DI Ellen Kelly is struggling through some difficult changes in her life. Her boss has left, replaced by a more unpredictable DCI. Her career seems to be stalling – again. And her feelings for Jim O'Dwyer feel like they're spiralling out of her normally tight control. Distraction can be very dangerous. Someone is out there, stalking the weak, bringing misery and fear, and it's Ellen's job to stop it. Could it be that this time, for the first time, Ellen is the one trapped in the web? About Hunting Shadows: "Marks the entrance of a major new talent. Sheila Bugler delivers a chilling psychological twister of a novel, laced with homespun horrors, a compelling central character in DI Ellen Kelly and a strong contemporary resonance. Fans of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah, prick up your ears." Cathi Unsworth
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About Hunting Shadows
‘Marks the entrance of a major new talent.
Sheila Bugler delivers a chilling psychological twister of a novel, laced with homespun horrors, a compelling central character in DI Ellen Kelly and a strong contemporary resonance. Fans of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah, prick up your ears.’
‘Truly a tour de force.
Imagine a collaboration between Ann Tyler and AM Homes. Yes, the novel is that good. Sheila Bugler might well have altered the way we view families and the very essence of mandatory Happiness. This is great writing.’
For Seán – there’s no one I’d rather grow old disgracefully with.
This book would be nothing without the help of my wonderful editor, Rachel Pierce. Her honesty, patience and good humour have got me through a very painful few months. Thank you, Rachel.
Others who helped kick this book into shape are Chris Curran, JJ Marsh, Gillian Hamer, Svetlana Pironko, Lorraine Mace. I owe a huge debt to all of you. A very special thanks to Gary Friel. Thanks also to Aidan Cunningham for the ‘crack cocaine pizza’ reference.
My family: Seán, Luke and Ruby, my parents (aka the local sales team) and Tom.
My friends: too many to mention, but you know who you are. I hope we’re all still having fun and misbehaving for a long time to come. There’s always a glass of wine waiting for you in Eastbourne.
Massive thanks, as always, to the great team at The O’Brien Press. To be published under the Brandon imprint is an honour.
She liked watching people. Liked it best when they didn’t know she was there. Watching them go about their pathetic lives, not realising how insignificant, how unimportant they really were.
Today was different. Today she was watching because she was scared. Trying to work up the courage to cross the road. Scared of rejection. It was an irrational fear, she knew that. After all this time, her mother would be just as excited as she was.
Maybe the house was the problem. It wasn’t what she’d expected. So often she’d pictured the life her mother had left for. A better life, with a better man than the one she’d had the misfortune to marry. A woman like that forced to endure a life with that useless loser … well, who could blame her for what she’d done?
Dirty net curtains made it difficult to see inside, especially standing here on the other side of the road. She caught a glimpse of something, a shadow flitting across the grimy glass, but it was impossible to make out any detail.
A trickle of sweat tickled its way down her spine. Hot, even for August. The hottest summer on record, supposedly. She stepped sideways, seeking shade under the bony branches of a half-dead tree, the only visible sign of nature on the street.
In the house beside her mother’s, music thumped loudly through an open upstairs window. A young black man stood at the same window, staring down at her. When she returned his stare, he stuck his tongue against the side of his mouth and made a wanking gesture with his hand.
She imagined herself crossing the road, knocking on Wank Man’s door and teaching him a lesson. The thought of it made her smile. The stupid wanker smiled back. Getting it wrong, the way men always did.
She looked back at her mother’s house. A dirty-white terraced house in a row of identical dirty-white houses. Cheap and nasty. Not at all the sort of place she’d imagined for her mother. But maybe her mother had a perfectly good explanation for what she was doing in this dreadful, depressing place. The thought perked her up, shook her out of the dark mood that was threatening to ruin everything.
She smoothed down her dress – black, sleeveless, classy – and adjusted the red silk scarf at her neck. Her mother’s scarf. The only thing she’d left behind. The silk was embroidered with thousands of tiny black butterflies. She could feel them now when she rubbed her thumb across the delicate threads. She anticipated her mother’s joy when she realised she’d kept the scarf for all this time.
She’d imagined this moment so often, different variations of it playing out in her head over the years. Now here she was, about to turn all that desperate longing into a reality.
She stepped off the pavement onto the road, never once taking her eyes off the house. Suddenly, she was there, standing at the front door, pressing the doorbell, hearing it ring inside the house. A moment later, the sound of footsteps …
Hush little baby, don’t say a word
Mama’s gonna buy you …
Someone was in the house. Chloe’s eyes shot open, her mother’s voice fading, replaced by other sounds. The rustle of tissue paper. The clang of water hitting the inside of the metal kettle. The slip-slap of leather-soled shoes on the lino floor. The soft, wheezy whistle of the kettle as the water started to warm up.
He was here again.
She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing happened. Her mind was awake, but her body was still asleep. She clenched and unclenched her hands, wriggled her toes, sensation coming back slowly.
Downstairs, the water had started to boil. The noise of it loud, even up here in the bedroom. Taking her chance, she threw back the quilt, jumped from the bed, grabbed her bag and ran out of the bedroom, along the corridor and into the bathroom. There was no lock, but she closed the door and pressed her body against it, as if her weight could hold off the attack.
