On Cold Ground
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A merciless killer who will stop at nothing. And a detective with nothing left to lose.
When Detective Karen Hart hears a scream echoing out of beautiful Lincoln Cathedral one snowy evening, she is the first officer on the scene. In the chapel a man lies murdered, a bloody cross carved into his forehead.
The twisted killing sends this close-knit community into shock. And a note to the police from the murderer, signed by ‘The Cleanser’, confirms their worst fears: this sadistic slaying is the first of many. The ritual killings will never stop until Hart uncovers the murderer’s ungodly motive.
When early leads become dead ends, Karen starts to wonder if there’s a link to a rumoured conspiracy within police ranks—particularly when an abrasive new officer is assigned to the case. Could the key to catching ‘The Cleanser’ be dangerously close to home? Meanwhile, she is battling her own demons as she struggles to come to terms with the deaths of her husband and daughter.
In her toughest case yet, Karen will come closer than ever before to a dangerous truth. Can she put the pieces of the puzzle together before she’s stopped in her tracks?
Release date: March 23, 2021
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
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On Cold Ground
They had no idea he was watching. He’d been trailing them for three hours, and they still didn’t have a clue.
He’d watched them eat dinner, then spent what felt like hours at the Lincoln Christmas Market, following them as they perused the stalls, admiring the lights and decorations. But finally, they’d had enough of the fake, gaudy celebrations, and were heading away from the castle.
The couple kept gazing at each other in a lovey-dovey way. Nauseating. That was why they hadn’t noticed him. They only had eyes for each other. He smirked. Very careless.
Leaning against the black railings in front of the Judges Lodgings, he watched people stream past him. The temporary market, in and around the grounds of Lincoln Castle, drew large crowds. This year more than most, after the event had been cancelled last year.
From his vantage point, it looked as though the historic building were hunched over, embarrassed by the meaningless festivities. People here had no respect for the past. Earlier, he’d watched in disgust as an elderly man walked past the entrance to the dungeons, wearing a Father Christmas hat and a scarf with flashing blue lights, slurping from a cup of mulled wine and munching on a gingerbread biscuit. So much for the true meaning of Christmas.
He didn’t understand the appeal. It was noisy. There were too many people in the area. And it was freezing. He cupped his hands and held them against his mouth, his breath hot against his numb fingers. He wasn’t exactly dressed for a stroll around the Christmas market. His dark jacket had proved too lightweight once the temperature began to steadily drop as the afternoon headed into the evening. The baseball cap he wore helped to shield his face from the many CCTV cameras but did little to keep him warm.
Irritated, he looked at his watch. Things were not going to plan. He’d played his part to perfection, but hadn’t counted on this development. He felt a sharp pain behind his eyes and took a deep breath of icy air. He needed to relax. It would all work out. Events had just unfolded differently than expected, that was all. He’d done everything right. No one could accuse him of not achieving his objective.
Earlier he’d been ready to go home, but his hands had been shaking so violently he’d needed something to calm his nerves. He’d gone to the nearest pub and ordered a whiskey to take the edge off. The warm, soothing effect of the alcohol had just started to kick in when the couple walked into the pub.
What were the chances? Were they on to him? Did they know?
Now, after traipsing around behind them for three long hours, he was sure they didn’t. Well, almost sure. It had been a coincidence they’d walked into the same pub. But he didn’t like coincidences. They made him nervous.
Of course, he knew who she was straightaway. The problem, as his boss referred to her.
He grinned. When his boss was feeling less polite, it was the thorn in my backside and a few other choice words.
He was still grinning when a tall, thin woman wearing a pair of fluffy pink earmuffs gave him a stern look as she walked by. ‘Weirdo,’ she muttered.
He stared after her. He was the weirdo? He wasn’t the one wearing pink earmuffs, was he?
He grunted in disgust and turned back to his targets. They were passing the Magna Carta now, laughing together. She was quite easy on the eye, but he looked like a bloke you really wouldn’t want to cross. Still, appearances could be deceptive. The information he had on her suggested she was the more dangerous one. The one he had to watch.
He walked slowly after them. Despite the cold, it was nice to be outside doing something physical for a change.
