Detective Chief Inspector Neil Paget isn’t happy about his new boss, Detective Superintendent Amanda Pierce. Not only did Paget consider himself in line for the job, his history with Pierce is painful and personal. But there’s no time to dredge up the past when the murder of a local photographer lands Paget the most frustrating case of his career.
Bill Travis was bound and gagged, with the letter A carved into his forehead, before being dropped fifty feet from a bridge onto the railway tracks below. Why all the fuss over a quiet, middle-aged man who, by all accounts, never disturbed anyone? With no witnesses or forensic evidence, the investigation stonewalls, building new tensions between Paget and Pierce. And when a second body shows up, Paget must find the connection between the two victims if he wants to crack the case—and keep his job.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Friday, 30 September
The town hall clock was striking eleven when the front door of a house on Thurston Street opened and a small group of men stepped out into the night. They paused in the act of pulling hoods over their heads, surprised to find it had stopped raining. Then, with mutterings of 'G'night,' they made their way to their cars and drove off.
Billy Travis, alone on the pavement, thrust his hands in his pockets and turned towards home. It was dark; street lights were few and far between in this older part of town, but home was only a few streets away.
It had been a good session. The highlight of the night had been a demonstration by Ted Grayson of special effects that could be achieved without using a computer. Not everyone had found it as fascinating as he had, though. They were all computer mad these days, quick to use every new-fangled piece of software that would – what was the word? Enhance! That was the word they were so fond of using. Enhance their pictures. Well, that might be all right for some, but to him it was no different than cheating, and he had found Grayson's presentation refreshing. This obsession with manipulating pictures using Photoshop and other devices ... Billy shook his head. Not that he was dead set against them; he'd made use of them himself at one time or another, but he'd been brought up the old way, helping his dad in the darkroom, watching images appear on a piece of blank paper, lifting them out of the tray with tweezers when his dad said, 'Now, Billy. Now!'
He liked Ted Grayson, liked going to meetings in his house with all the black and white pictures on the walls and the collection of old cameras in the back room. Grayson himself was something of a character. Gaunt-faced and pale, he was tall and thin, and with his straggling pony-tail and his addiction to weed, he looked – and sometimes acted – like a hippie from the sixties. But what Grayson didn't know about cameras wasn't worth knowing, in Billy's opinion.
The smell of weed was still with him. It was the same every time; it clung to his clothing, and he'd never been able to convince his father that he hadn't been smoking the stuff himself.
He'd be in bed now, his father. The fitful weather of the past few days was playing havoc with his arthritic knees, and he'd been going to bed early and taking a sleeping tablet to get some relief from the pain. Fifty-seven years old and he was hobbling around like a man of ninety. He was —
'Aahhgg!' Billy gasped as he collided with the figure of a man stepping out of a dark doorway. He stumbled and would have fallen if the man hadn't reached out and grabbed his arm.
'Sorry,' the man said. 'My fault. I should have looked where — Billy? Billy Travis? Is that you? Good God, man, fancy bumping into you like this. Are you all right?'
'Just scared the shit out of me, that's all,' Billy said shakily. Heart racing, he drew a deep breath as he peered at the man. 'What brings you over to this side of town anyway?'
'Stopped in to see a friend and didn't look where I was going when I came out,' the man said apologetically. 'You sure you're all right? On your way home, are you?'
'That's right.' For some reason, Billy felt he should offer an explanation. 'I've just been to a meeting of the photographic society. We meet every other Friday.'
'Keeping up with your work, then,' the man said approvingly. 'Always something new, I suppose; something else to learn. Good for you, Billy.' He looked up and down the deserted street. 'Look, my car's right here. The least I can do is drive you home after almost knocking you down.'
'Thanks, but there's no need,' Billy said. 'It's no more than five minutes from here.'
'Nonsense!' the man said as he took Billy's arm. 'Come on, get in.'
'No, really ...' Billy began again, but the man had opened the door of the car, and it seemed pointless to resist the offer of a ride.
'Best buckle up,' he said as Billy got in. 'Can't be too careful, can we? Watch your arm now.' He closed the door, then paused to survey the silent street once more before opening the back door. 'Just bear with me for a minute,' he said, as he climbed inside. 'Something's been rattling around back here and I want to sort it out before it drives me mad.' He picked something up off the floor, then, settling himself in the seat directly behind his passenger, he chuckled. 'I think I should lower the headrest for you while I'm here,' he said. 'Just sit up straight, Billy, and put your head back while I do that.'
Billy chuckled himself as he pushed himself up in his seat. 'At least there's not much chance of getting whiplash when you're my size,' he said. He sat up straight and put his head back. 'See, I'm still too short.'
'Very true,' the man said quietly as he slipped the noose over Billy's head and the headrest and pulled hard on the slip-knot. Billy opened his mouth to cry out, fingers clawing at the rope that bit deep into the flesh. His eyes bulged; his feet hammered against the floor, and blood streaked his neck where his nails were digging into the flesh.
