A violent shudder passed along the undercarriage jarring her awake. She prised her eyelids up, the dimly lit cabin drifting into focus. Next to her, Milo, her business associate, was sleeping, his head lolling against the headrest.
She leaned forward and checked the rest of business class. Those who were awake didn’t seem rattled or panicked.
‘Excuse me.’ She stopped a passing steward. ‘Did we just hit some turbulence?’
‘I was just wondering if I’d dreamt it.’
The steward offered up a practised smile. ‘It was a little bit bumpy back there for a while, but there’s nothing to worry about. The captain would’ve put on the seatbelt light if he thought there was.’
She nodded and glanced out the window, streaks of light in the distance splitting the night in two. She closed the shutter.
The plane rocked again, vibrated harshly through strong pockets of wind. This time the captain deemed seatbelts a necessity. Behind her, she noticed a steward replace the onboard receiver and hurry past them. He was being beckoned to the cockpit.
Something was wrong. She could feel it.
‘Milo,’ she whispered, jabbing the kid’s arm. ‘Milo, wake up.’
‘Uh, wha…what…What is it?’
Emerging from the cockpit, the steward hurried past them again. ‘Something’s going on. The flight attendants seemed panicked. We’ve been hitting some pretty harsh –’
As if on cue, the plane was slammed by a violent shock of wind. This time it wasn’t brief.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we appear to be hitting some rather heavy turbulence. Please make sure your seat backs are in the upright position, your seatbelts are fastened, and your tables are stowed. We may be in for a rough ride.’
Milo looked up at her and smiled. ‘Relax, babe. Everything’s fine.’
Perhaps it was just her distrust for all objects lacking self-awareness, but she couldn’t close out the peculiar feeling of vertigo. The captain’s calm voice had done little to appease her.
Flipping the port cover back up, she stared out into the night. Rain thundered against the side of the plane, hammered there by the battering wind, pale blue tongues of electricity flashing into view and then disappearing like the flick of a switch.
‘How much of this can these tin cans take?’ she muttered to herself.
‘Stop panicking,’ said Milo firmly. ‘Pilots experience weather like this all the time, it’s nothing new to them. These machines are put together pretty well, you know.’
She sat back and rechecked her seatbelt, her watch. The time was gone eleven. They’d been in the air for almost eight hours, which meant they were probably over water.
Driven by invisible hands the elements continued to pummel the aircraft, buffeting her through the sky like she was made of straw.
The flight attendant came stumbling back down the aisle. ‘Everybody, please remain calm. Everything’s alright. We’re just experiencing a little turbulence.’
‘No flies on him,’ said Milo.
Towards the cockpit door, the attendant tripped and fell through the curtain, crashing against the refreshments trolley as the plane banked sharply to the right. It felt like they were falling out of the sky.
Then, as suddenly as it was born, it died.
The buffeting stopped.
The plane leveled out.
Beyond the curtain, she could see the steward picking himself up from the floor. He smoothed his shirt and brushed off his shoulders. Straightening the curtain, he pulled it across and disappeared from sight.
‘Holy shit,’ muttered Milo, ‘that was intense.’
‘Apologies for any discomfort there, ladies and gentlemen. We’re flying through some pretty nasty weather so we’ll do our best to keep the bumpy rides down to a minimum. In the meantime, if you could keep your seatbelts fastened –’
In that split second, the captain’s words became engulfed by the unified screams of the passengers. An impossibly white bolt of lightning tore through the sky and crashed into the wing mere metres from the window. In one swift movement the plane plunged to the left, arching downwards.
As the intensity of the screams pierced the confines, she glanced at Milo, tears spilling from his eyes.
‘Focus, Milo,’ she yelled.
He didn’t reply.
Along the cabin, oxygen masks dropped from the overhead panels. Without hesitation, Milo pulled his down and strapped it to his head.
Another violent shudder; the plane dipped further.
Daring another look out of the window she saw the engine ignite, flames blazing from the rotor.
