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Authors: Paul Johnston

The Soul Collector

BOOK: The Soul Collector
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Acclaim for

Paul Johnston’s

Matt Wells novels…

THE SOUL COLLECTOR

“Johnston does an expert job in this extraordinary
mixture of police procedural, head-banging vigilante
lit, Agatha Christie (some splendidly cryptic
crossword clues) and Dennis Wheatley…. Great stuff.”

—The Guardian

“Captivating.”

—Daily Mirror

“Clever in all the right ways. Its plotting is a little out
of the box with its mixture of all things serial killers;
a touch of Golden Age puzzle solving (Colin Dexter
would approve); a large dose of machismo bravado,
and the emotional exploration of fledgling love.”

—Mike Stotter

THE DEATH LIST

“Very gripping, very frightening stuff…
Johnston tells a story that, though a good bit darker,
will remind readers of James Grippando or
even Donald Westlake in his serious mode.”

—Booklist

“If you like your crime fiction cosy, comforting and
safe, for God’s sake buy another book!”

—Mark Billingham

“The morbidly inventive death scenes
are likely to test readers’ stomachs.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“His masterpiece novel…

the plotting is paranoid, the action is authentic, the
characters are convincing and the denouement is
devastating. It’s an absolute ripper.”

—Quintin Jardine

“The book is impossible to put down
and a fantastic read. Another author to
add to the not-to-be-missed list.”

—Crime Squad

“A ferocious thriller…

This is one of the best reads so far this year.”

—The Observer

®

In memoriam

Stephanos Kassopoulos

(1921–2007)

And welcome to

Alexander Johnston (9/1/2008)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Warmest thanks and hats off to:

My New York editor Linda McFall,

whose smart suggestions greatly improved this book.
The MIRA team in the U.K.,

especially Catherine Burke;

and the MIRA teams around the world.
My brilliant agent Broo Doherty of
Wade and Doherty, who had to work hard
with this one—I really appreciate it, Broo.
Margot Weale and Sophie Ransom (Midas PR)
and Grainne Killeen (Killeen PR) for
top-notch media work.

Crime writer Michael Jecks for sterling input on
weapons—any remaining oversights

are my responsibility alone.

My siblings Claire and Alan and their families—
for love, hospitality and…guitar advice.
Ali Karim, number ONE fan.

And last, but most of all—

love and only love to Roula and Maggie.
I do haunt you still.

—John Webster

I cut my arm, and with my proper blood
Assure my soul to be great Lucifer’s,
Chief lord and regent of perpetual night.

—Christopher Marlowe

Prologue

The black cat rubbed its flank against Mary Malone’s fleshy arm. They were on the window seat on the third floor of the house in Ifield Road, Fulham, West London.

“Yes, Noir,” the writer said, looking down at the tombstones in Brompton Cemetery. “It’s a nasty night. But you don’t have to go out.”

The cat gave her a supercilious glance, then jumped down and headed for the stairs.

“Stubborn creature!” Mary turned back to the view from the high window. It had been a cold February with frost crimping the grass. In the last few days, the temperature had risen slightly and the evenings had been misty. It seemed to the writer that the patches of visible air above the graves were like exhalations of the restless sleepers in the frigid earth. Then again, she’d always had a vivid imagination.

Mary went back to her desk. She had written half of her latest Doctor Kasabus mystery. The series was set in eighteenth-century Paris and her hero was a freethinking medical man who had a secret life as an investigator spe-10
Paul Johnston

cializing in cases of a religious nature—priests who sanctioned murder, heiresses locked up in nunneries, bishops who abused boys. Rather to her surprise, she had gained a large readership on both sides of the Atlantic. Not that she ever met her fans. At five foot one, fifteen stone and with a face best suited to radio, she kept herself to herself. The memory of school—saliva-spattered girls’ faces eagerly poking fun at the class “hippo”—still made her weep on bad days.

Mary Malone (real name, Shirley Higginbottom) leaned back in her specially constructed office chair and looked at the lines of script. She could feel one of her periodic bouts of melancholy coming on. What did she have to show for twenty years of slavery at the typewriter and computer? Twenty-five books, good sales, some decent reviews, every day a host of e-mails from her fans—most complimentary, but some from people who didn’t hide their desperation to know what she looked like. She had never allowed an author photo to be published and she never appeared at bookshop readings or crime-writing conventions. Her face and body were hers alone.

“Piss and shit!” she said, trying to repel bitterness. So she couldn’t have what every other person had—a man, children, a normal family life, friends who made much of her at parties. Instead she spent her evenings looking at the Web sites of beautiful, blond, female and handsome, young male crime novelists. Her books did better than most of theirs, but she was in self-imposed exile, a fiftyone-year-old hermit, a repulsive gargoyle. Mary heaved herself to her feet and went down to her sitting room on the ground floor. Negotiating the stairs was her only exercise, not that it seemed to make any difference to her weight.
The Soul Collector

11

“That’s enough self-pity,” she said, pouring herself a gin and tonic that was heavy on the former. She headed for the sofa, picking up a copy of the latest
Clues
on her way.

The sudden, earsplitting yowl from the back of the house made her drop both glass and magazine.

“Damn!” Mary took a few deep breaths, and then lumbered to the door with the cat-flap that led to her garden. “Noir!” she called. “What are you doing? Come in this minute, Noir!” She turned on the light. And felt her stomach somersault.