She was shivering, fear and cold making her teeth chatter. She clenched her jaw shut, top teeth grinding down on bottom teeth. A wooden floorboard creaked, too loud and too close. She recognised the sound. The second step on the staircase creaked like that. He was on the stairs. Moving towards her bedroom.
Quietly, quietly, she climbed into the bath, took the edge of the shower curtain and pulled it across. She lay down in the bath, arms clasped tightly around her shivering body, breath held, waiting.
She could hear him through the thin wall that separated the bedroom and the bathroom. Heard the shuffle-shuffle of his feet and the heavy in-out, in-out breathing that didn’t sound much like Ricky. But then she remembered what he was like when he got angry. Red-faced and the breath snorting through his nose. Angry because she wasn’t there, in her bed, where he’d been expecting her.
She fumbled in her bag. Fingers found the phone but couldn’t hold onto it. The phone slipped deeper into the bag. She turned the bag upside-down. The contents spilled onto the bath in a discordant clatter.
A flash of light along the corridor. Footsteps moving faster. Into the small spare bedroom and out again.
She brushed a tube of lipstick out of the way and grabbed the phone. Finger punched 999. Seconds later, a woman’s voice: ‘Emergency services operator. Which service do you require?’
‘Police,’ she whispered. ‘Get me the police. There’s someone in my house.’
The bathroom door slammed open. She put her hand over her mouth to cut off the scream. On the phone, the woman was still speaking, asking for Chloe’s address. She hit the End button, terminating the call.
He came closer, his shadow on the shower curtain huge and distorted. He would kill her. He’d told her that’s what would happen if she ever tried to leave him.
Fingers curled around the edge of the shower curtain.
The scream came now, roared out of her, blocking out everything else. She dived out the other side of the curtain. She’d dropped her phone. It didn’t matter. She raced forward, bare feet slipping on the cold bathroom floor. A hand grabbed her arm. She shook it off, still screaming, and ran faster.
She stumbled down the stairs and along the narrow corridor to the front door. The bastard had locked it. She swung around, saw the shadow of him moving down the stairs. Something not right about it, but no time to think about that. At the back door she tugged the bolt, used both hands to open it. Nearly there now.
Something struck the back of her head. She stumbled against the door but didn’t fall. Still standing, fingers still gripping the handle. She could do it. She pulled the handle, felt the door start to open.
Another crack across the head. She fell, face first. The black-and-white pattern of the lino floor rushed up to meet her.
Ellen stood at her bedroom window, watching the line of trees fade to black as night moved across the Greenwich skyline. It made her sad, this gradual descent into darkness. Perverse, she knew, to want to prolong each shortening stretch of day. It was the trees, she decided. In the burning glow of autumn glory, they were at their very best at this time of the year. It seemed unfair not to be allowed to gaze at them a while longer.
The voice drew her attention from the beauty of nature to another endless fascination. Eilish stood in the doorway, waiting until she knew she had her mother’s complete attention.
‘Yes, sweetheart,’ Ellen said. ‘What is it?’
Eilish walked across the room and settled herself on the end of Ellen’s bed. The expression on her little face was perplexed. It was a look Ellen recognised. A frown forming, brown eyes half-closed in concentration as she tried to work out the exact way to phrase whatever question she was about to ask. Decision made, a flash of clarity behind those eyes and she was off.
‘Pat says babies come out of your bottom. But that can’t be right, can it? A baby’s way too big to fit through your bumhole.’
She cocked her head to one side and waited. The look on her face challenged Ellen to come up with a satisfactory answer. When she did that, she looked so like Vinny it hurt. The pain was physical; an ache across the chest that spread down into her stomach and still had the power to consume her even now, almost five years after his death.
‘It’s not your bumhole,’ she said. ‘There’s a special baby hole that women have. You know that already, Eilish.’
‘But that doesn’t make any sense,’ Eilish said. ‘I mean, how would I get a baby out down there? And anyway, you still won’t tell me how the baby gets into the tummy in the first place.’
Surely, at eight, Eilish was too young to be told the facts of life?
‘It’s the special baby kiss,’ Ellen said. ‘Just like I told you. The mummy and daddy decide to have a baby and they have a special kiss and then the baby starts growing in the mummy’s tummy.’
‘Are you going out tonight?’
The sudden switch in subject would have been a relief if Ellen didn’t know what was coming next.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But just for a little bit. I won’t be late.’
Ellen nodded. ‘I sort of need to get ready, actually. Will you help me choose a top?’
She turned from her daughter’s inquisitive stare and went over to the built-in wardrobe.
‘This one?’ she asked. ‘Or this shirt? Which do you prefer?’
‘Is he, like, your boyfriend then?’
Ellen carried the blue linen shirt across to the bed and sat down beside Eilish.
‘He’s a friend, Eilish. That’s all.’
‘Pat says he’s your boyfriend and you’re probably going to marry him and he’ll move in here or we’ll have to move to his house. Which we’d hate because Jim’s house is way smaller than ours and this is our home and we don’t want to move. We really don’t, Mum. It’s not fair.’
Dear God, Ellen thought, give me strength.
‘Eilish, listen to me.’ She took her daughter’s little hand in hers and squeezed it. ‘Jim’s a friend. Nothing more than that.’ Liar, liar. ‘And even if he did become my boyfriend – which may never happen.’ Pants on fire. ‘Then there’s no way in the world I’d ask you and Pat to move out of this house. This is your home. And it will stay your home. Do you understand?’
