It had seemed so simple. Get in, get the information, get out. But now they were getting inside her mind and she didn’t know how to stop them…
When Detective Kim Stone is called to the home of Samantha Brown, she finds the young woman lying in bed with her throat cut and a knife in her hand. With no sign of forced entry or struggle, Kim rules her death a tragic suicide.
But a visit to Samantha’s parents rings alarm bells for Kim – there’s something they’re not telling her. And, when she spots a clue in a photograph, Kim realises she’s made a huge mistake. Samantha didn’t take her own life, she was murdered.
Then a young man’s body is found in a local lake with his throat cut and Kim makes a link between the victim and Samantha. They both spent time at Unity Farm, a retreat for people seeking an alternative way of life.
Beneath the retreat’s cosy façade, Kim and her team uncover a sinister community preying on the emotionally vulnerable.
Sending one of her own undercover into Unity Farm is high risk but it’s Kim’s only hope if she is to catch a killer – someone Kim is convinced the victims knew and trusted.
With Bryant distracted by the emergence of a harrowing case close to his heart, and an undercover officer in way over her head, Kim’s neck is on the line like never before. Can she protect those closest to her before another life is taken?
Release date: May 13, 2020
Print pages: 374
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Kim could feel the tension emanating from her colleague in the driving seat as he negotiated the traffic island at Russells Hall Hospital and headed towards Dudley.
The cause of his mood could not be attributed to their target destination. Keats had told them not to rush. It was an obvious suicide, he’d said, and needed only their confirmation.
‘You doing something nice later?’ she asked.
He’d requested the afternoon as annual leave and judging by the hard line of his jaw it wasn’t to do anything fun.
‘No,’ he answered, without looking at her.
‘Jeez, Bryant, turn that frown upside down.’
She waited for his retort at the irony of such a statement coming from her.
No response materialised as he turned off the main road and pulled up short behind Keats’s van.
She shook her head at his sullenness as she got out of the car.
Groups were congregating at the line of tape stretching between the squad car and the ambulance, their stomachs touching the tape in an ‘I was here first’ kind of way, possessively claiming the space as though at a music concert, terrified of missing out.
Kim said nothing as she pushed her way through to the front. Bryant followed in her slipstream and didn’t offer one apology on her behalf. Blimey, he must be preoccupied, she thought. She’d best not let on to Woody. She was only allowed out of the station because she was accompanied by a responsible adult who was obligated to hold her manners in his mouth.
‘Coming through,’ she called to the last couple who were holding on to their places as though queueing for a Boxing Day sale.
She flashed her ID and ducked under the tape. A PC pointed to the stairs that appeared to lead to a first floor flat. Another directed her to the first door on the left.
Keats waited for the usual greeting from Bryant, as they normally spent a minute or two taking the piss out of her right in front of her face.
No response came from her colleague as he attempted to look around the pathologist.
Keats looked to her. She shrugged, having just as much an idea about his sour mood.
Keats stepped aside to reveal a room bathed in red.
Her keen sense of smell had already detected the metallic odour of blood. She could feel the sickly aroma wafting around her, sticking to her clothes, attaching itself to her hair. It would stay with her all day. But the smell had not prepared her for the quantity.
‘Oh my…’ Kim muttered, taking a step over the threshold.
Blood had sprayed around the walls, onto the ceiling and onto the window that was closest to the bed, upon which lay a young woman with a three-inch gash across her throat.
Her hand lay by the right side of her torso, a knife contained loosely in her grasp. Along with the blood that had sprayed around the room, a line led from the wound down onto her breastbone and around into her long blonde hair. Cold, empty blue eyes stared up at the ceiling from a face that, despite its bloodless complexion, was lineless and pretty.
‘The carotid?’ Kim asked, removing her gaze for just a minute.
Keats nodded. ‘She clearly knew where it was and meant to end her own life.’
Kim could understand his reasoning. This wasn’t the first suicide they’d attended together but it was the first she’d seen where the person had cut their own throat. More common methods included overdosing, hanging and cutting the wrists. Some of which were cries for help and others definite attempts to end a life. But she’d never seen one as definite as this. If you knew where the carotid arteries were and you decided to take a knife to one of them, you weren’t expecting anyone to come and save you in the nick of time.
