There is a serial killer on the loose, torturing and butchering his way across the North of England. In the quiet Cheshire village of Taupington, Victoria Wheatcroft has found the house of her dreams. But the house holds more than simply memories, and the serial killer, and her own past, are closing in…
I’ve been here before.
The woman lay conscious but unmoving, eyes closed, on a carpeted floor. Her hands were tied behind her back, feet tied at the ankles. She was naked, lying on her side, feeling a cool draught sweep over her face, her breasts, her stomach. She felt vulnerable and exposed, yet, almost inexplicably, calm.
The ropes at her wrists were tighter than those at her ankles. Both dug into her pale skin, rough fibres scraping painfully with any small movement. She felt nauseous, the back of her head pounding. What had happened? She could not remember.
Her throat felt raw, her lips dry and cracked. How long had she been unconscious? How long had she lay, naked and bound, on this floor? And how could she be so calm?
I’ve been here before.
It was a strong, clear thought, triggering a memory that her subconscious had tried to suppress, a memory that, once and for all, stripped away her defences and left her exposed to the terrible reality of her past.
Such a short time ago she had known nothing of that past. Then she had been looking resolutely forward towards a future that promised nothing but happiness.
Such a short time ago…
Victoria Wheatcroft woke slowly from an untroubled sleep. She opened her eyes, blinked against the daylight shining through the hotel window, and turned to face the other way.
The pillow alongside her was empty, a shallow depression at its centre, a stray brown hair, turning grey at the roots, curled over the pale cream cotton. Simon had already left. She had expected it. She was used to it. There had been a time when he would wake her up to kiss her goodbye before going to work, but that was long past.
She sighed, stretched, and sat up. The sheets slipped down. The mirror on the small dressing table opposite reflected her nakedness back at her and she felt a small thrill of excitement at her brazenness. She was rarely naked at home, outside of the bathroom, so to see herself this way in a strange room…
She was not ashamed of her body, not anymore, but those early days with Simon when she had been so aware of the bruises, the wounds, the signs of surgery, had set a pattern she had adhered to ever since. Staring at herself in the mirror, finally able to ignore the pale remnants of those earlier scars, she told herself there was no longer any need for such coyness.
She smiled at her reflection, shook her head and frowned at the hair that whipped around her face. Not long ago she had cut it short, just for the sake of change, and since then she had been waiting for it to grow back. It now reached below her shoulders and, tangled from sleep, covered most of her forehead, but she wished it would grow quicker. At least it was almost back to its natural blonde after her most recent experiment with off-the-shelf hair colorant. She had liked the deep red, but it wasn’t quite her. She wasn’t really sure what was.
Picking up a green scrunchy from the bedside cabinet, she tied her hair back into a ponytail, grimacing as her fingers, stiff and bent with arthritis, shot pain through her body. Tensing against the expected aches, she swung her legs over the side of the bed. Not too bad. Her knee joints seemed to be behaving lately. If only her fingers would follow suit.
The carpet felt soft beneath her feet as she pushed herself up on tired legs. Over by the window she saw Simon’s pyjama trousers, discarded in a pool of blue-striped cotton. In their eight years of marriage, in fact in the ten years she had known him, she didn’t think she’d ever seen him wear a pyjama jacket, but he always wore the trousers. She had also never known him to put them in a drawer, or fold them neatly, in the morning. Just drop them and leave them where they fall.
Looking again to the dressing-table mirror, she turned so she was side-on. Not too bad for a thirty eight year old. The stomach protruded a little, and her thighs were showing the first signs of a slight flabbiness, but nothing too depressing.
I’ve a few more years in me yet, she thought, smiling at her reflection.
Feeling pleasantly calm and relaxed, she strolled over towards the window, enjoying a bohemian sense of freedom and daring in her nakedness, marred only slightly by reaching down to scoop up her husband’s pyjama trousers.
The curtains were open, the old-fashioned, small paned window magnifying the warmth of the morning sun on her body. She noticed the flaking white paint on the metal frame, the bird droppings on the narrow ledge outside, the main street of Taupington village stretched out before her, and a man standing on the pavement below, just outside the newsagents, looking, no, staring straight up at her.
Too stunned to move, she stared back at him, naked and exposed.
My God. He can see me!
She grabbed the curtain and tugged it across the window, cutting off the street outside.
Her stomach cramped. She backed to the bed and sat down. Her hands were shaking, her legs trembling.
That stranger just saw me naked. What if he’s a rapist? What if he’s coming up the hotel stairs right now and is about to break into the room and attack me?
