The latest Kitt Hartley mystery, set in the heart of Yorkshire. A serial killer is loose in Yorkshire and has claimed three victims in three months. Thirteen days before each murder, a large purple V is painted on the front door of the victim's house. The victims, all of whom have some association with the occult, are found drained of blood with two red marks on their neck. When Ruby Barnett comes home one evening to find a large purple V on her front door, it becomes clear she is the so-called Vampire Killer's next victim. Private Investigators Kitt Hartley and Grace Edwards have just 13 days to solve the mystery and save Ruby's life. The clock is ticking.
Release date: April 15, 2021
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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A Witch Hunt in Whitby
Kitt Hartley’s stomach churned as she stared at the large purple ‘V’. Dusk was falling on what had started out a bright April day, and in the gathering gloom the mysterious marking only seemed more ominous. Her stomach tightened a notch further as the now-familiar sense of dread settled into her bones. Even after the numerous murder cases she’d worked in the past, she still wasn’t used to it. Perhaps she never would be. Perhaps, when it came down to it, that was a good thing.
The symbol had been painted on the front door of 33 Foss Side Avenue in the quaint village of Orpington, five miles outside York city centre. The door, and indeed the house behind said door, belonged to Kitt’s friend, Ruby Barnett. The word ‘friend’ was, perhaps, not quite accurate to describe a person who routinely sought you out at your place of work to deliver their latest unsolicited ‘psychic’ predictions. Still, Kitt had grown rather fond of the old woman. There was no denying their affinity had deepened considerably over the last few years, even if she didn’t have much truck with Ruby’s ‘new-age nonsense’.
Kitt’s affections for her somewhat eccentric friend made the marking on the door even more unnerving. It was the unmistakable calling card of the so-called Vampire Killer: a serial murderer who had thus far struck three times over the last three months: once in Middlesbrough, once in Scarborough and once in Malton. The killer had earned the moniker because the victims were always found with two red marks on their necks. Jam jars filled with the victims’ blood were also found at the crime scenes and now, it seemed, this killer had set their sights on good old Ruby.
‘Told yer,’ Ruby said, watching on as DI Malcolm Halloran and DS Charlotte Banks briefed their team on where to focus their search for forensic evidence, both outside and inside the house.
Kitt frowned and looked sidelong at Ruby, trying to acclimatize to her latest home-rinse hair colour: neon green. ‘What do you mean, “told yer”?’
‘I told yer two weeks ago this would happen.’
‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ said Ruby. ‘I told you straight. Dark doings were brewing.’
Kitt stifled a sigh. ‘I don’t mean to insult you at a difficult time, dear Ruby, but that’s not exactly specific. If I had a pound for every time you told me “dark doings were brewing”, I’d be able to solve the funding crisis for every public library across Great Britain.’
‘Still, you can’t deny it,’ said Kitt’s assistant, Grace Edwards, who had thus far been preoccupied with photographing the symbol painted on Ruby’s door. With a police search of the premises in full swing, a zoom lens was the only way to get a close-up snap of the marking. ‘She were right. Dark doings are brewing.’
‘Oh, good grief,’ Kitt said, shaking her head. Ruby and Grace were enough of a handful on an individual basis. Managing both of their somewhat distracting influences at the same time was nigh on impossible.
‘Arrrggghhh!’ A man’s deep bellow sounded from inside the house.
Kitt, Grace and Ruby started and turned at once towards the sound. Halloran, Banks and several other officers dashed into Ruby’s cottage.
Holding her breath, Kitt braced for the worst until Halloran emerged a short while after with a pale-faced DS Redmond in tow. Given his appearance Kitt assumed the ear-splitting bellow had come from him, which was a bit of a surprise. Detective Sergeant Miles Redmond wasn’t known for his tact, and he was the only one who ever laughed at his own jokes but, in the few dealings she’d had with him, Kitt had never seen him rattled or afraid. For the first time since the police had arrived on the scene twenty minutes ago, Halloran marched over to where the trio were standing.
From Mal’s expression Kitt deduced that whatever had just happened in the house wasn’t too serious, despite Redmond’s reaction. When she and Halloran became an item, it had taken Kitt a good long while to be able to read his expressions. After almost two years together, however, she believed she had mastered it. He wasn’t wearing his most severe frown which meant, as far as she was concerned, that he was fair game. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to tease him, but he had a complicated past when it came to the matter of serial killers so any opportunity to lighten the mood would, she reasoned, prove a welcome distraction. And besides, she had to do something to take her mind off what that mark on the door might mean for her friend. ‘Found something unusual?’ Kitt said with a small smile.
‘Around every bloody corner,’ Mal replied, folding his arms over his chest and fixing his stare on Ruby. ‘I’m assuming, Ms Barnett, you’re aware of the fact that your spare room is home to an assortment of insects.’