He glowered up at the dark sky as snow started to fall. He sniffed. The cold air was making his nose run.
Two children walked by, their plump faces smeared with sugary goo, holding toffee apples. That wasn’t a Christmas thing, was it? But it didn’t seem to matter. Whatever was on sale, the daft tourists lapped it up.
He slowed as the couple stopped to gaze at each other, chatting away, smiling like they were the only two people in the world.
He wanted to step between them and warn them not to get too happy because it wouldn’t last. It never did.
A shove from behind made him stagger forward. The culprit was a large, squat man with a bald head who continued on his way, not bothering to say sorry.
He clenched his fists, but it wasn’t the time or place to make a scene. He couldn’t draw attention to himself, but muttering some obscene words under his breath in the man’s direction made him feel a little better.
The crowds weren’t there to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. They just wanted cheap ornaments for their Christmas trees and to gaze at the twinkling lights like gormless fools.
A teenage girl walked past holding a paper cup. The smell of hot chocolate made him look closer. The cup was filled to the brim with cream and topped with marshmallows. Where had she got that? It was the only thing in the entire market he’d like to buy. He had a sweet tooth, and the thought of wrapping his cold fingers around a cup of hot chocolate was very tempting.
He turned back, only to see the couple he’d been following weren’t there. He straightened, craning his neck, trying to see over the heads of a group of German tourists who were strolling past and having an animated conversation.
Why were there so many people here?
He couldn’t have lost them. He’d only taken his eyes off them for a few seconds.
Walking on, he searched the crowds.
Three women, dressed in skintight jeans and skimpy tops, tottered past on sky-high heels. They’d obviously had quite a bit to drink. Maybe the alcohol was keeping them warm because none of them wore coats. The tallest one, with curly brown hair, was tunelessly singing a Christmas song at the top of her lungs.
He shook his head and walked on.
This was not good. Losing track of them for a few seconds was one thing, but they’d been out of sight for over a minute now. He paused. They couldn’t have vanished. Think. Where would they have gone?
Then he saw them, quite some way off, and exhaled in relief. They’d been walking fast and were heading towards the cathedral. It stood majestically at the top of Lincoln, a perfect pairing with the historic castle, and quite a contrast to the gaudy market.
He followed, walking quickly, keeping his head down as the snow began to fall harder. A snowflake landed on his nose, and he brushed it away.
The cathedral was illuminated, a beautiful sight after so much false cheer. Would they go inside? Despite the cold, sweat coated his skin. He shouldn’t still be here. It was too risky.
He’d closed the distance between them, but in his hurry, he’d been careless. The crowds were thinner here, and when the woman turned, he had nowhere to hide.
He wrenched his gaze away, pretending to look for something in his pocket as his pulse spiked.
It’s okay, he reassured himself as her gaze skimmed over him. She doesn’t know you’re following. To her, you’re another Christmas shopper. Just act naturally.
The couple were talking more intently now. He had his arm around her shoulders, and they seemed relaxed.
Everything is fine.
The thundering in his chest calmed.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. Usually, he’d ignore it, but being on the phone was a good cover. It looked normal, natural. He pulled the mobile out of his pocket, tapped to answer and then pressed the cold screen against his ear.
‘Progress report, Sparrow,’ said a clipped voice, instantly recognisable as that of his boss.
They had code names and disposable phones for this operation. He’d been offended by his codename at first. Sparrow – a tiny, drab, insignificant bird. But later, he’d decided it was fitting. No one noticed small birds. They got on with things without drawing attention to themselves.
It was all to protect the boss, of course. Not that he needed it. The man was so slippery nothing would stick to him. His code name should have been a type of snake. Of course, it wasn’t. He’d picked Eagle. Predictable.
‘Fine, boss,’ he replied. ‘It was a false alarm. A coincidence. I’m following them now. I’m keeping a close watch. You have nothing to worry about.’
‘You’d better be right. You know what will happen if you’re not.’
His lip curled in disgust. Oh, he was well aware of the stakes. He didn’t need reminding.
‘I’m hardly likely to forget,’ he said, not bothering to keep the scathing tone from his voice.
‘Make sure you keep me updated regularly, Sparrow. I don’t like to sit around waiting.’