If anybody was still listening, the captain’s words echoed hollowly above the terror inside the cabin, its pressure plunging: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please put on the oxygen masks. We’ve lost the portside engine and the starboard side is presenting difficulties. I’m afraid we have no option but to attempt an emergency landing.’
His voice still sounded calm.
The shocking vibrations continued to ripple through the carriage as some of the overhead compartments burst open and began vomiting bags and jackets into the aisles, panels splitting from their moorings and crashing into passenger’s laps.
As the cabin’s odours increased with bodily accidents, an amalgamated truth crept stealthily between the passengers: the next few minutes of their lives were probably going to be their last.
She was yet to put on her mask, didn’t need it.
In a terrifying screech, a large section of the wing tore itself free from the plane and disappeared into the night.
This was it.
This was the end.
How much further could they fall before they hit the ground?
The nose of the plane drove into the water, the carriage disintegrating. In the same second, water burst in through the port windows in an explosion of shards.
Propelled forward, the belt tore at her abdomen, dug into the soft flesh as the moorings above her head came loose and crashed brutally against her skull.
It was the last thing she remembered.
London, England, 1992
Legend has it that in a remote corner of hell there is a solitary room reserved only for the blackest of souls. Very few are considered worthy; fewer still granted entrance...
Detective Sergeant Holly Newport stood quietly at the foot of the bed. She felt like throwing up. The two bodies were arranged side by side on the semen-stained sheets, glowing in their pallid nudity. Each body had been laid upon its back, interlocked fingers entwined between them like fleshy barbed wire.
Newport took in the precise carnage. She was physically small, but carried a big presence. And she’d seen many things.
This was something else.
In her gloved hand she held the small device her superior had found in the bathroom. Together they had listened to its eerily potent message. The individual who made the recording was disturbingly insane, that much was clear, yet from somewhere deep within the subject’s mind there was an obvious lucidity. Whoever this person was had planned this with precision, and he’d done so with an overview of toying with anyone who cared.
DS Newport looked back at the bodies. She cared.
At her side was her superior. He didn’t speak much, that was his way, and he seldom smiled. Tonight he looked gaunt and tired.
‘You want to listen to it again?’ DCI Nicolas York asked in his deep west end drawl.
Newport looked to her right and into the eyes of her boss. At forty-two, DCI York remained an attractive man. His thick head of black hair, usually stored beneath a tarnished trilby, helped to prop up his boyishness, despite the salt and peppering of stubble which flirted with his cheeks and the dark bags in which his eyes sat afloat.
Newport took a deep breath. She did want to hear the recording again. She wanted to listen to it until it made sense. Lifting the recorder, she hit the play button, an anticipation of static hissing in prelude…
‘Are we born insane, or are life’s twisted paths able to corrupt the deepest recesses of our psyches and turn us so? I was once taught of this thing called Free Will, which supposedly was bestowed upon us by the One some choose to worship. The One whose name I’m neither urged to utter nor care about. For is that level of worship not a tailored kind of insanity?
‘Some would say it is.
‘I would say it is.
‘You will label me insane and by your thesis claim that a sane person could not do the things that I have done. Perhaps you’re right. I’m of no authority to disagree, nor do I care to. I will not change your minds should I try. Once a person is labelled insane, every utterance upon his breath will be deemed crazy thereafter, no matter how much he insists on the contra.
Newport clicked the device off and looked back at York. His tired eyes told her nothing as usual.
The hotel room had been sealed off by a number of uniforms who were controlling the scene, but all were reluctant to linger. One kid, probably fresh out of training from the IPLPD, had run from the room and thrown up in the corridor. Forensics was going to love him.
At the feet of the victims, Newport pushed her spectacles up onto her nose and took in the macabre playhouse; the bodies, the bloody spectacle. She stayed like this, reeling in the dim light. This was indifference like she’d never seen.
‘You’ll go blind, staring like that,’ York admonished, flipping off his trilby and setting it gently down on the unit by the bathroom door.