She closed her eyes, hearing her heartbeat hammering inside her, forced herself to breath deeply, told herself she was being stupid to think such things.
He’s just a man getting his morning paper who happened to see more than he could have hoped for. Something to brag to his friends about. Nothing more. He’s certainly not about to break down the door to get at me.
Someone thumped the hotel room door.
A small scream leapt from her throat before she could stifle it.
Outside, a woman’s voice called “Laundry service?”
Victoria forced a weak smile at her own nervousness, embarrassed at how easily she had been frightened.
“No thank you. Not today.”
She could hear the tremor in her voice and took more deep breaths to bring trembling muscles under control.
As she heard the laundry trolley rattle down the hallway outside, relief slowly calmed her nerves, pulling her back from the edge of panic, leaving her shaken but once more in control.
No one was going to attack her.
Just because it had happened once didn’t mean it would happen again.
Linda was surprisingly light, easy to carry.
I’m not sure how old she was, perhaps 15 or 16, and she was bordering on the skinny. Looking at her as she lay stretched out in my arms, her breasts were almost flat against her chest, ribs showing beneath taut skin. Her belly sank into her body, rising only slightly to a small dark patch of pubic hair. Her legs were thin, child-like. I couldn’t see her face as her head hung backwards over my arm, but I remembered prominent cheekbones, deep-set eyes, slightly crooked teeth and a neck that looked too thin to support the thick black hair that now hung down to my knee.
As a rule I don’t like skinny girls – too bony, too hard. Luckily for her I made an exception.
From the country lane where I stood, I looked out over the flat fields, framed by wild hedgerows. In the distance a tractor slowly ploughed it’s way back and forth. It was too far away to be any kind of threat. Nothing else moved in the bright morning sun.
It felt good to be back in Cheshire, back on my home ground. I’d missed its familiarity.
Even at her light weight, Linda was beginning to weigh heavily on my muscles.
I hoisted her up, watching her breasts shudder. They didn’t bounce. They weren’t big enough. I lifted her higher, licked a wet circle around her left nipple, flicked it to the side, where it hung by the thinnest strip of tissue, and poked my tongue into the gory hole beneath, dislodging the rapidly forming scab and tasting fresh blood.
I shifted her weight again, licked a wet, bloody trail over her throat to her lips. I kissed her, my tongue thrusting into her mouth, exploring the cavities left by the teeth I had knocked out. It brought back memories.
The sex had been surprisingly good. Sometimes these young girls are inexperienced and clumsy, but I could tell this time that I wasn’t the first. She hadn’t screamed once.
She screamed later of course. But then I suppose a carving knife is somewhat different.
I stepped towards the edge of the lane and let her go.
She fell clumsily, legs and arms flopping about almost comically. There was a wet sounding thunk as her skull hit the ground and a small splatter of blood almost reached my foot. She tumbled, rolled, reached the edge of the roadside ditch…and stopped!
Why is nothing straightforward?
I pushed her with my foot. She rocked a little, shifted but didn’t fall.
I kicked her, hard, in her skinny backside.
First a leg slid over the edge, then the other leg. Her hips slid. Slowly, reluctantly, the rest of her body followed.
She rolled lazily into the ditch and lay there looking up at the sky from the one eye I had left her with. Peaceful. Quiet. At least she’d stopped screaming.
Then again, the screaming’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Victoria had chosen a black T-shirt with bleach-washed jeans and black ankle-boots. The T-shirt hung loose down to her buttocks. She wasn’t quite ready for the cropped style favoured by teenagers, being too self-conscious of her slight belly for that. The green scrunchy still held back her hair. To wear it free would mean washing it. She didn’t feel in the mood. The ponytail would hide a multitude of sins.
She turned one way and then the other in front of the mirror, pleased that, with the aid of a bra, her breasts no longer seemed to hang as low as they had earlier. In fact, she thought they looked attractively small and pert. It was a word Simon used and she was not usually fond of it, but this time it seemed to fit.
Sitting at the dressing table to apply a small amount of make-up, she examined her face. All things considered, it wasn’t too bad. The nose was slightly shorter and wider than she would have liked, and the mouth was perhaps a little small in comparison, but her eyes were wide and clear, a bright blue that sparkled even in the artificial light of the room. Best of all, she could barely see the scars. A team of plastic surgeons, had done an amazing job on the mess she had been left with. She had seen photographs to prove it.
It was a shame she couldn’t remember anything herself.
Pale lipstick and a touch of eyeliner and she was quickly on her feet again, picking up the room key from the bedside table, her small shoulder bag from the bed and stepping out into the corridor.
