Main Killing Christmas

Killing Christmas

DETECTIVE MIKE NASH IS GOING TO HAVE A VERY UNMERRY CHRISTMAS. In an ordinary terraced house, a family die. Poisoned by carbon monoxide. Then comes a suspicious house fire, with more bodies at the charred scene. A drug addict is murdered in the most bizarre medieval manner. And a scientist’s daughter disappears. THERE’S A KILLER ON THE LOOSE THIS HOLIDAY SEASON. DI Mike Nash follows the leads of these disparate crimes. One very dangerous person seems intent on revenge. CAN HE STOP A SERIAL KILLER BEFORE ANYONE ELSE PAYS THE ULTIMATE PRICE?
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An absolutely addictive crime thriller with a huge twist




Revised edition 2019

Joffe Books, London

First published as “ALTERED EGOS” in 2011

© Bill Kitson

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The spelling used is British English except where fidelity to the author’s rendering of accent or dialect supersedes this. The right of Bill Kitson to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

The D.I. Mike Nash Series

A Selection Of Books You May Enjoy

Glossary of English Slang for US readers


For Val

Wife, lover, best friend, critic and editor


My grateful thanks to the following friends and professionals who contributed their expertise to help me in the writing of Altered Egos:

Peter Billingsley MD, for his information and advice on the subject of drugs.

Judy and Arnold Smith for allowing me to nosey around their motorhome and ask awkward questions about wild camping whilst eating all Judy’s cheese scones.

John Hale and his staff for their continued support (and patience).

My ‘in-house’ proofreader, copy-editor and continuity gi; rl, Val, whose input is far greater than she will take credit for.


The village clung precariously to the mountainside. In the distance the plains shimmered in the hot sun. Above the cluster of houses four men were lying uncomfortably behind a screen of rocks. As they surveyed the village below, one shifted restlessly. ‘As soon as the light starts to fade, we move. Catch them as they’re thinking about dinner. Take the guards out and be in the middle of them before they realize it.’

‘I thought our orders were to use this as a recon. Only engage the enemy if we encounter them.’

‘We have encountered them. And out here, I give the orders. If I say we attack, that’s what we do.’ The others remained silent, so the officer spoke again, his voice taking on a slightly higher pitch. Was that tension, having his orders challenged or the effects of the drug? ‘If anyone refuses, that classes as battlefield cowardice. No arguments!’

The others watched him walk away. ‘Bloody spooks.’ Johnny spat in the dust. ‘They’re all the same. Why we got hooked up with one in the first place beats me. There’s over a hundred rag-heads against four of us. He may want a posthumous medal, but I don’t. What do you say? Barry, Steve, you going along with that dickhead?’

Steve replied first. ‘I’m not happy about it. But it might save scores of lives if we can take them out.’

‘Steve’s got a point,’ Barry agreed. ‘I know Smithy’s idea sounds crazy, and I take your point about the odds, but we can cut that with the element of surprise.’

‘I’m still not happy about it,’ Johnny grumbled.

‘Go on with you,’ Steve teased. ‘You just don’t want to get blood on your nice clean shirt.’

After three weeks without washing facilities, their faces tanned by the relentless sun, permanently dust-streaked and with sweat constantly oozing from every pore, they stank like the goats that surrounded them.

Sundown came early in those latitudes especially at that time of year. Shortly after 4.30 p.m. they began their assault on the village. By 5.15 p.m. the firefight was over. The four-man unit had succeeded in reducing the enemy forces to less than half their original strength; but had lost two of their own in the process. Barry and Steve, approaching from the south, had done most damage, getting three-quarters of the way through the village before they encountered any opposition. As Steve got to the northern outskirts he saw Barry take out three men with semi-automatic rifles, one of whom was about to fire on Steve. He turned to thank his colleague when he saw Barry stumble, fall to his knees and throw his head back, before pitching full length on the dusty street.

Steve checked for a pulse but knew by the wounds it was hopeless. He glanced around. The opposition had scattered. That assault had been their final throw. He raced out from behind the last houses to see his commanding officer despatching two more of the escaping enemy. They joined forces. ‘Time to go,’ Smithy said tersely. ‘Where’s Barry?’

‘Bought it; died where he fell. What about Johnny?’

‘Took one in the chest on the way in. Let’s get out of here. I’m going up to that ridge to radio for a chopper. You stay here and cover my back.’ The officer put his hand on Steve’s shoulder. ‘I couldn’t ask for anyone better.’

Smithy had been gone no more than two minutes when Steve spotted a cloud of flies hovering over Johnny’s corpse, first of a long queue of diners. He moved closer to say goodbye, to shoo the flies away; he wasn’t really sure which. As he rounded the boulders near the body a shot whistled close to his ear. He ducked behind the nearest rock and waited.

Smithy whirled round as he heard the burst of fire behind him. He paused so briefly, he barely broke stride. Then he continued; eyes fixed on the ridge ahead. He glanced back only once. He could just make out that Steve had taken cover and was still firing. Then the gathering darkness reduced visibility. After a moment or two, the firing ceased. The night was silent.

Chapter One

‘Morning, ma’am,’ DI Mike Nash greeted the chief constable as he entered her office at Netherdale Police Station.

She smiled. ‘Mike, let me introduce you.’ She indicated her visitor, a good-looking woman in her mid thirties. ‘This is Superintendent Edwards. She’s here short term until Superintendent Pratt is fit to return to work. He’s recovering well from the heart attack, so in three months Ruth will take up her new post with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary; so you’d better behave yourself.’

‘Don’t I always, ma’am?’ Nash affected a look of injured innocence as he shook hands with the newcomer.

‘I hope you don’t expect an honest answer to that,’ Chief Constable O’Donnell retorted.

When Nash returned to his office at Helmsdale later that morning, DS Clara Mironova was waiting in the CID suite.

‘What’s matter?’ Nash asked. ‘No crime to solve?’

‘I wanted to know what the new boss was like.’

‘She seems very nice. Quite young for a Superintendent’ – Nash kept a straight face – ‘and far better looking than Tom Pratt.’

‘Is Tom not coming back then?’

‘Eventually. Ruth’s only here until he’s fit again.’

‘So we’re on first name terms already are we? Is she married?’

‘I don’t think so, why do you ask?’

‘I wonder what Becky will think of you having an attractive single boss around the place.’

‘I don’t think she’ll be at all worried.’

‘What’s that mean? That you’re not going to tell her?’

‘Of course I will. If, and when, the subject comes up.’

‘Speaking of Becky, I suppose you and she will be spending Christmas together?’

Nash caught the wistful tone in Clara’s voice. ‘No, as a matter of fact we won’t. Becky’s going to visit her parents. They retired to Bournemouth and she promised she’d spend Christmas with them. Why do you ask?’

‘I was hoping to get a bit of leave. David will be home for a few days and I want to see him before he goes back. It’ll be his last overseas tour, at least for the foreseeable future, so I don’t want to miss him.’

‘That should work out fine.’ Nash saw Clara’s face relax. ‘As I’m not doing anything special I might as well be on call. Viv can back me up; I doubt he’ll be visiting his family in Antigua for Christmas. At least I won’t be covering Netherdale as well now Ruth’s on board.’

‘Aren’t you planning any holiday?’

‘I might take a break after Tom gets back. Becky’s trying to persuade me to go skiing, but I don’t fancy sliding down an Alp on my backside.’

Mironova grinned. ‘I’d have thought the après-ski would be right up your street?’

‘Becky’s a serious skier. She’s been going since she was small and she’s pretty good. I can’t hope to compete with that. And I’m not into that après-ski scene.’

‘Too old I suppose. A shame that. I’d have loved to see the photos. Don’t you even fancy tobogganing? You can do that lying down; your favourite position.’

‘Go make coffee, Sergeant. And try not to make it taste like snake venom for once.’

The house was like all the others in the row. Semi-detached, built during the 1950s, with economy as the overriding principle. The contractor had enthusiastically taken the instructions from the Ministry of Defence on board. Materials were the cheapest, appliances purely functional. Even the plot size was minimal. Profits were the only item that hadn’t been cut to the bone.

It was one of the coldest nights of the winter, with temperatures well below freezing point. Bereft of adequate insulation the house was like an icebox; the central heating had been on the blink for months. It was scheduled to be replaced in spring. Reluctantly, but with two young children to keep warm, the housewife turned to the back-up heating. The gas fires were old, but at least they worked. She wasn’t happy about leaving them on all night, especially as they hadn’t been serviced for over twelve months, but realized she’d no choice. Anyway, the workmen would be coming to do them tomorrow.

She wished her husband was home. Steve was good with his hands. He could fix things. He’d have sorted the heating out. But he was thousands of miles away; she’d no idea how far. He wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for the money. Or lack of it. That, and the argument. The row had been about money; what else. ‘I can’t manage on what we’ve got. How do you think I’ll cope with an extra mouth to feed and no money coming in? You’ll be out of work and all the bills still to pay? This place may not be up to much but at least we don’t have the rent to fork out. That’d change. And all we’d have is family allowance, and a bit of money from the Social.’

Of course he’d stormed off; gone to the pub. Next morning he was up and out of the house before she woke. By the time she was dressing he’d signed on for another tour. This time it wasn’t cushy. Not Gibraltar or Falklands. Not Germany. This time it was the big one. The one all the wives feared. This time it was Afghanistan. Afghanistan. Even the name struck fear into her heart, as it did with all the wives. Not knowing. That was the worst. News bulletins didn’t help. “A British soldier has been killed….” Her heart lurched every time she heard the words.

A few months ago they’d lost one; Sonya’s husband, from across the road. Too close for comfort. She’d seen Sonya’s light on at all hours of the night. Could only guess at what she was feeling. Apart from the grief there was the worry. The MOD widow’s pension wouldn’t go far. The widow’s mite they called it. And Sonya was what, twenty-eight and with three youngsters under seven. Sometimes she worried because she daren’t face Sonya; still didn’t know what to say to her. What do you say? What can you say? ‘Sorry, Sonya, some bastard with an RPG has blown the rest of your life to hell and back?’ You can’t say it, even if you’re thinking it: even if it’s the truth. So you stick with meaningless platitudes.

She poured another glass of wine. It was late. Both children would be fast asleep by now. She sipped the wine as she watched TV. When the reality show ended, she drained her glass, switched the TV off. Everything done, she yawned, time for bed. Strange that doing nothing should make you so weary.

Somewhere in the early hours one of the children started to cough. In an instant, she was awake; listening. She waited for a repeat. When it didn’t come she drifted back off to sleep.

The workmen arrived late. It was almost 9 a.m. when they pulled up outside the house. They rang the bell. Getting no reply they hammered on the door; still nothing. One of them went round the back. He reappeared a few minutes later, shaking his head.

‘Can I help?’

They turned. The neighbour was young, young and pretty. ‘We can’t raise the lady of the house,’ the younger workman explained. ‘We’re here to service her’ – he paused, leered – ‘appliances.’

The neighbour ignored the innuendo. ‘She must be in. That’s her car.’

The older workman stepped back and looked up at the bedroom windows. The curtains were still closed. Despite that, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of something glinting in the weak morning sunlight: condensation.