Eilish smiled and some of the tension across Ellen’s shoulders disappeared.
‘Will you have a baby with him?’
‘But it’d be so cute,’ Eilish said. ‘And you could do it tonight. You know, one of those special baby kisses?’
Ellen wasn’t sure if her daughter was taking the mick or not.
‘Anyway,’ Eilish continued, ‘it’s not a kiss, Mummy. Maria told me what really happens.’
Eilish nodded, face full of confidence. ‘Yeah. The daddy and the mummy have to take their clothes off and lie beside each other and make noises. That’s how babies are really made, isn’t it?’
Sometimes, what she missed most was having someone to share these conversations with. She pictured telling Jim later that evening, but it didn’t feel right. She wasn’t sure why. He was great with the kids and seemed genuinely interested in them. But he wasn’t their father.
After Eilish wandered off, Ellen got ready for her night out. Blue shirt over a new pair of jeans, make-up, including a new lipstick she’d bought earlier that day. It was a rich red colour and she hesitated, wondering if it was a little OTT for a casual drink.
Except it was more than a casual drink. She was starting to really like this guy. And all the signs were that he felt the same way about her. In as much as she was capable of reading the signs. She’d been with Vinny since she was twenty-two. Which made her as out of practice with the whole dating business as it was possible to be.
Make-up applied, she gave her face a final once-over in the mirror. The make-up did little to hide the tiny pattern of lines at the corner of each eye, but apart from that she didn’t look too bad.
Blue eyes, clear and bright. Dark, bobbed hair framed a face that was, possibly, a shade too pale. More blusher, perhaps? No, best not. She’d end up looking like a clown.
Enough. Time to go. She pushed her chair away from the dressing table and stood up. As she left the bedroom, her eyes drifted, like they always did, to the family photo on the small bedside table. Her, Vinny and the children. Vinny’s arm draped over her shoulders, smiling out from the photo, like the happiest man in the world.
She smiled back, briefly, and her eyes slid to the sheet of white paper lying beside the photo. It was folded over but she knew, by heart, what was written on it. She’d only folded it to stop herself from looking at the words over and over.
She looked back at Vinny’s smiling face. ‘What do you think I should do?’ she asked.
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer from her dead husband. Letting her eyes linger on his face a moment longer, she eventually turned away and left the room, closing the door behind her. As she approached the stairs, the doorbell rang. Pat ran to answer it. Goosebumps skittered across Ellen’s skin when she heard Jim O’Dwyer’s voice.
She stood for a moment, looking down at him. He looked up, smiling when his eyes locked with hers. She walked down to meet him, giddy at the prospect of an evening with him.
Her whole body tingled as he walked forward to greet her. She was grinning like a fool, but she didn’t care. He was grinning, too. Like a pair of besotted teenagers, instead of two middle-aged people about to head out for a quiet drink.
He held her shoulders, leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
‘You look gorgeous,’ he said.
She felt suddenly shy. As she searched her brain for something to say, something low-key but vaguely amusing, her phone, in the pocket of her jeans, started buzzing.
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, stepping back from him. ‘I’ll just get this.’
It was a number she didn’t recognise. Frowning slightly, she pressed the Answer button and held the phone to her ear.
‘DI Kelly? Martine Reynolds here. Evening Star. I’d like your reaction to a story we’re running later this week. A local woman is being terrorised by her violent ex-partner. She claims the police – your team, in particular – are doing nothing to protect her. Would you like to comment?’
Martine Reynolds. Muck-raking local hack with about as much integrity as your average psychopath. Ellen hung up and turned to Jim.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have to deal with this.’
The meeting took place in a hotel room. The Novotel in Greenwich. They’d arranged to meet at five pm. Nathan closed the office early and drove her to Greenwich, making slow progress through the thick rush-hour traffic.
The journey from Lewisham took half an hour. Plenty of time for her to think about what she was doing and to wish she’d never agreed to it. She tried to tell Nathan how she felt but he wouldn’t listen, kept telling her she had no choice. It was the only way to stop things getting any worse.
The journalist was waiting for them in the hotel foyer. Tall, thin and blonde with over-tanned skin and a hard face. Chloe didn’t like her. If she’d been alone, she didn’t think she’d have stayed, but Nathan was beside her, shaking hands with the journalist and saying how good it was that she was doing this for them.
Before Chloe knew it, they were in a lift, travelling up the hotel to a beige room.
‘You ready to begin?’ Martine asked, pulling a small digital recorder from her bag.
Chloe glanced at Nathan, who nodded. She swallowed. ‘You really think this will work?’
‘It’s the only way,’ Martine said. She spoke gently and slowly, like she was conversing with a stupid child. Chloe wasn’t fooled for a second. The journalist was a cow, the sort of cold, opinionated woman that Chloe did her best to avoid most of the time.
‘It’s just …’ Chloe could hear the wobble in her own voice and hated herself for it. Knew the other woman would hear it too, and use Chloe’s weakness against her.
‘I can’t help thinking,’ she continued. ‘What if it’s not Ricky?’
Nathan sat beside her. The bed sagged under his weight, the movement making her feel sick.
‘We’ve already spoken about this,’ Nathan said. ‘Who else could it be? You need to show him you’re not scared of him. You can do that, Chloe. I know you can.’
