Authors: Niamh O'Connor
On the streets of Dublin, one woman tracks a terrifying killer.
Meet Jo Birmingham – single mum, streetwise detective, and as spiky as hell.
Recently promoted, she is one of the few female detective inspectors on the Dublin police force. But with a failed marriage behind her and two young sons at home, trying to strike the right work-life balance has run her ragged.
The Serial Killer
When Jo identifies the missing link in a chain of brutal killings, she comes under fierce scrutiny from her male colleagues, especially her boss and ex-husband Dan Mason. But as the body count rises, so do the body parts. As fear stalks the city, it soon becomes obvious that a serial killer is at large.
A Chilling Game of Cat and Mouse
And so Jo embarks on a terrifying psychological journey to find out who the killer is, and how he is choosing his victims. Soon she is involved in a deadly game in which the killer is always one step ahead. Because he knows all the rules . . .
Even locked in the boot of a speeding car, all Stuart Ball could think about was how he was going to score his next fix. He was sick, that was why. Sick when he had drugs and sick when he hadn’t. He was so used to being sick that even being folded in half in the boot of a cold and speeding car wasn’t his priority. The gear was the only thing on his mind. The first turn-on of the day was always the best.
He tried to move his arm a bit to get at his back jeans pocket where he kept his morphine tablets. He needed his napps to stop getting sick. But his arm was jammed between his legs and a sharp, metal car jack. The car was jolting him about too much. He couldn’t budge.
Stuart started panicking that he’d dislocated his shoulder. It was mad. He was fretting about the problems he’d have trying to score with a gammy arm instead of whatever the people who’d bundled him into the boot of a car were planning to do with him next. But what if his lighter didn’t work? It had been acting up, kept blowing out.
He was sweating now. He liked everything right was why. His works – a spoon and lighter – were hidden in the sole of his trainer. His emergency gear was tucked in a condom up his jacksie. Lemon juice he could manage without and his belt would do as a tourniquet. But what if they didn’t stop
near a Spar, where he could buy a new lighter? He wouldn’t be able to walk far with a bust shoulder.
It must be ex-Provos driving the car, he thought. Since the ceasefire, former members of the Provisional IRA had been muscling in on everyone’s territory. Nobody else would have had the balls to burst into his ma’s flat and abduct him. He was a Skid. They ran this town. When his mates found out it would mean carnage. The Shinners thought their war was over; it had only just started, man.
If it was them . . . he hadn’t seen who whacked the back of his head. When he first came to he couldn’t believe what was happening. He actually thought the sickness might be playing tricks on him. Then again, maybe it was the visitor who’d called to him earlier that morning asking one too many questions.
The only thing he knew for definite was there was going to be big trouble. Their biggest mistake was taking him from his ma’s. She was from the country. She worked as a cleaner in Clerys and had never missed a day’s work in her life. She didn’t understand drugs. How did you explain horse to someone who got off on the smell of a chicken roasting on a Sunday? How did you tell your ma hurting people was easy when you needed a score? There were no words to describe a good goof. It was just a feeling. Like watching the best film you ever saw and being in it at the same time, without even having the telly on.
Suddenly his eyes were stinging like fuck as the boot of the car opened and the light flooded in. He hadn’t even noticed the car stopping. He tried to cover them with his hands but the ex-Provos, or whoever the fuck they were, reefed him out. He was in agony. His shoulder was definitely dislocated now, if it hadn’t been earlier.
‘What the fuck is going on, man?’ he roared, trying to get his hand to his shoulder to push it back where it should be. When he saw the shotgun he shouted, ‘Not me bleedin’ knees, no way, man.’ But when he saw the vice the words just choked in the bottom of his neck somewhere. For the first time he wasn’t worrying about smack. He was too busy thinking about dying.
Dublin Docklands. Late June. Mid-morning. Drizzle blew in from the slate-grey River Liffey across North Wall Quay and down Castleforbes Road. It smirred the hoists and jibs of a rusting old harbour gantry and coated the glass of the tilting barrel Convention Centre. Grit rising from a construction site squared off by lengths of blueply hoarding turned to grime. The building behind the barrier was an unfinished apartment block – abandoned, like a lot of other sites around the city, when the recession hit. Steel cables still protruded from the concrete. Clear blue plastic tape fluttered where it had come away from the seals of PVC windows and doors.