‘How long?’ Kim asked.
‘I’d estimate her time of…’
‘I meant how long would it have taken her to die?’ Kim asked, walking around the bed.
The room was sparsely furnished with only a bedside table and lamp to the left of the double bed, which was decorated with a white cotton quilt bearing daisies beneath the blood. On the window sill was a Jo Malone candle still wrapped with cellophane.
‘A couple of minutes,’ Keats stated. ‘After the initial spurting, it takes a short while for the body to bleed out. She would have lapsed into unconsciousness before her heart eventually stopped.’
Kim nodded, coming back to the foot of the bed.
What were you thinking for those few moments? Kim wondered, looking at the peaceful expression on the girl’s unlined face. Were you frightened? Relieved? Content with your decision?
Kim knew she’d never get those answers.
‘No sign of forced entry or a struggle,’ Bryant said from behind. She hadn’t been aware he’d left the room to check.
‘Who raised the alarm?’ Kim asked, taking one last look over the body from the bare feet, cotton trousers and tee shirt to the blood spatter on her right hand.
‘Woman downstairs took her dog out into the garden before leaving for work at 8 a.m. Looked up and saw the blood on the glass. Knocked the door and called the police. Landlord was here by the time the police arrived and let them in,’ Keats answered.
‘Door was locked?’ she confirmed.
‘Landlord said so, and I’d estimate her death somewhere between nine and eleven last night.’
Kim acknowledged the information with a slight nod.
‘You ready to call it suicide, Inspector?’ Keats asked, knowing they had to be in agreement before he recorded it. Keats would still need to perform a full post-mortem back at the lab, as dictated by the coroner for a suicide, but he would not be searching for clues on her behalf. Her involvement with the victim would end here.
‘What’s her name?’
‘Samantha Brown,’ Bryant answered from the door. ‘Twenty-one years of age.’
Kim formed the mental checklist in her mind.
No sign of a struggle. No forced entry. Locked door. Method obvious to observers and achievable.
Well, Samantha, if this is what you really wanted, I hope you’re finally free of your pain and you’ll suffer no more, Kim thought, looking down at the lifeless face.
‘Inspector, are you ready to call it?’ Keats repeated.
She took a breath.
‘Yes, Keats, I’m ready to call it. Suicide it is.’
The crowds had thinned by the time Kim stepped out of the building into the warm early September sunshine.
She guessed with only a couple of days until school term started spectators had been called back to their normal daily lives of going to work or buying new school uniform.
She groaned as the dispersing masses revealed someone who had no such commitments.
‘Hey, Inspector, you got…’
‘I saw you, Frost, which is why I was walking the other way.’
As the local reporter for The Dudley Star, Tracy Frost and Kim had had their moments of understanding over the years but, for Kim, the woman would always be one thing: a journalist after a juicy story.
‘So, is it true that…’
‘Frost,’ Kim said, startling the woman by coming to a standstill. ‘How many times have you harassed me as I’ve left a location?’
‘A few,’ she admitted.
‘And exactly how many times have I offered you any information that even you could stretch into a news headline?’
‘None,’ she admitted. ‘But I just…’
‘And that’s not gonna change today,’ Kim said, resuming her journey. ‘But feel free to ask Bryant,’ she tossed back over her shoulder. ‘Because he is in just the right kind of mood to talk to you.’
‘Detective Sergeant Bryant, can you tell me…’
‘I’m assuming you’re impervious to sarcasm, Frost,’ Bryant said in a low voice, as he reached the driver’s door of the Astra Estate.
Tracy Frost tossed her blonde hair before flouncing away on four inch heels.
Kim couldn’t help but recall the picture of a similar mane of blonde hair she’d just seen, matted with blood. She shook the image away. There was nothing she could do to help Samantha Brown now.
Bryant’s phone buzzed as she felt hers vibrate in her pocket.
‘Samantha’s next of kin,’ Bryant observed as Kim scrolled to the message from Stacey.
‘I expect the sarge there will pass it…’
‘We’ll go,’ Kim said, noting the address of the girl’s parents was less than two miles away.
