Головна Criminal Actions

Criminal Actions

In a position of trust... What happens when that trust is broken? Jacinda Meredith follows her boyfriend south from Scotland. After a few weeks she finds a dream job working as a nanny for Sadie and Leonard Knox. However, all is not as it seems. DI Nelson and his partner are called to a murder scene which turns out to be both horrifying and perplexing. Other cases soon come to light. Does this mean Nelson has yet another serial Killer on his patch?

Рік:
2020
Мова:
english
ISBN:
B081QC26QR
File:
EPUB, 218 KB
Скачати (epub, 218 KB)
 
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Рік:
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File:
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Criminal Actions



Hero series #5





M A Comley





Jeamel Publishing Limited





Contents




Other books by M A Comley



Acknowledgements



Keep in touch with the author





Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13



Chapter 14



Epilogue





Note to the reader





New York Times and USA Today bestselling author M A Comley

Published by Jeamel Publishing limited

Copyright © 2020 M A Comley

Digital Edition, License Notes





All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.





Other books by M A Comley





Blind Justice (Novella)

Cruel Justice (Book #1)

Mortal Justice (Novella)

Impeding Justice (Book #2)

Final Justice (Book #3)

Foul Justice (Book #4)

Guaranteed Justice (Book #5)

Ultimate Justice (Book #6)

Virtual Justice (Book #7)

Hostile Justice (Book #8)

Tortured Justice (Book #9)

Rough Justice (Book #10)

Dubious Justice (Book #11)

Calculated Justice (Book #12)

Twisted Justice (Book #13)

Justice at Christmas (Short Story)

Justice at Christmas 2 (novella)

Prime Justice (Book #14)

Heroic Justice (Book #15)

Shameful Justice (Book #16)

Immoral Justice (Book #17)

Toxic Justice (Book #18)

Overdue Justice (Book #19)

Unfair Justice (a 10,000 word short story)

Irrational Justice (a 10,000 word short story)

Seeking Justice (a 15,000 word novella)

Caring For Justice (a 24,000 word ; novella)

Savage Justice (a 17,000 word novella coming Feb 2020)

Clever Deception (co-written by Linda S Prather)

Tragic Deception (co-written by Linda S Prather)

Sinful Deception (co-written by Linda S Prather)

Forever Watching You (DI Miranda Carr thriller)

Wrong Place (DI Sally Parker thriller #1)

No Hiding Place (DI Sally Parker thriller #2)

Cold Case (DI Sally Parker thriller#3)

Deadly Encounter (DI Sally Parker thriller #4)

Lost Innocence (DI Sally Parker thriller #5)

Goodbye, My Precious Child (DI Sally Parker #6)

Web of Deceit (DI Sally Parker Novella with Tara Lyons)

The Missing Children (DI Kayli Bright #1)

Killer On The Run (DI Kayli Bright #2)

Hidden Agenda (DI Kayli Bright #3)

Murderous Betrayal (Kayli Bright #4)

Dying Breath (Kayli Bright #5)

Taken (Kayli Bright #6 coming March 2020)

The Hostage Takers (DI Kayli Bright Novella)

No Right to Kill (DI Sara Ramsey #1)

Killer Blow (DI Sara Ramsey #2)

The Dead Can’t Speak (DI Sara Ramsey #3)

Deluded (DI Sara Ramsey #4)

The Murder Pact (DI Sara Ramsey #5)

Twisted Revenge (DI Sara Ramsey #6 coming February 2020)

The Caller (co-written with Tara Lyons)

Evil In Disguise – a novel based on True events

Deadly Act (Hero series novella)

Torn Apart (Hero series #1)

End Result (Hero series #2)

In Plain Sight (Hero Series #3)

Double Jeopardy (Hero Series #4)

Criminal Actions (Hero Series #5)

Sole Intention (Intention series #1)

Grave Intention (Intention series #2)

Devious Intention (Intention #3)

Merry Widow (A Lorne Simpkins short story)

It’s A Dog’s Life (A Lorne Simpkins short story)

A Time To Heal (A Sweet Romance)

A Time For Change (A Sweet Romance)

High Spirits

The Temptation series (Romantic Suspense/New Adult Novellas)

Past Temptation

Lost Temptation

Cozy Mystery Series

Murder at the Wedding

Murder at the Hotel

Murder by the Sea

Tempting Christa (A billionaire romantic suspense co-authored by Tracie Delaney #1)

Avenging Christa (A billionaire romantic suspense co-authored by Tracie Delaney #2)





Acknowledgements





Thank you as always to my rock, Jean, I’d be lost without you in my life.





Special thanks as always go to @studioenp for their superb cover design expertise.





My heartfelt thanks go to my wonderful editor Emmy Ellis, my proofreaders Joseph, Barbara and Jacqueline for spotting all the lingering nits.





Thank you to Annette for allowing me to use your name in this book.





A very special shoutout to Sarah Hardy and her amazing team of helpful bloggers involved in the blog tour.





To Mary, gone, but never forgotten. I hope you found the peace you were searching for my dear friend.





Keep in touch with the author





Twitter

https://twitter.com/Melcom1





Blog

http://melcomley.blogspot.com





Newsletter

http://smarturl.it/8jtcvv





BookBub

www.bookbub.com/authors/m-a-comley





1





Jacinda Meredith raced home from the park with the two children she cared for, April, five years old, and Willow, four. They were dragging their feet and ultimately raising her stress levels at the same time.

“Please, children, try and hurry. I promise there will be a bowl of ice cream at the end of it for both of you.”

She hated bribing them. This was becoming a daily habit now, one that she detested, although it appeared to have the desired effect—the children upped their pace. She loved the little rascals to pieces, their funny expressions and the quirky way they spoke to her; however, with each passing day, they were becoming more and more expert at finding ways of ticking her off. She rarely showed any anxiety in their presence as she knew, after speaking to other nannies at the park, what a nightmare that would bring in the future. Kids had a sixth sense where feelings were concerned. One slip-up and they would pounce right away. Therefore, she was extra cautious in keeping her tone light with a slight smile stitched in place at all times when she was with them.

They rounded the corner of the street where they lived.

“Yay, Daddy’s home,” Willow shouted and, breaking free of her hand, he raced ahead.

“Be careful, Willow, don’t run into the road,” Jacinda called after him.

“He won’t, don’t worry,” April said, looking up at her and giving Jacinda one of her toothy, reassuring smiles.

She ruffled April’s hair. “He’s distracted, anything could happen.”

“There’s Daddy now.” April pointed ahead of them.

Jacinda’s heart was in her mouth. She knew what lay ahead of her. The recriminations would come thick and fast once the children were safely tucked away in their playroom. Why hadn’t I clung to Willow’s hand tighter? Why did he have to be like a whippet and take off like that?

She gulped down the bile filling her throat and ensured her smile was set in place for when she entered the front door.

“Willow, what have I told you about running off like that?” Leonard Knox scolded his son.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I won’t do it again, I pwomise.”

Jacinda was aware of what was coming next.

“I’ll see you in my study after you’ve dealt with the children’s needs, Jacinda.”

“Yes, Mr Knox,” she replied, fear tearing at her gut.

In spite of that, she saw to the children, took them into the kitchen and sat them at the table with a glass of milk and a small bowl of ice cream as she had promised. Her nerves mounted. She watched April and Willow wolf down the ice cream and leave the table. They raced through the house into their playroom at the front and played noisily for the next half an hour until Mr Knox ordered them to keep the noise down. Jacinda was sitting in the chair positioned in the bay window with one eye on the children and the other on people coming and going in the street outside. She was envious of their freedom. She had none.

Because she was caught up in her daydreaming, she neglected to hear Mr Knox enter the room. His bellow almost sent her hurtling skywards.

“I’m sorry. I’ll make sure they keep the noise down, sir.”

“Just do your job, that’s all I ask. I have an important meeting I need to prepare for in the morning. I can’t do that with all this commotion going on.” He glared at her and marched out of the room.

It was evident he blamed her for the way the children were behaving. I can’t win…I’ve never been able to win. I hate it here, but I’m stuck. For me, there is no escape.

Busy wallowing in her own self-pity, she failed to see Willow put a tiny bead in his mouth. His choking sent chills down her spine. April screamed, and Jacinda shot across the room. She hauled Willow to his feet and thumped the middle of his back with the heel of her hand. It took a few attempts to dislodge the offending item, but she was relieved to see the bead emerge and end up on the floor in front of them.

Mr Knox appeared in the doorway. “What the hell is going on in here? I thought I told you to control the children.”

“Daddy, it’s Willow. Jacundy just saved him,” April announced, still unable to pronounce the nanny’s name properly.

Mr Knox dropped to his knees to hug his son. “Willow, are you all right?”

The poor boy’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Yes, Daddy. I think so.”

Knox turned to Jacinda. “What happened?” he demanded, his eyes narrowing with contempt.

She picked up the bead his son had spat out moments earlier and held it in the palm of her hand. “He swallowed this.”

“He what? How? You should’ve been watching him instead of staring out of the window. We pay you to care for our children. If you’re not interested in doing that then I suggest you pack your bags right now, you hear me?”

Her head bowed, mortified, she replied, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t want to leave. I love working here. It won’t happen again, sir, I give you my word.”

The front door slammed, and Sadie Knox stood in the doorway of the room and peered over her husband’s shoulder. “Leonard, what’s going on here?”

“Willow swallowed something. He’s all right now. I need you to look after the children while I sort this.”

“I’ve just come home from work. I need to get out of my suit first. Anyway, that’s why we pay her, to look after the kids.”

Mr Knox tutted, an irritated expression appearing on his features. “Do what you have to do. I need to have a proper chat with Jacinda, it’s urgent.”

“Ah, I see. Okay, give me ten minutes to get changed. Jacinda, go make me a coffee if I’ve got to do your job for you.”

She nodded and squeezed past the couple to get to the kitchen.

“Stop, take the children with you,” Mrs Knox ordered angrily. “They should never be left alone, you hear me?”

“Yes, Mrs Knox. I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.”

“Make sure you stick to your word about that in the future,” she retorted harshly.

“I will. Come, April and Willow, into the kitchen.”

The children each took one of her hands, and the three of them marched through the house. She felt relieved that Willow had pushed aside his bad experience. The raised voices of the children’s parents crackled behind them. She tried to shut the argument out; however, she soon found herself straining her neck, trying to listen to what was being said. The conversation ended with Mrs Knox storming upstairs. Her heavy feet thumped in the master bedroom above.

Jacinda boiled the kettle and made two cups of coffee, one each for Sadie and Leonard. She enticed April and Willow back to the playroom and carried the tray containing the cups and saucers. Mr Knox was still standing in the doorway. He backed up to let Jacinda and the children past, his gaze intense, studying her. Her hands shook, and the cups rattled in their saucers.