‘We can use a false name, if you want,’ Martine said. ‘The focus of this piece is solely on the failings of the police. No need at all for me to mention you by name.’
Chloe wondered why she hadn’t thought of that herself. She tried to remember if Nathan had already suggested it, but so much was a fog these days. Remembering anything at all was difficult. It was the stress. She knew that. Whenever she got stressed out, her mind started to misbehave. Like it was running on a low battery.
‘What name would you like me to use instead?’ the journalist asked.
Ivy. The name popped into her head. As a little girl, she’d always wished she was called Ivy. There was a time she’d tried to convince her parents and everyone else to use that name instead of Chloe. Funny how she’d forgotten about that.
Except that was a long time ago. She didn’t want to be Ivy anymore.
‘Let’s use my real name,’ she said. ‘If I really want to send a message to Ricky, that’s the best way to do it, isn’t it?’
The way the journalist and Nathan smiled at her told her she’d made the right decision.
‘Steve, the photographer, will be here soon,’ Martine said. ‘We’ll get some really good shots of you to go with the piece. Make sure the police know they’re dealing with someone who won’t be messed around.’
‘And Ricky,’ Chloe said.
‘Of course.’ Martine nodded, but Chloe could see she wasn’t paying attention. She was fiddling with the recorder, testing it worked before placing it on the table in front of Chloe. A red light on the machine flashed on and off.
Recording in progress, Chloe thought. Made her feel like she was someone special. Maybe they were both right. Maybe she had no choice.
Martine sat back in her chair and smiled at Chloe.
‘Ready to begin? Let’s see if we can persuade the police to do their job properly and catch this fucker before he can do any real harm.’
Chloe hated swearing, particularly in women, but she did her best to smile and not show her true feelings. Three years with Ricky had made her something of an expert at hiding how she really felt.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘What do you need to know?’
* * *
Afterwards, Nathan drove her home. They were nearly at Hither Green when he suggested they stop off for something to eat.
‘We could go to the Italian place in Lee,’ he said. ‘My treat. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.’
Starving was stretching it, she thought. He had enough fat across his middle to last several weeks without food. She didn’t feel like going to a restaurant. The whole encounter with the journalist had left her feeling dirty. Like she’d done something she shouldn’t have. Sharing such personal information with a complete stranger, it was horrible. She wanted to be at home, soaking in a deep, warm bath and pretending this evening had never happened.
Except going home meant being alone and she didn’t think she could bear that either. Briefly, she wondered about asking Nathan if she could sleep at his. Just for one night. But she was afraid he’d read it the wrong way, think she was implying something different. And if he thought that, then things would get awkward between them.
He wasn’t interested. She knew that because she knew men. Knew how they acted when they liked a woman. Nathan never acted that way. Never showed the slightest bit of interest in being anything except a friend. She knew why, of course. Nathan had principles. A man like Nathan, a good and moral man, what on earth would he ever want with someone like her? Because Nathan knew the truth. Knew what sort of a woman she really was.
She’d told him the first time they’d ever met. At the little house on Nightingale Grove where she now lived. It had all come out. He’d asked about references from her previous landlord and when she started to explain, she’d found herself telling him the whole story. Words tumbling over each other as she raced through every last, sordid detail. And afterwards, when she’d finally stopped speaking and crying, he’d pulled a blue silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to her.
‘Sounds like you could use a friend.’ That was all he said. Never mentioned a word of what she’d told him then or any time after that.
Which was why now, when he asked if she’d like to go for a meal, she smiled and said what a good idea it was.
‘But only if you let me pay,’ she said. ‘It’s the least I can do.’
At the restaurant, she ate little and drank more wine than she would normally. They talked about everything and nothing. By the end of it she was exhausted, but also relaxed. It was a long time since she’d felt like this.
Fifteen minutes later, when Nathan pulled up outside her house and asked if she’d like him to sleep on the couch, she was able to smile and tell him truthfully, yes, that would be great.
The counsellor’s office was in a bright glass annexe at the back of Lewisham Hospital. From the waiting room, Ellen was able to look out across Ladywell Fields. She supposed all this light and green views was meant to make the clients feel better about themselves. If that was the case, it didn’t work.
She arrived early, hoping to get in and out before ten am. The big announcement at work was scheduled for ten-fifteen. Ellen didn’t want to be late. Luckily, Briony Murray, Ellen’s perky antipodean shrink, didn’t believe in not starting on time.
At the dot of nine o’clock the door to Briony’s office opened and the counsellor was there, smiling and inviting Ellen to come in. Inside, the two women sat in their usual positions, facing each other on two of the low, pale yellow sofas by the window.
‘So,’ Briony began. ‘How have you been?’
‘Good,’ Ellen said. ‘I think. Yes. It’s been a good week. Well, work’s been a pain in the backside but apart from that, everything’s fine.’
Briony had blue eyes, the sort of blue that reminded Ellen of Japanese willow pattern. Blue eyes, clear skin and cropped blonde hair. Ellen didn’t know exactly how old the counsellor was, but guessed she was somewhere in her thirties. Ellen wondered how someone that young got to be so wise.
‘Well,’ Ellen said slowly. ‘I’ve been seeing quite a bit of Jim. Which is, you know, it’s going well. I like him.’
