Love Me Tender
IF HE WANTS YOU . . . THERE'S NO ESCAPE.
A brutal murder . . .
Responding to a tip-off, newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector Paolo Sterling arrives at an apartment block to find the dismembered body of a young woman. And with no indication of a break-in, all signs suggest the killer was known to her.
An abduction in plain sight . . .
Then the victim's friend is snatched with no witnesses and the unanswered questions mount up.
At the same time, Sterling's team are leading the surveillance of a local club, thought to be involved in a drug operation. But when one of his colleagues ends up in hospital close to death, Paolo begins to lose his grip.
A detective on the edge . . .
With the odds stacked against him, and time running out, can DCI Sterling uncover the truth before it's too late? Or will this case finally tip him over the edge?
Lorraine Mace returns with the fifth instalment in her dark, gritty and unflinching DI Sterling series. Perfect for fans of Jane Casey, Karin Slaughter and M. J. Arlidge.
Readers LOVE the D.I. Sterling thrillers:
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'Keeps you guessing and hooked with plenty of twists too. As for that ending - well!!!' *****
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'I am blown away by this story and LOVE everything about it. I cannot wait for the next instalment.' *****
'OMG! That opening scene' *****
'Oh my goodness! What an opening chapter.' *****
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'Wow!!! What a book!!!' *****
'Dark, disturbing yet utterly gripping!' *****
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'Every book I've read in the series has been fantastic' *****
Release date: January 21, 2021
Publisher: Headline Accent
Print pages: 236
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Love Me Tender
Where was it? Where had Grandpa hidden it? From the moment the bastard had stopped breathing, Boy had been searching. He’d already spent hours turning Grandpa’s room inside out, but he wasn’t ready to give up. It would be here somewhere, he knew it. The old man would never have thrown it away. He stood in the middle of the bedroom, shifting his weight from one side to the other, the floorboards creaking in protest. A waft of sickly-sweet odours assailed his nostrils, reminding him he didn’t have long before the undertakers would arrive. Funny to think the people Grandpa had employed and abused would now be responsible for sending him off. The old bastard had made their lives hell while he’d been alive. Now was their opportunity for payback and he wouldn’t blame them if they took it.
Boy glared at Grandpa’s corpse, lying in comfortable state on the bed.
‘Where did you put the box?’ he hissed. ‘I know you would never have chucked it out.’
The stench made him gag; he wished he’d turned the heating off in this room, but he couldn’t give up the search – not until he’d found it. The box would be in here somewhere. Maybe the wardrobe had a false back, he thought, turning towards it. As he spun, the rug caught his heel and he fell, tumbling down in a heap. Just as well the old man was dead, otherwise he would have had to listen to another of Grandpa’s lectures on how fucking useless he was.
He pulled himself upright and then reached down to straighten the rug. That’s when he knew he’d hit the jackpot. The floorboards didn’t quite meet as they should. He put his fingers into a well-worn groove and lifted out a loose section of wood. As he’d suspected, Grandpa had been hiding money away from the taxman. A large cashbox took up most of the space and Boy knew just where to find the key to it, but money wasn’t the prize he wanted.
Hands shaking, he pulled out the Tupperware sitting next to the cashbox. The plastic container was empty, but still stained with her blood. This was it – his holy grail.
Boy sat cross-legged next to the bed, no longer bothered by the smell, and hugged the container, allowing his memories to flow.
He’d just turned fourteen when Grandpa had brought Grammy’s heart home in this box.
Paolo’s computer pinged. He glanced over and saw he’d finally received an email from his daughter. Wow – it’s about time! Well done, Dad! Very busy here. Will send more news soon. Lots and lots of love, Katy.
He sighed for the newsy email he knew would never arrive. Since she’d left to go overseas as a volunteer, her life had revolved around the people she was there to help. That was the way it should be, he knew that, but it didn’t stop him missing her.
At least she was excited for him, which was more than he was. The notification had been on his desk for days and he had yet to feel anything. He’d hoped sharing the news with Katy would stir up some emotion. For possibly the hundredth time, he picked up the official notice and read the details of his promotion. No longer Detective Inspector; the page confirmed he was, as of last Friday, Detective Chief Inspector Paolo Sterling. He’d never been ambitious and would have been happy to stay as a DI, but life moved on. If Dave had been around he’d have insisted on going out to celebrate. But Detective Sergeant Dave Johnson wasn’t here – would never again be sitting opposite Paolo, laughing with him, often at him. Would never again suggest Paolo needed to improve his social life. He was gone for good.
