When Silence Kills
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Release date: August 19, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 400
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When Silence Kills
At thirty-nine years old, Vee still believed in fairy tales.
She still believed that a person must be loved before they are lovable, that the goodness of the soul will always triumph over evil and that the princess is as likely to be the hero of the story as the prince. But most importantly, the fairy tales helped her escape and imagine a world outside her own.
Her Lycra skirt had rolled up to her hips with her last john, and she pushed it down to her knees when they had finished. She watched him pull his trousers up and buckle his belt then scurry away until he disappeared into the car park.
‘Good night, Prince Charming,’ she whispered. Vee had been a sex worker for over twenty-five years and had kissed a million frogs.
The coastal town of Brighton in the south of England had a small red-light district. A few other girls were smoking and chatting, arms linked, extra protection in the early hours. At her lamp post Vee brushed her teeth and lit up a cigarette. She was watching a car that had been circling all night. A dark-coloured Volvo that would pace and slow and then lower a window and move off.
‘All right, Vee?’
Vee turned. She hadn’t heard the girl come up behind her. Thin legs and thin arms, a platinum wig and a smear of red lipstick.
‘Got any smokes?’ the girl said.
‘Two – and they’re mine for the walk home.’
‘You’re fucking useless, aren’t you?’
Vee stared at the girl. That’s all she was – a girl. Fourteen, maybe fifteen. She wanted to give her a stick of gum but instead she gave her a pack of condoms and baby-wipes.
‘Don’t say I never give you anything,’ Vee said.
Ulyana was Ukrainian with a shoulder-length blonde wig that she changed every other day. Her accent was thick in places, soft in others, the Cyrllic R religiously rolled.
‘He’s back again,’ Vee said.
Vee nodded and said:
‘What protection do you have?’
Ulyana pulled a small switchblade from her handbag.
‘It won’t kill ’em, but it will make ’em stop and think twice.’
The Volvo slowed to a halt by the kerb. One of the girls leaned through the window, a few seconds of conversation, then she ducked back and walked away, gave the driver a finger and told him to fuck off.
‘Who was it, Ally?’ Vee shouted across the street.
The other girl shrugged, went back to her friend and pulled another smoke.
‘I’m gonna go home,’ Vee said.
‘Stay, keep me company.’
‘Can’t be arsed. You want to do something tomorrow?’
‘How about I cook for you? Sunday roast.’
‘Don’t care,’ Vee said. ‘I bought a chicken yesterday from Aldi, fat little bugger he is. I’ll get him out of the freezer tonight and put him in the oven. What time do you want to come over?’
‘Late afternoon – then we can walk here together for the night shift.’
The girl smiled at her. Vee tried to smile back, but her jaw hurt.
‘If you look good, you feel good, right?’ Vee said.
The girl nodded and gave Vee a hug before she turned and walked away.
It had been a hot day, but the nights by the sea were always chill and as Vee walked along Marine Parade, she listened to the waves breaking on the beach. The first cigarette took her to Rottingdean, and by Telscombe Cliffs she had finished the second. She lived in a one-bedroom bungalow on Wellington Road. It was white painted with an entrance porch and a large square window to the right. The curtains had been pulled shut but sagged apart in the middle. The front gate creaked as she pushed it, but everyone else in the street was asleep.
She put the keys in her front door and opened it and switched on the hall light. Her sobriety diary was on the hallstand and she wrote Day 278 and put an x by it and said: ‘All it takes is faith and trust in myself.’
In the bedroom, she unstrapped her heels, pulled off her top and kicked her skirt onto the bed. She showered and when she got out, the bathroom mirror was misty. She wiped it down and gave her reflection a cursory glance, played with her dishevelled red hair, then brushed her teeth.
She took the chicken out of the freezer and checked the vegetable cupboard. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and she could go out and get some frozen peas tomorrow morning. She made a cup of coffee, didn’t mind the chipped mug, and leaned back on the charity shop sofa in her pink-walled living room. She used to get lonely when she came home. She used to think she needed someone to survive, a partner, but that was because she always thought she was never enough by herself. Now she knew she was enough. She had changed, she was getting her life together and this time she was getting out of this business for good.
She stared at the TV with one elbow on the arm of the sofa, a cigarette scissored in her fingers. After an hour she realised she was falling asleep. She should go to bed, her hands were starting to get cold.
In the hall she heard a knock at the front door. It was three thirty in the morning and she hesitated before she whispered:
‘It’s late, who is it?’