He’d been in the job a lot of years; realized what the condensation meant. ‘Oh no,’ he muttered. ‘Stu, come here, quick.’

The tent was hot, dusty and uncomfortable. Unable to knock, the signals officer coughed. ‘Excuse me, sir. Message from HQ.’

The colonel looked up. His signals officer, usually phlegmatic, looked distressed. ‘What is it?’

He listened as the man gave him the gist. ‘Oh God. Poor devil. How the hell do you tell a man that sort of thing? You never think of something like that happening, more the other way round. Better bring him in here.’

They were back in less than ten minutes. Not long enough for the officer to rehearse what he had to say. The man knew something was wrong; knew before the officer spoke; knew by the look on his face. Even if he hadn’t known, the CO’s opening words would have given the game away.

‘Come in, Steve.’

‘Where’s Captain Smith?’ Steve asked.

‘Major Smith,’ the colonel corrected him. ‘Transferred back to Military Intelligence and promoted; all to do with that effort of yours last month. Now, you’d better take a seat. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. Very bad news.’

Memories and sadness, memories and guilt, memories and anger; they were all he had left. If it hadn’t been for the row it would never have happened. He wouldn’t have been here in this godforsaken hellhole. That was why he’d volunteered; agreed to go on their special assignment.

If they’d been able to afford it he wouldn’t have come. If he hadn’t been away, they wouldn’t be dead. The ‘ifs’ swirled round and round in his brain, like loose ball bearings in a pinball machine. And all the time his guilt, his anger and his grief fused together like a hard knot in the pit of his stomach. He remembered his words at the time. ‘If all I’m good for is a pay cheque, I might as well sign on again. That way you’ll have less food to buy.’

He’d seen the hurt look on her face, ignored it. So busy with his own pride he hadn’t attempted to console her. Just slammed out of the house and gone to the pub. He’d signed up again next morning, gone for the MAD assignment they’d been punting at the barracks. No one knew what it was about, but you had to be highly qualified before they’d consider you.

The officer he’d reported to was specific. Outlined what was needed. ‘Special forces training, sniper grade, para qualified. Those are minimum requirements.’

‘I’ve got those, sir. And my BELT.’

Behind enemy lines training it stood for. Hadn’t had to use it in anger, but obviously worth mentioning because the officer said immediately, ‘If you’ve got those, I reckon you stand a good chance of getting selected.’

‘Can I ask what this assignment involves, sir?’

‘Of course you can. Just don’t hold your breath for a reply.’

That had been over eighteen months ago. Since then everything had changed. And now this.

He sat alongside the airstrip, a dusty, barren landscape bisected by the thin ribbon of tarmac. Waiting; waiting for his transport. Transport to home; that wasn’t home any longer. To England, suddenly more desolate than this place. To England, and a new mission: revenge. Revenge on those who’d brought this about. He thought about Smith and his anger doubled. Promoted; he’d almost blurted it out in the colonel’s tent. Promoted, for shooting one of his men in the back. Because Steve knew that’s what had happened. Smith, crazed by the drug, had shot Johnny in the back for objecting to his orders. Not only that, he’d left Steve to die out there. Smith must have thought he was safe. He’d have got a hell of a shock when Steve came out of the desert. Was that the real reason Smith had been transferred?

They were here to protect the nation. That’s what they were told. Protect the nation against terrorism. And because he was here, he was unable to protect his own wife, his own daughters. Protect them against what he knew was little short of murder. Well, if it was murder they wanted, they’d come to the right man.

Chapter Two

Lara stared out of the window, watching the snowflakes’ flickering descent, as if they were reluctant to land. The scene was a uniformity of grey, the snow beginning to shroud the lawns, the flower beds, the trees and even the countryside beyond. She sighed and turned away. Winter wasn’t her favourite time of year. She was bored, needed some excitement, a new thrill. Or was it the old thrill she sought? She walked across the kitchen to the refrigerator and opened the door. Her hand hovered over the wine bottle before she picked up the milk carton alongside it. She was waiting for the kettle to boil when the phone rang, as if to ratify the good sense of her decision.

‘Lara, darling, it’s Caroline. Are you free tonight?’

Lara felt her pulse quickening at the familiar voice, and at the words. The question could only mean one thing. ‘Caroline, I was just thinking about you. Yes, I’m all alone. Why, are you thinking of coming over?’

‘If that’s all right? When I’ve finished work, that is.’

‘Of course it’s all right; more than all right. You should know better than to have to ask. But what about Richard?’

‘Don’t tell me your husband hasn’t told you his movements.’ There was a mocking tone in Caroline’s voice.

‘He rarely tells me anything these days. I only know of a supposed Birmingham conference in January. What else is it he should have told me?’

‘That he’s away until tomorrow evening. Some sort of field trip.’

‘Some sort of field trip? Surely you must know more than that? You’re his boss, after all.’

‘Yes, I do, but I can’t say over an open phone line.’

‘Bloody secrecy. If he’s not coming back does that mean you’ll be able to stay the night?’

‘I can, if you want me to.’

Lara felt the blood coursing, felt the excitement rising. ‘Of course I do. You know how much I miss you.’

‘That’s all right then. I’ll see you in a couple of hours. Oh, and, Lara, one more thing.’

‘What is it?’

‘I’ll be bringing something with me, as I promised.’

‘I’ll make it worth your while. You know that.’

‘I do, Lara, darling. I’ll be with you as quickly as I can.’

The time dragged. Lara prepared a casserole and put it in the oven. Something simple that would be ready when they were. She set the table before going upstairs for a shower where she spent a long time under the hot jet of water. She took extra care with her make-up before dressing. She was returning downstairs when she heard a car pull up outside and hurried to open the front door. The snow had stopped, the gloom dispelled by the security light. She saw Caroline climb out of the car. Lara’s legs felt shaky with excitement; her pulse raced.

The two women embraced politely at the door; two old friends greeting one another. As soon as they were inside, and the door was locked against the outside world, they embraced again, but this was a totally different matter. They held each other close, their tongues exploring each other’s mouths in a long, passionate kiss that left them both breathless.

Eventually they separated and walked slowly through to the kitchen, arms around each other’s waist, fingers entwined and caressing, heads close together.

‘Are you hungry?’ Lara asked. ‘Do you want to eat now, or later?’

Caroline walked up behind her and slipped her hands inside Lara’s top. She began to massage her breasts gently as she replied, ‘What do you think?’

Lara arched her back with pleasure. ‘Later,’ she gasped.

Caroline withdrew her hands and reached for her bag. ‘Hold your hand out. Now close your eyes.’

Lara did as instructed. A second later she felt the cold metal against her palm. She smiled, dreamily.

‘As I promised,’ Caroline told her.

‘You’re a life saver.’

Caroline watched as Lara used the inhaler. Once, twice, three times. As she set the inhaler down on the worktop Caroline reached out for her and drew her close. They began touching each other intimately as their kisses grew more and more tempestuous.

They raced upstairs hand in hand and when they reached the bedroom they stopped. Observance of the next part of the ritual of their lovemaking was sacred to them. They undressed one another slowly, each movement, each garment removal accompanied by another intimate caress.

Later, as they lay, holding one another in drowsy content, Lara asked again, ‘Do you want to eat?’

Caroline stretched out. ‘Later,’ she said. She rolled over, pushed Lara down on the bed. ‘Later,’ she murmured again, her voice husky with desire, ‘perhaps.’

‘Are you ready for off?’

Becky looked up from the open suitcase. ‘Can’t wait to get rid of me, I bet. Got a woman lined up for as soon as I’ve left? Who is it, your stunning new boss?’

Nash eyed her suspiciously. ‘What do you know about her?’

‘Hah! Think you’re the only detective round here?’

‘Anyway, the answer’s no, to both questions.’ Nash moved forward and took the jumper she’d been about to pack from her hand. He heaved the suitcase onto the floor and put his arms round her. ‘Your train’s not due for a couple of hours.’ His eyes strayed to the bed.

‘Why do you think I haven’t showered yet?’

Later, he lay, watching her dress, admiring her figure. Thinking how much he’d miss her. ‘Hey, you never answered my question.’

She swung round in the act of fastening her skirt. ‘What question?’

‘What do you know about Superintendent Edwards?’

‘Ruth? She was three years ahead of me at school.’

‘Oh Lord,’ Nash groaned. ‘Not another exile from St Trinians.’

He caught the shoe she hurled at him with ease. ‘You throw like a wicket-keeper,’ he sneered. ‘So, what’s she really like?’

‘She’s intelligent, organized, efficient and smart. You should get on well. They say opposites attract.’

‘Have you been to Clara’s insulting classes? You’re getting to sound like her. Anything else I should know?’

Becky thought for a moment. ‘Well, there was a rumour about her at school. But that’s years ago, and I’m not sure if it was anything more than gossip.’

‘Tell me. You know how I love a good gossip.’

‘The rumour was that Ruth was of the other persuasion.’

Nash raised his eyebrows. ‘A lesbian? No wonder you’re so relaxed about her.’

Becky grinned. ‘Come on, get dressed and take me to the station. Then you can go for that pint you’re obviously pining for. When you get there, give my love to Jonas.’

‘Much good that’s going to do you. His heart belongs to Clara.’

‘Maybe, but the vegetables from his allotment are gorgeous.’

‘Ayup, Mr Nash. All alone tonight?’

‘Now then, Mr Turner. Yes, I’ve just taken Becky to the station. She said to wish you Merry Christmas.’

‘’Ad enough of you then, ’as she? Found out what a bad lad you are?’

‘No, she’s off to spend Christmas with her parents.’

‘That’s a bit rough for you.’

Nash smiled ruefully. ‘I’ll probably not get chance to worry about it. I’m working both Christmas and the New Year.’

‘No rest for the wicked, so they say. And ah suppose that means no rest for them as has to catch t’ villains.’

‘It’s our busiest time of year, right enough. Apart from the usual suspects, there are domestic incidents to sort out. They’re worst at Christmas.’

‘In that case, it must be Christmas every day in our house,’ Turner said gloomily. ‘’ave you a lot on?’

‘I’ve a lousy job tomorrow morning. I’ve to escort a soldier to identify his wife and children. You remember; that carbon monoxide poisoning case in the paper.’

‘Aye, that were a bad do. Poor bloke, he must be beside ’imself. It’ll be hard for you, too. They call yours a bobby’s job, but ah couldn’t do the things you’ve to do, or see what you’ve to see at times.’

‘No, but fortunately it’s not always like that. And we don’t have the worst of it. You should hear some of the horror stories our traffic officers tell.’

Nash waited on Netherdale station’s only platform. As the passengers began to alight from the sprinter train, their arms full of shopping and parcels, he spotted the man he was waiting for. He’d have recognized him even without the uniform. The bearing, the haircut, all shouted ‘soldier’ louder than a sergeant major could achieve.

‘Sergeant Hirst?’ Something in Nash’s voice must have conveyed the authority of rank, because Hirst lowered his kit bag and stood almost at attention. ‘My name’s Nash. Detective Inspector Nash’ – he held his hand out – ‘Mike Nash. I’m sorry to meet you in such sad circumstances.’ As he spoke, Nash felt like screaming aloud. Such meaningless clichés, but what can you say?