Almost as if he’d conjured him into being, the person Paolo blamed most for Dave’s death – other than himself – pushed his office door open and barged in without knocking. Detective Sergeant Jack Cummings had the habitual scowl plastered on his face. The man must practise in front of a mirror to have mastered that pissed-off look, Paolo thought.
‘I sat out all night with DC Ferguson and we didn’t even spot a cockroach on the move,’ Jack said. ‘Seems that club might be clean after all.’
‘One night of surveillance with nothing happening doesn’t mean it’s clean. You should know that, Jack.’
‘You want us watching again tonight, sir?’
The ‘sir’ was tinged with bitterness and sarcasm, matching Jack’s sour expression.
‘Yes, Jack. Tonight, tomorrow, and every night until something occurs we can act on. The information we received came from a reliable source. That club is being used as a front for drug dealing and at some point they are going to bring in new supplies. We need to be there when it happens. Any other questions?’
Jack shook his head.
‘Good. Go home and get some sleep. I want you back outside before the place opens tonight.’
Jack edged out without a word. He must know I despise him, Paolo thought. If it hadn’t been for his shit-stirring, Dave would still be here. How does he live with himself? But Paolo knew the answer to that. Jack didn’t see anything wrong in what he’d done. In his mind, Dave had been given preferential treatment because his uncle was the Chief Constable. Reality hadn’t been allowed to get in the way of perception. Dave had gone all out trying to prove his worth to Jack who would never have accepted him at face value, no matter what he did, and had died as a result.
Paolo thought back six months. He’d been determined to get rid of Jack then, but had been stymied by the Chief asking Paolo to take the bastard under his wing. Well, Paolo felt he’d bided his time for long enough. It was time to put Jack Cummings in for a transfer.
His musings were interrupted by a tap on his door. Even before he looked up, he knew it wouldn’t be Jack. He never bothered to knock.
Detective Sergeant Cathy Connors looked in. For the last few months her hair had been a subdued shade of red. Paolo had much preferred it when she’d come into the office with outrageous colours standing up in spikes, but word from above had put a stop to that.
She smiled. ‘Got a minute, sir?’
‘For you, CC, of course. Come in. Take a seat. What can I do for you?’
‘It’s more what we want to do for you, sir. The lads and I feel we should do something to mark your promotion.’
Paolo shook his head, but CC ignored him.
‘Sir, you’ve hidden yourself away since . . . since . . .’ She shrugged and swallowed. ‘Since we lost Dave you’ve been working flat out, all the hours God sends, seven days a week. Carry on at that rate and you’ll wipe yourself out. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for us. We need a reason to go out and have a good time and we’ve decided your promotion is it.’
Paolo couldn’t imagine a night out without Dave egging him on to relax and enjoy himself. Still, CC was right.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘What did you have in mind?’
She grinned. ‘What I have in mind would never do for you, sir.’
He laughed. ‘I’m sure about that. Take a pew and tell me what you think would do for me,’ he said, pointing to the chair opposite his desk.
CC sat down, glancing out towards the main office as she did so. ‘We need to include everyone, sir.’
Paolo grimaced. ‘Have I made it that obvious?’
She shook her head. ‘Only to me, but the others know what happened and have guessed how you must feel.’
‘Damn,’ he said. ‘I should’ve been able to keep my feelings to myself.’
CC smiled. ‘Not your strongest attribute, sir. But don’t worry, most of them out there dislike Jack because he’s a first-class prick. Nothing to do with you at all.’
‘DS Connors, consider yourself reprimanded. That is no way to refer to a fellow officer.’
‘Yes, sir. Right you are, sir.’ She winked. ‘Now that you’ve told me off, can we get back to the important topic of celebrating your promotion?’
‘We know how much you love Italian food, so thought we’d take over that restaurant near the hospital. I’ve spoken to the owner and he is more than happy to close the place to other customers for a night. What do you think?’
The quiet voice in his head said I need to keep my real thoughts to myself, but he forced out a smile.
‘Sounds good to me,’ he said, but the memories of the great times he’d spent there with Jessica screamed out that was the last place he would ever want to go for a celebration. After she’d taken the position in Canada their contact had gradually dwindled to an occasional email. Eventually, they’d both decided the long-distance romance wasn’t working. He sighed. That relationship was now in the past. It was probably time to let go of those memories.
‘I think we should set it up for the last Friday this month. It’s easier to enjoy ourselves when we’ve just been paid.’
Paolo was relieved. That gave him just over two weeks before he needed to put on a smiley face and pretend to have a good time.
‘Right, that’s settled,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave it to you to book everything. Now we need to get back to work. Okay?’
