She came back on the day of her father’s funeral, ten years after she vanished. But she can’t be who she says she is. Because we killed her. Didn’t we?
The young woman with the white-blonde hair sitting comfortably in the family living room smiles at the shocked faces around her.
“Don’t you recognise me?” she says. “I’m Blake.”
Some of her father’s family and friends crowd around her, relieved and grateful. But others seem terrified…
Blake’s father never reported her missing. Now he is dead, in a suspicious car accident, and Detective John Byron has been asked to investigate. But the new arrival has given him another mystery to solve. The family seem desperate to prove she isn’t Blake… So what are they scared of? And what really happened all those years ago?
But as Byron struggles to sort the innocent from the guilty, the woman calling herself Blake has plans of her own…
Prepare to be gripped by this mind-blowing suspense thriller, the first in a brand-new series from the bestselling author of the Charlie Fox books. Fans of Cara Hunter, Kendra Elliot and Rachel Abbott won’t be able to put this down.
See what readers are saying about Zoë Sharp:
‘Ooooooh-eeeee! What an incredible treat it was to read this action-packed thriller!… I bloody LOVED it! The opening… WOW… Talk about taking no prisoners!… Tension-filled, addictive and compelling.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Exhilarating!… I feel like I have been on a rollercoaster!’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘I wish I could read it for the first time all over again. I couldn't put it down! Put simply, I loved it! 5 worthy stars!’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘WOW!… Read in under a day and to be honest by the time I got to the end, I just sat there gaping for a few minutes… An absolutely AMAZING read which I highly recommend!’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Stayed up until the small hours to finish… Tense, gripping, thrilling with a plot that twists and turns and keeps you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails in anticipation.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘WOW!! What a book!!!’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Loved it… A brilliant, complex story delivered at ever-increasing pace… The twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat right to the end…
Release date: October 20, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Last Time She Died
Two squint against the lash of rain, grunt with the effort it takes to half carry, half drag the third through the claw of branches and brambles. Mud already slick beneath their boots. Feet already sodden.
One of them wishing to be anywhere but here.
The other just wishing it done.
Their burden is not yet sixteen. Easier to haul than a full-grown adult but…
If not quite yet, then she soon will be.
Doesn’t matter much, either way.
Long dark hair, matted with dirt and blood, hides the ruin of her face.
Long dark night hides the ruin they hope to avoid.
Long dark rain keeps the poachers in their beds.
Torch beams hit falling water, slicing down. Illuminating little. Nothing to see but trees and night. And the eyes of hidden watchers, lurking just beyond.
No condemnation there. Only hunger. They’ll scavenge what you bring, if you don’t bury it deep.
‘He better be here,’ mutters the first. The rain bites through the band of his hat, crawls beneath his collar, swamps his gloves. His hands are numb.
‘He will be,’ says the second, waits a beat. ‘He has the most to lose.’
The implication penetrates faster than a blade.
The first man shivers, trudges on.
In a clearing ahead, the sudden flare of headlights blinds them, catches them in a frozen tableau that has no extenuation.
This can only be what it is.
A body dump.
A diesel engine turns and catches, belching out smoke that mists against the lights, against the rain.
Clanking, the machine lurches forward. The arm drops and the bucket rakes the shifting ground. It lifts and swings aside. Water gushes down, gushes in, trying to fill the void. But even on this night, the storm cannot compete.
In minutes, the makeshift grave is dug. The operator shifts the arm to one side and lowers it, almost gently, to rest the bucket nose down. An elephant folding its trunk and taking a bow.
At no time does the operator leave the shelter of the cab.
Sighing, the two who brought the body position it closer. The first man takes the feet, keeps his gaze averted.
But the second clears the tangled hair from the features, as if trying to match the living to the dead, one last time. Reaches for the slender neck. Sees the silver locket on the narrow chain.
‘Bit late to check for a pulse, isn’t it?’ snaps the first. He glances, then quickly away.
The second does not answer. He grips her jacket, jerks her up and over.
It is a long drop to the bottom of the hole.
Afterwards, he is never sure if the sound he hears is merely air impacted from the lungs, or some kind of final cry.
