I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing when the phone rang; I didn’t even know that it was the phone that had woken me. I came up from miles below the surface and opened an eye as one part of my brain tried to work out what had disturbed me and another part focused on how to make the noise stop. It resolved into a low rattle that was my phone vibrating crossly on the bedside table along with the high-pitched shrill of the most annoying ring tone I could have chosen. Fumbling for it in the dark, I sideswiped it and managed to push it off the table. It fell face down in the carpet, still ringing, the sound now slightly muffled. I’d winged it but not killed it. The bonus was that now it was a little bit harder to reach. I leaned out of bed at a dangerous angle, raking the carpet with my fingers, trying to get to it.
Most of the nuance was lost in the pillow, but I interpreted Ian’s comment as ‘answer the fucking phone’, which was pretty much what I was thinking myself. Along with what time is it? and what does this eejit want?
I got it at last and stabbed at the buttons until it stopped making a noise, trying to read the screen. LANGTON. Rob. I squinted at the time and read 03.27. Half past three in the morning and Detective Constable Rob Langton was calling me. I was waking up now, my brain starting to crank into gear, but my mouth hadn’t caught up with the change of plans and was still slack with sleep. When I said hello, it sounded slurred, as if I’d been drinking for the last—I worked it out—three and a half hours instead of having some much-needed shut-eye. Three and a half hours. That made six hours of sleep in the last forty-eight. I squeezed my eyes closed and wished I hadn’t added it up. Somehow, knowing the numbers made me feel worse.
‘Did I wake you, Kerrigan?’ I would have recognised the Manchester twang anywhere.
‘You know you did. What do you want?’
I asked, but I already knew. There were only two reasons why Rob Langton would be ringing me at that hour of the morning sounding excited. One: there was another body. Two: they’d caught the killer. Either way, I wasn’t going back to sleep any time soon.
‘No way.’ I sat up in bed and put the light on, ignoring a groan from beside me and squinting as I tried to concentrate. ‘Where? How?’
‘We had a bit of help. Nice young lady out on the beers with a bladed article didn’t take kindly to being next on the Burning Man’s list.’
‘He’s not dead.’ My heart was pounding. If he was dead, that was it. No answers. No trial.
‘Nah, he’s clinging on. He’s in hospital. In surgery, at the minute. Two stab wounds to the abdomen; she lacerated his bowel.’
‘Yeah, couldn’t happen to a nicer person.’
‘Anyone we know?’ I rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand and tried not to yawn.
‘Not known at all. Never been arrested before, and he hadn’t come up in this enquiry.’
I sighed. That wasn’t great news. We hadn’t even been close to catching him, then. We’d just been lucky. Though the girl had been luckier still. I wasn’t a fan of people wandering around carrying knives, but I’d seen enough dead women in the past few weeks to think it wasn’t such a bad idea.
‘His name’s Vic Blackstaff. He had all his documents on him—driver’s licence, work ID. He’s in his mid-fifties, does shift work for a call centre in Epsom. Lives in Peckham. Drives through south-west London to get home in the small hours of the morning. Plenty of opportunity.’
‘Older than we’d thought,’ I commented. ‘Shift work fits, though. Where did it happen?’
‘That’s quite a long way out of the usual area. Up to now he’s stuck to Kennington, Stockwell—nowhere as far out as Richmond.’ I was frowning.
‘Yeah, but his usual area is flooded with uniforms. Makes sense that he would be hunting elsewhere, doesn’t it?’ Rob sounded confident and I gave a mental shrug; who was I to second-guess a serial killer?
‘They’re going through his car at the moment,’ Rob went on. ‘We’re waiting at the hospital.’
‘Me and the boss. And DI Judd, unfortunately. We’ll be interviewing the young lady as soon as the doctors tell us we can talk to her. She’s still being checked out.’
‘How is she? Is she—’
I didn’t want to fill in the rest of the sentence. Is she going to make it? Is she badly beaten? Is she burned? How far had he got?
‘She’s fine. Shaken up. Nothing wrong with her but we haven’t been allowed in to see her yet. She says she’s not ready.’ Rob sounded impatient, which nettled me. Why shouldn’t she take her time before speaking to the police? She’d had a shock. What she needed was a sympathetic ear. And I was the ideal person to provide it. Energy flooded through my limbs, adrenalin pushing fatigue into a corner, to be ignored until I had time to give in to it again. Three hours’ sleep was plenty. I was already out of bed, making for the door, stumbling on rubbery legs that ached as if I’d run a marathon the day before.
