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Dead scared, p.1

Dead Scared, page 1


Dead Scared

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Dead Scared

  Dead Scared

  S. J. Bolton

  When a Cambridge student dramatically attempts to take her own life, DI Mark Joesbury realizes that the university has developed an unhealthy record of young people committing suicide in extraordinary ways.

  Despite huge personal misgivings, Joesbury sends young policewoman DC Lacey Flint to Cambridge with a brief to work undercover, posing as a vulnerable, depression-prone student.

  Psychiatrist Evi Oliver is the only person in Cambridge who knows who Lacey really is – or so they both hope. But as the two women dig deeper into the darker side of university life, they discover a terrifying trend . . .

  And when Lacey starts experiencing the same disturbing nightmares reported by the dead girls, she knows that she is next.

  In memory of Peter Inglis Smith:

  kind neighbour, great writer, good friend.

  What are fears but voices airy?

  Whispering harm where harm is not,

  And deluding the unwary

  Till the fatal bolt is shot!

  William Wordsworth

  Tuesday 22 January (a few minutes before midnight)

  WHEN A LARGE object falls from a great height, the speed at which it travels accelerates until the upward force of air resistance becomes equal to the downward propulsion of gravity. At that point, whatever is falling reaches what is known as terminal velocity, a constant speed that will be maintained until it encounters a more powerful force, most commonly the ground.

  Terminal velocity of the average human body is thought to be around 120 miles per hour. Typically this speed is reached fifteen or sixteen seconds into the fall, after a distance of between five hundred and six hundred metres.

  A commonly held misconception is that people falling from considerable heights die before impact. Only rarely is this true. Whilst the shock of the experience could cause a fatal heart attack, most falls simply don’t last long enough for this to happen. Also, in theory, a body could freeze in sub-zero temperatures, or become unconscious due to oxygen deprivation, but both these scenarios rely upon the faller’s leaping from a plane at significant altitude and, other than the more intrepid skydivers, people rarely do that.

  Most people who fall or jump from great heights die upon impact when their bones shatter and cause extensive damage to the surrounding tissue. Death is instantaneous. Usually.

  The woman on the edge of one of the tallest towers in Cambridge probably doesn’t have to worry too much about when she might achieve terminal velocity. The tower is not quite two hundred feet tall and her body will continue to accelerate as she falls its full length. She should, on the other hand, be thinking very seriously about impact. Because when that occurs, the flint cobbles around the base of the tower will shatter her young bones like fine crystal. Right now, though, she doesn’t seem concerned about anything. She stands like a sightseer, taking in the view.

  Cambridge, just before midnight, is a city of black shadows and gold light. The almost-full moon shines down like a spotlight on the wedding-cake elegance of the surrounding buildings, on the pillars pointing like stone fingers to the cloudless sky, and on the few people still out and about, who slip like phantoms in and out of pools of light.

  She sways on the spot and, as if something has caught her attention, her head tilts down.

  At the base of the tower the air is still. A torn page of yesterday’s Daily Mail lies undisturbed on the pavement. Up at the top, there is wind. Enough to blow the woman’s hair around her head like a flag. The woman is young, maybe a year or two either side of thirty, and would be beautiful if her face weren’t empty of all expression. If her eyes had any light behind them. This is the face of someone who believes she is already dead.

  The man racing across the First Court of St John’s College, on the other hand, is very much alive, because in the human animal nothing affirms life quite like terror. Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, of the branch of the Metropolitan Police that sends its officers into the most dangerous situations, has never been quite this scared in his life before.

  Up on the tower, it’s cold. The January chill comes drifting over the Fens and wraps itself across the city like a paedophile’s hand round that of a small, unresisting child. The woman isn’t dressed for winter but seems to be unaware of the cold. She blinks and suddenly those dead eyes have tears in them.

