In the golden afternoon light, the young woman lies perfectly still, her dark hair fanning out behind her. She is dressed in a rose red sari, shot through with gold. Just like the others.
The last time Detective Vijay Patel visited India, he vowed never to return. After a devastating accident, the country holds only bitter memories and broken dreams. But when three young women are murdered in mysterious circumstances, Patel is pulled back to his past.
Leaving his fiancée Sarah behind in London, Patel rushes to a beautiful apartment on a tree-lined street where the body of Sarita Mohan, a successful businesswoman, has been found. Floating on a sea of black satin, she is dressed in red silk, a tiny silver ring on the fourth toe of her right foot.
Desperate to find a link between the murders, Patel digs into the other cases and spots the missing link. The toe ring is a symbol of marriage and the distinctive red saris are traditionally worn for weddings. What is the killer trying to tell them? Why leave each body posed like a bride?
Then Sarah is kidnapped, and Patel is frantic to find the woman he loves before she becomes the next victim. As he desperately re-reads the killer's last cryptic message, Patel finds the critical clue he's been searching for, and hopefully a chance to save Sarah.
Determined to rescue the woman he loves, can Patel outwit the deadliest killer he has ever faced? Or is he already too late?
Utterly unputdownable, this breathless thriller will keep you guessing until the final, shocking twist. Fans of Ian Rankin, Abir Mukherjee and Val McDermid will be totally gripped!
What readers are saying about Anita Sivakumaran:
'Wow just incredible... The killer's identity just took my breath away... Breathtaking suspense and mystery that will blow you away... Outstanding.' Surjit's Book Blog, 5 stars
'I was awake until 2 a.m. reading.' Goodreads Reviewer, 5 stars
'Completely pulled in... I have devoured this book in one sitting.' Little Miss Book Lover 87
'Gripping... Very well drawn characters... Recommended!' NetGalley Reviewer
'Exciting... A super-gripping new thriller series.' Cosmopolitan
'Vivid descriptions and a wonderfully rich setting, I thoroughly enjoyed reading.' NetGalley Reviewer
'Anita Sivakumaran is an exciting new name in crime fiction.' The Times
'Compulsive, captivating and fast-paced... Capturing my interest from start to finish.' Avid Readers Retreat
Release date: August 12, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 352
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Patel ignored the sniggers. He took the blue pencil to the report in his hand, marked a missing apostrophe to the word ‘its’. He threw the pencil into an open drawer, where it was swallowed by clutter, and ran a hand through his hair.
‘Sadly, I already left,’ he said to Jackson, who just shrugged.
He closed the file, tucked it under an arm, slung his jacket over one shoulder and jogged to the stairs. His hair bounced and flopped over his forehead, overdue a cut. Boyish locks did not suit a homicide detective. Even if, as Sarah put it when she felt friendly, combined with his smoky brown eyes they made him look like a Bollywood hero.
By the time he’d passed the IT help desk and rounded the conference block, he was out of breath. Those years of athletic training were long gone, together with his cricketing career. Mostly now he ran to catch the Piccadilly Line and lifted pints of lager.
He slowed outside the row of senior management’s private cubicles, glanced through windows overlooking the Thames. Bitter rain streaked the glass, transforming London’s dust into slime. Through the worm-runs of water, he saw the traffic lights flash dully on Westminster Bridge. Orange, then red.
Perfectly miserable weather. Perfect for a jaunt down the road for a pint of London Pride. But really, he ought to be heading home to pack. The flight was at five a.m. and he hadn’t so much as laid out a pair of swimming trunks. In fact, where were his trunks? He’d last seen them in September, when they’d booked a holiday at some posh hotel in Cornwall. He and Sarah. Booked and cancelled last minute for emergency root-canal treatment. The very thought of it made his jaw ache.
He pushed Inspector Rima’s door open.
She looked up from her computer, swept her hair off her shoulder, said, ‘Don’t you knock?’
‘I was going to leave this on your desk.’
She held her hand out for the report, eyes twinkling. ‘So you’re off, then? Sunny Tenerife?’
