First two chapters of a police procedural novel set in Cardiff, UK.
She stood alone on the otherwise empty stage, the image of beauty, caught in a slant of light in the darkness.
He watched from the shadows.
She was everything he remembered, long dark hair pulled into a loose ponytail, her dress a drift of smoke in the light. With the violin held in the slender cradle of her neck, she moved gently with the music.
The haunting melody – the mournful rise and fall of bow over string – made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and the breath still in his throat.
The concert hall, refurbished from a derelict church, retained an air of sanctity: centuries of devotion that had permeated the stone and wood. Either side of a central aisle, ornate pillars rose to a high-domed ceiling.
Standing there, he was caught in a moment as perfect as he could remember.
And then, with a final draw of the bow, it was over. Victoria lowered the violin, and a heavy silence drifted down from the vaulted roof. She started to move down off the stage.
He stepped into the light.
When she looked up and saw him, she stopped dead.
He raised his hands. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’ His voice echoed around the church. ‘Detective Sergeant Tom Shaw. We met last week.’
She moved towards him. ‘Has there been a development?’
Shaw hesitated. ‘I’m not here about the break-in.’
A smile played at the corner of her mouth. ‘So why are you here?’
He walked down the aisle towards her. ‘I spent the past week trying to think of a reason. I gave up about an hour ago.’
'But you’re here, anyway?’
He stopped. ‘I couldn’t stay away.’
Victoria glanced back at the stage. ‘How long were you watching?’
‘Just a few minutes. That was incredible.’
She studied him. ‘You’re not here to compliment my jeté?’
‘I don’t know what that is, but yes. Among other things.’
‘Would you like to go for a drink?’
Victoria dropped her gaze. ‘I rarely drink while preparing for a concert.’
Shaw stuffed his hands into his pockets and took a step back. ‘Of course. I’m sorry.’
She raised her eyes to his and smiled. ‘I said rarely. Not never.’
Mimi’s Café Bar stood on Albany Road, a short walk from the concert hall.
Shaw held open the glass door and followed Victoria inside, close at her back. Tuesday night, the place was quiet. A dozen people, no more, sitting in intimate groups at glass-top tables. Soft music and muted conversation drifted like smoke beneath low lighting.
A girl in café black led them to a table for two in a secluded corner, a candle burning in a small hurricane lantern.
Shaw ordered a bottle of Australian chardonnay.
Victoria eyed him suspiciously. ‘My favourite. How did you know?’
Shaw took out his wallet. He gave her a smile. ‘I’m a detective; it’s what I do.’
‘Is this something else you do, detective?’ Victoria twirled her hair around a slender finger. ‘Seduce vulnerable victims of crime?’
‘No. This is absolutely my first time. And, in my defence, I didn’t have you down as the vulnerable type.’
Victoria leaned forward. ‘How do you see me?’
‘Strong, independent, creative. Attractive, obviously.’
She smiled. ‘You’re saying all the right things.’
Shaw looked at Victoria, his gaze steady. ‘I swear I have never done anything like this before. And, while I’m building the case for the defence, you’re an informant, not a victim.’
She sat back and took a mouthful of wine. ‘How does that work?’
‘You discovered the break-in at the concert hall,’ Shaw explained. ‘You called the police. You don’t own the property that was unlawfully entered, and you didn’t suffer any loss in the process of the crime.’
She eyed him over the rim of the glass. ‘What are you, some sort of lawyer?’
Shaw grinned at her.
Victoria placed her glass on the table. ‘I hoped you’d come by tonight, but you’ve had bigger things to worry about.’
Shaw looked at her, confused.
‘The murder in Gabalfa. I saw it on the news.’
Shaw nodded. Last Saturday, Ryan Ali had invited two friends to his flat to watch football. The three men were drinking heavily in the build-up to the match and during the game. After the final whistle, they got into some sort of argument. The friends launched a frenzied attack. Ryan Ali died the next day as a result of injuries sustained.
‘Because the wrong team won.’
Victoria looked away. ‘How do you deal with that? How do you do a job that brings you close to such evil?’
Shaw drank some wine. ‘It makes no more sense to me than it does to you. And, you know, in the cold light of day, it probably makes no sense to the two men who did it. The fact is, we are all animals. We might have reason and compassion, secrets and lies, but at base level, we’re no more than dogs. Most of the time the conscience, whatever that is, keeps that side in check. But sometimes the instinct is too strong and the animal escapes.’
‘Whoever broke into the concert hall, they were acting on animal instinct?’
Shaw shook his head. ‘I think that was boredom. Or, if it was criminal, it was somebody looking to make a few quid without the effort of honest work.’
‘Isn’t that evident in the animal kingdom, too? The hyena moving in to steal another animal’s kill? The crow picking over the carcass after the other animals have had their share?’
Shaw smiled at her. ‘What are you, some sort of sociologist?’
‘Nothing like.’ Victoria drained her glass. ‘Tell me about you. Why did you become a detective?’
Shaw gave the question some thought. ‘I moved to Cardiff when I started university. I read law but quickly realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. The police service was the logical next step. I did four years before I transferred to CID. I suppose the truth is, I like a nice suit.’
‘And how has it worked out?’
‘It’s OK. Mostly paperwork, politics and bureaucracy. But that’s life. I have a wardrobe full of nice suits, and I still believe I’m doing good in the world. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll keep doing it.’
‘Even when you encounter people who kill their friends without reason?’
‘Especially then. Because the victims deserve it. Because nothing is more sacred than life.’ Shaw poured more wine into Victoria’s glass. ‘Was it always your dream to be a professional musician?’