He relieved her of the tray and walked into his study. Mrs Knox descended the stairs and glared at her, but once she entered the playroom with the children, a smile appeared on her face. Jacinda nipped into the study to retrieve Mrs Knox’s coffee and placed it on the mantelpiece for her, then she left the room again and joined Mr Knox in his study.

“Close the door and lock it,” he ordered.

Jacinda did as she was instructed. She shut her eyes and gulped down the saliva that was now residing in her mouth. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me, it won’t happen again, sir.”

“I know it won’t. This is your final warning. For now, you will accept your punishment. Take your clothes off.”

“But…sir…please, I’m begging you, don’t do this.”

“It is not open for discussion. Take off your clothes, now,” he lowered his voice and sneered at her.

She knew there was no way he’d let her leave the room. She had to do what he wanted. Jacinda pulled her jumper over her head and removed her blouse. Each movement was filled with pain; she already had substantial bruises on her body from her past experiences of being alone with this man. His wife was fully aware of the situation and often encouraged it from the sidelines.

He stared at her, a warped smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. She slipped out of her jeans and stood before him, in her underwear. He tilted his head and clicked his fingers, instructing her to remove the rest.

“Please, I don’t want to do this. Not again.”

He shot across the room and gripped her around the throat. She spluttered, struggling to find a breath.

“You’ll do as I want, when I want it, got that?”

She nodded. It was only a slight nod as her head movements were restricted by his grasp. Eventually, he removed his hand and stood back to watch as she tore off her knickers and her bra. Standing naked before him, she gulped several times. She tried to shield her modesty with her hands until he shook his head, silently warning her what would happen if she pissed him off further.

His gaze roamed her body, seemingly ignoring the bruises he and his wife had given her. She felt repulsed, used and dirty beyond words. How did I get into this mess? I should have taken off the first time they attacked me. It’s only escalated since then.

“I can see the cogs in that little mind of yours churning. What are you thinking? Tell me your deepest and darkest secrets? Tell me what you want me to do to you?”

There was no way she could reveal the truth of how much she despised him. Instead, she smiled slightly, pretending to be shy. It was all a game to him, and now she had learnt to play along with that game, too. It was the only way to stay alive. It hadn’t taken her long to figure that out. The first time he and his wife had beaten her, she’d spent the next forty-eight hours in bed. Not only wallowing in self-pity but also because they’d broken her arm and had refused to take her to the hospital. They’d strapped it up for her. Now it was deformed and the reason why she no longer wore T-shirts in the summer.

“I have no thoughts. All I have is regrets,” she mumbled.

He placed a finger under her chin, forcing her to look at him. “Regrets? What kind of regrets?”

“For not keeping a proper eye on the children. It was my fault Willow almost choked today.”

“On that we agree. Therefore, you can expect the punishment to be worse than any you’ve received before. Bend over the desk.”

She tentatively walked to the other side of the large room, hesitating a moment while she said a silent prayer to God to keep her safe, something He’d neglected to do in the past.

His hands clutched her arm, squeezed the largest of her bruises, and he forced her to bend over. Her head touched the desk with a thud. She heard him disrobing behind her, all too aware of what was to come. He grunted and kicked off his trousers. His hands touched the cheeks of her backside, moulding and caressing her skin. The gentle movements didn’t last for long. Soon the pummelling began, and this gave way to vicious slaps. She placed her fist in her mouth, aware that the punishment he would mete out would be a darn sight worse if she cried out, or even considered screaming.

He rammed himself into her then, thrusting away like an eager teenager getting laid for the first time. She resisted the urge to fight, transfixed by the bin in the corner of the room as her thoughts lay elsewhere. Scotland, her beautiful Scotland. If only she had remained up there with her parents, instead of travelling where the work was in Manchester. Boy, every night since her arrival, she’d regretted her foolhardiness to seek out pastures new. The grass wasn’t always greener, was it? She’d learnt that the hard way—she was still learning it.

Thankfully, the man had very little stamina. After the deed was done, he always whispered in her ear that it was her fault. She excited him too much and that was the result. Utter bullshit, she knew that. Nonetheless, she was filled with relief when he began dressing again. She remained in situ until ordered to do otherwise. No doubt his gaze was trained on her body. She swallowed down the bile threatening to emerge.

Once he was dressed, he ordered her to stand. Aware of what was coming next, she closed her eyes and inhaled a large breath. The lashings with his belt struck her arms and legs. He ensured he never hit her face or hands, avoiding any unnecessary questions when she was out with the children. Again, her fist was rammed into her mouth, suppressing her cries.

“How dare you disrespect me and my family? You will do what you’re paid to do and care for April and Willow properly in the future, do you hear me?”

She nodded.

He yanked her fist out of her mouth. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I will endeavour to put the children first at all times. I will never let you down again.”

He nodded and, his eyes blazing with anger, he continued to thrash her. There was no point in objecting, she knew how long the punishment would take. All she had to do was hang on, to dig deep for survival.

Five minutes passed, although it seemed more like half an hour, but the clock on the wall confirmed the truth.

“Get dressed and get out of my sight. You make me physically sick,” he said through gritted teeth.

Her body was crying out in pain, every movement far worse than the last. She had no idea how she was going to survive living with these people. The beatings were coming far more frequently now—every time the children messed up, she got the blame. They were too young to understand how to behave properly. She had pleaded with them on numerous occasions, but they were only four and five. Kids of that age always misbehaved, didn’t they?

He watched her dress and then unlocked the door and held it open for her to leave.

“Thank you,” she muttered. If she hadn’t, he would have locked the door again and repeated his punishment.

She dug deep and summoned up a smile and entered the playroom. Mrs Knox narrowed her eyes and stared at her.

Jacinda nodded. “I can resume my duties now that your husband has ensured I have seen the errors of my ways, madam.” It was the same response she delivered every time, the response they insisted she use.

“Mummy is going to get on with dinner now, sweethearts. Play nicely for Jacinda, won’t you?”

“Yes, Mummy,” April replied.

Her brother was far too distracted building the Lego car his father had bought him a while before to answer.

As she passed by, Mrs Knox growled at Jacinda. She stepped back, cowering from the woman’s obvious hatred of her.

Alone with April and Willow, she felt safe once more. How has it come to this? She adored looking after the children, it was the rest of it she abhorred. The feelings of worthlessness that kept her awake at night. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept a full eight hours. Maybe if she had, it would ensure she was less likely to make the kind of mistakes that led to the humiliating punishments.

She watched the children play nicely for the next hour, until Mrs Knox called them for their dinner. Jacinda stood back then. Mrs Knox had always insisted that the evening meal was family time and didn’t include her. Her dinner always consisted of what Mrs Knox deemed she was worth. Sometimes that meant she had a small portion of leftovers, but more often than not, it only meant her total calories for the day consisted of having a sandwich for her main meal, if she was lucky. She glanced down at the way her clothes were now hanging on her. When she’d arrived, almost two years earlier, she’d been at least a stone, if not more, heavier.

Once April and Willow had eaten, Jacinda played with them again for another hour before she bathed and put them to bed. The children loved their bath time; they were at their happiest splashing about in the water, playfully squirting each other. Jacinda knew there would be a lot of cleaning up to do. However, it would be worth watching the utter joy on their faces.

“Come on, you two, it’s time to get out now.”

After the usual round of complaints, April and Willow finally relented. She dried them, dressed them in their pyjamas and opened the bathroom door. Standing in the hallway were Mr and Mrs Knox, smiling at the children.

“Have fun, did you?” Mrs Knox asked.

“We did, Mummy. I’m tired now,” April replied sleepily, the warmth of the bath apparently doing what it was supposed to do.

Jacinda tucked April and Willow into their beds under the watchful gaze of the parents and then left the room. No need for her to read them a bedtime story tonight as their eyelids were already drooping.

She closed the door to the bedroom the children shared.

Mrs Knox took two paces towards her. She prodded Jacinda in the chest. “Have your meal then get out of our sight. We don’t want to see or hear from you until the morning, got that?”

Jacinda nodded. That suited her. She ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, her tummy rumbling expectantly. She lifted the cover on the plate of food, and her heart sank. One sprig of broccoli and a few slithers of cheese. And I’m supposed to survive and look after their sprogs on that? She strained her neck, listening for movement. There was none. She tiptoed across the kitchen floor to the bread bin and removed a slice of wholemeal bread, hoping that would add a few of the calories the meal was lacking. She’d nearly made it back to her seat when the door burst open and Mr Knox came storming into the room. His grinning wife lingered in the doorway, her arms folded.

Shit!

Jacinda was in trouble. How much trouble remained to be seen. “I’m sorry. I was hungry. Please, please forgive me.”

Mr Knox’s response came swiftly, in the form of a punch to the stomach. “I’d better make sure your hunger pangs disperse quickly then. Has that done the trick?” he asked, letting out a demented laugh.

Jacinda wished she could curl up and die, she’d had enough. Enough of this bullying, this abusive behaviour. The torments they threw at her every day. The sleepless nights she’d endured. She was bone tired and ready to give up; however, God refused to take her or step in and help her come to that. If there was a god up there and He was looking down on her but didn’t intervene, what did that tell her? That He approved of the way they treated her?

“Yes, thank you. I’ll go to my room now.”

She walked towards the door. Mrs Knox narrowed her gaze during her approach. Jacinda paused. The woman continued to block the doorway, her arms still folded in an obstinate stance.

“Please, can I get past, Mrs Knox?” she whispered.

Mrs Knox did the unthinkable—spat in her face and then stepped to one side. Jacinda ran past the hateful woman, up to her room. She closed her bedroom door, her stomach aching from the blow she’d received which overshadowed the feeling of hunger she’d had previously. She crossed the room to her bed, placed the pillow in front of her and cried silent tears in case they heard her.

I have to get out of here. Sooner rather than later. This week! Tonight would be perfect. But how? The Knoxes always ensure the house is secured well at night.

She glanced over at her window. Although her bedroom was on the second floor, below her stood the garage. She’d often pondered her escape route in the past but she’d been too much of a coward to consider it. Now, she was desperate. She tried to block out what the consequences of such a dangerous mission would be. To her, her life was no longer worth living. Crossing the floor, avoiding the floorboards she knew creaked, she peered out of the window. From an early age she’d been scared of heights. The question was: would she be able to overcome her fears to escape this nightmare? She nodded. Yes, she would need to delve deep into her resolve to pluck up the courage to do it.

She was determined that tonight would be when she’d execute her audacious plan.





2





She lay there listening, waiting for the time to come. She could hear movement in the room next door, the master bedroom. It was obvious the couple were having sex. Every night was the same. She heard them at it, like rabbits most nights. Had the children not been around, she suspected the whole street would have heard the sex games they participated in nightly. She hated listening to them, it was a constant reminder of what he did to her, to punish her.

In the dead of the night, at two-fifteen, Jacinda left her bed. She dressed in the clean clothes she’d laid out for her adventure and packed the rest of her clothes in the suitcase. She hadn’t quite worked out how she was going to get that out of the window yet—she considered that to be the least of her worries at this point. Her own safety had to be the utmost consideration in her plan, not her belongings.