She double-checked that the door had locked behind her and headed for the stairs down to the lobby.
“Good morning Madam. I hope you had a pleasant night?”
The girl behind the reception desk could not have been more than twenty-two, but she had the broad smile of a professional and the sharp, dark blue suit to match. Her brown hair was pulled efficiently back into a neat ponytail and shone under the bright florescent light above the desk. Victoria was suddenly aware of the untidiness of her own. Nevertheless, she found herself smiling in return.
“Yes, thank you.”
There was an awkward pause. At least, Victoria found it awkward. The receptionist quietly continued studying the computer screen before her.
“It looks like a nice morning out there.”
It was not the most imaginative thing to say, but Victoria was uncomfortable with small talk and the anonymous pleasantries of everyday life. She would normally leave such things to Simon.
The girl looked up briefly from the computer.
“Going to be a nice day according to the weather reports. Nice day for walking.”
Victoria hesitated, unsure whether a reply was expected, finally decided it wasn’t, and pushed out of the front door of the hotel into the August sunshine.
On the pavement she stopped, her stomach fluttering as she looked across the road to the newsagents. There was no one there. For a moment she had imagined the man waiting for her, leering, threatening. She let out the breath she hadn’t even been aware she was holding.
It was stupid to think he might have been there. Stupid to be afraid of a stranger, a man who had done nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He could hardly be blamed for walking out of the newsagents at the same moment she chose to expose herself at the hotel window.
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. These feelings, these fears, were things she had to overcome within herself. No one could do it for her, not Simon, not the doctors. She could do this. She was strong.
The simple fact that she had survived proved that.
Further down the narrow street, cars were queuing, trying to ease past a Safeway lorry delivering to the small supermarket on the corner. Beyond that was the village cross, roads leading out to either side and up the hill to Smithurst College. In the other direction were more shops, before the road narrowed into a lane leading out to the Cheshire countryside, farmland and, most importantly, their new home.
Victoria smiled, thinking about the house, the future, and happily forgetting the past.
She had seen it for the first time just over a month ago and Victoria had fallen in love with it immediately.
They had already viewed three properties that day, two semi-detached houses and one detached bungalow, but none had satisfied Victoria. She suspected Simon would have taken any one of the three, but she was searching for something special, something different, something… she wasn’t quite sure what, but she would know when she found it.
It was Simon’s turn to drive and he looked grim and serious, fists gripping the wheel tightly.
“You fed up with me?”
She touched fingers to his leg as she spoke, stroking in what she hoped was a conciliatory manner.
A slight smile flickered on his tight lips.
He did that when he was angry, Victoria knew. Pressed his lips together so hard they turned thin and pale.
“I just wish you knew what it was you were looking for.”
His voice was clipped with controlled emotion, his eyes never leaving the road ahead. He was afraid if he made eye contact there would be an argument, and he didn’t want an argument. Nevertheless, there were things he had to say, thoughts he had to clear from his head. It was important to him that they were honest and open with each other. There was so much about Victoria’s past that neither of them knew, would probably never know, but their future would have no such secrets.
“We could travel round forever and not find anything better than the three we’ve seen today. Nice houses in nice areas. What more do you want?”
She shrugged, not sure what to say, instinctively knowing it was simpler to let Simon continue, avoiding the confrontation neither of them wanted.
“I agreed that we needed to move, even though the flat in the centre of town was ideal for my work. But this is going to take forever at this rate Vicky. If we keep putting things off much longer, the Holden’s will back out of the deal and find somewhere else.”
“I know, I know.” She squeezed his leg, a gesture of understanding. “Just bear with me, please? We’ll find the right place soon. I know we will.”
Simon smiled, Victoria’s hand on his leg both calming and pleasing.
“What’s that? Woman’s intuition?”
“Blind faith more like.”
Relieved that Simon had relaxed a little, Victoria sat back in her seat and opened the map on her knees, smoothing the folds, tracing the roads with her finger, tapping the paper as she found their location.
“According to this, our next viewing is in a place called Lower Wealston. Before that we go through a small place called Taupington.”
“I’ve got signs for Taupington at this junction coming up. Do we definitely go through this place, or around it?”
Victoria checked the map again.
He slowed as the junction approached, signalled left and turned in the direction pointed by the sign, ‘Taupington 2 miles’.
The road dipped sharply, and he feathered the brake all the way down the hill. It was barely wide enough for two cars. At the base of the dip the road curved up and to the right, before levelling out and, after one more left bend, straightening again.