‘Oh aye,’ said Ruby, ‘them’s me pets. Is that what all that racket were about? A couple of butterflies?’
‘And millipedes, and stick insects and woodlice and, from what we can see, the odd cockroach. If they’re pets why haven’t you got them in cages?’
‘I can’t cage them up. It’s inhumane, that. They’re living beings.’
Kitt squeezed her lips together in an attempt not to chuckle. Halloran, Grace, and indeed all of her other friends, thought she was often too short with Ruby. Perhaps if they found themselves on the receiving end of her somewhat unique patter for a change, they might understand why Kitt had to set such firm boundaries.
‘Suddenly feeling grateful that we’re not the ones searching the house,’ said Grace with a little shudder. ‘Can’t stand creepy-crawlies, me.’
‘I take it you haven’t found anything that helps to identify the killer?’ said Kitt, establishing a more serious tone. ‘Or the person who painted the mark on the door – assuming they’re not one and the same.’
‘You know I can’t talk about it,’ said Halloran.
‘It’s all right, you don’t need to, I can tell by the look on your face,’ said Kitt, before turning to the old woman. ‘I’m sure Halloran will do everything he can, though, Ruby, don’t you worry.’
‘I’m not worried,’ said Ruby. ‘The second I saw that mark on me door, I knew just what to do about it. I’ve nowt to fear.’
‘I’m glad you’re not rattled by this,’ said Halloran. ‘But I’m afraid we can’t dismiss the danger you could be in so easily. This bloke has already claimed three victims in as many months.’
‘Oh, I know all that,’ said Ruby. ‘But I’ve got all me bases covered.’
‘Really,’ said Halloran, the lines on his face hardening. Kitt knew from experience that if there was one thing Halloran hated more than murderers, it was people being blasé about the topic. ‘Easy as that, is it? Sounds like we should have had you on the case from the beginning, eh?’
‘Mal,’ Kitt said, as gently as she could, while understanding that Ruby was the queen of testing a person’s patience. Well, maybe more like the duchess. Grace being the queen and Kitt’s best friend, Evie being the princess. ‘Come on now, I’m sure Ruby didn’t mean it that way.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Ruby. ‘I just meant I’m gonna have the best people working on the case.’
‘Oh,’ Halloran said, his voice softening. ‘Well, thanks, Ruby, it’s not often the public—’
‘I didn’t mean you,’ said Ruby. ‘I meant Kitt and Grace.’
Kitt’s cheeks burned. Ruby was not one for subtlety – that was an understatement. But to suggest to a police officer, of many years’ service, that her sleuthing skills were superior to his investigative chops, well that was nothing short of rude.
‘Ruby . . .’ Kitt warned.
‘Well, what I mean is I wasn’t just talkin’ about you, DI ’Alloran. But you know I can’t afford to ’ang around on this one. The Vampire Killer always strikes within eleven days of that mark showing up on a person’s door. Which means my days are quite literally numbered. Can’t be putting all me eggs in one basket. No. No. No. I’ve hired Hartley and Edwards Investigations to work the case, as well as hoping the police get to the bottom of it before my number’s up.’
Halloran turned his hard stare on Kitt. ‘I thought Ruby just called you first because you two are friends. You haven’t really agreed to work this case, have you?’
‘We couldn’t pass up a job like this,’ Grace cut in before Kitt had a chance to offer a diplomatic answer. Seemingly she had missed the grave note in Halloran’s voice. ‘A serial killer who targets victims involved with the occult, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of investigation, that is.’
‘If you’re not careful, it’ll be the last investigation of your lifetime. This bloke doesn’t take any prisoners, you know? No, no, you can forget it,’ Halloran said to Ruby. ‘She’s not doing it.’
‘Excuse me? “She”?’ said Kitt.
‘Oh-oh . . .’ Grace said, her eyes widening before she muttered to Halloran through a fake cough, just loud enough for Kitt to make out the words, ‘Undo it, undo it while you still can.’
When Halloran made no move to correct his statement, Kitt crinkled her nose. ‘DI Halloran. A quick word alone, please.’
Kitt took a good few paces away from her friends. As she turned her back on them, she heard Grace cheekily whisper to Ruby, ‘Oooh, she last-named him, now he’s in for it.’ Kitt bristled but had bigger issues to work through just then than dealing with her assistant’s sassy streak.
Kitt raised her eyebrows and waited. She looked into Halloran’s deep blue eyes, trying to make a connection. The last thing she wanted right now was an argument with Mal. On the whole, it was rare for them to argue, save one major blow-out about the best recipe for gravy. But when they did argue, Kitt was always left feeling a bit . . . lost and hollow. She could do without that feeling on a day when her friend had been targeted by a serial killer. If he’d just apologize and calm himself down, they could make up and move on.
