© 2019 Keith Wright. All rights reserved. Privacy Notice.

Website by Sentient Ink. All original cover art by Terry Pastor.

Addressed To Kill

Following the successful re-imagining of the first two books, the third novel in the acclaimed Inspector Stark series is coming soon, as Christmas 1987 comes to Christmas 2019. Here, you can read the first three chapters free of charge. Buy Now on Amazon Kindle and Paperback.

1

 

‘The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:

The presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.’

                                                                             

                                                                       Burton Hills

 

 

23rd December - Christmas 1987.

 

Every one of us have felt it. Every man and every woman; since the origins of mankind, have feared the ultimate evil; the unforgiving demon, uninhibited and unceasing in their malevolence, and who, for whatever reason, turn their attention towards us. We lie alone at night in the darkness, and hear a scratch, or a tapping, or a curtain flapping, and feel the terror of impending doom. He is here. He is here to violate and kill without mercy. The epitome of this demon is the criminal psychopath; and many live among us.

  We know that such people exist in movies, and documentaries, but they are removed from us; almost celebrity like, in their isolation. We are protected from them by the screen of our television sets, much like those psychopaths who are incarcerated and separated by a screen, from their visitors.  They don’t live near us, though, do they? We don’t rub shoulders with them on public transport, or in the bar or in the shops or coffee houses, do we? They are never going to encroach upon our cosy world, are they?

  The snag, is that there are thousands of these lost souls knocking around our streets, 350,000 psychopaths in the UK alone, and it depends how well they are being medicated, if at all, or where they are on their journey as a criminal psychopath, as to whether their psychosis is put into action. Not all psychopaths become criminal, of course. The true criminal psychopath cannot be cured; only caged. These tortured souls are ill, of course, but they’re not as ill as you will be if you get caught in their mesh of nonsense and fantasy. For Christ’s sake don’t try to hug it out of them, or try to ‘understand’ them, unless you are a top-level psychiatrist, or they will destroy you, and, if they can, destroy your loved ones for good measure.

  The man standing across the road watching the flat was a criminal psychopath; his hands were down the front of his grey track suit bottoms and weren’t there merely for warmth. It hadn’t snowed yet, but it was threatening to, on this winter’s night; the eve of Christmas Eve.

  He wore two pairs of tracksuit bottoms and a thick ex-army camouflage coat, snood, and baseball cap. His gloves were in his coat pocket whilst his hands were busy. He was in the shadow of the houses opposite, out of sight. Regardless, from a distance he looked like any other person; he would nod and smile, and exchange pleasantries if forced. There was nothing about his outward appearance that indicated he was a perverted, narcissistic, psychopathic, sadist; with a twist of misogyny, for good measure.

  The next phase for the savage, was all part of the build-up for him. All part of savouring his little project. Mandy was his project now. He had identified her. Followed her. Followed her boyfriend. Sat next to them in the pub; observed her from afar; it had been going on for some days. It was getting into the end game now. His plans and fantasies were all heading in one direction; to the vagina of Mandy Towlson. The vagina being the symbol of everything he hated - women. Hers would be clean and well looked after. Some of the older women and pensioners he had previously attacked were less fussy about theirs, and they stunk to fucking high heaven; but hers wouldn’t be. Hers was still alive. Still her beacon of shining light, for all the pathetic foolish young men, that would do anything to get at it, whilst locking horns with their rivals in the herd. Vying to mate with her like baboons on heat. The caveman-like drive for a young man to implant his seed in any female he possibly can, is a similar impulse to the one that drove the killer. It is just slightly, easier for a young man to control a DNA and hormonal imbalance that is designed by nature to create procreation and continuation of the species.

  He didn’t need to do any song and dance routine, to win her favour. He would take her, because he could. He felt that the urge to kill was quite strong with this one. He had humiliated and caused pain on his other victims and done everything but the final control; the decision to give or take life. He was growing, in his warped mind, he was about to graduate, whether it was Mandy, or the next one, who knew? He knew that while ever he did not kill, the odds of him being caught were lessened. But he was not fully satiated. Most of the old women he had abused never even bothered reporting it. Too proud. Too ashamed. And so, they should be. Making out they were equal to men; giving their orders and prancing around like it was them who gave their ‘consent’ to allow men to touch them. Thank you so much for the favour of allowing us to touch your wrinkly, ugly old labia.

  The man was a dangerous psychopath, with a soupcon of added nastiness, and Mandy was in mortal danger, if she did but know it.

 He watched the flat. There was movement; silhouetted figures.  He saw the door open. Mandy and Barbara left the flat together. They were laughing, light-hearted, excited about going shopping for their eagerly anticipated Christmas party later that night.

  Mandy was a warm, kind, individual who loved Christmas, loved people, and had a huge energy for life and the years ahead; for which she had many hopes and aspirations.

  He watched them get into Mandy’s car. It was the same car that had enabled him to get a copy of her door key cut. When he was on his nightly surveillance of her, a couple of nights ago, he noticed that she had left the driver’s door unlocked; so in he went, and there were the door keys; jackpot. Barbara always left the door on the latch and Mandy had left her flat door keys in the pocket of the car door. It had cost him ten quid to get two keys cut at the Motorway services. He had to do two as he wasn’t certain which of the bunch was the door key. He was back within fifty minutes and replaced them. He needn’t have rushed. The keys remained in there all night.

  As soon as Mandy’s car pulled away, he strolled purposefully across the road, putting his gloves on. 

  The first key fitted perfectly, and he was inside. The warmth of the flat enveloped him. He stopped and drew in a large breath to smell the flat, to smell her essence. Her life. He wiped his feet on the ‘Welcome’ mat. He took his time, moving slowly from room to room, casually observing the lay-out and seeing what might be of interest, occasionally picking items up to scrutinise. The living room was adorned with decorations and a sad looking Christmas tree was brought to life by twinkling lights.

  He found her bedroom and paid attention to her knickers, which upon discovery, prompted him to take his penis out and start to masturbate with the knickers in his hand, periodically switching them. Within a couple of minutes, in his heightened state, he ejaculated into a frilly pair, and wrapped them in another larger pair, before putting them in his pocket for later.  

  He moved a few things in her room, just slightly, to mess with her head, he picked up a jewellery box from her drawers and placed it on the bedside table. He removed a tiny box from his pocket and a small tube.  He took out a razor blade and glued it to the base so that the tiniest lip of the blade was protruding. He grinned. This is going to freak her out completely, and hopefully draw a bit of blood.

He tilted the mirror slightly, that sort of thing. Wouldn’t it be great if she sensed someone had been in her flat? That would be excellent.

 He couldn’t wait to have her. Couldn’t wait to hear her scream and beg for his clemency. Would he allow her to live? Maybe. Maybe not.

  The man was a complete psycho, set on a course from which there would be no way back. Mandy did not even know of his existence, but sadly, she would, very soon.

 

*

 

The police bar at Hucknall was full of customers, despite it being only midday. Why? Because today was the, much-anticipated, CID ‘Christmas Do.’

  Detective Inspector David Stark stood at the corner of the bar and heaved a sigh, which was inaudible due to the excited chattering from the detectives.  In his forties, he was handsome, but a little worn, greying at the temples, with laughter lines that seemed to promote the twinkle in his eye. It was going to be a long one. A 12midday start with a potential 2am finish. Fourteen hours of drinking and frivolity. It was completely bonkers, and to some extent, dangerous. At various stages of proceedings at the annual event, there was usually the odd scuffle, some tears, some damage, some sex and much laughter. Stark was not a big drinker, he’d had his moments when he was younger, and shared the sense of excitement, of course, but now it was something of a trial, particularly being the most senior officer attending. He needed eyes in the back of his head to nip in the bud anything that went beyond the bounds of high spiritedness. It would be unheard of, for him to miss this occasion, however. It was the one day of the year that the detectives and others, by special invitation, really let their hair down. They arranged cover for their patch by other detectives, so that their subsequent incapacitation would not impact on public safety. The event tended to form a similar pattern: Start at the police station bar for drinky-poos and potential hi-jinks, on to a well-known restaurant for Christmas dinner around 2pm and games or a quiz. Into town around 6pm for a tour of the more popular bars, ‘Yates’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘The Bell’ and onto the ‘Queen Elizabeth’; known as the ‘QE’, for a sweaty, raucous sing song. Thereafter, the agenda would look towards night clubs. There were many to choose from: Anabels, Isabellas, Madison, Zhivago’s, Astoria, and the infamous Ritzy’s notable for its ‘Grab-a granny’ night on a Wednesday. A decision on the venue had been deferred for the aficionado’s such as DC Ashley Stevens to sense-check his barometer of where the in-crowd was going to be. It needed to be on the night, he had insisted.

  The secret to enjoying yourself at this heady and hedonistic event was to try to pace yourself. One year a young guy started by doing the optics run at 12 midday and was tucked in bed with a bowl at the side of him, by 1.30pm. It was comparable to a stag night, without a groom. It was a one-off. The guys and gals had to put up with all sorts of shit and hassle all year, and so they were entitled to an opportunity to blow off steam.

  All of Stark’s team were there of course, as well as some police admin girls from far and wide; who had been badgering various detectives for an invite, for the weeks and months preceding it.

Ashley Stevens, complete with expensive suit and jewellery took a prominent place at the bar. He was a poseur, true, but in fairness, Ash did not have to work as a detective, knee deep in the filth of society. His father was a multi-millionaire, who had become so, by investing his redundancy money in a video shop; within a few months he had half a dozen shops, and now he had scores of shops all over the country. Ash enjoyed the private income that this gave him, but he had refused the offer to work for the family business. His heart lay in his detective work.

  Ash was talking to the younger detectives in his little circle. Steve Aston, new to the game, a vegetarian and a self-conscious, shy young man, who got good results, but struggled to adapt to the social scene that seemed to go together with CID.

  Cynthia Walker was a beautiful young woman of mixed-race; the aide to CID, trying to earn her stripes and get a permanent place as a detective; she was tall and elegant with long fingernails and a worldly-wise smile which belied her tender years.

  ‘I think Ritzy’s tonight. It’s not a final decision, don’t hold me to it yet.’ Ash said. He’d been having this conversation for weeks, now, anticipating the big day, and now on the day itself, he was still weighing up the pros and cons. ‘Madison’s, can be better,’ he continued, ‘but not with thirty pissed up blokes, it’s better when there is just a handful of you.’

  ‘What are you basing your assessment on then, Ash?’ Cynthia asked with a knowing smile.

  ‘All sorts of things, why, what do you mean?’

  ‘Not just on the type of women, and the prospects of taking them home, then?’

  Steve smiled and Ash coughed. ‘Well, I suppose if you put it like that, yes, that seems to be the general Key Performance Indicator informing my professional opinion.’

  Cynthia went through the list for Ashley’s considered opinion: ‘Come on then, Oh Wise One, what’s your opinion on the clubs on offer tonight? Start with Annabel’s on Fletcher Gate.’

Steve Aston piped up. ‘What’s the point, we’ll end up at Ritzy’s anyway.’

  ‘Let him give us his wisdom, Steve, he is our mentor, we must learn from him.’

  Steve shrugged. It was all beyond him.

  ‘Annabel’s is too dark, too small, too few customers and too many fights.’

‘Isabella’s?’

 ‘Again, too small, not enough to go around and too many SNAF’S.’

SNAF was a term used by police officers at the time, which was a shortening of the acronym SNAFU which stood for the rather unkind: Sub Normal And Fucking Useless – SNAFU.

  ‘Zhivago’s?’

  ‘Too young.’

  ‘Astoria?’

  ‘Too far and too big, and we have to pay to get in.’

 ‘Madison’s, oh you’ve already told us about that, erm Rock City?’

  ‘Too niche.’

  ‘Too niche?’ Steve queried.

  ‘Yes, too many rock chic types for my liking.’

  ‘He’s more of a twin set and pearls type, aren’t you Ash?’ Cynthia mocked.

  ‘No, now come on Cynth, don’t be like that. I just like a lady that has a bit of class.’

  She smiled. ‘A bit of class who will drop her knickers on the first night.’

  ‘Of course! That’s a given, isn’t it?’

  On the periphery of the group, DC’s Charlie Carter and miserable Jim McIntyre were chatting to Detective Sergeant Nobby Clarke. The lovely DC Steph Dawson stood close to the circle but not in it, as she was more of a people watcher, and the conversation was hardly inspirational.

  ‘How’s the piles coming along, Charlie?’ Jim asked, his Scottish accent scarcely visible. He spoke in English most of the time but had a strange habit of speaking in a heavy Scottish accent when talking to fellow Scots. He wasn’t on his own. A lot of ex-pat Scots did it. Spoke perfect English until they met a fellow countryman and suddenly it was a feast of ‘och’ and ‘aye’ and ‘hen’ and the like. Jim dropping the Scottish dialect was helpful, as everyone could, at least, understand what the hell he was saying.

  ‘Not too bad today.’ Charlie grimaced.

  ‘What piles?’ Nobby asked.

  Jim explained. ‘Charlies got piles…’

  ‘Shush, keep your bloody voice, down!’ Charlie said sharply, ‘I don’t want half the bloody world knowing about my rectal imperfections!’

  Jim continued. ‘You must have noticed, Nobby, half the time, when we are on an enquiry and he is invited to sit down, he lets out an “Ouch, you bugger!” and then rubs his knee, to infer that his knee hurts, and that he is a brave policeman with some sort of war wound, rather than someone whose arse is on fire.’

 Nobby and Steph laughed. ‘So that’s what that is!’ Steph said.

  ‘No, I did actually hurt my knee battling with an armed robber, back in 76.’ Charlie insisted.

  Nobby grunted. ‘Yeah, of course you did Charlie.’

  ‘I did!’

  Nobby was a rugged guy, not a young man; late forties, and a face hewn from stone. He was an ex-soldier, in the parachute regiment, who did not suffer fools gladly. He had recently started a secret relationship with the blonde-haired beauty that was Detective Policewoman Stephanie Dawson. If discovered, as her sergeant, he would be forced to move to another team.  It wasn’t the done thing.

 

*

 

Mandy sat on her bedroom floor with a hairdryer in one hand and hairbrush in the other. Forensically examining her every move in the mirror as a sculptor might, whilst creating a masterpiece. Her intention was to make a masterpiece out of her straggly wet hair, switching from brush to brush, and from brush to hairspray; quicker than a Texan gunslinger told to “draw”.

  The mirror kept slipping forward. ‘What’s up with the bloody thing? It was fine yesterday.’ She said to no-one.

  She could hear Barbara in the next room busying herself in similar fashion. They had decided to let Barbara have the music on loud, as they had both tried to have music on in their individual rooms; but it didn’t synchronise, and one seemed half a second behind the other.

  It didn’t fully register at first, but she turned for a second look. Her knicker drawer was slightly ajar, and a pair of white frillies were protruding out by a couple of inches.