Two minutes on the straight and Victoria saw the house.
It seemed incongruous, a fairly large, three storeyed wooden house sitting two hundred yards back from the road in the middle of the Cheshire countryside. It would have been more natural in a documentary about New England in the USA, not rural England. But there it stood, with arched, shuttered windows and a sloping red tiled roof. As they drew nearer Victoria could see no cars in the drive, no sign of activity in or around the building. The garden stretching out behind the house was overgrown, less cared for than the field directly behind it.
“What’s what?” Simon glanced quickly at her, puzzled.
“That’s the house. Stop here.”
With a quick glance in the rear view mirror and an even quicker signal, Simon slowed the car until he could pull off the road, into the start of the drive up to the house, blocked by an old wooden gate.
He stared through the dead bugs on the windshield, straining against the sunlit smears of dust and dirt, trying to see the house properly. He pumped the window washers, sighed as bugs and dirt mixed and spread. It was not what he had intended.
“Doesn’t look like much from here. And where’s the For Sale sign?”
“There isn’t one.” Victoria was smiling. “But it’s perfect Simon. It’s just what I’ve been looking for.”
“What? Amityville? The Bates Motel? It doesn’t exactly fit in with the farms and other houses around here does it.”
“I don’t care. I don’t think anyone lives there.”
“Just a feeling Ok? Maybe someone in this Taupington can tell us. There must be an estate agent there somewhere.”
It had been surprisingly simple from then on. There was indeed an estate agent in Taupington, just a few short steps from where she now stood. The house was on their books, but the For Sale sign had long since fallen down and never been resurrected. A few people had looked it over but no one wanted to buy. It wasn’t even displayed in the window any more.
When Victoria and Simon expressed an interest, the estate agent almost fell over himself to oblige.
And now she stood in the middle of Taupington, living out of a hotel room rather than delay the sale of their flat, waiting impatiently while their house was repaired, renovated and decorated. It was costing them almost all of their savings but she knew it was worth it.
Smiling up at the sun, feeling its warmth easing the aches in her hands and knees, she crossed towards the newsagents. She felt ready to try and socialise a little. After all, this would be her local village, this shop her local shop. Time to mix with the natives.
“Hello. Nice to see you again.”
She stopped, turned her head towards the calling man.
She felt the twisting in her stomach, felt heat rising to her face, her cheeks, blushing. She froze, speechless, as the man who had stood across the road earlier and stared up at her nakedness smiled and walked towards her.
Geoff Quill took the roundabout by Pontin’s Holiday Camp at a gentle 20 miles an hour and turned the car onto the coast road towards Southport, speeding up to a comfortable 45. The journey through Liverpool City Centre had taken longer than expected with the morning rush hour, but the traffic had eased the further he moved away from the city. It was now just after 10am. The work and school traffic had gone, the shopping traffic was only just beginning.
He carried straight ahead at the second roundabout and dropped his speed to the 30 miles per hour speed limit along the straight road.
To his left, the tide was on its way in, grey and cold looking despite the sun. Out on the horizon, he could make out an oilrig in the mist of distance. He found an appeal in that job. Isolated from the majority, a small self-contained community. Twenty years ago, when he had been in his teens, his ideal profession had been a lighthouse keeper, or a long distance lorry driver. It was the solitude that drew him. And if he couldn’t be alone, then at least keep the numbers down. A ship on a long voyage, a scientific station at one of the poles, or, indeed, an oilrig.
He turned right at the next roundabout, up past the rollercoaster ride and the edge of the fairground. Another roundabout. Left this time, past the Casablanca restaurant with its mock foreign legion castle walls. One final roundabout before his destination, and this time a left turn heading towards Funland and the Floral Hall.
To his right, the buildings were old and tall, hotels, B&B’s, a leisure club, while to his left there were signs of new construction, of investement. He found the contrast familiar, the old town against the new, the traditional against the progressive. Southport was not so different from most seaside towns. The desire to preserve the old while attracting visitors to the new. And the visitors were coming. Traffic was building up around him again, the car parks filling, people strolling through watery sunshine towards the arcades in one direction, the shops in the other. Before long there would be crowds pushing every which way, crossing roads against the lights, filling shop doorways, queuing at the fairground, intent on their own destination, disregarding all around them, and he hated it.
His current job was gratifyingly solitary for much of the time, travelling round the country, performing the assigned tasks, only himself to blame if they weren’t successful. When he did have to interact with other people, he liked to keep it short and focussed on business. In many ways this was his ideal job, although not one he had ever considered in his younger days.