  DI Joesbury has reached the door to the chapel tower and finds it unlocked. It slams back against the stone wall and his left shoulder, which will always be the weaker of the two, registers the shock of pain. At the first corner, Joesbury spots a shoe, a narrow, low-heeled blue leather shoe, with a pointed toe and a high polish. He almost stops to pick it up and then realizes he can’t bear to. Once before he held a woman’s shoe in his hand and thought he’d lost her. He carries on, up the steps, counting them as he goes. Not because he has the faintest idea how many there are, but because he needs to be marking progress in his head. When he reaches the second flight, he hears footsteps behind him. Someone is following him up.

  He feels the cold air just as he sees the door at the top. He’s out on the roof before he has any idea what he’s going to do if he’s too late and she’s already jumped. Or what the hell he’ll do if she hasn’t.

  ‘Lacey,’ he yells. ‘No!’

  Friday 11 January (eleven days earlier)

  ALL BAR ONE near Waterloo Station was busy, with nearly a hundred people shouting to make themselves heard above the music. Smoking has been banned in the UK’s public places for years but something seemed to be hovering around these folk, thickening the air, turning the scene around me into an out-of-focus photograph taken on a cheap camera.

  I knew instinctively he wasn’t there.

  No need to look at my watch to know I was sixteen minutes late. I’d timed it to the second. Too late would look rude, or as if I were trying to make a point; too close to the agreed time would seem eager. Calm and professional, that’s what I was going to be. A little distant. Being a bit late was part of that. Except now he was the one who was late.

  At the bar, I ordered my usual drink-for-difficult-occasions and stretched up on to a vacant bar stool. Sipping the colourless liquid, I could see my reflection in the mirrors behind the bar. I’d come straight from work. Somehow, I’d resisted the temptation to leave early and spend the better part of two hours showering, blow-drying my hair, putting on make-up and choosing clothes. I’d been determined not to look nice for Mark Joesbury.

  I fished my laptop out of my bag and put it down on the bar – not actually planning to work, just to make it look that way – and opened a presentation on the UK’s laws on pornography that I was due to give the following week to a group of new recruits at Hendon. I opened a slide at random – the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. The recruits would be surprised to learn, because most people were, that possession of all non-child pornography was perfectly legal in the UK until the 2008 Act outlawed extreme pornographic images. Naturally, they’d want to know what qualified as extreme. Hence the main content of the slide I was looking at.

  An extreme pornographic image depicts a sexual act that:

  • threatens, or appears to threaten, a person’s life.

  • results in serous injury to sexual organs.

  • involves a human corpse.

  • involves an animal

  I changed a spelling mistake in the second bullet point and added a full stop to the fourth.

  Joesbury hadn’t arrived. Not that I’d looked round. I would know the minute he walked through the door.

  Twenty-four hours earlier I’d had a five-minute briefing with my DI at Southwark Police Station. SCD10, still colloquially known by everyone as SO10, the special crimes directorate of the Metropolitan Police that deals with co
vert operations, had requested my help with a case. Not just any young female detective constable but me specifically, and the lead officer on the case, DI Mark Joesbury, would meet me the following evening. ‘What case?’ I’d asked. DI Joesbury would fill me in, I was told. My DI had been tight-lipped and grumpy, probably on account of having his staff filched without being told why.

  I checked my watch again. He was twenty-three minutes late, my drink was disappearing too quickly and at half past I was going home.

  I couldn’t even remember what he looked like, I realized. Oh, I had a vague idea of height, build and colouring, and I remembered those turquoise eyes, but I couldn’t conjure up a picture of his face. Which was odd, really, given that he was never out of my head for a second.

  ‘Lacey Flint, as I live and breathe,’ said a voice directly behind me.

  I took a deep breath and turned round slowly, to see Mark Joesbury, maybe just a fraction over six feet tall, strongly built, suntanned skin even in January, bright turquoise eyes. Wearing a thick, untidy, ginger wig.

  ‘I’m undercover,’ he said. And then he winked at me.