  ‘Barbara.’ She shouted.

  No reply, just the music, and the faint vibration of Barbara humming.

  ‘Barbara!’ Louder this time.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Have you been in my room?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Have you been…oh, come here will you?’

  Barbara appeared in the doorway in bra and knickers. Mandy was a little surprised by her boobs, which seemed much plumper than she had imagined.

  ‘Have you been in my room? It doesn’t matter if you have, but…’

  ‘No. I bloody haven’t. What would I want to come in your room for?’

  ‘I’m not accusing you. It’s just that I feel sure I didn’t leave my knickers sticking out like that, in the drawer, look.’

  ‘No. Honestly, Mandy, I haven’t been in. I would have told you if I had.’

  ‘Hang on. My jewellery box has been moved as well. It’s on my bedside table. I always keep it on the drawers. What the hell’s going on?’

  ‘Are you sure, Mandy?’

  ‘Of course, I’m sure. I’m not daft.’ She stood and opened her knicker drawer. ‘I’m sure there’s some missing.’

  ‘How can you tell out of all that bloody lot. There must be a thousand in there.’

  ‘Okay. This is freaking me out, Barbara. It’s not funny.’

  ‘It is a bit.’

  ‘It’s not. Unless you are playing a prank on me.’

  ‘Of course, I’m not. I wouldn’t do that to you.’

  ‘Well, I’m telling you that someone has been in my room and moved my stuff, then.’

  ‘They can’t have, Mandy. No-one else has a key for a start. You’ve got your keys and I’ve got mine. No-one has broken in. It’s hardly likely we’ve left a window open, in the middle of winter, they’ve not been open for weeks, or even months.’

  ‘Something is going on. I’m telling you. I know we all do daft things, but I know I haven’t moved my jewellery box.’  She stood and opened the onyx box.

  ‘Anything missing?’ Barbara asked.

  ‘No, but…’

  ‘There you are then. Do you think a burglar would break in and not take anything, but just move your jewellery box?’

  ‘No, of course not. But-’

  ‘But what? Don’t let it freak you out and spoil the party, for God’s sake.’

  ‘I won’t, but I’m bloody sure I haven’t moved anything, Barbara.’

  ‘Maybe the place is haunted.’

  ‘I want a rebate on the rent if it is.’  Mandy laughed.

  ‘Show me the ghost and I will give you one. Anyway, with your kind permission I would like to return to making myself beautiful.’

  ‘Good luck with that.’

  Mandy picked up the jewellery box. A razor blade stuck to the base slashed through her fingertip. She dropped the box to the floor, the contents spilling out.

  ‘Ouch. You bastard. Shit!’

  ‘What’s happened?’

  Blood started pumping from her finger and down her arm.

  ‘Here, watch the carpet!’ Barbara said.

Mandy ran into the bathroom and put her finger under the tap.  ‘Christ it’s sore.’

  ‘What caused it?’ Barbara asked.

  ‘There’s a fucking razor blade on the base. Are you telling me that’s me imagining things as well?’

  ‘What? A bloody razor blade. That’s odd.’

  ‘Odd? It’s more than odd, Barbara, it nearly took my pissing finger off.  What is going on? I’m scared.’

  Barbara rubbed her back. Tears had welled in Mandy’s eyes, from the pain and the increasing fear. ‘Could it be your ex, Patrick? He was pissed off when you split.’

  ‘No. Not Patrick. He hasn’t got a key anyway.’

  ‘Have you been to his house since you’ve been here? Could he have nicked one or got a spare cut?’

  ‘No. I don’t think so. Maybe once to get some bits.’

  ‘You’re always leaving your keys lying around, Mandy.’

  ‘I did nip next door for an hour to see Shirl.  No this is ridiculous, surely he wouldn’t.’

  ‘They say you never know a person until you split from them.’

  ‘Surely he wouldn’t do something as nasty as this.  Would he?’

  ‘Who knows?’

  ‘Will you get me a plaster, please?’

  ‘Sure. They’re in the kitchen.’

Barbara returned within the minute and placed the plaster on Mandy’s finger. 

  ‘That’s nice for the party.’

  ‘Could that be why he did it?’ Barbara asked.

  ‘We don’t know it’s him. Do we need to call the police?’

  ‘Can we just have the party first?’

  Mandy wiped a rogue tear away from her cheek. ‘Yes, but I’m worried, now. I daren’t touch anything. What if there are more hidden around? What if there is more to come? What else has he done?’

  Barbara hugged her.  ‘I can’t kiss you ‘cos of my lippy. It will be fine. Don’t let that idiot spoil things. I’ll knock his block off myself if I find out it’s him!’

 

*

 

  Hucknall Police Bar was ratcheting up a notch as the drinks flowed. Shouts of hooray! Came from near the door where the admin girls chatted, and plotted, and generally stared at the detectives they were going to target later. The cause of the jolly welcome was Jack, the station vicar. Each station had a local chaplain who was there if officers needed to chat about anything. Usually they were noticeable by their absence. Not Jack. Jack was like no vicar you have ever met.  He too was ex-army, a trooper and swore like one. He was a game guy and drunk like a fish. He always had his dog collar on, even when staggering home drunk of an evening, swearing at passers-by who took the mickey out of him, much to their amazement. This did not mean he was not a caring, understanding soul, but let’s say he was very down to earth. He used the station bar like a lot of the officers did, a place where he could be himself without having to stand on ceremony. A place to let the façade down and relax.

  Stark was grinning, as Jack took possession of his pint which was already waiting for him at the bar. Jack was not really his ‘cup-of-tea’, but he knew there was usually some fun to be had when he was in the room, so that was all good.

  ‘Afternoon all.’ He said, raising his glass.

 ‘Cheers Jack.’ Came the various responses.

  ‘Merry Christmas all.’

  ‘Merry Christmas, Rev.’  Came cries of response.

  ‘I’m ready for this. I’ve just put another in the ground, that’s five this week.’

  ‘Five. Bloody hell.’ Ashley said.

  ‘Well, it’s winter isn’t it. They’re dropping like flies.’

 ‘True.’ Ash sipped at his pint, and winked at Steve, ‘Are you ready for the Christmas battle yet, Jack?’ He asked.

  ‘Let me get in the door first, will you, Ash? You’re not still going on about that, are you?’

  ‘Five pounds to the winner, it has all been agreed, you can’t back down now, your reverence.’

  ‘Fuck off!’ His reverence said.

  ‘He’s backing down.’ Ash announced.

  Nobby joined in. ‘No, you’re not, Jack. Get that pint down you.  You can get on my shoulders, and Steve can get on Ash’s.’

  ‘Oh shit.’ Steve muttered to himself.

  Steve and Jack were the two smallest in the place, and this svelteness was what caused the original argument; one boozy night way back in October. It escalated, from who could take who in a fight, between Jack and Steve, and took a bizarre twist as the discussion evolved into a proposed gladiatorial style contest, each on top of another’s shoulders. It seemed like a good idea at the time and the championship bout was set to take place at the CID Christmas do. It had created a stir and a purse of five pounds had been agreed, with some side bets taking place. It wasn’t often you had the chance to see a vicar in full dog-collar, jousting with a detective, whilst balancing precariously on the shoulders of another.

  Nobby got behind reverend Jack and went down on one knee, sticking his head between Jacks legs, and with one thrust of his powerful thighs, had him on his shoulders and began parading around the bar to cheers and whoops from those assembled. Jack had his hands clasped together and was waving them to the left and right as if he had already won. This only served to increase the cheers and shouts amidst the hoots of laughter at the incongruous sight.

  ‘Come on then, Steve.’ Ash said.

  ‘Do I have to?’ His face was red with embarrassment.

  ‘You agreed to it.’

  ‘That was ages ago and I was pissed at the time.’

  ‘Tough titty, get on my shoulders; the honour of the team is at stake.’

  ‘Come on then. This is stupid.’

  Ash copied Nobby’s approach and with a couple of seconds Steve was on Ash’s shoulders to a further wave of enthusiastic cheers. Stark covered his eyes, sensing that this would all end in tears. Thankfully it was behind the closed doors of the members club, that was the police station bar.

  The bar wasn’t overly large, with some tables and chairs on one side and then about fifteen feet of empty space to the bar. Behind all this was the stage and dance room, which was large, but partitioned off from the bar area. With all the people there for the Christmas ‘do’, it was somewhat cramped.

  Ashley made the first move by a surprise charge towards Nobby, Steve met Jack head on, and they wrestled. Ashley bounced off the solid muscle of his DS and staggered slightly.  Steve disengaged from Reverend Jack.

  There were some ‘Oohs’ from the crowd. Both Jack and Steve remained atop their fiery steeds.

  Stark took a position near the door, in case any top brass were to wander in, although they would not believe the sight that would befall them. A vicar in a dog collar on the shoulders of a hairy-arsed Detective Sergeant, jousting with two young bucks for the sake of a five-pound note.

  This time Nobby charged at Ash; it sent him reeling, but Steve grabbed onto Jack’s black shirt, peeling part of his dog collar away, forcing the two ‘stallions’ to bend forward as their jockeys clung on to each other. The displaced weight made the four stumble sideways, and Nobby’s foot got caught on the leg of a bar stool and they began to topple. Jack would not relent; no quarter asked, and none given. The four of them half fell, half crumpled, to the floor; landing in a heap of swear words.  Two glasses were knocked off a table and smashed. The fulsome Christmas tree in the corner toppled and swayed  and as onlookers gasped, it succumbed to the imbalance, and fell across the writhing bodies on the floor. Jim threw the dregs of his pint over them all and Steph picked up a pocket bible which had fallen out of Rev Jacks pocket. Jack was the first to emerge, jumping up. ‘The Lord gives victory!’

  Ash began to protest. ‘It was a draw.’

  Nobby, Steve and Ash stayed on the floor, with hair askew and ties awry. Steve had a scratch on his face. Ashley was grabbing onto Jacks leg forcing him to hop as he tried to re-insert his dog-collar, shouting ‘It’s not over, it’s not over.’ Some tinsel from the tree was on Ash’s head and shoulders.

  Detective Superintendent Wagstaff walked into the bar. Stark had missed his approach, having got distracted by the shenanigans. Wagstaff froze upon meeting the scene in front of him. He wiggled his handlebar moustache, raised both eyebrows, rubbed at his chin, turned and walked out again. Discretion being the better part of valour.

  Jim shouted over to Stark.

  ‘What’s the verdict, boss?’

  ‘Do you really want to know?’ Stark asked.

  ‘Yes!’ ‘Come on, boss.’ Came the various shouts.

  ‘The verdict is that you are all a load of prats in equal measure, and so I declare – a draw!’

Cries of ‘re-match’ were quashed by Stark, who shouted that the next round of drinks was on him, as was customary. He had the unenviable task of somehow getting the team through the next ten hours, or so, without anything too catastrophic taking place. Things hadn’t started overly well on that score. It was usually about 7pm that he gave up on the idea and just joined in the revelry.

 

*

 

Mandy Towlson fought her way through the mass of writhing bodies, which gyrated rhythmically to the strident beat of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody,’ blaring from the hi-fi speakers in each corner of her living room. She was easily seen, despite the dim light, because of her eye-catching blonde hair. She twisted and turned in between the guests, avoiding the legs and feet that shot out at her in the name of dancing, along with the occasional hand that tried to grab her backside. She moved awkwardly in her tight-fitting mini skirt, her breasts crammed into a white, low-cut, top which displayed the deep valley of her cleavage. Her camisole underneath gave some added protection, and a hint of frilliness to avoid a tarty appearance. It was roasting hot in the living room, and it stunk of sweat and alcohol.

  She had moved into the flat with her friend Barbara, a few weeks ago and they had decided to hold the Housewarming-cum-Christmas party, on the spur of the moment. It was the perfect opportunity. Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Barbara had been meaning to do it for months since she acquired the place, and now that she had a bit of moral support with Mandy moving in, it gave the idea impetus and it was the festive season. It was now or never.

  Mandy usually attracted glances from the opposite sex and yet she felt she wasn’t that attractive. Average perhaps; her nose a little too large and her eyelashes very blonde. She felt, somewhat mistakenly, that smearing too much makeup on her face would help her slightly anaemic appearance. She was young and finding her way as a woman; she would get there.  At nineteen, one is very self-aware, overly conscious of appearance. These were heady times for her. It was the start of the rest of her life, free and easy, out in the big bad world for the first time and enjoying every minute of it. Everyone had been so nice to her, so friendly and genuine. All the advice and warnings some of her older friends and family had given her, had been totally off beam. The world was a wonderful place and people were so sweet. All her hopes and dreams lay ahead of her, yet to be fulfilled. Who knew what the future would bring? These parties and the chaos surrounding them would become the memories that would visit these youngsters throughout their lives, even into old age.

  A young man with short cropped hair and stubbled face met her in the hallway and took hold of her around the waist.

  ‘Mandy. My darling, how are you? You are looking gorgeous, as ever.’ He slurred; his drunkenness apparent.

  She removed his hands and turned to answer the door. Someone was knocking hard, and repeatedly, trying to be heard above the music.

  ‘Merry Christmas!’ Two more girlfriends entered the throng. People had been coming and going from the party throughout the evening.

  ‘Hiya, Jane. Hiya Marion.’ Mandy beamed at yet more guests; she would soon need a crowbar to try to cram them into the living room. All these people were just a validation of how lovely everyone was, how supportive they were. They hugged each other as if they had been life-long friends, instead of the casual acquaintances they were in reality.

  ‘Sorry we’re a bit late, but we got talking in the pub, you know how it is. We’ve been knocking ages and dancing to the music, on the doorstep.’

  ‘You should have just come in; the door is unlocked.’ She said.

  ‘We didn’t like to.’ Jane said. ‘We didn’t want to be rude. We think someone is hanging around outside though.’

  ‘Don’t be daft, you could have walked in, we don’t stand on ceremony here. I’m not sure if anyone else can fit in the living room, they’re going crazy in there. It’s turning into a great party.’

  ‘Sounds great.’ Jane’s face lit up with excitement. ‘Point us in the direction of the booze, and the fella’s, and leave the rest to us.’

  A girl’s scream could be heard from the depths of the madness, followed by laughter.

  ‘I see what you mean.’ Marion said. They all laughed, and the two girls manoeuvred towards the kitchen, whilst Mandy remained in the door frame, watching everyone freaking out in the living room. Bearing in mind it was so cold outside, the heat from the living room was getting even more oppressive; self-generated by the extraordinarily energetic dancing. She leaned across and opened the front door, leaving it ajar, to let some cool air into the flat.