‘Well, I’ll be there soon. Maybe they’ll let me talk to her.’ The perks of being the only woman in Superintendent Godley’s inner circle were not legion, but now and then it came in handy.
‘Why doesn’t that surprise me? Nought to sixty in ten minutes, that’s you.’
‘That’s why you phoned me, isn’t it?’ I was in the bathroom now, and debated whether I could risk peeing while on the phone. He’d hear. I’d have to wait.
‘I knew you’d want to be here.’ That was only half the story; it suited them all for me to be there. I could hear Rob grinning; he was a smug git sometimes, but I could forgive him, because when all was said and done, I did want to be there, and without a call from him, I wouldn’t have known a thing about it until I’d seen it on the news.
‘I’ll be there in half an hour,’ I said before I’d thought about it properly. It was a long way from Primrose Hill to Kingston and I desperately needed a shower. My hair was sticking to my head. There was no way I was leaving with dirty hair. Not again. ‘Make that forty minutes.’
‘We’re in the ICU. Phones off, so ring the hospital if you need us.’
I flicked the water on before going to the loo, but even so, it wasn’t even close to warm enough when I forced myself to step into the slate-lined shower area, wincing as the spray hit my goose-pimpled skin. The showerhead was the size of a dinner plate and pumped out rain-forest levels of water; it was just a shame that it never got hot enough for me. Style over substance, as usual. But it wasn’t my flat so I couldn’t really complain. I was sharing it, officially, but I felt more like a guest. And not necessarily a welcome one, at times.
I had balled my hands together under my chin, hugging body heat to myself, and it was an effort to unknot my fingers and reach for the shampoo once the water started to approach tepidity. Haste made me fumble the shampoo cap and I swore as I heard it skitter around the sloping tiles that led to the drain. I left it there, hearing my mother’s voice in my head, sure, it can’t fall any further…Two minutes later, I stepped on it and had to muffle a yelp in the crook of my elbow as a sharp edge dug into the arch of my foot. Swearing was a help. I swore. A lot.
I scrubbed at my scalp until the muscles in my forearms complained and rinsed my hair for as long as I could allow myself to, eyes closed against the lather that slid down my face. Bliss to be clean again, joy to know that the case was coming to an end. I wanted to stay in there for ever with my eyes closed; I wanted to sleep—how I wanted to sleep. But I couldn’t. I had to get going. And by the time I got out of the shower, I was what passed for awake these days.
Back in the bedroom, I tried to be quiet, but I couldn’t help rattling the hangers in the wardrobe when I was taking out a suit. I heard stirring behind me in the bed and bit my lip.
I wouldn’t have spoken to Ian if he hadn’t spoken to me; that was the rule I observed about getting up and leaving in the middle of the night. Not that I was sure he’d ever noticed there was a rule.
‘Going to meet a murderer.’
That earned me an opened eye. ‘You got him. Well done.’
‘It wasn’t exactly all my own work, but thanks.’
He rolled over onto his back and threw an arm over his face, shielding his eyes from the light. He was in his natural position now, hogging the middle of the bed. I suppressed the impulse to push him back onto his own side and hauled the sheet up instead, tucking him in. Look, I care about you. See how thoughtful I am.
‘Mmm,’ was the response. He was on his way back to sleep. I slipped the dry-cleaner’s bag off my suit and balled it up, squashing it into the bin. I should have taken it off sooner. The suit smelled of chemicals and I wrinkled my nose, reluctant to put it on. The forecast was for a cold day, and rain. I thought longingly of jeans tucked into boots, of chunky jumpers and long knitted scarves. God, dressing like a grown-up was a pain.
I sat on the edge of the bed to deal with my tights, coaxing them over damp skin, wary of ripping them. My hair dripped onto my shoulders, cold water running down my back. I hadn’t got time for this. I hadn’t got time for immaculate. Slowly, infinitely slowly, I worked the material up over my thighs and stood to haul the tights the rest of the way. It was not the most elegant moment of getting dressed, and I wasn’t pleased to turn and find Ian staring at me, an unreadable expression on his face.
‘So is this it?’
‘What do you mean?’ I slipped on a shirt, then stepped into my skirt, zipping it up quickly and smoothing it over my hips. That was better. More dignified. The waistband was loose, I noticed, the skirt hanging from my hips rather than my waist. It took the hem from on the knee to over it, from flattering to frump. I needed to eat more. I needed to rest.