On the eighth floor of an east-facing balcony, Detective Inspector Jo Birmingham silently cursed whatever excuse of a foreman had downed tools before erecting any protective railing around the ledges. She reckoned within a matter of seconds the surfaces would become slippery. Running her fingers through her highlighted hair, cropped at the back, Jo took another small step forward. Directly in front of her, a little girl with eyes screwed shut was perched on the ledge, holding hands with a man in a pair of dirty trainers whose laces were undone. His knuckles had gone white.
‘I want to go home,’ the child said.
‘Sir . . .’ Jo called. She moved stiffly towards him, one hand stretched out. ‘Amy needs to come to me, so you and I can talk . . .’
He gave a quick glance over his shoulder.
Tight, confused sobs erupted and convulsed Amy’s tiny frame. ‘I want Mum,’ she said.
‘That bitch doesn’t want us, don’t you understand?’ he answered.
Amy lost her footing and, with a sudden spray of gravel, was swinging from his hand. Her legs curled against the drop.
The man’s back arched, he hauled her back quickly, shooting Jo a look that said it was her fault.
‘Get the fuck away!’ he warned.
‘Back up, Inspector, he’s losing it,’ Detective Sergeant John Foxe directed through Jo’s earpiece.
Jo saw red. She had two sons of her own plus a broken marriage under her belt. The thought that her ex-husband could resort to something like that so as to have the last, self-pitying word in the name of love . . . Bile rose in her throat. Pulling herself together, she made some quick mental notes.
She could see Amy was the man’s princess. She was dressed all in pink; butterfly clips held her hair off her face; she wore pretty lace-trimmed socks under sparkling Lelli Kelly sandals that cost
50 even as ‘authentic’ fakes from the street traders.
Maybe too well dressed, like this is a special day
Advancing another hair’s breadth, she said: ‘My name is Jo Birmingham, what’s yours?’ Less than five feet separating them now. Close enough to see the way the man’s limbs
Don’t let him be on crack
. It was already over if he was on crack.
‘Dad’s name is Billy,’ Amy answered.
Jo gave her a reassuring nod. ‘Billy, I know you love Amy. She’s beautiful. You must be very proud.’
‘We’re going to be together, just like old times,’ he said, almost to himself.
Amy began to squirm. ‘Daddy, stop it,’ she said.
A megaphone boomed from the street below. ‘Please stay still. You are at risk of falling.’
Jo drew a breath. Recovering quickly, she inched forwards again. Four-foot gap now. Amy was pulling back from her father, now gripping her upper arm.
‘You’ve always protected Amy, always done your best for her.’ Jo’s voice was harder. ‘You’d never do anything to hurt her. That’s not what you want.’
‘I can’t leave her on her own.’ Billy was panting with exertion. ‘She needs me to keep her safe. She wouldn’t be able to cope if something happened to me.’
Jo’s stomach lurched. ‘Ever hear a heart break, Billy?’ she asked.
‘It starts off so low in the gut, it’s hard to tell if it’s human or animal. When it rises, the word “no” is in there somewhere . . .’
‘Too much, Inspector,’ the earpiece warned.
But Jo wasn’t finished. ‘You want to take your own life, Billy? Fine by me. But Amy wants to live, to have children of her own. Do you really think you’ll be up there playing happy families, watching over her, if you take all that from her? Why don’t you ask her? Ask Amy what she wants?’
‘Step back, Birmingham,’ Foxy remonstrated.
Jo could hear Foxy breathing. ‘How’s that?’ she asked, sliding her weight on to the other foot.
‘Persecute someone like me, someone who’s worked his whole life even when I’d have been better off on benefit. Take my missus’s word over mine soon as I put one foot wrong, and try and take everything from me. Put a barring order on me so I can’t go near the house that I paid for, and force me into supervised visits with my own kid.’
‘You’re hurting her,’ Jo said.
Billy didn’t seem to have heard. ‘And why? Because I’m an easy target, right? Your lot have got jobs for life, so what do you care about catching real criminals? You take the easy option. Threaten to lock up someone like me for not paying a television licence. Well, if you think I’m going to pay for a telly being watched in the house I’m not allowed to set foot in so my ex and her latest fancy man can cuddle up in front of
, you got another think coming!’
‘Plasma screen, right?’ Jo asked. ‘A thirty-two-inch, is it?’