  She could see Barbara over on the far side of the room, barely visible in the murky light, strobed by the colours of the rainbow emerging from a DJ’s light they had borrowed from a friend and plonked in the corner. The room was bathed with layers of smoke; tobacco and more questionable substances, shadows rapidly flickered on the walls and indeterminable silhouettes becoming darker towards the corners, where tongues entwined, and hands searched underneath clothing. Some of the lads were barging into each other to the music, a group of girls were linking arms and trying to synchronise a kicking routine, and one guy was wrapping Sellotape around his head and chin, trying to secure some mistletoe on his forehead.  Mandy shrugged out a laugh.  It was mayhem.

  She thought she saw the outline of her flat mate jigging around. Barbara was slightly older than her; darker skinned, slim and with black velvety shoulder-length hair. She waved and smiled at Mandy from across the room, who peered into the darkness, confirming it was Barbara, before reciprocating. The party was going to be a success; if it didn’t get too far out of hand. She watched as a man approached Barb and distracted her attention. It was Dave Lampton, ‘a real dish’, as Barbara had described him. Barbara always seemed to get the handsome guys. Mandy looked around the room to see if there were any decent men left for her to home in on. Parties are great, unless you’re the host.

  A repetitive bleeping noise crept into her ears. It didn’t match the music. It took several rings before she realised it was the telephone. She turned around and took the call in the hallway, putting a finger in her vacant ear, trying to mask the music and chatter coming from the rabble. She sat on the floor and twiddled with the cord.

   ‘Hello, thanks for calling the madhouse!’

  She could hear nothing. She stretched over and closed the living room door, shutting out some of the din.

  ‘Hello?’ she repeated. Still no reply.

  She moved to sit on the stairs, the cord only allowing her to make the bottom step. She felt her tight skirt dig into her stomach. She threw her hair back and placed the white plastic phone close to one ear, and again tried to block the noise out with a finger in the other. It was a little clearer.

  The voice sounded croaky and odd. ‘I want to speak to Mandy.’

  ‘This is Mandy, who’s that?’ She didn’t recognise the voice.

  ‘Guess.’

  ‘I don’t know. Come on, stop messing around, I’m in the middle of a party, here. Who is it?’

  ‘If I was to say, “Sweet cheeks” to you, would that give you a clue?’

  She sighed. ‘Oh, Patrick! This is not the time. You knew I was having a party tonight, and you still have to ring. There is nothing more to discuss. It’s over. We had a good time for six months, let’s not spoil it now, for heaven’s sake. Please!’

  ‘What if I was to come over and rip that lacy camisole, I bought you, right off your gorgeous body?’

  ‘You’re drunk. Why have you rung? What’s the matter with you?’

  ‘Nothing’s the matter. Nothing that a good fucking wouldn’t mend, you fucking whore!’

  She was stunned into silence. She struggled for some riposte, but instead, slammed the phone down hard and held it in place. Her heart was beating fast. The phone rang again.  She picked it up and immediately replaced it. Then she got off the stairs, bent down and unplugged it from the wall. She felt someone behind her who started to dry-hump her backside as she leaned over. ‘Get off!’

She turned around and saw the drunk guy again. ‘What do you think you are doing?’

  ‘I couldn’t resist it.’

  ‘Go on, piss off! And keep your…whatever it was, to yourself.’

  ‘Charming.’ The lad felt affronted by the rebuff as he staggered away muttering to himself.

  Mandy put her hand on her chest and felt the camisole underneath her top. How did he know? Probably a lucky guess.  The call had changed her from feeling great, to worrying what was going on with Patrick. When she had told him that their relationship was over, last Thursday, he seemed to be fatalistic about it. He must have known the end was coming. This new behaviour was completely out of character, or at least she thought it was. She took a deep breath, shook her head and tried to put the episode out of her mind. She returned to the party, her thoughts her own, as she wondered through the living room into the kitchen; which was a feat not dissimilar to a game of ‘Twister.’ Barbara was pouring some drinks and turned to face her flat mate.

  ‘Another G and T, Mandy? Hey, what’s the matter?’

  ‘Oh, nothing really. It’s Patrick. He’s just rung the flat. He was drunk and swearing at me. I’ve had to unplug the phone.’

  ‘You’re joking? I didn’t think Patrick was like that.’ Barbara busied herself preparing drinks as she spoke.

  ‘No, nor did I.’ She frowned.

  ‘It could be him with the razor blade, then do you, think?’

  ‘I don’t know what to think anymore.  I guess we need to speak to the police if he’s going to cause all this trouble.’

  ‘What did he say?’

  ‘He called me an effing whore. Nice isn’t it?’

  ‘That’s terrible, it’s just not true. You never charge for your services!’ Barbara smiled.

  She laughed. ‘Get lost! It’s nothing, he’s just being an idiot. It’s the booze talking. He sounded weird. What does he expect me to do when he talks to me like that?’

  ‘Are you sure it was him and not someone messing around?’

  ‘It was him all right, he mentioned the camisole he bought me, and he called me by the pet name he always used.

  ‘What, whore?’

  Mandy laughed again. ‘No, you plonker. I’m not telling you what it was. It’s personal.’

  ‘Oh, come on, now.  Don’t be a misery-guts. Let’s hear it.  What was it? Luscious lips, Pussy Galore, Sexy Bum…?’

  She playfully hit Barbara on her shoulder and took the gin and tonic. ‘Don’t be disgusting! Shut up, will you! I’m not telling you, and that’s it. Don’t you start hassling me as well, I’ve got enough on my plate with Patrick throwing a wobbler on me.’

  ‘If it’s him. He could have got a mate to ring. You know what they are like. It’s one big laugh to them.’

  ‘He did sound a bit strange. Thinking about it, it didn’t sound like him, but it had to be him from what he said, if you know what I mean.’

  ‘Well, don’t let that weasel spoil the party for you.’ Barbara pursed her lips and looked thoughtful. ‘Let’s see. I prescribe a double dose of alcohol in large quantities, until your legs give way, at which point your emotional troubles will be considerably lessened.’

  ‘Thank you, Doctor Barbara. I’m having Patrick about it tomorrow though. He’s not getting away with that! In fact I might just go straight to the police.’

 

*

 

It was cold outside and the chill in the air was made worse by the occasional gust of wind that would rattle guttering and swirl the rubbish on the street into pirouetting butt ends and crisp packets. Snow had started to fall. There was a frost, and the tiny glistening stars of ice, reflected by the moonlight, began to show their faces on the rooftops. The wind and the cold were of no importance to the man in the camouflage coat, who stood, motionless, quietly watching. The party was in full swing. There were numerous people coming and going, all wrapped up in themselves, most of them drunk, or well on the way, all oblivious to him. Apart from the hub of the party, the street was desolate from top to bottom. The neighbours had been told in advance that it was going to take place and so they had battened down the hatches.

  Most houses had Christmas lights festooning windows and wreaths adorning doors. There was little noise coming from the houses; apart from the distant sound of television sets; audible only when the man moved close to the individual windows as he mooched around. The televisions strobed the curtains, implying warmth inside a cocoon of family life that this maniac had never known, nor would he know. Various smells were carried on the waves of the winter wind, mainly the remnants of a street’s assorted cooked dinners, mixing into a soup of indeterminable cuisine best summed up as ‘food’. The smells were accentuated when meeting the blank canvas of cool air out in the street. The focal point of noise, was, of course, Mandy’s new flat and ‘The Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues now blaring out. The maniac grinned as he heard them all join in the words: ‘You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead, on a drip in that bed…’

  Most criminals had a story to tell. A story of deprivation, misplaced upbringing, lack of moral guidance, children’s homes, uncaring parents, and the like. This guy had no such story to tell, certainly not one he would share with anyone, because he had no interest in anyone else’s perception of him. His mother’s ill-treatment of him, her overbearing, cruel nature wasn’t the reason for his condition.  He was born like it. His psychopathy was a physical difference in the way the brain worked and was permanent and incurable. It gave him a focus and a shape to his madness. This was not by choice, it was the makeup of his brain. This lack of awareness, lack of moral compass, made things complicated, particularly in the courts. His inability to consider or care about his fellow man; was because he was a psychopath. His lack of ability to understand emotions that others felt; made him a psychopath. His lack of empathy for men, women, children, animals; made him a psychopath. His enjoyment of inflicting pain and suffering to others, without feeling anything whatsoever; made him a sadistic psychopath. And this psychopath had now latched onto Mandy Towlson. This disease of the shadows was able to add to the complexity of his psychosis, by being misogynistic at the same time. Two for one, for a limited period only. The limited period would end by his own incarceration or death, which would be the inevitable outcome of his releasing the hounds of hell, that were his innermost demons. This condition was well covered in his younger years, but now, as he reached his mid-twenties, it was becoming a dominant feature of his life. Sadly, there would be casualties, as this bus with no brakes, careened through the streets, before it went over the cliff to its home in oblivion. It was of no consequence to him in any case. His mind set was crude, to the point, emotionless, without barriers, nasty, implacable. 

  Why Mandy? She was fit, but that wasn’t a deal breaker, he was happy to fuck old women or any female who happened to engage with him and attract his attention. It was all getting a bit stale though, not really getting to the core of his insatiable craving anymore. Mandy’s chirpy personality resonated with him. Irked him. Challenged him. She volunteered for the role, pretty much. It just happened that he decided he wanted to fuck her and degrade her, and then in all likelihood kill her. It was about time. He wasn’t sure he would, it depended how he felt on the day, but this need, this desire, was getting out of hand.  The lack of a decision as to whether he would kill her was his subliminal retention of power. Its strength was heightened by saving the decision until the moment; a prior decision would dilute the act itself. She had been kind to him, an even better reason. She would be one of those nice people, who squealed louder than the others. A loving soul who would put on a great show when he got to her. No rush. This was all part of it. The build-up. He couldn’t relate, but he could get a thrill. The thrill was getting harder to obtain, though. He got a kick out of the rapes and assaults and the risk of capture. It wasn’t hitting the spot as much now, though, and the extinguishing of life was the hit he needed.

  He walked towards the flat with a jaunty swagger. He wasn’t trying to mask his actions particularly; he had learned that way back when he was a kid, shoplifting. Don’t hesitate, just go in and do it and no-one bats an eyelid. He was familiar with the set-up after his earlier visit: First floor flat with two front windows and a side one next to the door at the top of the steps. Not much to see. He looked around and saw the Vauxhall Nova she used. He strolled up, his breath visible from his mouth as he tried the car door handle, it was cold and the thin layer of forming ice, slid his gloved hand along its length as he pulled. It was open, again. He got inside the passenger side, slamming the car door shut. He had no fear. If he was challenged, he would just kill. He was bladed up. No debate or questions. No jumping around or postulating. He was fearless. Invincible. Smash! Stick the blade, right in the fucking throat. Twist and rip the pipework out through the skin. Watch them choke and drown and claw at the bony ridges of their exposed and bloody trachea. Smile into their eyes when that expression appeared. That lovely pleading look of terror and desperation at the realisation of their own imminent death and better yet, their inability to stop it.

  He looked around. but there was nobody showing the slightest interest in him.

  He examined the contents of the car; the streetlight painting the dashboard yellow. It was a bit of a pigsty, with all manner of stuff scattered around the floor, and the side door compartments were overflowing with sweet wrappers and tissues. He opened the glove compartment. Nothing much in there, wait! Apart from a hairbrush. He would have that. He put it into his coat pocket. That would go with the knickers from earlier. A nice little collection was forming. It had been a good look around. Time to get home. He masturbated several times a day, and the hairbrush with her hair on it was the sort of trophy that would feed his perversion for a little while more, at least. The singing by the partygoers hit his ears as he opened the car door.

  ‘The boys of the N.Y.P.D. Choir were singing Galway Bay, and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.’

A light sprinkling of snow had laid a thin shroud around the car and the man used his finger to write ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ on the frosty window, he thought the double meaning was amusing.

 

*

 

‘…and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.’ Almost all the detectives were singing, arms around shoulders, in the corner area of Ritzy’s night club. Some had fallen by the wayside en-route, the core remained, but they bore scars.

  Charlie still had gravy on his shirt from the thrown cracker incident earlier, during the dinner. Initial enquiries tended to show Ashley Stevens as the main suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to charge. 

  Ashley was still suffering with a sore arm, and wounded pride, caused by Charlie beating him at the arm wrestling. How could that be?  He was an old fat bloke. He was bloody strong, though. Ashley had forgotten that Charlie had won it every year for the last twenty years.

  Young, Steve Aston had gone giggly. His giggling fits were punctuated by moments of vacant staring and swaying.

  Cynthia Walker’s feline gait had become something of a stagger, her normally perfect hair had a straggly, rebel strand, hanging limply in front of her face which she kept blowing.

  Jim McIntyre was sprawled out on the curved settee and was asleep, his mouth making neighing noises with each exhale.

  Nobby and Steph were missing. They weren’t totally missing, just missing from the group. They were upstairs on the near deserted mezzanine, behind a curtain hanging in front of a door marked ‘Emergency Exit’. Nobby was, in fact, making an emergency entry. He banged Steph against the door, each thrust causing an ‘oof!’ to come out of her mouth. He reached down and stroked at her, feeling the wetness at the base of his cock. She started to make a high-pitched wail which he had become accustomed to and he felt the rush as his balls tightened and he emptied himself into her. As she went limp, he rammed thrice more up to the hilt, pumping and squirting inside her.

  ‘Anybody seen Nobby?’ Ashley asked those still standing.

  Steve Aston said. ‘Nobby.’ And began giggling again.

  ‘He’s having a dance with Steph apparently.’ Cynthia said.

  ‘Poor Steph.’ Ash said.

 Cynthia smiled in a strange way, which Ashley couldn’t decipher.

  ‘Where’s Stark?’ Ash asked.

  ‘What’s this, the bloody roll call?’ Charlie grunted as he swigged from a beer bottle and grimaced. ‘He’s probably having a piss, Ash. Jeez. You’re like a bloody mother hen, just chill, mate.’

  ‘All right, keep your hair on, Charlie, I’m just looking out for people that’s all.’ Ash felt affronted.

  ‘Let’s see how many beer mats we can balance on Jim’s head before they fall off or he wakes up.’ Charlie said mischievously.

  ‘How much?’ Ash asked.

  ‘Tenner.’

  ‘A bloody tenner!’ The bravado of the drink always raised the stakes.

  ‘Steve. Go and get some beer mats, will you? As many as you can get.’  Charlie said. Steve went off on his mission.

  ‘Right who’s first?’

  Stark was on the far side of the mezzanine when he had seen Nobby and Steph sneak behind the “Emergency Exit” curtain. He was having a breather from the day’s events. The day had been a hoot, but exhausting. He was watching the exit door curtain. You didn’t have to be a Detective Inspector to figure out that Nobby and Steph were having sex behind the curtain. 

He waited for them to come back, dropping back out of sight as he watched her scurry into the toilets, and Nobby go back down the stairs to join the group.

2

‘The world has grown weary through the years,

but at Christmas it is young.’

                                                               Phillips Brooks.

