Authors: Stephen Booth
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Thrillers, #General
Stephen Booth is the internationally bestselling, CWA Dagger-winning author of ten acclaimed thrillers featuring Cooper and Fry. The series is in development as a TV programme. Booth lives in Nottinghamshire.
Also by Stephen Booth
Dancing with the Virgins
Blood on the Tongue
Blind to the Bones
One Last Breath
The Dead Place
Scared to Live
Dying to Sin
The Kill Call
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Alexander McCall Smith
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
As usual, my first attempt at this book has been improved on by several people. In this instance, they include my agent Teresa Chris, my editor Dan Mallory at Little, Brown, senior desk editor Thalia Proctor and copy editor Jane Selley. Thanks, everyone!
Lines from ‘Country Life’ by Show of Hands are reproduced by kind permission of Steve Knightley and Hands On Music. More information at:
A shadow moved across the hall. It was only a flicker of movement, a blur in the light, a motion as tiny and quick as an insect’s.
Zoe Barron stopped and turned, her heart already thumping. She wasn’t sure whether she’d seen anything at all. It had happened in a second, that flick from dark to light, and back again. Just one blink of an eye. She might have imagined the effect from a glint of moonlight off the terracotta tiles. Or perhaps it was only a moth, trapped inside and fluttering its wings as it tried desperately to escape.
In the summer, the house was often full of small flying things that crept in through the windows and hung from the walls. The children said their delicate, translucent wings made them look like tiny angels. But for Zoe, they were more like miniature demons with their bug eyes and waving antennae. It made her shudder to think of them flitting silently around her bedroom at night, waiting their chance to land on her face.
It was one of the drawbacks of living in the countryside. Too much of the outside world intruding. Too many things it was impossible to keep out.
Still uncertain, Zoe looked along the hallway towards the kitchen, and noticed a thin slice of darkness where the utility room door stood open an inch. The house was so quiet that she could hear the hum of the freezer, the tick of the boiler, a murmur from the TV in one of the children’s bedrooms. She listened for a moment, holding her breath. She wondered if a stray cat or a fox had crept in through the back door and was crouching now in the kitchen, knowing she was there in the darkness, its hearing far better than hers. Green eyes glowing, claws unsheathed, an animal waiting to pounce.
But now she was letting her imagination run away with her. She shouldn’t allow irrational fears to fill her mind, when there were so many real ones to be concerned about. With a shake of her head at her own foolishness, Zoe stepped through the kitchen door, and saw what had caused the movement of the shadows. A breath of wind was swaying the ceiling light on its cord.
So a window must have been left open somewhere – probably by one of the workmen, trying to reduce the smell of paint. They’d already been in the house too long, three days past the scheduled completion of this part of the job, and they were trying their best not to cause any more complaints. They’d left so much building material outside that it was always in the way. She dreaded one of the huge timbers falling over in the night. Sometimes, when the wind was strong, she lay awake listening for the crash.
But leaving a window open all night – that would earn them an earful tomorrow anyway. It wasn’t something you did, even here in a village like Riddings. It was a lesson she and Jake had learned when they lived in Sheffield, and one she would never forget. Rural Derbyshire hadn’t proved to be the safe, crime-free place she’d hoped.
Zoe tutted quietly, reassuring herself with the sound. A window left open? It didn’t seem much, really. But that peculiar man who lived in the old cottage on Chapel Close would stop her car in the village and lecture her about it endlessly if he ever found out. He was always hanging around the lanes watching what other people did.
Gamble, that was his name. Barry Gamble. She’d warned the girls to stay away from him if they saw him. You never knew with people like that. You could never be sure where the danger might come from. Greed and envy and malice – they were all around her, like a plague. As if she and Jake could be held responsible for other people’s mistakes, the wrong decisions they had made in their lives.
Zoe realised she was clutching the wine bottle in her hand so hard that her knuckles were white. An idea ran through her head of using the bottle as a weapon. It was full, and so heavy she could do some damage, if necessary. Except now her fingerprints would be all over it.