The soldier looked down at the outstretched hand then transferred his gaze to Nash’s face. Was he being assessed, Nash wondered? They shook hands briefly. ‘My car’s outside,’ Nash told him. ‘Come with me and I’ll give you a lift to the …’ he balked at the word mortuary, ‘… hospital. Then afterwards, I’ll run you back to Helmsdale. If that’s where you want to be.’

Hirst stared at him again before nodding. ‘Helmsdale’s as good as anywhere, I suppose.’

Outside the station Nash gestured towards his car. ‘Listen, Sergeant Hirst, I’m not going to shove platitudes at you. You deserve better than that. What’s coming isn’t going to be easy. I want you to prepare yourself for the ordeal. These places are grim, believe me. And there’s nothing I can say that will make it any easier. I understand, because I’ve been there. But if you want anything, want to talk, let me know.’

The soldier nodded again, although Nash wasn’t sure how much of what he’d said had actually registered.

The identification process was bad enough for Nash and Professor Ramirez. Nash could only guess how much of an ordeal it must have been for Hirst. The soldier stared at his wife’s face for a long time before transferring his gaze to his two daughters. Nash stood alongside him, could see emotion working in the man’s face in the tautness of the jaw-line. Nash had expected tears, but instead all he could feel was a kind of cold, hard anger. As time dragged, Nash willed himself not to fidget, not to give any sign of his desire to get out of that ghastly place.

Eventually, Hirst stirred slightly and spoke for the first time since entering the building. ‘Yes. That’s my wife. Those are my daughters. Is there anything for me to sign?’

Ramirez shook his head. ‘Inspector Nash will deal with it.’

Hirst looked at the bodies again and drew himself up to attention. Almost as if he was saluting comrades. He stared at their faces, as if to capture the images for his memory; then turned on his heel and marched from the building.

Ramirez spread his hands in a gesture of mute helplessness.

Nash nodded. ‘I know. I’ll be in touch.’

He located Hirst outside, facing the mortuary wall, one hand outstretched, fingers spread across the brickwork. Nash wondered if he’d been sick, or tried to be, or was about to be. ‘Sergeant,’ he said gently. Then, getting no response, ‘Steve, are you all right?’ Bloody stupid question he thought. ‘I mean, do you want to go to Helmsdale now?’

Hirst looked at him. Or through him, Nash wasn’t sure which. His expression desolate; the anger in his eyes so patent that Nash shivered. Hirst straightened. ‘Yes, let’s get away from this place.’

The journey was conducted in silence, each of them absorbed in their own thoughts. The mortuary had been bad enough. How would Hirst cope returning to the house where his wife and daughters had died a terrible death?

From the outside of the house there was little to show for what had happened. The door that had been forced to allow the emergency services to gain access had been replaced. A little piece of maintenance work; far too little and far too late, Nash thought. Even then, he knew they’d used the original locks. Cheeseparing to the very end: typical of a government department and their contractors. ‘I’ll come in with you, if you like.’

Hirst didn’t reply, merely reached for his bag and climbed out of the car. Nash got out too. Unusually for him, the detective felt unsure what to do next. He followed the soldier as the man walked slowly towards the house. They’d almost reached the door when a voice behind them called, ‘Steve, Steve.’

They turned. Nash saw a young woman standing on the pavement close to his car. He glanced sideways at Hirst, saw the momentary tension in the soldier’s face relax. ‘Sonya.’ Hirst’s voice was emotionless.

She walked towards them. Nash was guilty of totally inappropriate thoughts as he admired her looks, her striking figure. He shook himself mentally, ridding himself of the incongruity of his reaction, given the occasion.

‘Steve, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.’ She looked at Nash and her tone became sharp. ‘Who are you?’ she demanded. The sharpness was what, hostility? Nash wondered.

‘This is Inspector Nash,’ Hirst explained, ‘he drove me here from …’ Hirst was unable to use the word, ‘Netherdale,’ he substituted. ‘This is Sonya Williams,’ he told Nash. ‘She’s our neighbour. My neighbour,’ he corrected himself. ‘Her husband was killed in Helmand Province six months ago.’

‘Sorry, Inspector Nash.’ She held her hand out. ‘I thought you were military. They’re not flavour of the month round here at the moment.’

Nash took her hand and held it for a moment. ‘I can understand that,’ he said quietly. ‘Please, call me Mike.’ He released his grip before either of them became embarrassed.

‘Can I get you both anything, cup of tea, or coffee? You’ve nothing in the house,’ she told Hirst. ‘I cleaned your fridge out. I thought it better than having the food go off.’

‘That was thoughtful of you,’ Nash spoke for Hirst, who seemed lost in his own thoughts. ‘I don’t know about you, Steve, but I could do with a coffee.’

‘I suppose so.’ Hirst glanced over his shoulder.

‘I live across the road’ – Sonya pointed to her house – ‘directly opposite Steve.’

Nash looked at the room, decked out for Christmas, cards and tinsel everywhere. On the dresser there was a large photo of a man in uniform, the medals on his chest gleaming; her husband, obviously. Next to it was one of Sonya with two young children alongside her and an infant in her arms.

‘Admiring my brood?’ Sonya had come in with a tray of coffee and biscuits. She set it down on the table and passed mugs to the two men.

‘I was thinking how difficult it must be for you, on your own,’ Nash said.

Sonya shrugged. ‘As a soldier’s wife, you get used to it.’

‘I didn’t mean that, not exactly,’ Nash smiled. ‘I was thinking more about having to make all the decisions without having anyone to bounce ideas off, that sort of thing.’

She nodded, acknowledging the accuracy of his guess. ‘That’s the hardest part. You look round, or you think of a question to ask; then you remember. Perceptive of you to notice.’

‘What did you mean?’ Hirst spoke for the first time since they’d entered the house.

Nash and Sonya turned in surprise. ‘Sorry?’ Nash asked.

‘When you said you understood. Did you mean something, or were you just saying it? It sounded like you meant it.’

Sonya looked from Hirst to Nash, saw the detective’s face change; saw the mask come over his features. The easygoing, pleasant expression had vanished, replaced by a hard, almost pitiless gaze. ‘I do understand,’ Nash spoke slowly, reluctance obvious. ‘I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through. Not as badly, perhaps, but the feeling’s the same.’

‘How can you know what I’m feeling?’

Nash sighed. He realized there was nothing for it but to explain.

Later, two mugs of coffee later to be exact, Nash stood up. ‘Look, I’m going to get out of your way now. But what I said earlier goes.’ He passed Hirst a card. ‘If you need me, give me a call. Not just official stuff. If you want somebody to sound off at, to listen, or go for a pint, anything. Don’t hesitate. Pick up the phone.’

Hirst nodded. ‘Thank you, Mr Nash. I might just take you up on that.’ He glanced at Sonya. ‘We’re in the minority, the three of us. People who truly understand, I mean.’

‘I’ll see you out, Mike.’ Sonya guided Nash from the room. ‘That was kind of you,’ she told him as they paused by the front door. ‘And it took a lot of courage, telling us your story. I could see that. This girl of yours, Stella, she must have been something special.’

She opened the door. ‘Take care, Mike. And that offer you made to Steve, the same goes the other way.’ She smiled, entrancingly, Nash thought. ‘I mean, if you need to talk things over at any time. Or just feel in need of company, you know where I am. I rarely go far. I’ve three reasons for that,’ she laughed. ‘And the kettle only takes a couple of minutes to boil. It’s like Steve said. Those of us who’ve been through it, we need to stick together.’

Nash smiled as they shook hands. ‘Thank you. I might just take you up on that.’

She watched him walk back to his car. When he’d unlocked the door he turned and waved. She returned the gesture and walked back into the lounge, her expression thoughtful. ‘He’s nice, don’t you think, Steve?’

Hirst looked up. ‘I suppose so. I mean, yes, he is; very nice. He did more than necessary. Much more than….’

‘I know,’ she soothed him. ‘But dwelling on that side of things won’t help.’

‘I don’t want help,’ his voice changed, the sadness replaced by a cold, hard anger. ‘I don’t need help and I don’t need sympathy.’

‘What do you need?’

‘I need the one thing nobody else can provide. I need the one thing I can do for myself. I need revenge. And what’s more,’ his expression changed. All the sadness was gone. In its place was a savage kind of elation. ‘I know just where to go to get it.’

Chapter Three

Contrary to Nash’s fears, Christmas passed relatively peacefully. Apart from the usual crop of drink related offences, most of them dealt with by uniformed branch, there were only a couple of domestic disputes that developed into assaults. Early in the New Year when Superintendent Edwards paid him a visit, the worst he had to report was a trio of unsolved burglaries. ‘The MO’s the same in all three, so it looks as if we’ve a new kid on the block,’ Nash told her. ‘I reckon we’ve got away lightly.’

Nash had often warned DS Mironova and DC Pearce about saying things were fine. It was, he thought, a sure way to court disaster. Unfortunately, as he spoke to Ruth, he’d forgotten that.

The first part of any operation was always the hardest. In this case though, despite the elaborate and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it was ludicrously easy. All he’d needed was to create a diversion. Then make his entry and exit before the enemy could react. Their set-up may have looked professional, but in practice, they were mere amateurs. Surveying the area, he soon found a way to divert attention. All he’d need was a saw, his tool kit and a ladder. And, to complete the job, a high-tech gadget he’d seen used a couple of times. To make detection harder and to avoid chance encounters that would make his equipment hard to explain, he’d bought a van; with a roof rack.

He watched the weather forecast each evening. He’d to wait over a week before he heard the news he was waiting for. Next evening once dark had fallen, he drove out of town to the point he’d seen on his reconnaissance trip. He parked down a farm track and climbed over a fence and crossed the field, past a flock of heavily pregnant ewes who eyed him with mild curiosity. When he reached his objective he set to work with a massive woodman’s saw. He felt fleeting regret for the act of vandalism he was committing, but then thought of the cause. His resolution returned, stiffened.

After a couple of hours’ hard work he judged things were as he wanted them. Now all he had to do was sit and wait for the wind to blow. The cut he’d made would ensure the tree fell in the direction he wanted. After that, there was his main task to complete.

The next morning, Nash walked into Helmsdale station to be greeted by Sergeant Binns, who was standing by reception with two harassed looking civilians. ‘Mike, have you a minute?’

‘Problem, Jack?’

‘It’s about the blackout last night.’

‘Tell me about it. I was halfway through cooking my evening meal when everything went dark. I didn’t fancy lasagne for breakfast.’

Binns introduced the visitors; one from the local electricity company, the other a farmer. ‘The power blackout was caused by a tree falling across the power lines,’ Binns told Nash.

The man from the power company added, ‘Half the county was without electricity. The thing is; it wasn’t accidental.’

‘I thought it was a result of the gales.’

‘They helped, but even with the wind as strong as it was that tree wouldn’t have fallen.’

‘No,’ the farmer said bitterly. ‘That tree was sawn through. And it was done to make sure it fell across the power lines.’

Nash stared from one to the other in astonishment. ‘You mean someone went to the trouble of sabotaging the electric supply? Why would they do that?’

