Val McDermid is a No. 1 bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over eleven million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. She writes full time and divides her time between Cheshire and Edinburgh.
Weekends were best. It was easy to avoid working then. So it was easier to watch the women he was interested in. Mostly they didn’t go to work then either, so he had a chance to observe their routines and work out the best way to kill them.
He was good at watching. His teachers and later his employers had always commented on his attention to detail. How he would never attempt a project until he’d weighed up the risks and the possibilities. The ﬁrst time he’d killed, he reckoned he’d still been in a state of shock, but even then he’d been able to make a plan and stick to it. Afterwards, he’d understood that act had opened a door to a mission. Now, his mission had assumed central importance in his life.
Like today. He hadn’t quite made his mind up who was going to be next. He had a couple of names on his mental list and he knew how he wanted to kill the chosen one. It was mostly a matter of ﬁguring out whether the logistics would work. When you were planning on hanging someone, you had to be sure there was something to hang them from. And he was in no hurry. The latest one remained fresh in his mind, a source of deep satisfaction. Perfectly executed.
This one, though . . . she ticked all the boxes. But he wasn’t going to be rushed into making a ﬁnal decision. Not like the ﬁrst time he’d gone out into the wild, as he liked to think of it. Sitting here now, watching a house where nothing was happening, it was thrilling to summon up the memory. Exciting but unnerving too. So many ways it could have gone wrong.
She’d been alone. It was so unexpected, he’d forgotten how to walk and tripped over his feet. He grazed his knuckles against the brick wall, a rash of blood spotting the skin. He couldn’t quite believe it, but she really was alone. No minder, no driver, no PA, none of the chattering bitches she used to get her validation from. Just her, jogging down the ﬁve steps from her front door to the narrow sweep of gravel that divided her unfairly lovely home from the street where the likes of him were exiled. He half-expected the door to open again, one or more of her retinue to come blundering after her, running to catch up before she reached the gate.
But no. There was nobody. Only her.
He looked around wildly, his usual determination to blend in with the streetscape torn into confetti and scattered on the diesel breeze stirring the city air. But nobody was paying a blind bit of attention. Late afternoon in North London; nobody was paying any heed to anyone or anything outside their own tight little knot of concern, least of all to her. It wasn’t as if she was recognisable beyond the Twitterati. To the average person in the street, she was simply another North London thirtysomething. Designer jeans and a fashion hoodie hugging her unexceptional frame rather than hiding it, that year’s must-have leather satchel slung across one hip, multi-shaded blonde dye job caught back in a loose ponytail. Hardly worth a ﬁrst glance, never mind a second one. Hard to believe anybody had ever taken any notice of anything she’d said or done.
Oblivious to his confusion, she opened the heavy iron gate with the gothic creak he’d grown familiar with lately. She closed it carefully behind herself and started walking.
He couldn’t quite believe it was happening. For three weeks, he’d been keeping tabs on her whenever he could manage it. And she never ever ventured out alone. Running scared, he’d decided. Not scared enough to shut up, but scared enough to make sure there was always somebody around to watch her back.
After the things they’d said to her the night before, she should have been hiding under the duvet, cowed into submission. Not striding along the pavement acting like she was the one with the moral high ground instead of acknowledging the truth – that she was a destructive, disruptive, dangerous bitch who deserved everything that was coming to her.
He’d not planned on dealing with her today. He hadn’t been expecting so golden an opportunity. But he wasn’t going to let it slip away. Who knew when he’d get another chance like that? And it wasn’t like he hadn’t worked it all out in his head a hundred times, testing every element of the plan for weak points and ﬁguring out how to overcome them.
‘Get a grip,’ he chided himself under his breath, falling into step behind her, a few metres and a couple of teenage girls between them. He knew it could be a long while till he got her alone again. ‘Get a grip.’
Taking her off the street had been a lot easier than he’d expected. Women like her – middle class, secure in their status, used to the world running the way they wanted – had a false sense of safety. They trusted people until someone gave them good reason not to. She’d trusted him, because he made himself look and sound like all the other pathetic guys who let their women run the show – whipped into line and made into some bitch’s gutless slave.