Just past the roadside merry-go-round and dimly lit arcades of Funland, more or less directly in front of Southport Theatre, he found a parking space and pulled in. He stepped out, paid for his ticket at the ‘pay-and-display’ machine and stuck it inside the windscreen. Then he ducked back inside the car and slumped down in his seat for a long wait, allowing his thoughts to drift while his eyes remained focussed.
Patience was often vital to the success of a given assignment. He could be a very patient man when it was necessary.
He found a comb in the glove compartment and tugged it through his short, thick, black hair, tangled even more than usual by the brisk wind coming in off the sea as he had paid for his parking. He pulled down the sunshade and looked in the mirror inlaid on the back. Eyes as black as his hair stared back at him. In truth, if you looked close enough and long enough, his eyes were a very dark green, but everyone, including himself, thought of them as black. He fingered the rough stubble shadowing his pronounced cheekbones and sharp chin. While he felt it softened his otherwise angular features, it also irritated him. He promised himself a long bath and a good shave when this was over. He seemed to have been on the road forever on this particular assignment.
There was movement at the back of Funland. A tall, gangly man, possibly in his early sixties, with grey hair and old National Health style glasses, frames thick and black, ambled into the rear view mirror of Geoff’s car. He carried a broom with him and idly swept at the ground every few steps.
Geoff didn’t need to consult his PDA. He had looked at that face on the screen time and again, every line, every crease, every blemish, from the mole above his left eye to the slight scar that drew the right-hand side of his mouth down. He could hardly believe his luck.
He had expected another long wait, quite probably another dead end with nothing to show at the end of it. If he was very fortunate, he thought he might get a strong lead out of this trip. To have the man almost walk right up to him just minutes after he arrived was nothing short of miraculous.
He reached inside his coat and re-seated the Glock 20 in its holster under his armpit. He didn’t think it likely he’d need it at present, but it paid to be prepared.
This was the man he had been searching for these last few weeks.
Nearing retirement age.
Voyeur wherever teenage girls could be found.
Victoria stood, paralysed with embarrassment, as the man strode towards her, his smile beaming.
He saw me naked at the hotel window. What do I say in this situation? How do I behave?
She took a deep breath, tried to calm her trembling, twisting stomach.
From somewhere behind her a woman’s voice called out, “Peter. How have you been? It’s been forever.”
Victoria flinched as the woman, about the same age as her, long dark hair perfectly coiffured, a beige raincoat flapping about her legs, pushed past with a brief ‘excuse me’ and embraced the approaching man. He threw his arms around her and they hugged in what Victoria considered a more-than-friendly way.
She felt the blush deepening in her cheeks, her whole body prickling with a mixture of disappointment and relief. She realised she was still standing, staring at them.
With some effort she forced herself to move and pushed her way through the door of the newsagents. The couple outside had managed to pry themselves apart as the door swung shut behind her. For a moment she felt anger at the woman, perhaps even jealousy.
This is ridiculous. I haven’t any interest in that man. I don’t even want to meet him. I’m so glad it wasn’t me he was talking to out there.
She almost convinced herself.
“Good morning, and how are you finding our little village?”
Victoria turned and smiled at the elderly woman behind the counter, consciously pushing the events outside to the back of her mind.
“Good morning. It’s nice here. So much quieter than the city.”
Adele Stevens nodded. She had been running the newsagents for thirty years, first with her late husband and then on her own. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been to the city, or anywhere for that matter, but it paid to agree with the customers.
“Are you staying long?”
“Not too long in the hotel I hope. We’re moving into a house just outside the village, me and my husband. Just waiting for it to be made ready for us. You probably know it. Tall house. Three storeys and a loft conversion. It’s been empty for years apparently.”
Adele nodded wisely.
“Ah yes, I think I know the place. I bet it’ll be lovely when it’s all done up.” She stretched out her hand over the counter. “My name’s Adele Stevens by the way. May as well introduce myself since we’re likely to see more of each other.”
Victoria smiled, took the offered hand and shook it.
“Victoria Wheatcroft. I’m really looking forward to moving in. I fell in love with the house as soon as I saw it.”
She glanced around the shop, small and dark, two narrow aisles running either side of a central display holding the daily papers and a small number of select magazines. Victorian was the word which entered her head, followed closely by quaint.
“As you can see, we sell a variety of things in here. We used to sell more, but Spar opened up in the village, and then the Safeway. You can’t compete with the supermarkets.”