‘New man in your wife’s life flash, is he?’ Jo asked. ‘Bet it’s one of those state-of-the-art home-entertainment systems, right?’
‘Birmingham!’ Foxy growled.
‘You ever think about the future, Billy?’ Jo went on quickly. ‘About what you’d really like to do with your life, I mean?’
‘Everybody has options. Sometimes people forget that. Me, I’d pack this gig in,’ Jo said. ‘If I had the choice, you know what I’d do? I’d become a stay-at-home mum. I’d give
my right arm for it, do you know that? I’d do it properly, ’course. Make my own bread, pasta, jam. Go to seed? Yes please. Anything beats waking my little one at half six in the morning and handing him a slice of toast to eat in the car on the way to the crèche for breakfast. Might even get time to clean my car out, so it wouldn’t have to carry a public health warning. My idea of heaven is to get a wash of clothes dry before I have to wash them again. I don’t get time to pull them out and stick them in the dryer half the time.’
‘Stand down, Inspector,’ Foxy said.
Jo pulled the plug out of her ear. ‘I’m sorry, here I am talking about me, when this is all supposed to be about you, isn’t it, Billy? I haven’t even told you yet that, until relatively recently, suicide was still considered a crime. I believe the correct legal term is
felonia de se
. Latin. Translated, it means if you do decide to jump, make sure you finish yourself off, because if you survive, I promise you that TV licence will be the least of your worries.’
Billy threw Jo a look as if she’d lost it. In that instant, Jo lunged and grabbed Amy, dragging her to safety. Jo looked over her at Billy. He was squatting like a skier at the top of a slope. She gulped in horror. And then he sprang – back arched, fists curled into balls at the end of up-stretched arms.
But Billy was gone.
Jo took her trainee headset off. ‘I’m a detective inspector.’ Ideally, she’d have been able to add ‘fuck you!’, but Amy was still within earshot, so instead she added, ‘I was promoted, remember?’
‘’Course you were,’ Billy said with a wink.
Jo placed her hands on her hips and looked away. It was all she could do not to wipe the smug look off his face by telling him exactly how it felt to have colleagues with lower conviction rates promoted above her head just because they’d joined the right golf club. She bet he’d never given a victim his home number, or stayed up all night to hold their hand and listen, or even dreamt of offering them a bed. Mostly she’d have liked to test his knowledge of the names of the civil servants in the Justice Department, the people whose day she prided herself on making infinitely more difficult with a phone call sounding off about yet another failing of the justice system. But Jo knew she’d have been wasting her breath. She’d only be the butt end of a joke later. And ‘fuck you’ would have felt so much better.
She turned to face the half-dozen other gardaí on the
hostage-negotiation training course, some twenty feet away, grouped behind a monitor like on a movie set, and shouted over: ‘Wrong bloody call, Foxy! And don’t get me started on the mouthpiece on the megaphone . . .’
‘Can I go now?’ Amy asked, tugging her arm.
Jo knelt down on her hunkers and smiled, then waved Amy’s Garda Reserve mum over, before unhooking the little girl’s safety equipment. ‘’Course you can, sweetheart, and by the way you were absolutely brilliant.’
As soon as the two were reunited, Jo headed across the balcony to Foxy, dipping sideways briefly to cup her high heels back on – unsuitable, she knew, but her one-woman stand against institutional misogyny. Her rank entitled her to be in plain clothes so she also wore skirts as a rule, though they restrained her thighs a bit when she had to run.
Straightening up, she scanned the skyline. The city sprawled out from under the world’s tallest sculpture – the needle-shaped Spire – like it had been pinned down. During the boom, the march of theme pubs and Michelin star restaurants with original art on the walls had driven the line between the city and the suburbs further out. In her experience, the cut-off point was not a street name; it was the choice between heroin or cocaine. Charlie was as social as a handshake among the Prada-clad professionals when there was money swilling around. But now that the bubble had burst, smack was claiming whole new territories in the suburbs.
The other members of the force dispersed rapidly as she continued on over, leaving only the slight, silver-haired John Foxe in her line of vision. ‘I had him,’ she said. ‘He’d engaged.’