He’d done his research. He knew the names that would make his bullshit credible. She’d believed the tale he’d spun about her radio station needing her in the studio to cover for a sick colleague. She’d got in the car without a murmur. And then he’d shown her the photos on his phone.
He’d been proud of that. He knew how to plot, how to plan, how to prepare. Her daughter, doing a foundation course at ﬁlm school, had been laughably easy. He’d pretended to be a photographer doing a project about hostages and protest. He’d got three of them involved, so he didn’t look like a pervert singling out one girl in particular. Then he’d mocked up a series of shots of them apparently being held prisoner and tortured. And now he had a series of carefully edited shots on his phone that provided perfect leverage.
As soon as he showed her the ﬁrst shot, she had frozen to stillness. A whimper from behind her closed lips. She’d pulled herself together and said, voice wobbling through an octave or more, ‘What do you want?’
‘It’s more about what you want. You want your daughter to come out of this alive, don’t you?’
‘That’s a stupid question,’ she said, a ﬂare of anger lighting up her face.
He wasn’t having any of that. He took his left hand off the gearstick and backhanded her hard across the face. She cried out and shrank away from him. ‘Don’t make me call her babysitter. You won’t like what happens to Madison if I have to do that.’ He snorted. ‘Madison. What kind of fucking name is that? We don’t have any limits. We’ll cut her, we’ll rape her, we’ll leave her so nobody will ever want to touch her again. Except out of pity. So do what the fuck you’re told.’
Her eyes widened and her mouth formed an anguished O. He had to admit, there was real pleasure in seeing her pay the price for her bitching and whining and moaning. She’d called men like him misogynists. That was the opposite of what they were. Men like him, they loved women.
They understood the kind of life that suited women best. They knew what women really wanted. Proper women didn’t want to be out there in the world, having to shout the odds all the time. They wanted to build homes, take care of families, make their mark and exercise their power inside the home. Being women, not fake men.
After that, it had been easy. Back to hers after the staff had gone home. Into the garage. Wrist cuffed to the armrest to make it look like she was determined not to change her mind. Hose from the exhaust into the car. The book on the seat beside her, a reminder to himself of the roots of what he was doing. He could have changed his mind at any time, could have pardoned her. But what would have been the use of that? Even if she’d changed her ways, it wouldn’t change anything. He took one last look and closed the garage door.
In the morning, they found her.
Carol Jordan swirled the last half-inch of port around her glass and thought almost wistfully of murder. To the casual observer, she hoped it looked as if she was ﬁddling with the stem of her glass. In fact, her grip was so tight she feared it might snap in her ﬁngers. The man on her left, who didn’t look like someone you’d want to punch, leaned forward to make his point more forcefully.
‘It’s absolutely not hard to ﬁnd high net worth individuals if you target your efforts carefully,’ he said.
And once again, like clockwork, she wanted to punch his narrow complacent face, to feel that sharp nose crunch against her ﬁst,to see the look of utter shock widen his little piggy eyes.
Instead, she knocked back the last of her drink and pushed her empty glass towards her generous host, who casually poured another liberal slug of Dow’s 2007. The man on her left had already pronounced it ‘probably the best port Dow has ever produced’, as he’d washed down another chunk of Stilton. She didn’t know enough about port to argue but she’d desperately wanted to.
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ Carol muttered again, trying not to sound ungraciously mutinous. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been at a dinner party of this formality but she hadn’t forgotten the obligations imposed by accepting an invitation to break bread. They’d been drilled into her at her mother’s table. Smile, nod, agree, stay away from politics and never ever start a row.
Fortunately for the rest of the company, years of serving as a senior police ofﬁcer had reinforced her mother’s injunctions against politics at the dinner table. When your budget and the very existence of your team was dependent on the largesse of politicians, you soon learned not to express an opinion that might come back to bite you in the neck with all the philanthropy of a vampire. Over the years, Carol had carefully cultivated the art of not holding controversial views lest she let something slip at the wrong moment. She left that to the junior members of her team, who more than made up for her reticence.