Victoria nodded, eyes quickly flicking over the shelves against the near wall, holding an eclectic collection of children’s toys, basic stationery, a small selection of soft drinks, an even smaller one of beers and wines. On the far side of the central display the wall was almost completely filled with racks of greeting cards, leaving enough space by the door for three shelves of bread and cakes.
“Must be hard keeping a small shop going.”
“I get by,” Adele smiled. “A lot of the older residents still stop by for a chat, even if they don’t spend much. Modern shops are always in too much of a hurry to move the customers through and get as much money as they can. A lot of us prefer a more leisurely pace.”
Victoria smiled in return and picked up a morning paper, waiting while Adele tilled up the cost on the old-fashioned manual till and then handing her money across. The old lady hadn’t been exaggerating when she said leisurely.
“I couldn’t help overhearing.”
The voice startled Victoria. She hadn’t realised there was anyone else in the shop.
An elderly woman, perhaps slightly younger than Adele, smiled at Victoria from by the bakery shelves.
“I know the house you were talking about well. It used to be a lovely place. My name’s Margaret Weston. I live out on Weston farm, not far from your new house in fact.” Her smile broadened. “We’ll be neighbours.”
After their brief introduction in the newsagents, Margaret had taken Victoria a little further down the street to a small cafe called, with the same level of originality shown in the naming of The Village Hotel, The Village Cafe.
Each rectangular table had a flower-patterned cloth over it. Real cloth too, Victoria noted, not plastic like the cafes near their old flat. In the centre of each table were silver salt and pepper shakers and a slim vase with a single flower in it. A sugar bowl stood in front, filled with sugar lumps. Cafes were the only place Victoria had ever seen sugar lumps. Spoiling the whole elegant arrangement was a bottle of Heinz Tomato Sauce, hardened red run-off crusting the rim beneath the white plastic top.
A young girl, last year’s school leaver Victoria guessed, strolled unhurriedly over to their table. She had blonde hair brutally pulled back, so tight it seemed to tug at the corners of her eyes, and tied with an almost invisible black band. Unlike Victoria’s own ponytail, not a hair was out of place. She wore a white blouse, black trousers, and carried a small notepad and pencil. A name badge pinned on her chest told everyone her name was Judy.
It was Margaret Weston who spoke first.
“Oh, hello Mrs Weston. Are you ready to order?”
Despite the aimless nature of the walk over to the table, the voice held a brightness and professionalism that surprised and impressed Victoria.
Shouldn’t judge on first appearances.
“I think I’ll just have a coffee dear.”
Victoria nodded as Judy turned towards her.
“I’ll have the same, thanks.”
Margaret waited until Judy had disappeared behind the cafe counter, the dark wood almost hidden beneath plastic domes of the day’s desserts, before leaning forward and whispering.
“Nice girl, but she wasn’t quite bright enough to get into the College. Friend of Sandra, my niece.”
“I guess it’s a bit of a small village. Everyone knows what everyone else is up to.”
“We’re not quite that bad. You’re not in Wicker Man territory you know?”
This time Victoria joined the laugh too.
“So, when are you hoping to move in?”
“No definite date yet, but it shouldn’t be more than a few weeks. Sooner I hope.”
“Not enjoying living in the hotel?”
Victoria shrugged. “I don’t mind the hotel, it’s just not mine. I want to be in a home not a hotel room.” She smiled self-consciously. “Sorry. Guess I must sound ungrateful. I mean, not everyone could afford to live in a hotel while they’re waiting for their new house to be renovated, right?”
“There’s no need to apologise dear. Me and Bernard, my husband, took over the farm from his father. We never had anything to do with estate agents or chains or buying and selling. I’ve never felt guilty about it. That’s just the way it is. Some people have it better, some worse. Doesn’t make it your fault.”
“So, you actually run the farm as a living? I thought maybe you meant you just lived in an old converted farmhouse.”
Margaret Weston laughed, her double chin trembling with the movement.
“You won’t find many renovated farmhouses around here I’m afraid. This is still farming country my dear. That farm is our livelihood and our home.”
“Must be hard work.”
“It is my dear. It is.”
She fell silent as Judy returned with their coffees. They both turned down the offer to order food and waited until the young waitress had turned her attention to another table.
“So, what does your husband do?”
“Simon? He’s a sales representative. Spends a lot of time on the road.”
“Well, maybe when he’s in town sometime you’d both like to come over for a drink and a bite to eat?”
“I’d like that.” And to her surprise she found that was the truth. She really would like to go round to the Weston’s farm for an evening.
She was beginning to feel at home in Taupington.