They do not wait to see the digger’s arm rise again. They are already turning, heads slanted into the rain as they retrace their steps.
Three went into the forest.
Only two came back.
Over the years, Byron had been to more than his share of funerals.
He’d buried both parents, an older brother, friends, colleagues…
That was quite apart from services he’d attended for those met only after their deaths – the murder victims, whom he came to know in ways more intimate than family.
Those were the ones who called to him in the night and strolled through his dreams.
But the man being lowered into the ground in the elaborate casket – for which, Byron swore, an entire oak might have been sacrificed – was almost a stranger.
A week ago, Byron was barely aware of Gideon Fitzroy, let alone prepared to drive a hundred and forty miles to reach this little churchyard in the Derbyshire Dales, in time to see the man buried.
Officially, no crime had been committed.
He had to remind himself that crime, of any sort, was not currently his business.
And yet, here he was, standing a respectful distance back from the graveside of a man he didn’t know, surrounded by people who had, thus far, largely ignored him. In truth, that was partly his own fault. He’d misjudged the traffic leaving north London, and finally arrived just as the service itself was starting. He slipped into the back of the Norman church unnoticed, then out again while the coffin was being hoisted for its final journey.
PC Jane Hudson, formal in her No1 dress uniform, caught sight of Byron. She gave a restrained nod but followed it with a wink. He inclined his head by way of response.
She looked well, he considered. Trading her urban beat for the wilds of Derbyshire clearly suited her. Jane had come to policing via the Royal Navy, the experience lending her an air of self-assurance. A transplanted Scot, she had a fair Celtic complexion scattered with freckles. Her pale red hair, normally a riot of tight curls, was firmly pinned beneath her cap.
The man standing alongside the young officer noted the exchange and followed her gaze. He was older, broader, with a stocky build that would easily run to fat if he didn’t keep a grip on it. Even now, Byron noted the altered stance to compensate – feet apart, leaning back slightly. The man turned and studied Byron with narrowed eyes, not troubling to hide his scrutiny. With years of practice, Byron hardened his features and stared back. The other man looked away first.
Nice to know I haven’t entirely lost the knack.
The vicar droned through the familiar liturgy in a tone that was half sorrowful, half smug. A kind of ‘I told you so’ inflection, as if the deceased was, right about now, discovering all that might have been.
Byron tuned it out.
Instead, he watched the reactions of those who’d gathered to see Gideon Fitzroy into the grave. A blonde woman in a designer dress, face hidden behind an old-fashioned brimmed hat and veil. Was the fine black mesh to conceal her grief, or lack of it?
She was flanked by a boy and a girl, both fair like their mother. The boy was maybe fifteen or sixteen, gawky, not yet grown into his limbs. His face was peppered with acne that did not quite hide the livid mesh of recent scarring along his jaw.
The girl was perhaps three or four years younger – Byron found it hard to put an age on children between toddler and teen. The sleeve of her jacket had been tailored to fit over the cast on her right arm. From the set of her mouth, the way she kept blinking, he suspected only pride kept her from weeping.
It was interesting to know that one person, at least, mourned Fitzroy’s passing.
A man hovered next to the trio, close but somehow excluded from their circle. His dark hair, no matter how carefully arranged, was thinning. The breeze occasionally ruffling across the churchyard had him nervously smoothing it down.
There was something similar about the shape of the man’s face, the bridge of his nose, the line of his mouth, that was echoed in the teenage boy. An ex-husband, perhaps?
On the other side of the grave an older man, tall but slightly stooped, stood behind a woman in a wheelchair. As Byron’s gaze rested on the pair, he saw the man’s hand move to her shoulder. She reached up and squeezed it with her own, not hiding her distress. Byron judged them married by their matching rings but wondered idly at their relationship to the deceased.
The only other person to catch his eye was a thin woman whose worn coat marked her out from the other mourners. Perhaps it was her discomfort at this difference that made her scurry for the gateway before the service was finished. It was hard to tell.
For Byron, playing this game was a habit not easily discarded.