Not that there had been many occasions like this during her career as the boss of an elite murder squad. The demands of the job had consumed her, eating up far more than the forty hours a week she was contracted to provide. Carol hoarded the leftover time for things she wanted to do. Like sleep. Not spend endless hours at somebody else’s table listening to obnoxious rich bastards holding forth about the iniquities of whoever they thought stood between them and their next million.
But now she had nothing but leftover time. The career she’d deﬁned herself by was over. At moments like this, she had to remind herself that had been her own choice. She could have been Detective Chief Inspector Jordan yet. But she had chosen to be plain Carol Jordan; just another incomer to a rural Yorkshire valley that had been remorselessly invaded by people who had no relationship to the landscape that surrounded them except that they liked it better than the suburbia they’d left behind.
Her host, George Nicholas, was an exception. His family had built the big Georgian manor at the head of the valley and lived in it continuously for a shade over two hundred years. His was the sort of background of comfortable privilege Carol was inclined to despise. On their ﬁrst meeting, she’d taken one look at his scrubbed pink skin, his patrician proﬁle and an outﬁt that could have come straight from a catalogue featuring country gentlemen’s apparel and determined to distrust and dislike him. But she’d eventually been disarmed by the unﬂappable charm that met her hostility head on and chose to ignore it. That and the bloody dogs.
Later, she’d discovered the reason he believed he’d be the last of his line to inhabit the manor. He’d been widowed three years before when his wife had died in a road accident. He wore his grief lightly but for someone as well schooled in trauma as Carol, it was a clear and present pain.
Carol cleared her throat and pushed back from the table.
‘I had better be going, George,’ she said. Not a slur or a hesitation to betray the amount she’d had to drink.
The laughter lines round his eyes disappeared along with the smile the woman next to him had provoked with an ironic aside Carol had only half-heard. ‘Must you?’ He sounded disappointed. She couldn’t blame him. He’d been trying for weeks to persuade her to come over for a meal. And here she was, bailing out at the ﬁrst opportunity. ‘We’ve not even had coffee yet.’
Carol aimed for rueful. ‘Flash is still a bit young to be left on her own for too long.’
He mirrored her regret with a downward twist of his mouth. ‘Hoist by my own petard.’
‘Who’s Flash?’ The question came from an older man further down the table whose meaty red face and several chins made him look like one of the cheerier illustrations from Dickens.
‘Carol kindly took on one of Jess’s pups,’ George said, the genial host again. ‘One that’s scared of sheep.’
‘Scared of sheep?’ The Pickwickian questioner looked as incredulous as he sounded.
‘It happens from time to time,’ George said mildly. ‘All a ewe has to do is bleat and Flash puts her tail between her legs and runs. Carol saved the dog from redundancy.’
‘And she’s a great companion,’ Carol said. ‘But she’s not much more than a pup. And like all collies, she doesn’t like being on her own for great chunks of time. So I ought to get back.’
The man she wanted to punch snorted. ‘Your dog sounds more tyrannical than our babysitter. And that’s saying something.’
‘Not at all, Charlie,’ George said. ‘Carol’s quite right. You treat a pup reasonably and you end up with the best kind of dog.’ He smiled, his dark eyes genial. ‘I’ll get Jackie to run you home. You can pick your car up when you’re out with Flash in the morning.’
Carol frowned. So he had been paying attention to how much she’d put away. The thought angered her. What she drank was her business. Nobody could be expected to endure what she had without some sort of support system. She knew she was in control of the drink, not the other way round, in spite of what anyone else might think. Or any one person in particular.
She pushed that thought away and forced a casual tone into her voice. ‘No need. Jackie’s got enough to do in the kitchen. I’m ﬁne to drive.’
The man on her left made a faintly derisive noise. ‘I’ll get my driver to take you,’ he said with a condescending pat to her hand.
Carol stood up, perfectly steady. ‘That’s very kind, but there’s no need. It’s only a couple of miles down the road. It’s quiet as the grave at this time of night.’ She spoke with the authority of a woman who has grown accustomed to being deferred to.
George hastily got to his feet, lips pursed. ‘I’ll see you to your car,’ he said with his invariable politeness.