Foxy looked unconvinced. Jo sighed. She respected Foxy
– he’d taken her under his wing when she was a new recruit. He was old school – grouchy, but highly principled. As the station’s ‘Bookman’, he was responsible for setting up all the major incident rooms, but his doggedness in applying the theory could be infuriating when on a job. Jo thought of herself as being the complete opposite. It was how she compensated for the gap between justice and the law. It hadn’t done her career any favours, but nothing riled her like a system that didn’t let the people most affected by the crime talk. The barristers could talk, the judge could talk, the accused could talk if they liked. But the family of a murder victim was expected to sit in court and listen while the person they’d loved and lost was assassinated all over again by the defence. If it was a headline-grabbing case, they were lucky to get a seat at all and had to stand through graphic and harrowing evidence . . .
Foxy gave a tired nod towards an area further down the balcony where they could get some privacy. Jo popped a plug of Nicorette she’d just about managed to rummage from the junk at the bottom of her handbag into her mouth. She chewed at a speed that let him know she was humouring him.
‘If it was up to me, you’d have had him, okay?’ Foxy said. ‘But it wasn’t up to me. We had a visitor. He left early.’
‘Who?’ Jo prickled.
Foxy gave her a knowing look.
‘Come on, tell me. This is serious. If I fail this course, I’ve no chance of getting my transfer approved.’
Foxy held Jo’s stare. Most people couldn’t – the pupils of her glassy eyes had been permanently dilated since a childhood car crash.
‘Who do you think?’ Foxy said. ‘The chief super, ’course.’
Jo groaned. Her work relationship with her ex-husband, Dan Mason, was becoming as difficult as their break-up had been. Since they’d split eighteen months ago, Dan had virtually grounded her, with jobs that carried no hope of upping her conviction rate, and now it appeared that he was sabotaging her contingency plan. She’d been signing up for every course going to keep as far away from him as possible. She’d hoped that by acquiring a new set of skills she could fast-track her transfer to some independent republic away from Dan and his cronies’ sphere of influence – somewhere like the Garda National Drugs Unit (GNDU), or the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB). But now it seemed that Dan was determined to interfere even with that. ‘That’s bloody well it, I’m going to kill him!’ she said.
Foxy spread his hands to indicate that it was nothing to do with him. He was built like a jockey – wiry, with a head that looked too big for his body. He opened his mouth to say something – but Jo’s eyes had moved to the apartment door to his right. She took a couple of steps past him, and ran her hand down its length.
‘Looks like we’ve got a breaking and entering on our hands,’ she said, pointing to the forced handle and scuff marks at the base of the door.
‘This building is uninhabited,’ Foxy answered, eyes worried. ‘It’s the only way the insurance would cover today’s training.’
Jo pulled her hand inside her sleeve then pressed the handle down. She took a deep breath when the door gave way.
‘Don’t go anywhere. I’ll get assistance,’ Foxy said, glancing across the empty balcony and heading for the stairwell.
But Jo was already inside and patting the wall for a light
switch. ‘Anyone home?’ she called. She gasped and tugged her multicoloured Dr Who scarf over her nose, wincing at the bad smell. It was musty and invasive, like burning Bakelite. The heating was overpowering, and something else about the place she couldn’t put her finger on was making goose bumps break out on her skin . . .
She jumped as Foxy, who’d doubled back rather than leave her alone, stifled a cough behind her. He had buried his face into the crook of his arm. ‘Jesus, what’s that stink?’ he asked. ‘Christ, it’s rotten. You don’t think somebody’s popped their clogs in here, do you?’
Jo was on the move, surveying the small sitting room-cum-kitchenette. There were two doors to her right, one on the left, behind the kitchen area. No pictures hung on the walls; there were no personal effects, just a few bits of sparse, mismatched furniture on the laminate floor in need of a mop. She made her way over to a smudged, glass-topped coffee table, licked her little finger and dipped it into a line of untouched Charlie, then tasted.
Foxy whispered, ‘Hey, have you forgotten everything I taught you? That stuff could contain anything – strychnine, for starters.’
Jo mouthed a silent whistle. She didn’t have to worry about rat poison. The cocaine was uncut. This place was higher up the food chain than first impressions had suggested.
She registered the background sound that had been putting her on edge. Bluebottles had only ever meant one thing in her experience.
We’re too late
, she thought.
She turned right and took the first door. It opened into the bathroom and it was empty. There were towels on the floor. She reached down. Bone dry.
She tried the second door: a single room with different outfits laid out on the unmade bed. A nurse’s outfit; a leather jumpsuit and whip; a school uniform. It looks like a prostitution racket being operated from a vacated flat, she thought. All tastes catered for . . .