‘I’ve as much right to be cross as you, so don’t look at me like that,’ said Halloran. ‘This case is a huge deal. The chief is desperate for results. I can’t be doing with any added distractions.’
Kitt lowered her eyes for a moment. A month never went by when Chief Constable Parnaby wasn’t putting the pressure on about something and that kind of workplace tension only ever made Mal more dogged and determined than usual. Didn’t look like that apology was coming any time soon, then.
‘Mal, I really don’t think it’s fair to say my past contributions to such cases have been nothing more than distractions,’ Kitt said, looking up at him again and keeping her voice gentle as Halloran so often did with her when she was being stubborn. ‘And regardless of what you think of my professional choices, you don’t speak for me.’
At this, Halloran at least had the decency to look shame-faced but it was obvious he wasn’t just going to let this issue lie. ‘I didn’t mean it how it sounded. You know I didn’t. But I’ve got to keep everyone safe, including you.’
‘You’re not really trying to pretend that reaction back there was purely professional, are you?’ said Kitt.
A small smile crept over Halloran’s lips. ‘If I’ve not made it clear over the time we’ve been together that my interest in your welfare is more than professional, something’s gone wrong.’
Kitt, conscious of the others watching on, rubbed his arm. ‘You can’t wrap me in cotton wool, Mal.’
‘Oh, I’m well aware of that. You’ve made it more than clear on several occasions that you don’t need me.’
Kitt part smiled, part sighed at him. How many relationships had been ruined by outdated gender politics? she wondered. As chief librarian for the Women’s Studies section at the Vale of York University, she’d spent a great deal of time explaining that such disciplines weren’t just for the benefit of women alone. If women were afforded more agency, perhaps men wouldn’t be left believing they were only valuable if they could provide and protect. She thought she had done a pretty good job of making it clear to her own boyfriend that his worth to her didn’t depend on that. Clearly there was still work to do. ‘Isn’t wanting you better than needing you? Wouldn’t you prefer that I was with you because I desire to be rather than because you fulfil a need?’
Kitt’s question gave Halloran pause but didn’t prevent him from continuing his protests. ‘Kitt, I don’t have time for a philosophical debate on this. Whoever this suspect is, they know what they’re doing to a worrying degree. Every detail is meticulously planned. The force has got nothing on the killer – three bodies and not one shred of forensic evidence. I once made the mistake of underestimating a killer like this and it changed my life for ever. I can’t take any risks. I can’t lose you.’
‘Oh, Mal, I know cases like these are difficult for you but I thought we’d put all that behind us.’
‘We have, pet. We have. But the past doesn’t just disappear. Besides, we’ve got a responsibility to learn the lessons and not repeat mistakes. The last victim was under police protection and this killer still managed to strike.’
‘I know, I did wonder at the time how they pulled that off when I read about it. I suppose you’ll get some big briefing on the case to date, so you’ll be able to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Ruby?’
‘Yes, now that a victim has been targeted in this area we’ll be privy to any compartmentalized information. Not that compartmentalizing has been easy for the other stations working this case, with the neighbours of the last victim running to the press about the mark on the door.’
‘Look, I’m with you on not repeating past mistakes,’ said Kitt, ‘but even if we could afford to turn down the business, which I can’t right now – I’m struggling to keep the lights on at the agency – we can’t base choices on fear or live in denial. Otherwise, people like this killer win by keeping us cowering away.’
‘I’d rather pay to keep the lights on at the agency myself than have you working this case.’
‘Ooh, that’s not the point I was trying to make, and you know it,’ Kitt said, putting her hands on her hips.
Halloran shook his head. His eyes were filled with unspoken suffering. She loved him so much that his pain felt like her own, but she couldn’t compromise here. There was too much at stake.
‘You’re right that I can’t stop you,’ he said at last. ‘You’re right to say that it’s wrong of me to try, but I don’t have to be happy about it. If you work this case, don’t expect any help from me.’
‘Sir,’ Banks called from Ruby’s front doorstep. Halloran took the opportunity to exit the conversation without even a ‘see you at home’.
So, he was going to sulk about it? The infuriating flipside to the dark broodiness of him that she couldn’t help but admit was part of his appeal. Well, she’d have to let him sulk. Five years ago, maybe she could have left something like this to the state-appointed professionals. But not now. She’d seen too much. She’d come too far. These days, finding justice felt like just as much her duty as it did Mal’s.
Looking back across at Ruby, Kitt noticed, perhaps for the first time, how short the old woman was. How small, and fragile she looked. Those weren’t usually words she’d associate with Ruby but, for some reason, that’s how she looked to her now. Though she didn’t appreciate Mal trying to speak for her on a professional matter, he was right about this killer being savvier than most. The police had tried to protect the latest victim and failed. Kitt conceded that she might fail too, but she had to try. If she didn’t try to solve this case then it was beyond reasonable doubt that in eleven days poor Ruby would be dead.