She laughed at her own nervousness. She was feeling much too tense. She’d been in this state for days, maybe weeks. If Jake saw her right now, he would tease her and tell her she was just imagining things. He would say there was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Relax, chill out, don’t upset the children. Everything’s fine
But, of course, that wasn’t true. Everyone knew there was plenty to worry about. Everyone here in Riddings, and in all the other villages scattered along this eastern fringe of the Peak District. It was in the papers, and on TV. No one was safe.
Still Zoe hesitated, feeling a sudden urge to turn round and run back to the sitting room to find Jake and hold on to him for safety. But instead she switched on the light and took a step further into the kitchen.
She saw the body of a moth now. It lay dead on the floor, its wings torn, its fragile body crushed to powder. It was a big one, too – faint black markings still discernible on its flattened wings. Was it big enough to have blundered into the light and set it swinging? A moth was so insubstantial. But desperate creatures thrashed around in panic when they were dying. It was always frightening to watch.
There was something strange about the moth. Zoe crouched to look more closely. Her stomach lurched as she made it out. Another pattern was visible in the smear of powder – a section of ridge, like the sole of a boot, as if someone had trodden on the dead insect, squashing it on to the tiles.
She straightened up again quickly, looking around, shifting her grip on the bottle, trying to fight the rising panic.
‘Jake?’ she said.
A faint thump on the ground outside. Was that what she’d heard, or not? A footstep too heavy for a fox. The wrong sound for a falling timber.
This wasn’t right. The only person who might legitimately be outside the house at this time of night was Jake, and she’d left him in the sitting room, sprawled on the couch and clutching a beer. If he’d gone out to the garage for some reason, he would have told her. If he’d gone to the front door, he would have passed her in the hall.
So it wasn’t Jake outside. It wasn’t her husband moving about now on the decking, fumbling at the back door. But still she clung on to the belief, the wild hope, that there was nothing to worry about.
I’m perfectly safe. Everything’s fine
‘Jake?’ she called.
And again, louder. Much louder, and louder still, until it became a scream.
Six miles from Riddings, Detective Sergeant Ben Cooper turned the corner of Edendale High Street into Hollowgate and stopped to let a bus pull into the terminus. The town hall lay just ahead of him, closed at this time of night but illuminated by spotlights, which picked out the pattern in its stonework that had earned it its nickname of the Wavy House. Across the road, the Starlight Café was doing good business as usual, with a steady stream of customers. Taxis were lining up for their busiest time of the day. It was almost ten o’clock on an ordinary August evening.
The pubs were even busier than the Starlight, of course. Cooper could hear the music pounding from the Wheatsheaf and the Red Lion, the two pubs on either side of the market square. A crowd of youngsters screamed and laughed by the war memorial, watched by a uniformed PC and a community support officer in bright yellow high-vis jackets, the pair of them standing in the entrance to an alley near the Raj Mahal.
Even in Edendale there were often fights at closing time, and drug dealers operating wherever they could find a suitable spot. On Friday and Saturday nights there would be a personnel carrier with a prisoner cage in the back, and multiple foot patrols of officers on the late shift. A change came over the town then; a place that had looked so quaint during the day, with its cobbled alleys and tall stone buildings, revealed its Jekyll and Hyde nature.
‘Hey, mate, shouldn’t you be out arresting some criminals?’
‘Ooh, duck, show us your baton.’
Looking round at the shouts, Cooper saw that the bus was a Hulley’s number 19 from the Devonshire Estate. Oh, great. He took a sharp step back from the kerb, turning his body away towards the shop window behind him. There were too many eyes gazing from the windows of the bus, and the likelihood of too many familiar faces, people he didn’t want to meet when he was off duty. Half of the names on his arrest record had addresses on the Devonshire Estate. He didn’t recognise the voices, but there was no doubt their owners knew him.
Well, this was his own choice. Many police officers opted to live outside the area they worked in, for exactly this reason. When you went for a quiet drink in your local pub, you didn’t want to find yourself sitting next to the person you’d nicked the day before, or sharing a table with a man whose brother you’d just sent to prison.
But Cooper had resisted moving to a neighbouring division. He could easily have travelled into Edendale every morning from Chesterfield or Buxton, but that wouldn’t be the same. He belonged here, in the Eden Valley, and he wasn’t going to let anything push him out. He intended to stay here, settle down, raise a family, and eventually turn into a cantankerous pensioner who rambled on about the good old days.
