Finally we’re playing a game. A game that I have chosen. I give one last push of the roundabout and stand back. 'You really should have played with me,’ I tell her again although I know she can no longer hear.
Late one summer evening, Detective Kim Stone arrives at Haden Hill Park to the scene of a horrific crime: a woman in her sixties tied to a swing with barbed wire and an X carved into the back of her neck.
The victim, Belinda Evans, was a retired college Professor of Child Psychology. As Kim and her team search her home, they find an overnight bag packed and begin to unravel a complex relationship between Belinda and her sister Veronica.
Then two more bodies are found bearing the same distinctive markings, and Kim knows she is on the hunt for a ritualistic serial killer. Linking the victims, Kim discovers they were involved in annual tournaments for gifted children and were on their way to the next event.
With DS Penn immersed in the murder case of a young man, Kim and her team are already stretched and up against one of the most ruthless killers they’ve ever encountered. The clues lie in investigating every child who attended the tournaments, dating back decades.
Faced with hundreds of potential leads and a bereaved sister who is refusing to talk, can Kim get inside the mind of a killer and stop another murder before it’s too late?
Release date: July 11, 2019
Print pages: 352
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‘Come on, what do you want?’ she snaps, rubbing her hands together, reminding me of when I was a child.
But I’m no longer a child. I’m a grown-up and I’m angry. But she doesn’t need to know that. Yet.
‘And what are we doing here, anyway?’ she asks, looking around the deserted park. It is mid-January and one degree above freezing, twenty minutes before the sun falls completely.
My promise of having something for her had lured her here as I’d hoped.
I pat the seat of the roundabout beside me. ‘Sit with me and I can give you your present.’
She looks unsure but curiosity gets the better of her.
I’ve been dreaming of this minute for eight years.
‘Come on, what’s this all?…’
‘Remember bringing me here to play when I was little?’ I ask.
She hesitates. ‘Err… I…’
‘Do you remember pushing me on the swings, sitting with me on the see-saw, playing with a ball on the field?’
‘Come on now, it’s late. I want to get home,’ she says, and I hear a note of fear in her voice.
She knows that something is wrong.
She moves away from me.
I grab her arm.
‘You don’t remember? No? Oh, that’s because you never did, you fucking bitch,’ I say, turning her around.
I’ve rehearsed this in my mind so many times. I know exactly how it is going to work.
I raise my right arm and punch her in the temple, knocking her clean out.
A genuine smile lights up my face. That felt almost as good as I have imagined.
I work quickly as the day begins to fade, unsure how long she’ll be out.
She starts to groan as I finish the last tie to her ankle.
‘Hey, what you?…’
‘Comfy?’ I ask, standing back to admire my handiwork.
Her legs are spread-eagled and tied to the metal frame of the spider’s web roundabout, facing down. Her body is bent at the waist so her upper half is hanging down towards the floor, the top of her head touching the concrete base of the ride. Her hands are tied behind her back.
‘Look, I’m gonna puke…’
‘Least of your problems,’ I say, enjoying the fear in her voice as she tries to move.
‘Aargh,’ she cries out as the barbed wire bites into the flesh of her wrists. A nightmare to apply but worth it to see the bright red results of her struggles.
‘You should have brought me here just once,’ I spit as I begin to push the spider’s web around.
She screams as her head is dragged across the surface.
I smile and keep pushing, safe in the knowledge she won’t be heard. The houses the park had been built to serve were condemned and emptied years ago, after two fell into an old mining pit.
The only kids that use it now come from miles away but not on a night like this.
‘P… please… st…’
‘Shush. It’s my turn now,’ I say, pushing the frame harder. Clumps of hair are being left behind with each revolution. ‘You’re going to wish you’d played with me,’ I say, speeding up the pushes.
Her breath is coming in short, sharp bursts in between pain-filled screams as her flesh is dragged across the gravel.
The screams have turned to yelps now, and I guess she’s fading in and out of consciousness.
I stop the web from turning and push back the other way. The barbed wire cuts deeper into her flesh as the momentum builds again.
And finally we’re playing a game. A game that I have chosen.