‘Yeah.’ He grimaced, breathless and sweaty, feeling a little foolish to be having this conversation. ‘Nearly got cancelled again.’
‘This case came up.’ He indicated the file, the cover of which Rima was flicking open. ‘Skinner assigned me.’
Rima raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t unaware of Superintendent Skinner’s feelings about Patel.
‘You got lucky?’
‘Deceased is a forty-one-year-old homeless male. Name: John Snow.’
‘Anyway, another homeless fella comes down off his four-day bender under some bridge in West Margate, half frozen to death. Looks down, sees the blood all over his bony hands, his rags. Runs himself and his bony arse straight to Station WB10 South Precinct and ’fesses.’
Rima, flicking through the report, didn’t appear to be listening.
‘You’d think the devil got hold of the poor bugger.’
Rima closed the report, opened it again, studied the top sheet. She frowned, put her finger on it.
‘Why no copy for the FLO?’
‘Homeless man doesn’t rate a Family Liaison Officer.’
She made a face. ‘Of course. We’ve to make “savings” –’ she used air quotes ‘– of thirty million by the end of the year.’
‘You sound just like Skinner.’
She smiled. ‘If we had the resources, we’d track his family down. Even a bum has family, somewhere.’
It was unlike her to display Samaritan urges.
‘Homeless murder,’ said Patel. ‘Cold pavement to cold slab.’
‘Poor bugger,’ she said. She stared at him. ‘Come here.’
A shiver up his spine. ‘Got to go pack, Inspector.’
She came around the desk and put a finger on his shirt button. ‘How about something to remember me by in Tenerife?’
Fighting the urge to back away and run, he said, ‘Sarah wants to—’
A knock on the door. Without pause, it opened.
‘There you are, Sergeant. Been looking everywhere for you.’ The smarmy voice of Detective Inspector Bingham.
Rima’s hand was back by her side. ‘Dave,’ said Patel. ‘Not down the pub yet?’
‘About to, then I got asked to run an errand.’ Bingham chuckled, then guffawed.
Patel smelled beef stroganoff from the canteen lunch. He waited. He thought there was a joke brewing.
Bingham guffawed and chuckled some more before saying, ‘Super wants you.’
‘Now, cupcake. He’s got an assignment for you.’
‘He knows I booked the week off.’
‘Yeah, he might have mentioned something like that. All the homicide detectives tied up, you know? After the New Year’s Eve spike in cases and all.’
‘You’re the SIO?’
‘Nothing to do with me. I’m going to Thailand tomorrow. Did I tell you? Warm up me old cobblers.’
Patel just looked at Bingham.
‘Don’t keep the man waiting. Ta, love.’ A quick ferrety glance at Rima and Bingham went away, strutting and chuckling his head off.
Patel raised his eyebrows at Rima.
She twitched her lips in a smile. ‘Go and get some, Sergeant.’
‘Have a seat, Patel.’
Superintendent Skinner gestured to the faded leather chair across his desk. Patel cautiously lowered himself into it, knowing it creaked madly. Although the smile on his face and his salt and pepper bouffant hair gave Skinner an avuncular air, his steel-grey eyes emanated hate.
‘You’ve closed the homeless case.’
‘You’d think that in these times of austerity we wouldn’t have the resources to go after every teenage drug overdose, every homeless man pissing himself to death.’
‘It was murder, sir.’
Skinner’s smile vanished. ‘Murder of one fuck-head bum by another.’
‘Report’s been submitted, sir. Second-degree manslaughter.’
‘Justice for the poor homeless man. Could go on a recruitment poster: “We serve with … care in the community.” ’
‘Just doing my job, sir.’
‘Twice the patriot, aren’t you? Playing cricket for the country, and now righting the wrongs done to your countrymen, be they royals or the great unwashed.’
Patel felt a prickle of wariness.
‘Our poster boy.’ Skinner’s tone implied he was a highly unlikely one, and on that point, at least, Patel had to concur.
‘You’ve been with us three years, have you not?’
