only trading businesses in the town. She sat waiting in the right-hand lane at the traffic lights in the town centre and could sense the driver of the next car staring at her. Unable to ignore the feeling, she glanced to her left. The man looked dishevelled, yet Wendy got the sense that he somehow knew something. Even at this distance she could see the piercing blue eyes of his expressionless, yet all-knowing, face. This town was full of some odd sorts.
She tried to imagine the state Michael must be in. She envisaged wires and tubes coming out of his mouth, a machine beeping at his bedside. The pang of guilt was unbearable as she recalled their argument the previous night. Had it made Michael take an overdose? Had she caused this? No, she told herself. She couldn’t feel responsible for Michael’s problems. They were his responsibility and his only, and the sooner he recognised that the sooner he could get back to where he needed to be. Where he should be.
Wendy glanced back towards the car next to her. He was looking at her again. As a child, Wendy often wondered if people in the street could read her thoughts or somehow know what she was thinking. As she sat in her car, those thoughts came flooding back. Did he know something?
The whys and hows of Michael's condition seemed somewhat irrelevant. Since her mother had died, Wendy was the only person Michael had. The realisation didn't make her feel any better about the fact that she had barely seen him since.
Despite the green light, the traffic was not moving. An accident further up the road, Wendy presumed.
As she rolled her head back onto the headrest, Wendy closed her eyes. She tried to blot out the bad thoughts by recalling more of the better days with Michael, when both were young children, playing happily in the back garden of their family home. As she sat at the top of the wooden slide, she could feel her father's large, strong hands on her sides. He let go, and she slid down the slide and onto the lawn. The slide had once been varnished but was then beginning to splinter. Wendy supposed she must have been five years old, at best. She smiled as she recalled her father picking her off the lawn and holding her in his arms. Even now, she missed him terribly.
She recalled the day at eleven years old when she returned home from school to be told that her father had died. Mildenheath's finest police officer and finest father, shot in a bungled bank robbery. The terror and desperation came back to her now as she experienced the emotions again, as though brand new.
As the first tear rolled down her cheek, Wendy, startled, opened her eyes. Thank goodness. The lights were still red and the traffic was still stationary. She looked to her left to see if the man with the piercing blue eyes was still there. As she turned her head to him, he reciprocated.
Alarmed, Wendy shot her head back to dead centre and concentrated hard on the red light ahead.
Why is he looking at me? What does he know? He knows, doesn't he? He can see the guilt. He knows what I've done to Michael. Oh shit, oh shit. Come on, fucking lights. Turn green, you bastards!
As though Wendy's power of concentration had worked, the lights turned green. But the traffic stayed still.
As Wendy guided her car round the hospital car park looking for a space, her head was filled with thoughts of what she might find inside.
Would Michael be conscious? Would he have tubes and lines sticking out of every orifice, just like last time? Surely not. He couldn't be as bad as he was last time. He wouldn't do that again. Three weeks in intensive care, his stomach pumped, his kidneys flushed, his face as grey as stone. Despite this, Michael showed no remorse and had made no attempt to turn his life around. This is what irritated Wendy the most. This was why she had seen her brother only a handful of times over the past few years. Wendy knew deep down that each time could well be the last.
As she traipsed up the unnecessarily long and winding disabled access ramp, last night's words rang in Wendy's ears.
I'm through with you, Michael. I don't want anything to do with you.
It was the only way I knew how to cope.
I'm through with you, Michael.
I'm trying! I swear to God I'm trying!
I'm through with you, Michael. I don't want anything to do with you.
I don't want anything to do with you.
The stench hit Wendy as soon as the automatic doors opened. It smelt of death and antiseptic. Wendy hated hospitals. The woman at the reception desk reminded her of a schoolteacher from a budget porn film, her dark-rimmed glasses perched on the edge of her nose, her suit blouse exposing far too much breast tissue for medically unstable patients to cope with. Tart. That might even be a health and safety issue.
The tart looked down her oh-so-perfect nose and informed Wendy that Michael was in bed number seven on the Egret ward. The tart's blunt manner led Wendy to believe that she knew exactly why Michael was in the ward. Look at her, coming in here to visit her worthless drug addict brother.
The nurse on the ward’s reception desk updated Wendy on her brother’s condition. He hadn’t overdosed as originally thought, but had instead drunk two bottles of cheap brandy and fumbled around with a packet of painkillers before calling the police. A cry for help, they said. His stomach had been pumped and they were holding him under observation until they could let him go.
As Wendy entered the Egret ward, she scanned the walls for a laminated placard displaying the number seven. Two elderly gentlemen in beds one and two were comparing their abdominal scars whilst a Jamaican lady snored loudly from bed five. Two beds closer to Wendy, in bed number seven, lay Michael.