The pressure eased. His throat rattled as he gulped air, and it flashed across his mind that this must be what they were talking about when they spoke of the death rattle. The rope tightened again. He could feel himself slipping away. He was only thirty-three years old, for Christ's sake, and he was about to die! Tears streamed down his face; he tried to scream, but there was no sound except the roaring in his ears.
The pressure on his throat eased slightly. 'Talk to me, Billy,' the man said softly. He could feel the man's breath against his ear. 'I want to know every last detail. A full confession. Think of it as cleansing your soul before you meet your Maker.'CHAPTER 2
Saturday, 1 October
Grace Lovett was putting on her wellingtons at the back door when the phone rang. She groaned. Not today, please not today, she thought as she pulled the boots off again. They'd had it all planned. Today was to be devoted to sorting out the garden, and Neil was already down at the shed bringing out the tools. The weather forecast was for showers in the afternoon, hence the early start. With any luck at all they could have the whole thing done by lunchtime.
Depending, of course, on who was on the other end of the phone, she thought grimly as she went back into the house.
Three minutes later Grace stepped outside again. 'Put 'em all back, Neil,' she called. 'We've both been called in to work. Suspicious death on the tracks under the bridge at the Lessington Cut.'
They travelled to the site separately in their own cars. As a member of SOCO, the crime scenes investigation team, Grace would probably be spending her time at the site itself, whereas there was no telling where DCI Neil Paget would be by the end of the day.
The Lessington Cut, as it was called locally, lay some four miles north of Broadminster. The cutting was about a mile long, slicing through a fold in the land, and the bridge carrying a little-used country road was roughly halfway along the ridge.
It was an unusually subdued DS John Tregalles who greeted Paget when he arrived at the scene. The sergeant's eyes were grave, and his normally expressive features were set in rigid, sombre lines. 'It's a bad one, boss,' he said quietly as they walked from the car to the bridge overlooking the tracks. 'Never seen anything quite like it.'
'No chance it was an accident or suicide, then?'
Tregalles grimaced and shook his head. 'You'll see,' he said grimly.
They clambered down the steep bank to where white-suited members of the crime scene squad were setting up their equipment. A photographer was already at work, crouching down to get shots of the body from different angles, while two men stood waiting for him to finish before setting a plastic screen in place around the body.
'Be finished in a minute,' the photographer called over his shoulder as he took another shot.
'Who found the body?' Paget asked.
'The engine driver of the seven forty-five out of Broadminster spotted him and radioed in,' Tregalles told him. 'PC Whitelaw and his partner were first on the scene, and Whitelaw recognized the victim. His name is William Travis, and that's been confirmed by his driving licence and other things in his wallet. He's a photographer, or he was. He and his dad have a shop at the top end of Bucknell Street. Pokey little place. You've probably seen it; they do wedding photographs and passports and such. His dad did our wedding photos.'
Paget nodded. He'd never been in the shop, but he knew where it was.
'SOCO reckons he came over about there,' Tregalles said, pointing to the stone parapet of the bridge, 'and if that is the case, then he would have fallen on the tracks, so he either managed to drag himself off the tracks to where you see him now, or someone pulled him off. But with the head injuries he has, I don't see how he could have survived the fall.'
Paget eyed the distance from the parapet to the ground. 'Must be at least fifty feet,' he said. 'You're suggesting that whoever pushed him over came down and dragged him off the tracks?'
'Well, I could be wrong, but it looks to me like his neck's broken, and if that's the case, I don't think he could have made it off the tracks by himself.'
The photographer got to his feet and nodded to indicate that he was finished for the moment. He'd be back again to take more pictures once the doctor arrived.
The two detectives moved closer, and for the first time Paget got a good look at the body. He felt his stomach begin to tighten up, and he had to clamp his lips together and take several deep breaths before he could trust himself to lean closer. He'd never actually been sick when viewing a body, but he had come close on more than one occasion.
The man lay on his side, hands behind his back, wrists bound with self-locking plastic cable ties that had cut deeply into the flesh. A strip of duct tape covered his mouth, and the head lay at an awkward angle, suggesting, as Tregalles had said, that the neck was broken.
The top of the head and the face were caked in blood, and there was more blood on the hooded jacket. But in the middle of the man's forehead was a square white medical dressing held firmly in place with another strip of duct tape.
'Weird, isn't it?' Tregalles said, anticipating Paget's question. 'I was tempted to lift it to see what's underneath, but thought I'd better wait until the doc gets here. Apart from that, it looks like a gang killing to me. Tape over the mouth, plastic handcuffs.'
'But why bring him all the way out here? And why drop him on the tracks, then move him off, if that's what actually happened? Is the constable who was first on the scene still here?'
'Whitelaw? Yes, he is.' Tregalles pointed to a uniformed constable standing halfway up the opposite bank. He caught the man's attention and waved him over.