She thought about last night. He’d been so good. Waited patiently while Ellen spoke on the phone. First, to Chief Superintendent Paul Nichols, then Jamala Nnamani, the station’s press officer. Trying to work out what angle the story would take so the station could prepare itself to deal with the inevitable backlash.
Briony smiled. ‘You’ve been telling me that for the past three weeks. Glad to hear it’s still going well. Last week, you mentioned feeling guilty. Do you want to talk about that a little more this morning?’
‘It’s normal, isn’t it?’ Ellen said. ‘Of course I’m going to feel guilty if I start seeing someone else. Especially if I start to like them.’
‘Is it normal?’
‘Yes,’ Ellen said. ‘I mean, who wouldn’t feel like that? I married Vinny. I made a promise to him and myself that I’d spend the rest of my life with him. And it’s breaking that promise if I fall for someone else the minute Vinny’s gone.’
‘But it’s not like that,’ Briony said. ‘Is it?’
‘You mean because it’s nearly five years?’ Ellen asked. ‘You think that makes it okay? Well it doesn’t. No matter what you say, Briony, it still feels like I’m being unfaithful to him. And what about Pat and Eilish? They think I’ve forgotten all about Vinny and I’m going to marry Jim and have more kids with him. What sort of mother does that make me if they’re going around thinking things like that? I’m selfish. There. I’ve said it. A selfish, stupid woman who can’t wait to rip her clothes off for the first guy who comes along and shows a bit of interest in her.’
‘Wow,’ Briony said. ‘He makes you feel like ripping your clothes off? I’d like to meet this guy. He sounds pretty hot.’
Ellen groaned. How did this happen every time? She hadn’t even known that’s what she thought. Well, the bit about ripping her clothes off, maybe. But the rest of it. All that self-pitying guilt. Where the hell had that come from? She knew – knew – the last thing – the very last thing – Vinny would have wanted was for her to give up on her life. He’d be happy she met someone else. Just as she would have wanted that for him. So what the bloody hell was wrong with her?
‘I just seem to make everything so complicated,’ she said quietly. ‘Why is that?’
Briony reached across the low coffee table and patted Ellen’s knee. ‘Complicated makes us interesting, Ellen. It only becomes a problem if you try to suppress those feelings instead of dealing with them. That’s why I’m here. To help you look deep inside yourself and not be afraid of what you see.’
It sounded reassuring. It was reassuring. Somewhat. Until Ellen remembered the reason she’d been referred to counselling in the first place. For killing a man. Ellen knew that if she looked too deep inside herself, she would find something that scared the living shit out of her.
* * *
It was a ten-minute walk from the hospital to Lewisham police station. Ellen walked it in five, pushing her way through the crowded street market and running the final stretch until she reached the imposing white building where she worked. Europe’s largest police station, slap-bang in the middle of Lewisham, recently named the most dangerous place to live in the UK. Not a surprise to Ellen or any of her colleagues, who day by day felt they were on the losing side of the war against crime.
Instead of taking the lift to her office on the third floor, Ellen went straight to Room 1.10, the large meeting room on the first floor where Chief Superintendent Paul Nichols had scheduled his meeting.
All four of Ellen’s immediate team were already there, along with a fair scattering of other officers from across CID. The chairs in the room had been laid out conference-style and Ellen’s team sat in a neat row at the back. She slid in beside Abby Roberts, said hello and asked about the latest rumours on Nichols’ announcement. She was interrupted by Raj Patel, leaning across Abby to get Ellen’s attention.
‘Star’s due out at eleven,’ Raj said. ‘I’ve asked Malcolm to grab a copy the moment it hits the shelves.’
Ellen nodded. ‘Good. What do you think Chloe’s playing at?’
‘She wants to be taken seriously,’ Raj said. ‘Part of me doesn’t blame her. The way she sees it, we’ve done nothing to protect her.’
‘Until the other night we had nothing to go on,’ Ellen said. ‘The attack in her house has changed things. But she already knows that, so why speak to the press?’
Before Raj could answer, the door swung open and Nichols strode to the lectern. He stood for a moment, surveying the room with obvious disdain as he waited for the chattering to die down. His gaze moved around the room, landed on Ellen and slid across to Abby. Briefly, so brief Ellen was certain no one else saw it, Nichols’ eyes dropped to Abby’s chest before he lifted his head and moved on to the rest of the room.
The room grew quiet. Nichols cleared his throat – delicately – and began.
‘Thank you for joining me this morning at such short notice. I know we’re all busy, so I’m not planning to keep any of you longer than is necessary. However, I felt it was important to bring you together this morning to share some very exciting news. Yesterday afternoon we completed the recruitment process for a new Detective Chief Inspector.’
Nichols paused for dramatic effect, did something with his face that might have been a smile, and continued.
‘As you all know, our esteemed colleague Detective Chief Inspector Edward Baxter took early retirement this year due to ill health. The task of finding a suitable replacement has taken time. It has been imperative to choose the right individual to lead CID through these turbulent times of spending reviews and rising crime. We received many applications’ – his eyes slid back momentarily to Ellen – ‘and choosing the best candidate from a selection of such high-calibre individuals was a challenge.
‘But I’m delighted to announce we have made our decision and, with no further delay, let me please introduce the newest addition to our CID team…’
Nichols paused again and turned his attention to the door. Along with every other person in the room, Ellen watched in silence as a tall, blonde woman walked in and joined Nichols at the lectern.