A voice. Unfamiliar.
The same voice, but muffled, so she opened the door.
Vee pulled a smile from somewhere and said:
‘Do I know you?’
And suddenly there was a memory. A memory of a burning princess dress.
And Vee’s smile vanished and she couldn’t breathe and felt herself falling towards the floor.
Holly Wakefield stared at the small bungalow with its bright yellow police tape.
It was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a slightly upward-sloping road. Either side were more bungalows and, beyond, a housing estate with an acre or so of grasslands.
Her phone rang. It was DI Bishop and he was running late:
‘I had to get something from the police archives,’ he said. ‘Traffic is bad, I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Go in – don’t wait for me.’ A pause. ‘Get a feel for it by yourself.’
The phone went dead.
Holly didn’t carry a handbag, everything she needed was in her pockets, including a pair of forensic latex gloves which she snapped on without breaking stride. She lifted the police tape around the front gate and showed her ID to the officer stationed at the door.
‘Holly Wakefield,’ she said.
‘Right, DI Bishop said you would be coming. Do you need anything?’
‘Just privacy. Thank you.’
He nodded as if he had been expecting as much, opened the door and moved out of the way as she stepped inside. Holly heard the door click shut behind her. She had no idea what to expect in the house. Bishop had been cagey about giving her more information, which was strange. She stayed very still and took a deep breath.
The coppery smell of blood mixed with stale perfume.
There was a diary on the hallstand. She opened it up – a sobriety book for Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, and the last entry had been Thursday, with a 278 and an x next to it. There were telephone numbers and people’s initials scattered throughout with appointment dates and meetings with sponsors.
The small bathroom on the left was neat and painted blue – the living room and kitchen on the right were painted pink. There was a retro radio on the mantelpiece that was pink like the walls and there were beach shells, an empty vase and books on shelves: Lark Rise to Candleford, Shakespeare and a book about ballet by Darcey Bussell. There were no photos anywhere, not a single one.
Laundry was scattered across the radiator and in the kitchen plates and cutlery had been left in the sink. A few flies buzzed and it was beginning to smell.
Get a feel for it, Bishop had said.
The victim’s name had been Vee and profiling the victim was just as important as profiling a killer, sometimes more so. If you wanted to get to know your victim, you had to tread in their shoes.
Vee had been a sex worker in Brighton for the past eleven years and was known to the police.
Holly turned the radio on to the last station that was listened to. It was Heart FM – talking heads and then Johnny Cash started singing ‘Hurt’. She sat on the side of the sofa that was worn and sagged and stared around the room. This was what Vee would come home to: cheap prints on the walls, a few shells from the beach and lipstick-kissed cigarettes in ash mugs on the coffee table.
How did you end up here, Vee?
Holly had been brought up in the foster system after her parents had been murdered and knew how easy it was for girls to get sucked into prostitution, having seen it first-hand, and knew the torture of wanting intimacy and closeness but never knowing where to find it. She had heard many versions of the story over the years and it made her sad: a mix of poverty and desperation, abuse and no one to talk to. Maybe Vee had dreamed of becoming a ballerina when she was a child? Classes after school, auditions and rehearsals, but then somehow ended up mixing with the wrong crowd. Hash had turned to coke, coke to heroin and by then all morals and principles had left the room. Holly wondered how often Vee sat on this sofa and thought about everything that had happened in her life.
She got up and made her way along the hall. There had been no signs of a struggle, so it appeared the killer had been invited inside. A regular client perhaps? Or at least someone Vee recognised or knew at a distance. There was no blood anywhere in the house apart from the bedroom, so that was where she had to go. She pushed open the door. The curtains were drawn so it was dark and she flipped on the light.
Dozens of bright yellow evidence tags littered the room. The bed had been stripped by the SOCO team. There was a bloodstained mattress and an empty brass frame entwined by fairy lights and fluffy animals: multicoloured bears, dolphins and a unicorn. Not the bed of a jaded sex worker, but the bed of a woman who liked to pretend she was still thirteen years old and living at home. Different men, different sheets, and Holly wondered how often Vee slept alone, crossing off the days in her diary and drying her eyes.
Blood spatter on the walls, the carpet and the ceiling above the bed that had gone brown. There was a partial red hand-print on the wall behind the bed. Vee had been alive when the stabbing had started.
Holly took a moment, then climbed onto the middle of the bed and stared down at where Vee’s head would have been. This is how the killer would have done it, and from her position Holly could be right there with the murderer, witnessing events. She had a sudden sense of him and what had happened in that room. She could hear the music from the radio and she could feel the anger, the fear and the smell. The smell of the blood.