'I'm told you know the victim,' said Paget as Whitelaw approached. 'How well did you know him?'
'Used to know him better when we were kids,' the man said. 'I see him around town now and again, but I can't remember the last time we spoke.'
'Do you know any of his friends?'
'No, although I doubt he had many. Billy was always a bit of a loner. Lives with his dad above the shop; at least he did, and probably still does. His mum died when he was a kid.'
Whitelaw smiled. 'Nobody ever called him Bill or William,' he said. 'It was always Billy. I think it was because he was so short and scrawny as a kid.'
'I see. Tell me, what did you make of it when you first saw him?'
Whitelaw took off his cap and scratched his head. 'Tell you the truth, sir, I didn't know what to make of it. Never seen anything like it before.'
'Was he ever in a gang? Anything of that sort?'
'Billy? In a gang? Like drugs, you mean?' The constable dismissed the idea with a shake of the head. 'Can't see it myself, sir. Not Billy. Too timid for one thing, and, like I said, he was a loner. He wouldn't last five minutes in a gang.' He frowned as he looked at the body. 'You think this is a gang killing, sir?'
'It's one possibility.'
Whitelaw made a face that clearly said he disagreed. 'Unless it was a case of mistaken identity?' he ventured. 'Could be they got the wrong bloke.'
Tregalles looked thoughtful. 'He was a photographer,' he said slowly. 'Perhaps he took a picture of something he shouldn't. On the other hand —'
'On the other hand, speculation isn't going to get us anywhere,' Paget broke in, 'so let's see what the doctor can tell us.' He nodded in the direction of a grey-haired man clambering down the bank. He was followed by a uniformed constable carrying the doctor's heavy medical case.
'Morning, Reg,' Paget greeted Reginald Starkie as he slid the last couple of feet down the slope, almost losing his balance in the process. 'I hope you appreciate the fact that we didn't call you in the middle of the night this time?'
'Could have picked a better location, though,' the doctor growled. 'Got grass stains on my trousers, and stains like that never come out, so don't be surprised if it's included in the bill.'
'Not my call any more,' Paget told him. 'You'll have to take that up with Superintendent Pierce.'
'Ah, yes, I heard.' Starkie's voice softened. 'I'm sorry,' he said brusquely. 'I thought that job was yours. Is she here?'
'Comes in on Monday.'
'And I doubt if she'll be best pleased to have this on her plate on her first day,' Tregalles observed. 'Still, if she's going to get her feet wet, she might as well go in the deep end.' He sounded almost cheerful at the prospect. He, too, had hoped that Paget would get the job.
Starkie grunted. 'So let's see what she does have on her plate,' he said. He turned to the constable still holding the medical case. 'Well, don't just stand there, man,' he said testily. 'Set the damned thing down and get that sheet out of the way.'
With gloves on and sheet stripped away, Starkie bent to the task of examining the body while the three men moved back to watch and wait in silence. 'Don't expect too much,' he warned over his shoulder after a cursory examination. 'He's cold and wet from the rain in the night, which doesn't help. Now, I need help to turn him over. You'll do,' he said, focusing on Whitelaw. 'Here, take this pad to protect his face, then take his head and shoulders and ease him over when I tell you to.'
A few minutes later, the doctor rose to his feet and stripped off his gloves. 'Considering the conditions out here,' he said, 'the best I can do regarding time of death is sometime between midnight and three o'clock this morning. I may be able to narrow that down later, but I'm making no promises. As for his injuries, he suffered severe trauma to the head, skull fractures in several places, broken neck, and what looks like rope burns around the neck. Possible broken shoulder, and there's bound to be some internal damage. The grazing and bruising on the upper body could have come from being shoved over the parapet, and I think he might have been alive when he went over. Killed on impact. But that's not the only thing. Take a look at this.' Starkie bent down and peeled back the tape and dressing on the forehead. Paget and Tregalles bent closer, with Whitelaw peering over their shoulders.
Starting just below the hairline and ending above the eyebrows, the letter A had been carved in the forehead of Billy Travis. The cuts were deep and were meant to be seen. Starkie lowered the sheet. 'And that was done while the man was still alive,' he said quietly.
Behind them, PC Whitelaw turned away and vomited into the grass.
'That mark on his forehead is one piece of information I don't want made public,' said Paget as he and Tregalles climbed the bank to the road. He brushed himself off, then led the way to the middle of the bridge. 'Find anything?' he asked one of the men in white.
'Bits of fibre and what may be blood on the stones where he went over,' the man said. 'And there's a partial footprint in the soft earth at the base of the parapet, but it could be anyone's. The road surface is too hard to hold tyre tracks, but chances are whoever brought the victim here parked off road, so we'll be looking for impressions on both sides of the road leading to the bridge.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Night Fall"
Copyright © 2013 Frank Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.