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The estate agent was apologetic about the state of the house.
'The paintwork needs touching up and the wallpaper's seen better days, but you can soon ...'
'The wallpaper's not important,' he interrupted with an impatient wave of his hand.
Clearly heartened by his potential client's response, the estate agent continued. 'You're going to want to redecorate wherever you go. The windows will need replacing, eventually, but that's been taken into account in the asking price.'
The state of the house must have put a lot of buyers off. The agent tapped the window sill with one manicured fingernail finger as he spoke. Behind his fake grin his eyes were bright, alert to any sign of interest.
'The vendor might be persuaded to make a further reduction for a quick sale. It's been on the market for a while, at a higher price. He's only recently agreed to lower the asking price, so you've come along at just the right time. Once you've replaced the old windows with double glazed units, you'll hardly hear the trains going by.'
He nodded, but he wasn't really listening to the estate agent's chatter as he stood gazing out of the back window. The railway ran along the end of the garden. Beyond a thin screen of birch trees, trains travelled in a cutting below the level of the garden.
'You can't hear the trains at all from the front of the house, and it's a very quiet street, even during the day,' the estate agent assured him.
The house was set back from the road, with a high privet hedge shielding the front yard.
'It's very quiet,' the agent insisted, rubbing his white hands together and leaning forward, eager to close the sale. 'Once you've fixed the windows and seen to the damp, all you need to do is change the wallpaper and put a lick of paint around the place and it's going to look very nice indeed. You've got good sized rooms here. It's a real bargain. You won't find anything else this spacious at the price, not around here.'
He gave another nod to indicate he was listening.
'A lot of people like to buy a place that needs a bit of attention,' the agent continued, as though afraid the opportunity to sell the property would vanish the instant he stopped talking. 'It means you can have it however you want.'
He didn't mention that he was in no hurry to decorate. Peeling wallpaper didn't bother him. What attracted him was something very different: a garden that wasn't overlooked from any direction. He waited a moment, telling the agent he wanted to hear a train go past the end of the garden. In reality, he wasn't interested in how much noise the trains made, only in whether their windows travelled below the level of his fence. He had to be sure he couldn't be seen by passengers rattling past.
The transaction was straightforward. He had already found a buyer for the house he had inherited from his parents. Moving in, he settled into his own private routine, content in his solitude. His demands were modest: to be left alone to pursue his hobby free from interference. Since he was a child he had listened to other people grumbling about their lot. Sometimes their complaints intrigued him. Mostly they amused him. The solution was so obvious. They just had to take whatever they wanted. He did.
Of course most people weren't as clever as him, and he had been fortunate in having a mother who was easy to manipulate. His father had been more difficult. In the end the situation at home had become untenable. There couldn't be two of them in charge. But there had been a solution. There always was. He had laid his plans carefully for a very long time, watching and waiting, until at last the chance had presented itself. He found things usually worked out that way for someone who had the guts to seize opportunities when they came along. He had discovered he had the requisite courage quite early on in his life. It still made him smile when he remembered it. Everyone had been very sympathetic towards his mother, and very kind to him. They had all believed the fall had been an accident. No one had suspected a ten-year-old boy had been responsible for his father's death.
Over the years that followed he had honed his skill, so he knew what he was doing. The difficult part was to manage it without being caught. Once again, his patience served him well. He watched and waited until she was alone in her flat before slipping on his gloves and ringing the bell. His crude disguise of fake glasses, moustache and beard, were enough to mask his identity from the security cameras in her block. It was a simple matter to talk his way into her flat by convincing her he had been called to fix a dripping pipe because residents in the flat below had complained to the landlord that a leak was causing a damp patch on their ceiling.
'No one said anything to us about it,' the girl remonstrated.
He raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. 'The landlord arranged it with your flatmate. It's not my fault if she forgot to tell you. But your landlord's going to hold you responsible for any further damage, if you refuse to let me in to fix it. It's no skin off my nose.' He gave a careless shrug. 'Let's hope your floor doesn't collapse.'
He almost smiled on seeing her worried frown. She believed every word of his story.
'You'd better come in, then,' she said.
He had come prepared, but he didn't have to use his own weapon. The minute he walked into the kitchen he spotted a set of sharp knives on the worktop. A murder weapon that was already to hand would leave fewer clues for the police to follow up. As soon as she turned away he reached for the longest blade.
'Can I make you a cup of tea?' she asked, turning back to face him.