Poking his head into the bathroom he already knew well, he flitted into the blue and red flash of lights from the patrol cars in the street. ‘Okay, Sergeant,’ he said aloud. ‘Tell me what you think.’
York did this sometimes, almost like he was testing her. It probably explained why he was so closed down, or why some of the other officers labelled him “genius”.
Tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, she took a mental inventory of the room for the tenth time: A white tiled bathroom, boxy and unclean; a few pieces of cheap furniture, chipped and scarred; a smashed wall mirror, shattered into infinitely accusing triangles; one grimy window looking out over the equally dour Peckham street; scabby carpet and nicotine yellowed and peeling wallpaper and one queen-sized bed which had recently become the dismal hotel suite’s focal point. That was it.
York waited, watching her with steady patience.
‘I don’t like it,’ Newport said finally.
‘What’s to like?’
‘What I mean is,’ she added, ‘nothing about the scene feels right. There’s no passion here, not an ounce.’
York shook his head. ‘You’re not going down this road again, are you?'
‘Do you not agree, though? Where’s the anger, the rage? The bodies are –’
‘Forget the bodies. Background noise only. Look around, tell me what you see.’
‘How am I supposed to –’
‘Forget the bodies!’
Newport took a deep breath. ‘Okay, the room is sparse, dirty. Minimalistic hotel bedroom, used for prostitution. Been a couple of drug problems here in the past, but this doesn’t speak drugs to me, or gangland retribution. This has an almost random element to it. The place is probably irrelevant.’
‘I disagree,’ York cut in, edging his way to the window. ‘I think this room tells us something very pertinent. Why have the victims been left to wallow in this pit?’
Newport thought the answer was obvious. ‘Opportunity?’
York pulled the trilby back on and glanced out the window. The rattle and reverb of slow-moving black cabs and occasional double-deckers stalked the clear morning somewhere over the building tops, causing minor vibrations to pulse through the floorboards, though nobody mentioned it. From the window he moved to the wardrobe and began rifling the contents. ‘Man’s Armani suit, woman’s Gucci pencil skirt and jacket, it’s all here down to the underwear and shoes. All stored away nice and neat.’
Newport's rogue strand of hair popped free again. ‘Okay, so the type of clothes here, assuming they’re not imitation, tell us that our John and Jane were well to do.’
York’s eyebrows lifted. ‘So what are they doing in this shithole?’
She couldn’t answer that one. ‘Uniforms are knocking on doors but so far no luck. People are in and out of here quickly.’
‘What about the manager?’
‘Guy named Liam Grayson. He’s on his way here now.’
‘Uh-huh, what do we know about him?’
‘Couple of priors, nothing major, and nothing in his past to indicate he was capable of something like this. Few raids here since he’s been running the place, but he’s managed to stay off the radar.’
‘Denies all knowledge of anything that goes on in the rooms.’
‘Oh yeah, grade A. But this still doesn’t smell like him. He’s small time.’
York adjusted his trilby; a seemingly common development.
‘So what about the smashed mirror? The work of our guy?’
York glanced up at his distorted reflection, fragmented eyes leering back at him. ‘No.’
Newport awaited clarification.
‘The mirror was broken before the killer stepped foot into this room. Our man would have no reason to break it.’
‘Care to clarify?’
‘Because he likes looking at himself,' said York. 'Look at the bodies: very precise, very clinical, this is not the work of an angry person. You said yourself it’s not a crime of passion. That very notion would go against the killer acting calmly. He’s playing God, and I wouldn’t’ve thought God shies away from His own image.’
‘You don’t believe in God.’
‘I believe in this one.’
A forlorn calm fell over the room.
‘Okay, your favourite bit,’ York continued. ‘Tell me about the bodies.’
Newport's stomach turned again as she took in the cadavers. She switched on her blankness, her coping mechanism. Scanning victims this way was an art form. DCI York was an expert and she was getting better.