  THE DISABLED PARKING space outside Dr Evi Oliver’s house was empty for a change. Even with the prominent Private Parking sign on the old brick wall it wasn’t unusual, especially at weekends, for Evi to arrive home and find that a tourist with a bad leg had claimed it for his own. Tonight she was in luck.

  She steeled herself to the inevitable pain and got out of the car. She was thirty minutes overdue with her medication and it just wasn’t handling the pain the way it used to. Unfolding the stick, she tucked it under her left arm and, a little steadier now, found her briefcase. As usual, the effort left her slightly out of breath. As usual, being alone in the dark didn’t help.

  Wanting to get inside as soon as she could, Evi made herself take a moment to look round and listen. The house where she’d lived for the last five and a half months was at the end of a cul de sac and surrounded by walled college gardens and the river Cam. It was probably one of the quietest streets in Cambridge.

  There was no one in sight, and nothing to hear but traffic in the next street and the wind in the nearby trees.

  It was late. Nine o’clock on a Friday evening and it simply hadn’t been possible to stay at work any longer. Her new colleagues had already written her off as a sad, semi-crippled spinster, old before her time, with no life of her own outside work. They wouldn’t exactly be wrong about that. But what really kept Evi at her desk until security closed down the building wasn’t the emptiness of the rest of her life. It was fear.

  I WAS AWARE of sniggers around us, a few curious glances. I half heard Joesbury tell the bloke behind the bar that he’d have a pint of IPA and the lady would have a refill. When I finally got my breath and had wiped my eyes, Joesbury was looking puzzled.

  ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you laugh before,’ he said. Shaking his head softly, as though it was me who was nuts, he was watching the barman pour my drink. Bombay Sapphire over lots of ice in a tall glass. He slid it to me, eyebrows high.

  ‘You drink neat gin?’ he asked me.

  ‘No. I drink it with ice and lemon,’ I replied, as I realized the man at the bar, and several others near by, were watching us. What the hell was Joesbury playing at?

  ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ I asked him. ‘Are you planning on wearing that thing all night?’

  ‘Nah, it makes my head itch.’ He pulled the wig off, dropped it on to the bar and picked up his glass. The discarded hairpiece lay in front of him like roadkill as he scratched behind his left ear. ‘I can put it back on later, though,’ he said. ‘If you want.’

  His hair had grown since I’d last seen him, just touching his collar at the back. It was darker brown than I remembered, with just the faintest kink in it. The longer style suited him, softening the lines of his skull and lengthening his cheekbones, making him infinitely better-looking. The soft light of the bar made the scar around his right eye barely visible. The muscles in my jaw were aching. All this time I’d been grinning at him.

  ‘And again I ask, what are you playing at?’ If I sounded grumpy, he might not realize how ridiculously pleased I was to see him. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be low-profile man?’

  ‘I thought it might break the ice,’ he replied, wiping beer foam off his upper lip. ‘Things were a bit tense last time I saw you.’

  Last time I’d seen Joesbury, he’d been minutes away from bleeding to death. So had I, come to that. I guess ‘a bit tense’ just about covered it.

  ‘How are you?’ I asked him, although I already had a pretty good idea. For the last couple of months I’d shamelessly begged updates from mutual acquaintances. I knew the gunshot he’d taken that night had torn a good chunk of lung tissue that surgeons, and time, had managed to repair. I knew he’d spent four weeks in hospital, that he would be on light duties for another three months, but fine to return to full duties after that.

  ‘I might give the London marathon a miss this year,’ he said, stretching out one hand and taking hold of mine, causing tightly stretched guitar strings to start twanging in my stomach. ‘Otherwise fine.’ He turned my wrist to see its underside and looked for a second at the heavy-duty plaster I still wore, more because I didn’t like looking at the scar beneath than because it needed to be covered. Three months on, it had healed as much as it ever would. Which would never be enough.