A small movement on the other side of the churchyard pulled his eyes from the others. At first, he took the figure there as male. Slim-hipped and slender, in skinny black jeans, ripped at the knees, and a dark hoodie beneath a short jacket. Then the figure shifted and he changed his mind.
A young woman – anywhere from late teens to late twenties. At this distance, that was as close as he could guess.
Her clothing might be dark but it was hardly traditional funeral garb. He could tell by the way she watched the coffin into the ground with such intent that she was no chance bystander. She’d come to see this done.
As if feeling his gaze, she threw him a quick, furtive glance and turned away abruptly, ducking her head as if to avoid recognition. Byron’s memory for faces, names, was renowned. But, in that brief moment, he was certain he’d never set eyes on her before.
So, who are you?
Almost without conscious thought, Byron’s feet shifted as if to follow, but a voice at his shoulder diverted his attention.
‘Mr Byron, sir?’
His eyes flicked to where the figure stood, but she was gone. He pulled his focus back. The vicar had finished his spiel and Jane Hudson now hurried towards him, hand outstretched. The stocky man was at her side.
Byron took the woman’s proffered hand. ‘Jane. Good to see you.’
‘Thank you, sir. You, too. Wasn’t sure you’d made it.’
‘Traffic.’ He shrugged apologetically.
Hudson turned to her companion. ‘Sarge, this is Detective Superintendent John Byron – my old mentor.’
Her appreciation sounded genuine.
‘I think you better put aside the rank, Jane,’ Byron said. ‘I’ve yet to get back on the job…’
Sometimes, Byron had to remind himself that he’d been signed off for almost a year. There were times when he didn’t feel remotely ready to return to any kind of duties. And others when he fought the utter frustration of doing nothing.
They can tell you to ‘take your time’ as much as they like.
What they don’t tell you is how.
‘This is Ed Underhill – my predecessor on this patch,’ Hudson was saying. ‘He’s been showing me the ropes.’
‘I don’t think there’s much need for that,’ Underhill said. ‘The lass’s picked things up pretty quickly.’ He sounded friendly but Byron knew he was being weighed up, that the other man was gauging the gap between Byron and himself – in age and appearance as well as prosperity. The job had taken its toll on Byron but he was still only in his mid-thirties and looked it. Underhill was probably twenty years older and had left the force considerably further down the career ladder. For a moment, something tightened in his face, then he gave a rueful smile.
‘It might take me a while to stop calling you “sir”, sir.’ Hudson dimpled. ‘Not sure I’m quite ready to start calling you “John”.’
‘Please don’t.’ Byron had always disliked his first name, partly for exactly the emphasis the woman had just placed upon it. A John was a toilet, a mug punter on a used-car lot, the client of a prostitute. ‘Just Byron will do.’
Whatever response Hudson might have made was pre-empted by the arrival of the man Byron had dubbed the ex-husband. He tapped Underhill on the arm and leaned in.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Ed. Do you have a moment?’
‘Of course,’ Underhill said. He nodded to Byron. ‘Good to meet you, Mr Byron. I hope we’ll get a chance to chat before you head home?’
Byron gave a noncommittal smile and watched him leave. He did not enjoy talking shop, rarely seeking out the opportunity. He hoped to avoid being cornered by Underhill and peppered with well-meaning reminiscences.
There are some things I’d really rather forget.
‘Ed’s been great while I’ve been settling in.’ Hudson pulled a wry face. ‘I get the feeling he regrets retiring.’
‘So why did he?’
‘Bad back. And he’d done thirty years, so no one can say he hasn’t earned it…’
Hudson’s voice trailed off awkwardly and Byron hid a smile. The ongoing repercussions from his own injuries looked like they might force him out early, albeit at a level that came with a very healthy pension. Not to mention compensation and insurance. He knew there had been plenty of rumours about that.
‘As long as he’s doing right by you, that’s all that matters. Who was the other chap, by the way?’
‘Oh, Roger Flint – Mr Fitzroy’s brother-in-law.’
‘The sister being…?’
‘Fitzroy’s wife – well, widow – Virginia.’ Hudson indicated the woman in the veil. ‘The kids are hers from a previous marriage.’
‘Ah.’ Byron nodded. ‘So, how are you liking it up here?’