She hunted at the bottom of her wardrobe and found a couple of belts which had slipped off the hangers. After tying them together, she measured the length—only five feet, but it would have to do. With everything she owned, which wasn’t much, now in the case and the holdall, she inched open the window. Luckily it was the older, sash type, which would enable her to squeeze her case and herself through without much effort. Her heart pounded violently; her breath became erratic with every step she took now. I can’t do it! What if I fall and break my neck? It’ll be better than continuing to work here. Do it! I have to. Her inner voices argued with each other.

After lowering her bag onto the pitch roof of the garage, she let it go. It clattered and tumbled into the shrubs to the side. She paused and listened, making sure she hadn’t disturbed the couple next door. Moments later, she took the plunge and emerged through the window. She gasped for breath and sat on the sill to compose herself and her thoughts. It’s only a short drop, I’ll be fine. I have no other option open to me…not if I want to live.

Teetering on the edge of the sill, she threw her holdall and flinched as it hit the ground with a loud thud. This is it…I have to go now, there’s no turning back. She rotated, gripped tightly the sill and lowered herself down the side of the house. The garage roof was four feet below her. The fear took her breath away. Her erratic heartbeat was almost too much, and she became light-headed. She pushed through the barriers of the emotions welling up inside as her parents’ smiling faces entered her mind. If nothing else, I’ll do it for them. I miss them so much.

She sucked in a final steadying breath and committed. She launched herself and landed on her knees. The pain was excruciating. She resisted the urge to cry out and peered down to see where she could land without further injuring herself. Wincing, she scrambled across the roof to the other end where she remembered a thick hedge was located. After testing it would hold her weight, she lowered herself onto the top. She released her grip on the edge of the tiles and ended up sinking into the middle of the privet.

Her knee was swelling up; it was already tight against her jeans. All she had to do now was leave the garden and try to flag down a taxi. It was then that realisation struck. She had no money, not even for a simple taxi or bus fare. She wrestled with the branches and the odd thorny bramble intent on leaving their mark on her already battered and bruised body. Finally, she found the energy and the coordination to right herself and leave the confines of the hedge. Collecting her bag and suitcase, she took one look back at the house and spotted a figure standing at the window. It was her. Mrs Knox was staring at her, giving her one of her evil smiles.

Jacinda was mortified. She had to run as fast as she could now, but how was she supposed to do that with a bum knee? She turned and yelped as she struck something solid in her path. It was Mr Knox. Her heart raced faster; Jacinda feared she was going to have a heart attack any second.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” he demanded, his face lowering to within inches of her own.

“Please, please let me go. I want to go home. I need to go home. To see my parents.”

“Why? To tell them?”

“No. I would never tell anyone…I swear. You have to believe me.”

“Do I?” He grasped her around the throat. “Don’t tell me what I have to do, you hear me? You’re a nobody. The lowest of the low.” He swivelled her in place and steered her towards the front door of the house.

Mrs Knox was standing there, waiting for them.

Jacinda, still holding her holdall and the suitcase, her knee giving her gyp, walked slowly. He pushed her in the back, low down near her kidneys. She had to force herself to remain upright. Tears threatened to fall. She could only imagine what lay ahead of her now, after being discovered trying to escape. Her hands shook—she had no way of stopping her body reacting to the fear running through her veins.

In the hallway, Mr Knox finally removed the suitcase from her hand. He strode over to the door beneath the stairs and opened it. Her heart sank…the basement.

“Please, don’t put me in there.” Her plea was barely audible.

He pointed at the dark space then leaned over and switched on the light. “Down there, now. Make a single noise, and I’ll kill you.”

Jacinda gulped and nodded. Every step she took was mind-numbingly more painful than the last. Her pain escalated to another level altogether when she began her descent into the cold basement. She’d only been down here once before, but it was enough to make her never want to visit the cobweb-ridden, damp confines again. Tears blurred her vision. Something in her gut made her fear this visit even more than the last. On that occasion, she was tortured by the couple after Willow had ripped his trousers at the park on one of the slides, as if that was her fault.

Two sets of footsteps followed her down the rickety stairs. At the bottom, wincing, she stood to one side and waited for the couple to join her. Her gaze transfixed on the locked door in the corner that she knew awaited her. Mr Knox yanked her by the arm and pulled her the four feet towards the door. The cobwebs in all the corners were far thicker than when she’d been holed up down here. She shuddered at the thought of the eight-legged creatures scurrying across her skin and through her long brown hair. That alone would have been torture enough; however, she was more than aware of what went on in the mind of her two capturers. The wicked thoughts that ran through their minds. The ice that flowed through their cores.

By the time they had finished with her, she knew her life would be hanging by a thread.

She silently uttered a prayer, pleading for His help, aware that He’d probably look the other way, just like He had the many times the couple had punished her over the past two years.

“Please, don’t do this. I swear I’ll never try to leave again.”

Mr Knox shook his head slowly. “You won’t get the chance. Get in there. You’ll stay there until we decide what to do with you. I’m warning you now, it won’t be pretty. You’ve really angered us this time. Your punishment will be far worse than you’ve ever experienced before. We will not tolerate such behaviour from our staff. We give you everything you need. Feed you, give you a comfortable bed to sleep in, and this is how you repay us, by trying to escape. The children love you. How could you even think about running out on them at a time when they need you most in their lives? How dare you? You selfish bitch.”

Jacinda didn’t have it in her to say anything in her defence, there was no point. Once Mr Knox’s mind was made up, there was no shifting him.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Nothing, except I was wrong. If you could find it in your hearts to forgive me, to even consider giving me a week’s holiday so that I could travel to Scotland to see my folks…” She hadn’t had a holiday since she’d arrived. She realised the likelihood of obtaining one now that they’d uncovered her plan to escape was non-existent.

“Nope, not going to happen. You think what you tried to do tonight warrants us treating you well? You’ve shown how much you respect us by trying to abscond. We welcomed you as part of our family, and this is the gratitude you show us in return. No, you’ll remain down here until we see fit to welcome you into our home again. The children will be told that you have gone away for a few days’ rest.”

Jacinda’s mouth dropped open.

Mr Knox’s speech wasn’t finished yet. Taking another pace forward, he lowered his head until their lips were inches apart. He sneered. “If we hear one blasted word from you, I’ll travel to Scotland and slit your parents’ throats.”

“No. Please. Don’t hurt them.”

He stepped back. “Don’t force me to carry out my threat, you hear me?”

She swallowed down the acid burning her throat. “Please, I understand. I’m so sorry. Won’t you forgive me? Forgive my sins?”

“It will take a lot more than your simplistic words for that to happen. Spend a few days down here alone, and we’ll reassess the situation.”

She nodded. He pushed her into the room which would become her cell for the next few days. The door slammed, the noise echoing in her surroundings. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to ward off the chill already seeping into her bones. She had no idea if she was going to survive the next forty-eight hours, or however long they decided to leave her down here without food or water.

They were evil, pure and simple, and her life was going to get a whole lot worse because of her foolish attempt to escape.





3





Jacinda woke with a stiff neck and excruciating pain in her swollen knee. Tears spilled onto her cheeks as she realised she’d recently wet herself. Now her legs stung, adding to her discomfort. She had no way of knowing what time of day it was. She’d never been one for wearing a watch, and there were no windows in her cell.

A noise in the basement drew her attention. She wrapped her arms around her legs and waited with bated breath for the door to open. The key turned, and the door sprang open. Standing in the opening was Mr Knox, a sneer on his smug face. “You’re awake then.”

“Yes. I’m sorry,” she muttered, hoping her apology would be sufficient and he’d take pity on her and let her at least tend to her duties once more. She missed April and Willow.

“Are you? How sorry?” He took a few steps forward.

She retreated, shuffling backwards into the corner she’d spent most of the night avoiding because of the thickness of the web. Jacinda placed a hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming when a large, thick-legged spider ran over her hair and down her face. Shuddering, she stared up at her boss. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ve been punished enough.”

He laughed, raucously at first and then toned it down a little, she presumed so the other residents in the house didn’t hear him. Are the kids still at home? What would happen if I cried out for help? Would they come down here to see me? It was dumb of her to think like that. Knox had already warned her what would happen if she attempted to do that. She could take all the punishment they meted out, but what she couldn’t accept was if he carried out his threat and went to Scotland to hurt her parents.

“Enough? Is that what you truly think? After trying to escape like that? You clearly have no idea about the magnitude of what you’ve done. You tried to desert our children, the same children who idolise you. Who worship you, Lord knows why that is. You’re a worthless piece of shit. An ungrateful individual who attempted to run away from the perfect job. We treat you well, don’t we?” He took another couple of steps into the cell.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I was desperate to see my parents. I need a holiday. I haven’t had one for two years.”

He leaned down and got in her face, his spittle flying and slapping on her cheeks. “We tell you when you can leave this house. April and Willow need you to care for them. Mrs Knox and I are exceptionally busy people. We pay you to care for our children because we simply don’t have the time to do that ourselves. And this is how you repay us…by running out on us?”

He was delusional. They paid her a pittance to live on so that she could buy the bare necessities such as toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and sanitary towels. Nothing more for any possible treats such as chocolate or a sandwich she could stash in her room for when hunger struck.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, playing along with him for now, not knowing what else she could do, given the pain she was in.

“Are you? How sorry?”

Is he asking a trick question? “I don’t understand,” she eventually said.

“The children asked after you this morning. We told them you’d gone away for a few days. That way, they won’t be expecting you to be around and it will give you the opportunity to contemplate just how sorry you are. And, of course, to show me personally how desperate you are to make amends.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was aware that she’d pissed herself. He must have realised that, smelt it even, and yet he was here telling her what he expected from her when all she wanted to do was have a long luxurious soak in a bath to cleanse the filth from her and to bathe her aching knee. “Please, I’ll do anything you want, but not here.”

“You think I need your permission to take what I want?” He laughed again and struck her across the face, hard enough to snap her head to the side.

She struggled in her attempt not to cry out. Tempted beyond words, the only thing preventing her was his threat lingering in her head.

Suddenly he retreated out of the room. “You’ll wait. I have an important conference call to make. All I wanted to do was come down here and brighten my day, and yours, of course. Enjoy the peace and quiet. Oh, and the new friendships you’ve made with your creepy cellmates. If you’re good, next time I might even bring you a drink and something to eat. Until then, I wouldn’t contemplate wasting that piss of yours. I hear it’s supposed to be good for the body.”

The door slammed. Alone and in the dark again, she buried her head in her hands and sobbed. What have I done to deserve this? I’ve never wronged anyone in my life. Always accepted that I have to work hard in this world for little in return. Clearly that was never enough. And now this! How the hell am I going to get out of this situation? Will I ever get out of it? What if their intention is to keep me here until they’ve had enough of me and then decide to end my miserable life? Will I find that a blessed relief? She thought over the final question she’d asked herself and nodded—yes, she thought she would. A relief to never again feel fear running through her veins.

