Katie Hague knew she was swimming. She just didn’t know why. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, even though she’d spend hours in the pool on holidays, sometimes even brave enough to dip in the sea. Always with her parents watching, though.
She’d been thirteen on her last family holiday, a self-catering deal to Turkey, not that her dad couldn’t afford somewhere more exotic. Turkey was Katie’s choice. Gobble gobble, she’d said again and again until the day of departure, then all through the flight, her mother fighting the urge to strangle her only child, her dad smiling quietly.
Now, eight years later, Katie swam alone. Somewhere she didn’t recognise. Somewhere black.
She trod water for a moment, something she always found hard. With her feet unable to touch the bottom, or anything solid, she looked around. She was never out of her depth, not without her dad nearby, or, more recently, unless Brian was with her. And where was Brian now?
Katie remembered them arguing, then him sloping off with his mates. It had not been loud, just testy, in a late bar somewhere. She was hungry, had suggested a curry, but Brian wanted to go on, just for one more, babe, please? A taxi. That was Katie’s last thought, the last she remembered, here, now, in this pool.
Now something happened nearby, a movement she did not see because of the dark. She felt a sweeping cold, embracing her head and shoulders like an undercurrent flowing in from deeper water.
But that wasn’t quite right either.
All her body below the surface was numb, unfeeling, and now all above felt chilled. She hadn’t seen the event, that something, but she knew:
A shadow had fallen over her.
“Who’s there?” she said.
No echo. Nothing whatsoever. The dark ate her voice right up. She expected her words to reverberate around the walls of a municipal pool, or a private home in the middle of the country. No echo, no sound coming back at her. This meant there were no walls. So she was swimming outside. But even outside there were buildings, trees, rocks. She was treading water, outdoors, with nothing around, no lights, no people.
So why did she get the impression she was not absolutely alone? Other than the invisible shadow, she had no reason to think there was someone watching her, not here.
Whatever ‘here’ actually meant.
Outside? No light? No buildings? Was she in the middle of a lake?
Her breathing began to grate in her throat.
No, of course not. There would be light. There’s always light. The darkest of freezing British waters still drew moonlight and stars; even when hiding, their light still penetrates. There is no absolute dark.
Each breath now hurt. She needed her inhaler. Her throat was swelling within. She kicked her numb legs to no avail, and when she flapped her arms, no splashes whipped up. This can’t be, she told herself. Alone; swimming; out of her depth; an asthma attack.
Something wedged in her mouth, something hard, plastic. She gagged. She tried to spit it out but it was too big, lodging itself between her teeth. A hiss. Then light. A pinprick, not in front of her but inside her head. Her shoulders grew cold now, as if she were gliding upwards, out of the … lake? The sea? The pool?
That thing, still stuck in her mouth, gave another hiss.
And Katie breathed.
The object hissed a third time and the cold spread to her chest, her back, down her stomach. Her hips. The light inside her expanded, enveloping her in cold. She wanted to use her arms to wrap around herself for warmth, but found them stuck behind her. Looking down now, struggling to free herself, she saw her thighs raised, the clothes she was wearing when she’d argued with Brian still on her, strangely dry. The odour of sweat and booze and a faint whiff of cigarette smoke made her want to undress and shower, but her hands remained bound tight. She couldn’t see behind her, could not turn at all.
Then, like a spotlight growing, her vision improved: a white-tiled floor, her bare feet bound by handcuffs, stockinged legs moving up into the little skirt that barely covered her underwear. She could not see past her chest, other than to confirm her clothing remained intact. She was sitting on a hard wooden chair.
A deep voice from outside the spotlight; calm, polite even.
“Please stop struggling, Katie, I don’t want to hurt you.”
From swimming in blackness to being tied to a chair. Nothing. Nothing could explain this. She tried her voice. “Who are you?”
It hurt to speak. Now her head throbbed also. Like a hangover. She was about to be sick.