Without answering, he raised his arm and struck her a powerful blow in the middle of her chest. He felt the blade slide in and stop as it hit bone. Her blue eyes widened in shock and her mouth gaped open ready to scream, as he drew the knife out. Blood soaked her sweatshirt, cascading on to the floor. Before she could make a sound, with one swift movement he sliced across her mouth. Blood dripped from a macabre semblance of a grin that split her face. She staggered back against the worktop. Lunging forward, he slashed at her chest repeatedly, hoping the police would infer she had been killed by someone in a jealous rage, someone who knew her. A strange gurgling issued from her bloody lips as she sank to the floor, her sweatshirt drenched with blood. While he stood watching, fascinated, he barely noticed the knife slide from his grasp, the handle slippery with blood.
Whipping off his gloves, he pulled on a clean pair and bundled the wet ones into a plastic bag inside his rucksack, along with his bloody mac and trainers. There was no point in washing any of them. Traces of her blood would remain in the garments, and cling to the pipes of whatever washing machine he used, and to the seams and internal fabric of his shoes. Nor would he attempt to destroy the telltale clothes. Every time he moved them he risked leaving a trail for the police to follow, instead of which they would stay in the plastic bag, safely locked away where no one would ever find them. Too many killers were caught because they attempted to destroy evidence. That was stupid, because forensic examination could detect microscopic traces of blood and DNA invisible outside of laboratory conditions. Far better to leave no clues.
Driving back to his lock-up garage, he started to plan his next outing.CHAPTER 2
Geraldine was doing her best to feel pleased about her relocation from the Metropolitan Police force in London to the Major Investigation Team in York. Much about her move had gone well. For a start, she had found a tenant for her flat in North London straight away, and so far she liked what she had seen of the city of York. But she still wasn't sure if she had made the right choice. She had dithered briefly over whether to sell her London flat which would enable her to buy a small house in York, but she wasn't ready to make that commitment. Everything had happened so fast. She had only seen pictures of her rented apartment online. On arrival, she had been surprised at how spacious it was. The two bedrooms were perfectly adequate, and the large living room had a balcony with a stunning view overlooking the River Ouse. But the place belonged to someone else. It wasn't really her home.
After a week she was still finding it difficult to get used to her new bed. She had only just fallen asleep one night when her phone rang. Even though she was tired, force of habit quelled any temptation to ignore the call. She listened for a moment before climbing out of bed. After scrabbling frantically through her wardrobe to find something warm to wear, she set off. Although it had been a mild winter so far, the temperature in York in January was noticeably colder than in London. Freezing air hit her like a slap as she left the building. By the time she reached her destination, her car had barely warmed her up. Trying to control her shivering, she pulled on protective covering, and entered the house.
'Her killer was angry,' a scene of crime officer said when Geraldine had introduced herself.
'What makes you say that?'
He shook his head, looking around the confined space.
'Just because there's a lot of blood doesn't mean the attack was personal,' Geraldine added. 'He might be one of those sick people who enjoy carving people up.'
Her colleague's brow lowered in a scowl. 'That's true,' he admitted.
'And the killer could be a woman. At this stage we need to keep open-minded about everything.'
'But you have to admit it does look as if this was done by a man who was uncontrollably angry.'
'Admittedly her attacker was powerful,' Geraldine agreed.
'Yes, and it was a frenzied attack.'
'So you think she was killed by a man who was in a rage, and this was a crime of passion?'
'You think because that's a cliché it can't be true,' he replied.
She turned away from him to look at the body.
'There's a reason why things become clichés,' he added. 'It's because they're common, which means they're likely to be true.'
Geraldine looked around the blood-spattered walls and floor. 'I hope there's nothing common about a scene like this.'
She turned to gaze at the dead girl's bloody face. Her blue eyes were wide open, seemingly staring at the ceiling, her mouth stretched in a ghastly grin. Geraldine's gaze travelled to her chest which was drenched in blood from multiple stab wounds. Another scene of crime officer approached holding up a large evidence bag, and Geraldine was surprised to see a bloodstained knife inside it. This scene seemed to be full of clichés.
'You've got the weapon?'
The officer nodded. Above his mask his eyes crinkled in a smile. 'So it would appear.'
Geraldine returned his smile. Having the murder weapon should speed up the search for the killer. She took a quick look at the knife in the bag.
'The make is called Kitchen Devil,' the scene of crime officer said. 'There's a set of them in the kitchen. One of them's missing.' He held the bag up. 'It was lying on the floor beside the body where her assailant must have dropped it. The handle would have been slippery.'