Backing out, she crossed the main living space to the third and last door, on the opposite wall, stalling briefly before flinging it open. The new and strongest smell hit her like she’d just walked into a butcher’s shop.
‘Foxy, in here, now,’ she commanded. Shaking her head, she rooted around her bag for her small black hard-bound notebook. There was so much crap in the way – lip gloss, tampons, loose change, bloody nappy-rash cream. Her hand was shaking when she finally plucked the pad free and snapped the elastic off. She bent her left arm and held it up to eye level, read the time then noted it in the book.
The date is the thirtieth, right? What’s today’s date? Come on, keep it together, Jo
. She’d checked the date on the milk this morning against the calendar to see if it’d stretch to a cup of tea.
What was it?
The thirtieth. She wrote it down.
‘Oh, Jesus!’ Foxy said, appearing behind her then bending to throw up.
The body lay naked just inside the door, splayed on her back like she had been dropped from a height. The victim was in her early forties, maybe younger, junkie-thin with a mass of straggly long hair, dark at the roots, peroxide-blonde brittle everywhere else. Her legs were covered with infections around needle sores. Her arms were propped up over her head: the right wrist ended in a grisly stump where the hand should have been. Puce lipstick had seeped into the creases around her lips like scarlet stitches. Strands of hair had escaped and become matted with congealed blood
across her face, blurring with streaks of smudged blue mascara. Blood had spattered and skimmed every surface, as far as Jo could make out.
‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,’ Foxy murmured.
‘Minimum movement,’ Jo warned, eyes darting around the room as she scrawled the physical details of what she was witnessing.
Foxy choked again behind her.
‘Go back to the front door and secure the scene,’ she instructed. ‘Nobody comes through the cordon without my say-so. I mean,
. Contact base. Tell them we need the Tech Bureau asap and a doctor to declare death, and put a request in for the pathologist. Got that?’
Foxy nodded. She watched him go, over her shoulder, a maternal expression crossing her face.
There’s a reason he’s the bookman
, she thought.
Breathing evenly through her nose, she slowly and gently pressed her fingertips against the victim’s midriff.
‘Body cold to the touch despite stifling room temperature,’ she wrote.
Kneeling, she tucked her pen behind her ear and gripped her notepad between her teeth, freeing up her hands to try and locate the sachet of sterile latex baby-blue gloves from her bag and put them on. They were greasy inside and the smell of plastic made the bridge of her nose sting.
Lifting the victim’s arm up, she peered underneath, placing it back as delicately as if she were handling antique china.
Was she alive when you chopped her hand off, you evil bastard?
‘Pooling clearly evident on back of victim’s right arm,’ she wrote, adding, ‘Rigor mortis has set in.’
She made a note of the ten-to-ten position of the arms and
the body’s state of undress then placed the pen and pad back in her bag and leaned forwards to pick up a purse discarded on top of some clothes – a fake-leather mini skirt, a lime-green boob tube and a pair of knee-length red leather boots – a few feet away. She flicked open the clasp. Two
50 notes were rolled together tightly inside with a bus ticket dispensed in the city centre dated the twenty-ninth, a letter from the Social Welfare asking what job applications she’d made in the last month, and a plastic photo ID that turned out to be a medical card. She glanced from the picture to the bloody face on the floor and sighed. The victim’s name was Rita Nulty, and she’d an address in Ballymun. She looked at her again, differently. Based on the income Rita was clearly not making, she appeared to have been a low-class hooker.
Jo turned around, focusing on a shape in a far corner, talking aloud to herself as she tried to process the image. ‘Flesh in the corner . . . is . . . a hand . . . it’s . . . Rita’s hand.’
She swallowed and wrote it down, making a note of the bloodstain locations, their size and condition, and recording other details – how the lights had been off, the door forced before she’d entered.
She turned back to Rita and her mutilated arm. Her fingers hovered over Rita’s candyfloss hair, and hesitated. She pulled a glove off, then touched Rita’s face lightly. ‘You poor love,’ she whispered. ‘What did you do to deserve this?’
She pulled the glove back on, slid the medical card back in the purse and placed it back where she’d found it. The two
50s she tucked in her coat pocket.
From the doorway behind her, Foxy said flatly: ‘The lads are on their way.’