A bucket came into view within the spotlight, a glimpse of a foot which kicked it closer.
“Please use this if you need to vomit. I won’t be angry if you miss. Only if you don’t try.”
The foot peeking out of the dark into Katie’s halo of light meant something. A clear fact, a truth that really should not be.
“The spotlight’s real,” Katie said aloud.
“Of course it’s real,” came the man’s voice. “What a strange thing to say.”
“Why am I here?”
“You are my second.”
“Please don’t make me repeat myself, Katie. It annoys me. You are my second. This…”
Another spotlight cracked to life. It illuminated a girl about five feet from Katie, dressed similarly to Katie, like she was going clubbing, with long dark hair like Katie’s, about Katie’s age.
And then it all fell away from her. The swimming, the light, the dark, this disembodied voice from the blackness all around. But the girl frightened Katie the most. This girl, bound to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, looking so much like Katie they might have been sisters.
“This is your new roommate,” the man said, now behind Katie, hands on her shoulders, his breath on her neck. “She is my first. You will be my second.”
And, doing her very best to aim for the bucket, Katie vomited. She was pleased that a lot of it missed.
“Hmm,” the man said. Then footsteps. An arm flashed into the light and tossed Katie’s inhaler onto her lap. The footsteps receded. “Goodnight.”
And both lights went out, leaving nothing but pitch black.
In Murphy’s world, the darkness was peaceful. There was a beauty to the air that returned him to childhood visits to the seaside, like passing through an almost a physical barrier; one minute breathing thickly in the city, the next opening a car door and breathing crisp, clear air. Here, with his eyes closed and his breathing steady, Murphy could almost have relaxed and fallen into a deep, solid sleep.
He could all but hear the waves swelling and breaking, a soft whoosh and crash, whoosh and crash. Sand kicking up in the wash, pebbles hurting his soft feet as he skipped over them.
Saltwater spray on a windy day, walking atop clay cliffs, wind roaring in his face.
Murphy opened his eyes and turned to the clean-shaven constable and breathed through his nose. “I’m thinking.”
“Of course, sir. But Chief Superintendent Rhapshaw is…” The constable was shivering, still soaking wet in his uniform, a blanket wrapped around him, doing his best to appear professional.
“Son,” Murphy said, “do I frighten you?”
“Do I frighten you? Am I an intimidating presence?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, sir.”
Murphy studied the boy’s face. Probably popular with the ladies, a flat stomach, strong arms. Murphy guessed he even had those hard man-boob things that seemed so popular in the station changing room. Men—kids, really—tensing and showing one another their new muscles, lumps they never realised they had until their latest gym session popped them out of their dormant state. He had heard a word come to life over the past few years and it seemed to fit here: homoerotic.
“I mean,” Murphy said, “when you talk to me you sound like you’re expecting me to yell at you, or give you a spanking.”
Okay, Murphy was officially bored now. “Where’s the Chief?”
“Parking up near the cordon. He’ll be about ten minutes.”
“You were first on scene?”
“Yes, sir. I followed every rule. All of them.”
“Gold star to you. In fact…” Murphy handed the constable a pound coin. “There’s a stationery shop down the road. Get yourself a whole bunch of gold stars.”
The constable stood there looking at the coin in his hand. He closed his fingers around it, put it in his wet pocket, and looked back at Murphy, confused. Murphy closed his eyes but opened them again quickly, unwilling to be dragged back into his peace, knowing he would have to return here all too soon.
“The body, constable. Tell me about the body.”
The constable led Murphy down a soggy, green hill to the edge of the lake where the scene of crime officers mooched about in their white, papery suits. Their feet squelched and Murphy felt his footing loosen and then grip again, while the kid leading him was firm and sure. Murphy decided he, too, would be firm and sure and not be shown up by a junior constable in front of the SOCOs. Murphy was surprised the constable talked so confidently.