Jacinda wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked back and forth, wincing now and again at the pain emanating from her poorly knee. It was clear she needed hospital treatment, but there was no way of her getting that. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep again, only to be awoken by Mr Knox entering the room several hours later. The dull basement light behind him highlighted a can of Coke and a sandwich in his right hand.

“You want them?”

She reached for the items. “Please, I’m starving.”

He shook his head. “You don’t know the meaning of the word. Starving is when you’re skin and bones, just like the little children in Africa.”

“I apologise, I was wrong to say that. I’m peckish,” she corrected herself, hoping to dampen down the anger she saw in his eyes.

“That’s better. Remember, there are always people worse off than you in this world.”

“I’ll be sure to think about that in the future.”

He relented and gave her the food and drink. She resisted the temptation to snatch them out of his grasp, in case he changed his mind and closed the door again, taking the goodies with him. He smiled down at her and nodded, encouraging her to eat.

He leaned against the rotten doorframe and watched her nibble on her sandwich and wash each mouthful down with the fizzy Coke. The bubbles travelled down her oesophagus and into her empty stomach. The sensation was a weird one and like nothing she’d ever experienced before. Still, she was grateful for the treats he’d provided, no matter how meagre. After all this time on rationed food, she doubted whether she’d be able to face a full meal again in the future.

“Satisfied now, are you?”

She nodded, unsure which way the conversation would go next.

“Good. Now you can show me how appreciative you are. Strip off.”

Jacinda closed her eyes. How could he even consider raping me when I’m in dire need of a shower?

She might have thought that; however, she stripped off nevertheless. He roughly placed her against the wall and pounded her from behind. Again, she was both relieved and grateful that his stamina wasn’t up to scratch.

“Get dressed. You disgust me.”

Obviously not enough, otherwise you wouldn’t continue to rape me, you bastard.

After getting dressed, he left the room. She found herself alone again and in the dark with only her thoughts and the spiders to keep her company.

Blocking out what he’d done to her, she started daydreaming. She reminisced about her wonderful childhood, the time when her parents doted on her. Treated her like a goddess. Made sure she didn’t want for anything. How she had missed them both. The number of nights she’d lain awake, silently pleading with them to come and get her. Her parents were busy people, though. Wrapped up in their own printing business—being self-employed sucked. No one ever had the time to think of those around them, too busy trying to grow the business, often intent on making ends meet.

Had it really been two years since either of her parents had held her in their arms? Would she ever share that type of contact with her parents in the future? She doubted it. Over the years, the Knoxes had given her permission to contact her parents via the house phone, providing they were there listening in on the conversation. That way, they ensured she kept her tone light and breezy, making sure her parents hadn’t cottoned on to the trauma the couple were putting her through.

In the past, she had persuaded her parents that she was happy and settled in Manchester and that she was enjoying her role too much to head north to see them. Being super-busy people, they had appreciated what she was saying. That had pained her, to think her parents were prepared to give up on her like that. She knew it wasn’t intentional and that their prime goal in life was to create a successful business. Once they had started down that route, it was proving impossible to get back to their normal lives and give their only daughter the attention she deserved.

She was being harsh on them. All parents had the right to live their lives how they saw fit once their children flew the nest. Picturing her mother’s beautiful face and the concern wrinkled into her father’s brow, she felt guilty for slating them for their lack of interest in her.

With nothing else for her to do, Jacinda drifted off again. The lock turning in the door startled her from a dream in which she was sleeping in her own bed back in Scotland, her mother running around after her, tending to her every need.

She leapt to her feet and went towards the light. The door was open, and yet neither Mr nor Mrs Knox was anywhere to be seen. What’s going on? Is this the end of my punishment? Am I free to go now? To care for the children once more? She tentatively placed one foot over the threshold and peered around the open door. The couple stood behind it, sniggering like teenagers. She stared at them, uncertain what to say or do next.

The door swung back and hit her. She grunted and stumbled backwards, hobbling because of her knee.

Mr Knox latched on to her arm, preventing her from hitting the floor. His wife stood in front of her. She had something in her hand—a roll of duct tape.

“No, please. Anything but that.”

The couple laughed. It echoed around the basement; it was enough to send an icy shiver scampering down her spine.

While Mr Knox held her arms behind her, Mrs Knox tore off a strip of tape and stuck it over Jacinda’s mouth. She tried hard to make it difficult for Mrs Knox, but she stamped on Jacinda’s feet to keep her still.

Her eyes widened when Mrs Knox withdrew a large kitchen knife and slashed it through Jacinda’s clothes. What the hell is she doing? This can’t be happening. Is this the end?

Mr and Mrs Knox’s gazes locked. They appeared caught up in their own fantasy to realise what was going on, the damage they were carrying out.

Jacinda’s fear escalated. She fought hard to release herself from Mr Knox’s grip. The lashes doubled in frequency, cutting deeper into her flesh now. The couple kissed. Are they getting off on this? Is this a fetish of theirs? To kill someone in order to get aroused? No matter what questions filled her mind, the reality was that Jacinda’s life hung in the balance. Her legs weakened due to the amount of blood she had lost, and still the couple’s lips were locked, the slashes with the blade never-ending.

If there is a god up there, take me now. I’ve had it with this world. Show me what happiness there is to be had on the other side, please.

Mr Knox let go of her arms, and she tumbled to the floor. The couple continued to kiss, groaning with desire while Jacinda groaned in agony.

“No, stop. Let’s save this for after,” Mr Knox said, tracing a loving finger down his wife’s cheek.

Mrs Knox stared down at Jacinda. “Yes, I’ve had it with her. She’s ticked me off once too often. She has never cared properly for Willow and April. Let’s finish her off and get someone new.”

Mr Knox nodded in acquiescence, then they turned their full attention on Jacinda. She cowered from the blows raining down on her until everything went black.





“Is she dead?” Sadie asked.

“Seems that way. I never wanted her to die. I only ever wanted to punish her,” Leonard replied.

“Is that you saying that or your dick?”

He chuckled. “You know me so well.”

Sadie shrugged. “What next? How are we going to dispose of this one?”

“Let’s face it, she’s not going anywhere. That gives us enough time to pack up the house and get out of here.”

“Not again? I’m not sure how long I can keep doing this, Leonard. Maybe we should settle down and start enjoying life more. The children can do without this disruption at school.”

“You should have thought about that before you began slashing at her. You’re the one who finished her off.”

Sadie stood back and crossed her arms. “How dare you say that? This was a joint effort. She’d outlived her usefulness, we both agreed on that, didn’t we?”

“There’s no point in us discussing this further, what’s done is done. We need to work quickly now, get away from here within the next few days. She has friends, other nannies in the area. We don’t want to arouse their suspicions.”

Sadie laughed. “She never had any friends. Not people who cared about what she got up to anyway.”

“Whatever. I’m not going to argue the toss with you about that now. We have work to do. We need to relocate and quickly.”

“Where? Do we stick another pin in the map and see where that leads us?”

“No, this time we need to think things through properly. There’s our work to consider. We’re making good money now, it would be a shame to let that side of things slide.”

“How can we continue to trade? We’ll need to create different identities all over again, for fuck’s sake.”

“I’m warning you, Sadie, don’t go pulling one of your foul moods on me. You’re the one responsible for ending her life. You were too eager. I wanted to punish her some more, keep her down here for a few more days, to give me some thinking time, but would you listen? No. Take the bull by the horns and dive straight in, that’s you all over.”

“Whatever. There’s no point going round and round in circles. We have to get our shit together and swiftly. I repeat, what are we going to do with the body?”

He tapped the side of his nose and leaned in for a kiss. “Leave that to me. Now get upstairs and show me how much you love me.”

He chased the screaming Sadie up the two flights of stairs and into the bedroom, his mind on one thing only—satisfying his needs.





4





Hero heaved out a weary sigh. He threw an arm around his wife’s shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s nice to have an early night for a change.”

Fay placed a hand on his chest and swirled her forefinger in his hairs, the way she always did. “I’m glad the kids behaved tonight and went to bed without any hassle after their bath. I swear those girls are getting naughtier with each passing year.”

“Don’t say that. They’re six now, what the heck are they going to be like when they’re eighteen?”

Fay glanced at him and rolled her eyes. “I don’t even want to think about that. Maybe Louie will help us out there.”

Hero frowned. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? You’re hoping he’ll spy on them and report back to us?”

Fay pushed away from his chest and sat up. “Wow, I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort. However, now you’ve mentioned it…”

He leaned over and kissed her. “He’ll do anything we ask him to where the twins are concerned. He adores them.”

Fay settled down in position again. “Family is everything to him. He loves those girls. It doesn’t matter that there’s an age gap of five years. He doesn’t seem to care. Maybe that’ll change now he’s started secondary school.”

“I can’t see it. He’s a level-headed lad. Add smart and compassionate to the list, and that just about sums him up perfectly.”

“I know we might complain about them running us ragged at times, but listening to some of the horrific tales some of the mothers at the school gate describe, our three are angels.” Fay held her crossed fingers in the air.

Hero did the same. It didn’t prevent memories of a recent encounter he’d had with a group of teenagers running through his mind, however. There were six of them, varying ages from eleven up to fifteen. They’d been causing havoc in the town for around a month. The eldest boy’s father had been sent to prison, and the boy was in the throes of rebelling against society. Vandalising cars at night, buying and drinking alcohol on street corners. It was the boy’s own mother who had dobbed him in to the police, fearful of him ending up like his father, behind bars. Hero had interviewed the lads, torn into them at the station, with their parents’ permission.

Thankfully, the boys had done the right thing and mended their ways, at least for now.

Hero was feeling nice and relaxed after a few stressful days of long shifts. He was in the process of drifting off to sleep, but his mobile vibrating on the bedside table disrupted his zen-like state. “Damn, it’s probably Mum. I said I’d ring her tonight and I forgot.”

“You’d better answer it then, she’ll be worried about you.”

He retrieved his mobile and tutted once he’d spotted the caller ID. “It’s work, not Mum. I should have ignored it.”

Fay chuckled and sat up again. “The likelihood of you doing that is non-existent, and you know it.”

“You know me far too well. Here goes.” He answered the call. “DI Hero Nelson.”

“I’m sorry to disturb your evening, sir, but you’re needed at a crime scene.”

“Can’t someone else handle it?”

“Everyone else is busy tonight, sir. I can get them to report to the scene once they’re free…”

“Why do I sense a but coming here?” he asked the female on control.

“It’s a nasty one, sir. It has your name written all over it.”

If he wasn’t so ticked off by the disruption, he would have laughed. “Okay, you’ve ground me down. What are the details?” He threw the covers back and slipped out of bed.