‘Lovely to meet you all,’ Carol lied, smiling her way round the table with its late-night chaos of crystal and silver, china and cheeseboard. Eight people she’d never have to see again, if she was lucky. Eight people probably breathing a sigh of relief that the square peg was leaving the round hole. George opened the dining room door and stood back to let her precede him into the stone-ﬂagged hall. The subtle lighting made the elderly rugs glow; or perhaps that was the wine, Carol thought as she walked to the broad front door.
George paused in the porch, gauging the coats hanging from the guest pegs. He extended a hand towards a long black cashmere, then stopped, casting a smile over his shoulder towards her. ‘The Barbour, yes?’
Carol felt a stab of embarrassment. She’d deliberately chosen her dog-walking jacket, stubbornly refusing to completely dress up for something she didn’t want to do. And now it felt like a deliberate insult to a man who had only ever shown her kindness and a friendly face. ‘It matches the Land Rover rather than the dress,’ she said, gesturing at the black silk jersey sheath that ﬁtted her better than it used to. She was a different shape from the woman who had bought it; hard physical work had broadened her shoulders and reconﬁgured her hips and thighs.
He handed her into the waxed coat. ‘I rather like the contrast,’ he said. She couldn’t see his face but she could hear the smile in his voice. ‘Thank you for coming, Carol. I hope it wasn’t too much of an ordeal. Next time, I promise you a more relaxed evening. A quiet kitchen supper, perhaps?’
‘I’m amazed at your persistence.’ She turned to face him, her grey eyes meeting his. ‘I’d have given up on me long before this.’
‘Secret of my success, persistence. I was never the brightest or the best in my cohort but I learned that if I stuck with things, the outcome was generally acceptable. It’s how I got Diana to marry me.’ He opened the door and a shiver of chill air crept over them. ‘And speaking of persistence – are you determined to drive? It’s no problem at all to have Jackie drop you off.’
‘I’m ﬁne, George. Really.’ She stepped on to the frosted gravel and crunched her way across, grateful for the closeness of his arm when her unfamiliar high heels unsteadied her a couple of yards from the vehicle. ‘God, it’s been so long since I wore these shoes,’ she said with a forced laugh.
‘One of the many reasons I’m grateful for being a bloke.’ George took a step backwards as she opened the Land Rover door and swung herself up into the high seat. ‘Do be careful. Maybe see you on the hill tomorrow?’
‘Probably. Thanks again for a lovely dinner.’ She slammed the heavy door closed and gunned the noisy diesel into life. There was a faint blur of frost on the windscreen but a couple of swipes of the wipers took care of it. With the fan on full to keep the windscreen clear, Carol eased the gear-stick out of neutral and set off down the drive. George’s mention of his late wife – killed in an accident involving a drunk driver – felt like a reproach for her decision to get behind the wheel after a few glasses of wine. But she felt absolutely ﬁne, in complete control of her reactions and responses. Besides, it was less than three miles. And she was desperate to escape.
God, what a night. If they hadn’t been such a bunch of tossers, she’d have been ashamed of being such a crap guest. As it was, she was dismayed at how poorly she’d repaid George’s generosity. She’d lost the knack of being with people. Once upon a time, she’d been close enough to one man to tease him constantly about his lack of social graces. Now she’d turned into him.
She swung out of the drive on to the narrow ribbon of road that stretched between George Nicholas’s manor house and the stone barn she’d spent the past months stripping to its bare bones and rebuilding according to her own distinct vision. She’d peeled away everything that might provoke memories, but its history haunted her nevertheless.
The headlights bleached the hedgerows of colour and she felt relief as she recognised the markers that told her she was closing in on home. The crooked stump of the dead oak; the stile and the ﬁngerpost for the footpath; the dirty yellow plastic grit bin, there to make up for the fact that the council were never going to grit a road so insigniﬁcant it didn’t even have a white line up the middle.
Then, all at once, a different kind of marker. The kind that’s never good news. In her rear-view mirror, a disco wash of blue lights.
(C) Val McDermid 2016
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.