‘Oh, fine, I think. Rustic Derbyshire is a far cry from the Met, though. Not much goes on around here.’
‘Sudden death of a local bigwig notwithstanding, you mean?’
Byron hadn’t missed the pair of journalists hovering by the gate – a local man and a stringer for the nationals, if he was any judge. No doubt they’d hoped – in vain – for celebrity attendance. To his mind, the fact there were only two of them spoke volumes.
Gideon Fitzroy was yesterday’s man.
‘Aye, well, apart from that.’ Hudson tried to offset the twitch of her shoulders with a smile that didn’t quite make it to wry. ‘Not that it isn’t lovely to see you, Mr Byron, but I have to ask – why are you really here?’
Fifteen minutes later, the young woman Byron had observed in the churchyard dropped down on the inside of the high brick wall surrounding a manor house just outside the village, and dusted the grit from her hands.
She pushed back her hood, revealing long blonde hair, almost white, tied into a loose plait at the nape of her neck. For a moment she stood silent amid the ancient spruce and rhododendron, head cocked, listening.
There had never been dogs loose here in the past but that didn’t mean she had to take chances. She heard nothing but the susurrus of leaves as the wind rolled through the branches.
Staying within the cover of the trees, she skirted the house, picking her way with care through nettles that came up to her chin. Not much about Claremont had changed. The boxy Georgian pile had been added onto over the years, until the classical symmetry of its lines began to sprawl. At some point, the original pale cream render had been painted a shade of yellow that, to her eyes, vaguely resembled pus from an infected wound. It was stained and peeling in some places, swamped in others by ivy and Virginia creeper.
It might look more unkempt since her last time here, but security had been upgraded. That was no surprise – it had been upgraded everywhere. She spotted the cameras mounted up near the parapet in the obvious places. They were small, wireless, and no doubt motion-operated and infrared as well as daylight. But on the west side, she was able to get within fifty or sixty metres of the outside wall of the property. Close enough to read the manufacturer’s name on the alarm box near the upper cornice and, using the zoom lens on her phone camera, even the model number.
Going to one knee, she shrugged out of her small backpack and dug inside for a handheld amateur radio transmitter, the size of a walkie-talkie. It only took a moment to search the licensing database for the correct frequency and dial it in. She keyed Transmit and held it down with a strip of duct tape. With the unit in her hand, she slung the backpack over one shoulder, and stepped out onto the expanse of lawn.
She had few doubts about the effectiveness of the kit she was using. But still, by the time she reached the wall near the rear entrance, she was aware of a thudding in her chest that echoed in her ears. With her back to the building, she stared out across the flagged terrace and waited for her pulse to settle.
So far, all she had done was trespass in the grounds. What came next would be far harder to excuse.
When her hands had steadied, she turned, crouched, and studied the old mortise lock on the door. It was a standard curtained five-lever – one she could pick in a few minutes without too much difficulty. Instead, she let her eye drift over the tubs and planters of herbs that surrounded the rear step. One had several rings around the base of it, denoting movement. She tilted the tub to one side and, sure enough, a spare key lay on the stone beneath.
‘Ah, will they ever learn…?’
The key was a slack fit in the lock, turning loosely. She checked one more time that the duct tape was still pressing the Transmit button down fully on the radio, then pushed the door open. A chill seemed to emanate from within.
Inside, the black-and-white tiled hallway led away into the gloom. At the far end, above the doorway, she saw the red motion sensor start to blink as it activated. But as she passed the alarm control unit on the wall, it remained oblivious to the intrusion.
She checked the time and hurried through to the study. Second door on the right from the main hallway, past the stairs. Inside, the décor hadn’t changed. It didn’t even look like the place had seen a fresh coat of paint.
The same hunting print hung behind the desk. She lifted it down to reveal the wall safe with her fingers mentally crossed for no change there either. Her luck held. It was still the old strongbox, secured by a key rather than a combination.
She moved to the three-drawer filing cabinet in the far corner, walked it forward enough to heave it onto its back edge. Balancing it there, she reached underneath the front and flipped the lever bar holding the drawers shut. When she set it down again, the top drawer pulled out without resistance beyond the screech of metal runners. It sounded horribly loud in the empty house.