 

Mandy sat with her head in her hands on the settee. Morning had broken. The living room smelt fusty and looked as if a giant Christmas cracker had been pulled, the contents spilling onto the carpet; the remnants of one hell of a party lay all around. There were crumpled party hats, empty bottles, streamers, gift labels, tinsel, all sorts of rubbish. It was a mess, albeit a festive mess.

  The untidiness was the least of her worries. Her head hurt. Her face was dry and taut; her throat sore. She looked how she felt; her hair was unkempt and greasy, and her legs were pale and ‘goose-pimply’, visible beneath the white cotton night shirt with a faded picture of Mickey Mouse on it. Her inability to concentrate was due to her throbbing brain, numbed by alcohol, in the throes of dehydration. She peered through squinted eyes at Barbara, who drew on a cigarette, as she sat on the armchair in the corner of the room. She exhaled and barked out a throaty cough before swallowing the resultant phlegm. She let out a rasping fart.

  Mandy spoke first. ‘Nice.’

  ‘That’s those sausage rolls, I bet.’

  She laughed. ‘Amazing party.’

  ‘Amazing.’ Barbara croaked, without looking up at her friend.

  ‘Brilliant.’ Mandy stifled a burp.

  ‘What time did we go to bed?’ Barbara asked, her voice rattling like a tin of rusty nails.

  ‘Twenty to four, I think. I’m not sure, I was pissed.’

  ‘Twenty to four? Shit!’

  ‘I know.’

  They went quiet again and stared at the carpet in front of them. Mandy felt sick; her mouth began to salivate, and she started to breathe a little quicker, but thankfully within a few seconds, it subsided.

  Barbara forced herself to get up, labouring; puffing and panting like an eighty-year-old, before staggering, one shoulder lower than the other, as if on a listing ship, into the kitchen. She returned with two pints of water, which lipped at the sides, as she lurched forwards, with a, two steps forward, and one step back, technique. She clutched a packet of paracetamol, giving a glass to her friend and a sliver of the headache pills. ‘Thanks, Babe.’

  The water felt good as Mandy gulped it down greedily. She saved some for her pills. You would think she was wearing oven gloves as the effort to extricate the pills from the popper was harder than it should have been.

  The carpet staring returned.

  ‘What time is it now, Mandy?’

  She glanced at her tiny watch, still on her wrist from last night, and peered at it with one eye closed, her blotchy mascara obscuring her view as she squinted. Eventually she managed to get the focus required. ‘Half nine.’

  ‘Four hours sleep.’  Barbara groaned.

  ‘Yep.’ Was all she could manage.

  ‘You’re late for work.’

  ‘It’s okay, they said I could go in a bit later, today.’ She blew out heavily, her relaxed lips flapping like a pull-down blind being released to its zenith. ‘I suppose we had better make a start at clearing this mess up.’

  Barbara groaned, ‘No.’ and put her head in the crook of her elbow, resting it on the arm of the chair. Her voice was muffled as she spoke. ‘Let’s leave it until next Christmas. I’m dying here.’

  Mandy slid down the settee onto the floor; rolled on to her hands and knees and steadied herself as the blood invaded her brain, making her dizzy once more. Barbara similarly slid onto the floor, but she only managed to lie flat out, groaning, her night dress having ridden above her knickers. She was beyond caring. They both laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

  Mandy began crawling around, slowly followed by Barbara, corralling all the bits of rubbish, by sweeping it with their forearms into a growing mountain in the centre of the room.

  ‘That’ll do for now’, Barbara said. ‘Let’s finish it when we feel a bit more like it. You need to get to work.’

  She was relieved, as the task was more onerous than she had envisaged, and the two sat on the floor with their backs against the furniture staring vacantly ahead. They both closed their eyes and for Mandy at least, the room began to spin. She felt bloody awful.

  ‘How’s your finger?’

  ‘Sore, now you’ve reminded me about it.’

  ‘What are you going to do about it? Anything?’

  ‘I can’t even think about all that at the moment.  I might go and see the snide little shit.’

  There was a lull, as their stomachs waited for the stale ale to stop swilling around, and their brains to find an anchor point to stop the disorientation.

  ‘Did I dream it, or did Patrick ring last night, as well. giving you some grief?’ Barbara asked.

  Mandy sighed. ‘Oh God, don’t remind me, no you didn’t dream it, it was more like a bloody nightmare. He was being so weird, not like him at all. I mean calling me a whore, for God’s sake.  I mean, really?’

  ‘What’s up with the bloke? Anyone would think he owned you.’

  ‘I didn’t think he was like that. He’s shown his true colours.’

    Barbara offered her opinion on the matter. ‘It might be best just to let it go, rather than give him the attention. I can get the locks changed, for a few quid. That’s what he’s after; attention. Give it him, or call the police, and he’ll do it again, when he wants some more, trust me.’

  ‘No, sod that, I’m going to speak to him later, and give him both barrels. I could do without all this grief; it’s supposed to be a happy time, he’s got no right to speak to me like that, Barbara, and as for the razor blade, that is psycho shit.’

  ‘Great party, though.’  Barbara smiled.

  ‘Great party.’  Mandy smiled also.

  Barbara reached her hand out to her flat-mate, but they couldn’t fully reach to hold hands properly and no-one wanted to move again, so they touched fingers and wiggled them.

  Barbara was philosophical. ‘It’ll wear off. He’s just hurting because of the break-up. At least it shows how much he cared about the relationship.’

  ‘It’s a bit late to start caring now, Barb. Anyway, it’s unforgiveable behaviour, as far as I’m concerned. It’s pathetic and nasty. I don’t deserve it.’

  ‘I know, babe, but you know what I mean. I had a bloke who started acting up when we fell out. He soon got the message when I ignored him; cut him off totally.’

  Mandy threw her hair back, a habit which she immediately regretted as her brain began to revolve again. ‘He’ll get the message all right!’

 

*

 

  Detective Inspector Stark knocked on the door of Detective Superintendent Wagstaff’s office, on the top floor of Nottingham Police Station and walked in. Time for ‘Morning Prayers,’ a colloquialism for the daily briefing.

  The first briefing starts at the bottom: The DC who draws the short straw, gets to work for 7am, and for the next hour they gather together the scores of teleprinters and logbooks and messages and collate any that are worthy of mention into the relevant folders. The Detective Constable briefs the Detective Sergeant. Then the Detective Sergeant briefs the Detective Inspector. Then the Detective Inspector briefs the Detective Chief Inspector or Detective Superintendent and then…they do the hokey-kokey and they turn around.

  Stark took a seat. The black plastic chair was cold against his lower back where his shirt had ridden up slightly. He was clutching a large notepad containing his notes from the briefing he had received earlier from DS Nobby Clark.

  Wagstaff’s office was bland; a couple of photos on a desk, a bookcase and a small table for tea, or for the more cosmopolitan visitor, coffee. It was scarcely used; the only visitors Wagstaff had, generally wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. This was both the blessing and the drawback of seniority. There was a rubber plant in a corner, which was evident in most of the offices, and no doubt similarly evident on a checklist when the offices were being furnished. Rubber plant. Tick. Wagstaff being the reckless devil he was, had brought in some small cactus plants which he had on the windowsill. Easy to maintain, or indeed ignore. Nobby Clark had been a little unkind when he said that the office didn’t need any more pricks in it.

  Stark’s backside kept sliding down the sheen of the chair, and he wriggled a little until he found the perfect buttock balancing point. Wagstaff, in the meantime swivelled in his more luxurious leather chair. He was twiddling his handlebar moustache and had a twinkle in his eye.

  ‘Good morning, David.’

  ‘Good morning, sir.’

  ‘I take it you’ve come in to do the runners and riders for today.’

  ‘Absolutely.’

  ‘How is your head after yesterday’s festivities at the CID Christmas do?’

  ‘Sore; I would describe it as being on “fast spin.”’

  Wagstaff laughed. ‘Oh, dear. I was going to call in to have a pint, but I thought it prudent that I kept away, whilst the men let off steam. It’s been a busy year, and things can get messy at these functions.’

  ‘True.’ Stark remembered Wagstaff walking in during the gladiator fight with reverend Jack and immediately walking out again. He smiled to himself.

  ‘I was once in the lower ranks, you know.’ Wagstaff said.

  ‘I know, it was probably wise, sir. You never can tell what might happen, but I think we got away with it for another year.’

  Stark’s mind flashed, this time, to the mezzanine floor of Ritzy’s nightclub. His view of Nobby and Steph, and Nobby’s emergency entry at the emergency exit. He disposed of the image as quickly as it arrived. Shaking his head without realising it.

  ‘That’s a relief. We don’t want anything contentious troubling the department now do we?’ Wagstaff said, scrutinising his DI. ‘What have you got for me today, then?’ Wagstaff took an expensive pen from his blazer pocket and poised over his pad.

Without warning, the door swung open, and Detective Inspector Lee Mole, swaggered in.

  ‘Knock, knock.’ He said with a wide grin. He was as thin as a rake, with an ill-fitting suit hanging off his bones. He had wispy hair, beady eyes and his confident swagger was belied by his cheap shoes.

  This was all Stark needed. Mole whacked him on the back. ‘All right, Starky, Baby?’

  ‘Starky, Baby?’ David repeated, with an incredulous look on his face.

  ‘Starky, Baby, ain’t it? Mr Cool, Mr Popular.’

  ‘Jeez.’ Stark found himself shaking his head again. ‘Anyway Lee, if you don’t mind, I’m in the middle of morning prayers, here.’

  ‘Just passing through, always drop in on the best Detective Superintendent in modern history.’

  Wagstaff grinned and blushed slightly.

  ‘Get me a bucket.’ Stark said.

  ‘I’m going to go over to Raddy Road in a bit, boss, to give them some advice. Phil Dowty’s got a job on, and he needs a bit of the old Mole brain power.’

  ‘Is it really that bad?’ Stark asked.

  He couldn’t stand the sight of Lee Mole, who was constantly trying to stir the shit with Stark, and his team, and ingratiate himself to Wagstaff, and anyone senior to him. Mole was no stranger to the dynamic duo: bullshit and bravado.

  ‘Listen matey boy, it was blokes like me that held the fort for you, whilst you were swanning around, taking your time over the College murders. If it wasn’t for me this place would have sunk. Am I right boss?’ Mole said.

  Wagstaff stammered, ‘Well, I suppose you were a help at times.’

  ‘There you go, from the man himself, the main man.’ Mole reached over and shook Wagstaff’s hand. ‘Great to see you, boss, I will leave you in peace.  Didn’t want to be rude, that’s all.’

  ‘Close the door on your way out, Lee.’ Stark said.

  ‘Nice to see you, Lee.’ Wagstaff smiled.

  ‘Catch you later, guys.’ He made a clucking sound and did something weird with his fingers, kind of pointing at Stark, before exiting and leaving the door wide open.

  Stark got up and closed the door, before returning to his seat.

  ‘Where were we, before we were so rudely interrupted?’ Stark asked.

  ‘He was only being sociable, David, courteous if you like.’ Wagstaff said, irritating Stark.

Stark frowned. ‘Really?’

  ‘You two need to work closer together.’

  ‘That’s the last thing I need. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.’

  ‘All right, let’s not get into all the “sibling” rivalry, with your brother Detective Inspector’s; let’s crack on David.’

  ‘Sibling? He isn’t my brother. The only thing he was separated from at birth, was his brain cells.’

  It was Wagstaff’s turn to shake his head and sigh.

  Stark glanced down at his notes. Mole always unsettled him. Brought the worst out of him. Mole was the type of DI who sailed too close to the wind. He knew he would stop at nothing to destroy Stark’s reputation because he saw him as a threat. He had tried many times in the past. Why the likes of Wagstaff couldn’t see right through him, was a mystery. Maybe they did, but kept their own counsel. He doubted it. ‘There isn’t anything startling to brief you on today, sir, I’ve tried to trim it down for you.’

  ‘That’s good.’

  ‘There are only two locked up overnight. One is a drunk driver and the other is in for a domestic ABH. Nothing for us on CID.  Uniform will sort those out, obviously. There are three on the prisoners list for yesterday – again fairly quiet.’

  ‘Yes, I’ve seen those, shoplifters and a burglar.’ Wagstaff said.

  ‘Yes, the burglary was more a domestic incident; his Mrs has kicked him out the house, and there was some argument over the ownership of the hi-fi, and he’s gone in with his key, whilst she was out at work and taken it. The normal bollocks.’

  ‘Any major crime on the sub-division, David?’

  ‘No murders, armed robbery, or rapes overnight – just an indecent assault at Bulwell, around seven o’clock.’

  ‘What are the circumstances around that one, David?’

  ‘Apparently, she…’

  ‘Please don’t start with the word “apparently”, David. It unnerves me. Tell me what happened please, and if we don’t know that by now, there is something wrong.’

  ‘OK, fair enough, sir, it’s just a turn of phrase, that’s all. She came out of the back of Food Giant supermarket and crossed over the railway lines at the back, to get home. A youth in his teens knocked her down and had a grope of her breasts and in between her legs before running off.’

  ‘Wagstaff stared at the window for a second or two, merely uttering an ‘Mmm’. Eventually he spoke. ‘Did he feel her over her knickers, or did he actually insert fingers or what?’

  ‘It was over her knickers. The lad didn’t have a chance to do a deal else. She put up quite a fight I understand.’

  ‘Good for her. Who’s dealing with that?’ Wagstaff asked.

  ‘Dave Stringer. He’s not one of our crew. He’s one of Mole’s lot. Its off our patch. They’ve got somebody in mind for it, appara…’ He stopped himself. ‘Anyway, he’s done all the necessary, I’ve had a look at it, but it’s; no cough no job, I reckon.’

  ‘So, if he doesn’t admit it, he will get away with it.’

  ‘Basically, yes. That’s if it is him, of course. It is Mole’s crew after all.’

  ‘David!’

  ‘Sorry, sir, I couldn’t help it.’

  ‘What else, David?’

  ‘There are three sudden deaths on the patch overnight. Both old people, natural causes, no suspicious circumstances. Winter’s here again.’

  Wagstaff leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his chest, his own mortality brought to the forefront of his mind. He put his hands behind his head and leaned backwards. ‘Any MFH’s.’

  ‘Yes, two “Missing From Homes”; Claire Jackson and Terry Scanlon. They abscond regularly from the local kids’ home at Bulwell. No sooner are they found and returned, than they go walk about again. The social services can’t control them.’

  ‘How old?’

  ‘Both fourteen.’

  ‘Are the kids being spoken to properly by us each time they are found?’

  ‘They are, sir, but in fairness, it’s like talking to that wall. They literally just tell the cops to go fuck themselves or sing stupid songs as they try and talk some sense into them. What can you do?  We don’t run the kids’ home.’

  ‘It’s such a waste of resource. Let me mention it to the Chief for the next Police Authority Meeting when the Head of Social Services will be there.’

Wagstaff stood up and stretched, before walking over to his solitary window. ‘Can’t we get these idiots into a secure unit?’ He asked.