“I responded to a nine-nine-nine call at approximately oh-eight-thirty. Caller reported a drowning at Roundhay Park. I entered the park eight minutes later and cycled to the point where the caller said he would be waiting. I met Mr Hudson—who had been walking his dog—and he pointed out what appeared to be a body floating…”
“What’s your name?” Murphy asked.
“Er, Duncan. Duncan Powel.”
“Okay, Constable Powel, we’re not in court. Tell me about the body.”
“Oh. Okay. Here. She was dead when I got to her… bruised, cut up, her nails…” Powel looked at the ground.
The corpse lay on a wooden pallet beneath a white tarpaulin.
“I thought putting her on here would be better than the soil,” Powel said.
“Good.” Murphy nodded to Powel’s uniform. “You said you followed every rule.”
“Does that include jumping into a cold lake when you couldn’t know what dangers lurked under the surface?”
“You’re not a complete retard, Powel, so I assume you read up on the section that tells you not to place yourself in danger even when trying to help someone. Is my assumption correct?”
“Yes, sir, but—”
“And so you saw someone face down in a lake, jumped in without a thought to your own well-being and dragged that face-down someone back to shore hoping to resuscitate them? That about what happened, Constable Powel?”
“Yes, but when I realised she was long-dead I followed procedure to the letter…”
“Give me my pound back.” Murphy held out his hand, eyes on the white sheet.
“My pound. Give it back.”
Powel placed the pound in Murphy’s hand and Murphy held it tight. He bent down to the tarpaulin, lifted it a little, and then put it back down. He was aware of Powel standing over him and imagined the kid’s bottom lip sticking out. Murphy felt a bit shitty about that.
“Sir, I thought I was doing the right thing. If she’d been alive…”
Murphy stood to his full height so he was an entire head above the young constable, and Powel stopped talking. Murphy put the pound back in his pocket, placed a hand on Powel’s damp shoulder, and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but… promise you won’t say anything?”
“I would have done exactly the same thing.”
“I’m saying well done, Powel. Unofficially, you did a good thing here. If I were first on scene, I’d have gone swimming too.”
A grin flickered briefly but Powel stifled it. “Thank you, sir.”
“Go get changed.”
As Powel tramped off, Murphy supressed a glimmer of respect for the man-child and turned his thoughts to the body at his feet. But something else was about to drag Murphy’s day down a little further. Chief Inspector Rhapshaw was cresting the hill, greeted by the clipboard-wielding crime-scene manager, and being invited to sign in.
Before the head of Yorkshire’s Serious Crime Agency reached him, Murphy ascertained that the body was probably beaten to death and, although he had no medical expertise beyond twenty-odd years of listening to experts, he estimated the body had been in the water no longer than a few hours. He also managed to see through the bruising and cuts and filth, and identify the corpse as Hayley Davenport.
“Murphy,” Rhapshaw said.
“Sir.” Murphy stood and greeted the officer with a curt handshake. As with most people, Murphy loomed far taller than Graham Rhapshaw, and as with most people, Rhapshaw took a step back before he was comfortable enough to speak.
“Is it the Davenport girl?”
“Looks like it.”
Rhapshaw turned from the corpse and paced toward the lake. He wore the uniform that he once told Murphy gave him gravitas when speaking to the press and underlings, and as such was looking at the muddy path as if it somehow offended him. “Lot of rain last night.”
“The SOCOs are covering the area. But you’re right. I doubt they’ll find much.”
“And is this similar to the Bradshaw girl?”
“Pippa, sir. Her name was Pippa Bradshaw.” Murphy noticed a woman wandering along the shore. She was coming from the woods on the other side of the lake.
“Are you suggesting I’m being insensitive, Detective Inspector?”
The woman was short, blonde, her hair in a ponytail. Probably mid-to-late twenties. Dressed like she belonged in an office. Except for the bubble-gum pink wellington boots.
“No, sir,” Murphy said. “It’s my own way of thinking about them. First name terms.”
“We’ve talked about that before.”