Fay leapt out and gathered his clothes for him, placing clean underwear on top of the pile while he jotted down the address.

“I’ll be there in a maximum of fifteen. Do me a favour and ring my partner. If I’m getting called out then so is she.”

“My colleague has already actioned that, sir. She’s en route now.”

“Good.” He hung up and dashed into the bathroom for a quick wash and squeezed out a wee. There was no telling when the opportunity would arise to have another one in the coming hours.

Entering the bedroom, he found Fay back in bed and longed to be beside her. “Sorry, love. So much for our once-in-a-blue-moon early night, eh?”

“There’ll be plenty of others. Stay safe out there.”

Once he was dressed, he kissed her on the lips. “I love you, Mrs Nelson.”

He snatched up his notebook and rushed out of the house. The air was blue in the car, his temper building rapidly as he drove through the darkness to the address out in Cheadle Hulme. A car pulled out of a side road in front of him. He blasted the horn, and the driver gave him the finger. Had he not been in a rush, he would have pulled the guy over and given him a firm warning. As it was, he switched on his police light and sped past the man’s car. His face was a picture.

“You won’t do that again in a hurry, will you, tosser?”

Ten minutes later, Hero drew up outside a detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac. Julie’s car was already on site. He collected his paper suit from the boot of his car and approached the house. The uniformed officer on duty at the front door smiled and let him into the house.

“Shaw, are you in here?”

“In the kitchen, guv.”

Hero slipped his suit on, placed the blue covers over his footwear and went in search of his partner. The house appeared to be in good condition from what he could tell from the hallway, but it looked a little too bare and modernistic for his liking, not homely in the slightest. It wasn’t until he reached the kitchen, which was devoid of any furniture, that he realised the house wasn’t lived in.

“What have we got, Julie?”

“Evening, sir. A bit of an odd one. The house is empty as you can see, and yet someone lit a barbecue in the back garden.”

“Squatters? Vagrants? What are you saying?”

“That’s just it, sir, I’m not sure what I’m saying. All I know is that the fire was raging enough to concern the neighbours. A few of them reported it at the same time. When the fire brigade showed up, this is what they found.”

“Do you have to be so cryptic? Can’t you tell me the facts right away for a change?” he snapped, cringing at the tone he’d used. “Sorry, I’m tired and irritable. Ignore me.”

“Aren’t we all, sir? Come with me.” She marched past him, clipping his shoulder intentionally, and raced into the garden where five firemen were standing around. Some of them were speaking to uniformed officers while the others shuffled their feet. “Statements. I told them to get their statements down before they rushed off.”

“Good idea. Come on, Julie, let me in on the secret?”

“This way, sir.” She trudged across the longish grass towards the smoking barbecue and pointed. “There. That’s what they found.”

Hero stopped next to her, studied the blackened equipment for a second or two and turned back to face her. “You’ve got me. So, someone had a barbecue. The last time I heard that wasn’t against the law.”

Shaw inhaled a large breath which expanded her chest. Hero knew this movement well—his partner was trying hard to suppress her annoyance.

“There’s a body burning in the barbecue, sir.”

“Shit! Really?” He took a few steps closer and covered his mouth and nose. The smell was just like a hog roast he’d been invited to at his friend’s house. Shit, who knew burning flesh could smell like that? No wonder there are cannibals in this world.

“Yep. Horrendous, right? Who would do such a thing?”

He retreated a few steps, far enough back so he could no longer smell the remains. “Who spotted it?”

Shaw pointed across the lawn to one of the firemen who was giving his statement. “Todd Johnson, sir. He saw a bone and felt something wasn’t right and called it in.”

“Good man. Okay, where are SOCO and the pathologist? We need them here, ASAP.”

“I’ve tried chasing them up, but they’re caught up at another scene, a traffic accident on the M6.”

“Damn. Okay.” He glanced skywards. “I swear it’s going to piss down soon. We need to get this scene covered, just in case.”

“That’s going to be hard to do if it’s still smouldering, surely?”

“Let me ring Gerrard, see how long he’s going to be and see what he recommends we do to preserve the scene.”

Julie nodded and walked back into the house. Hero kicked out at a clump of grass while he waited for Gerrard to answer the call.

“What is it?”

“Nice greeting. Hello to you, too.”

“I knew it was you. I told your sidekick what’s on my agenda. I don’t appreciate being hounded every ten minutes or so, Nelson.”

“Bloody hell! You might want to tone down that anger of yours, mate, before you burst a blood vessel. Okay, hear me out. I’m at the scene. In case you hadn’t noticed, it looks like it’s going to tip down any minute. I’m concerned about the scene and was ringing up to see if you’ve got any suggestions on how we can shield it from the elements. The thing is, I thought about placing a sheet over it, but the darn thing is still smouldering. Do you want me to sanction the firemen to carry on or what? I don’t have enough experience of burning bodies to call the shots.”

“Sarcastic as ever. No, let it die down naturally. I’ll make a call, get a technician out of his bed just for you to preserve the scene.”

“Now who’s being sarcastic? Right, I’ll leave you to get on with things there and see you, when?”

“I’m going to be at least another thirty minutes here. It ain’t pretty. They’re just clearing up the road and opening it now. Three vehicles, one concertinaed with two pensioners dead inside.”

“That’s tough. Sorry for being such a grouch, mate. You get on. Place the call for me.”

“Organising that now. See you soon—if you’re still there and not back in bed by the time I get there.”

“I’ll be here for the duration.” Hero ended the call, his thoughts drifting for a moment to his father whom he’d lost two years previously. Tears misted his eyes. He turned his back to face the brick wall behind him and wiped the sleeve of his jacket across his eyes.

“Are you all right, sir?”

Damn! Why does Shaw always have to show up when I’m in a contemplative mood?

“I’m fine. I think the smoke got in my eyes a little. Gerrard is sending a technician over. I’m presuming he’ll erect a marquee when he gets here. Until then, we need to pray the rain holds off.”

“Rightio. Is there anything else you want me to do?”

“Help get the statements, so these busy men can get back on duty. Have you thought about that?”

“I was about to suggest the same. There’s no need for you to keep sniping at me. I wasn’t the one who rang you, getting you out of your warm, cosy bed.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to have a pop. We’ll take down the statements between us. If nothing else, it’ll help pass the time until Gerrard and his crew get here.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll fetch a few forms from the car. I made some enquiries, and there are only two more statements to obtain, one each.”

“Good stuff.”

Julie disappeared into the house and returned carrying the forms. She handed one to him, and they approached the group of firemen.

“Are we going to be held up for long, boss?” the eldest of the three said.

“We’re trying to alleviate that for you. Who hasn’t made a statement yet?”

“Steve and Colin.”

“Steve, why don’t you go with my partner, Julie, here? And Colin, you can come with me. We’ll go inside where it’s warmer, gents.”

The two men nodded and walked into the house with Hero and Julie. She stood in one corner of the vast kitchen, taking down Steve’s statement while Hero spoke to Colin.

“Can you go through what happened when you arrived at the scene?”

“Sure. Want me to say it slowly?” Colin asked, a twinkle in his eye.

“If you wouldn’t mind? My shorthand isn’t up to scratch these days.”

Colin sniggered. “I know what you mean. Right, we received the call to attend the blaze. We got here around twenty minutes later. The fire was still going strong. A couple of us started dousing it when Todd shouted that he’d spotted something. We stopped to take a closer look and saw what appeared to be a human femur. A few of us were sick near the scene, sorry about that. It was all too much for the guys. Not the type of thing you expect to find when putting out a bloody barbie, is it? Jesus, who’d sink to that level, eh?”

Hero sighed heavily. “That’s what we’re going to have to figure out. The house seems empty, no residents on site, which is only going to make our job harder.”

“Done a moonlight flit, you reckon?”

“So it would appear. Getting back to what happened next,” Hero urged, not keen on speculating a crime with anyone other than his team.

“Sorry, I’m prone to asking a lot of questions myself. It was a toss-up whether I joined the force or the brigade. Obviously I chose the latter, although after discovering something like this and the investigation side of things you guys are going to have to delve into…well, there are days when I regret that decision.”

“Go with your heart. You’re young enough. We’re always on the lookout for new recruits. The job is getting tougher these days, though. It’s no longer perceived as an easy ride to those within the force.”

“Nothing like telling someone how it is in the hope of putting them off, hey, man?”

“Sorry, that definitely wasn’t my intention. Don’t tell me your job is a piece of cake nowadays either?”

“It is mostly, money for old rope most of the time, except when we stumble upon something like this. Gruesome ain’t the word, is it? Damn, some days I wish I’d stayed in bed. This is one of those days.”

“Me, too. I’d just climbed into mine, promised the missus we’d get the kids out of the way and have an early night ourselves. That went to pot when the blasted call came in. Probably won’t get to bed tonight now, knowing how cases like this ruddy pan out.”

“Jesus, do you get many bodies found in a barbie, then?”

“No, this is a first for me. So, after Todd put a halt to things, what happened next?”

“Well, the boss rang your lot. It’s awful, ain’t it? I’d prefer to extinguish the flames completely, but the boss instructed us to leave well alone. He’s experienced enough to know how damaging water can be to a crime scene. Have you smelt it?” He retched. “Not sure I’ll ever cook pork again after smelling that shit. Sorry, that was disrespectful to the victim.”

Hero nodded. “It was. You know what? I thought the same bloody thing. Is that it?”

“Yep, that’s about it, we called a halt to the proceedings and waited for your lot to show up.”

“Thanks. Thinking back to when you arrived at the scene, did you notice anyone outside the house at all?”

“No, nothing as far as I can remember. We came in through the side gate. It was locked—one of the guys had to give Todd a leg up to unlock it from this side. The more I think about it, the more shocked I am. Why would a person do that, kill someone? I’m not jumping the gun there, am I? And then burn the body in the barbie and take off like that? I can’t work it out meself.”

“Again, that’s something we’re going to have to figure out.”

“Another thing I thought about, not sure if it’ll be useful to you or not.”

“Go on, I’m all ears,” Hero prompted.

Colin lowered his voice so the others couldn’t hear. “Whoever did it must have cut up the body first, wouldn’t you say?”

Hero nodded. “I was thinking along the same lines, although I’d rather leave that up to the pathologist to confirm. Ghastly thought nonetheless.”

Colin glanced over his shoulder and leaned in close. “One of my relatives used to live around here. Not sure if you’re aware of this, but these houses have cellars.”

Hero widened his eyes. “I wasn’t aware of that. Thanks for the info. I’ll take a look after we’ve finished your statement.”

“Glad to be of help. My take is that the body was probably cut up down there and then they tried to get rid of it on the grill.”

Hero cringed. “Sounds like a plausible theory. Either you have a copper’s brain or you read a lot of crime novels.”

“The former. Hey, this has really got my juices going. After speaking to you, I mean. Maybe I’ll take your advice and apply after all.”