Like Nichols, the woman looked around the room at the men and women gathered there. Unlike Nichols, when she reached Ellen, her face softened and she smiled. Ellen might have smiled back. She wasn’t sure. The shock of recognising her new boss had taken over everything else.
Nichols was a tall man but, standing alongside him, the woman was just as tall. This was partly due to the red stilettos she wore. Ellen could just see the toes peeking out beneath her immaculately cut, flared black trousers. The shoes, Ellen knew because she’d been told this before, were Vivienne Westwood.
‘Hello,’ the woman said. ‘My name is DCI Geraldine Cox. I’m very pleased to meet you all.’
Nathan knew he’d never survive another night on the sofa. He ached all over, neck so stiff it was agony to move his head. It had been worth it, though. Lying there all night, knowing she was sleeping so close by. He could hear her breathing, the gentle sound of it soothing him on the lumpy, uncomfortable sofa. Besides, he was used to getting by without much sleep.
Soon after it started to get bright he had an idea. A surprise for her. A burglar alarm. He’d sort it today. No arguments. Get one of those fancy ones that connected to the police station. If that didn’t show her how much he was willing to do for her, he didn’t know what would.
He got up early – easy enough when he hadn’t actually been sleeping – and prepared breakfast for them both. Thought about going out to the garden, looking for a flower to put on the table, but realised in time that she might misinterpret the gesture. Worse, it might make her think of the flowers that were left out for her at night. He definitely didn’t want her thinking that. The whole point of him being here was to make her feel better, not worse.
He used up all the bacon in her fridge and made a cheese and onion omelette to go with it. When it was all ready, he was starving, but he didn’t want to start without her. He went and knocked on her bedroom door. Pushed it open when there was no answer, stood for a moment, watching her sleep. She hadn’t mentioned her head yesterday and he hoped it had stopped hurting. He hated to think of it.
She stirred, but didn’t wake. He walked over to the bed, shook her shoulder gently and stepped back so she wouldn’t think he was standing too close.
She looked a bit surprised to see him, but she got over that. Sat up, pulling the quilt up so it covered her entire body. Not necessary because she was wearing pyjamas, but he liked what it said about her that she’d do that.
‘I’ve made you breakfast,’ he said.
She smiled and his heart soared.
‘Breakfast?’ She giggled. ‘I never eat breakfast, silly. There’s never enough time.’
‘Well there is this morning,’ he said. ‘We can go in late. A good breakfast sets you up for the day. That’s what my mum always said and she was right.’
He left then, giving her the privacy to get dressed and ready without him in the room with her. Plenty of time for that later.
* * *
Ellen was pretty sure she liked Geraldine Cox. They’d worked together on a case not so long ago. Cox had helped Ellen track down a missing child. They’d worked well together and Ellen had come to think of Cox as a friend of sorts. Even still… she wasn’t sure how she felt having Cox as her boss.
It was the surprise element that most annoyed her. Maybe once she got over that, she’d feel better about things. Or when she found out why Ger hadn’t called, let her know in advance what today’s big announcement was all about. Failing that, it wouldn’t have killed Ger to have at least mentioned she was in the running for the job. They’d only spoken a few weeks ago. Ger had called ‘for a chat’. Now, Ellen suspected the purpose of the call was less ‘chat’ and more fishing expedition.
Back in the open-plan office, everyone was tipping in with their first impressions of their new boss. Arrogant. Hot. A ball-breaker. Cold bitch…
‘Enough.’ Ellen held up her hand, stopping the stream of invective before it got any worse.
‘She’s a good copper,’ Ellen said. ‘And that’s all that matters. Calling her a cold bitch is the sort of sexist nonsense I thought you lot had got over since you’ve dragged your macho arses into the twenty-first century. Malcolm.’ She turned to short and chubby Malcolm McDonald. ‘If I ever again hear you refer to any female officer as a cold bitch, you’ll be out of here and back in uniform quicker than you can shove another one of those disgusting bloody pasties down that mouth of yours. Got that?’
Malcolm blushed, shoved the pastie under a pile of paper and muttered an apology. Ellen would have said more, but she was distracted by what was on her desk. True to his word, Raj had got his hands on an early copy of today’s EveningStar. It sat faceup on Ellen’s desk. Chloe Dunbar’s frightened face staring up at her from the front page. Steeling herself against the inevitable hysterical prose, Ellen picked up the paper and started reading.
Raj pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. ‘What do you think?’
Ellen looked back at the newspaper, scanning the story again.
‘It happened last Tuesday night,’ Chloe said. ‘Someone was in the house. I woke up and heard him walking around downstairs. I was terrified. I knew it was him, you see.’
‘My ex. He’s been following me for months. Stalking, I suppose you’d call it.’
‘And you’ve reported it to the police?’
When I ask this question, Chloe’s eyes fill with tears.
‘I know it’s difficult,’ I say. ‘But it’s important people know about this, Chloe. Just think how many other people are being let down bythose being paid to protect us.’
‘The police won’t do anything,’ she says. ‘Of course I’ve reported it but they don’t take it seriously. Oh they pretended. Even sent a detective around at one point. For all the good he did.’
‘DC Patel. He was nice enough, I suppose. Just didn’t really help me.’
For the readers’ benefit, DC Raj Patel works in a team led by formerly disgraced Detective Inspector Ellen Kelly, now back in her job as if nothing ever happened.