Patel nodded. Baiting, taunting, and now the trip down memory lane.
‘You certainly caused a storm in Yorkshire.’
Patel stared at Skinner, keeping any emotion off his face.
‘The Dales Ripper.’ Skinner smacked his lips. ‘Some of us can only dream of netting such a high-profile criminal.’
Skinner leaned forward.
‘Tell me. What did it feel like, the eureka moment?’
‘Eureka moment, sir?’
The whites of Skinner’s eyes shone like a dirty enamel sink that’d had a good scrubbing.
Patel breathed deeply and thought of things he wished he could forget. Someone had seen a girl in the area, alone, a stranger. She matched the description from the latest missing case. Patel, covering for his mate, did a few extra knocks on the door in his lunch break. Beautiful, picturesque Thirsk. Sheep bleating, apples on trees. Sunny autumn day. Last cottage in a lane overlooking some pasture. A lone man in his seventies lived there. What had triggered his suspicions? Apart from the jibe about Patel’s tan, he’d been such a sweet old man. Put the kettle on. Rooted out the chocolate biscuits. Did the chitchat. Lovely autumn weather, isn’t it … ? Patel had sat down. What harm in one cup of tea, he’d thought. The old man rattled teacups with shaky hands, reminding him of his dada-ji. He could see the door to the living room through the passageway, shut. An under-stairs half-cellar, the door ajar. The old man had placed the cup of tea in front of Patel with a bright smile. Poor thing was desperate for some company, he’d thought. The man sat down and smacked his lips, glancing ever so briefly at the clock above the passageway before pushing the sugar bowl towards the middle of the table. Patel also turned to look at the clock, then his eyes lowered to the passageway, and the partly open cellar door. It was then that he’d seen in his mind’s eye the grille in the ground by the front door as he’d stood pressing the doorbell, and whilst waiting, heard what he’d put down to a little scurrying creature in the underground joists.
‘It’s not rats, is it?’ he’d said to the old man, whose smile faded, and in its place appeared an expression that froze Patel’s blood. Part glee, part relief at not having to pretend any more, to be this doddery, kindly grandpa.
Now Skinner pressed: ‘You know, you’ve never given me the details. How many times have I asked you?’
‘Details are in the case file, sir.’
Skinner shook his head. ‘I want to know how you knew, Patel. What you felt.’
Like he’d been hit with a twenty-ton truck. Like the great maw of hell had opened beneath him in the middle of a sleepy Yorkshire village.
‘Did you feel –’ Skinner sprayed spit ‘– like you’d hit the jackpot?’
‘Like the goddess Luck had given me a good going over, sir.’ Patel said, thinking, Asshole.
Skinner sighed. His face shut down. He tapped a finger on the file in front of him. ‘How do you find London, working with us?’
‘Quiet after Yorkshire, sir.’
Skinner didn’t smile.
London. He liked the anonymity London offered. He blended in better, after rural Yorkshire. No one gave him a second glance in London – although he did get some surprised looks when he told people he was a police officer. But when they asked him how he came to be a murder cop, he felt at a loss to explain. It felt lame to admit he’d drifted into it, after the cricket didn’t pan out. Did he always want to be a homicide detective, people asked? All he could say was, he’d loved reading Sherlock Holmes as a kid. Still, the past three years, his work had felt like treading water. Open and shut cases. Manslaughter rather than premeditated. Doper A kills doper B. Teenagers without passports knifing each other for sport. Domestics. A hell of a lot of domestics. Usually, man kills woman. Occasionally, woman kills man. Gruesome, sure, but at least within the purview of humanity. A policeman’s humanity, he’d come to feel, was linked to the humanity of the criminal. He opened and closed files, wrote up reports; made few friends and no enemies. And then, a year ago, Skinner’d given him a case, his first as senior investigating officer: Skinner’s army colonel friend’s son’s high-profile death. Accidental erotic asphyxiation, Patel and a bunch of experts concluded. The dad had wanted it to be murder, so he could fix his rage on someone. Or so he could rewrite his son’s homosexual history. He remembered Skinner’s words. At least entertain the possibility for a few days. Look for someone, just to give the man some relief. Patel wouldn’t, couldn’t.