Sitting at her desk at Hartley and Edwards Detective Agency, which comprised a rented office space just beyond Walmgate Bar, Kitt rubbed her eyes and scanned the bookshelves that lined the walls.
When she and Grace had moved into this space at the end of last year, Mal had teased her that he had never seen a detective agency look so much like a library. He had made the same joke about her cottage too, before he had eventually moved in with her there. Kitt had, naturally enough, argued that the books at the office were essential reference materials on profiling criminals, investigative technique and historical case studies but, in truth, a lot of the information was available online or in podcast form. After making a second home for herself at the Vale of York University Library over the last decade, however, Kitt simply found books comforting. In books you could find escape, solace and often much-needed answers. A heartening thought when a friend’s life hung in the balance.
Sadly, there was no time to delve into those comforting tomes just at this moment. Their investigative research had started, as it always did, by collating the most recent information and working backwards, which meant printing off the latest news reports and combing them for connections.
‘Is that the lot of them?’ Kitt said, glancing at the small pile of papers Grace had printed out.
‘That’s everything from what I’d call reputable sources,’ said Grace. ‘A worrying number of them are more about the impact on local tourism than they are about the tragic loss of the victims. I know having a serial killer on the loose has hardly been good for Yorkshire tourism but it’s still a bit sad.’
Kitt pursed her lips. ‘I know, I’ve seen quite a few articles like that while the case has been going on. I don’t know quite when it happened, when people started caring more about money made than lives saved, but it’s not a particularly attractive colour on us. That said, running the agency business has been no picnic and it’s just a side hustle. Anyone losing money from their livelihood over this must be pretty scared right now.’
‘I know. Whoever made the rule that we need money to live?’ said Grace.
Kitt was about to answer by offering some recommendations for books on the history of capitalism but, it seemed, Grace had seen her coming.
‘Not a genuine question! It’s too late for a mini-lecture on the unjust financial structure of our society. Come on, we’d better get logged onto Zoom.’
Kitt glanced at the clock. It was just after midnight. She and Grace had been trawling news coverage pertaining to the Vampire Killer for almost five hours. There had been an intimidating amount of information to work through and in their initial scan they had made very few connections. Their focus had been on organizing the information for further scrutiny in order to formulate a list of possible motives and suspects. Ordinarily, after all this research and given the late hour, Kitt would have wanted nothing more than to climb into bed and wrap her arms around Halloran. When she returned home, however, she had no idea what kind of reception would be waiting for her. A late-night Zoom call with her twin sister Rebecca was as good an excuse as any for delaying the inevitable sequel to their earlier argument.
Rebecca was a doctor at a hospital up in Northumberland and had agreed to chat with Kitt during her break on the night shift. Unlike the police, Kitt didn’t have immediate access to a pathologist. Her sister was the closest approximation and Kitt was hoping she might be able to shed some light on what was causing the strange red marks on the victims’ necks. Perhaps if they could determine the weapon the killer favoured, it would provide a link to his – or her – true identity.
As prompted by Grace, Kitt logged into Zoom, then said to her, ‘You don’t have to stay for this, you know. You probably didn’t have any grand Thursday night plans but you’ve got the drive back to Leeds yet. No point in you hanging around to the early hours. I can catch you up on what Becca says tomorrow.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Grace said, though she stifled a yawn as she did so. ‘I am a bit tired but even when I do climb into bed, I’m unlikely to sleep much after today’s events. Anyroad, I could do with a bit of a distraction in general, to be honest.’
‘Patrick took the girl from the coffee shop out on a second date then?’
‘You guessed it. You win tonight’s star prize,’ said Grace.
Last autumn, Kitt and Grace had solved the case surrounding the disappearance of Patrick’s fiancée, Jodie. During this time, Grace had developed quite the ill-advised crush on him. Though she was doing her best to keep things light it was obvious she was cut up that, after everything she’d seen him through, he’d decided to go out with someone else.
‘I wouldn’t take something like that personally,’ said Kitt. ‘The likelihood is that being around you just reminds him of everything he went through with Jodie.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ said Grace. ‘I thought about that. Suppose I can’t blame him for wanting to put as much distance between himself and bad memories of the past as he can.’
‘The past is a difficult thing to let go of sometimes,’ said Kitt, thinking again about Halloran’s obstinate reactions back at the crime scene. When they had met, she had been a full-time librarian. Though she had ended up helping out with the case Halloran had been working on, there had been no hints back then that she was going to become a professional private investigator. Now, she still worked part-time at the library on a Friday and Saturday, but for the rest of the week she was concerned with building her PI business. Because of this, she had undoubtedly increased her chances of brushing up against people and situations. . .
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