Bryant turned his wrist and checked his watch. It was almost eleven and he was due to finish his half shift at one.
The motion irritated her.
‘Bryant, I know you’re taking some “me” time today, but you’re still at work now and we’ve got a couple of parents whose lives are about to be shattered following the suicide of their twenty-one-year-old daughter. News that I really think we should be delivering but only if you’re sure you can spare the time.’
He didn’t look her way, or apologise for his lack of sensitivity. Instead, he offered her the same tone he’d offered Tracy Frost.
‘Yes, guv, of course I can spare the time.’
Kim understood the irony of her strong intolerance for people who were in a mood. Her own disposition hovered somewhere between aggressive and hostile and that was on a permanent basis. It was her natural state and anything warmer took a great deal of planning, effort and caffeine.
Which was why she’d chosen to keep her mouth shut during the short journey to the home of Samantha Brown’s parents. She couldn’t trust herself to say anything positive, so it was best she didn’t speak at all.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had a cob on. It happened just a couple of times a year and had normally passed by the next day.
He brought the car to a stop outside a detached house in Sedgley.
A half-barrel planter containing trailing fuchsias adorned the area to the right of the front door.
Kim rang the bell and then turned to her colleague.
‘I’ll do the talking.’
He nodded as the door opened to reveal a slim, fair-haired man wearing black trousers and an open-neck shirt. A pair of rimless glasses rested on top of his head.
‘Mr Brown?’ Kim asked, holding up her identification.
He nodded slowly as he brought down the glasses to take a better look.
His face creased in concern. ‘Detective Inspector…’ he said, clearly wondering what they were doing at his door.
‘May we come in?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ he continued, pointing to the second door on the left.
Kim entered what was clearly the man’s home office. She noted an A1-sized drawing board in front of a high-backed stool. Two line drawings sat side by side. An antique pine desk held a top spec Apple computer and an open notebook. A captain’s chair had been pushed aside. On the left-hand side was a three seater sofa in front of a wall of bookshelves. She guessed he was an architect who worked from home.
‘Please, take a seat,’ he said, pointing to the sofa.
She had the feeling that the man before her thought he could prevent potential bad news by displaying good manners.
Kim sat and Bryant followed suit as the man lowered himself onto the captain’s chair and turned to face them.
‘Mr Brown, is your wife…?’
‘Myles, please,’ he offered.
Kim wasn’t keen on using first names, but given the circumstances of what she was about to tell him, she’d follow his wish.
‘Okay, Myles, we need to speak to both you and your—’
The door to the study opened, cutting her off.
‘Darling, I can’t get hold of…’
Her words trailed away as her gaze lifted from the phone she was carrying and saw them sitting there.
The woman she assumed was Mrs Brown and the person not answering her phone was her daughter, Samantha.
Kim worked hard to keep down the nausea that threatened her.
‘They’re detectives, Kate,’ Myles said, standing and beckoning his wife over to the seat.
She acquiesced, holding the phone limply in her hand.
‘Is it Sammy?’ the woman asked, tremulously.
Kim realised that these were the last few even remotely normal moments the couple would experience until they constructed a new normal around the loss of their child.
Both faces were filled with a mixture of fear and anticipation and yet, once they knew, once the words were spoken, they would wish for this time back, for the time, any time before she said the words.
‘Mr Brown, Mrs Brown, I’m afraid I have some terrible news about your daughter.’
Myles reached over and clutched his wife’s hand.
‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that Samantha committed suicide last night.’
Neither expression changed as the words she’d spoken hovered in the air above their acceptance.
Kim said nothing. She waited.
Kate Brown slowly began to shake her head. She held out her phone. ‘No, I just left her a message. She’ll call back. You’ve got it wrong. Look, I’ll try her again,’ the woman said desperately as the phone slipped from her trembling hands.
Myles bent to retrieve it and when he rose Kim saw the tears forming in his eyes. He had already accepted the truth.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Brown, but she’s not going to call you back. We’ve just come from her flat.’
Kate Brown pushed herself to a standing position.