‘I mean is this the end of it? Are you going to be around more?’
‘Probably. Not for a little while—we’ve got to sort out the paperwork and get the case ready for the CPS. But after that, yeah.’
If there isn’t another serial killer waiting to take over from where the Burning Man left off. If nothing else goes wrong between now and Christmas. If all the criminals in London take the rest of the year off.
I was looking for shoes, my medium-heeled courts that didn’t so much as nod to fashion but hey, I could wear them from now until midnight without a twinge of complaint from my feet. I could even run in them if I had to. One was in the corner of the room, where I’d kicked it off. The other I eventually found under the bed, and had to sprawl inelegantly to retrieve it.
‘I hate the way they whistle and you come running.’ He sounded wide awake now, and cross. My heart sank.
‘It’s my job.’
‘Oh, it’s your job. Sorry. I didn’t realise.’
‘Don’t do this now,’ I said, stabbing my feet into my shoes and grabbing my towel. ‘I’ve got to go. It’s important and you know it.’
He’d sat up, leaning on one elbow, blue eyes hostile under thick eyebrows, his brown hair uncharacteristically untidy. ‘What I know is that I haven’t seen you for weeks. What I know is that I’ll be ringing up Camilla to say you can’t come to supper after all, and is that OK, and I’m really sorry if it’s mucked up her seating arrangement. What I know is that your job always seems to come first.’
I let him rant, towelling most of the water out of my hair and then dragging a comb through it, trying to get it into some sort of order. No time to dry it; it would dry on the way to the hospital. A few wisps, a lighter brown than the rest, were already curling around my face.
‘Camilla works in an art gallery. She has nothing to do all day but rearrange the seating plan for her little dinner parties. It’ll be a challenge for her.’
He flopped back down and stared at the ceiling. ‘You always do that.’
‘What?’ I shouldn’t have asked.
‘Put down my friends because their jobs aren’t as important or as worthwhile as yours.’
‘For God’s sake…’
‘Not everyone wants to save the world, Maeve.’
‘Yeah, it’s just as important to make it look nice,’ I snapped, and regretted it as soon as I’d said it. Camilla was sweet, sincere, a wide-eyed innocent that brought out the protective instinct in everyone who knew her, including me. Usually. The sharpness in my voice had been partly exhaustion and partly guilt; I had been thinking of skipping the dinner party she was throwing. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Ian’s friends—it was just that I couldn’t stand the questions. Any interesting cases lately? Why haven’t you caught the Burning Man yet? What’s the most hideous thing you’ve ever seen on duty? Do you wish they still had capital punishment? Can you sort out this speeding ticket for me? It was tedious and predictable and I found it acutely embarrassing to represent the Metropolitan Police to Ian’s friends. I was just one person. And traffic tickets were definitely outside my purview.
‘Aren’t you in a hurry?’
I checked my watch. ‘Yes. Let’s talk about this later, OK?’
I wanted to point out that I hadn’t brought it up in the first place. Instead, I leaned across the bed and planted a kiss on the bit of Ian’s chin I could reach easily. There was no response. With a sigh, I headed to the kitchen to pick up a banana, then grabbed my bag and my coat and ran down the stairs. I closed the front door with the key in the lock so I didn’t wake the neighbours, though if they’d slept through my shower and relationship issues, they probably wouldn’t notice the door banging. If they were at home, and not on a pre-Christmas shopping trip to New York or a winter break in the Bahamas.
I stopped for a second on the doorstep, head down, my mind whirling.
‘What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?’
I hadn’t meant to say it out loud, and I wasn’t talking about work. I could handle work. My boyfriend was another matter. We’d been together for eight months, lived together for six, and from the moment I’d moved into Ian’s place, the fighting had started. I’d fallen for a big smile, broad shoulders and a job that had nothing to do with crime. He’d told me he liked the dynamic, busy detective with long legs and no ulterior motives. I wasn’t looking for a husband who could be the father to my children—yet. My eyes didn’t light up with pound signs when I heard he was in banking. It was all so easy. We saw one another when we could, snatched hours in bed at his place or mine, managed dinner together every so often and when my lease came up for renewal, Ian had taken a chance, the sort of gamble that had made him rich, and invited me to move in with him in his ludicrously over-designed, expensive flat in Primrose Hill. It hadn’t been a good idea. It had been a disaster. And I wasn’t sure how to get out of it. After two months, we hadn’t known one another, except in the biblical sense. We hadn’t worked out what we had in common, or how we might spend long winter afternoons when the weather made going out an unappealing prospect. As it turned out, we stayed in bed or we fought. There was no middle ground. I started to stay longer at work, left earlier in the morning, popped into the nick over the weekend even if I wasn’t on duty. The only silver lining was the overtime pay.