CC nodded. ‘The day shift are watching The Pipe, but I doubt anything will go down in daylight, sir. Once the Chief gave that press conference and announced his intention of shutting down the clubs known to be involved in drug dealing, the people at The Pipe must have realised they were being watched. I can’t help feeling it would have been better to keep quiet and let us get on with the job without alerting the dealers.’
Paolo sighed. ‘Probably, but the Chief was dealing with political pressure. It’s always the way, you know that. A kid dead from a drug overdose isn’t news, but the daughter of an MP dead from a drug overdose makes the front page. Sally Mendip’s death forced the Chief’s hand. George Mendip is spouting off in the press that we aren’t doing enough to protect innocent victims, so the Chief felt he had to prove we were on the job.’
CC snorted. ‘Innocent victim? Is he not aware his daughter was a known user and might even have been a dealer herself?’
Paolo shook his head. ‘No parent who’s lost a child, no matter what the circumstances, sees them in any light other than the best. We know she was dealing, but on autopsy Dr Royston wasn’t able to determine if her overdose was accidental or deliberate. We can’t even be sure she wasn’t murdered. All we know is that The Pipe seems to be at the centre of the bad drugs flooding our streets. I understand George Mendip’s need to rage and want answers, but Sally isn’t our only victim. We’ve lost too many young people in the last few months and I can’t let his grief affect the way we conduct this investigation.’
The moment the undertakers took Grandpa’s body away, Boy retrieved the plastic box from inside the wardrobe, where he’d hidden it when the doorbell rang.
He opened it and sniffed, but any smell that had been in there was long gone. It was funny, he thought, considering what he’d been forced to do, but the delicious aroma of hearts slowly braising for hours still gave him comfort, even now. Other than the scent of roses Grandpa bought her each week, braised hearts was the smell he associated most with Grammy. It was Grandpa’s favourite meal. She’d been cooking them the day Grandpa had brought Boy home from the hospital after the accident.
Just a few days short of his eighth birthday, he’d stumbled into her kitchen, numb with grief. He’d never been in the house before, but Grammy equalled love, that he knew for sure. Whenever she’d sneaked out to visit them, his dad had always begged her to leave Grandpa and move into their home.
‘You poor baby,’ she’d crooned, opening her arms and drawing him into the warmest embrace he’d ever experienced. Even his mother, who’d loved him to bits, hadn’t held him as tightly as Grammy did that day.
‘Let the boy go,’ Grandpa ordered. ‘You’ll make him as soft as his dim-witted father.’
She’d gripped him even harder. ‘Ah, George, can’t you see the boy needs comfort? He’s lost both parents. We’re all he has.’
‘Better for him that they’re dead. His father was a weakling and his mother pure trash.’
He’d pushed away from Grammy without thinking and faced Grandpa, rage filling his skinny frame. ‘Don’t you dare be mean about my mum and dad,’ he’d yelled.
Almost before the words had left his lips, Grandpa’s hands snaked out and gripped his throat, lifting him clear off the floor and shoving his back up against the cold wall tiles.
‘George, please don’t,’ Grammy begged. ‘He’s just a child.’
‘Shut your mouth, woman. You know better than to interfere. The boy has to learn.’
Feet dangling in mid-air and his throat on fire, he’d tried to speak, but only croaking sounds came out.
Grandpa leaned forward, pushing his face up close.
‘Listen to me, boy. You are going to live here from now on. What I say is law. Your father was weak or he would never have taken up with that bitch on heat.’ He grinned. ‘Answer me back just one more time, boy, and you will disappear faster than you arrived here. Do you know what I do for a living?’
He couldn’t have spoken even if he’d known what to say, but Grandpa hadn’t waited for an answer.
‘I bury people. I put them in coffins deep underground and they never come up again. Sometimes, though, I burn them. They go into a furnace so hot they come out the other side as a pile of ashes. You step out of line just once, boy, and I’ll put you into one of those coffins with one of my dead customers and you’ll end up six feet underground, cuddling up to a corpse until you run out of breath, or you’ll burn in agony and turn into a pile of ash. Got it?’
The expression on his face must have been answer enough because Grandpa let go of his throat and he’d slid down the wall and collapsed on the kitchen floor.
‘I’m going up to change. You’d better have stopped the boy from snivelling and have my tea on the table by the time I come down again.’
With every nerve in his body stretched to breaking point, he’d watched Grandpa’s black-clad figure leave the room. That was the first and last time he’d spoken out during the years Grammy was alive.