“And I haven’t forgotten. Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
The woman was getting closer now. Murphy excused himself from Rhapshaw and approached unsteadily over the sodden ground. “Hello? Miss?”
She didn’t look up, engrossed in the long grass along the lakeside, lost in concentration. She bent down and picked up a Coke can, peered inside, and discarded it.
As Murphy drew closer he saw she was a pretty little thing; petite, her head coming up to his chest. He called again, “Miss, excuse me.”
This time she looked up. “Oh, hi!” She greeted him like an old friend she was surprised to see.
Murphy guided her aside. “Miss, I’m not sure how you got through the cordon, but this is a crime scene. A young woman has been…”
“Murdered, yes, I know.” She smiled cheerily at him. “I’m Alicia Friend.”
“And Graham asked me to come along, see if I could help. Cool, huh?”
Murphy took a mental step back. Cute, blonde, seemed to almost bounce even though she was stood still. “Graham?”
“At your service.” Rhapshaw’s voice again. When Murphy turned, Rhapshaw said, “You’ve been pestering DCI Streeter for more personnel and he has been pestering me. Therefore, Detective Sergeant Alicia Friend is now on attachment from the Serious Crime Agency. She’s been a damn good copper for me, and she’s an analyst of criminal psychology. Seems like a good fit.”
“Sir, if by ‘analyst’ you mean ‘psychic’…”
“Murphy, how long have you known me?”
“Ten years, on and off.”
“And in those ten years, what exactly could you possibly have seen to make you think for one fucking minute I’d employ a psychic?”
Murphy saw his point. “She’s a shrink then?”
Alicia stood forward. “I’m a psychologist. My brain is like some mini-computer, but you can’t switch it off and back on again. I’m also a policewoman with a mean right hook and a pretty decent track record wherever my little feet have taken me.”
Murphy stared at her a moment. Did she just say ‘little feet’? “DS Friend, thanks for coming down, but we don’t even have the forensics in yet.”
“It’s okay. I already have a theory about your killer. For starters, it’s not much of a stretch to start using the fave phrase of Hollywood thriller writers: serial killer.”
Murphy shook his head. “Good lord, Graham, what the hell is this? Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a stroll and she’s sure this is a serial killer? That mini-computer of hers needs de-bugging. We have two bodies. Similar appearance, similar age, similar deaths, but it’s not enough for a pattern. It’s barely a coincidence.”
Rhapshaw was about to respond but Alicia Friend got in first: “Well, technically a serial murderer needs three kills, but from what Graham tells me a third girl went missing yesterday in similar circumstances to Pippa and Hayley. Close in appearance, twenty-two years old, which means there’s about five days until a third body shows up.”
“We still don’t know…”
“Are you a betting man, DI Murphy?”
To Rhapshaw, he said, “Sir, I don’t need this. I have a decent team under me.”
Alicia said, “Because if you’re really into gambling and want to throw one of those little balls onto the roulette wheel—by the way, I’m using the little ball as a metaphor for Katie Hague’s life, and the roulette wheel for the chances of finding her alive—”
“I get the imagery.”
“Good, because if that’s what you’re going to do—hope that the forensics turn up a fingerprint or find the name and address of the person who beat Hayley Davenport to death secreted about her person—then I very much doubt Katie’s going to make it.”
Murphy grew conscious of his breathing, the air through his nose far louder than it should have been. The winter breeze blew cold, and he heard the rustle of the SOCOs’ suits, felt the breeze bite at his neck. Alicia Friend was shivering but her eyes held his.
Rhapshaw said, “If DS Friend is correct about the serial angle, we need to move quickly. Murphy, your desk is clear as of now. This is your only case. Find the missing girl and catch this bastard.”
“Fine,” Murphy said. “Let’s hear the theory.”
Rhapshaw smiled satisfactorily. “Let me and DCI Streeter know when the forensics get in.”
While the chief inspector struggled back up the hill, Alicia Friend told Murphy what she’d seen so far.