‘I don’t believe you. Take me there right now. I’ll show you.’ She turned and faced her husband. ‘Myles, get the car and…’ She stopped speaking when she saw the raw emotion in his eyes. She frowned and again shook her head.
‘You don’t believe them, Myles?’
He nodded as the tears spilled out of his eyes, and he pulled her close.
‘My baby, my baby,’ she began to wail. Myles pulled her closer. She pulled back once more, checking his face for a final time.
He nodded. ‘She’s gone, love.’
‘But you said she was ready to be left…’
‘Shush, love,’ he said, pulling her into his chest.
The tears continued to roll over his cheeks as he rested his jaw against the top of his wife’s head.
His haunted gaze met Kim’s across the room.
‘How… I mean…’
Kim held up her hand. ‘Someone will be along to talk more with you later, but for now just take care of yourself and your wife.’
The details would come soon enough. As would the need to identify the body.
Kim stood and Bryant followed.
‘We’ll let ourselves out, and please accept our deepest condolences for your loss.’
They were standard words but she meant them.
‘Just one thing, officer,’ Myles said, as they reached the door. ‘There’s one thing I have to know. Did… did she suffer?’
Kim thought about those few minutes after she’d made the cut; moments where the life blood was literally draining out of her. Long, fear-filled moments before she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Kim composed her features, before answering.
‘No, Mr Brown, Samantha didn’t suffer at all.’
‘You sure this has passed its MOT?’ Kim asked as Penn crunched his rust-bucket into third gear.
‘Due next month, boss, but she’ll do me proud.’
‘I’ve seen better-looking crime scenes,’ she observed as the glove box fell open onto her knee.
‘Yeah but the old girl won’t let me down. We’ve been through a lot together,’ he said, tapping the steering wheel.
Kim suspected this girl would soon be going to the knacker’s yard in the sky, but she wasn’t going to be the one to break the news.
‘Next left,’ she said, as they neared Dudley town centre. ‘And sharp right,’ she added as something on the near side left of the car squealed in protest.
Penn pulled up behind the one remaining service vehicle. Keats’s van was gone, the ambulance was gone, the cordon tape had been removed and the onlookers had returned to their lives, the earlier excitement of the day already forgotten. Such a devastating life-changing event for Samantha’s parents, but nothing more than a passing subject of gossip for her neighbours.
The single squad car was parked beside the Ford Escort van of the landlord. She was hoping he’d still be around.
The constable on the door offered her a questioning glance as she approached.
‘Just want another look,’ she explained as he stepped aside. He would have been told to let no one in but the cleaning crew.
‘It’s fine,’ she assured him. ‘And if you see the landlord, tell him I’d like a word.’
The officer nodded as his hand moved towards the radio mounted on his vest.
She took the stairs two at a time with Penn following closely behind.
‘It’s okay,’ Kim said to the second officer guarding the door to the flat. ‘Your buddy downstairs is already calling me in.’
He stood aside for her to enter.
Amongst all the bodies crammed into the space earlier she hadn’t noted just how small the flat was.
The windowless hallway had three doors. She already knew that the door on the left led to the bedroom. The one on the right was the kitchen and the door dead ahead was to the lounge.
She turned and closed the front door behind her. The door had two separate locks. A latch lock at her eye level that automatically locked when the door was closed and a turn-key lock at waist level. She inspected both closely and found no damage to either. Just as Bryant had said.
‘Boss, is there anything you want me to do?’ Penn asked.
‘Just observe,’ she said, walking into the kitchen.
The area was furnished with cheap plain white cupboards and a stainless steel sink. A newish boiler was fixed to the wall next to the window.
The kitchen appeared functional but sparse without any personal touches, no nick-nacks littering the surfaces or wall plaques to stamp the place as her own. A plain white mug and matching side plate sat near the sink, with two pieces of crust left over from a sandwich.
‘Doesn’t look like my kitchen,’ Penn remarked from the doorway. ‘Spare counter space is a bloody premium.’ He looked around. ‘And it’s a bigger space than this.’