‘Let’s go back to Tuesday night,’ I say.
‘I hid in the bathroom,’ she says. ‘I could hear him. Coming up the stairs. I was so scared, Martine. You have no idea.’
‘What happened next?’
‘I thought he was going to kill me,’ Chloe whispers. ‘So I ran. But he came after me. I tried to get out of the house but I couldn’t get the door open.’
Her voice trails off and I have to encourage her to keep going. She’s not finding this easy.
‘He hit me, knocked me out and left me for dead. I don’t know how long I lay there, unconscious. And I don’t know what he did to me while I was lying there.’
She falls silent and, for a moment, I am silent too. Trying to imagine the terror she must have felt.
‘You said your ex,’ I say then. ‘You’re sure it was him?’
She nods her head. ‘I’ve told them. But they won’t do anything tostop him. That’s why I’m speaking to you. I don’t know what else I can do. I know he’ll come back, you see. And the next time, I won’t be so lucky.’
‘He didn’t kill her,’ Ellen said.
‘Maybe killing her’s not what he wants,’ Raj said. ‘If she’s dead, it’s all over. She woke up. That hasn’t happened before. I think he hit her because he didn’t want her to see him.’
‘Which means it’s someone she knows,’ Ellen said. ‘But not the ex?’
‘We’ve already questioned him,’ Raj said. ‘He has an alibi for Tuesday night. He was out drinking with a group of friends. Pub first, then on to a club. Didn’t leave there until 4am. According to the bouncers, he was too pissed to stand up at that point.’
‘But Chloe doesn’t believe that?’ Ellen asked.
‘I can understand why,’ Raj said. ‘If she believes it’s her ex doing this, then at least she can make some sense of what’s happening. It must be even more terrifying to think she’s being targeted by a complete stranger.’
Ellen got that. Crime victims often wanted to find meaning in what had happened to them. The problem was, sometimes there was no meaning. Other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘And we’ve no other suspects?’ Ellen asked.
Raj shook his head. ‘She works in an estate agent’s. Meets a lot of different people every day. We’ve interviewed her two colleagues. Both male. Haven’t discounted them, but there’s nothing to indicate either of them are behind this. And I’ve gone through a list of clients she’s dealt with over the last four months. We’re interviewing everyone but haven’t found anything so far.’
‘Reynolds has been clever,’ Ellen said. ‘Chloe comes across as very plausible while we seem utterly incompetent.’
She ran through what she knew about Chloe Dunbar. Twenty-five-year-old single woman, living on her own in Hither Green. She’d been in several times over the last few months, complaining that someone had been breaking into her house at night-time while she slept. With no evidence of a break-in and no sign that anything had been taken from her home, the case had been a low priority. Until last week, when Chloe was attacked in her house and knocked unconscious.
‘She didn’t mention the other stuff,’ Raj said. ‘Why’s that, do you think?’
‘Maybe Martine left it out on purpose,’ Ellen said. ‘She kept it simple, easier for people to relate to Chloe that way. And easier for us to spot any potential nutters who read the story and get in touch claiming the same thing’s happening to them.’
‘Maybe.’ Raj didn’t sound convinced. ‘Anyway, Chloe’s coming in later. I can ask her myself, I guess.’
‘Good.’ Ellen looked at the paper again. ‘You know this is serious, right? She could be in real danger.’
‘I’ll take care of it,’ Raj said.
In the early afternoon, Ellen got a call from the front desk. A woman was downstairs, asking to see Ellen; insisted no one else would do.
‘Who is she?’ Ellen asked.
‘Says her name’s Monica Telford,’ the desk sergeant said.
Ellen looked regretfully at the pile of files on her desk, waiting to be dealt with. She’d cleared the next few hours to work through them and could do without this. But she recognised the name and her sense of duty wouldn’t allow her to pass this to someone else.
‘Tell her I’ll be right down,’ she said.
Unusually, there was only one person in the reception area when Ellen went downstairs. A tall, attractive woman with long dark hair wearing a navy-blue trench coat and a red silk scarf with a pretty butterfly pattern. Monica Telford. A local artist Ellen had met at an exhibition a few months ago. She’d liked Monica’s work and ended up buying one of her paintings.
When Monica saw Ellen, she stood up and smiled.
‘Ellen. Thank you so much for seeing me.’
At the exhibition, Ellen and Monica had only chatted briefly. Ellen couldn’t even recall telling Monica she was a copper. It was flattering, she supposed, to think she’d made a lasting impression. Flattering or not, Ellen wasn’t about to let this drag on for too long.
‘What can I do for you?’ she asked.
Monica looked around the waiting area, as if she was scared of being overheard.
‘Is there somewhere more private we could go?’ she asked.
Ellen nodded. ‘Sure. Follow me.’
* * *
‘Someone’s watching me.’
Ellen waited, dreading what came next.
‘I know it sounds crazy,’ Monica said. ‘And I probably wouldn’t have come in at all, if I’m honest with you. It was only when I saw that piece in the Star. Maybe you haven’t had a chance to see it yet? There’s this woman…’
Ellen held a hand up. ‘I’ve seen it.’
‘Of course,’ Monica said. ‘Sorry. Oh God, and you’re going to think I’m some sad sap who’s making all of this up because I’ve read that? Shit. I should have realised that’s what you’d think.’