‘Ask me another,’ the engineer said. ‘It wasn’t kids either. It would have taken hours of work to saw through a tree trunk that width.’

‘I still don’t see what we can do about it. We’ll investigate of course, but without some idea of the motive, I don’t think we’ll have much luck.’

‘We’ve got a problem.’

‘What sort of a problem?’

‘I’m at the laboratory. We’ve had a power failure last night, just come back up. But the stand-by generators couldn’t be activated by the security men.’

‘Why not?’

‘They’d been tampered with.’

‘How did that happen?’

‘I don’t know, but there’s worse.’ He paused and took a deep breath. ‘Far, far worse.’

‘Go on.’

‘During the blackout somebody broke into the buildings. Both the laboratory, and the offices.’

‘How did they manage that?’

‘I don’t know how they got past the fence. I’ve had the guards check the perimeter and it hasn’t been cut. Once they were in, all they had to do was open the doors. The electronic locks are deactivated by a power cut for safety reasons.’

‘Was anything stolen? Any damage?’

‘I thought of that. So I went to the laboratory first. My first thought was that it might be animal rights people. But the cages were still intact. However, a load of product had been poured into the giant blenders. All sorts of different stuff. The blender switches had been left in the on position. As soon as the power came back up, they started working. All the contents have been rendered useless. They’ll have to be incinerated. We daren’t even flush them away because we don’t know how toxic they are. With all the chaos, we can’t even tell if anything’s missing.’

‘OK, that’s bad, but not cataclysmic. What else? I take it there is more?’

‘Oh yes, there’s more all right. Our intruder went into the office block. Not only went into it, but went through it. Took a load of personnel files,’ he paused before telling his boss the worst. ‘And he went into your office. Your safe is electronic like the doors, isn’t it?’

‘Oh no! Don’t say—’

‘I’m not sure exactly what you had in there, but it isn’t there now. The intruder even left the door open.’

‘I’ll tell you what was in there. All the disks. The ones with the programme details on.’ His boss’s voice took on a harsher note. ‘And the details of everything we’ve done: you and I. If they were decoded and fell in to the wrong hands you know what would happen, don’t you?’

‘I do, but what can we do about it?’

‘Let me think for a minute.’

He waited; his impatience mounting.

‘As far as I see it, there’s nothing we can do about the details of the programme. Nor can we abandon it, or put it on hold. We’re so close to success now, and our masters are keen for results. The latest batch seems perfect, but there have to be more field trials. As for the other side of things, there are the two we’ve been using in our experiments. I’m afraid we can’t take the chance that they might be questioned. If they talk, we’re finished. So, much as I regret it, they’ll have to go. And, I’m afraid, so will the third one. The one we haven’t started on yet.’

‘What about—?’

‘No,’ his boss cut in, ‘definitely not. Not yet. He’s too valuable. As for the others, see to it will you. As fast as you can. No, hang on a minute. First, do the two we’ve been using. Get hold of the third, but don’t dispose. Not yet. We might need a bargaining tool.’

Lara was bored. With Richard away at that blasted conference, and Caroline also not available, she was desperate for company. An idea struck her. She went over to the phone, dragging her filofax out of her bag. She found the number and dialled. ‘Guess who?’


‘Got it in one. I want you. Tonight.’

‘Can’t do it. No car. Some berk ran into me two nights back. It’s in for repair.’

‘Get the bus to Helmsdale. I’ll pick you up.’

‘Missing me that much?’ She could hear the desire in his voice.

‘You’ll see. Just get on that bus.’

‘Okay, it’ll have to be when I’ve finished work though.’

‘Don’t work too hard. You’re no use to me if you’re not on top form.’

‘You have to identify your target; then comes the assessment. Take your time. Observe and be patient. That’s the first and one of the most important parts of the whole job. The observation; get that wrong and you’ve no chance. Go in sloppy, under-prepared, and you’re a dead duck. Remember you’ve only to get it wrong once. Bollocks it up and you finish up as the target. In a war there’ll always be casualties. My job’s to teach you how to avoid being one. You understand me?’

‘Yes, Sarge.’

‘And your job, when you’re fully trained, is to become the perfect killing machine. It’s what you were picked for, soldier. So pay attention. Listen and learn.’

He stirred slightly as if the memory had unsettled him. Even that slight movement could have been a mistake. He muttered a silent curse. ‘Mind on the job, soldier.’ He could almost hear the sergeant saying it. He forced his attention back on the target; brightly lit, in the all-embracing darkness. Here, no street lights spoilt his night vision. He looked through the window; he’d expected only one occupant, so who was the other? He didn’t recognize them. So, a bit of collateral damage.

‘Pick a method to suit the situation. Always remember the golden rule. In, do the job, and out. Away, before they know you’re there. And, wherever possible, leave no trace. If you can make it look like an accident, so much the better.’

His hand strayed to the kit by his side. Mentally, he ran through his equipment. Tools to effect entry, hypodermics and the equipment to disguise the kill. Had to disguise it, in a war zone it wouldn’t matter as much. But this wasn’t a war zone. This was rural England.

He’d wait until they settled for the night. No risk of being disturbed anyway, the cottage was miles from anywhere. Silent entry, quick kill, then sit and watch: away before dawn. No point in taking unnecessary risks.

Time to move. The locks were easy, easier than anticipated; no bolts. That helped. Inside he moved slowly. He knew the layout perfectly. He’d been inside before; several times. But then the cottage had been empty, and it had been daylight. Up the stairs, one, two, three. Careful, the fifth step creaks.

At the bedroom door. Listening. Nothing at first; then the gentle sound of breathing. Good. They were asleep. The door had creaked but butter from the fridge had cured it last time he was there. Edge it open. No wind tonight; nothing to cause a draught. Ease your way inside. Wait for your night vision to adjust. Hypodermics at the ready. Strike once, twice. Done.

He moved swiftly across the room out of range, but after the first involuntary movements neither of them stirred. Nevertheless, no point in taking chances. His hand hovered over the light switch, but that same sense of caution stopped him from switching it on. Better get on with finishing the job.

He trotted down the stairs, ignored the one that creaked. The occupants of the house weren’t going to hear him: ever. He went to locate the fuse box then flicked the trip switch and went into the kitchen. He unrolled his tool kit, placed his torch where its beam would light his working area. Working methodically without need for haste, he stripped bare a length of wire and left the contacts exposed. He crossed to the sink and opened the cupboard below. His search yielded four promising items. He could hear his sergeant again. ‘All houses contain a selection of highly inflammable substances. All you’ve to do is put them close to a heat source. Whoosh! The lot will go up. Best of all, unless you do it wrong, it’ll look accidental.’

He waited outside until the house was well ablaze then walked unhurriedly towards the main road. He was struck by a horrible thought. Something he’d forgotten. What was it? Then he remembered. Something he’d meant to remove from the house. He glanced back, saw the blaze and relaxed. The fire would be all-consuming. Every scrap of evidence would be destroyed. The first of his targets had been identified and eliminated. Now he had to start on the next.

Superintendent Edwards was about to leave an early morning meeting with Nash when his phone rang. ‘Hold on a second, Ruth.’ He listened. ‘OK, where?’ She saw him scribble a couple of notes on his pad. ‘Right, give me time to arrange things at this end then we’ll be with you. Have you told Mexican Pete? No, OK, I’ll see to that.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘A house fire. That was CFO Curran. It happened overnight in a remote spot towards the top end of the dale. The nearest village is Gorton, but that’s a couple of miles away. The alarm was raised by a local gamekeeper. He saw the smoke, but by then it was a smouldering ruin. Almost completely gutted, by all accounts.’

‘We’ll have to get out there. Anything to do first?’

‘We need Jack Binns to organize some uniforms to be on site.’

‘I’ll deal with that.’

‘That’ll help. In the meantime, I’ll get hold of Mexican Pete.’


‘Sorry, I mean Professor Ramirez. Our pathologist.’

‘Fine, and whilst we’re travelling you can explain the nickname.’

Nash introduced Superintendent Edwards to Curran and Mexican Pete. ‘Doug’s based in Helmsdale, but his area covers Netherdale as well. And this is our pathologist, Professor Ramirez, of York University.’

Ramirez inclined his head in a bow of acknowledgment. Pathologists rarely shake hands. And police officers never shake hands with pathologists. ‘What Nash means is, I attend the university occasionally,’ he told Ruth, ‘when Nash is on holiday, or when he’s having an off day and hasn’t found any bodies for me to examine.’

‘What’s the score here?’ Nash directed his question to both men.

Curran spoke first. ‘There are two victims, both badly burned. Professor Ramirez has had a preliminary look; he’ll be able to tell you more.’

‘On the face of it, they appear to be typical fire or smoke inhalation victims,’ Ramirez told them. ‘We should be able to get identifiable material, either by DNA or dental records.’

‘Why do you say, “on the face of it,” have you any reason to suppose otherwise?’ Edwards asked.

The pathologist gave a sour smile. ‘I’d have little doubt, but for him turning up,’ he indicated Nash. ‘He sniffs out dead meat and foul play even better than a bloodhound in a butcher’s shop.’

Nash hid a smile and turned to Curran. ‘Any idea of the cause?’

‘Nothing I’d like to be quoted on, but at the moment I’m inclined to think it was some sort of electrical fault. It looks like the sort of place that hasn’t been re-wired since the first electrics were installed. As to why it blazed so well, that’s down to the fact that it was half timbered. A lot of these Tudor style cottages have far too much inflammable material in them.’

‘Nothing suspicious then?’

‘Not that I can see, although it’s early days yet.’

‘Who owns the house?’

‘No idea. There’s nobody registered on the voters roll.’

Edwards looked at Curran for a moment before turning to Nash. ‘Better check them out, Mike. The locals might know something. Try credit reference agencies, and get onto the DVLA.’ She pointed to the car alongside the ruined building. ‘That should give us an ID.’

She paused and looked at him; saw his frown. ‘What is it? Something wrong?’

Nash hesitated. ‘No, at least, I don’t think so. I just have this feeling.’ He grinned as he heard Ramirez groan.

‘Tell me,’ Ruth encouraged him.

‘It’s probably nothing.’

The Superintendent arched an eyebrow. ‘Go on, share it, Mike. Have you had a flash of your famous intuition?’

‘It’s just an impression, well, that there’s something more to this fire than meets the eye. It’s probably my imagination working overtime.’

‘Nothing tangible to back it up?’

‘Maybe I’m reading more into it than I should, but there seems no apparent reason why anyone living in this sort of a house wouldn’t register for voting.’

‘Maybe they haven’t lived here long, or they’re not interested in politics.’

‘If they’ve not been here long the previous occupiers would be on the roll. And where’s the other car?’

Ruth looked up in surprise. ‘The other car? What do you mean?’

‘This house is two miles from the nearest village. Gorton only has three buses a week into Helmsdale. If the owners were man and wife, they’d need two cars. Unless they were hermits practicing The Good Life.’

‘I see what you mean. Definitely worth looking into. I can see why you’re so successful. Can I leave it to you to follow up? I’d better get back to civilization. I’ll stop off in Helmsdale; make sure nothing else has happened.’

‘That’s OK; I’ll get a lift back with Ramirez.’