Kim wasn’t much of a kitchen dweller but her own space was littered with bits that she just hadn’t bothered to put away, stuff that accumulated over time: a couple of spare batteries; a cookbook that hated her; scouring pads she’d used to clean up bike parts; just stuff that didn’t belong anywhere but that her eyes passed over a few times a day. In this kitchen there was a distinct absence of ‘stuff’.
She moved along to the lounge. Again, the space was small, dominated by a two-seater sofa and a single chair. A small television sat on a glass unit in the corner. Kim searched for signs of an identity – any mark that Samantha Brown had put on the place – but she found nothing.
‘It’s like she didn’t see this as her home,’ Penn said, walking around the small lounge.
Exactly what Kim had been thinking. Had Samantha been displaced somehow? Had she been lonely? Had that driven her to take her own life?
She headed back to the bedroom and stood in the doorway. Whether it was the memory from this morning or the person-shaped patch of clean linen, revealed by the removal of the body, Kim wasn’t sure but she could still see Samantha Brown lying there.
Kim tried to pinpoint exactly what had brought her back, just as footsteps sounded in the hallway.
A short, stocky man wearing overalls held out a hand towards her. She looked away as his hand fell to his side.
‘Raymond Crewett, landlord.’
‘You let the police into the flat?’ she asked, heading back into the hallway.
‘And did you have to unlock both locks?’ she asked.
He began to nod. ‘Yes, yes, I…’
He stopped speaking as his eyebrows drew together. He took out his set of master keys, appearing to replay the actions in his head.
‘Hang on, no I don’t think I did. I opened the top latch lock and then tried the door and it opened. But most folks don’t…’
‘Thanks, Raymond. If I need anything else, I’ll give you a shout.’
‘Any idea when…’
‘No,’ she said, shortly. She did not know when he was getting his flat back.
His admission hadn’t helped the feeling in her stomach. Yes, many people forgot to turn the key in the second lock, but not usually young single women living alone.
Raymond shuffled off muttering something about guttering that needed repair.
‘You thinking someone else was in here?’ Penn asked.
‘I’m thinking it’s not beyond the realms of possibility,’ she said, back in the bedroom doorway.
Penn edged past her and walked into the room.
‘Never seen this before,’ he said, pausing at the window sill. ‘Someone cutting their own throat. Wrists in the bathtub but never this.’
Penn’s reaction to the whole scene was not calming the disquiet in her gut. She’d made the return visit to satisfy herself that she and Keats had been correct. It had had the total opposite effect.
‘Nice candle,’ Penn said. ‘Expensive. Mum loves them. Buys herself one a year.’
‘Penn, shut up,’ she said.
‘Okay, boss,’ he said, continuing to look around.
She made a mental list of the disparities in her mind.
No preparation. No ceremony. No note. Curtains wide open. Surely it would have been a private thing. Location, why not the bathtub? For some reason people taking their own lives did not want to make a mess. The plate and mug in the kitchen. Who felt like a snack knowing they were going to cut their own throat?
The fact that only one of the locks on the door needed opening. The one that would have clicked itself if someone had left.
The candle in the cellophane had stayed with her. It was the type of thing you bought as a gift. Amongst such a stark flat that held no other personal items, why just one expensive candle?
‘Penn,’ she said, urgently.
‘Get me back to the station, now.’
Bryant pulled into the car park ten minutes early. He noted immediately that he was first to arrive.
HMP Hewell was located in Tardebigge in Worcestershire. Holding approximately fourteen hundred mixed-category prisoners, it served the areas of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and West Midlands. The prison had its fair share of overcrowding, and drug problems, which had been highlighted when a chance wildlife documentary being filmed in adjacent fields caught the smuggling process in action.
It had also been home to Peter Drake for the last twenty-six years.
Bryant turned off the engine and sat back. Had he still been a smoker, a lit cigarette would already have been in his hand. Ten minutes to spare, anxiety clutching at his stomach, hell, he’d probably have chain-smoked a couple by now.
His palm began tapping on the steering wheel for want of something better to do as he glanced around the car park, waiting for the vehicle he was expecting.
He’d first met Richard Harrison when he’d attended Wendy’s funeral, standing unnoticed at the back. Only he hadn’t been unnoticed. Richard had approached him as he’d been getting back into his car and asked why he was attendin. . .
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