‘As I’m following them now, it’s not the ideal time to make a phone call.’
‘Now listen here—’
‘I’m going to have to go. They’re moving.’ He hung up and felt a thrill of pleasure at his defiance, even though he knew the action would come back to haunt him.
Eagle would find a way to turn the screws. People like him always did.
He slipped his phone back into his pocket, his eyes never leaving Detective Sergeant Karen Hart for a second. He wouldn’t lose her again.
Eagle didn’t have to worry. DS Hart was oblivious. She hadn’t noticed anything.
In Sparrow’s opinion, his boss had overestimated her. She wasn’t all that sharp. It looked like this job would be easy.
DS Karen Hart had a full stomach and a pleasant, warm sensation buzzing through her body, thanks to the glass of wine she’d had with dinner.
She smiled against the soft wool of her scarf. She’d been seeing Mike Harrington for the past three months, and despite her initial trepidation, as they’d met during a case in which he’d been a suspect, their relationship had been going well – really well. Except for one thing.
She glanced at him and noticed the slight tension in his face. He was going to bring it up again, wasn’t he? She could tell. She hadn’t known him for long, but she knew when he was building up to something.
Looking away, she tried to think of something to distract him.
‘The lights are beautiful. They’ve really gone all out this year, haven’t they?’ She pointed at the decorations and strands of tiny white lights that criss-crossed the street above their heads.
Mike nodded his agreement. He was preoccupied, and she was sure he was working out how to casually bring the subject up again.
The Christmas decorations were pretty but understated, and complemented the historic streets in the Cathedral Quarter. Walking up Steep Hill earlier, Karen had let herself be caught up in the Christmas spirit for the first time in years.
She turned back to Mike. He had snowflakes in his dark hair and was frowning. It hadn’t worked. She hadn’t distracted him.
He pointed to the cathedral, just ahead of them. ‘That’s where I attended the grief counselling group. Near the refectory.’
‘I know,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve mentioned it.’
She heard the coldness in her voice and bit her lip. He was trying to help. He’d been devastated by the death of his son, and the counselling group had helped him. Now, he was trying to help her.
He grimaced. ‘Is that a cue for me to stop bringing it up?’
Yes, Karen thought.
In the past three months, her life had changed dramatically, and she felt she was coping. She still had sad days, and days when she was furiously angry, but considering she’d lost her husband and daughter and confronted the man who’d used his car to force their vehicle off the road, she thought her anger and sadness were understandable.
But Mike seemed to think he knew what was best for Karen, and that was starting to get very irritating.
‘It’s not that you can’t mention it, Mike,’ Karen said slowly. ‘But I know myself, and while I don’t have anything against counselling in theory, group therapy is not for me.’
Karen held up a gloved hand. ‘I saw a therapist after Josh and Tilly died.’
It was still hard for her to talk about them. The pain hadn’t gone away, and she’d think about them every day for the rest of her life. Mike seemed to think it wasn’t healthy. He wanted her to talk, to share her grief, but her stomach twisted with anxiety and her chest felt heavy with guilt when she tried.
‘It’s a good group,’ Mike said earnestly. ‘I found it helped to talk to people from all different walks of life, and realise that we all experience grief in our own way.’
Karen shrugged. ‘I’m not really a sharer, and sitting around drinking tea and eating biscuits while dissecting my personal life with a group of strangers isn’t my idea of fun.’
‘It wasn’t . . . fun,’ Mike admitted. ‘But it helped. I thought you might—’
Karen shook her head, cutting him off. ‘No. It wouldn’t suit me. I handle things differently, and I have to do what’s right for me.’
Mike nodded. ‘Absolutely.’
‘So you agree?’
‘Sure,’ Mike said.
Well, that was easier than she’d expected.
Mike kept telling Karen she needed help with her ‘trust issues’. But was it any wonder she was reluctant to trust people after discovering DI Freeman had lied to her face?
Freeman had been a close colleague, someone she’d worked alongside for years. He’d often offered her a shoulder to cry on, when actually he’d known all along who had been responsible for the death of her family. He’d covered it up because he’d been on the payroll of a local crime family. Officers working in traffic had taken bribes to alter the accident report, and two officers from the Thames Valley police service were also found to be associated with the same criminal gang. And Karen was convinced they’d only just scratched the surface. The corruption went deeper than Freeman. Until it was rooted out, Karen felt she was entitled to ‘trust issues’.