‘The obvious thing is the lack of blood,’ she offered.
‘I see blood.’
‘But it’s restricted to the bed. For this type of butchery I’d expect splattered walls, floors, but there’s nothing. If you lifted the bed out of here right now, you’d never know a crime had happened at all. It could suggest that the procedure took place post mortem – lack of struggle.’
York shrugged. ‘Nobody wants a squirming patient.’
‘Who says there’s an “and”?’
‘There’s always an “and”,’ Newport said.
The corners of York's mouth lifted slightly. ‘And I don’t see butchery, I see surgery.’
Both detectives viewed the still figures. The ashen nudity of each victim, in stark contrast with the crimson linen, begged attention. But those facts paled in comparison to the gaping holes in the chests, the heart of each victim cleanly cut out.
‘The hearts?’ he asked.
‘Not here. Taken as a souvenir, we think.’
‘People don’t do Big Ben ornaments anymore?’
‘Not this person.’
‘Okay,’ he muttered, ‘what else?’
The first thing York noticed when he arrived on scene was the heads. The head of the female lay straight on her pillow, closed eyes to the ceiling. The male’s head faced towards the bathroom, eyes wide. Following the victim’s line of sight, he'd found the voice recorder in the bathroom.
‘It’s clear we’re being tormented,’ she suggested. ‘Like a game or something. This guy wants us to look for him.’
‘Remember Marc Durham?’
‘Come on! That guy who went on the killing spree around Loughton and Dagenham when he found out his girlfriend had been an escort for more than three years.’
‘Oh yeah. So?’
‘When the girlfriend found out what he’d done, she killed herself, couldn’t handle the guilt.’
‘Your point please,’ York pressed.
‘That wasn’t nearly as calculated but there are similarities. Durham wanted us to catch him. He admitted when we caught up with him that the guilt was eating away at him. He showed no remorse over the four people he’d killed but he couldn’t handle the fact that his girlfriend had committed suicide.’
‘There’s a big difference. This killer only wants to play with us, I don’t think he wants to be caught. Can you imagine this guy feeling guilty about what he’s done here? I think you’re right, this is a game to him. Guess what that makes us.'
Newport shrugged. 'Inferior players.'
Crouching closer to the bed she inspected the sheets, stained and encrusted with more than one kind of bodily fluid. In amongst the dense clogging of blood, semen splatters were prevalent.
‘What do you make of this, guv?’
York fished a pen from his jacket pocket and lifted the male victim’s circumcised penis with the tip. ‘These splatters don’t belong to our John Doe.’
‘So whose then? The killer’s maybe?’
York shook his head. ‘A man who goes to this much trouble isn’t going to leave buckets of spunk lying around for us to find. These sheets haven’t been changed for a long time. Prostitutes turning tricks in here two or three times a night, you get the picture.’
She winced. ‘Charming.’
From the doorway a tentative voice entered the room. It was the young officer who’d puked in the corridor. ‘Detectives?’
Both York and Newport stood. ‘What is it, son?’ asked York.
‘Man here to see you. Claims he runs the place.’
‘Liam Grayson,’ she said to York. ‘Would you like to go and make the man’s acquaintance, or should I?’
For the hundredth time York adjusted his trilby. ‘I think we should both go. It might be less of a blow when we tell him he’s going to have to buy a new bed.’
The hotel office looked like something from a post-apocalyptic war film. Tiled walls and linoleum flooring, the small workspace had once been used as a kitchen maybe, but now it offered nothing but a cheap pockmarked desk, a single filing cabinet overloaded with junk, and pictures of semi-clad men bent into alphabetical positions. The hotel manager was of another persuasion it seemed.
Sitting at the desk Liam Grayson stared back at the detectives, self-satisfied leer smudged across his face. Newport didn’t like the man on sight; like she’d expected anything else. A couple of stone overweight and thinning badly on top, Grayson boasted possibly the best and definitely the worst sunbed tan she’d ever seen.