That meant he had to put up with these awkward moments – the looks of horrified recognition on faces, the shying away as he passed in the street, the aggressive stare at the bar. It was all part of life.
All part of life’s rich pageant
. That was what his grandmother would have said. He had no idea where the expression came from, but he knew it would stick inside his head now, until he found out. He supposed he’d have to Google it when he got home. He seemed to be turning into one of those people whose mind collected odd bits of information like a sheep picking up ticks.
As he walked, Cooper checked his phone in case he’d missed a text message, but there was nothing. He carried on towards the end of Hollowgate, ignoring the loud group of youngsters. Not his business tonight. He’d only just come off shift, at the end of a long-drawn-out series of arrests and the execution of search warrants. With six prisoners processed through the custody suite at West Street, there wasn’t much of the evening left by the time he finally clocked off.
At the corner of Bargate he stopped again and listened for the sound of the river, just discernible here above the noise of traffic. The council had been talking about making Hollowgate a pedestrianised zone, like neighbouring Clappergate. But of course the money had run out for projects like that. So a stream of cars still flowed down from Hulley Road towards the High Street, forming Edendale’s version of a one-way system. ‘Flowed’ wasn’t exactly the right word for it. Half of the cars stopped in front of the shops to unload passengers, or crawled to a halt as drivers looked for parking spaces, the little car park behind the town hall already being full at this hour.
Cooper studied the pedestrians ahead. There was no sign of her yet. He glanced at his watch. For once, he wasn’t the one who was late. That was good.
He decided to wait in front of the estate agent’s, looking back towards the clock on the Wavy House to make sure his watch wasn’t fast. There was always a smell of freshly baked bread just on this corner, thanks to the baker’s behind the shops in Bargate. The scent lingered all day, as if it was absorbed into the stone and released slowly to add to the atmosphere. It was good to have somewhere in town that still baked its own bread. For Cooper, it was the sounds and smells that gave Edendale its unique personality, and distinguished it from every other town in the country, with their identikit high streets full of chain stores.
He turned to look in the estate agent’s window, automatically drawn to the pictures of the houses for sale. This was one of the more upmarket agents, handling a lot of high-end properties, catering for equestrian interests and buyers with plenty of spare cash who were looking for a country residence. He spotted a nice property available not far away, in Lowtown. An old farmhouse by the look of it, full of character, with a few outbuildings and a pony paddock. But six hundred and fifty thousand pounds? How could he ever afford that? Even on his new salary scale as a detective sergeant, the mortgage repayments would be horrendous. He had a bit of money put away in the bank now, but savings didn’t grow very fast these days, with interest rates still on the floor. It was a hopeless prospect.
‘So which house do you fancy?’ said a voice in his ear.
It was totally different from the voices that had shouted to him from the bus. This one was warm, soft and caressing. A familiar voice, with an intimate touch on his arm.
Liz appeared at his side, laid her head against his shoulder, and slipped her hand into his. He hadn’t seen her approach, and now he felt strangely at a disadvantage.
‘What, one of these?’ he said. ‘Chance would be a fine thing.’
She sighed. ‘True, I suppose.’
Cooper looked beyond the pictures of houses and caught their reflections in the glass. The pair of them were slightly distorted and smoky, as if the glass was tinted. Edendale’s traffic moved slowly, jerkily behind them, like a street in an old silent film. And not for the first time, it struck him how well matched they looked. Comfortable together, like an old married couple already. Liz looked small at his side, her dark hair shining in the street lights, her face lit up with a simple, uncomplicated pleasure. It delighted him that she could respond this way every time they met, or even spoke on the phone. Who wouldn’t love to have that effect on someone? It was a wonderful thing to bring a bit of happiness into the world, to be able to create these moments of joy. A rare and precious gift in a world where he met so much darkness and unhappiness, so many lonely and bitter people.
He bent to kiss her. She smelled great, as always. Her presence made him smile, and forget about the gaping faces. Who cared what other people thought?
They crossed the road, squeezed close together, as if they’d been parted for months. He always felt like that with Liz. At these moments, he would agree to anything, and often did.
‘So, any progress on the big case?’ she said.
‘The home invasions, you mean?’