A trail of blood is forming in a circle around the gravel.
I push harder, causing the roundabout to whiz past me at speed.
‘You should have listened to me,’ I cry, pushing as hard as I can.
The sounds coming from her are no more than a whimper.
The blood on the ground is pooling, clumps of flesh are sticking to the concrete base.
The crying stops completely after I hear the sound of the fracture of her skull.
I give one last good push of the spider’s web and stand back.
‘You really should have played with me,’ I tell her again, although I know she can no longer hear.
I walk away as the slumped, lifeless body continues to turn.
Kim Stone arrived at the cordon tape at 11.29 p.m. The sun had been down for almost three hours but late August warmth still lingered in the air.
She had instructed Despatch to place a call to her colleague, DS Bryant, but his Astra Estate wasn’t yet visible amongst the squad cars, ambulance and coroner’s van. She looked at those two vehicles side by side. Surely only one or the other was needed.
As she removed her helmet she wondered from what activity her colleague had been disturbed when he’d received the call. Knowing Bryant, he’d been about to fall asleep with the crime channel playing on the TV in the background.
She’d been preparing to take Barney for his late-night walk. She’d left him after a quick visit out to the back garden and the promise of a run at the park when she got home. Whatever the time. She’d neglected to mention it was Haden Hill Park to which she’d been called, feeling he wouldn’t forgive her absence quite so readily if he knew she was visiting a park they frequented often for an early morning walk.
Haden Hill House was a Victorian residence built on parkland in 1878 by George Alfred Haden Haden-Best. He had originally intended to demolish the grand Haden Hall and extend his home but his elderly aunt, widow of the squire, lived in the Old Hall, and by the time she died in 1903 he had lost the will to enlarge Haden Hill House, so the two buildings remained side by side.
Upon his death in 1921, the house, the Old Hall, gardens and 55 acres of land were bought by public subscription for use as a park. In the years since, the Old Hall and House had been used as a refuge for evacuees and a bombing raid shelter. The Old Hall had lain in ruins for years following a fire until lottery funding had helped restore it to its former glory.
Kim had been directed to the entrance off Haden Park Road that led onto the kids play area at the top of the grounds, a short walk away from the refurbished buildings. A dozen or so onlookers were already craning their necks to see beyond the police officers and vehicles and more doors were opening as locals gave up the pretence of looking through downstairs and upstairs windows.
She showed her ID and ducked under the cordon tape, heading towards the collection of fluorescent jackets and multiple torch beams shining in the absence of street lighting.
Officers moved aside as she headed to the centre of the crowd, passing paramedics who had obviously been dismissed but remained in discussion beside the giraffe-emblazoned play slide.
‘Hey, Keats,’ she said, spotting the diminutive pathologist, who reached for something from his equipment bag which had been perched on some kind of cartoon character on a spring.
He shook his head, sorrowfully, causing Kim to wonder exactly what she’d been called out to. And then the reason for his dismay clicked in her mind and it had nothing to do with the crime scene.
‘He’ll be along shortly,’ she said, acknowledging the fact that the man liked her colleague far more than he liked her and made no attempt to hide it. It didn’t bother her. Most people felt that way.
A slow smile began to turn up the man’s dour mouth.
Clearly, Bryant had arrived.
‘Evening, Keats,’ her colleague said, with a smile and an outstretched hand.
She offered him a look that he ignored.
Keats smirked. ‘Now, that’s how you greet—’
‘Sorry, but did someone say there was a body here, somewhere?’ Kim asked, pointedly looking around.
‘There is indeed, Inspector, and the poor soul has not been touched except to check for life signs.’
‘Okay, well, point me in the right—’
‘Guys,’ Keats said, nodding to the group of uniformed officers.
Suddenly, by collective torchlight, like a solo performance on a darkened stage, the area to the left of her lit up as though a switch had been flicked.
It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust as Bryant came to stand beside her.
His sharp intake of breath mirrored her own.
‘What the bloody hell is this all about?’ he asked, taking the words right out of her mouth.