The key to the safe was, as ever, lurking beneath the file hangers at the front of the drawer.
Because, of course, nobody would ever think to look there…
The safe door swung open easily. Inside were several folders of paperwork, a jewellery box, and a wad of cash held by an elastic band. She riffled through the banknotes. All twenties – probably about a grand. Pulling a face, she dropped the money behind her onto the desktop.
The jewellery box bore the name of a diamond merchant with a Hatton Garden address. She ran her thumb across the name embossed on the lid with eyebrow raised.
‘Looks like somebody’s been splashing out.’
Flicking the catch revealed a sapphire necklace – a decent piece, if not top drawer. The stones were good-sized, evenly weighted and interlaced with tiny diamonds, but too dark to be the highest quality Cornflower Blues. She dangled it between finger and thumb, up against the light, pursed her lips at the visible imperfections.
‘He might even have loved you,’ she said, her voice dry. ‘But not that much…’
Setting the box aside, she reached for the folders. The second one down was marked: ‘Wills’.
She nudged the chair back from the desk with the toe of her boot and sat, opening the folder.
‘Well, this ought to be good…’
Outside, ten minutes after the interloper sat down to read, the activation light on the exterior alarm box began, silently, to flash.
‘What did you make of Gideon Fitzroy?’ Byron asked.
Jane Hudson could glean little from the detective superintendent’s voice. She glanced sideways at him before replying. The neutral expression on his face told her even less.
They’d first met four years previously, when she was fresh out of the Royal Navy and training to be a copper. Byron came to deliver a guest lecture at Hendon. He had been around thirty, and one of the youngest detective chief inspectors in the Met back then. His dark good looks had caused hearts to flutter in many of the female trainees – and a few of the males, too. Hudson had set out determined not to be impressed by the man, convinced he would be far too full of himself.
Besides, he was an inch or two shorter than she was. At five-ten Hudson knew she was tall for a woman, but some men seemed to take this as either a personal affront, or a challenge. Within the first five minutes, listening to him speak, she’d been forced to revise her opinion. His rank and reputation, she decided, had been well earned.
After she began as a probationer with the Met, their paths had crossed again during the first major investigation she was part of.
A very small, insignificant part, she reminded herself – initially just keeping the log of official comings and goings at the entry to the crime scene. As she’d handed the clipboard to Byron for his signature at the cordon, shivering in the pre-dawn darkness and the rain, she hadn’t expected for a moment that he’d remember her.
In fact, she was a tiny bit suspicious when he’d called her by name and asked, with a faint smile, if the reality of the job was living up to her expectations. It sounded too much like the start of a chat-up. But she’d never got that creepy vibe from him. Not like some of the male officers she’d worked with, regardless of their marital status.
‘Well, I only met the man a couple of times,’ she said now. ‘Once when I first arrived here – Ed Underhill took me round and introduced me to all the local worthies.’
‘And the second occasion?’
‘About a week before he died. Mr Fitzroy was involved in a minor traffic incident in Wirksworth – er, the nearest small town, sir. It’s about three miles from here,’ she added before he could ask. ‘I happened to be passing. It wasn’t really an official shout.’
That caused a raised eyebrow. Shadows around his eyes made them seem almost black. He was thinner, too, the hollows below his cheekbones more pronounced.
Hardly surprising, after what he’s been through.
‘Who was at fault?’
‘Hard to tell. At the time, I suggested they took equal blame and let the insurance companies sort it out.’
Hudson blinked. She thought her tone was entirely matter-of-fact. Obviously not.
‘But, with hindsight… maybe it was more his fault than the other driver’s. And, I mean, it was only a week before his fatal crash. I hate that I might have let his social standing – former Member of Parliament, local lord of the manor, that sort of thing – influence my judgement, you know?’
Byron nodded. ‘As long as you recognise that fact, then you’ve learned something valuable from the experience. Move on.’
They were walking slowly around the churchyard now, along a gravel path that crunched underfoot. Hudson saw the same family names repeated on clusters of gravestones. Some dated back to the 1700s.