  Stark laughed, cynically. ‘No chance, I’m afraid, sir. The secure units are overflowing and even there the inmates can do what they want. They can pretty much walk off site, whenever the fancy takes them. The number of proper “secure units” you can count on one hand, and the kids on the waiting lists for those, are far worse than young Claire and Terry.’

  Wagstaff turned at the window to face Stark. ‘So, they just run wild and rob and steal and do what they bloody well like, do they? That’s all right is it?’

   ‘In a word. Yes. But no, it’s not all right,’ Stark shrugged.

  ‘What a bloody state of affairs.’

  ‘I doubt it’s going to get any better, sir. There is no discipline and that’s really what the kids need. They feel far more secure within boundaries, even though they moan like bloody hell.’

  ‘All right, Christ, David, I didn’t know you were an amateur psychologist.’

  Stark laughed. ‘It’s not that, it’s just common sense, though, isn’t it?’

  Wagstaff began grooming his moustache again. Locking his thoughts in place for his meeting with the chief later.  ‘Overnight burglaries of note?’ He said.

  Stark shifted in his seat, as he flipped the pages to find his notes. ‘There’s about a dozen on the patch, mainly commercial premises, normal stuff, really. Nothing of high value, no aggravated circumstances.’

  ‘Get those two missing from homes checked against any fingerprints found, will you?  I’m not trying to teach you to suck eggs, David, but you know what I mean, they will have been up to bloody mischief all night.’

  ‘No doubt, sir. It might be worth Phil Dowty putting the lad’s photo in for the indecent assault.’

  ‘Good idea. I’ll mention it to him.’

  Wagstaff returned to his chair and plonked himself down and started twisting left and right again. ‘Any crime circulations in the wider force area?’

‘There’s three or four, none on our sub-division, but two on Radford Road. No doubt Phil Dowty will give you a call if he hasn’t already and fill you in with their progress on it. Night Crime Patrol went to them, so they have had some CID Input into them from the start.’

  ‘That’s good. Anything else I need to know?’

  ‘Not really. As I say, it is quiet, touch wood.’ Stark curiously made a gesture as if he was touching wood, but there was none to touch.

  ‘I’ve been having a look at crimes on the Hucknall patch and there are a couple of things I’d like to know more about, David.’

Here it comes, Stark thought. The ‘wildcard’ part of the quiz.

  ‘One is the wages job, a fortnight ago, when the sawn-off shotgun was used. I would like to see all the actions to date, so I can review it.’

  ‘No problem.’

  ‘Well, there is a problem, David.’

  ‘Is there?’

  ‘Yes.  It’s not been detected, has it?’

  ‘Oh, I see what you mean. No, sir.’

  ‘I don’t want it going stale.’

  ‘Very good, sir.’

  ‘The other is the spate of dwelling house burglaries we are having on Ruffs estate.  We are getting hammered with daytime breaks around there, and it needs tying together and a bit of a project. Maybe the aide can have a look at it?’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘There’s been forty-seven in the last three months. It’s poor and it needs sorting.’

  ‘I’ll have a look at it.’ Stark promised.

  ‘I shouldn’t need to tell you this, David. You should already be looking at it.’

  ‘We are, sir, but we are also regrouping from the College murders, we are playing catch-up. It’s all right Lee Mole pretending he was baby-sitting our patch, but in truth it was pretty much left to rot. It’s always the same after a big job, we have to start backtracking. I’m not whingeing, I’m just saying, we will get there.’

  The telephone rang and Wagstaff answered it smartly.  ‘Superintendent Wagstaff. Hello Phil. No, it’s OK, we’ve just about finished. Hold on a second.’ Wagstaff looked over at Stark. ‘It’s Phil Dowty. We’ve done, haven’t we?’

  ‘We have, sir.’

  Wagstaff gave him a thumbs up. ‘Thank you, David, see you later, no doubt.’

  Stark rose and left the room. Wagstaff was usually a little looser with the briefing. He usually left Stark to his own devices. He wondered if old Waggy had been given a bollocking. The College murders had put them all under the spotlight, thanks to Mole shit-stirring with the Head of CID, and that usually meant trouble of sorts, until it was someone else’s turn in the barrel.  Maybe they could have a period at last, without any major enquiries, and catch up with the more day-to-day activities, which had run away from them in the last few weeks. He closed the door behind him, as he heard Wagstaff on the phone, ‘Old Moley’s coming over, isn’t he? He’ll sort you out, Phil…’

 

*

 

  ‘Good evening, Hucknall Police Station.’  Eric had worked in the local police control room for ten years, too long. He had lost contact with the public, the nuances of the job and worse, allowed cynicism to cloud his judgement with the rare interactions with the public. He had become lazy and stuck in a routine, a routine which had begun to take precedence over the job he was paid to do. There was a sense that it was okay to have these occasional ‘less than able’ officers working in there as it was not the Force Control Room, dealing with 999 emergencies, but the more mundane local issues which were rung in by the public.

  ‘I want to report a man acting suspiciously near some woodland at Hucknall. He’s been there over half an hour.’

  ‘Whereabouts is it, love?’

  ‘Not far from us, it’s the small wood at the back of Buckingham Avenue.’

  ‘And what is he doing?’ Eric fiddled with the cord of the phone.  There were several phones on desks and a consul for radio communications along with a message pad where reports were written and put onto one of three pads. ‘Open’ and ‘Complete’. Periodically the control room sergeant would check the complete messages and mark them off as complete or return them to the open pile with his comments.

  ‘He’s not doing anything, but he looks suspicious. He seems to be hiding himself in there and looking out sometimes, as if he is waiting for someone.’

  ‘Perhaps he is.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Waiting for someone.’

  ‘I am concerned though officer, he looks odd to me.’

  ‘Has he actually committed any offence, other than just loitering in the woods?’ Eric had started to fill out a message sheet but when the reason for the call was given, he hesitated to continue it to completion.

  ‘Well, no, not that I know of. I’ve not seen him do anything as such. He just looks a wrong un. I would feel a bit more comfortable if an officer could speak to him to check out what he is up to. I’ve never seen him around here before.’

  ‘I’ll see what I can do but I’ve only got two officers on afternoons and two just coming on, and there is a long list of calls for them to wade through.’

  ‘Oh. I would still be grateful if someone checked it out, but I suppose I will have to leave it with you.’

  Eric was distracted by his friend at the doorway miming playing a snooker shot. He whispered, ‘Snap time.’

Eric covered up the mouth of the telephone. ‘Two minutes, I’ll be up.  Rack them up, Brian. Best of three.’

  ‘Yes, that’s it, leave it with us, my love. If we can check him out, we will. If he does anything, ring us back.’

  ‘Have I done wrong by ringing? I don’t like bothering you.’

  ‘No, love, it’s fine, leave it with us.’

  ‘Do you need my name or anything?’

  Eric glanced at the clock and reached for his Tupperware box with his sandwiches in under the desk.  ‘No, it’s fine, thanks very much and I’ll let the lads know, to have a drive down there later, if they get chance.’

  ‘That would be great, thank you, then.’

  ‘You’re welcome.’

  ‘Bye.’

  ‘Bye, love.’

  Eric clapped his hands together. ‘Right then, time to whup  Brian Ford’s arse. Where’s my snooker cue?’

 

*

 

It had not been a good day for Mandy Towlson. Her dehydration had eased slightly with the copious amounts of water she had drunk, and her increasing focus meant that she started to obsess about Patrick’s phone call the previous night. She had barely been able to concentrate on anything else all day.

  Mandy worked for a finance company and the excessive Christmas spending by the general public, had brought on a last-minute clamour for loans, from desperate people, resorting to desperate measures.

  She had somehow managed to get through the day, the extra hour she had to stay on to make up for her late arrival, seemed to last an age, and it was weird to be in the office on her own.  She did next to nothing, in any case. It was one of those days where you show your face and are on autopilot, looking as busy as possible yet trying not to collapse in a heap. She felt that if she relaxed, she would slither off her chair in an amorphous state and disappear down a crack in the floor tiles.

  Finally, it was home time. Her beige raincoat was insufficient for the cold temperature, with only a cardigan and blouse underneath, but a new overcoat would have to wait until her own financial situation improved. The upturn in her social life, due to sharing a flat with Barbara, was exciting, but it did tend to leave a rather large hole in her budget. 

  Her face was raw with cold as she walked through the streets on her thirty-minute hike home. That was another thing she had decided to try; walking, instead of paying petrol and seven pounds a day to park her car, only to walk seven minutes to the office.

  She had contemplated confronting Patrick about the nasty call; repeatedly rehearsing in her mind what she was going to say. As she walked through the streets, she was constructing miniature scenarios of how the intended conversation might go. Now, twenty minutes into the journey, all she wanted, was to get home and lay her head on a soft pillow for a couple of hours, just to take the edge off her self-inflicted condition. She felt sure she would be OK after that. Patrick would have to wait. Barbara had suggested that they go into town later for a drink, ‘hair of the dog’ and all that, but the thought of more alcohol just made her feel sick.

  She could see the grassed area ahead of her and she had a decision to make. Take the shorter route through the small wooded area or walk a further ten minutes avoiding the spooky cut-through. She paused briefly with the steam coming from her mouth indicating that she walked at a quicker pace than normal, desperate to get home. Was that someone hanging around near the trees? Her vision was blurry, as the cold had watered her eyes. She was probably imagining it. From where she stood, she could see the welcoming beacon of light shining from her flat window, just through the branches of the trees in the distance, and this not only comforted her, but lured her. The journey was ending, and the warmth of the room and a hot cup of tea, followed by sleep, beckoned her, like the sirens of Greek mythology luring nearby sailors to their deaths on the rocks. Mandy had never enjoyed the early darkness that winter brings. She toyed momentarily with the idea of walking the longer way home, around the houses. But her tiredness dictated she take the risk, and cut across the railway line, and through the copse to the back of the flat complex. It would be fine. It was dark and creepy, but on this one occasion she was prepared to risk it. It would only take three or four minutes.

  She negotiated the rough terrain of hard mud and thinning grass, as she walked up the incline and reached the tree line.  This was where she would get a move on, as the rustling trees and moving shadows always gave her the collywobbles. The streetlights just beyond, conspired with the waving branches to cast shadows and create the impression that there was movement all around as she became enveloped by the trees. It was this distortion that she suspected made it look like a man standing steadfast at the tree line. The creaking bark also sent a shiver down her spine. Silly perhaps, but eerie, none the less. She concentrated as best she could on the ground beneath her feet in the encroaching darkness and she quickened her pace into a scurry. In doing so she stumbled slightly as she stepped in a hollow, twisting her ankle and causing her to do a couple of little hops as she cursed. ‘Bloody hell.’ Her first instinct was to check the heel of her shoe; it was still intact.

  Mandy had barely got the ‘bloody hell’ out of her mouth before she was hurtled sideways and crashed into the undergrowth, banging her elbow on the frozen soil. A smelly hand quickly covered her mouth and nose, and she became aware of a weight crushing her against the ground. A face drew close to hers as she struggled to breathe. The foul stench of the man’s breath invaded her nostrils.

  ‘One sound, “Sweet cheeks” and you’re fucking dead!’

  She tried to reply but couldn’t, so she nodded, her eyes wide with terror. ‘Keep your fucking mouth shut!’

  Horror and raw fear flooded into her, starting with her stomach and seeping out to her heart; now beating at a quickfire pace with her lungs seeking to pull in enough oxygen to survive. Her eyes were wide as she tried to take in the enormity of the situation. She wanted to speak, to scream. To kick out, but she couldn’t; she was helpless, and her assailant knew it. She was instantly overwhelmed by the man’s superior physical strength and the paralysing fear that his viciousness created within her. Fight or flight?  She could do neither. There was a third option:  She froze – motionless, rigid with fear. He took his hand from her mouth and she gasped and coughed as she tried to get in more oxygen.

  It was a hard punch that rocked her head to the right and immediately broke her jaw. Her ears were ringing, and she could not see, the effect of the punch coupled with the nightmare scenario, heightened her dizziness and she almost succumbed to unconsciousness. This was serious, critical. This was life threatening. The venom in the punch told her that.  Only the instinct to survive somehow pulled her away from the threshold of darkness, and she stared up at the monster who contemptuously met her stare. He was a youngish man with dirty skin and brown hair that hadn’t seen a comb that day. His eyes were wide and leering, he bared his teeth like a wolf about to strike, and as he breathed heavily, he was grunting, and little bubbles of saliva spat out from his sloppy lips and landed on Mandy’s face where they settled. He was enjoying this.

  Her mind raced into overdrive – what to do - scream, fight, scratch? – but she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Like many women, she had rehearsed this scenario in her mind many times, playing out what she would do. Now, trapped in the vice-like grip of just such a situation, she merely lay there, debilitated and afraid. She began to sob. She felt a dull ache in her stomach, a feeling she’d had as a child, when discovering for the first time that she was separated from her parents and was lost.  She had never felt as lost as she did now. She began to beg.

  ‘Please, don’t hurt me. I won’t do anything, I promise, honestly, I won’t. Take my purse, you can have it.’

  The maniac clutched at her throat and squeezed hard. She put her hands on his; in an instinctive, but pathetic attempt to alleviate the constriction. His hands were gnarled and calloused, matching his temperament.

  ‘Do as I say, or you’re fucking dead, bitch. Understand!’

  Again, she nodded.

 His adrenalin was on a high and he gasped out more abuse. ‘What are you crying for, eh? You mardy piece of shit.  You’re all the fucking same.’

  Mandy couldn’t see much of her attacker, but as he lessened his grip on her throat, she could smell him: a disgusting mixture of alcohol and halitosis from which there was no escape. The foul stench polluted her mouth and lungs. She moved her hands around the cold, wet floor to feel for a stone or something to hit him with. It was never going to happen. In any case, it was a bad idea. She felt desolate; she knew she was at the mercy of this filthy, repulsive man who for some reason had chosen her.

  In a matter of seconds her world had been turned upside down, and shock and confusion pervaded her senses. Mandy closed her eyes as she felt him tear at her blouse, ripping it off to expose her bra. It wasn’t her purse he wanted. “That’s what he wants.” She thought. Her heart sank. The cold air made her shiver more, as her chest was exposed to the winter’s night. She felt ashamed, and she instinctively crossed her arms over her bare flesh, but in her heart of hearts, she knew it was futile. He let go of her throat to undo her bra, and she screwed her eyes up as he slobbered over her naked breasts, which heaved, as her sobs wracked her body. He smeared his tongue over her breasts, her nipples erect because of the cold. ‘Yeah, you like that, bitch, don’t you?’

  She shivered in revulsion as he held her down. She was helpless, too frightened to move. She had to try to switch off, numb her senses. Don’t upset him, it will be over soon. 