The night air was harsh and I shivered as I hurried down the road, my hair cold against my neck. I was glad of the coat Ian had bought me, full-length and caramel-coloured in fine wool that was really too nice for hacking about crime scenes, but he had insisted on it. Generosity was not one of his shortcomings—he was open-handed to a fault. Even allowing for the extra overtime cash, there was no way I could compete. We weren’t equals, couldn’t pretend to be. It was no way to live.
When I got to my car, parked where I could find a space the night before, which was not particularly close to the flat, I stopped for a second to fill my lungs with sharp-edged air and centre myself, letting the silence fill my mind. That was the idea, anyway. Somewhere an engine revved as a neighbour drove away; traffic noise was building already, even at that early hour. And I needed to be elsewhere. Enough of the Zen contemplation. I got into the car and got going.
My heels were loud on the tiled floor and Rob saw me coming a long way off. He was sitting on an upright chair with his legs stretched out in front of him, taking up most of the corridor outside the intensive care unit.
‘Is it?’ he said interestedly, handing me a cardboard cup with a plastic lid. ‘I thought it was still Thursday night.’
‘Nope. It’s Friday. The twenty-seventh of November. All day, if that helps.’
He grinned up at me, dark stubble bristling on his face, halfway to a decent beard already. Welsh forebears had given him black hair, blue eyes, pale skin and charm to burn, but he needed to shave twice a day to keep his five o’clock shadow in check. Rob never quite made it to groomed, but he was looking particularly rumpled, and I recognised his shirt as being the one he’d worn the day before.
‘You didn’t make it home.’
‘You’ve been sitting there for hours.’
‘That,’ he said, wagging a finger at me, ‘would be telling.’
I sat down on the chair beside him and took the lid off the cup, smelling the hot-metal steam of machine-brewed coffee. ‘How many of these have you had?’
Instead of answering, he held his hand out so I could see the tremors that made it quiver.
‘God. No more caffeine for you.’
I sipped coffee, smiling against the edge of the cup, as Rob leaned his head back against the wall and yawned.
‘You made good time. I expected it to take the full hour to get you from bed to here.’
It should have taken me longer, but I had driven comfortably over the speed limit most of the way, and had thrown the car into a space in the hospital car park, leaving it without bothering to straighten up.
‘You know me. Full of get up and go.’
‘Yeah, right. How’s Ian?’
I hesitated slightly before I answered; I really didn’t want to share the details of my domestic squabbles with my colleagues, but there was no point in pretending. Rob had met Ian a couple of times and formed his own opinion of him.
‘He was just delighted about being woken up.’
‘Sorry about that. I’m sure he understood it was important.’
I let one eyebrow rise up slowly, expressively, as I took another sip of coffee.
Rob snorted. ‘Like that, is it?’
‘What we should actually be discussing,’ I said quickly, ‘is what’s going on with the case. Where’s the boss?’
He jerked his head towards the double doors behind him. ‘In there, somewhere. He’s doctor-bothering.’
‘They still won’t let us speak to the victim?’
‘Not much of a victim. I feel more sorry for poor old Vic. He’s in recovery. Three hours of surgery, and apparently it was touch and go.’
‘My heart bleeds for him.’
‘Yeah, well, he could use the extra blood if you’re offering. He nearly died on the way to hospital. She really did a number on him.’
‘Which is why she’s alive to tell us about it,’ I pointed out.
Rob grinned at me. ‘Getting into the right frame of mind, Maeve? Starting to identify with her? Best mates by ten o’clock, is that the plan?’
‘So what?’ My coffee had cooled down enough so that I could gulp it. The caffeine was beginning to kick in. I wanted to be ready when they let us talk to the girl. I wanted to be on my toes. I wanted to get the answers we needed and bring them to my boss, Charles Godley, like a cat bringing in a dead bird as a loving present for its owner. I didn’t mind the long hours, the total commitment that he demanded from his team. I knew how lucky I was to be in the inner circle. Sixty officers on Operation Mandrake, and most of them would never get to speak to Godley face-to-face. He had his system: orders cascaded down from the top, delivered by the police he trusted to their fellow officers who were allocated tasks and the manpower to achieve them and turned loose, not to return until they’d done it. He was running the investigation that had become the media story of the year, if not the decade, and he spent far too much of his time dealing with reporters to be able to manage every aspect of the case himself. He’d picked me out of the borough and added me to his squad, and I still didn’t know why, but I was determined not to let him down.