There was another option Hero didn’t voice: This man could very well be the killer. He shook his head, ridding himself of such a ludicrous thought.

With the statement of events completed, Hero dismissed Colin and joined Julie, who was also adding the finishing touches to her statement with Steve.

“Thanks for this. You’re free to go now.” Julie smiled briefly at the man.

“Ring me if you need anything else.” Steve grinned and rejoined his team.

Hero nudged his partner and whispered, “Looks like someone has taken a shine to you.”

Julie shuddered and flashed the wedding ring on her finger at him. “I couldn’t give a monkey’s arse, I’m spoken for. Rob and I are very happy together.”

Hero shrugged. “I was winding you up, Shaw. It’s about time you figured out when I’m pulling your leg and when I’m being serious.”

Julie’s cheeks coloured up. “Whatever.”

Hero chuckled. “The chap I was speaking to, a wannabe copper, came up with a suggestion I think we should check out while we’re waiting for Gerrard to arrive.”

“What’s that?”

“Come with me, you’ll soon find out.”

Julie followed Hero through the house. He searched the hallway, pulling open several doors before he found the likely one he was searching for. “Ah-ha…here it is.”

Julie peered around him. “A cellar?”

“Indeed. Be careful on your way down.”

“I can’t.” Julie backed up and pinned herself against the wall in the hallway.

“There’s no such word as can’t, especially if you’re a copper. Get a grip, woman.”

She shook her head, her face draining of its usual colour. “No way. You’re on your own on this one, guv. Sack me if you want, there’s no way I’m going down there.”

Hero grunted and continued on his journey, his steps tentative at first until his eyes grew accustomed to the dark confines. The light above his head sprang to life.

“Is that better?” Julie shouted from the doorway.

“Much, thank you. You should come down here…no, on second thoughts, scrub that…Jesus…what the hell?”

Once the energy-saving bulb reached its maximum intensity, the gruesome sight in front of him had him shaking his head. He gagged a few times but just about managed to hang on to the Chinese takeaway he’d treated the family to that evening. There was blood everywhere. If he’d taken a step farther…well, the pathologist would have had his knackers between two slices of bread.

“What is it?” Julie shouted.

“Get down here and see for yourself.”

“I can’t. The fear is too much. I’m sorry.”

“Shaw, come halfway. You need to see this.”

The stairs creaked a little. “Jesus…seriously? Oh God, I think I’m going to puke.” She ran back up the stairs.

If Hero hadn’t been in a state of shock he would have creased up with laughter. Instead, he decided to retreat and leave.

Julie’s colour was even paler than when he’d stepped foot in the cellar. “Are you all right?”

“Nothing ten cups of coffee wouldn’t put right.”

“Hello, hello…what’s going on here then?” Gerrard’s booming voice almost catapulted Hero through the ceiling to the bedroom above.

“What the heck…you scared the crap out of me. It’s about time you showed up.”

“Thanks, it’s nice to see you, too. Why are you two looking so glum?”

Hero pointed to the open doorway. “You’ll soon find out.”

“Sounds ominous. You want to show me or shall I see for myself?”

“I’d rather not.”

Gerrard rolled his eyes and shook his head. Moments later, once he’d reached the bottom of the stairs, a few choice expletives came their way.

“Get SOCO down here. No, wait, I’m coming up. I need to see the body first, this can wait.”

Gerrard resurfaced and exhaled a large breath. “Despicable that a person could do that to another human being.”

“You read my mind. Here, let me show you the way.”

The three of them exited the house and crossed the lawn to the barbecue. “As if what was in the cellar wasn’t enough. Still, after all that blood loss, I’m not surprised to find there are body parts on site. Inventive way of getting rid of a corpse, wouldn’t you agree?”

Hero couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Not really. Quite dumb in my book.”

Gerrard tilted his head and frowned. “How so?”

“Because they alerted the neighbours, who in turn, rang the fire brigade, who then rang us once they arrived and realised what they were dealing with.”

“Ah yes, of course. Okay, you’ve got me on that one. Do we know where the occupiers of the house are?”

“Nope. Not had a chance to investigate that side of things yet. We wanted to get the brigade back on the road again ASAP, so Julie and I have been busy taking down their statements. I’d take a punt that the house is empty, though, yet to be confirmed, of course.”

“Glad to see my guy got here promptly to erect the marquee.” Gerrard held out his hand.

Hero glanced up, and a few drops of rain landed on his face. “Something to be thankful for, I guess. Julie and I will begin the search of the house. We’ll leave you to it.”

“Good. My advice would be to keep out of the cellar.”

Hero snorted. “That’s a no-brainer.”

Together, he and Julie went up the stairs. Julie felt the need to arm herself with her pepper spray canister, just in case. They dipped into each room. Although they were still furnished, the house was empty of all occupants.

“This is sick,” Julie commented.

“I’m not with you?”

“There’s obviously been a family living here. You know, kids as well as adults, and yet…”

“We have a dead body and what amounts to a blood bank in the cellar.”

“Exactly.” Julie entered the children’s bedroom and removed one of the books from the shelf. “Age four to five.”

Hero scanned the room and nodded. “I agree. Maybe the corpse on the barbecue is one of the kids.”

Julie dropped the book on the floor then picked it up. “Don’t say that. The thought of a child suffering in that way sends shivers running up my spine.”

“And there was me thinking you hated kids.”

“I don’t hate them as such. Rob and I have discussed the issue, and we’ve agreed the world will be a better place if we don’t add to the population.”

“Yeah, most people think having kids is a breeze. It ain’t, it’s hard work and it’s a drain on your energy most of the time.”

“But rewarding all the same, right?”

Hero nodded. “Yep, I wouldn’t be without my three. They definitely keep me on my toes, though.”

“Oh, I thought Fay was in charge of most of the child-rearing responsibilities?”

“All right, there’s no need for that. I do my share when I get home at night, don’t you worry.”

“I believe you,” she replied.

The way she said it had Hero doubting that she believed him. He could argue the toss with her for hours but knew there’d be little point in that. Once Julie got an idea into her head, that was it. There was no changing her.

“Let’s have a quick shufty through their things, see if we can find any clues as to where the family has gone.”

“I don’t think there’ll be much in here. Maybe it would be better to start in the main bedroom first.”

Hero nodded. “I’ll do that, you search in here.”

Julie’s face was a picture of annoyance and frustration. Hero forced down the chuckle threatening to escape, smiled and left the room. He went along the hallway to what appeared to be the master bedroom with its en suite visible in the left-hand corner. He rifled through the chest of drawers—all four of them were empty. He moved on to the bedside tables. Again, both of these drew a blank. He slid open the wardrobe door. Although the rails were bare, a shoebox sat at the back of one of the shelves above. He withdrew it and opened the lid. Inside, he found personal memorabilia, old photos, and small gifts which the kids had clearly made themselves for Mummy and Daddy.

“Interesting, let’s hope we gain something from this,” Hero mumbled.

“What’s that?” Julie appeared in the doorway.

He walked towards her and showed her the contents. “Exhibit A. There’s got to be something in here of use.”

Julie shrugged. “You’d think so. Strange that the family left it behind for us to find, don’t you think?”

“Possibly. It was at the rear of the shelf. Maybe the wife is small and couldn’t see it.”

“Plausible,” Julie added, frowning. “Nothing in the kiddies’ room. Want me to help search in here or shall I make a start on downstairs?”

“Go downstairs. I’m nearly through in here. Just the en suite to check. Have you been in the bathroom?”

“No. I’ll do that now.”

“There might be the odd toothbrush lying around which we can grab for DNA purposes.”

“Going now.” Julie raced into the hallway.

Hero dipped into the en suite and was disappointed to find it stripped of anything personal except for a small bottle of shampoo sitting in the shower enclosure.

“Nothing in the bathroom, I’m heading downstairs,” Julie shouted from the hallway.

“I’ll be down in a minute.”

He searched the en suite cabinet. Nothing in there either, only a clump of dust in the corner. Deflated, he went back downstairs to find Julie hunting through the cabinet in the lounge. “Anything?”

She shook her head. “Clear so far. Good job you found that box because I think they’ve been pretty thorough clearing out everything else.”

“Let’s not lose hope just yet, we still have the kitchen and office to search.”

Julie nodded. “The office could prove beneficial.”

“I’ll take a punt with that then and leave this room to you.”

The office was located a few doors down. The large desk and a mahogany bookshelf were the only items of furniture left in the room. Hero hunted through the desk drawers, which again left him disappointed.

Footsteps in the hallway drew his attention.

Gerrard popped his head round the door. “There you are. I have to say the firemen did well to spot the bone and ring you guys. It’s going to take us a few days to gather all the evidence from the barbecue. We’re going to take it all away and do it at the lab. How are you doing?”

“Nothing so far. Actually, that’s a lie, sorry. I found a box of memorabilia in the main bedroom. Looks like they’ve been thorough in clearing out everything else apart from a few pieces of furniture.”

“Strange they’ve left that, don’t you think?”

Hero shrugged. “I’m guessing this place is probably rented. They took their personal stuff and did a moonlight flit.”

Gerrard’s eyes widened. “Good news for you. If nothing else it means there’ll be a paper trail.”

“Indeed. I know I’m asking a lot, but is there any way of knowing whether the victim was male or female yet?”

“Not so far. I should be able to give you something in the next few days. I want it to be as accurate as possible. I’d hate to give you duff info. You know me, ever the perfectionist.”

“That’s true. I’ll leave that with you. Are you going to start in the cellar now?”

“Yep. Stating the obvious, I’d say by the blood spatter on the walls, the victim was bludgeoned before they lost their life.”

“How accurate is that?”

“I’m willing to put my career on the line and say I’m seventy-five percent certain. I hope that’s the case; either that or the person was hacked to death while they were still alive.”

Hero’s mouth turned down at the sides. “Don’t say that, my damn legs have gone all weak now.”

“You always were a bit of a softie. Hard on the outside and squishy on the inside.”

“I’m human. Unlike some I could mention.”

“Don’t start on me. I love my job.”

“I couldn’t do it. Cutting up dead bodies, day in day out.”

“It’s the satisfaction of those dead bodies telling us how they perished that keeps me going.”

“Not your morbid fascination then? Who’d have thought it?” Hero chuckled, earning himself a look of contempt from Gerrard.

“Think what you will. I have a murder scene awaiting my expert appraisal.” He flounced away from the door.

Hero took pleasure in winding the pathologist up, just like he did Julie. They were easy targets after all.

He left the office and went in search of his partner. He found her going through the drawers in the kitchen. “Anything?” he asked.

“Plenty of kitchen appliances and gadgets. Shall we get SOCO to dust for prints and bag them up?”

“Maybe a few items. Such as a few knives, maybe some cutlery. That should do the trick. Make a list for the landlord.”

“You’re thinking this place is rented then?”

“Don’t you?”

Julie twisted her mouth. “Hadn’t really thought about it until you mentioned it. Makes sense. Want me to see if I can find out?”