‘Let’s move on,’ Skinner said now.
‘I’m sending you to India to help with an investigation.’
‘Sir?’ Patel wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
‘You fit the bill, Patel. You have the record. They need a goddamn genius. It’s a Category A+. Well-connected victims.’
Patel’s nostrils twitched. Did he say victims, as in plural?
‘Why are we involved, sir?’
‘Foreign minister pushed buttons. So the Home Office—’
‘Ours or theirs?’
‘Oh, ours. His ex-wife, an Indian national, is the latest victim. There may be a British connection.’
Patel remembered. It had been a ‘most read’ item on the Beeb’s news website. Sabah Khan, socialite, ex-wife of Foreign Minister Alex Goldblum, girlfriend of tennis ace Freddie Bhatt, found ‘Murdered’, found ‘Slaughtered by Psychopath’. Prominent Indian women up in arms ‘Demanding Psycho’s Capture. A March for Safety. Candlelight Vigil’.
‘Wasn’t that a week ago?’
‘The Indians are competent to handle it. It is their turf, after all. However, they’ve agreed to be guided by some old-fashioned Scotland Yard expertise.’ Skinner cracked a smile in support of his pronouncement.
‘Sir, I’m hardly qualified to lead such an … ’
‘You’re not there to lead, Patel. You’re there to liaise.’
‘So I’m not SIO?’
‘They have an SIO. Some feller called –’ Skinner squinted at the screen ‘– Sub-ra-man-i-um. Can’t pronounce the name. You’ll play consulting detective.’
‘Ah, like Sherlock Holmes.’
‘Eh?’ Skinner looked blank, frowned. ‘Listen carefully, Patel. Don’t muddy the waters. They don’t need hand holding. Serve up some of your famous instinct. It’s not a question of if, but when, they catch the killer. Always the same, these situations. Sooner or later, psychos make mistakes, start showing off.’
Sooner or later? What was he, a goddamned clairvoyant?
‘Officially you are a Scotland Yard consultant. They take credit if they catch him, they take the blame if they fail.
‘Here’s the file.’ Skinner lobbed the green folder over. ‘Indians faxed most of the material they have. You’ll have time on the flight to review.’
‘You leave at noon tomorrow. An expedited visa will await you at the airport.’
‘No time for modesty, Patel. This is deadly serious. You’re the best man for the job. Now go tell your wife and pack.’
‘Fiancée, sir. We’re off to Tenerife tomorrow.’
Skinner looked at him for a moment, expressionless. ‘Guess not,’ he said. He turned to his computer screen and peered long-sightedly through his bifocals.
Patel got up.
‘Oh, and another thing, Patel.’
‘First thing tomorrow, go see Minister Goldblum. His office is expecting you.’
The bouncer came flying. Hook it to the boundary or take it on the chin.
Patel fumbled for the key with one hand, checked his breath with the other. Gently unlocked the door. Cautiously entered. Slipped his shoes off and padded down the hallway. Peeped around the living-room door frame.
Sarah was curled on the sofa, reading a book. He peered at the cover. Erin Sarkof’s sculptures. A white-haired woman leaned against a plaster-cast bald head wearing giant sunglasses. Her white linen dress was bright against deep-brown arms suffused with that golden glow denied the skin of South Asians. Golden light of southern France. He thought of the rain-awful pitch-black night he’d trudged through after five rushed pints at the pub.
Sarah looked up. ‘Hey.’
He took off his jacket, flung it on the back of the sofa, before remembering to kiss the cheek she’d turned up for him. He flicked at a bit of plaster dust on her chin.
‘Still working on the orgy scene?’
She laughed in an exasperated but friendly sort of way. ‘It’s not —’
‘I know, I know.’ He waggled his eyebrows. ‘You show me three women, naked, fiddling … ’
‘It’s not about—’
‘It is to the punter. You say female sexual expression. I say, wahey!’