‘So nothing.’ Rob had lost interest in teasing me. He took out his phone and started scrolling through messages, yawning as he did so. I left him to it, happy to sit in silence for a minute or two. Waiting for a break in the case had been agonising, heart-scalding. Now that it was here, I could afford to be patient.
But I couldn’t help fidgeting, all the same.
I didn’t have to wait too long, because after a couple of minutes, one of the big double doors that led to the ICU opened. Rob and I both turned to see a nurse leaning out. She was young, with honey-coloured highlights through her hair and fake-tanned skin. I had to admire her commitment to glamour at that hour of the morning. She ignored me after one quick, assessing look that took in my damp hair and make-up-free face, then smiled warmly at Rob. Here’s one you charmed earlier…
‘Your boss wants you.’
We both stood at the same time. Rob was a shade above average height and I was tall in my heels; we were eye-to-eye. Rob frowned.
‘He wants to talk to me, not you.’
‘He doesn’t know I’m here,’ I said sweetly. ‘He’d want to speak to me if he did.’
‘I’ll tell him you’re waiting.’
‘I’ll tell him myself.’
There it was. No matter how much I liked Rob, no matter how well we got on, when it came to competing for the attention of our boss, we were as mature and reasonable as children fighting over a favourite toy.
‘Suit yourself.’ He slung his jacket over his shoulder and walked past me, pushing through the swing doors with a bang. He didn’t wait to see if I was following him or hold the door open for me; not that I expected special treatment—it wasn’t as if I made a fuss about needing to be treated like a lady—but I didn’t expect outright rudeness. I abandoned my coffee cup on the chair and hurried through the door after him, practically clipping his heels. It wasn’t my imagination that he sped up, determined to get there first. If I’d known where ‘there’ was, I might have been tempted to compete, but as I didn’t, I contented myself with being one step behind as he threaded his way through the ICU.
I somehow wasn’t surprised to find that Chief Superintendent Godley had taken over one of the waiting rooms and made it his own. There were files open on the table, and a laptop that hummed quietly. Hunched over the screen was a thin, dark man with glasses and a pinched expression: DI Thomas Judd. That was no surprise: where Charlie Godley went, Tom Judd followed, and if I didn’t like him much, I had to respect the way he’d organised the admin for the investigation so far. Godley was leaning back in a low chair, his arms behind his head, shirtsleeves rolled up, looking tired but focused. He had gone grey early—his hair was almost white—but it didn’t make him look old: quite the opposite. The combination of silver hair and blue eyes was a bit of a winner, especially when Godley was also tall and broad-shouldered and altogether too photogenic for the media to be able to resist him. He was pale, though, and his eyes looked red and tired. I had to resist the urge to cluck sympathetically. Worship of the boss was not encouraged. He had no interest in commanding a cult following.
Rob tapped on the doorframe. ‘You wanted me, sir?’
Godley looked up, his eyes unfocused. ‘Yes. Good. And Maeve, you’re here too. Excellent.’
‘Rob phoned me,’ I said from over his shoulder. I knew it would make him happy to get the credit. It might even take the sting out of the fact that Godley had smiled at me. But Rob didn’t really need any help from me. He was carving out a reputation for himself quite competently.
Godley had snapped back to alertness by now. ‘Did you fill her in?’
‘So you know we’ve got a suspect. And a witness.’
There wasn’t a chance in hell that I’d get within sniffing distance of the suspect. I had schooled myself not to want what I couldn’t have. It would be the bigwigs who spoke to him, when he could talk to them. But the witness was mine. Smoothly, I said, ‘I’d like to interview her. The girl, I mean. Probably easier for me to gain her trust.’
‘We’ve been waiting for her to be willing to provide a statement, and to sober up. I’m sure you’ll have a great rapport with her.’ Judd was still bent over his screen, tapping furiously, but he was never likely to miss an opportunity to put someone down. Particularly me. And just like that, the slight nerviness I always felt in the presence of the boss changed to outright anger directed at the inspector. I hadn’t inherited my father’s red hair, but there was no question that I’d got the temper that was popularly supposed to go with it.
‘What’s that supposed to mean, sir?’