Nash and Curran watched Ruth pick her way carefully through the tangle of hoses and past the trio of fire appliances. ‘I’ll tell you something, Mike,’ Curran said thoughtfully. ‘Mexican Pete may have mentioned bloodhounds, but that new boss of yours is as fit as a butcher’s dog.’

Nash grinned. ‘I’ll be sure and tell your wife you said that next time I see her, shall I? Anyway, from what I’ve been told, your opinion and mine might not be of any interest to Ruth.’

‘Really? That’s not the impression I got every time she looked at you.’

Nash changed the subject hastily. ‘Is it safe for me to have a look inside?’

‘Yes, as long as you wear a condom.’

Nash grimaced. The hazmat suits, referred to as ‘condoms’, were as universally unpopular as they were necessary. Although they protected the scene from contamination and the wearer from potentially dangerous chemicals and gases, they were also extremely uncomfortable, caused the wearer to sweat profusely in even the coldest weather and rustled alarmingly at the slightest movement.

It was ten minutes before he was ready. As he approached the building, Nash felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. No matter what happened, this blackened shell could never be returned to what he felt sure was its former glory. He wondered about the occupants. Had they died unmourned, or would there be grieving relatives to deal with? It looked like more of a family home than a dwelling for a couple on their own. In which case, where were the others?

As they picked their way carefully through the debris, Curran gestured towards the kitchen. ‘Seat of the blaze,’ he explained.

Although Nash knew the fire officer was shouting, the sound was muffled by the suits they were wearing, reaching him as little more than a whisper. He nodded to signify understanding; it was simpler than attempting a spoken reply.

When they entered the room, Nash paused and looked around, assessing the scene, trying to visualize what the place had looked like before fire turned it into a reeking, blackened heap of twisted metal and charred timber. As he moved forward towards the part where the damage was most severe, something on the floor caught his eye. If the winter sun hadn’t been streaming in through the hole where a picture window had once been he’d never have spotted it. He bent forward, peering down.

Curran joined him. ‘What is it?’ The fire officer roared as he knelt on the floor, careful to avoid the sharp edges of a chunk of fallen plaster. Several small strips of rubber, or plastic, he wasn’t sure which, had escaped the blaze. ‘Looks like insulation from around electrical cable.’

Nash shouted back. ‘What do you reckon; DIY disaster?’

Curran straightened up. His face, or what little of it Nash could see through the visor, was grim, ‘Either that,’ he screamed, ‘or we’re looking at arson.’

As Curran spoke, Nash felt a familiar prickly sensation, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. ‘Which means we’ve got a double murder on our hands,’ he yelled.

Upstairs, the damage was nothing like as severe. The bedroom, where Ramirez was supervising the removal of the corpses, had suffered worst. Through the hazmat suit, Nash could still smell the all too familiar aroma of burnt flesh. He suppressed a shudder and turned his attention to the other rooms until the pathologist and his team had completed their macabre task.

When Ramirez signalled that they’d finished, Nash and Curran re-entered the bedchamber of death. They found little of significance, until Curran’s foot caught a small object on the floor and sent it spinning into the corner of the room.

Nash followed it and picked it up, not without difficulty because of the gloves he was wearing. He examined the object for a moment, turning it over in his hand, before removing an evidence bag from one of the pockets on the suit. He placed the item inside, sealed the bag and pointed towards the stairs.

Outside, both men removed their helmets and spent a few moments breathing in the clear, cold winter air. ‘What is it? What did you pick up?’ Curran asked eventually, glad not to have to shout.

Nash held up the clear plastic bag. ‘It’s an inhaler.’

Curran shrugged. ‘I don’t see the significance.’

‘I just thought it was curious. The inhaler isn’t damaged. Despite that, there are no markings on it. No manufacturer’s name, no retailer or chemist’s label. Don’t get me wrong. There may be a perfectly innocent explanation. But I thought something like an inhaler ought to have some sort of label. If it was prescribed by a doctor, the chemist has to label it, for legal reasons. And the makers would have put their own label on. So, if it wasn’t a prescription medicine, or a proprietary brand, where did it come from?’

‘Perhaps whoever used it removed the label.’

‘Even then, there would be a batch number or code stamped onto the casing to cover just such eventualities.’

‘As you say, there’s probably a perfectly innocent explanation.’ Curran was clearly less than impressed.

‘I’ll give it to Mexican Pete, get it checked out anyway.’

When they reached Helmsdale, Ramirez dropped Nash outside the station. ‘Thanks, Professor, let me know what develops,’ Nash said.

‘I’ll do the PM the day after tomorrow, the examination of that inhaler might have to wait a day or two longer.’

Chapter Four

Viv Pearce was sitting at the computer. ‘Morning, boss. You were away early.’

‘Is that a way of trying to cover up the fact that you were late?’ He saw Pearce’s expression cloud over. ‘I was only kidding,’ he reassured him. ‘Speaking of late comers, where’s Clara?’

Pearce grinned. ‘She phoned about an hour ago. She and David have been in Scotland. They’ve been delayed. She’ll be back in about an hour. Apparently, they’ve had a bit of snow.’

Nash had seen news footage of the blizzards that had swept across the Grampian and Highland regions. ‘I’m not sure we should let her get away with that, Viv. It’s a bit like you going back to Antigua and ringing to say it’s too hot for you to get home on time.’

Having been assured that Clara would get a good ragging from Pearce, in addition to what he could dish out himself, Nash turned to business. ‘Viv, do me a favour.’ He passed Pearce a sheet of paper. ‘Run that registration number for me, will you? It’s from the car parked at the fire scene out near Gorton.’

‘I heard about that on Dales Radio as I was driving in. Have they found out if anyone was inside yet?’

Nash nodded. ‘There are two dead. We need to try and establish identities, so we can find and inform next of kin.’

‘What about the voters roll?’

‘Curran’s already checked it. Said there was nothing shown for that address.’

‘How about the council? They must have paid council tax.’

‘I’m going to do that whilst you’re on the computer, seeing as Clara isn’t here.’

His call to the local council took about ten minutes. When he put the phone down, Pearce was standing by his desk. ‘Well,’ Nash asked, ‘what did the DVLA come up with?’

‘The vehicle is registered to a firm of solicitors in Leeds, their name is—’

‘Richardson, Grace and Parsons,’ Nash finished off for him.

They stared at each other in surprise. ‘OK, I’ll ring them; see if one of their partners lived out Gorton way.’

‘It’s a hell of a trek into Leeds every day; must take over an hour and a half. Unless you’ve got a Ferrari.’

‘This isn’t a Ferrari, nothing like it. When did you last see a solicitor driving a Ford Focus?’

His call to the solicitors yielded nothing. ‘The house doesn’t belong to any of their staff, nor would they confirm that it belongs to one of their clients. All they would say is, “they’re aware of the situation”, heaven knows what that means. This client confidentiality lark is bloody frustrating.’

‘I reckon it means the owner is one of their clients, which doesn’t help us one little bit.’

‘When Clara eventually poles up, I’m going to send her across to Gorton. She can talk to the villagers, and check at the post office. There must be mail for the occupiers. Somebody must know who lives there.’

The group standing in the hotel conference room were deep in conversation as the receptionist approached. ‘Excuse me, Dr Richards?’

‘That’s me.’ One of them acknowledged.

‘I’ve a message for you, sir. You’ve to phone your office. They said it was urgent.’

‘Thanks.’ He waited until the woman left. ‘Excuse me a moment.’ He plucked his mobile phone from his pocket as he walked a few yards from the others and pressed the speed dial number. ‘Dr Richards here. You wanted me?’

He listened for a moment. ‘I understand. Any idea why? I mean I was supposed to be going straight home tonight.’ He waited, then continued, ‘All right.’ He looked up as the door opened; tension apparent in his expression. He saw who the newcomer was and relaxed. ‘OK, not to worry. I’ll be there.’

He disconnected and smiled faintly at the woman who was strolling across the stage towards him.

‘Is anything wrong?’ she asked.

‘I’ve just had an odd message from the office. They want me to go back there tonight instead of going home. The secretary wouldn’t say any more than that, and I can’t understand why, but she was most insistent.’

‘Probably something and nothing. Concentrate on getting this lecture out of the way; then we’ll have the whole afternoon to ourselves.’

He smiled, the thought made his pulse race. ‘How would you like to spend the spare time? Admiring the beautiful architecture of this fine city?’

She laid her hand on his arm, caressing it gently. She glanced round, saw no one was watching and slid it lower. ‘I thought we could take it in turns admiring the paintwork on your bedroom ceiling.’

His heartbeat went into overdrive. ‘Caroline, you get some great ideas. After all people spend lots of money to look at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.’

‘In that case, I’ll try and remember to open my eyes now and again.’

It was early afternoon before Mironova arrived. Nash and Pearce were standing in the CID office, mugs of coffee in hand. ‘Nothing changes, I see,’ she remarked.

Nash turned to Pearce. ‘The face looks familiar, and I think I recognize the voice. How about you?’

‘Vaguely, Mike, only vaguely.’

‘All right, all right. I might have known I’d get some stick. The thing is—’

Nash cut in. ‘She’s going to tell us about the atrocious weather, Viv. About the fifteen-feet high snowdrifts, the impassable roads, the drifting pack ice in the Firth of Forth.’

‘Polar bears sighted near Stonehaven.’ Pearce’s imagination was beginning to work.

‘And near Ullapool.’ Nash lowered his voice dramatically. ‘Out in the snow, a footprint is found. Human, or not? Surely it is too large to be human. Could it be the tracks of that mythical beast, “The Abominable Scotsman”?’

Clara stared at them, stony-faced. ‘I might have known better than to expect any sympathy from you two morons,’ she stated in exasperation. ‘Anyway’– she indicated the mugs – ‘it doesn’t look as if you’ve exactly been rushed off your feet.’

‘We have been busy,’ Pearce protested, ‘this is our break.’

‘What she’s trying to say,’ Nash corrected him, ‘is, have we missed her? The answer’s no, but now she’s condescended to join us, I think I can find something for her to do.’

Luck was on Clara’s side when she reached the village. Not only was the small post office-cum-village shop quiet, but the postman had just arrived to empty the post box. After interviewing him and talking to the postmaster, Clara learned that mail delivered to the house had been addressed to R and S Richards. ‘What can you tell me about them? How old were they, for instance? Do you know if they had any children?’ Clara asked the shopkeeper.

‘I guess they’d be in their early forties,’ the man thought for a minute. ‘But I’m no good on people’s ages. I think there are a couple of children. The boy would be grown up now. The girl’s away at school, I think. She’ll be about seventeen or eighteen. Not that I know too much about them. They didn’t socialize in the village, that’s for sure.’

‘Any idea what Mr Richards did for a living? Or where he worked?’

The man shook his head. ‘Like I said, they didn’t mix much.’

Despite asking round, even to the extent of visiting the pub, Clara gleaned no further information.

By the time Clara got back to Helmsdale it was late afternoon. The street lights were reflecting from the road, made shiny by the sleet showers that had been falling most of the day. She pulled into the station yard and hurried across to the building, as a fresh burst of stinging sleet, driven by the wind, hurled itself into her face.