She pulled on her scarf to tighten it. The evening had turned very cold.
‘Although, to be absolutely sure it’s not for you, you’d actually have to attend at least one meeting.’
Karen sighed. She should have known he wouldn’t give up that easily.
She sensed a movement behind them and turned, but saw nobody close by except a man digging around in his pockets.
‘Do you fancy a hot chocolate?’ Mike asked, nodding in the direction of a stall set up a short distance from the cathedral.
Karen frowned. That was out of the designated area, wasn’t it? She wondered if they had a permit, but then decided to take off her police officer’s hat for the evening.
‘I don’t think I could eat or drink another thing,’ she said, patting her stomach. ‘I’m stuffed. Dinner was delicious, and the portion sizes were huge.’
They started walking towards the cathedral again. Mike’s apartment was close by, in one of the row of terraced houses that encircled the cathedral. Most of the buildings were owned by the church but some were private, and somehow Mike had managed to snag one.
She assumed he was a tenant rather than the owner, though the rent must be costing him a fortune and he couldn’t be earning a great deal from his job at the dog shelter.
But that was her detective’s instinct causing her to question everything. It was none of her business. He’d tell her about the property if and when he wanted to confide in her. Karen didn’t want him to think she was interested in his financial position or eyeing up what he was worth.
She looked up at the sky. A flurry of snowflakes swirled in the air above them. ‘I think this snow is getting heavier,’ Karen said. ‘Do you think it’ll settle?’
‘I’m not sure. It feels a bit too warm,’ Mike said, looking at the slush on the cobbles. ‘Shall we go back to mine?’
‘Actually, I’m going to head home,’ Karen said. She’d stayed at Mike’s for the last three nights, and she really needed to get home and do some washing.
‘Is that because I pushed you too hard on the grief counselling thing?’
Karen went up on her tiptoes and kissed Mike’s cheek. ‘No, I’ve just got stuff to do at home, and I’m back to work tomorrow.’
He put an arm around her shoulders, and they started to walk to her car.
Karen leaned into him and couldn’t help thinking that, if he’d only stop bringing up the grief counselling, things could very well be perfect.
* * *
They were walking by the west front of the cathedral, passing the barriers at the renovation works, when they heard the scream.
They stopped short and turned to look. A middle-aged woman stood just outside the arched entrance. She raked one hand through her shoulder-length grey hair and used the other to cover her mouth. As the woman turned, Karen realised she’d met her before, just a few weeks earlier. What was her name again?
Panic contorted the woman’s face as she took rapid, jerky breaths.
‘Eunice?’ Mike said, his arm slipping from Karen’s shoulders.
Of course. Eunice. That was her name. Karen smoothly slid into work mode, moving away from Mike and striding up to Eunice.
‘Is everything all right?’ Karen asked, though it clearly wasn’t.
Eunice was shivering. She wore a long green cardigan but no coat, and had a lanyard around her neck with a symbol and her name printed on the card.
Eunice grabbed Karen’s arm, opened and shut her mouth a few times without any noise coming out, and then finally managed to say, ‘He’s dead.’
Karen put her hand over the woman’s. ‘Who’s dead, Eunice?’
‘He’s inside.’ Eunice pointed to the cathedral entrance. ‘In the chapel. I nearly t . . . trod on him. I think he’s been murdered.’
Karen turned. ‘Mike, would you mind standing here and making sure no one enters or leaves until I get back?’
He took up a sentry position by the door. Karen tried to persuade Eunice to go back inside.
‘I can’t go back in there!’
‘Just into the entrance,’ Karen suggested. ‘It’ll be warmer. You don’t have to go into the chapel. I just need you to point the way.’
Eunice swallowed and raised a hand to her throat. ‘I don’t know. I think we should wait for the police.’