‘Exactly what I said.’ His tone was bland but there was a glint behind the glasses; he knew as well as I did—as well as everyone in the room did—that he had pretty much just called me a drunk. The same old rubbish all over again: of course I was a drinker, I was Irish. ‘Mine’s a pint of Guinness—no, make that two pints with a whiskey chaser.’ Never mind the fact that my parents were both teetotal, that I hadn’t tasted alcohol until I was twenty and that when I drank, I preferred red wine.
‘You’ll do fine,’ Godley said, ignoring the tension that was crackling through the stifling little room. ‘You can take Rob with you when you speak to her. I want to know what happened up to the point where she stabbed him. I want to know how he picked her up and how he got her into the car. What he did that made her panic. I’m working on the assumption that he did or said something that made her sure she was sitting in the car with our murderer, but I don’t know what it was, and I don’t want to talk to him without having her side of the story.’
‘Right.’ It wasn’t rocket science. It should be straight forward.
‘This is an important witness,’ Godley said. ‘I don’t want anyone putting her back up. Treat her with respect.’
I was fairly sure this last comment wasn’t directed at me. I didn’t need to be told that and I hoped Godley knew it. Judd was a different story.
‘When can we see her?’
‘Straightaway. She’s keen to leave. She’s agreed to give us a statement, but my guess is she’s halfway out the door. Don’t hang about.’
I turned to go, but stopped when Rob spoke. ‘Any news on the car, sir? Did they find anything?’
Judd answered, his lips thin. ‘Not so far.’
‘What?’ I was genuinely confused.
‘The car is clean. No evidence of any of the things we might have expected. No knife or weapon of any kind. No accelerant.’
‘Could he have dumped it? Done a Sutcliffe and hid the evidence when he knew he was going to be arrested? He was there for a while before they found him.’ It wasn’t the first time the Yorkshire Ripper had been invoked in connection with our killer, but I was surprised at Rob for mentioning him. If there was one thing that annoyed Godley more than anything else, it was the comparisons between his investigation and the unwieldy, disorganised and ultimately futile hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, who was caught more or less by chance. And here was another parallel. It wasn’t police work that had brought us Vic Blackstaff, and the media would be all over it. Godley’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t speak, letting Judd do the talking.
‘We’ve been searching the alley and surrounding areas. But the doctors don’t think he would have been able to move easily. He was unconscious when the paramedics arrived.’
‘So…’ I said slowly.
‘So you need to find out what really happened,’ Judd finished for me. ‘Because at the moment, we don’t have the first idea.’
It was the pretty nurse who showed us to Kelly Staples’ room, or rather showed Rob, who was flirting pretty much non-stop. I followed along behind, mind whirling. This was a big moment for me. Ask the right questions. Get the right answers. Don’t irritate her. Gain her trust. Don’t assume you know what she’s going to tell you. Listen. And listen to the things she doesn’t say too.
I pulled Rob to one side when the nurse had brought us to the door of the hospital room and wiggled off. ‘You’re taking notes, OK? No hijacking. I want to do the talking.’
‘She’s all yours, love. Like Judd said, I’m sure you’ll have a lot in common.’
‘That’s not what he said.’ I couldn’t help sounding defensive. Not you too, Rob…
‘What’s he got against you?’
‘He’s a racist, misogynist pig—didn’t you realise? He’s always making snide remarks about me.’
‘Seems like a good bloke to me.’
I thumped him, then took a second to shake my head, as if that would clear my mind, rearrange the thoughts that were swirling in my mind into some sort of coherent pattern. ‘Got your notebook?’
‘Always,’ he said, holding it up. ‘And a pen. And a spare pen, in case that one runs out.’
‘That’s my little boy scout.’ Time to go. I rearranged my face into what I hoped was a calm and non-threatening expression, then pushed open the door.
The first thing I noticed about Kelly Staples was that she had been crying, the second that she was very young. She was sitting by the bed, wearing a patterned hospital gown. Her feet were bare, plump and pale, with scarlet marks where her boots had rubbed her toes and heels. She looked washed-out, her fair hair lank around her face. Her eyes were red and piggy with tiredness. She was overweight and uneasy in her flimsy hospital gown, pulling the hem down over her knees to try to make it longer. Her mouth looked raw, as if she had been chewing her lips.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to look unthreatening, and smiled.
‘Kelly? I’m Detective Constable Kerrigan. You can call me Maeve. And this is my colleague, DC Langton, who’s going to take some notes for me.’
Rob had folded himself unobtrusively into a hard chair in the corner of the room. She looked over at him, then up at me blankly. ‘Do you know when my mum is going to get here?’