Geraldine nodded. She had a similar set of knives in her own kitchen. With hard black plastic handles and sharp serrated blades they were useful, and very common. The murder weapon suggested the dead girl might have been the victim of a spontaneous attack, the killer seizing on whatever he could find, to assist him in his vicious attack. She knew she ought to resist drawing any conclusions from the scene, but she found it impossible not to try and piece together what must have happened.
'She might have been killed by a random opportunist,' she muttered tentatively, staring at the knife as though it could tell them who had used it to kill the girl.
She would have liked to stay longer at the scene, absorbing the setting and the atmosphere of the place while she waited to see what else the scene of crime officers might uncover, but she had to return to the police station in Fulford Road for a briefing. Leaving with what she thought would be plenty of time, she underestimated the volume of traffic around the centre of York and arrived with only minutes to spare. Dashing into the building from the car park, she found her colleagues already gathered in the major incident room. She had met a few of them since her arrival in York, but had only worked with one of them before. The detective chief inspector, Eileen Duncan, was probably not much older than Geraldine. Well built, with dark hair that was turning grey, she had a fierce look about her that Geraldine suspected might be an act to help her to maintain discipline. Briskly the detective chief inspector reviewed the facts so far.
The dead girl's name was Stephanie Crawford. She had grown up in the village of Uppermill in Saddleworth in West Yorkshire, where she had lived with her parents until she had moved to York a few months before her death. She had worked in a bank, and had shared a flat in York with another girl from her home village. It was the dead girl's flatmate, Ashley, who had found her body in the kitchen.
Ashley had been taken to the police station for questioning, leaving the flat cordoned off to minimise contamination. From what the constable looking after Ashley had said, it sounded as though she might be intending to return to her own family in Uppermill once the questioning was over. It must have been terrible, discovering her friend's body in their blood-splattered kitchen. Geraldine couldn't really imagine the shock she must have experienced. She was probably too traumatised to talk sensibly about what she had seen, but they had to speak to her and find out as much as they could before she went home to her family.
'Anyone have any thoughts on all of this so far?' Eileen asked in conclusion. 'Have I missed anything?'
Geraldine raised the possibility that the attack had been unplanned, since the murder weapon had been in the kitchen already.
'It's far too early to go jumping to conclusions,' a familiar voice responded. 'The murder could have been planned by someone who was familiar with the kitchen and knew in advance that the knife would be there.'
Geraldine couldn't help smiling at her former colleague, Ian Peterson, who had just spoken. She had chided him numerous times for jumping to conclusions, when he had been an eager young detective sergeant and she had been his detective inspector. Only now their roles were reversed: he was the inspector, and she was his sergeant. When the duty sergeant allocated their tasks, she was pleased and at the same time slightly nervous to see that she would be working with Ian. She wondered whether he had requested her presence on his team, and how easy it would be for her to adjust to him being her senior officer.CHAPTER 3
Ashley looked up as Ian and Geraldine entered the room. 'It was completely out of the blue,' she sobbed, before they had even greeted her, as though death arriving unexpectedly somehow intensified its finality. 'She was the last person on earth to deserve this. I know Steph. We've been friends forever. We were at school together.' She broke off again, and sniffed loudly. 'She's always been so kind. She would never have hurt anyone. Who could have done that to her?'
Ian introduced himself and Geraldine. 'Can you tell us what happened?'
Ashley shook her head. 'I came home and went in the kitchen, and she was just lying there. It was horrible.' Shuddering, she dropped her head in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.
Geraldine gazed at her shaking shoulders. She only looked about twenty. The victim had probably been about the same age. It wasn't entirely rational, but it always seemed more upsetting when murder victims were young. So many years of life had been snatched away from them. And for what? The suffering caused by this meaningless loss of life could never be assuaged.
'Who could have done it?' Ashley stammered. 'Why did it happen? Why?'
Ian shook his head. 'I don't know. But we intend to find out.' Leaning forward in his chair, he gazed intently at the distraught girl. 'We'd like to ask you a few questions, if you feel up to talking?'
Ashley nodded. 'I'll do my best, if it's going to help,' she mumbled. 'But there isn't much I can tell you. I wasn't there when it happened. I just came home and found her. Who did it? Why?'
'We don't know.' Geraldine repeated what Ian had just said. 'But we're going to do everything we can to find out who did this. First of all, did anyone else have a key to your apartment, apart from you and your flatmate?'