  The deranged mind was in its element. She felt him fumbling with her knickers and she attempted to cross her legs. He punched her hard in the face and she briefly lost her senses.  He again took hold of her throat causing her to gurgle.

  ‘I fucking warned you! Do as you are told.’

  He squeezed harder at her throat and she grunted, trying to signal her submission, anything to stay alive. He let go slightly and she tensed back up. He placed his thumbs into her eye sockets and began pressing, hard. 

  ‘Okay. Okay!’ She opened her legs and her humiliation was exacerbated as she urinated uncontrollably. He roughly pulled her tights and knickers off, the urine only serving to feed his tortured mind, and excite further his quest for power and control. He again put his thumbs over her eyes and pressed down, in a nasty sadistic manner, causing her to cry out in distress.

  ‘Shut up, bitch.’

  ‘You’re hurting me.’

  ‘Good.’

  Her attacker was a bastard of the highest order. He bullied her, violated her, and forced her to do the most degrading acts.

  She found her acquiescence shameful and repugnant, but she had no alternative but to comply. She felt sick, numb, dreamlike, but her nightmare continued in the cover of the wooded copse and heavy darkness of the winter’s evening.  Fear of death enforced her subservience but failed to quell her revulsion.

  He had fantasised about this for days.  He hated women, he was angry, he was a coward. In his mind, they were asking for it. In his distorted brain he considered that this person, totally unknown to him, was the same as his view of all women; a bitch, a piece of excrement on his shoe, and merely because of his superior strength, he could play with her.

 He put a strange high-pitched, demented voice on, and stared at her as he spoke, tilting his head. ‘Pussy time!’

  He entered her, and she tried to focus on one of the branches as she stared skywards and switch off, as she felt him inside her.

  As the minutes wore on, Mandy tried to formulate a way out of the confusion, nothing else mattered now, but her life. She had to survive. Her mind was racing, yet everything was happening in slow motion. It was as if she was watching it from another place. She knew it couldn’t last forever, she prayed it would end, whilst knowing that when it did, this would be when her life would be most at risk. She concentrated on his every move, attempting to read the best way to react.

  He pulled out and turned her over roughly.

  ‘Get on all fours. No, wait, suck it first. Suck it!’

  She tentatively put her mouth near his penis but shied away.  He grabbed at the back of her head and forced himself into her mouth, causing her to gag and make a noise indicating the discomfort she was in. He smiled. He liked that. After a couple of minutes, he spoke again. ‘Now get on your hands and knees.’

  She complied, still gasping, and spitting out saliva, and the filth of his stinking penis. He smacked her on the back of the head as she did so. He re-entered her from behind, and grabbed at her hair, pulling her head right back causing intense pain as he did. She began to sob again. He ejaculated, grunting and salivating and ramming her body and face flat to the floor, collapsing onto her. Her open mouth merged with the soil, bark and insects. He felt heavy, as he lay there for a minute or so; not saying anything, but she could hear him breathing heavily, and smelled his body odour and his semen.  She retched again.

  ‘Told you, you would fucking love it, bitch.’ His voice seemed calmer. That was good.

  She whimpered an indiscernible response.

  He pushed himself up and grabbed at the thin gold necklace around her neck, ripping it off, breaking the thin chain.

  ‘A souvenir of our special day.’ he mocked.

  He rolled off her and she curled on her side, drawing her legs up, covering her head with her arms, shivering with cold, and the shock caused by the whole wretched episode. 

  He lay at the side of her, his arm across her chest. Again, the breathing. What was he doing? She peeked at him and he looked drowsy, his eyes closing. Would he fall asleep? Was he drugged up? Could she escape? The cold earth clung to her semi-naked body. She couldn’t stop herself from shivering. She waited for an opportunity, any chance that might appear, to get away. Could she talk her way out of it? She strained to hear a sound, a hint of anyone in earshot, someone nearby who could help. If they were close enough, and brave enough. Maybe they would help, and she would survive. She heard nothing but the distant buzz of traffic on the roads circling the wooded area.

  The monster had not fantasised about this part of the proceedings; the aftermath. When he had previously envisioned it, during his masturbating, he always came, and his warped mind never travelled beyond it. He needed to get out of there. Get away.

    ‘If you tell the police about this, I will be back and carve your fucking tits off, and then slash your fucking eyeballs, do you understand?’

  ‘I won’t. Honestly. I promise no-one will know about this, nobody, I swear.  Can I go now, please?’

  ‘No. You came, didn’t you? You loved it, you whore, didn’t you?’

She did not look at the man. She was too scared to. He might see how repulsed she was.

   ‘Mmm.’ Was all she could utter.

  ‘You’re fucking lying!’

  ‘I’m not, I swear.’

 ‘You’re a fucking liar!’

  He swiped his hand across Mandy’s face and then grabbed at her breasts, digging his strong fingers into her flesh, and pulling at them, making her squeal in agony. She was crying wholeheartedly, desperate and afraid. The man felt her tights at the side of his leg. He straddled her, on his knees, sitting on her stomach, her tights in his hands, which he wrapped twice around her neck and lifted her head off the ground with either end.  She did not resist, she was floppy, heavy. Mandy had given up the ghost, but then a noise. Voices, getting closer. Somebody was coming. His bravado failed him. It sounded like men approaching. Somebody was approaching the little wood; and they were getting closer. He was going to be caught. ‘Quiet!’ He whispered aggressively. He could see that she too had heard; hope was in her eyes; she was about to scream. He pulled hard on the tights to silence her. ‘Don’t you dare make a sound.’ He whispered. She gurgled, her eyes now wide and desperate as she choked, unable to take in oxygen.

  He didn’t look at her. He looked away, towards the direction of the footsteps and muffled voices approaching. He pulled at the tights, again and again, tightening the improvised ligature each time. He didn’t want her to make a noise. He could feel her jerking and thrashing underneath him on the dank soil. She grabbed at him briefly, but he moved out of reached and he pulled with all his strength. They would hear, unless…he felt her go limp but still he tugged at the tights. She could be faking death. She wasn’t. Mandy Towlson was dead. The last thing she had smelt was the stench of her own urine still wet on the tights now wrapped around her throat.

  He lay on top of her corpse, her distended tongue protruding from her mouth, wetting his cheek as he nestled into her, covering her pale body from sight, with his own. There were two men walking past, but they were oblivious to the scene a matter of yards away. The maniac grabbed a thick piece of branch in his hand, to use as a weapon. The men walked by chatting and laughing. They would never know how, in that moment, just how close they came to saving Mandy’s life, or indeed, inadvertently causing her death.

 

*

 

Barbara turned off the television set. It was ten past one in the morning and still no sign of Mandy. She was extremely tired, but her exhaustion was masked by concern for her flat mate. She paced around the small living room. ‘Where the hell is, she?’ Barbara was agitated, and she went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for the umpteenth time and lit a cigarette. She stared out of the window into the blackness, not knowing that Mandy’s body lay naked and rigid; frozen in death, a matter of a few hundred yards from the railway line, which she now gazed out at. She caught her own reflection in the glass. ‘My God!’ Her face was drawn and her hair greasy; dark circles evident underneath her eyes. Her heavily hairsprayed hair had all but collapsed. She wiped a hand over her face, as she tried to stay awake. She would have to go to bed soon, this was getting ridiculous. Her eyelids were drooping. What could she do? She wanted to do the right thing by Mandy, in case something was the matter, but what exactly? There was no way of contacting her, she was supposed to be back for dinner, hours ago. She would have strong words with her about this. Having a flat mate was supposed to be a benefit, not an added concern, she’d stopped babysitting when she was fifteen, she wasn’t about to start up again. This was out of order. She had expected better from Mandy, and she wasn’t going to put up with this sort of nonsense. It wasn’t fair on her for a start. She sighed. She was probably worrying for nothing, but that wasn’t the point.

  She took her drink into the living room. ‘She could have bloody rung me.’ She said to no-one. ‘I bet she’s gone back with that bloody Patrick. I knew she hadn’t got him out of her system.’

  It had been such a lovely party and now this was putting a dampener on it, having gone from such a fantastic high to a real low.

  Restless, she went in the hallway with her cuppa, and sat on the stairs in front of the telephone, stubbing her cigarette out in the ashtray. She stared at the telephone, and nibbled at her bottom lip, unsure what to do. She ran her finger down the telephone book and stopped at Patrick’s name, written in red and underlined by Mandy. She grabbed her keys and unlocked the small metal lock inserted in the number 1 on the circular dial. To ring out you had to put a finger in the hole over the particular number and rotate the dial to the end and let go, you would then do the same with each number. You couldn’t dial out with a lock blocking the movement of the dial. She thought it was a good idea when Mandy came to live with her, but it was already becoming a pain. She dialled the number. After a dozen or so rings, it was answered by a tired sounding voice.

  ‘Hello?’ The voice was croaky, and the man coughed to clear it.

  ‘Hello, Patrick?’ Barbara pulled her knees up to her chest and covered her feet with her nightie.

 ‘Yes, who’s this?’

  She could tell he was annoyed. ‘I’m sorry Patrick. It’s Barbara – Mandy’s friend. Is Mandy with you?’

  ‘No, she isn’t. Look is this is a joke? ‘Cos if it is, I don’t think it’s very funny. It’s gone one o’clock in the morning, for Christ’s sake.’

  Barbara was quick to respond, the butterflies in her stomach intensifying, at the news that Mandy was not there. ‘It’s not a joke, Patrick. I’m worried about Mandy. I’m sorry for waking you up but she hasn’t come home yet since she went to work this morning. I thought she was going to see you, about you ringing her last night.’

  ‘I didn’t ring her last night.’

  ‘Oh, come on Patrick, Mandy told me all about it.’

  ‘Barbara; I didn’t ring her last night, honestly. Why would I?’

  ‘OK, fine, look, she normally rings me if she is going to be late, even if it’s from a phone box, and I haven’t heard a word from her. I’m getting worried now.’

  There was a pause before he spoke. ‘I’m sorry, Barbara, but that problem is not my problem anymore, and you’re welcome to it!’

  ‘But I don’t know whether to ring the poli…’ The phone went dead.

  Barbara sighed. Now she’d put her foot in it with Patrick.  Mandy would love her for this. Well, Mandy ought to have bloody rung her.

  Barbara put the phone back on the stand and, abandoning her cup on the stairs, began to climb them wearily. She took her dressing gown off, before flopping onto the bed and pulling the blankets over her. The sheet was cold, and she shivered. She had hoped for an early night after the party. She couldn’t stay awake any longer; her eyes felt like they had been sandpapered and her head was thumping. Within a few minutes she was asleep.

  She sat up with a jolt when the phone rang again, and she staggered, half asleep, down the stairs; nearly breaking her neck when she lost her footing briefly, three steps from the bottom.  She grabbed the phone. ‘Mandy?’

  There was silence. ‘Mandy, is that you? Are you OK? Where are you?’

Still silence, before the phone went dead.

  ‘For God’s sake, what the hell is going on?’ She waited for a few minutes, sitting on the stairs, her head nodding forwards, as sleep overwhelmed her. It did not ring again, and there was no ‘call back’ feature on the phone. She felt alone and confused. She dragged her tired frame back up the stairs, cursing as she did. ‘Mandy, I’m going to kill you, when I see you!’

3

‘Christmas comes but once a year

is enough.’

                                                 ANON

 

The bedroom was cloaked in darkness. A man and woman lay motionless in the bed, its quilt in a state of disarray. Gusts of wind buffeted the house causing the walls to creak, under the strain of the incessant blasts of winter.

  A hairy leg protruded from underneath one side of the cover and, in contrast, manicured, painted toenails were visible under the quilt on the other. In the distance, outside, the noise of a car alarm and the subsequent clunk of a car door being closed fell upon deaf ears. Dave Stark turned over and placed his arm over Carol’s curled up figure.

  A loud crooning voice suddenly broke into the relative quiet of the room, in the middle of a Christmas melody. The radio alarm clock heralded the seasonal awakening by Dean Martin. It was 06:45.

  ‘Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane snow is glistening.  A beautiful sight we’re happy tonight…’

  David Stark opened one bleary eye. He croaked aloud, ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland.’ He then smacked his hand down on the alarm to silence it.

  He stretched his body, issuing groans and distorted gurgles as his muscles lengthened. He closed his eyes again but received an elbow in the ribs.

  ‘Don’t go back to sleep!’ Carol muttered wearily.

  Dave leaned over and put the bedside lamp on. The wattage of the lamp was low but still made him screw his eyelids tightly together, to block out the sword of light piercing his pupils. He then tentatively opened his eyelids a fraction at a time, allowing the light to gently fade in. He remained prostrate on the mattress.

  ‘Come on, love, you’ll be late for work.’ Carol urged.

   ‘But its Christmas Eve, a man should be in the bosom of his family, not rushing out to work.’

  Carol leaned on to her elbow and stared at the unkempt specimen at her side. His face was pale and there was a hint of bags showing beneath his eyes. She matched his squint in the glow of the lamp and frowned. ‘Ye gods. Is that the man I married?’

  ‘No, he’s out at the moment, please leave a message after the tone. Beep.’ Stark said.

  ‘My beloved husband who convinced me he was a catch and charmed me down the alter.’

  ‘It’s not too late for an annulment.’ He said, sleep now beyond recall.

  Carol continued unabated. ‘And as for being in the bosom of your family on Christmas Eve, Detective Inspector bloody Stark, I don’t know how you’ve got the nerve! I think in the twenty -one years we’ve been married; we have managed one solitary Christmas together. One.’

  ‘Good morning, darling, you’re starting early today. Do you actually nag me in your dreams and you just continue as soon as you wake up, in mid flow?’

  ‘Very funny.’

  ‘Anyway, as you know, it’s going to be different this year. As soon as four o’clock arrives, I am off for Christmas, and you’ve got me all to yourself.  And I may never go back to that wretched place.’

  Carol laughed sceptically. ‘If only it were true.’

  ‘OK. I will have to go back, but I am off for three whole days.  Three days of Christmas merriment and family fun. I cannot wait.’

  The two embraced and kissed. Carol rested her head on his chest.

  She sounded excited as she spoke. ‘I’ve been really looking forward to this Christmas. We’ll be like a normal family for once.  It’ll be good for the kids too. They might have enjoyed it more ten years ago, but, better late than never.’

  Dave smiled. ‘Judging by the schedule you’ve got planned for us all, it will be more hectic than being at work.’

  Carol took hold of Dave’s balls in her hand and slowly started to squeeze.

  ‘Say that again, Dave, I don’t think I quite heard that right.’

  ‘I said I’m looking forward to our Christmas together, sweetness.’

  She took her hand away. ‘Argh! They’re sweaty.’

  ‘Serves you right.’ He laughed.

 ‘I’m glad you’re looking forward to our family Christmas, because I am so excited, I feel like I’m going to burst.’

  ‘Me too, darling.’ He gave her a peck on her lips. ‘I was thinking of taking Chris to the City Ground to watch Forest, on Boxing day, it’s a rare chance for us to see a bit of football together.’