For six years he’d tried not to anger Grandpa. At times he’d come close to making him mad enough to carry out his threat, but Grammy had always pleaded for Boy’s life and Grandpa had given in. The only person Grandpa loved was Grammy. He’d told her every day that no one would ever love her as much as he did and if she even thought about another man, he’d know. Whenever she’d upset him, even when she’d been so stupid he’d had to strangle her and lock her in the special punishment room in the cellar, the next day he’d bring her a posy of roses to show she’d been forgiven.
Grammy smiled most of the time, but Boy sometimes heard her crying after Grandpa left for the funeral parlour. The only time he had been brave enough to ask what was wrong was when he’d found her pulling the petals off one of the roses from the last posy Grandpa had given her.
‘He loves me; he loves me not.’
‘Grammy, what are you doing? Why are you crying?’
She hadn’t answered straight away. She put the flower down and wiped her eyes before brushing the petals from her lap onto the floor.
‘Would you like one of my special sweets?’ she asked.
Boy nodded and took one. It was the first time she’d ever offered him one of her love heart sweets. After a while, she smiled.
‘You know how Grandpa gets cross with me?’
‘It’s because I’m stupid sometimes. I get things wrong, even though I try really hard to do exactly as Grandpa has taught me.’
‘But he . . . he . . .’ Boy stopped, unable to put into words what he thought about Grammy and Grandpa.
She pulled him close. ‘You’ve seen how he gets angry with me and has to teach me a lesson, but what you don’t see is how much he loves me. If I could only learn to be less stupid he’d never put his hands round my throat ever again. He only does it because I get things wrong. It’s all my fault. You know that, don’t you?’
Boy didn’t know any such thing, but it felt so good to be held by Grammy he didn’t want to say the wrong thing and get pushed away. He nodded.
Grammy sighed. ‘No one is loved as much as I am. Even after I’ve been stupid and needed to be chastised, Grandpa still brings me flowers to show I’ve been forgiven.’
Boy realised he had no idea about love, but if that’s what Grammy said then it had to be true. She’d never lie to him.
She let him go and stood up. ‘I’d better clear up these petals before Grandpa comes for his lunch. You know how he hates an untidy home.’
Boy watched as Grammy opened the cupboard and took out an old biscuit box. She opened it and the scent of decaying roses briefly wafted from the tin. She picked up the petals and placed them gently inside.
‘Don’t tell Grandpa you heard me cry,’ Grammy begged as she closed the tin.
No fear of that. He shuddered even at the thought of saying anything to Grandpa without being spoken to first.
He hadn’t been strong enough to do that until the day after Grammy died when Grandpa arrived home early and put the Tupperware box on the kitchen table.
Boy hadn’t realised at first what it was.
‘I’m going back to the parlour. I want that stuffed and cooked for when I get home.’
‘I’ve only watched Grammy cooking lamb’s hearts. I’ve never done it myself.’
Grandpa smiled and pointed to the box. ‘That isn’t a lamb’s heart, boy. It’s Grammy’s. You can cook it, but I’ll be the only one eating it. She’s always belonged to me and me alone.’
All the rage Boy had felt for the past six years raced to the surface.
‘No! I won’t do it!’
He had more to say, but never got the chance to speak. Once again Grandpa’s hands circled his throat and squeezed.
‘Want to go into the furnace with her, do you? There’s room enough in her coffin for a scrawny little shit like you.’
Boy felt the blackness coming and fought against passing out, terrified if he did he’d wake up in Grammy’s coffin. Grandpa loosened his grip and blessed air flowed back into Boy’s lungs.
‘You followed her around the kitchen like a baby girl enough times to know how it’s done. You cook it right or you go into the flames with her.’
Grandpa released him and walked out of the kitchen. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t need to. As Boy heard the front door slam, he knew he would do as Grandpa had ordered because there was no alternative.
He lifted the heart carefully from the box and placed it on the special board Grammy had kept for the lamb’s hearts. She’d stressed she’d had to be gentle because the skin could so easily split.
Picking up the extra-sharp scissors she always used, Boy carefully cut away the tubes. Then he slid his fingers inside to clean it out the way he’d seen Grammy do so many times and something amazing happened. It felt like putting on the softest glove imaginable. Grammy’s heart was caressing him, telling him she cared. It felt so right, he didn’t want to take his hand out. He moved his fingers gently, feeling Grammy’s love seep into him.
Boy wasn’t alone any more. Grammy’s blood flowed around his fingers. Tenderly, oh so tenderly, he slid his hand out and felt a loss greater even than when his parents had died. Tears streaming down his face, he moved his hand back into the heart. The sides closed round his fingers and held them. He wanted to stay like this for ever, safe within Grammy’s love.
Eventually, the fear of Grandpa’s rage overruled his needs and he removed his fingers for the final time. As he stumbled arou. . .
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