Karen rummaged around in her handbag for her ID. ‘I am a police officer, Eunice. Detective Sergeant Karen Hart of the Lincolnshire Police. We met a few weeks ago.’ She held up her ID. ‘If you show me where you found him, then I’ll call it in.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Eunice blinked, recognition dawning. ‘I remember. You’re Mike’s partner. It was lucky you were passing,’ she said, glancing at Mike then peering at Karen’s ID. She took a deep breath, trying to gather herself.
‘Are you working today?’ Karen asked, as the woman slowly edged inside.
‘Yes. There aren’t any group meetings at the weekends, but I’m taking the donations today. It used to be a voluntary contribution, but now if people want to see all areas of the cathedral open to the p . . . public, we ask them to pay. H . . . helps with the upkeep.’ Eunice spoke quickly, gulping shallow breaths between sentences.
‘I imagine it does,’ Karen said, as they walked across the large stone slabs of the entrance and into the main cathedral. Two huge Christmas trees stood either side of the vast space. It was an impressive sight.
‘I sit at that desk there.’ Eunice pointed at a small desk, set back against the wall. There was a till on the counter and stacks of leaflets, as well as a pile of large glossy guides to the cathedral.
Eunice led Karen to a small arched entrance close to the desk. The woman’s breathing had become ragged, and she was gripping Karen’s arm.
‘He’s in there,’ she whispered. ‘Between the pews.’
It was warmer inside than out, but Eunice was still shivering.
‘Okay. Are you all right to wait here for a minute while I go in?’ Karen asked, gently disentangling herself from the woman’s hold.
Eunice nodded but kept her wide eyes fixed on the entrance to the chapel.
Karen didn’t want to disturb a possible crime scene, but she needed to know there really was a victim before she called it in. She grabbed a pair of gloves from her handbag. It paid to be prepared.
‘Can you look after my bag?’
Eunice blinked and, with trembling hands, took the handbag from Karen.
Karen stepped inside the chapel, taking a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. A yellow cleaning sign had collapsed by the entrance. She stepped over it. The chapel was small, with pews running either side of a central walkway. The floor was made of stone slabs, worn smooth by the footfalls of centuries of worshippers.
At the back of the chapel, candles had been pressed into sandboxes. A prayer request station had been set up in a dark corner. Under other circumstances, the darkness could have been soothing, even meditative, but now Karen wished for some powerful crime-scene lights.
There was no body visible immediately, but as she moved further forward, she saw a man’s shoe between the first and second pews on the right side.
She stood at the end of the pews and looked down. The body of a man with brown hair, greying at the temples, lay between the benches. His forehead was a bloody mess. Karen peered closer. What looked like a ligature mark snaked across the front of his neck.
Had he been strangled? Tried to commit suicide? She looked up to see if there were any cords attached to the rafters or the ceiling. If he’d tried to hang himself and the rope had broken, he could have fallen to the floor and hit his head. That would explain both injuries, but there was no sign of any rope or cord.
Karen manoeuvred herself around the first pew, trying not to lean on anything, and reached down to press her gloved fingers against his neck.
It was possible he was still alive. If she detected a pulse, then she’d need to start CPR and call for an ambulance. The space was tight and uncomfortable, but she waited, hoping to detect his heart beating.
He was freezing cold, though his body wasn’t stiff.
She felt no pulse and shifted her fingers, hoping for a different result in the new position. She took her time, making sure, following her training, methodically checking for any sign of life.
But the man was dead, and going by how cold he was, likely had been for over an hour.
Eventually, with a sigh, Karen straightened and left the chapel. She ripped off her gloves and then grabbed her phone from her pocket to call it in.
She smiled sympathetically at Eunice. ‘Why don’t you go and sit at your desk? You’ve had a bit of a shock.’
‘He was murdered?’ Eunice asked as she gave Karen her bag back. ‘I don’t know when it could have happened. I’ve been at the desk most of the day.’
‘Once I’ve spoken to my colleagues, I’ll come and have a chat.’
‘Was he killed here?’
‘I’m not sure yet.’
‘What an awful thing to happen just before Christmas, and here of all places,’ Eunice said grimly. ‘It’s sucked the Christmas joy right out of me.’
Karen turned away as her call was answered. As she gave the control team the details, she couldn’t help agreeing with Eunice. Her Christmas spirit had vanished too.
She’d had a few days’ respite, but crime didn’t stop for Christmas.
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