‘I don’t think anything yet,’ Ellen said. ‘Because you haven’t told me anything.’
Monica smiled. ‘I haven’t, have I? I’m making a right mess of this. Okay. I’ll start again.’
The story she told closely echoed what Ellen already knew about Chloe Dunbar, repeated in today’s paper for the rest of the world. For the last few months, Monica thought someone was watching her.
‘Just a feeling at first,’ she said. ‘Like, I’d be walking down a street, or in the park, and I’d think someone was following me. But whenever I looked around, there was no one there. At least, not anyone I recognised.
‘Then I started to notice things around the house. Stuff started moving. Oh, don’t look at me like I’m a crazy woman. I don’t mean moving around by themselves. Being moved. By someone else.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
By now, Ellen was going through the motions. Monica’s account was too similar to Chloe’s to be taken seriously.
‘The cushions in the sitting room,’ Monica said. ‘I arrange them in a very careful way. You haven’t seen my house but if you did, you’d know what I mean. I care a lot about how things look. I’ve organised my house just the way I like it. Everything perfectly beautiful and exactly in its right place. When something’s moved, I notice. Believe me.’
Ellen thought of her own child-friendly home, nothing where it was meant to be, and felt a pang of envy. It was a constant struggle to rein in her desire for neatness and order in the face of her children’s boundless enthusiasm for chaos and mess.
‘My kitchen, too,’ Monica said. ‘A bag of pasta put into the wrong cupboard, the salt cellar in the fridge. That sort of thing. And then this morning, something else. Something that’s really, properly freaked me out.’
Monica leaned forward in her chair, making sure she had Ellen’s full attention. She looked excited. Almost like she was enjoying this.
‘He left me something,’ Monica said. ‘A cup of tea and a flower. A rose. They were on the kitchen worktop when I came downstairs this morning. The tea was still warm.’ She shivered. ‘Like he’d only just left.’
In her mind, Ellen was already running back through Chloe’s newspaper interview, going over what she remembered word for word. Making sure she hadn’t missed it. Even though she already knew.
There was one detail Martine Reynolds had left out of the piece. Something no one could possibly know about unless they’d been told about it. Chloe’s stalker had a unique MO. Every morning after he’d been in the house, Chloe came downstairs to find a cup of tea on her worktop. Beside it, a single rose, wrapped in black crêpe paper.
* * *
‘Why, Chloe?’ Raj asked. ‘It was such a stupid thing to do. I told you, don’t talk to the press whatever you do. What if Ricky sees it? Do you have any idea how he’ll react when he reads this? I’ve already told you, he wasn’t the person who broke into your home and attacked you. It wasn’t him.’
Raj looked more upset than angry and she felt bad about that. Everything he said made sense and she couldn’t understand now why she’d agreed so easily to the interview.
‘It was Nathan’s idea,’ she said. ‘The journalist is a friend of his. He said it would make a statement to Ricky and the police.’
‘It’s made a statement all right,’ Raj said. ‘Jesus, Chloe. If I was your ex and you accused me of something like this, I wouldn’t be too happy. From what you’ve told me about Ricky, he doesn’t sound like the sort of bloke who’ll take kindly to something like this.’
She wanted him to stop. If he didn’t stop, she’d start crying again, and she was so tired of being upset the whole time. These last few days, she’d been feeling a bit better. There’d been no more ‘incidents’ since the story in the paper and she’d started to hope that maybe it was all over.
‘I’m sorry.’ Her voice wobbled and Raj patted her hand, told her it was okay, but she knew it wasn’t. She’d been stupid. Raj was right.
They were sitting in the small kitchen at the back of the estate agency where she worked. She could see Nathan getting up from his desk – again – and waddling over.
‘Everything okay?’ he asked.
‘Fine,’ Raj said before Chloe had a chance to answer. ‘Just a few more questions and then I wouldn’t mind a word with you, Mr Collier.’
‘Of course,’ Nathan said. ‘But before we do that, can I get anyone a cuppa?’
Chloe and Raj both shook their heads, then had to wait while Nathan made a big deal of getting a drink for himself.
Chloe usually made the teas and coffees and she wondered if Nathan was annoyed at having to do it himself. Or whether he was only getting the drink so he could earwig on their conversation. If that was the case, he was out of luck. Raj didn’t say a word the whole time Nathan was in the kitchen. Eventually, Nathan seemed to work out he wasn’t wanted and left.
‘Why do you need to speak to Nathan?’ Chloe asked. ‘You don’t think he could have anything to do with this, do you?’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ Raj said. ‘But I have to keep an open mind. Until we find out who broke into your house last week, everyone is a potential suspect.’
‘It’s so hard to think straight,’ Chloe said, needing to explain. ‘I don’t know who I can trust. You’ve been really kind but it’s not helping, is it? If it’s not Ricky doing this to me, then that’s worse, in a way. Because then it could be anyone and I don’t understand why someone would want to hurt me or freak me out like this.’
‘We’ll find them,’ Raj said. ‘You’ve got to believe that. But speaking to this journalist, that’s not going to help. I don’t want you doing anything like that again, okay?’
She nodded. She hadn’t liked the woman anyway.
‘Do you really think you’ll find him?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Raj said. ‘Of course.’
„Ich bin wirklich begeistert. Auch die Möglichkeit des zusätzlichen eReaders im Abo finde ich persönlich toll.”
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