  ‘Have I got to grab those balls again?’

  ‘No need, I’m only kidding, they’re playing away at Norwich.’

She punched his shoulder. ‘Don’t do that to me!’

 ‘Oi!’

  ‘I hardly touched you. Come on then, Inspector, you’d better shift your backside.’

  Dave groaned. ‘All right, I’m getting up, just give me a minute. He closed his eyes again. He began to caress Carol’s small but firm breasts and edged his hand down towards her…’

  ‘Oh no you don’t! It’s not quite Christmas yet.’

  ‘Many a true word spoken in jest.’

  ‘Come on, lazy bones, get off to work, I want the bed to myself.’

  ‘Charming. The truth is out.’ He wearily swung his legs round and rested his feet on the floor, so that he was sitting on the side of the bed.  After a few seconds he stood up.  He was naked.  ‘Where’s my dressing gown gone? I left it on the…’ 

  ‘On the bedroom floor.’ She finished his sentence for him. ‘No wonder the kid’s rooms are a tip. They take after their father.’

  ‘Where have you put it?’

  For a man in his forties, he had retained a muscular frame, the shadows on the contours of his body rippled as he peered around the room. Carol was laughing as Dave searched the bedroom, she could see his balls dangling down as he bent over to open the Ottoman. Her light brown hair was short, and the wisp of hair curling in front of her ears, twinned with a devilish smile, gave her an impish look. Unfortunately, the room was cold after the winds of the previous night, and the chilly air was visibly reducing the previously impressive length of his pride and joy to the y of joy. He reached down to cover his nether regions with his hand.

  Carol was giggling. ‘Forty-three years old and still playing with it!’

  ‘You’re right they are a bit sweaty.’ He spotted his dressing gown on the peg at the back of the door, wrapping himself in it and heading off to the en-suite.

  ‘Yes, the last place you look is where it should be; hanging up!’

  David didn’t answer and she pulled the quilt over her head to get some warmth and some respite from Dave’s throaty warbling now emanating from the direction of the shower.

  ‘In the meadow we can build a snowman…’

 

*

 

It was more a sense of duty than desire, that prompted the elderly Albert Hudson to struggle down the gravelly path at the rear of Wigwam Lane. He was a dedicated dog owner and he knew it wasn’t fair that his dog ‘Sal’ should suffer just because he had an old fart as an owner. The dog was called Sal after a mix up over gender when he was a pup. They had stuck with it.

   The harsh wind buffeted him along and the trees swayed back and forth, rustling as they did so. The clouds were animated and grey as they tumbled through the sky seeking out another victim to rain on. Occasionally Albert would clutch onto his cloth cap and pause in the shelter of one of the larger trees that formed the perimeter of the housing estate and segregated the road from the railway line. It alleviated the cold and afforded him a few moments to catch his breath. He let Sal go, and he ran off at high speed into the trees. She had been tugging at the lead all the way down the path. She could smell something, he thought. Probably a rabbit.

  Since the death of his adored wife Amy, he had grown more attached to Sal, his border collie, who almost seemed aware of the sadness and grieving Albert had silently endured. He rested on his carved walking stick and stooped to peer through the trees. His hands and ears were cold. He should have put his gloves on, but he didn’t have Amy there to remind him anymore. The wind had meant the chill factor was much worse than it first appeared when he stepped out of his house, surrounded by the houses, which initially sheltered him from the freezing gusts. 

He put two fingers to his mouth and whistled out a shrill sound.

  ‘Come on, Sal,’ he shouted.

  The dog had disappeared among the trees and, unusually, did not respond to his master’s voice. Normally he would come bounding up towards him for a treat, several of which he kept in his jacket pocket, which gave it that strange aroma.

  He tried again. ‘Sal.’

  There was still no response. He trooped onward and down a small path, hewn from the locals’ footsteps over recent years; gaining a bit more speed as his legs cranked into gear. He muttered to himself, annoyed at the lack of obedience his beloved dog was showing. Suddenly he caught sight of his black and white fur just to one side of the path and noticed that he was tugging at something. He was growling as he tugged. He stepped into the trees, to get a better view and the reason for Sal’s disobedience became evident. He froze on the spot, his mouth gaping and the cool air forgotten. He swallowed and took a tentative step towards the dog before stopping again, as if the apparition might harm him. He stood motionless, processing the scene, his astonishment paralyzing him momentarily.

  Sal was tugging at the ligature that was still wrapped around the dead girl’s neck. Each tug rocked the stiffened body, now solid with rigor mortis. Albert snapped out of his shock and stumbled towards the grotesque figure, yanking Sal away. He smelt the decaying flesh as he did and began coughing fitfully.

  ‘Sit and stay!’ he ordered. A tremor in his command betrayed his shock. Sal half whimpered and half growled at the body on the cold earth. She was lying on her back; her blouse was wide open and her lower half naked and exposed. Albert stared at the semi-naked cadaver of Mandy Towlson.

  The wind had ruffled through her clothing and thrown dust onto her face, settling mainly on her protruding bulbous tongue, turning it brown. Albert sat down on an overturned tree trunk, his body loose with incredulity and sadness. ‘Oh, Lord above.  Poor girl.’ He muttered to himself, taking his cap off and wiping his brow on his sleeve. His stomach churned as he took in the macabre sight. He lit a roll-up cigarette. He’d had a hard life and encountered much adversity in his 74 years, but the image before him rocked him to the core.

  It was apparent that some wild animal, a fox, or even a dog had eaten away at her hand as several of the bones of her fingers were completely exposed and skeletal. She had one skeletal hand which was finished off with perfectly applied bright red nail varnish. Her eyes had been gouged out of their sockets and gobbled up by the wildlife, the bloody holes seemed fresh with parts of the surrounding skin rough and flapping in the breeze. Despite the horrific disfigurement, Albert thought he recognised the girl. She looked like the young lady that was new to the area, and who used to say hello to him on the few times their paths had crossed. She had always seemed so pleasant, whenever he had seen her. She would often make a fuss of Sal.

  He sighed and drew on his cigarette, clinging on to Sal’s collar and stroking at her neck with his finger.

  ‘Oh dear, Sal,’ he said aloud, ‘what have we walked into here, boy?’

  The collie panted and blinked his eyes at Albert. The old man stubbed his cigarette out and headed off towards the estate as fast as his bowed legs could carry him. He hurried Sal along with his stick.

  He knocked loudly at the door of the first house he came to.

 

*

 

Detective Inspector David Stark had been informed of the murder immediately upon his arrival at work. Usually he took such news with a degree of resignation. He revelled in major enquiries; it was why he did the job. He loved it. The timing of this, however, was not good. Carol was so looking forward to family time at Christmas and this would go down like a lead balloon.

  Stark had had a chequered career. He had done well for himself, bearing in mind he was a man with no great academic qualifications. He had no university qualifications, no degree.  Common sense, resolve, knowledge of the human psyche, and excellent detective ability, had enhanced his standing in the eyes of many senior officers. He got results and that was what mattered in the big bad world, regardless of what degree you had.  It was fair to say that his family had suffered over the years with the demands of the job, and he did have an underlying feeling of guilt about that; but other than return to the uniform branch, he was stuck with the ramifications of being a Detective Inspector: late-night call-outs, engagements cancelled, and long hours. Stark was a copper’s copper. He rarely had to wield the big stick. His loyalty, support and willingness to listen to the troops, ensured his detectives wanted to work for him and give of their best. A CID office with a contented atmosphere, meant to him, a successful office. His last spell of ‘Acting up’ in the next rank, had gone well enough, he thought, but as yet, no substantive promotion had come his way. The head of CID, Detective Superintendent John Davies was aware of Stark’s abilities, but clearly did not like him. He had been too frank, on too many occasions. The likes of his neighbouring Detective Inspector Lee Mole throwing down poison in his direction every verse end, was also unhelpful. The head honcho had told David that he needed to distance himself from his men more. As is often the case, Davies wanted a clone of himself to be promoted, not someone who might challenge him. He saw popularity as a weakness and sought to destroy it. It said more about Davies than Stark; it was small minded, but all too prevalent in all walks of life. Part of the problem was that Stark didn’t really want to be promoted, being a Detective Inspector was the best job in the world, in his opinion, apart from being a Detective Sergeant, and he had given that up for promotion. He wasn’t sure he wanted to superglue his backside to an office chair just yet, and spend the day shuffling papers, internal politics and Machiavellian manoeuvring, while others caught the bad guys.

  Stark’s mind was a whirl of emotions as he drove to the scene of what appeared to be a horrific crime. His thoughts were nothing to do with the murder, he was trying to construct different ways in which he could break the news to Carol that he wouldn’t be carving the turkey again this year. A far more terrifying prospect than visiting a murder scene. His heart sank at the mere thought. He was suffering from a mixture of exhilaration and anticipation on the professional side, and disappointment and guilt on the personal side. He didn’t want to let his family down, but in truth he wasn’t, you can’t turn your back on murder. It was just sod’s law that it happened to be Christmas Eve. He had been looking forward to family time as well. The timing was awful.

  As he got out of his car, he had to throw away his personal thoughts and focus his mind on the job ahead.

  Uniformed Sergeant Mick Montgomery greeted Stark cheerily.  ‘Merry Christmas, sir,’

  Stark frowned, steam issuing from his mouth as he spoke. ‘Yes, Merry Christmas to you as well, Mick. Where is it?’

  ‘Over there, sir, you’ll see the yellow tape. Come on, I’ll take you down there.’

  ‘Okay, but hang on, Mick. Have we established one route in and one route out?’

  ‘Erm. Well there’s only been a couple of us go to it.’

  ‘Let’s make sure that the route we take does not impact on any evidence as we approach and we mark that route as the one for all persons attending, to use, yes?’

  ‘Of course, sir, no problem.’ The Sergeant led the way.

  Stark stepped through the undergrowth. It was rough terrain, as they needed to be certain it was not a route that the attacker was likely to have chosen, and thereby taint the scene as they approached it. Stark battled through the nettles and shrubs to catch sight of the corpse.

  Detective Sergeant Nobby Clarke, having arrived in Stark’s wake, followed on behind, cursing and swearing every time his suit trousers got snagged.

  Stark came to a halt and instinctively put his hands in the pockets of his Crombie overcoat. It wasn’t merely for warmth, but to avoid touching anything. He remained silent, as he surveyed the scene. He noticed the obvious and disturbing wildlife interference to her face and hand, and the ligature around the poor girl’s neck. He noticed the knickers to one side of her; her raincoat and shoulder bag with a bright metal buckle, lay about three or four feet away. The shoulder bag was not open. He scanned the immediate area around the body before speaking to Nobby who had arrived at his side.

  ‘Thoughts, boss?’ Nobby asked.

  ‘My first thought is that it’s at times like this, that I miss my cigars.’

  ‘Don’t succumb now boss, you’ve gone over a week.’  Nobby said as he lit up a cigarette.

  Stark fished into his pocket and put a mint in his mouth. ‘We’ll see. Looks like a sex attack, obviously. The question is whether it is someone known to her, or a stranger.’

  ‘Absolutely.’ Nobby agreed.

  ‘The other thing that bothers me about this…’

  Nobby blew into his hands for warmth, ash hanging precariously off his cigarette. ‘What’s that, boss?’

  ‘How the hell am I going to tell my Mrs?’

  Nobby laughed. ‘Oh dear. Tricky.’

  ‘Tricky, isn’t the word, Nobby. You’d better shout the rest of the lads up, and tell them from me, that Christmas is cancelled.’

  ‘Yeah, okay.’

  Nobby headed back towards the line of police vehicles some distance away. Stark’s gaze followed him. He spoke to Mick Montgomery. ‘Oh, Shit that’s all I need.’ Stark could see the stocky figure of Detective Superintendent Wagstaff barging past the young PC who had been instructed to keep a log of all those in attendance. Wagstaff was veering off, heading directly along the easiest route towards the scene. As ever he was immaculate in three-piece suit and a handkerchief tipping over his breast pocket.

  ‘We’ve started this route in, boss.’ Stark shouted, as he pointed to the trampled down undergrowth. Wagstaff didn’t speak but deviated back onto their route. 

  As soon as he arrived, and saw the scene, he gave his orders to Sergeant Montgomery. ‘I want the Police Surgeon, Scenes of Crime and Forensic informed and travelling now, please.’

  ‘I’ll get that sorted straight away, sir.’ Mick replied.

  ‘Stark caught his arm as he set off. ‘No need, Mick. I arranged that before I left the station.’

  Wagstaff wriggled his moustache.  ‘Anybody notified the press office?’

  ‘Not yet sir. We’ve just got here, ourselves.’ Stark said.

  ‘That needs doing sharpish, because it won’t be long before the press starts to arrive. Mick, can you get a couple of uniform to keep an eye on marshalling anyone from the press and keep them at the barriers.’

  ‘Of course, sir.’

  ‘And we need some screens. I don’t think they can see the body from the barriers, but they have these fancy zoom lenses nowadays, so let’s not take any chances.’

  ‘I’ll sort it sir,’

Sergeant Montgomery ambled off, back the way they had come, to comply with Wagstaff’s instructions.

  Stark appraised Wagstaff of the situation. ‘It looks like she’s been dead for some time. The uniform lads have done a good job of things, it’s all set up nicely.’

  ‘That’s what they get paid for isn’t it?’ He craned his neck before offering a more mellow comment. ‘I hate outdoor murders, David. You’re battling against the elements all the time, I mean, look at the state of her face. It’s starting to rain now for Christ’s sake.’

  ‘Yeah, good isn’t it? I’ll arrange for them to bring a tarpaulin over, or better still a tent to get the scene covered.’

  ‘Do it sharpish, David, will you? I would have thought that was already underway.’

  ‘I only got here, literally two minutes before you did, sir.’

  ‘It wasn’t necessarily directed at you David.’ It was.

  Stark headed back towards the police cars and radioed up to sort a tent out. He joined Nobby who was talking to the old man that found her, Albert Hudson.

  ‘So, you haven’t moved anything, then Mr Hudson?’ Nobby asked.

  ‘No, lad, I’ve told you. Sal here was tugging at that thing around her neck and that’s it. I’ve not touched owt else.’

  Stephanie Dawson and Steve Aston drew up in a CID car. Stark met them.

  ‘Looks like your Christmas plans have gone down the Swanee, Steph. I think this one is going to be a runner. Looks like a stranger rape to me. She’s got a ligature around her neck. She’s been dead a while, by the looks of it.’

  Steph grimaced and shook her head. ‘Poor woman.’

  ‘She’s barely a woman, Steph. She’s only a youngster, about twenty maybe.’

  ‘It will give me great pleasure to catch this bastard.’ She said.

  ‘You and me both, Steph. Will you get the details of the bystanders and the cars parked in the vicinity for a starter?  Eh, and watch out; Wagstaff’s on the prowl. We’ll have a briefing in a bit, once we’ve sorted the scene out.’