The fluffy animals watched her with their plastic eyes and she eased herself off the bed and took the rest of the room in. No photos, but things that sparkled – clothes with sequins that would reflect the glow of the streetlights. The chest of drawers was full of skirts, bras, underwear and denim. She sat in the wooden chair at Vee’s dressing table. In one of the drawers were sex toys, handcuffs, condoms, and Tic Tacs. The lipstick and eye make-up were metallics, sparkles and glue-sticks. In the other drawer was the first photo Holly found and it had been tagged by forensics. It showed a teenage Vee with copper-coloured hair and her arms around a boy of about the same age. They were both smiling at the camera and wearing costumes from a drama of some kind or fancy-dress party. There was nothing written on the back.
She became quiet and still as she tried to piece together what she was seeing and how it made her feel.
The thought made her look up in the dressing table mirror and glance at the reflection of the bed. Her imagination gave her a glimpse of a heavily built man leaning over Vee. Hand repeatedly dropping and raising the knife. Deep throaty breaths with every strike and the creak of the mattress as he killed her.
She blinked away the vision and stood up.
After the kill he would have wanted to see what he had done. Breathe in that feeling of power until it slipped away like a shadow. He hadn’t rushed. He had been calm and very much in control, and then he had placed his calling card beneath some stockings on top of the chest of drawers. The police had left it for her – a single piece of A4 paper with a drawing of two childlike stick figures in frenzied streaks of coloured crayon.
She picked it up. The figure on the left had a grinning balloon head and held a knife in one hand. The figure on the right was the victim and she had been drawn with long red hair and eyelashes and was wearing a green dress made up of three straight lines that formed a triangle. Spreadeagled on the bed, her face was a mess of reds, and where her eyes should have been were scratched black holes.
Holly ran her fingers over the waxy surface. She had never seen anything like it before. There was a realness about the figures which was disturbing on so many levels. Childlike, infantile, but the violence …
She frowned and her eyes were drawn away as she heard a noise that startled her. She hadn’t heard the front door open and now footsteps scuffed on the carpet. A hulking shadow appeared in the doorway.
It was Bishop. Six foot two, ex-military and she could smell the polish on his shoes.
‘Hello, Bishop,’ she said.
He met her at the dressing table and removed two plastic evidence sleeves from his jacket. In each one was a childlike crayon drawing of two stick figures. The grinning killer on the left, the bloody body on the right. Holly stared at them for some time, trying to elicit an answer.
‘Where did you get these?’ she said. ‘Bishop?’
Bishop was very still. It was as if he had shut down.
‘He’s back,’ he said.
‘Who’s back, Bishop? Who?’
But he couldn’t answer.
He was just staring at the drawings as if he were somehow lost in time.
‘Who is he?’ Holly said.
Holly and Bishop had ordered a fry-up brunch at Fat Jack’s Burger Bar on the promenade. Sitting at the window, they both had a view of the beach and the pier. Families braved the pebbles carrying hampers and deckchairs and the sea was a briny green.
‘We never even got close,’ Bishop said. ‘I was still a sergeant, only four years in with the Met when the first body turned up in May 2013. The victim’s name was Stephen Freer. He was a sixty-five-year-old retired GP who left behind a wife and two children. His body was found in the bedroom of his house in Croydon. He’d been drugged with chloroform and GHB and stabbed ten times in the face, mainly in the eyes. He had also been castrated and the missing body part was never recovered.’
‘No CCTV, no DNA or forensic evidence and the killer left a stickman drawing. This was body number one and the task force conjured up all sorts of ideas as to who could have done it, but as we checked into his past and patient files, we found nothing. He was well-liked by work colleagues, friends and family members alike, who were all questioned and eliminated. We brought in every ex-con or recent release we could find and then after four weeks the press and television lost interest and we had no new clues or suspects so the investigation ground to a halt. After eight months the task force was reduced to a skeleton crew and I was one of them. I’d never felt so helpless. I’d go into work thinking today’s the day we get our break, but it never was. It was as if we were waiting for him to kill again to see if he tripped up next time. Two years went by with no new leads, and the murder was classified as a cold case. I got assigned to a gangland killing, but I never forgot about it, I don’t think anybody did. We all accepted it was probably a one-off, so everybody moved on until the summer of 2016, when the second body turned up.’