At first glance Kim saw a late-middle-aged female sitting on the far-right swing. Her handbag was positioned neatly beside the metal frame. It wasn’t open, it wasn’t strewn, it was placed with the shoulder strap coiled to the left.
Kim began her second detailed perusal of the strangely macabre sight before her.
The woman’s hair was thick and grey but well styled. Even by torchlight Kim could see the glisten of lipstick on an attractive face that showed signs of wear but had not yet given itself up to deep wrinkles.
Small pearl studs decorated each earlobe and matched a single strand around a neck that had not escaped the ageing process as well as the face.
The string of pearls disappeared into a white collared blouse covered by a thin summer cardigan with three-quarter sleeves.
The skirt was flared, patterned blue with small yellow flowers; it fell just below the knee but was probably longer if she were standing. Nylon covered her legs down into blue court shoes with two-inch heels.
So, just a middle-aged lady pausing for a go on the swings as she took a walk through the park. Reliving a childhood memory or unable to resist an impetuous urge. Harmless.
Except for two things: the bright red stain colouring the front of her blouse and the barbed wire that was tied around her wrists.
Her body was trying to slump forward but was held in place by the vicious wire entwined into the hanging chain of the swing. Her legs were slightly bent, the tips of her shoes dragging against the ground.
‘Some kind of sexual game gone wrong?’ Bryant asked.
‘Dunno yet,’ Kim said, struggling to pull her eyes away.
Take away the barbed wire, and in the daylight the picture of this woman laughing and moving to and fro on the swing beside her grandchild expelling whoops of delight would elicit smiles and laughter. Late at night even without the blood and barbed wire the scene offered a more sinister and compelling sight.
‘Who found her?’ Kim asked, to no one in particular.
‘Chappie over by the climbing frame, and avoid that puddle by the gravel. That belongs to him too,’ said one of the uniforms.
Bryant turned and nodded towards him. ‘Want me to go over and?…’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You take a look in her handbag. Keats is less likely to have a paddy at you.’
The pathologist didn’t much like things being touched until the techies had been through them, but the bromance between the two of them offered Bryant a bit more leeway. Antagonising Keats at the beginning of a case rarely worked out well for her.
She knew much of Keats’s affection for her colleague grew out of sympathy at Bryant’s plight of being stuck with her every day. Keats felt the man had enough crosses to bear. And she didn’t necessarily disagree with him, she thought, as she stepped around the pool of vomit to approach the fair-haired male sitting on the ground.
His back was against the climbing frame, his knees bent with his arms resting on them to support his head as he stared down at the ground.
She guessed him to be mid-twenties, wearing dark jeans and a sweatshirt.
‘Hey,’ she said, showing her ID.
He pushed himself to stand.
‘It’s okay, you can stay on the—’
‘I just want to go home, officer. I was told that once I’d spoken to a detective I could…’
‘Okay, okay,’ she said, looking to the female police officer standing beside him.
‘Eric,’ she offered. ‘Eric Hanson of—’
‘Thank you,’ Kim said, assuming the young man had not lost the ability to speak.
His gaze had automatically lifted and been drawn back towards the swings. He started to shake his head.
Kim stepped in front of him and blocked the view. She nodded towards the plastic water bottle in his hand. ‘Take a sip, mate.’
‘I’m fine, thanks,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘So, Eric, what happened?’ she asked.
‘She was just… I looked and…’
His eyes were staring straight through her, locked on to the picture he’d stumbled across. She didn’t need him replaying the horror over and over. What she needed were facts.
‘Okay, back up for me, Eric,’ Kim said, bringing him to the present. ‘What time did you come into the park?’
‘Half ten-ish,’ he said, lifting his attention to her face. ‘I just wanted to walk off that last pint of lager I downed at the club. Just fancied stretching my legs.’
‘So, you came from that direction?’ she asked, nodding towards the path from the club.
Although not a part of the park there was a path that led from Old Hill Cricket Club along to the entrance where she’d just parked.
‘Yeah, had a few pints with my mates and…’
‘And no one passed you as you were walking along?’
Another shake of the head.
‘Did you hear anything as you approached?’