There was no sign of Pearce, but Nash’s door was open. Mironova paused in the doorway, staring at her boss with concern. The expression on his face was one she’d not seen for a long time. It was one she hoped she’d never see again. A sad, defeated look. A look of hopelessness.

‘What’s matter, Mike? Has something happened? Something gone wrong?’

Nash roused himself, with an obvious effort. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘The look on your face, that’s all.’

‘I started thinking about the fire at Gorton, wondering if there’d be any relatives to face. I’ve seen my share lately. Just after Christmas I’d to escort Sergeant Hirst; the soldier whose family was killed by that carbon monoxide leak, to do the identifications.’

‘That must have been an ordeal. For you, I mean. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for him.’

Nash acknowledged the truth of this with a nod. ‘After we left the mortuary, I brought him back to Helmsdale and met one of his neighbours, a young woman with three children whose husband was killed in action recently. Anyway, before I knew it, I was telling them about Stella, and how she died.’

Clara grimaced. ‘I can see why you did it, establishing a common bond, but I was beginning to hope you’d got over that.’

‘I’m not sure you ever do, not completely. You go on for ages without thinking about it; then something happens that brings it all back. In this case it was the senseless waste of young lives. And something else; in a way I was trying to use it as a distraction because of the look on Hirst’s face. Only at times, but it was a look I didn’t like. To be honest, it scared me.’

‘Scared you? What sort of a look was it?’

‘A sort of latent violence and hatred: a promise of what he could do. More than that, that he isn’t just capable; that he will do it, as soon as he allows himself off the leash. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it was just my imagination working overtime.’

‘I certainly hope so by what you’ve said.’ Clara didn’t voice her other thought, the one that really concerned her: the fact that Mike was rarely wrong when it came to reading people’s thoughts and emotions.

Their concern would have multiplied into alarm, had they known that Hirst had already slipped the leash.

Nash seemed anxious to change the subject. ‘How did you go on?’

‘Gorton is one of those villages where the houses either belong to people who commute or they’re holiday homes, so there were very few people about. The village shop was the only place I got any joy. I don’t think, from what the sub-postmaster told me, that we’ll have much luck even when we do catch up with the house owners in the village. He told me the couple’s name, but said they’re hardly ever seen, and never socialize, or attend local functions. He thinks they’re in their early forties, with two children.’


‘Mr and Mrs Richards. No Christian names, or for the kids. Boy would be a young adult, girl about eighteen. Now you know as much as me.’

‘OK, Clara. Get Viv to contact the Registrar’s office in the morning, and check the PNC as well. Even a driving conviction would be a help.’

The next day brought more frustration. Pearce reported to Nash and Mironova. ‘The problem is there are no births registered to a couple named Richards that tally with the age groups Clara suggested. Nor is there a record of a couple with those initials marrying in the sort of timescale we need.’

‘Forensics reckon they’ll have some fingerprints from the parts of the house that were least damaged,’ Nash told him. ‘When they send me them, try for a match through our computer. Failing that, Richards must be an assumed name.’

‘Why do you think they’d not be using their real names?’ Clara asked.

‘Could be one of several reasons. One or other of them might be a convicted offender trying for a fresh start. Or they might be on the run. They could be political refugees, although that seems unlikely, or they may have been relocated in a witness protection programme.’

‘Any idea how long they’ve lived there?’ Pearce asked.

‘The locals reckon about seven years. They couldn’t tell us much.’

‘As you say, it seems a bit fishy. We’ll have to wait for the post-mortem results and try to get a match to those fingerprints. I’m going through to Netherdale to watch Mexican Pete at work,’ Nash told them.

He was still out when the fingerprints arrived. He returned, to find Pearce studying the results, his brow furrowed. He looked up. ‘There were three set of fingerprints identified by the SOCO boys,’ Pearce told him.

‘Did you get any matches?’

‘Just one,’ Pearce paused.

‘So, who is it?’

‘That’s the problem. I can’t tell you. One set got a positive match, but instead of the name, I got an error message.’

‘What sort of a message?’

‘It just said “access denied”.’

‘Denied, by whom?’

‘That’s another problem. I don’t know. Someone wants the person whose prints are in that house to remain anonymous.’

‘This is getting weirder by the minute.’

Two days later Nash got the post-mortem findings. He set off through the offices to the far side of the building, part of a complex built to house all the emergency services, taking the file through to Curran’s office. ‘Listen to this,’ he began. ‘Mexican Pete’s report is like everything else in this case. It doesn’t answer any questions, just raises a whole load more.

‘“Analysis of the victims’ blood reveals oxygen depletion, together with concentrations of carbon monoxide and cyanide. Carbon monoxide is also present in the lungs, suggesting the victims were alive when the fire started. The reduction in oxygen levels, together with the amounts of carboxyhemoglobin and cyanide, point to the fact that death would have occurred very rapidly. It is difficult to say whether the cause of death was a natural outcome of the fire, or whether it was induced. The reasons I cannot state the cause with any degree of certainty are as follows:

I understand the building dates from the early or middle of the nineteenth century.

That being the case, I cannot understand how cyanide came to be present in the victims’ bloodstreams.

The reason I am querying this is that hydrogen cyanide is a product of fires where the buildings concerned are of relatively recent construction. This is due to the introduction, in significant quantities, of synthetic polymers into building materials over the last fifty years.

Given that this house is much older, that issue remains unresolved. Without samples of the building materials and/or the fixtures and fittings, this issue remains unresolved.

I would recommend close consultation with the forensic officers of the fire service regarding this, and other aspects connected with the cause of the fire.

Identification of the victims via dental records has not been possible. The NHS dental database contains no records matching either of the victims. The quality of the dental work on one of the victims, the male, tends to suggest private practice, in all probability overseas. I will return to the condition of the female victim’s teeth in paragraph 8. For identification to be possible, the best remaining option would be via familial DNA. If close relatives of the deceased can be found, or their DNA matched with that already on the national database, there is every chance of obtaining the requisite information. I have posted the results from the DNA test, but have not had any match. Failing that, the victims’ identities, as with the cause of death, must remain unresolved.

There is one other, highly significant fact that came from analysis of the blood sample taken from the female victim. This revealed a significant amount of a variant of methylamphetamine, together with a masking agent and another, at present unidentified substance.

The poor condition of the female victim’s teeth suggests that ingestion of the drug referred to in the previous paragraph had been taking place over a prolonged period.”’

Curran looked confused. ‘What do you make of all that? And what was that drug business about? Mexican Pete didn’t give an explanation, so presumably he thought you’d know all about that methyl-whatsitsname stuff.’

‘Methylamphetamine is a recreational drug that’s widely used by people seeking high levels of sexual pleasure. Its more common name is crystal meth.’

‘Ah, I’ve heard of that.’

‘Right, so have you heard the expression, meth mouth?’ Nash asked.

Curran shook his head.

‘Crystal meth destroys the user’s teeth, eventually, or with heavy use, rotting them right back to the gums. It’s one of the best ways to check for this type of drug abuse. Whether the fact that the woman was a user is significant or coincidental is quite another matter. What interests me more is the cyanide aspect. What did you make of the findings regarding the fire?’

‘I think he’s highlighted a significant point. If he’d not drawn my attention to it, I might have missed it. To be absolutely sure, I’m going to get our boffins to check the material that formed the fabric of the building and contents. If there isn’t sufficient toxic content, that would tend to suggest the victims were poisoned. For them to have ingested so much smoke, that would mean it had to have been administered either just before the fire started, or even after the house was ablaze. I’m afraid, Mike, this is getting to look more and more suspicious.’

‘Damn right, Doug. I’m already tempted to treat it as murder. But I’ll hold off for the minute, until we’ve got your test results.’

Pearce was already in the office when Nash and Clara arrived next morning. ‘Our burglar friend’s been at it again,’ he greeted them.

‘What now?’

‘He got into the butcher’s in town last night; managed to disable the alarm. They’d been extra busy with it being market day. Lee Giles, the owner, was in the middle of cashing up when he got a phone call from home. His daughter fell off her bike and broke her wrist. Naturally he rushed off, but in the panic he forgot to put the takings in the night safe at the bank. Looks as if the burglar got away with somewhere close to seven thousand pounds.’

Nash whistled. ‘Some pay day, that. Have you alerted SOCO?’

‘They’re on their way there. I was waiting for you, thought it would look better if we both went.’

‘Good idea.’ Nash thought about it. ‘Damned shame though, he’s a nice chap is Lee.’

Pearce grinned. ‘His pork pies and sausage rolls are tasty too.’

‘I don’t understand you sometimes,’ Clara said. ‘If you’re not actually eating, you’re thinking about food. You should be the size of a house side. Food’s an obsession with you.’

Nash smiled. ‘Let him indulge his fixation then. You two go and interview Lee and his brother. Oh, and one more thing,’ he added as they were about to leave.

Clara turned. ‘Yes, Mike?’

‘Bring me a pork pie back, will you. Either that or a sausage roll.’

Lee Giles looked like a butcher. Slightly over six feet tall, strongly built, with a fresh complexion and a normally cheerful expression. That day, however, the expression was somewhat less than cheerful. SOCO had been and gone, customers were beginning to arrive, and the shop was in the process of being cleaned. ‘Can’t blame your blokes,’ he explained to Clara and Viv. ‘They were only doing their job, but I can’t afford this place to be anything other than spotless and hygienic. I don’t just mean what you can see with the naked eye. I’ve my customers to think of. And Health and Safety,’ he added darkly. ‘It’d be the last straw for that lot to descend on me.’

‘Any idea who might have done this?’ Pearce asked, without hoping for much.

‘How long a list do you want? It must be someone local. They knew where to cut the alarm wires. That’ll be another expense. And no payout from the insurance either.’

‘Is that because you didn’t use the night safe?’ Clara asked.

Lee nodded. ‘I’ll ask of course, but I’m not holding my breath. They won’t take any account of me having to dash off because of our Kirsty’s accident. That’s how insurance companies are.’

Clara nodded sympathetically. ‘That suspect list, I know you were being flippant, but have you noticed anyone hanging around recently? Someone you might not have seen before, or somebody you don’t usually expect to see in this part of town.’

Lee shook his head. ‘The problem is, with it being such a small town, and us being in the market place, everybody passes here from time to time.’

Lee’s brother, Simon, had just finished serving a customer and joined them in time to hear the last part of the conversation.

‘There was that young lad,’ he volunteered.

‘Young lad?’ Clara looked at him questioningly.

‘I’d forgotten about him,’ Lee confessed.

‘He was around yesterday and the day before. Surprised me, because he looked as if he hadn’t eaten meat in his life,’ Simon commented.

‘Aye, skinny little runt he was. I served him,’ Lee told her. ‘Not over keen on the personal hygiene either. You wouldn’t stand down wind of him for long. Looked as if he’d been sleeping rough. Had to dig around in every pocket to come up with enough for a sausage roll. I was on the point of taking what he had in his hand just to get rid of him. I’d a shop full and the other customers were beginning to look sideways.’

‘The thing was,’ Simon chipped in, ‘he’d been about all morning. Didn’t notice him the first time or two, but when he kept passing, I started looking out for him. It was the same yesterday. We didn’t want him coming in again, in case it upset other customers.’