‘The victim’s name was Mike Thomas and he ran an art gallery in Sunbury. He was killed in his bedroom, a thirty-minute walk from the gallery, drugged with GHB and chloroform. Thirty-five years old, stabbed twenty times in each eye and castrated and the killer left a second stickman drawing. Again, there were no witnesses, no forensics and no CCTV. The task force was re-established, the cold case reopened and we tried to find a link between the two victims, but everything was a dead end.’
‘There was nothing?’
‘We had fifty officers working on it, organising major press coverage, and we brought in analysts, psychologists, even school teachers to talk to us about children’s drawings. We had one shrink tell us the castration had all the hallmarks of a sexual sadist.’
‘It does. The men were degraded and humiliated after death,’ she said. ‘The killer wanted to punish them beyond killing them.’
‘Yes, but it was the desecration of the eyes that stumped everyone,’ he said. ‘See no evil – that was what the press ran with.’
Holly was remembering some of the details of the cases now. She knew she probably had copies of the original newspaper articles back home in one of her files. She had an extensive home-made library on serial killers throughout history.
‘We had anybody who ever displayed a warped phobia about eyes brought in,’ Bishop said. ‘People do that, you know? Make-up and stuff to give them teddy bear eyes, dolls’ eyes, cartoon eyes, clowns’ eyes – there’s a scary interview if I ever did one. Never realised there were so many people who still dressed up as clowns for kids’ parties. We even had an optometrist come in and talk to us about ommetaphobia – you know what that is?’
‘Fear of the eyes.’
‘Not just the fear of the eyes, but the fear of eye contact. Social situations, when you have to look at someone, touching your eyes or getting something in your eye. Makes people feel queasy, and we wondered if that could be something to do with it. Windows to the soul and all that crap. The need to destroy that fear.’
‘Did you ever have any suspects?’ Holly said.
‘A guy called Ralph McQuarrie was a person of interest for a while. He was a homosexual rapist who had been in Broadmoor for seven years on attempted murder charges.’
‘Were either of the victims gay?’
‘No. We had circumstantial evidence against McQuarrie – he was seen on CCTV near Sunbury train station an hour before the murder and then again walking around Hampton Court an hour after, with no account of where he went. CPS said it wasn’t enough. It probably wasn’t, but it was the fact he was a handyman that made us look twice.’
‘The power tools at his home. The pathologist concluded the castration had been done with an electric saw. Everything in his workshop was tested but he kept his tools religiously clean and we only found one trace of blood on a sander and that turned out to be his.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘In Feltham prison. He got arrested for rape three years ago. He gets out in six months.’
Holly hadn’t touched her food. Nor had Bishop.
‘You’re not hungry?’ he said.
He scrunched up his napkin. ‘Come on, I can’t remember the last time I walked along a beach.’
They mixed with the crowd heading to the sea.
‘What were your first impressions of the murder scene?’ Bishop said.
Holly took a second, reliving those feelings.
‘He’s not afraid of making a mess. Which suggests the killer is highly organised and will carry his full murder kit with him, including latex gloves, possible SOCO suit or equivalent and a full change of clothes. It looks as though he took her into the bedroom quickly.’
‘To have sex?’
‘To kill her straight away. I don’t think this is someone who wastes time with small talk.’
‘He could have killed her anywhere in the house. Why the bedroom?’
‘The same as the previous two victims, it’s a smaller space, more contained and therefore easier to control the victim. But I think he chooses the bedroom because it’s more personal as well. It’s the one place where we’re supposed to feel safe in our homes.’
They were quiet for a while. Still walking.
‘What about the victim?’ Bishop said.
‘Do we have a real name for her yet?’
‘I think she was a woman who’d spent most of her life fighting demons. Trying to make the best of a bad situation. She was strong, independent, and according to her diary was a regular at AA and NA. She seemed to be turning her life around, two hundred and seventy-eight days sober. There was nothing particularly personal in the diary or her house, as if she didn’t really belong there, apart from the one photo of her with the young man found in the dressing table.’
‘Lover or brother?’
‘Either, or. What are the other working girls saying?’
‘They’re a tight bunch with the customary horror stories. They’ve all been helpful, but they’re frightened they could be next. The local police have already brought in the usual suspects but so far every one of them has an alibi. There was a Volvo spotted in the area the morning Vee was killed that hasn’t been traced. Apparently it kept circling then driving off.’
‘Had any of the girls seen the car before?’
‘No, but it was pretty conspicuous that evening, and if we can get a plate number we’ll put it into ANPR.
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