‘No. I’m sorry. I’m sure she’s on her way.’
‘She’s bringing my clothes. I ain’t got no clothes. They took them.’
‘They’ll need to do a forensic examination of your clothes,’ I explained. Never mind the fact that they would have been unwearable, covered in Vic Blackstaff’s blood.
‘I want to go home.’
‘Very soon.’ My voice was gentle, as if I was speaking to a child. Which was a good point, actually. ‘How old are you, Kelly?’
Good. No need to wait for a responsible adult to be present. ‘And are you a student? Or working?’
‘Student. Catering college.’ She looked a little brighter. ‘I’m in my last year.’
‘Do you want to be a chef when you’re finished?’
She shrugged, looking baffled. ‘Dunno.’
Enough friendliness. Back to the reason for talking to her in the first place.
‘I’d like to talk to you about what happened earlier. We have a few questions, and then we’ll let you go home.’
She rolled her eyes and said nothing.
‘Firstly, I’d just like to reassure you that you aren’t in any kind of trouble. We’re interviewing you as a witness, not a suspect, so please don’t feel that you need to watch what you say. We just want to know what happened before you—er, escaped.’ Somehow, ‘escaped’ sounded better than ‘stabbed a man in the stomach several times’.
She stirred. ‘Is he dead, then?’
‘No. He’s in intensive care. But he’s alive.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’ She lifted her chin defiantly, and I thought she was hoping to see shock in my eyes. If so, she was disappointed.
‘Right. In your own words, then, can you tell me what happened? Start from the beginning. What time did you head out to the pub?’
I can’t say that Kelly Staples was an easy interview. Fear made her bolshie. She battled me for the first few minutes, barely answering the questions I asked. But as the story of her night wore on, something seemed to take hold of her, and the monosyllables became sentences, and the sentences became paragraphs, and soon she was talking freely, the words running on like water into a gutter. I hoped Rob could keep up.
‘So of course, I’m thinking a minicab will be cheap and I’ll get home quicker. I mean, he was old. He was like my dad or something. Quiet, like. Just…helpful. I thought maybe I reminded him of his daughter and he wanted to see me get back safe. What an idiot. Total idiot. I should have run a mile, not that I could in my boots. I could barely walk.’
‘What happened when you got into the car?’
The words flowed on. His car, and what she’d noticed about it—a faint smell of petrol that had worried her, the more she thought about it. His refusal to take her home the way she knew. The alley he’d found, where he’d promised to turn the car. How dark it had been. How he’d stalled her, telling her the door wouldn’t open from the inside. How he’d sweated. How it was wrong, and what he’d said was wrong, and she’d just known it was him, the Burning Man, so she’d got in before he could do her the way he’d done those other girls.
‘I had this knife, see, in my boot. For protection. You can’t be too careful these days, my little brother said.’ She gave a laugh, high-pitched with nerves. ‘Well, this just goes to show, doesn’t it? I mean, if I hadn’t had it, who knows where I’d be? On a slab, maybe.’
Maybe, maybe not. I was beginning to feel edgy. ‘Go back to before you took out the knife, Kelly. What did he say or do to make you sure that he was a killer?’
‘He stopped the car, and he said he’d let me out.’
‘And nothing. As soon as he stopped the car, I just knew.’
I waited. The only sound in the room was Rob’s pen scratching across the paper. When it stopped, I said gently, ‘What did you know, Kelly?’
‘That he was a killer. That killer. You know, the burning one.’
I made myself look blandly understanding. But my mind was blank apart from one word repeating monotonously, over and over again. Fuck…fuck…fuck…
She finished off her story, telling us that she’d got to him before he could make a move on her, that he hadn’t seen her coming, finishing up with, ‘And I’ve been stuck in this room for two hours and I haven’t had a ciggie, so if you wouldn’t mind, can I go now?’
‘You’ll have to hang on for a little while,’ I said, trying to sound pleasant. ‘You’ll probably have to give another statement, I’m afraid. And the doctors haven’t signed you out yet.’
She looked as if she was going to cry. ‘I just want to go home.’
‘I know.’ I stood up, suddenly uncomfortable. I couldn’t lie and say she’d be leaving soon; if I wasn’t much mistaken, she would be arrested before too long. From her account of events, there was an obvious charge of Section 18, wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm.
Kelly was rubbing her eyes, smearing moisture and the remains of her make-up across her pale cheeks. From behind her hands came, ‘I just want my mum.’