She shook her head. This wasn’t one of the times she found him funny.
‘I’m sorry, Sarah.’
‘It’s not like you planned this.’
‘You already apologised.’
He’d called from the pub, after a fortifying pint. She’d been reasonable, given the circumstances. Still, he was filled with guilt.
‘I know you wanted to discuss … ’ He made vaguely circular gestures with his hands.
Sarah blushed. In that instant she looked fetching: girlish, with her long dark hair in a ponytail, no make-up on her winter-pale, freckled face.
He sat next to her and put a hand on her knee.
She took an audible breath. ‘Could they not find someone else? There are, what, hundreds of homicide detectives?’
‘Twenty-four, actually. Skinner said I was the best man for the job.’ He felt himself wince, saying it.
‘Best man, or the man with the right colouring?’
‘Hmm, I honestly don’t know. My grandparents are from Gujarat. My parents are from Uganda. I’m not exactly an old India hand.’
‘India hand? What does that mean?’
‘It’s from colonial times, you know. Someone with experience in dealing with the natives.’
Sarah laughed a little. ‘You’ve been there before, no?’
‘To play cricket. Once. It was all a blur. Airport to hotel to nets to gym to team talks to stadium. Didn’t catch a breath. Just overwhelming, you know. And then that’s where … ’
‘Oh, it happened there?’
‘Yeah. The Chepauk stadium in Madras. Or is it called something else now? Channa?’
His hand still lay on her knee. She rubbed the top of his wrist, the injured wrist (it was fine now, but he still thought of it that way, as if it, and him, still needed succour).
Sarah said: ‘Why don’t you change and shower? I’ll whip up some pasta thing.’
‘There’s some bacon from yesterday.’
‘That was from last week. I chucked it.’
He left her on the sofa and went into the bedroom.
Two suitcases were propped open on the bed, full of neatly folded clothes – shorts and summer dresses, sunglasses and sun cream. He poked through his things. She’d even found his swimming trunks. Passports and tickets in his green wallet that she liked to keep in her handbag when abroad.
He began to get out of his clothes. He picked up a towel from on top of her packed suitcase. The one in the bathroom was rank. He saw a wispy bit of black satin. She’d packed her sexy lingerie, black with little red bows on the stockings. She had worn it often in their first year together. Years since it’d made an appearance.
An incoherent sound escaped him. He sat down beside the suitcase, put his head in his hands. He admitted to himself he was relieved to be going somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t Tenerife with Sarah. Even India, to the middle of a homicide operation to catch a psychopath.
And he admitted to himself, finally, that the root-canal treatment in September could have waited till they’d got back from Cornwall.
The smell of frying garlic reached him from the kitchen.
‘Ten minutes.’ Sarah’s voice pierced the bedroom.
Shaking off the beastly feelings, he got up and padded to the shower, towel slung over one shoulder.
Five minutes later, suitably broiled, he heard two slight taps on the door – Sarah’s version of a knock.
‘Your phone beeped.’
‘What’s it say?’
Since he’d begun having his doubts about their future, he liked to make overtures of openness with Sarah, as though showing her he had nothing to hide, like some feinting poker genius. He dried his toes and hung the towel on the rail. There was a longer pause than usual for reading a text. Then a cold fist landed in his stomach. He’d texted Rima from the pub. Oh God, he hadn’t checked if she’d replied yet. He’d regretted the text as soon as he’d pressed send.
Sarah’s voice cut through the wooden door, cold and level. ‘It’s from Inspector Rima Seth. She says, “Sounds like a lucky escape, then. Perhaps you can start making the baby on Skype. LOL.” ’
He closed his eyes.
‘Would you like to dictate a reply?’
Yawning, Patel read from the Whole Earth Guide to Everywhere, ‘Karnataka is an intoxicating cocktail that is quintessential India.’ He was sure the words together had meaning, but it eluded him. Booze, guilt, insomnia, the cold-shouldered goodbye from Sarah – deserved – and a frustrating morning chasing the minister, undeserved.
