Authors: Natasha Cooper
|Trish Maguire |
In a particularly difficult case of
alleged child abuse, Trish knows that the jury’s decision hinges on the
persuasive testimony of her friend and star witness, Kara Huggate. When
Kara doesn’t appear at the trial, Trish realizes that something must have
gone terribly wrong. She returns to her chambers after court to
find the police waiting for her with some horrifying news: Kara has been
brutally raped and murdered. At first it seems as though her attacker
was the Kinsford Rapist – a serial rapist and killer who has managed to
elude the police. Then several inexplicable clues indicate that the
murderer may have been a copycat.
Trish receives a letter from
Kara, posted the night of her death, asking her to help a suspicious man
named Blair Collons. Although Trish decides to help him out of loyalty
and affection for her friend, she cannot understand why Kara cared so
much for the paranoid and strangely obsessive Blair. Soon Trish finds
herself mired in his unhappy story, with potentially devastating
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Natasha Cooper lives in London and writes for a variety of newspapers and journals. She was Chairman of the Crime Writer’s Association in 2000/01 and regularly speaks at crime-writing conferences on both sides of the Atlantic. N. J. is the author of the Trish Maguire series and has also written psychological suspense novels as Clare Layton.
For Joanna Cruddas
Author’s Note Kingsford does not exist; nor do its council, police officers, social workers, second-hand-car dealers or anyone else who figures in this novel. They are all imaginary and if their names bear the slightest resemblance to those of any real people, living or dead, that will be because, despite my best efforts, even the unlikely names I have invented have not been quite unlikely enough.
Kara woke in a rage. The noise that had disturbed her had stopped before she was fully conscious, but she knew what had made it. She slid her legs from under the duvet and got up stealthily, reaching for the heavy iron she kept beside her crumpled laundry.
She paused for a moment to listen. There was silence, thick and menacing, but she knew they were there. Ever since she’d moved into the cottage they had been eating her food and biting neat round holes in her clothes. They left their hard black droppings to show where they’d been, and little puddles of urine too.
Kara had never thought of herself as a violent woman, but the mice had really got to her. As soon as she’d understood what the puddles were, she had been determined to exterminate them, whatever it took.
With the iron clutched in her fist, her ears straining for any sound that would betray their current feeding ground, she crept downstairs, only to stop five steps from the bottom, transfixed by the sight of her room as she had never seen it.
All the brightness had been leached out of the colours by the full moon. In its uncanny blue-grey light the place looked drenched in peace. Kara’s fury died as she saw that she had achieved what she had wanted for so long: a haven from all the angst and anguish of the past.
A board creaked and she remembered why she was skulking on the stairs. She tightened her fingers around the iron, gathered the skirt of her long white nightdress in her free hand so that she wouldn’t trip, and moved down another stair. Her bare feet were so cold that the carpetless treads felt painfully rough against her skin.
A man’s shadow slid along the far white wall. She stopped dead, blood battering at the inside of her skull and thudding in her ears.
The shape grew bigger, spreading like a stain up the wall to brush the low ceiling. Kara’s hands began to sweat, even though the cold had reached right through to her bones. She pressed her body against the wall. Her breathing was too loud, rasping through the stillness of the air. She knew it had betrayed her already.
The shadow reached out towards her across the ceiling. She gasped. But she couldn’t move. There was a panic button by her bed; it could have been a hundred miles away.
And then she saw him: thick-set, powerful and dressed in army camouflage with a black woollen mask over his head. His eyes glittered in the almond-shaped holes that had been roughly cut in the wool.
She started to back up the stairs, almost falling as her knees buckled and her left foot caught in the deep flounce of her nightdress. Pain shot from her wrist to her shoulder as she grabbed the handrail to save herself from pitching down towards him.
He came up after her. She saw his tongue move behind the black wool, pressing it out towards her. His breathing shortened and grew ragged. Excited.
Her heart was flinging itself against her ribcage and each breath she took was painful. There was a bitter taste at the back of her tongue. The sight of metal glittering in his right hand shocked her into remembering her own weapon, and she swung the iron at him.
He dodged with ease, catching the long flex and tugging until the plug burst out of her slippery fist. Then he laughed. He sounded very young, which made it worse.
Kara turned and fled towards the panic button. His gloved hand closed around her ankle. She kicked backwards to free herself, but she couldn’t shift him. He began to pull. As her feet went from under her, her face hit the stairs. She could feel one of her teeth cutting into her lip as it was mashed against the rough wood.
He yanked her body round, pulling it down as her head bumped, stair by stair, to the bottom. A sticky wetness under her thick hair told her that one of the repeating blows had broken the skin.
As soon as she felt his grip lessen, she scrambled to her feet. Whatever he was going to do to her, she wanted to be standing, facing him when it happened. She opened her mouth to ask what he wanted – as if she didn’t know – and felt the thick, horrible taste of wool against her tongue as he thrust a gag into her mouth.
His breath smelt of beer and vinegar, and his hand was tight as a wrench around the back of her neck as he stuffed the woollen mass deeper into her mouth. As she retched and tried to fight, he shoved once more and then grabbed her wrists to hold them high above her head.
At last her mind started to work. Driving her knee upwards, she tried to force it between his legs. But he dodged again, using one of his booted feet to scoop her other leg from under her.
He plumped down on top of her, winding her with one heavy knee in her stomach and forcing the back of her tongue up against the gag. She couldn’t breathe. He dropped the knife and she began to hope. But his right hand closed round her throat.
Fighting for air, bucking and rolling between his legs, she tried to get him off her.
As his hand squeezed tighter and tighter, her terror was shot through with the memory of an obligation she couldn’t ignore.
Oh, Darlie, she thought. Darlie, I’m so sorry.
Fifteen-year-old Darlie Walker looked like every bully’s victim as she stood, white-faced and trembling, in the corridor outside court number six.
Her solicitor and the latest of her many social workers stood like buttresses on either side of her. Her barrister, Trish Maguire, still breathless from an ungainly run between chambers and the robing room, saw how hard they were working to keep her upright.
Trish could have done with a few more minutes to get herself under control, but Darlie had recognised her instantly and was already waving. When Trish didn’t respond, Darlie beckoned repeatedly with increasingly feverish gestures.
After a moment or two more to ensure that her breathing was as steady as she could make it, Trish moved across the lobby with a magisterial slowness that had nothing to do with her own harassed state of mind. It had been a bad morning and it looked as though it was going to get worse. She had slept through her alarm and emerged from an unusually clinging sleep an hour and half late, only to discover that she had her period a whole week early. Clumsy as ever on the first day, she put her thumb through her last pair of decent black tights, feeling sharp threads snagging her skin as the ladder shot up her leg.
Giving up all thought of breakfast, she dressed as fast as she could and burst out of the flat at a run. For once there were plenty of free taxis in Blackfriars Bridge Road, but she ignored them because the traffic was stuck in a resentful, heavily panting snake that reached well back beyond the Stamford Street turn. Even walking, she could have outstripped the lot. As it was, she ran most of the way across the bridge and up New Bridge Street to the nearest branch of Boots.
Rushing out of chambers fifteen minutes later with her files, wig and gown, she was caught by Dave, the senior clerk. Maddeningly he tried to talk her into accepting a piffling little brief for some man who was claiming unfair dismissal against his local-authority employers. As Trish snapped out a reminder that she never took employment cases, Dave’s cadaverous face took on the familiar smirk that meant he’d guessed why she was so dishevelled and bad tempered.