Geoff Quill watched while Harold Martin finished his shift, cleaning up around Funland. He waited while the old man sat on a bench, facing the water, and ate a late breakfast of sandwiches out of silver foil. When finished, the silver foil was rolled into a ball and dropped into a nearby waste bin. Harold Martin gave every impression of being a law-abiding, quiet man living out his old age in a seaside town.
If Geoff hadn’t read the evidence he might have believed what he saw. If he hadn’t seen the photographs, the butchered bodies of girls and boys, men and women dating back to the 1960’s, he might have accepted the illusion before him. The fact that the police had never been able to gather enough evidence to convict Harold Martin, despite repeated investigations, was not important. Geoff’s employers were convinced of his guilt. Geoff, too, was convinced by the evidence sent to his PDA. If he hadn’t been convinced, he wouldn’t be here.
When Harold Martin finally stood up from the bench and began a slow walk along the promenade, Geoff stepped out of his car and followed.
The breeze coming off the water chilled what would otherwise have been a pleasant day. Nevertheless, the sun began to warm him and its brightness made him reach into his coat pocket, take out his sunglasses and slip them on.
There were increasing numbers of people now and Geoff watched as a group of teenagers hurried, laughing, past Harold Martin. He watched the old man turn and gaze after them, smiling. To most people it was just the older generation looking with some humour and tolerance on the younger. But Geoff saw the eyes of the predator, knew he was imagining what he would do if he could just get one of the girls or boys on their own.
The terraced hotels and guesthouses changed to larger, purpose built hotels as Harold reached the end of the promenade. He seemed to hesitate at the roundabout, not sure which way to go, before turning left and heading up towards the shops on Lord Street. Geoff followed at a discrete distance.
For the rest of the morning there was nothing remarkable in the actions of Harold Martin. He wandered through two shopping arcades without entering any shops, stopped in a couple of charity shops and bought a dog-eared paperback from one, meandered through Debenhams and Woolworths before stopping for some lunch in the Woolworths’ Cafe. Geoff sat just three tables away from him, sipping at his coffee while Harold ate a chicken curry dish.
Just before one o’clock, Harold Martin put down his knife and fork, finished off his tea and pushed himself back from the table. Picking up his recently purchased paperback, he stood and made for the exit. Geoff waited until Harold was almost at the door before following. His empty stomach grumbled. He was hungry, but he had not wanted to risk being delayed in the queue for food while Harold could have been walking straight out of the store. He could eat later, however much his stomach might complain now.
Harold was still in sight as Geoff stepped onto the pavement. He was heading for the pedestrian crossing lights, presumably for an afternoon doing exactly as he had done all morning since finishing work. Geoff hunched his shoulders, sighing quietly. Boredom could be a very real danger in his line of work at times.
Once over Lord Street, Harold cut down a side road, moving away from the shops. Geoff was suddenly alert. No one had known where Harold Martin currently lived. A fairly reliable sighting led Geoff to Southport, but there had been no suggestion that his target lived here. Now Geoff felt in his gut that Harold was heading for home. He was walking away from the shopping area, into residential streets, two and three storey houses converted into apartments.
Geoff could feel the adrenalin, his heartbeat quickening. This was where the job became exciting and dangerous, enjoyable and stressful. The further they moved from the shops the quieter the streets became and the more possibility there was of Harold spotting Geoff and becoming suspicious. But the very lack of people on these streets made it all the more likely that Harold lived in one of them. He would choose somewhere quiet, somewhere away from too many prying eyes.
Geoff had lost all sense of direction now, they had turned so many times. He had no idea what the name of the street was when Harold finally opened the gate to a narrow pathway and, unlocking the door with a key, stepped inside a red brick Victorian, three storey house of converted apartments.
Waiting until Harold’s shadow had disappeared from the frosted glass of the front door, Geoff pushed open the iron gate and cautiously walked up the path. A large window to the right of the door had its curtains closed. It was difficult to say why, but Geoff felt the apartment behind those curtains was empty. The corresponding windows on the other two floors also had their curtains drawn, although smaller windows directly above the door were clear. No one was looking out of them.
At the door, Geoff listened intently for several seconds but could hear no sound from within. He pulled out the customised lockpick he always carried and, after a moment’s work, pushed the door open and slid silently inside.
The smell was of drains and hit him as soon as he entered the house. It didn’t seem to be from any one place but permeated the whole atmosphere, making him gag. Breathing with shallow breaths, as if afraid of taking the smell into his lungs, he quietly pushed the door closed behind him.