The tannoy overhead shrieked, ‘Flight BA 134 to Bengaluru has commenced boarding.’ Has commenced, he said under his breath. Why use a simple word when … ?
A manic toddler crashed against his left leg. He picked it up and stood it on its feet. It gurgled at him. Its mother raised sleep-deprived eyes by way of apology as she dragged the squealing bundle away towards some unsuspecting aircraft. Patel shut the Whole Earth guide, put it back on the shelf, picked a Lonely Planet. He looked over at the till queue, wondering if there was time to dash to Boots for some Eno.
‘There he is.’
He turned. A man, arm extended, pointed at Patel. Blue epaulettes on a white shirt, crackling walkie-talkie. Airport security. What now? Then he saw the hassled, puffing toff behind. Flanking him were two men in dark suits with shades and earpieces.
‘Minister,’ said Patel, ‘I couldn’t see you this morning.’
Foreign Minister Alex Goldblum put his hands up. ‘Tried my best. Couldn’t get away. Thought I’d catch you here.’ His phone beeped. He glanced at it, raised a finger. ‘Just got to take this, sorry.’
Patel swallowed his irritation and took the guidebook to the till. He had turned up at Goldblum’s office at eight a.m. sharp, to be informed that the minister was at a G7 organisational committee meeting at the other end of town. The secretary rang the minister on his mobile and Patel was sent to catch him a few minutes before Goldblum’s nine a.m. He had to cadge a squad car and be blue-lighted through the lovely London traffic. Wading through hundreds of woolly-hatted, rainbow-trousered protestors, he entered the building where the minister and his foreign colleagues had been holed up since the previous evening. It was the eve of the G7 summit.
Nine a.m. came and went. Patel spent an hour and a half in the noisy lobby – communing with slippery, bright sofas and pop art prints. Svelte, hard-looking female secretaries rushed past him with printouts, and keen bespectacled young men, investors of the hedge fund variety no doubt, peacocked back and forth. Surely Goldblum wasn’t going to save capitalism single-handed that morning. A homicide investigation, any right-minded individual would say, took precedence over whatever nefarious deal he was running. Especially since it was Goldblum who wanted the Yard’s involvement in the first place. But the minister didn’t appear, so Patel left to catch his flight.
Now, in the departure lounge WH Smith, Patel reached the front of the queue. Goldblum stood beside him, mumbling on the phone. Pocketing his change and guidebook, Patel turned to the minister, who put his phone away. ‘Can you walk and talk?’
It was a long slog to the C gates. They should have a bit of time. Just. They passed Accessorize and a Costa.
‘Do you know … ’ began Goldblum as Patel noticed a Boots, and remembered his need for Eno. He dropped his hand luggage, a heavy Billingham full of files on the Indian investigation, made eye contact with one of Goldblum’s spooks, pointed to his bag and headed across the floor into Boots. Goldblum continued talking by his elbow, as if they were taking an evening stroll. ‘I’d wanted an experienced officer, one who’s conducted major homicide operations, to fly to India and take over the whole investigation. Damned well threw a fit in front of the home secretary. Still, I owe her my left ball for green lighting this at all.’
Patel digested this as he looked high and low for the Eno. ‘You must be disappointed.’
Goldblum gave a small laugh. ‘Skinner convinced me we needed to send you, just the one officer, just you, Sergeant Patel. Told me you shit gold.’ He shook his head.
The insides of Patel’s stomach began to burn. He looked for a shop assistant. He could not claim to understand the politics involved.
‘There’s one.’ Goldblum waved.
Patel had to spell out ‘Eno’ three times, then google it on his phone and present a picture. The pimpled teenager in charge of the pharmacy said they didn’t stock that product.
‘I’ve bought it from you before.’
The child morosely shook his head.
His stomach felt like it was being stoked for the fires of hell, the one place he wanted to hurl Skinner. The bastard had grasped the Indian crown of thorns and laid it on Patel’s head. Not an inspector, not a team. Just him.
Outside, one of the spooks was leaning against the shop’s . . .
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