  ‘Great.’ She said. ‘Not the briefing, I mean Wagstaff.’ She clarified.

  ‘Don’t worry he’ll be gone soon; it’s too cold for him to stay out here kicking tyres for too long. His cocoa will get cold.’

  Steph laughed and turned to start her tasks; young Steve Aston followed behind her, his face flushed red, through a combination of the cold, and his nerves, at being involved in such a serious crime.

  The white Transit van of the Scenes of Crime Department arrived. Stark walked quickly towards it, and a glance behind showed Wagstaff puffing and panting towards them in the distance, steam billowing from his mouth.

  Two Scenes of Crime Officers got out of the front of the vehicle.  Stuart Kirkland and Sandy Eastman had a long and arduous task ahead of them and their grim faces were indicative of the concentration that was necessary for such an important role. Outdoor scenes only allowed for one mistake and evidence would be lost forever, if you called it wrongly.

  ‘Have you got a tent?’  Stark asked.

  ‘Yes. That’s the first job, let’s get it up straight away.’ Stuart said.

  ‘I think Traffic are bringing another one over, so that should give you good coverage.’ Stark put the collar of his overcoat up as a chill ran through him.

    ‘Excellent.’

  Stark briefed them about the scene construct, as they donned their white overalls and shoe coverings, before traipsing down the pathway which was now taped off as the official ‘access corridor.’

  As well as the tent, they clutched cameras and tripods and large metal cases, and bags, and all manner of paraphernalia which Stark and Nobby helped them with. Stuart Kirkland wanted his hands free, as he began to video the surrounding area and then the walk towards the scene; so, he led the way. He would capture the scene for posterity at its cleanest state, once they could see the detail. The video would be viewed many times by Stark and others and not least by Barristers at Crown Court when, and if, an offender was ever charged with the murder.

  Much to the annoyance of Stuart Kirkland, Superintendent Wagstaff insisted on ‘directing’ the film. He persistently butted in and generally made a nuisance of himself.

  ‘Don’t forget the bag…zoom down on the approach…Get the railway line in at the back…Go past the scene towards the estate…it looks like there are footprints there look,…Get that tin can in…and that fag end by the log…’

  Stuart didn’t want this interruption continually, so he explained his irritation to Wagstaff. ‘Mr Wagstaff, with all due respect, I have been to twenty murders up until now…’

  ‘Oh, Happy twenty first.’ Nobby said.

  The joke was ignored, and Stuart continued. ‘…so, can I please do my bit, sir, and we can discuss it when I’ve finished? If there is anything I’ve missed or anything you want extra, I will gladly oblige, of course.’

  Wagstaff didn’t acknowledge the request but spoke to Stark.  ‘I’m going back to the Dream factory, David, to sort out PRO, as the press will be wanting something pretty soon, and I want to lure them to HQ rather than have them hanging around here, if it’s possible.’

  ‘And its very cold, sir.’ Stark smiled.

  ‘And its very cold. We can hook up when you’ve done here.’

  ‘Will do, sir, thanks.’

  The hunched figure of Wagstaff went off back to his car and away into the safety zone of HQ. Stark felt relieved; he could concentrate on his job now.

  There was a fracas over on the far side of the crime scene, and Stark’s attention was drawn to a group of young boys of around twelve or thirteen years old, who were remonstrating loudly with Sergeant Mick Montgomery.

  ‘It’s a police state, that’s what it is. If we want to go into the wood, we will do, and you can’t stop us. It’s a free country. I’m going to complain about you.’

  The lads were used to getting their own way and the little Prince’s had not yet encountered an old-school Sergeant, who was trying to support a murder scene and was feeling the pressure. The boy didn’t see it coming, but his head jerked sideways as it was struck by the open palm of the Sergeant. 

  ‘Complain about that bugger.  Now piss off, you little shits.’

  The lads ran off, one clutching the side of his head, crying.

  Stark smiled and then sighed. He took a cigar out of his coat and lit it. ‘Ah well, it is Christmas.’ He muttered to himself.

 

*

 

Barbara could see Mandy from her window. It was dark, but it certainly looked like Mandy. She was dancing, carefree, light-footed and light-hearted.  Was she drunk?  She looked different, relaxed, released of all burdens. Mandy was waving to her as she looked from the window, beckoning her. Barbara went downstairs, conscious of the cold air hitting her in her nightgown, the pavement cold under her feet, until she reached the grassy area at the rear of the house, and the grass wrapped around her feet, making them wet. It was slippery underfoot, and Barbara slowed to a walking pace. This was crazy. As she approached Mandy, she remained the same distance away; around ten feet, and the distance remained even though Mandy did not move. Barbara could not get closer to her, like the end of a rainbow that moves, the closer you get to it.  Barbara was puzzled, why couldn’t she get to her? There was an invisible barrier between them. Mandy looked amazing, glowing, mystical almost; she raised a hand and Barbara stopped intuitively. Mandy spoke. ‘It’s OK, I’m with Grampa Towlson.’

Barbara sat bolt upright in bed, she was sweating, despite the low temperature in the room.

  ‘Damn it. A dream.’ In her waking daze, Barbara, re-lived the spooky experience. What did it mean? She muttered to herself. ‘I’m with Grampa Towlson.’ Both of Mandy’s Grandfathers were dead. Barbara raised a hand to her mouth. She felt a strange sensation come over her. It was as if there were a stranger in her room. Something was intruding. She didn’t like it. As the veils of sleep were drawing away, she could hear voices outside, and then tyres on gravel. Was it the radio? Another dream?  No, this was real. No doubt. She had slept so deeply she felt disorientated. Were there people in her flat? Her eyes opened wide and she noticed that the walls of her bedroom were strobed with intermittent blue light. Her room was small with just a wardrobe and no chest of drawers.

  ‘Police.’ she said out loud.

  Within a couple of seconds, she was at the window. Looking down towards the railway line, she could see the line of police cars and other vehicles, stemming all the way back to the main road. A small crowd of people huddled close together, close to a group of uniformed policemen talking to men in suits, who she assumed, were detectives. A black and white collie dog was roaming around.

  She turned and ran into Mandy’s room, almost knocking the door off its hinges as she entered.

  ‘Mandy?’

  The bed had not been slept in. She raced, heart pounding, back to her bedroom window and her eyes traced two parallel lines of yellow police tape, but the trees obstructed her view of the focal point. Her familiarity with cop television programmes told her that this meant one thing. A murder. She felt nauseous and steadied herself by clutching onto the windowsill, scrutinising the scene, looking for clues, as she bit at her fingernails. Something had happened in the small group of trees next to the pathway. Would Mandy have taken that route? She usually came around the houses, she knew it was too dark to walk that way home. She had come that way before though. But not if she was going to Patricks to have it out with him, she wouldn’t be coming that way back to the house. Why would she come back that way?  She wouldn’t.  Yet Patrick had said on the phone that he hadn’t seen her, so she could have come back that way. This was ridiculous. She threw open the window and before she knew it, she heard herself shouting down at those assembled.

  ‘Hello? Hello. Excuse, me, I’m scared. My friend hasn’t been in all night. Is everything all right?’

  A man in a Crombie overcoat, obviously a Detective, glanced up at the window and became aware of several curtains twitching from the small block of flats. He homed in on the girl at the window and he could see she was fraught with worry. He put his hand parallel to the side of his mouth and returned the shout.

  ‘I’ll send someone round to see you.’

  ‘Oh, thank you. It’s number eighteen.’  She let the curtain drop and leaned her back against the wall, closing her eyes.

  ‘Oh, please God, not Mandy.’

  She gathered her thoughts and laughed somewhat unconvincingly. ‘Don’t be silly, Barbara, of course it’s not Mandy.’

  Curiosity got the better of her and she peered through the gap in the curtain again. A man in a suit was walking towards the flat complex. Barbara went to her wardrobe and hurriedly began to dress, her mind flickering through a host of nightmare images as she did so, which she attempted to chase away with reasoned arguments. Then there was the weird dream. It was just a dream, or nightmare, one of the two. But the nightmare did not go away. It was about to get worse.

 

*

 

Steve Aston had a lot on his mind. He was an inexperienced young detective. He had noticed he was being included more in primary activities with these serious cases, which thrilled him, but also worried him, fearful of making the big mistake. Stark had told him to go over to see the woman at the window who wanted to talk to them, and then go on to the morgue with a Scenes of Crime man and take possession of all the deceased’s clothing. He had to assist with the exhibits for the post-mortem. This was always a task that would make a detective focus and need mental strength to complete. Both from an emotional and intellectual point of view.

  Steve bit at his fingernails as he approached the flat complex, his mental strength not having yet kicked in, his red hair tousled by the annoyingly chilly breeze. He wore a multi-coloured ski jacket over his suit which at first glance gave him a bulky appearance, belying his thin frame. Steve was less confidant than he should be.  He always seemed to think that he was going to mess up. He should have much more self-belief, he was a young man, only in his mid-twenties, who was heavily involved in detecting a murder case, for heaven’s sake. He didn’t arrive there by accident, he had earned the right to do it.  Steve’s mind didn’t work that way, though; he always thought he was one step away from being found out as an incompetent, and regularly questioned whether CID was for him.

  DS Nobby Clarke’s forthright nature had dented what little confidence he had, because when he first came on the department Nobby had joked that he would be ‘better employed as a vicar than a detective’. This was when Steve explained he was vegetarian and scarcely drank alcohol.  Nobby was only joking, of course, but Steve’s sensibilities weren’t very strong. Nobby’s view was that he would hear far worse from others and he needed to toughen up, if he was going to be successful as a detective. Steve had improved slightly in that department and his peers had been helpful towards him, Nobby in particular. He would never be a Nobby Clarke, he didn’t want to be, but he was grateful that he and the other detectives in the office had pulled him up when he was heading towards a mistake. He wanted to do well, to prove their support was worth it, not to prove them wrong exactly, but to justify his appointment. It was something he was unlikely to ever shake off.  On this occasion, however he was on his own, with no-one’s lead to follow.

  He knocked on the door of number 18 Buckingham Avenue. The hard wood on his cold knuckles caused his hand to throb. He placed his hand in his pocket and produced a white cotton handkerchief. He blew his nose hard, just as the door was opened. He spoke through the cloth of the handkerchief, giving him a nasal tone.

  ‘Hello, I’m from the CID. Nothing to worry about.’ There was, very much something to worry about, of course. ‘I wonder if I could have a couple of minutes of your time?’

  While trying to replace the handkerchief, he began fumbling with his wallet for his ID card, the handkerchief now fluttering in the breeze.

  Barbara spoke; her face solemn and concerned. ‘It’s all right. I know who you are and why you are here. I shouted out the window to you. It was me who asked you to come over.’

  ‘Of course, you did, yes, silly me.’

  ‘You’d better come in.’

  The two stood together rather awkwardly in the hallway, Steve was used to others taking the lead. ‘It’s a lot warmer in here, that’s for sure.’

  Barbara remained pensive and stared at the callow youth. He had assumed, wrongly of course, that Barbara was just a nosey parker seeking gossip rather than a crucial witness, necessary to identify a murder victim. He had not read her face well at all, but then he was not one for looking anyone full in the face, if he could avoid it.

  ‘There’s been a, erm, a-’ Steve suddenly doubted whether he could disclose what had happened.

  ‘Murder.’ Barbara finished the sentence for him. ‘I know that much, I’m not daft, you know. Who is it?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Steve asked the wall.

  ‘Who is it that’s been murdered?’ She remained restrained and fought off the overwhelming feeling of panic that engulfed her.  If she ignored the thought that it could be Mandy, maybe this would all go away.

  ‘I don’t know, I’m afraid.’ Steve answered honestly.

  Barbara snapped. She was already annoyed by the spectacle in front of her and his seemingly evasive, bumbling and non-committal attitude. The was not the pre-conceived image she had of a detective, and his erratic, shy behaviour served to frustrate her even more.

  ‘What do you mean you don’t know? You’re a detective, aren’t you? Of course, you bloody well know!’ She was shaking.

  Steve scrutinised Barbara; her hostility forcing him to meet her stare, and he decided that she was either a nutcase or there was something amiss. He looked puzzled.

  ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

  ‘All right? All right? Of course, I’m not all right. I’m worried sick that it could be my flat-mate lying out there.’ Her voice betrayed how close she was to tears. ‘She hasn’t been home all night, you know. Not that there is anything wrong in that, but I just wish she had rung or something, I’m not criticising her.’

  ‘I see. Sorry, I wasn’t told that, I was just told to come over to number 18, because you wanted to know what the activity was outside. No wonder you are worried.’

  Barbara sighed. ‘That’s okay.’

  ‘It is a woman who has been killed, but don’t worry – I’m sure it’s not your friend. What does she look like?’ Steve asked.

  Barbara touched her own hair as she described Mandy. ‘She’s got blonde hair, cut quite short, she’s slim, erm, God, I don’t know, a biggish nose, blue eyes and she was wearing her light coloured raincoat and I think she has her clasp fastening bag with her, it’s a grey colour I think, but don’t hold me to that.’

  Steve stared at Barbara. She continued. ‘She always wears a necklace, a thin chained one that her Mum bought her for her eighteenth. The woman - you know, the victim - she doesn’t look like that does she?’

  Steve swallowed hard. ‘Erm, descriptions are always difficult.’

  ‘Does she look like that, for heaven’s sake? Just tell me straight, for God’s sake.’

  ‘She does match the description, but she hasn’t got a necklace on. Not that I could see, anyway.’ Steve chomped on a lozenge; he had a bit of a sniffle. He had been getting a lot of colds lately.

  Naturally, Barbara grasped at the one thing that discounted Mandy. ‘No necklace. Oh, thank God! For some reason I thought it had to be her. I don’t know why, I just did.  She always wore that necklace, always. Thank the Lord.’

  Steve gulped, maybe he should have re-phrased his comment.  ‘I’m not saying it isn’t her, just that she does not have a necklace on. Can you remember more about her clothing?’

  ‘She always wore that necklace, but, yes, as I say a beige raincoat, a white blouse, probably her blue cardigan and her shoulder bag had a bright metal clasp on it.’

  Steve went a whiter shade than his normal anaemic appearance. He was stuck for words.

  Barbara saw it in his eyes.  Her tears welled up and her shaking intensified. ‘It is her isn’t it?  Oh my God, no!’

  Steve didn’t know what to say.

  She bit at her nails and screwed her eyelids tightly together, forcing out tears. She began to cry. She slid down the wall of the hallway on to the floor and gave out heart wrenching sobs and wails, that reverberated around the entire flat.

  Steve merely stood and watched, his arms hanging limply at his sides.

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  It was unclear whether he was sorry for the circumstance or for the amateurish way he had handled the situation. Maybe Nobby had a point.

This site was designed with the
.com
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now