“We can do that in the morning. For now, I think we should see what a few of the neighbours have to say before it gets too late.”

“Do you want me to gather the equipment first?”

“Yes. Gerrard and his team are starting on the cellar. I’ll knock on the immediate neighbours’ doors. Do we know which one rang it in?”

“A couple of them did. Try the one on the right. I think the occupier is a Mrs Cappol.”

“Great. I’ll make a start, and you can join me when you’ve finished in here.”

He left the house and headed for Mrs Cappol’s. The woman in her sixties, with a head full of rollers, answered the door within seconds of Hero ringing the bell.

“Come in, excuse the state of me. Oh gosh, I’m thinking this is bad if the police have turned up. You should have seen the blaze. I had to ring the fire brigade. I was worried about the bloody thing spreading. What the hell were they burning anyway?”

“Is there somewhere we can sit and have a chat, Mrs Cappol?”

“In the kitchen. I take it you’ll be wanting a nice cup of strong tea? I know I could do with one.”

“A coffee for me, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Come with me. I’ll see what I can find in the cupboard. We’re tea drinkers in this house.”

“Then tea is fine, honestly, don’t go to any trouble on my behalf.”

“Nonsense, I’ve got some coffee somewhere. It’s probably well past its sell-by date, though.”

“Tea is fine, don’t worry.”

Mrs Cappol pulled out a chair at the kitchen table as she passed. “Sit down, love. I won’t be a tick.” She pottered around and filled the kettle.

Hero sat in the chair and extracted his notebook from his pocket. “When did you notice the fire?”

“It was when I went up to bed. I drew the curtains in my bedroom and thought, blooming heck, what in God’s name is that? I rang my old man first—he’s on nights at the local factory. He thought I was being foolish. I didn’t think so, hence me calling the brigade out. Must be bad if they involved you. What is it, some kind of arson?”

Hero sighed. He really didn’t want to burden the woman any more than was necessary. However, he needed information about the family. “Not really. At the moment we’re unsure what’s going on. Maybe you can tell me who lives there?”

“Oh, I see. A young couple and their two children. Successful they are, judging by the cars they drive. Not had much to do with them really.”

“Have they lived here long?”

Hero poised his pen, waiting for her response.

“Let me think.” She poured the boiling water into two mugs, added a splash of milk and asked, “Sugar?”

“Two, please. I’ve cut down recently.”

“It’s not good for you. Too much sugar in our food these days. When you think back to during the war, not that I was alive then. Saw a programme about it the other day, I did. The poor kids had no idea what a bar of chocolate was like until the Yanks joined the war.”

“I think I saw the same programme. Hard to believe, wasn’t it? Sorry, have they lived there long?”

“Around two years or so, off the top of my head, that is.”

“What about their names?”

“I had a letter delivered here once for them. What was it now?” She handed Hero his mug and sat in the chair next to him. “It began with a K. A short name, it was.”

“Knight, Kit, Knox?”

“Knox rings a bell. Yes, I think that was it. You are clever.”

Hero’s cheeks heated with the compliment. “Knox. What about their first names?”

“Sorry. It was initials on the letter from what I can remember. I’d be lying if I told you what those were. I saw it wasn’t for me and took it over there as soon as possible. Told the postie off the next day, too. Young lad, he was, always got those headphones on while he delivers the post. Can’t be good for them, can it? Not paying attention to the roads when they’re going round these estates?”

“No, I agree. What about the children? Did you manage to catch their names at all?”

“No. They were quite young. I always saw that older girl with them. Oops, I should have mentioned her, she slipped my mind for a moment. Pretty girl. I’ve seen her walking past recently and noticed that she’d lost a fair bit of weight. Probably anorexic, you know what teenage girls are like about watching their weight these days.”

“A teenager, you say. Can you give me a better description?”

Mrs Cappol mulled the question over for a few seconds, a pained expression on her face. “Not really. Brunette, thin and pretty. I know, my observations are useless. Hubby always says the same thing.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s better than working with nothing. Maybe you’ll think of something else during our chat. No pressure from me, how’s that?”

She held her crossed fingers in the air and nodded.

“This young woman, how long had she been at the house?”

“Around the same time, although, thinking about it now, I don’t think I noticed her when the family moved in. Maybe she was an elder daughter who was away at university and only visited now and again. On second thoughts, the couple were too young. Maybe a sister or niece then perhaps. Damn, here I go again, waffling on. Hubby always has a go at me about that. Sorry.”

“You’re fine. I’m keen to hear what you think. It’s not like we have anything else to go on at the moment.” He jotted down some notes and then asked, “Did you ever see any other visitors come to the house?”

“Not that I can remember. I didn’t think it odd at the time, but now you’ve mentioned it, isn’t that a little strange?”

“Possibly. Although, my wife and I don’t tend to get that many visitors, only immediate family, like my mother and my twin sister.”

“Twins! How wonderful. Are you close?”

“Very, always have been. We joined the TA, sorry, the Territorial Army together. Had some fun doing that, I can tell you. Now, my sister has been with the police a couple of years. She’s already working her way up the ladder. No doubt she’ll be a higher rank than me soon. She’s also keen on bossing me around, given the opportunity.”

“How great is that? Family is so important, isn’t it? Unfortunately, hubby and I were never able to conceive any kids. I feel like I’ve missed out in life. As if God dealt me a raw deal.”

“Sorry to hear that. I have three. Twin girls, and I adopted my wife’s son. Couldn’t you have gone down the adoption route?” Hero found it exceptionally easy opening up to the woman for some strange reason.

“Mr Cappol point blank refused to entertain the idea. Said he didn’t want the DNA of a possible murderer under our roof. Absurd, I know. But once he gets a daft idea in his mind there’s no shifting him. Silly bugger, he is.”

“I’m sorry. From my point of view, all I can say is how rewarding it’s been to have been Louie’s father over the years. His own dad wasn’t, how shall I say this, appreciative of the boy’s value in this world.”

“Then I’m glad you stepped in to take care of him. It takes a real man to take on another man’s child the way you have. You must be a very special human being indeed.”

Hero’s cheeks warmed again under her admiring gaze. “Not really. Louie and my wife came as a package. I have no regrets. Anyway, getting back to the job in hand. I know I’m asking a lot here, but I don’t suppose you know what jobs the couple had, do you?”

She shook her head slowly. “No. Like I said, I wasn’t that friendly with them really. Thinking about it, he tended to stay at home more than the wife. That’s the only thing that truly struck me as being odd about them.”

“Interesting, okay, at least that’s something to go on. Maybe he worked from home. I noticed there was a study in the house. Again, I’m probably asking a lot of you here…I don’t suppose you remember any details about the cars they drove?”

“She had a smart ‘normal’ car as I call it, and he had one of those larger models which would fit the whole family in. That’s as much as you’re going to get out of me about that, I’m afraid. Cars don’t interest me in the slightest. I don’t even drive, you see.”

“Not a problem, hopefully one of the other neighbours will be able to fill in the blanks for me. Is there anything else you think I should know?” He took a large gulp of his cool tea.

Her gaze cast down to the linoleum floor, and she sighed. “I don’t think so. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more information. Tough to do that when folks stick to themselves these days.”

“It’s fine. We’ll find out what we need to know soon enough.” He flipped his notebook shut, finished off his drink and left his chair.

Mrs Cappol saw him to the front door. He extended his hand for her to shake.

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough what’s going on,” she said, a weak smile pulling her lips apart.

“I’m sure the journalists will ensure that happens. Thank you for talking to me today and for going out of your way to make me a drink.”

“It was my pleasure. Good luck, take care of those three kids of yours,” she called after him.

Hero waved and closed the gate behind him. “I will. Goodnight, Mrs Cappol.”

He stood on the pavement, glancing at the houses around him, wondering where Julie was. He finally spotted her coming out of the house on the opposite side and went to meet her.

“Anything?” he asked.

“I’ve got a fair description of the man and woman. They had two kids, and there was another young woman in the house, unsure who she was though at present. You?”

“Less information than you got, but yes, there was a mystery woman in the house. She’s lived there around the same amount of time as the Knoxes. What’s your initial thoughts?”

“I don’t like to speculate, you know that. Perhaps they had one of those open relationships, a threesome.”

Hero whistled. “Whoa! You really want to go there so early on in the investigation?”

Julie shrugged, and her mouth twitched with disgust. “Anything’s possible these days. Either that or the young woman was a nanny.”

Hero nodded thoughtfully. “That’s more like it. The neighbour I spoke to said the girl was always with the children. Another interesting fact for us to cling on to, is that she thought the girl had lost a considerable amount of weight recently. As if she was anorexic.”

“By that I take it you want me to get in touch with the doctors in the area and to also see who was listed on the electoral roll.”

“Yes. Why don’t we just ring the council, see who was listed as being resident in the house on the council tax side of things first?”

“Suits me. It’ll have to wait until the morning.”

“I appreciate that. Anything on the couple’s vehicles?”

“Not from the neighbour I spoke with,” Julie replied. “I know, I know, I’ll add the DVLA to my list of people to ring in the morning.”

“You’ve got it. I think we should question a few of the other neighbours and then call it a night.”

“Really? I’m prepared to work through, if necessary.”

“If we had a true idea of what cars they used then I’d be over it like a rash, but we’re up the creek without that information.”

“True enough. Ploughing on then. I’ll work on that angle with the next neighbour. Maybe someone has got a security camera we can tap into.”

Hero glanced around quickly and shook his head. “Not from what I can see. I find that incredible, don’t you?”

“Not really. Most people don’t give a toss about anything these days.”

Hero sniggered. “Ever the pessimist, Shaw.”

She grunted and stormed off.

Hero cringed. It didn’t take much to set his partner off, not these days. He pulled the collar on his woollen coat up around his neck, warding off a sudden gust of wind that had struck up. Thoughts of snuggling up to Fay filtered into his mind, but he swiftly booted them out of the way again.

He strode up the path to the next house. There was a light on in a downstairs window. Good, he hated waking people up just to ask a few questions they probably didn’t know the answer to. ID in hand, he rang the bell.

A grey-haired gentleman opened the door. He was in burgundy pyjamas and wrapped in a grey velour robe. Hero chuckled inwardly. No doubt the man’s wife had chosen his ensemble as most women tended to do, judging by how coordinated he was.

“Hello, sir. I’m DI Nelson of Greater Manchester Police. Would it be possible to have a brief word with you regarding an incident that has occurred across the road this evening?”

“Very well. Do you want to come in?”

“Thanks, it’s turning a tad chilly.”

The man stepped behind the door and welcomed Hero into the hallway. “I’m Maurice Baldwin, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir. Can you tell me what you know about what’s going on?”

“Pretty daft question. I was hoping you’d be able to shed some light on that for me. Rocked us, you know, when the firemen turned up. We were just going to bed. Me and the wife, that is.”

“Is your wife able to join us?”