‘Can you describe him?’

‘About five feet eight inches tall, skinny, painfully thin. I’d be surprised if he topped eight stone,’ Lee told her. The butcher’s reputation for being able to gauge the weight of beasts at auction mart was a local legend.

‘Any distinguishing marks?’ Pearce was writing the details down.

‘None I can bring to mind,’ Lee looked at his brother for confirmation.

‘There was a mole. On the right side of his chin,’ Simon said after a moment’s thought.

‘Hair colour, length, style?’ Clara asked.

‘Black and greasy, lank, down to his shoulders; looked as if it hadn’t been washed for months. He must have shaved recently though. He’d stubble, but only a few days’ growth.’

‘What about clothing?’

‘Jeans, some sort of dark top, maybe a sweatshirt, anorak with a hood on. One of those padded ones. And trainers: none of it looked new, or clean.’

‘Anything else?’

‘If I’d to guess I’d say he might be on drugs,’ Lee said. ‘His eyes were odd. Glassy looking, small pupils.’

‘Did our forensics people say if they’d found anything useful?’ As Clara was speaking she noticed Pearce had closed his notebook and was buying what looked like a small mountain of sausage rolls from Simon.

‘They weren’t sure. They said they’d collected a fair number of samples, but they couldn’t be sure if they were relevant or not.’

Chapter Five

Wonderful. Better than fantastic. Words can’t describe how good ‘trips’ are; but waking from them is hell. The better the ‘trip’, the worse the reaction. He knew he’d gone too far. But he had the money, so he bought the gear and took it. Now it was time to wake up, to work out where he was. How long he’d been there.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. As he opened his eyes, he realized he was in a barn and that the smell wasn’t from animals. It was him. Sometime, during the ‘trip’, he’d soiled himself. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his jeans felt wet. He looked down, moving his head slowly, painfully. Yes, he’d pissed his pants as well.

Hatred and self-loathing swept over him. How could he have got to this state? How could he allow the stuff to take over, to rule his life? But it had, it did and it would continue to do so. He knew that, just as he was hating himself. He knew at the next opportunity he’d have to get a fix. He began to tremble, to shiver, with a sort of cold, like he’d never experienced before. He sat up and felt nauseous as a fresh wave of stink, his own stink, wafted over him.

‘You need help.’

He jumped in alarm, hadn’t noticed the man before, couldn’t see him properly now. There wasn’t much light in the barn, and his face was in shadow.

‘What? Who are you? What are you doing here? Where am I?’

The man ignored the questions. ‘This is a small town. How long do you think you can continue getting away with it?’

‘Away with what?’

‘Oh, come off it. I’ve been watching you. You did the filling station a couple of weeks back, then it was the pub, and two nights ago you did the butcher’s.’

Panic. ‘What’s it to you? You a copper?’

‘No.’ The man laughed as if this was some very funny joke. ‘I’m definitely not a copper. Here,’ his hand came forward.

North squinted at what the stranger offered. A small case. Easily recognizable. ‘What’s that?’ Like he didn’t know only too well.

‘The makings. Don’t worry, everything’s clean. The best gear and the needles are brand new.’

‘Are you giving me this? Why? Are you a homo, or what?’

‘You don’t for one moment imagine I’d go near your arse, the state you’re in.’ There was no mistaking the tone of the man’s voice. Anger: and disgust. ‘Let’s just say I’m a friend of the family.’

‘I don’t know you.’

‘Your mother and father did. I was quite close to them, before they died. That was tragic. I’m sure you must miss them terribly.’

‘What do you mean? They’re not dead.’

The stranger took out a copy of The Gazette. ‘I’m sorry, I assumed you knew.’

Adam scanned the headline. He didn’t need the photo to recognize the house. Even as a smoking shell. ‘Oh God, no,’ he reached for the kit. For refuge; for an escape away from reality.

‘That’s it.’ The stranger encouraged him. ‘I’m sure it’s going to make the pain easier to bear.’

Adam scrabbled with the case, removed the contents and filled the syringe from the phial. He pressed the plunger and waited for the drug to take effect. He looked up. ‘I still don’t know your name.’

‘Barry, you can call me Barry. Shall we go?’

‘Go, go where?’

‘Away from here. I’ve got a special place lined up for you. I’m going to take care of you.’

‘It’s not a rehab clinic is it? Because it won’t work.’

The stranger burst out laughing. It was some moments before he stopped. ‘No, it’s definitely not rehab, Adam.’ Another chuckle escaped him. ‘You’ll be the death of me, you will.’ He paused and added under his breath, ‘But that’s only fair. Because I’m going to be the death of you.’

‘Forensics has come back with results from the butcher’s,’ Nash told Clara and Viv as he examined the internal mail. ‘There was nothing inside the shop, but they found a mucus sample immediately outside the back door. The DNA extracted matches a known drug user.’ He paused as he read further details from the report.

‘He’s listed as Adam North, aged twenty-one. No recent address. Three convictions for possession; the last of them a short custodial.’ Nash stopped.

He was silent for so long that Clara asked, ‘What is it, Mike?’

‘The DNA also gives a familial match to that of the female victim from the Gorton house fire. According to the forensic evidence, the woman who was killed there was Adam North’s mother.’

‘What about the male?’

‘Apparently, he was no relation.’

‘What are we supposed to make of that?’

‘Two choices. North’s mother had an affair with someone else from which Adam was conceived, or, the man who was killed in the fire wasn’t her husband. Either way we have to find Adam North. Both to question him about the robbery at the butcher’s, and to find out what he knows about the fire that killed his mother.’

It took the local vicar more than half an hour to drive from Bishop’s Cross to Gorton. Not that he resented the journey. In fact he quite enjoyed it. The time spent behind the wheel on the lonely country roads gave him time to ponder his sermon. He just felt sad that it was necessary. Time was when each of the villages had its own minister. Now he had to divide his time between Bishop’s Cross, Gorton and Kirk Bolton.

Even so, he was aware that he’d be lucky if there was more than a handful of parishioners prepared to rise so early in order to receive The Sacrament from him. And those few that were present would be well into their pensioner years, concerned principally, as his bishop had cynically remarked, with ‘paying their after-life insurance premiums’.

When they shuffled off the mortal coil what would become of the churches in those villages? Turned into second homes, holiday cottages and the like. Or craft centres. Certainly something secular. The vicar sighed, he was approaching the village now, and this was no state of mind in which to approach an act of worship.

When he rounded a couple more bends the village would come into view, and that would cheer him up. It always did, Gorton was that sort of place, what he thought of as a proper village – built around the green that doubled as a cricket field, despite the slope, and the presence of an ancient oak tree at deep-long-leg. Despite the fact that the road ran inside the boundary, and that the boundary on one side was the pub wall.

The green was fringed by the pub, the church and a pleasing mix of old stone cottages and newer bungalows designed to blend with their older neighbours. If Hollywood ever wanted to find a traditional English village location, Gorton must surely come high on their list. It even had a pair of stocks, one of the last remaining sets in the county, to remind visitors of a time when punishment was more direct, community led. He smiled at the thought. The positioning of the stocks close to the church gate was an obvious inducement to the wrongdoer to repent their evil ways.

He ditched his reverie and parked close to the church gate and got out, avoiding the light dusting of snow covering the icy puddles. He began searching in his cassock for the keys. Another sign of worsening times, once, the church would have remained open, service or no, without fear of theft or vandalism. He sighed, locked his car and made to walk through the lychgate into the churchyard.

One hand on the gate, he paused: something was wrong; something he’d noticed out of his peripheral vision. Slowly, unwilling to acknowledge what his brain was telling him his eyes had seen, he turned and looked again, directly this time. He let out a long, whistling breath of horror and disbelief. ‘Oh dear Lord, no,’ he muttered. He went slowly forward to check what his heart told him he didn’t need to.

One or two of his parishioners were making their way along the road towards the church. He had to stop them. He had to get to them before they saw the horrible sight that was behind him. The vicar strode to intercept them, his footsteps urgent.

Celebration of Holy Communion was deferred. When the screens had been erected to shield the crime scene, one or two villagers went into the church to join the minister in praying for the soul of the victim who had been placed in the midst of their community.

Outside, forensics officers were examining the remains and the surrounding area, supervised by Professor Ramirez. Alongside the pathologist, DS Mironova watched, averting her eyes occasionally from the corpse.

‘It’s a long time since the stocks had an occupant, I’ll bet.’

They turned in surprise. Mike Nash was standing only a couple of yards behind them outside the screen. At his side was Becky Pollard. ‘Mike, what are you doing here?’ Clara demanded. ‘You’re supposed to be having three days off.’

Ramirez snorted. ‘You don’t imagine a minor detail like that’s going to keep him away, do you? It’s clear you’ve no understanding of the power of necrophilia. Nash probably scented the corpse from twenty miles away.’

‘Actually, I didn’t. We were going to the pub for lunch’ – Nash gestured to The Buck Inn – ‘and saw you lot over here.’

‘And of course Mike couldn’t keep away,’ Becky contributed. ‘The fastest I’ve seen him move for weeks is when he legged it across the village green to get here.’

‘What’s the story?’ Nash asked.

‘The stocks are kept padlocked. The killer probably picked them, placed the corpse inside and secured the padlocks again. Then the man was pelted with tomatoes, eggs and a variety of less pleasant substances.’

Nash raised an enquiring eyebrow.

‘Some form of excrement,’ the pathologist explained.

Nash looked round at the meadows surrounding the village. ‘Probably cow shit’ – he pointed – ‘there must be a fair amount available. How was he killed?’

‘In a very unpleasant manner,’ Ramirez told him as he led him inside the tent. ‘He was alive when he was put in the stocks. I know that because his wrists and ankles are bruised and bled a considerable amount, as he struggled to free himself.’

Nash looked at the corpse. ‘Why didn’t he cry out for help? A place as quiet as this, someone would be bound to hear him.’

‘He couldn’t,’ Ramirez told him, his tone grim. ‘See the bloated appearance of the body, the way the cheeks are distended? The killer glued his eyes closed, squirted glue into each nostril and down his throat. As the glue set, breathing would have become more and more difficult, and eventually, impossible. He would have choked to death. It would have been a slow, painful and extremely unpleasant way to die.’

‘Very nasty,’ Nash agreed. They stepped back outside to the girls who were discussing their respective Christmases. ‘What do we know about the dead man?’

‘Mike, you’re not at work,’ Becky protested. ‘Leave Clara to get on with it.’

Nash stared at his sergeant. After a moment, she shrugged. ‘Early twenties, I guess. No identification on the body. There are needle marks that suggest long and sustained drug abuse. He’s in a disgusting state; appearance suggests he’d been living rough.’

She paused, and Nash asked, ‘So, who do you think he is? Someone we’re looking for with regard to a string of burglaries perhaps?’

Ramirez and Becky stared at him curiously. Clara smiled. ‘That obvious was it?’

‘The description of the suspect from the robbery at the butcher’s shop matches the victim almost perfectly.’

‘I agree,’ Clara nodded. ‘But we’ll have to wait on DNA to confirm it.’