I had got to the door and I yanked it open, pushing Rob out in front of me. ‘Thanks for your help, Kelly. We’ll be in touch.’
The sound of sobbing was cut off by the door swinging shut. Annoyingly, it was the kind of door you couldn’t slam. I looked around for something to kick instead. Anything to vent my feelings.
‘What a lovely girl.’
‘Don’t be mean about her.’ I felt protective of poor, unlucky Kelly, even though I was furious with her as well.
‘Who’s being mean?’
‘You are and you know it.’
‘I just said she was lovely.’ Rob blinked at me innocently. ‘Not the kind of girl you want to make a move on without fair warning, but sweet all the same.’
‘Blackstaff was up to something naughty. What was he planning to do with her?’
‘We’ll never know. And what we do know doesn’t justify what she did to him, does it?’
I had to admit he was right. ‘By her account, he didn’t do a thing. OK, he was a bit creepy—I’m sure she was right to be suspicious. Maybe he thought she was too drunk to know what she was doing and he could take advantage. But she completely overreacted. There isn’t a shred of evidence linking him to the other murders, not one concrete thing that would confirm her story that he’s the killer. And let’s be honest, her story isn’t going to stand up in court, is it?’
‘She might have been right. Maybe he got rid of the stuff before we got there.’
‘What, a container of petrol and at least one blunt instrument? The stun gun? There wasn’t any of that in the car, was there? Or around it. We’re screwed. Completely screwed.’
‘Yep. And you’re the one who’s going to have to tell Godley.’
‘Don’t think that hasn’t occurred to me.’ I looked at him. ‘You don’t give a stuff, do you? This is a total disaster and you’re just not bothered.’
He shrugged. ‘Nothing we can do about it now. Bad luck for Mr Blackstaff. But we’re no worse off than we were before.’
‘Oh yeah, we’re doing great. Four women dead and no leads. You’re right, this is just a minor blip. Otherwise, we’re gold.’ I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, sighing.
‘Like you wouldn’t believe.’
‘I’ll see if Nursey can give me an aspirin or two.’ Rob patted me on the arm. ‘It’s the least I can do.’
‘Don’t get me started on what you can do.’
‘Oh, I know what you’d like me to do.’
‘Never in a million years, Langton.’
‘Nothing to be ashamed of, Kerrigan. You wouldn’t be the first to fall for me. It’s probably best if you don’t fight it.’
‘Fight what? The urge to throw up?’
We retraced our steps along the corridor, bickering all the way. It was a relief, somehow. It took my mind off what I was about to say to Superintendent Godley. The chorus of bad language at the back of my mind had cranked up a notch, adding a little variety at least. Shit bugger piss damn fuck…
We rounded a corner, and in spite of myself I was laughing at something Rob had said, looking at him rather than where we were going, so it was only when his face slipped to neutral, uncertainly, then snapped into straight lines that I stopped grinning and turned my head. Godley and Judd were waiting for us, jackets on, grim expressions on their faces and I felt my own face mirror theirs. I was ready to let them know the worst.
‘It’s not him.’
I stared at Judd, wrong-footed. ‘That’s what I was going to say. How did you—’
‘There’s another body. Another young woman. He’s done it again.’ Godley sounded drained. ‘Vic Blackstaff couldn’t have done it. Best guess is that it happened in the last three hours. While Blackstaff was here, being operated on.’
I nodded. ‘From Kelly Staples’ statement, there was nothing to suggest that he was the killer, even if it does sound as if he was up to something he shouldn’t have been. Unluckily for Victor, she got spooked and lashed out. She just got it wrong.’
‘She wasn’t the only one,’ Godley said tersely.
DI Judd took over. ‘She’ll need to be charged. We’re not going to waste time dealing with it. I’ll call the borough CID office and get the on-call DC to take over. You’ll have to fill me in, Kerrigan.’
I should have been grateful that he hadn’t stuck me with letting borough CID know about their new case, but I managed to control my gratitude. It meant I had to talk to him, for one thing. I smiled brightly. ‘No problem.’
‘Then get going,’ Godley said. ‘I’ll see you at the new crime scene.’
And just like that, we were done with Kelly Staples; her fate was for someone else to decide. I couldn’t help but think she was one more victim of the Burning Man, one more bit of fallout from his crimes.
We needed to catch him, and soon. But the fact that we were on our way to see another body proved that we weren’t even close.
Copyright © 2011 by Jane Casey