Michael was awake and looking at Wendy like a small child who knew he had done something terribly wrong. The helpless look on his face shook her to the core. She cantered over to bed seven and hugged Michael.
‘Careful, sis. I've had all sorts of bloody lines and pumps hanging out of me. I'm a bit sore.’
‘Oh, Michael. Why did you do this? Why?’
‘Because I'm a fucking idiot, Wend. Because I couldn't cope with you leaving me again and I hated myself. I fucking hated myself.’
‘How could you be so selfish, Michael?’
‘Selfish? You want to talk to me about selfish? How many times have you come to visit me over the past few years, Wend? You're just as bad as dad was, devoting your entire life to the sodding police force and making everyone else take a back seat.’
Wendy bit her tongue. ‘Michael, I have to work to live. My job is very important to me and it involves a lot of hard work. You've not exactly made much effort with me, either.’
‘Is that the best you can do? You've seen me twice in eighteen months because your job involves a lot of work? Even dad used to be home to see us one or two nights a week.’
‘Stop comparing me to dad, Michael!’
‘Why the hell not? You're both the bloody same. All that matters is the police force and the rest of the world can go to hell.’
‘Michael, you really need to understand that we're on the same side here. You're not to blame for being here in this hospital bed. The people to blame are the scum who push drugs onto vulnerable people and get them hooked, the people who use their filthy drug money to feed organised crime. The people who think nothing of being a rapist or a murderer. They are the people I have a responsibility to bring down, Michael. We're fighting the same battle.’
‘I dunno, Wend. At the end of the day you're able to go home to your warm cosy little flat while I'm still out fighting on the streets. It's twenty-four seven for me, you know.’
‘So join me. Come and stay with me in my “warm, cosy little flat” and I'll look after you. No more drugs, no more dealers knocking on the door, no more temptation.’
‘What? Are you sure?’
Wendy almost regretted the offer as soon as she had made it. Was this really the right decision to be making? Getting involved in something like this could impact badly on her career. There it goes again – that word. Career. What does a career matter when your brother is dying slowly and painfully through a drug addiction? Wendy knew what she had to do.
‘I’m sure, Michael. At the end of the day, you're still my brother.’
As she left the Egret ward with the Jamaican woman still blissfully snoring away, Wendy was on an emotional high. She knew she was the right person to look after Michael and to aid his recovery. What's more, she felt increasingly confident about being able to get to the bottom of the murders in Mildenheath. She hadn't felt this good in ages.
Fumbling through her pockets for her car keys, Wendy pulled out a crumpled business card.
Robert Ludford ~ Chartered Accountant.
She took her mobile phone from her jacket pocket and dialled the number.
‘Yes. Is that you, Wendy?’
‘Yeah. Listen, I wanted to apologise for what I said on the phone earlier. I was out of order. I've been under a lot of stress recently and—’
‘It's fine, honestly. Apology accepted,’ Robert said. She could almost hear him smiling.
‘Thank you, Robert. Does the offer still stand?’
‘Dinner? Of course it does.’
‘Excellent. Shall we say tomorrow night?’
‘I’ll pick you up at eight.’
Tom Connors sat in silence as Culverhouse began to conduct the interview, having waited for Wendy to get back from the hospital before they continued.
‘Tom, I'll cut straight to the chase. We'd like to speak with you about a young lady called Ella Barrington. We believe you may have known her,’ Culverhouse said as he placed a photograph of Ella Barrington in front of Tom Connors.
‘Suspect? You didn't say nothing about me being no suspect!’ Tom said, panicked.
Wendy interjected. ‘It's just police terminology, Tom. Just a thing we have to do, you know, or our bosses tell us off. Don't worry, you're not under arrest.’
Culverhouse shot a thankful smile at Wendy. ‘Terminology, exactly. Tom, do you recognise this woman?’
Tom shuffled uncomfortably.
‘No, I've never seen her before.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I've never seen her before.’
Culverhouse sat in silence for a moment, wistfully planning his next move.
‘Tom, do you recognise this woman? For the benefit of the tape, I am now showing the sus—Mr Connors a photograph of Maria Preston.’
He handed the photograph to Tom Connors. It looked as though it had been taken at a recent party. Fellow drunken revellers partied on behind her whilst she posed daintily for the camera, a single lock of blonde hair draped across her forehead, a symbol of the care-free attitude she must have had that night. It had been one of her last.
‘No. I don't recognise her either.’
Culverhouse let out a slight involuntary grunt and glanced almost apologetically at Wendy. ‘Tom, we've got two independent witnesses who've seen you with this woman on a number of occasions.’
Wendy was furious at Culverhouse’s bending of the truth, but managed to remain calm. ‘Guv… I don't think that’s—’