He was in a narrow hallway. Uncollected post littered the floor under his feet. In front of him, along the left wall, was the staircase, narrow and straight. To the right, an open doorway led into the darkness of the front ground floor apartment. Past that door another one lay open to a rear apartment, equally as dark as the front, and then, almost hidden by a rusting, wheel-less pram, three steps led down to the back door of the building. A quick check confirmed Geoff’s suspicion that the apartments were empty, unlived in.
This was not the kind of place Geoff expected Harold to be living. He would want somewhere quiet, yes, but not abandoned, not this squalid. But if he didn’t live here, there must be something else, something that would require the solitude, no-one to interfere, to hear any strange noises or screams.
Geoff reached into his jacket and drew his Glock 20 as he started up the stairs, forcing himself to ignore the smell, calming his breathing and his heartbeat by sheer force of will. He could feel sweat on his forehead, his upper lip, but the hand holding the gun was steady, his finger resting lightly on the trigger. Several years back he had been seconded to the military and shipped to Afghanistan to help search mountain cave complexes for remnants of the Taliban. This was the same fear, the same excitement he had felt then, stepping into enemy territory, never knowing what was just around the corner or when someone might step out and open fire on you. He had never denied he was afraid, but the excitement came from his self-belief, his confidence in how good he was at his job. In the caves, several Taliban had stepped out on him. None had managed to send a single round in his direction.
On the first floor he stopped, listening. The layout was the same as the ground floor, with two apartments opposite the stairs. The door to the first apartment was open, but the second was closed, and it was from there that Geoff could hear a quiet, mumbled voice.
He looked quickly up the stairs. The second floor was dark and quiet. Satisfied there was no immediate threat from there, he moved quietly to the closed door. He could definitely hear a man’s voice, quietly spoken, and in the background other sounds, a strange mixture, some hard to identify. He could hear a tap dripping, a radiator clicking as it heated up or cooled down, and a strange slap slap slapping sound that started and stopped seemingly at random. Behind it all was a muffled sobbing and small whimpers of fear. If he had been in any doubt as to why Harold Martin came to this abandoned property, those sounds finally dispelled them.
His entry into the room could not be subtle. Any attempt to creep in would most likely be seen and stopped. He could think of no other way than a direct assault. Surprise would be on his side. That and his own ability. And his Glock 20.
He turned, placed his back against the side of the staircase opposite the door, raised his right foot and kicked.
His heel smashed into the door alongside the lock, sending it swinging wide with such force that it rebounded off the inside wall and was on its way back as Geoff shouldered it aside on his way into the room.
Harold Martin had turned at the crash of the door opening, a look of surprise frozen on his face. In his right hand he held an open straight razor. Fastened to the foot of the bed in front of him was a leather strap. The slapping sound had been the sharpening of the razor on the leather.
Geoff did not have much time to take in the detail of the room, but he did note that it was bare of furniture, except for a small table and chair and a large double bed. On the bed, tied, arms and legs spread wide, completely naked, was a young woman. At first glance Geoff guessed she was maybe twenty two or twenty three, slim, probably attractive and covered in cuts and slices, some old and almost healed, some open and weeping, some obviously fresh, still oozing blood over her pale skin. The sheet beneath her was sodden with blood and dripped steadily onto the floor. Not a tap dripping water, but blood. There were fingers missing from her hands, toes from her feet, bloody stumps evidence of their violent removal. Geoff felt an immediate reaction, wanting to vomit, but he controlled it, suppressed it.
Harold, after his moment of surprise at the interruption, screamed with rage. He sprang towards Geoff, slashing the open razor towards his face.
Geoff opened fire, pumping one, two, three shots into Harold’s twisted face. Blood, flesh and bone exploded, spattering the wall, the bed, the girl and Geoff. Harold, his momentum still carrying him forward, sprawled onto the floor, his face hitting the worn carpet with a wet, slapping sound. Geoff, wiping blood from his face, stepped to the side, raised his gun and put a bullet into the back of Harold’s head.
Happy that the man was dead, Geoff turned to the woman. She continued to cry, to moan. She didn’t seem to be aware of what had happened, didn’t seem to see Geoff as he stood above her. Her left nipple had been sliced off. A razor cut had split open one eye. Teeth had been knocked or pulled out and blood frothed in her mouth. Geoff felt his eyes drawn to her groin and her open legs but he stopped himself. He didn’t want to know what Harold had done there.
The woman was dying. That was obvious. Although Harold had not finished with her he had killed her nonetheless.
Geoff put one bullet through her forehead. He felt it was a kindness.
End Of Sample