‘Nothing. It was dead…’
His words trailed away as that one single word returned his mind once again to what he’d seen.
‘So, you saw and heard nothing and called the police straight away?’ she asked.
‘Then what did you do?’
Guilt flashed across his face. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you touch her at all?’
He hesitated before shaking his head.
‘Are you sure, Eric?’ she pushed. They had to know.
‘I’m sorry, but I didn’t check. I mean I just couldn’t…’
Kim understood the source of his guilt and evasion. He felt bad because he hadn’t had the courage to approach her and see if she was still alive.
‘It’s okay. I don’t think there’s much you could have done to help her.’
He offered her a grateful smile as Bryant approached.
‘Okay, Eric, we’ll be in touch if we need anything further, and if you remember anything more give us a call.’
He nodded his understanding as she met the gaze of the officer still standing to the side of him. ‘Get someone to take him home.’
‘Will do, Marm.’
‘Anything?’ she asked, turning to her colleague.
‘Mitch is here and is discussing with Keats the best way to remove her from the swing.’
‘Do we have her name?’
‘Belinda Evans, sixty-one years of age, lives in Wombourne and drives a BMW 5 Series. Less than two years old.’
She raised an eyebrow. His last few minutes had been much more productive than hers.
‘Car keys in her handbag, along with her purse, untouched, her driving licence, a small make-up bag, a pen, glasses and a pack of breath mints. No mobile phone.’
‘And her car is?’
‘Parked correctly about fifty yards from the park gates. Locked and with no evidence of foul play.’
‘Good work, Bryant,’ she said, heading towards the entrance to the park. ‘Most of that information is utterly useless, but you’ve identified one piece of information that is incredibly helpful and relevant.’
‘That Belinda Evans came to the park of her own accord.’
Kim entered the squad room and immediately realised that something was not right. It had nothing to do with the fact that when she’d left the room at 7.30 a.m. to brief Woody on the events of the previous evening, the office had been empty and was now full. No, it wasn’t that. She’d expected that to be the case. The change was more subtle than that.
Ah, she got it.
‘Bryant, why is Betty on your desk?’
Not once had he been awarded the prized plant for his work efforts.
Stacey sniggered. ‘Told you.’
‘Just looking after it, guv, with Penn being away for most of the week.’ He paused. ‘And I kinda wanted to see how it looked.’
‘Then earn it,’ she said, placing it back on the windowsill.
She turned back to the room. ‘And what the hell are those on your feet, Penn?’ she asked, folding her arms.
Unlike the man who had occupied the place in her team before him, Penn was not a man easily given to smartness. His normal attire of plain black trousers and white shirt were presentable and met her standards, just. But put the man in a suit and somehow the suit managed to look just as pissed off as he did.
Not that she knew much about men’s current fashion in suits but with its thick grey pinstripe, his court outfit looked as though it had crawled out of the Nineties. His unruly curly blonde hair did little to help, but she was pleased to see the bandana was missing and the curls had been tamed by some kind of man hair products.
But the trainers.
‘Look, Penn, I don’t know what Travis put up with but when you’re going to court, even for one of your old cases, you are part of this team now and as such you’re representing both—’
‘They’re under the desk, guv,’ Bryant said, behind her.
‘His shoes… they’re under the desk. I couldn’t let you do it. You were falling for it way too easily.’
Penn smirked before reaching down to untie his laces.
‘Jesus, you’re dead funny, you lot,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘I’ll be back after though, boss, eh?’ he asked, hopefully. ‘Court finishes around four-ish.’
Both Bryant and Stacey waited expectantly for her response too.
She was sorely tempted to agree.
‘No, Penn. Go straight home. Woody ain’t budging.’
A collective groan sounded around her.
‘Not my rules, guys,’ she said, holding up her hands in defence.
She’d seen the memo sent out a month ago to all supervisory staff across the West Midlands Police Force. And initially she had quite happily ignored it. Until she’d been called up to Woody’s office and presented with a printed copy by her boss.
The force was in crisis. Recruitment figures were down, violent crime was up and staff burnout rates were at an all-time high.