‘Even so, in light of what happened,’ Hudson admitted, ‘well, I wish I’d done things differently.’
‘Did you take a look into Fitzroy’s background? Just for curiosity’s sake…’
Hudson reddened. Blushing easily was a disadvantage of her colouring. And it was no becoming rose tint to her cheeks. More a ruddy flush that blotched her neck and the tips of her ears beneath her hat. ‘Well…’
‘Oh, spit it out, Jane. If you hadn’t bothered, I’d think less of you.’
‘It feels like gossip, that’s all,’ she protested, still pink. ‘After Fitzroy’s first wife died – nothing untoward there,’ she added hastily, seeing the question already forming on Byron’s lips. ‘Cancer, so I’m told, and not quick. But… they had a daughter. She was only nine or ten when her mum passed and she went off the rails a bit.’
‘Is this the gossip part?’
‘No. She did a runner when she was fifteen – just disappeared one day and never came back.’
Byron glanced at her. ‘“Never” as in…?’
‘She’s still missing.’ Hudson nodded. ‘And that’s where the gossip comes in. Rumours started that Fitzroy must be a proper tyrant if his own daughter ran away at that age.’
‘Was there any kind of investigation into her disappearance?’
‘Apparently not. Of course, he was still an MP back then, so he was probably keen to keep it low-key.’ She hesitated. ‘I know you – the Met, I mean – investigated quite a few MPs during that whole Westminster paedophile case—’
‘The one that all fell apart?’
She nodded. ‘Anyway, Fitzroy was never even remotely implicated in that, was he?’
‘No. Although, murder was always my speciality rather than vice.’
‘Aye, that’s what I thought. And round here… Well, from what I’ve heard, he helped keep the village shop and the pub open, sponsored the community bus, and last year he made a major contribution towards resurfacing the kiddies’ playground.’
Byron paused, hands in pockets. They had circled to the far side of the churchyard, where a hedge bordered a garden of remembrance. The markers were smaller here, laid flat into the grass.
Back towards the church itself, Hudson could see the fresh grave into which Gideon Fitzroy had been lowered. The mourners had already walked across the road to the village hall. Tea and sandwiches and awkward conversation. Hudson had no desire to join them. Two men had cleared away the matting around the grave and were shovelling earth on top of the coffin with practised speed.
Byron turned back, levelling a rut in the gravel path with the toe of his polished shoe. ‘What about Fitzroy’s accident? Anything suspicious there at all?’
She glanced at him sharply. ‘Not as far as we know. He veered onto the wrong side of the road, went through a low wall and down the banking. His two stepchildren were in the car with him at the time.’
‘It’s lucky they weren’t all killed.’
‘Aye, well, you can say one thing for Mercedes – they know how to build a good solid motor.’
‘Why do you think I drive one myself?’
‘If he’d been wearing his seat belt, they reckon he might have survived,’ Hudson said as they walked on. She hesitated. ‘Fitzroy’s driving record was a bit… spotty. He’d built up nine points for speeding, and there was that bump. Nothing serious, but all the same…’
‘Possibly indicative of careless habits.’
‘Aye. That was my take on it.’
‘And the inquest verdict?’
‘Accidental death. The post-mortem exam revealed he was pre-diabetic, could have given his liver a helping hand if he’d cut back on the booze, lost some weight, done a bit more exercise, but nothing conclusive.’
‘You’re describing most men over sixty in the entire country.’
Hudson snorted. ‘Most men over thirty, more like.’
He gave her the side-eye. ‘Watch yourself. It comes to us all, sooner or later.’
She recalled he was only thirty-five himself and flashed a quick grin. ‘I’ll try to remember that, sir.’
‘And please, stop “sirring” me.’
‘Yes, si—’ She managed to stop herself just in time. ‘OK, yes, sorry.’
The path had turned back. They were nearing the gateway where the cars waited. The pressmen, Hudson noticed, had finally given up and gone. She took a deep breath, picked her words with care.
‘If I can ask… why the interest in Fitzroy? He was never a suspect, as far as I know, and he stepped down as an MP eighteen month. . .
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