‘The method of killing’s interesting.’ Nash’s voice was thoughtful, almost as if he was talking to himself.

‘Why do you say that?’ Clara asked.

‘Placing someone in the stocks was a traditional form of punishment. The fact that the killer chose them suggests he knew the dead man was a criminal. Although in this case the punishment is harsh in the extreme. So perhaps there’s more to the motive than mere retribution.’

‘Come on, Sherlock, that’s enough.’ Becky tugged at Nash’s arm. ‘I’m starving. Let’s go eat. Sorry to disturb you, Clara. I’ll try and keep him out of your hair, but whether he’ll eat anything’s a different matter. Probably spend all his time staring out of the window wondering if you’re doing things right.’

A phone call from forensics next day confirmed the dead man’s identity. Clara thought for a few moments. On impulse she reached for the phone.

‘Mike, it’s Clara. Are you busy?’

‘Bored rigid. Do you know how turgid daytime telly is? Is there a problem?’

‘It’s about that corpse; the one in the stocks. Something’s come up, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.’

Clara explained the development. ‘I know you’re not a great believer in coincidence, so I wondered what you thought.’

‘My first suggestion would be to try the Registrar’s office. See if you can locate North’s birth certificate. You might get the parents’ details that way. Always supposing Adam North is his right name. And that the birth was registered in this country.’

‘Thanks, Mike. I’ll try that. Hopefully, I’ll see you in a couple of days.’

The man known as Dr Richards had been driving home from Birmingham when the crash happened. The resulting injuries had not only caused him over a week’s stay in hospital but had left him frail. He walked slowly out of the entrance. Apart from the police officers who’d questioned him about the crash he’d had only one visitor; the woman who now came to greet him. He smiled at her, a gesture she didn’t return. ‘I’ve my car in the car park,’ she told him. ‘Do you think you can make it, or would you prefer to wait here and I’ll bring it round?’

‘I’ll make it,’ his voice sounded pitifully weak.

During the journey, they were silent for the most part. Once they’d cleared Leeds however, he stirred in his seat. ‘Where are we going? You’re not taking me home, surely?’

If he’d been watching her he’d have seen the tension in her face, noticed her hands gripping the wheel until the knuckles whitened. ‘No, I’m not taking you home,’ she said after a moment. ‘You wouldn’t have expected me to, would you?’

‘I suppose not. Why didn’t anyone else come to see me? I mean, I know things have been bad, but I’d have expected….’ His voice trailed off.

It was no good; she couldn’t dodge the issue any longer. ‘Look, there’s a motorway café just up the road. Why don’t we stop for a cup of tea? We need to talk.’

He looked across at her. It was unusual for her to be so reticent. ‘All right,’ he agreed.

When they were seated in the café she reached across the table and put her hand on his. ‘Do you remember anything about the day of the crash?’

‘Bits and pieces, that’s all. I remember the lecture, and us being together. That’s about it.’

‘Don’t you remember the phone call you got? From the office?’ she prompted him.

Memory stirred, but not vigorously enough. ‘Vaguely, but I can’t remember what it was about.’

‘You were asked to go straight to the laboratory. Not to go home first.’

‘That’s it. I wondered why. It seemed such a strange thing to ask.’

‘Well it wasn’t.’ Her grip on his hand tightened. ‘The reason they didn’t want you to go home was,’ she paused, ‘there was a fire the previous night. Your house was destroyed. There were two people inside, a man and a woman. Both died in the fire. The police haven’t been able to identify them yet, but they’re assuming them to be man and wife.’

She noticed his jaw tighten, felt his hand tremble slightly, his voice was calm. Unnaturally calm? ‘Presumably Lara and her lover.’

‘I’m afraid that’s not all.’

He looked up and she saw what she’d taken for calm was shock. Shock and distress. ‘What else?’

‘There was a body found last week, in what the police are describing as suspicious circumstances. I’m afraid it was Adam.’

‘Oh dear God, no. What was it? A drugs overdose?’

‘No, at least I don’t think so. I mean, he might have been drugged, but from what little we could find out, that wasn’t how he died.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Richard, I’m sorry. The police think Adam was murdered.’

She saw the bright glint of tears in his eyes. It was a long time before he spoke. Again, his voice had a calmness she knew was a shell, one that was almost at cracking point. ‘I gave up on Adam a long time ago. I tried everything. Rehab clinics, therapy, hypnotism, the lot. I gave him money, it didn’t work. Denied him money, he stole it. Kicked him out of the house, time after time. Took him back, time after time. I thought one day I’d get the news. A visitor, a phone call, whatever. Thought it would be an overdose. But not murder. Do you know what it was about? Was it over drugs?’

‘I don’t think the police know for certain. They don’t think it was drugs related, not directly, even though Adam had a lot of it in his system.’

He looked up in sudden alarm. More than that: panic. ‘What about Jessica?’

‘She’s all right. Our people have her safe. She doesn’t know what’s happened yet.’

‘What do you mean “our people have her safe”?’

‘They’ve taken a house near the laboratory. All she knows is she’s to wait there until you arrive. They didn’t tell her anything, but they reassured her you were fine.’

‘I don’t understand. Why the need for all this security?’

‘They’re concerned for your safety. Yours and Jessica’s. They weren’t too worried about Lara, but after Adam was killed, somebody hit the panic button.’

‘You mean they reckon Lara’s death might not have been accidental?’

‘They’re not sure, but you know what they’re like. They won’t take the chance. There was a security breach at the lab just before all this kicked off.’

‘I thought the place was watertight.’

She grimaced. ‘So did they. Whoever got in was cleverer than they thought. They sawed through a tree close to the main power lines, caused a power blackout over the county for several hours. Long enough for an intruder to get over the fence. By the time the guards realized, he’d long gone. He made a bit of a mess in the labs before he got into the office block.’

‘What on earth was he doing in the office block? Why not just the lab?’

‘That’s the bit that got our spooks spooked. He went through all the personnel records. Not only went through them, but took a portable, battery operated copier with him. Cheeky swine left it behind when he’d finished.’

‘Do they know what the records he copied were?’

‘Personal details; family, home address, all the things they’re supposed to be keeping out of the public domain.’

‘Any idea who might be behind it?’

‘The official line is it might be down to one of the more violent animal rights groups. Given what we do at the lab, I suppose they’re the most natural suspects.’

‘Caroline, will you do me a very great favour? Will you go with me when I tell Jessica? I’m not sure I can do it on my own.’

She thought about it. ‘Very well, but I don’t think she should learn about us. Not now, and probably not for a long time.’

Chapter Six

‘Morning, Mike. Couldn’t keep away?’ Clara reached the CID suite next morning to find Nash was already in his office. She heard movement and peered in.

‘Becky got called in by The Gazette, so I thought I might as well come to work as well. I’ve been reading the file on the Adam North murder. Have you made any progress tracing the rest of the family?’

‘I have the paperwork on my desk, I’ll go get it.’ She returned seconds later. ‘I had a lot of trouble finding anything, but eventually I managed to locate details of a passport application for Adam North. It was made about six years ago. On the same date there was another application, for a Jessica North, aged twelve. The parents’ details are the same, so I assume they are brother and sister. The reason there’s no registration for them in the UK is they were born abroad. In the United States, to be precise. The parents are listed as Richard and Lara North, nee Matthews. The father’s occupation is given as university lecturer, mother is shown as housewife. I was going to try contacting universities round here today, see if North’s been engaged by any of them. Even if he hasn’t, they might know of him.’

‘It would be useful to find out what subject he specializes in. I take it North senior is a British citizen?’

‘Yes, both he and his wife are, or were. We’re still not sure if he’s alive or dead.’

‘I think we have to assume he’s dead. Why else hasn’t he been in contact?’

‘I traced their birth certificates once I’d the details from The Passport Office. He was born in Leeds, forty-five years ago. Interestingly, his mother’s maiden name was Richards. That was the surname on the mail sent to the Gorton address. That was what the locals knew him as.’

‘I wonder why they needed to use assumed names? What were they hiding from? Or who? Did you make enquiries with the authorities in America?’

‘I did, I sent an e-mail to the FBI, but as yet I haven’t had a reply, unless something came in overnight. Mind you, I’m not sure I want to know what they find out. The problem with this case is, every bit of new information we get throws up more questions.’

‘If you’re going to be tied up ringing universities this morning, why not get Viv to do an internet search on Richard North? It may give us something. I realize it could be historical, if he’s been living under a false name for a while, but it could shed some light on what the elusive Mr North was up to, before he found it necessary to disguise his identity.’

Nash paused, as a random thought struck him. ‘Whilst he’s doing that, get him to enter Dr Richard North as well. If he’s a lecturer, we could safely assume him to be well qualified.’

‘OK, I’ll get him onto it as soon as he gets here.’ Clara turned to leave; then looked over her shoulder. ‘By the way, Mike, it is good to have you back.’

Nash looked at her suspiciously; then realized she was being serious, not lining him up for another insult.

By mid-afternoon, Nash was beginning to wonder whether he’d have been better off at home watching Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt or Loose Women. The first intimation that all might not be as it should came via a reply from the FBI. Sent from their Quantico headquarters, it was phrased in terms that could be diplomatically described as curt, but more accurately, downright rude. The message was to the effect that even had the American law enforcement agency been in possession of any information about Richard North they were either unable or unwilling to share such knowledge with their British counterparts.

Nash was still trying to work out whether the FBI actually knew anything and were being deliberately obstructive, or they didn’t and weren’t prepared to admit their ignorance when Clara entered his office. ‘I’ve tried all the universities in the north of England,’ she told him, ‘including those Metropolitan ones.’

Nash smiled. ‘They used to be called Technical Colleges in my day.’

‘I’d no idea there were so many. Not that it did me any good. None of them have a Richard North on their teaching faculty. There’s a Helen North at Newcastle, but she’s sixty-three, comes from Northumberland and teaches Eastern history. I think we can count her out.’

Nash’s phone rang. It was Superintendent Edwards. ‘How are things going?’

‘How did you know I was here?’


‘I’ve a few difficulties to sort out.’

‘They wouldn’t be about the Adam North murder by any chance, would they?’

Nash’s eyes opened wide with surprise. ‘How did you guess that?’

‘That wasn’t a guess. To be honest, I had a phone call about half an hour ago, some captain from Military Intelligence. He informed me that inquiries into this matter were out of our jurisdiction and that I should instruct my officers to refrain from asking any questions that were unconnected with the actual killing. He went on to suggest we concentrate on the drugs connection, and that he felt sure we’d find that was the motive behind the crime. On no account were we to attempt to involve other members of North’s family in our investigation.’

‘Really? And what did you say to that?’

Her reply left Nash grinning. ‘I apologized for missing the announcement of his appointment as Chief Constable. And I followed that up by explaining that the Chief Constable was the only person I take orders from. I certainly don’t instruct my detectives to follow lines of inquiry based on vague assertions from a junior army officer.’

‘What was his reaction to that?’

‘He said he was going to ring God and tell her what he’d told me. Said he felt sure she’d be more cooperative. So I told him to go ahead, but I nipped in to see her before he had chance. My instructions from Gloria are, “Continue to pursue