‘Mr Grayson, sorry to have dragged you from your bed so early in the –’
‘I wasn’t in bed,’ Grayson cut in. His voice was surprisingly deep.
York stayed quiet.
‘Oh,’ Newport added, ‘so where were you?’
‘I don’t see how that’s any of your business, Detective,’ Grayson replied, examining his ring clad fingers. ‘Exactly how many times are you going to pull this shit?’
‘Pull what, Liam?’ asked York.
The hotel manager shifted his attention. ‘Ah, the mechanic speaks.’
York’s expression didn’t alter. ‘My colleague’s name is DS Newport. I’d appreciate it if you’d answer her questions.’
‘Or,’ Newport cut in, ‘I put your arse in handcuffs for impeding our investigation and drag you out into the street. Being made to look like a bitch by a woman half your size and weight’s going to sting, believe me. Especially around here.’
From the corner of her eye, she caught her partner stashing away a grin. Gone were the days when he had to fight her corner with scum like Grayson.
The manager’s smirk disappeared. The last thing he needed was to lose face in an area like this. He’d never recover, and he knew it.
‘So,’ she repeated, ‘want to try again?’
‘Look, I know what’s going on here. You’re trying to accuse me of running a brothel again. Or a drug den, whichever it is this time. I run a legitimate business. If there’s tricky stuff going on in the rooms from time to time, I don’t know about it. That’s what hotels are about, privacy. You think I give a shit if somebody offs themself in some fucked up powder frenzy? The guests don't tell and I don't listen. It's that fucking simple.’
‘Touching,’ muttered York.
‘I’m not the type, Detective.’
Newport waited a second. ‘We’re not here to accuse you of anything, mate. We’re here to inform you that there’s been a double murder in one of your rooms.’
Grayson’s orange face turned quickly grey. ‘What? Nah…this is a windup, right?’
‘No windup, sir. Room sixteen has been cordoned off for investigation.’
‘What, so they’re still here...the bodies?’ Grayson spat. ‘Where’s Danny?’
York glanced at his notepad. ‘Your night manager, Daniel Ronson? He’s at the hospital. Went into shock when he walked in on the bodies. Probably going to need some counselling.’
Grayson sat back in his seat, eyes glazed. ‘Who did this?’ he said finally. ‘You catch anyone?’
York shook his head. ‘We need to know if there's been any fresh custom around here lately? Anyone you don’t know, anybody new to the area who’s taken a room from you?’
‘New faces're coming through here all the time. Could have been any of them. What about the Paki in the shop next door, you talked to him yet? Creepy bastard doesn't miss a trick.’
‘He's being interviewed. You keep a ledger?’
‘Of course we keep a ledger, but if you were using a room here to snort coke off a pro’s tits, would you write your real name down to confirm it?’
‘How about the CCTV?’ asked Newport.
‘Most of the cameras are in action,’ Grayson revealed. ‘We run a monthly hard drive before it automatically overwrites.’
The detectives gave each other a glance. Operational cameras in a place like this? Whatever next? ‘We’re going to need to see that system,’ she requested, pretending to write something down.
Liam Grayson wasn’t their man. He was way off profile. Still, now they had a potential exhibit A. They thanked him and left the office.
Out in the street, two dark Range Rover 4*4s had arrived and were parked at an angle against the curb by a couple of overflowing wheelie-bins, a sole uniform nearby. The vehicles belonged to Will Graham, the head of field forensics, and his team.
It was no secret around the station that Graham had a thing for Newport, despite her very obvious wedding band. She used to be tolerant of his advances; now she avoided him wherever possible. It had all become a little too weird.
‘Want to get some breakfast?’ York asked.
Newport checked her watch. It was a little after five-thirty. Daylight was already beginning to beat the darkness into submission, the first rays of the day chasing away the stubborn shadows. If the previous few days of heatwave were anything to go by, it was going to be another scorcher. ‘Your turn to buy?’
York adjusted his trilby. ‘If you say so,’ he muttered.