  ‘I thought you might come and see me,’ he went on. ‘Those hospital-issue pyjamas were quite fetching.’

  ‘I sent a teddy,’ I replied. ‘I expect it got lost in the post.’

  We both knew I was lying. What I’d never tell him was that I’d spent nearly an hour gazing at pictures on the Steiff of Germany website, picking out the exact teddy I would have sent, if such a thing were possible. The one I’d finally settled on was similar to the one he’d once given me, just bigger and cheekier. Last time I checked the site it had been marked unavailable. Couldn’t have put it better myself. He was looking at my face now, specifically at my newly modelled nose. It had been reset a month ago following a break and the post-op bruising had just about disappeared.

  ‘Nice work,’ he said. ‘Tiny bit longer than it was?’

  ‘I thought it made me look intellectual.’

  He was still holding my wrist and I’d made no attempt to pull away. ‘I hear they’ve got you working on porn,’ he said. ‘Enjoying it?’

  ‘They’ve got me doing research and briefings,’ I snapped, because I never like to hear men even half joking about porn. ‘They seem to think I’m good at detail.’

  Joesbury let go of me and I could see his mood changing. He turned away and his eyes settled on a table by the window.

  ‘Well, if we’ve got the social pleasantries out of the way, we should sit down,’ he said. Without waiting for me to agree, he tucked the wig under his arm, picked up both drinks and made his way through the bar. I followed, telling myself I had no right to be disappointed. This wasn’t a date.

  Joesbury had been carrying a rucksack. He pulled a slim brown case file out of it and put it down, unopened, on the table between us.

  ‘I’ve got clearance from your guvnors at Southwark to request your help on a case,’ he said, and he might have been any senior officer briefing any junior one. ‘We need a woman. One who can pass for early twenties at most. There’s no one in the division available. I thought of you.’

  ‘I’m touched,’ I said, playing for time. Cases referred to SO10 involved officers being sent undercover into difficult and dangerous situations. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another of those.

  ‘Do well and it’ll look good on your record,’ he said.

  ‘The opposite, of course, also being the case.’

  Joesbury smiled. ‘I’m under orders to tell you that the decision is entirely yours,’ he said. ‘I’m further instructed by Dana to inform you that I’m an irresponsible fool, that it’s far too soon after the Ripper business to even think about pu
tting you on a case like this and that you should tell me to go to hell.’

  ‘Tell her I said hi,’ I replied. Dana was DI Dana Tulloch, who headed up the Major Investigation Team that I’d worked with last autumn. She was also Joesbury’s best mate. I liked Dana, but couldn’t help resenting her closeness to Joesbury.

  ‘On the other hand,’ he was saying, ‘the case largely came to our attention through Dana. She was contacted on an informal basis by an old university friend of hers, now head of student counselling at Cambridge University.’

  ‘What’s the case?’ I asked.

  Joesbury opened the file. ‘That stomach of yours still pretty strong?’ I nodded, although it hadn’t exactly been put to the test much lately. He took out a small stack of photographs and slid them along the table towards me. I looked briefly at the one on the top and had to close my eyes for a second. There are some things that it really is better never to see.

  EVI RAN HER eyes along the brick wall that surrounded her garden, around the nearby buildings, into dark areas under trees, wondering if fear was going to overshadow the rest of her life.

  Fear of being alone. Fear of shadows that became substance. Of whispers that came scurrying out of the darkness. Of a beautiful face that was nothing more than a mask. Fear of the few short steps between the safety of her car and her house.

  Had to be done sometime. She locked the car and set off towards her front gate. The wrought ironwork was old but had been resprung so that a light touch would send it swinging open.

  The easterly wind coming off the Fens was strong tonight and the leaves on the two bay trees rustled together like old paper. Even the tiny leaves of the box hedging were dancing little jigs. Lavender bushes flanked each side of the path. In June the scent would welcome her home like the smile on a loved one’s face. For now, the unclipped stalks were bare.

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