‘You work them too hard,’ Woody had said, waving the memo in front of her face.
‘This is my fault?’ she asked. She had a team of three which, even if she burned them all out, wouldn’t touch the overall figure.
‘You know what I mean,’ he growled.
‘I keep an eye on them,’ she defended.
‘They’re like dogs, Stone.’
‘Excuse me, sir?’
‘They hide their illnesses,’ he clarified. ‘Police officers hate to admit when there’s something wrong. They battle on, soldier through it. You won’t know until it’s too late.’
‘So what am I supposed to do?’
‘Rest them, Stone. You have to manage them and ensure they get enough downtime. Try to stick to shift patterns and look for tell-tale signs like emotional changes.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘Okay, maybe in your case you should look for behavioural changes and physical signs like being withdrawn, irritable, aggressive. It’s all here,’ he said, waving the memo at her again.
‘Noted, sir, and I have only one question,’ she said, glancing at the piece of paper in his hands.
‘Did the criminals get the memo too?’
If her memory served correctly that was the point at which he’d thrust the memo at her and told her to leave.
Penn’s court case could not have come at a worse time. Any time over the last few weeks would have been fine by her, while they’d been working routine cases since their last major investigation into the sicko who had been recreating the most traumatic events in her life.
Unfortunately, the CPS didn’t consult her diary when programming murder trials, and as it had been Penn’s last major investigation with West Mercia, she’d had no choice but to free him for the trial. Especially as he’d been the arresting officer.
‘Okay, let’s get cracking,’ she said, perching on the edge of the desk facing the wipe board. ‘Belinda Evans, sixty-one years of age found tied to a swing, late at night at Haden Hill Park. Smartly dressed, presentable, arrived there under her own steam but no mobile phone on her person. Lives in a nice area of Wombourne and hasn’t come to our attention before. Stace, find out everything you can about our victim. Bryant and I will be heading over to her house before meeting with Keats for the post-mortem at ten.’
‘Got it, boss,’ she said, turning to her computer.
‘Woody has delegated statement taking to Inspector Plant and his team seeing as Penn is taking a holiday this week.’
Follow-ups normally fell to Penn. He shook his head. ‘Who the hell would want to hurt a little old?—’
‘Hey, sixty-one ain’t old, matey,’ Bryant said, being the closest person in the room to that age. ‘And my money is on Eleanor.’
‘Eleanor who?’ Kim asked, frowning.
‘Don’t know her last name but she’s rumoured to glide around the park looking for her lost love, a monk who was walled up in a passage alive and…’
‘Or it could be Annie Eliza,’ Stacey said, widening her eyes. ‘She lived there alllllll alone, never married or had children and…’
‘Or it could have been Yvette?’ Bryant added.
‘Another bloody ghost?’ Kim asked, moving towards the Bowl.
‘Nah, she’s real. Does Most Haunted programme and they’ve been to investigate—’
‘Enough, guys,’ she said, grabbing her jacket.
Kim glanced back at the white board that contained just the barest of details. Right now, Belinda Evans was a bullet-point list, a collection of facts gained solely from the crime scene and already Kim had the feeling that the woman was going to become much more than that.
Wombourne was a village in South Staffordshire with Anglo-Saxon origins that managed to hold on to its sense of community despite the numerous housing developments that had sprung up as an overspill housing solution for the nearby city of Wolverhampton.
Bryant pulled up behind a squad car on Trident Road, a few streets back from the village green.
As she got out of the car Kim noted that the double-fronted detached bungalow had been recently painted. A waist-high slatted fence enclosed the front garden and disappeared around the back. A hanging basket was placed either side of the door, both bearing identical flowers coloured pink and white. The property was tidy and pleasant and appeared to have been designed for low maintenance.
‘Wish my missus would go for something like this,’ Bryant moaned, holding his ID up for the constable on the gate. ‘Damn flowers back home have me sneezing all over the…’
‘Hang on,’ Kim said, stepping back to the officer on the gate. ‘Any interest?’ she asked, looking around the street.
‘Plenty, Marm,’ he said. ‘Lady at number . . .
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