Her beloved Noir’s head had come through the flap onto the carpet, but it was detached from the body. Mary Malone let out a long moan. “No,” she gasped.

“No…” Despite her revulsion, she kept moving toward the cat’s bloody head. She was a few steps from the door when she realized that the handle was depressed. She stared into the darkness beyond the glass, her heart thundering. She didn’t think of turning and running—she knew she couldn’t move fast enough. She made out only a vague shape.

Then the door was pushed open violently and a figure dressed from head to toe in black entered. In the right hand was a knife streaked with blood and in the left was Noir’s body. It was tossed toward her.

Mary couldn’t speak, couldn’t make any sound at all. The figure came up to her, holding the blade horizontal to her throat. Then a face appeared beneath a hood, but it wasn’t human. The mask was white, the eye-holes ringed with red. There was a goatee beard on the chin and the lips were turned up in a mocking smile. Worst of all, the surface was covered in discolored warts and lumps. 12

Paul Johnston

Medieval depictions of people suffering from the Black Death flashed through Mary Malone’s mind. At last, she found her voice. “What is this?” she gasped. “Who are you?”

The intruder nodded slowly. “I think you know, Mary.”

The voice was steady. There was a pause. “You’re faceto-face with the devil.”

There was a loud thud as the fainting novelist hit the floor.

One

I was putting the finishing touches to my weekly column in the
Daily Independent
—“Matt Wells on Crime”—

when I heard the key turn in the lock.

“Hi,” I called. “It’s a filthy night, Detective Chief Inspector.”

Karen Oaten hung up her coat and sat on a chair to pull off her knee-high black boots.

“Oh, no,” I said, as I went to greet her. “I was looking forward to you dominating me in those.”

She raised her blond head and gave me an intimidating look. “Don’t push your luck, Matt. I have not had a good day.”

I leaned over and kissed her, feeling cold cheeks and only slightly warmer lips. “What’s up? You been pounding the streets?”

She got up and pushed me away gently. “No, I couldn’t find a bloody parking space anywhere near these poxy rich people’s flats.”

“Oh, shit.” I’d moved into the Chelsea Harbour block about a year back, after my book
The Death List
had been 14

Paul Johnston

a global success. Although I was a novelist at heart, the book was nonfiction and detailed my battle with the vicious killer who called himself the White Devil and had put all my other efforts in the shade. The fact that Karen featured in it, but didn’t get a penny of royalties, needled her when she was feeling down. Not that her career prospects had exactly been damaged. She went over to the drinks table, her long legs striking even without footwear.

I caught up with her. “What would you like, darling?”

She looked at me curiously. After years of living on her own, she was still surprised when I did things for her when she came to my place three or four times a week. She hadn’t given up her own house. We’d been together a couple of years, but she still needed her independence.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Her stern features relaxed. “A gin and tonic would be great.” She went to the nearest of the four black leather sofas I’d bought to fill the enormous living area. “What have you been up to today, Matt?”

“My column,” I replied, handing her a glass and sitting down beside her. I picked up the stereo remote and got Peter Bruntnell’s latest CD playing.

She took a long sip of her drink. “I thought you were meant to be starting the novel.”

I gave a wry smile. “I did. Pages of deathless prose, done and dusted.”

She jammed her elbow into my ribs. “Smart-ass. What’s it about?”

I put my arm around her and took a slug of malt whisky. “The usual stuff—killers, stunningly beautiful cops, violent death…”

She didn’t push me off. If she’d wanted, she could have floored me in under a second. She’d been a seriously
The Soul Collector

15

good athlete as a student and she’d recently got her judo black belt. Then again, so had I.

“Oh, nothing much,” she said with a yawn. “The usual run-of-the-mill Violent Crimes Coordination Team fare. A drugs gang killing in East London, an unidentified torso in the river and the assistant commissioner all over me for the quarterly report.”

“Lucky him,” I said, and got another, harder nudge for my pains. “Can I have the inside story on the gangland killing for next week’s column?” Since we’d met during the White Devil case and subsequently started dating, Karen had used me as an unofficial conduit between the Metropolitan Police and the public. Several times I’d been given information that had elicited information from readers, leading to arrests.

“Depends,” she said, emptying her glass.

“On what?”

“On how nice you are to me.”

“How about a steak, a good claret, crème brûlée and a massage?”

“You’re on.”

I went to the kitchen at the far end of the living area.

“You can talk to me while I slave over the stove.”

Karen sat at the bar that separated the kitchen from the eating area. She shook her head. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

“That’s what you always say. Come on, Karen. Your boss knows you talk to me about cases.”

“About cases that he approves. He hasn’t cleared the latest killing.”

I laid the steaks on a board and started to pound them.

“He will.”

She shrugged. “Maybe. But how many of the
Daily In-
16

Paul Johnston

dependent
’s readers are going to send you e-mails identifying a gangland hit man?”

“Several members of the opposition gangs?” I suggested.

“Oh, yeah, like that will stand up in court.”

I turned to the stove. “All right, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got plenty of other contacts in the Met.”

Karen laughed. “Plenty of other contacts who want to take you down the cells and kick the shit out of you.”

BOOK: The Soul Collector
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