“Mandy, are you coming down? There’s a copp…a policeman to see us.”

Hero smiled. “I have no aversion to being called a copper, no need to feel embarrassed.”

“Come through to the lounge, my wife won’t be long.”

Hero sat in the armchair, Mr Baldwin took the sofa, and they waited for Mrs Baldwin to enter the room.

“Sorry, I’m here now. This is awful, you lot coming around here at this time of night. What’s it all about?”

“I can’t say at present. Our initial assessment is that someone might have been assaulted at the property. I wonder if you can tell me what you heard regarding the incident.”

“We were just getting ready for bed, you know, we let the dog out in the garden and then we secured the house and went upstairs. All of a sudden, it was mayhem, sirens and lights flashing everywhere,” Mrs Baldwin said, squeezing her hands together in her lap.

“I see. So there was no commotion before the brigade showed up?”

The couple glanced at each other and shook their heads.

“No, not that we heard. What on earth has gone on? Assault you say? The wife, was she assaulted?” Mr Baldwin queried.

“We’re unsure at present. The facts are very hazy to say the least. What we’re aiming to establish is who lives at the property, or lived, should I say.”

“Lived? Have they done a bunk then?” Mr Baldwin asked, scratching his goatee beard.

“Possibly. Again, we’re trying to assess everything and build a picture. Did you know the couple? I believe their name is Knox. Can either of you confirm that?”

“I can, yes, it was Knox. Sadie and Leonard, I think. Don’t quote me on that, though. They introduced themselves to us when they first moved in. Oh wait, hang on, I wrote it down in my address book.” She left her seat and went in search of the book. Returning, she showed the page to Hero.

He jotted down the information. “Excellent information. What about their children? I don’t suppose either of you know what they’re called?”

“Funny names, sorry, I meant they were unusual names. The boy is Willow, and the girl’s name has slipped my mind, to be honest. All I know is it begins with an A, if that helps?”

“It’s better than nothing. Thank you. What age are the children?”

Mrs Baldwin puffed out her cheeks and chewed on her lip. “Difficult to say, three and four, maybe five and four. Around that age anyway.”

“One of your neighbours also mentioned that there was another young lady living at the residence. Do either of you know much about her?”

Mrs Baldwin jumped in first. “I’m at home most of the day, signed off ill from work because of my nerves; this isn’t helping much…anyway, I used to see the girl down the park with the kids. She seemed happy enough most of the time, although looking deeper into her soul I could see there was a tinge of sadness to her, that she appeared to be putting a brave face on.”

“Mandy, stick to the facts. You don’t know that’s true, love.”

“Hush now, Maurice, the nice policeman doesn’t want to hear us squabbling. If he chooses to ignore what I’ve said then so be it. I’d rather voice my opinion on the lassie than say nothing.”

“You’ve done the right thing. A little insight into a person at this stage can make all the difference during an investigation. I appreciate every particle of information if it helps us to build a case. What about her name?”

Mrs Baldwin vigorously shook her head. “Never heard that. Wait…the other day the little girl shouted Jacundy—sorry, that’s what it sounded like to me anyway. She might have been a foreign nanny for all I know.”

“A nanny? Is that what she is? You know that for sure? Okay, see, what you think might be useless information is turning out to be key clues for me to chase up. Someone told me this young woman appeared to have lost a lot of weight recently. Did you notice the same thing?”

“I think so. She’s always with the children; I rarely see her by herself. And yes, I’ve noticed her failing health. I said to Maurice the girl appeared gaunt, her cheeks sallow, and her legs are like matchsticks, painfully thin, as if they’d break in an instant.”

Hero jotted down the information. “I see. She wasn’t always that thin then?”

“No, if anything she was on the tubby side when she showed up here. Maybe she had a new boyfriend and wanted to lose weight for him? A guess on my part.”

“Did you ever see her with anyone other than the children?”

“No, can’t say I have. See, I do talk a lot of rubbish sometimes,” she added with a shrug.

“Nonsense, there’s no such thing, not when we’re dealing with an incident of this magnitude.” Hero cringed—he realised he’d said too much.

“What’s gone on over there? We can’t see from our side of the road. Why are the firemen here, and you for that matter?”

“There was a fire in the back garden. We’re here because the house was empty which has raised everyone’s suspicions.” Hero hoped he’d supplied enough to prevent the couple from asking further questions which he would struggle to answer.

“I see. Very strange. I wonder why they aren’t at home. Not like them to go out at night, especially taking the children with them. Not that I profess to know the ins and outs of what that family gets up to, of course.”

“A moonlight flit, I said as much earlier,” Mr Baldwin chipped in.

“I can neither deny nor confirm that at this stage, although the likelihood of you being right is what’s going through my mind at present. I don’t suppose either of you knows what cars the couple drive?”

“By that you want to know the make and model and the plate numbers, I take it?” Mr Baldwin asked.

Hero poised his pen over a blank page in his notebook. “That would be an immense help, sir.”

“Ah, there lies the problem. I’m not good at remembering plates, but she drove a Vauxhall, and he always went around in one of those people carrier thingies. If I said it was a Ford Galaxy, I don’t think I’d be far off the mark. Grey, it is.”

“That’s brilliant, thank you. And the Vauxhall?”

“A midnight blue, although it could have been black. The eyesight isn’t what it used to be, not at my age.”

Hero smiled. The man wasn’t that old, not compared to how old his father had been when he’d passed away. Thinking about his father brought a lump to his throat. He gave a slight cough. “I’d say your observation skills were very much intact, sir. Did you see any visitors show up at the house?”

The couple shook their heads.

“No, never. Most people get at least one visitor now and again, surely, but not them. I did notice that and thought it was strange,” Mrs Baldwin admitted.

“Okay, I think that’s covered everything now. I really appreciate you taking the time this evening to speak with me. What you’ve divulged will help to get the investigation underway.”

“Glad to have been of some help.” Mrs Baldwin smiled awkwardly as she stood.

Hero handed her one of his cards. “If you think of anything else, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Thank you again.”

The couple waved him off. Hero went in search of Julie. She was still talking to one of the neighbours on the doorstep.

She said farewell and joined him. “Why is it you always get invited into a property and I have to freeze my bits off outside?”

“My friendly manner might have something to do with it.”

“Bloody charming, that is. I try and smile at these people. It’s not easy for me, you know that.”

“I know. So don’t complain when people take offence and refuse to let you in then. What have you got, anything new?”

“Nope, nothing of importance. The old guy was intent on telling me all his woes about losing his wife last year and how he’s struggled ever since.”

“Wow, and you stood there listening to him without a bean of compassion?”

Julie hitched up a shoulder. “We’ve all lost someone in our lives. You just have to shake off the grief and get on with things. You know that as well as I do.”

“Julie, Julie, Julie!”

“What? Forget it, I can do without the lecture.”

“Okay, as it’s getting late, we’ll let things lie there. I’ve got the makes of the cars and a possible lead on the young woman—a nanny.”

Julie bashed her temple with her fist. “I should have trusted my instinct. It fleetingly crossed my mind for a brief second a while back then scampered off again.”

“It’s late. Don’t stress about it. Back to the car where it’s warmer. Let’s get the station on the lookout for the cars for now.”





5





Hero finally climbed into bed again around two in the morning. There was very little he could do at the station until the rest of the team were in and they had access to the usual places for their investigation, such as the council and DVLA. That was the frustrating part when crimes took place at night.

When the sun rose, Fay moaned and stretched beside him. “What time did you get in?”

“Two or thereabouts. You were out for the count.”

She leaned over and kissed him. “And you’re such a sweetheart for not waking me.”

“My life wouldn’t be worth living if I had, right?”

“Well, that’s true. How did things go?”

He sighed. “I think this is going to be a nasty one—it’s already that. I won’t go into details about what we discovered. We’re on the hunt for a family now. After interviewing the neighbours, the family seems elusive, not much to go on really.”

“Was there a body at the house?”

He nodded and said reluctantly, knowing how squeamish Fay could be, “The remains of one. Don’t ask me to say more, it’ll give you nightmares, hon.”

“Don’t tell me. My life is complicated enough looking after the three terrors. I’d rather not have to combat dealing with nightmares on top. Talking of the children, I suppose I’d better make a move. What time are you going in today?”

“Usual time. We need to hit the phones early, gather as much information as we can and get these bastards caught swiftly. I’m going to jump in the shower now, if that’s okay?”

“Since when do you have to ask my permission?” she replied, tutting.

They shared another kiss, then Hero flung back the duvet and crossed the room to the en suite. Fay let out a wolf whistle behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Do you mind?”

“Not in the slightest. The view from here is wonderful. You’re still as trim as the day I met you, thank goodness. So many men go to pot once a woman has snared them.”

“I need to keep fit. Can’t have the baddies running rings around me, can I?”

He continued his journey and ran the shower. Standing under the hot water, his mind was already on his day job, the order of events he’d need to deal with once he arrived at the station. After showering, he completed his morning ritual by cleaning his teeth and having a quick shave. He preferred his clean-shaven look to the trend of sporting a beard—facial hair wasn’t for him at all.

He dressed in his navy-blue suit and ran downstairs to assist Fay with getting the kids ready for school. “Morning, munchkins, how are we today?”

The twins issued a toothy grin.

“Ready for another day at school, Daddy,” Zoe replied.

Zara nodded, agreeing with her sister, and shovelled a mouthful of cereal.

Louie sat there staring at his bowl of cornflakes. Hero ruffled his hair. Louie pulled away, annoyed by the display of affection.

“Hey, what’s wrong with your face?” Hero asked, a little concerned by his stepson’s reaction.

“Nothing. Can’t a person have a little peace and quiet before they start their day?”

Hero laughed. “Are you for real? You’re eleven, Louie, you sound like a thirty-year-old.”

“Stop teasing the lad, Hero,” Fay butted in.

“I’m not. Louie, is everything okay with you? Do you need to have a chat about something?” Over the years, Hero had tried to enforce upon his children the necessity to be open with him and Fay. Up until now, they’d all managed to achieve that aim.

His gaze cast down at his breakfast, Louie said, “It’s fine, Dad. Stop worrying. I’m just not in the mood for you winding me up this morning.”

“Okay, if that’s the way it is, son, although, in my defence, I wasn’t really winding you up, not this time. You know you can always speak to either me or your mother openly about anything that’s troubling you, don’t you?”

“I do, and nothing, I repeat, nothing is troubling me right now, so there’s no need for you to worry about me. Mind if I get on with my breakfast without any more hassle?”

Hero pulled a face at Fay and mouthed, “Consider me told.”

She rubbed his arm and winked at him to reassure him.

“I’ll be leaving soon. Does anyone need a lift?” he asked the children, trying to ease it for Fay.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered. My morning is pretty stress-free, or it should be. You head off.”

Hero munched on his slice of toast and washed it down with the remains of his coffee, then he bent down and kissed each of his children on