Victoria smiled. ‘Semi-professional. I’m definitely a teacher first. But I think the music was my parents’ dream. Not in that obsessive Chinese acrobat, Russian ballet dancer kind of way. They saw talent in me, and they nurtured it.’
‘What do you teach?’
‘Infants. Grangetown Primary.’
‘That must be quite a challenge.’
‘I love it.’ Victoria smiled. ‘Too much paperwork and bureaucracy, but I don’t think I could ever give it up, even if the music took off.’
‘You’re an incredible violinist.’
‘You don’t need to flatter me, Tom. You’ve got me right here.’
‘It’s not flattery if it’s the truth.’
They sat like that for almost two hours: heads bowed close, talking in hushed tones, like conspirators sharing a secret, like nobody else in the world existed. Like they’d known each other all their lives. Victoria told Shaw about herself; where she’d come from and where she had been. Shaw told her about his life and his past.
Told her almost none of it.
When the bar closed, they stood beneath a streetlight, huddled together against the biting January cold.
Shaw offered to call a taxi.
Victoria smiled. ‘I’m glad you came by tonight.’
With his mobile to his ear, he said to Victoria, ‘Can we do this again?’
‘Can I get a cab? Mimi’s on Albany Road. In the name of Victoria.’ Shaw ended the call, then pocketed his mobile.
Victoria produced from her bag a white business card lavished with red ink. She handed it to Shaw. Victoria Masterson. Concert violinist. Home address, telephone number, and mobile.
‘I had those made about a year ago,’ she said. ‘This is maybe the tenth I’ve given out. Only four-hundred-and-ninety to go.’
He took out one of his work business cards and asked her to call him.
She slipped the card into her purse. ‘What are the chances of him coming back?’
‘Whoever broke into the concert hall. Do you think he’ll try again?’
Shaw shook his head. ‘They’ll know the owners are wise to them now. They know there’ll be increased security. They won’t risk returning.’
‘I was almost hoping they would. So I could see you again.’
A taxi rolled up at the kerbside. Shaw moved forward, close to her, and opened the car’s back door. He leaned in and kissed Victoria gently on the cheek. She returned the kiss.
Shaw stepped back. ‘You don’t have to hope for anything.’
Shaw watched until the taxi disappeared, then started to walk. He was on Cottrell Road when his mobile sounded.
It was Victoria. ‘Thank you for a wonderful evening,’ she said. ‘I’m starting to think maybe I’m the first person pleased to be the victim of crime.’
He was already awake when the call came through. The dream had come back.
Before six o’clock, he’d thrown off the bedclothes and wandered into the bathroom, blinking against electric light. Stood beneath the scalding shower spray, he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Until the broken images of the past faded and his heart rate returned to normal.
Towelled dry, he lingered outside the room at the back of the house, his hand resting against the closed door. He thought about going in, but he knew that wouldn’t help. Instead, he returned to the bedroom. Dressed in jeans and a shirt, he sat on the bed to tie his shoelaces and looked around the room. Walls of winter grey, oak flooring, mismatched furniture he and Louise had picked out at the antique shops around Penarth Road.
Down in the lounge, a stepladder stood against one wall, a tin of white paint on the top rung, a roller and brush wrapped in cling film. One more coat, he reckoned, and the room would be finished.
He moved through into the kitchen. While the espresso percolated, he tried to ignore the work still to be done: the mismatched cupboard doors, the exposed plaster where he’d hacked the ceramic tiles from the walls, the fading squares of colour near the back door.
He turned his attention to the business card pinned to the corkboard beside the fridge, and smiled.
Then his mobile rang: number withheld.
‘Sorry, but we’re on.’
He recognised the caller’s voice: Hannah Wilde, the CID duty sergeant. ‘What is it?’
‘We’ve got a body. Langcross Wood. The first attending officer passed it through as suspicious.’
Shaw faltered. He knew only too well the misery and suffering that accompanied a sudden death.
‘I’m on my way.’
He drank the coffee down hot, then reached for a jacket. Pocketing his keys, mobile and warrant card, he headed for the door.
The sky over Roath had lightened to a deep cornflower. At the kerbside, the Alfa Romeo glistened beneath a thin sheen of frost. Shaw unlocked the car, slid behind the wheel, and pressed the start button. The engine roared to life.
A solitary magpie circled overhead.
Shaw took the Grangetown Link across the city, heading west.
He left the flyover near the redeveloped area around the football stadium and the retail park. Asda. Ikea. A host of big-name stores. Off the Leckwith roundabout, over the Ely, up into countryside.
Headlights on full beam, pushing fifty-five. Black shadows, trees and undergrowth, swept by in the still-dark. Up ahead, Shaw clocked the rear lights of another car, moving just as fast.
After a mile or so, a cluster of houses stood back from the trees. A flare of brake lights as the car in front slowed to make a right turn off the main road.
Shaw followed the Vauxhall onto a tree-lined lane that wound up past a couple of properties, then widened: a strip of grass running alongside the track. Up ahead, where the lane narrowed, and the trees closed in, a patrol car blocked the roadway, side on, blue lights flashing in the still dawn. The Vauxhall drew to a stop on the verge.
Shaw rolled the Alfa onto the frozen ground behind the Astra. He reached across to the glove box, took out his Maglite, then climbed from the car. The cold morning air bit through his jacket.
Hannah Wilde got out of the Vauxhall. She was wearing a fur-lined parka open over a grey suit, her dark blonde hair pulled up off her neck. She too was holding a torch.
‘What took you so long?’ she asked, pretending to look at her watch.
Shaw shook his head, gave her a thin smile. He walked out into the roadway and looked along the lane. A response officer stood near the patrol car. Behind him, the track stretched for a hundred yards before curving out of sight.
Wilde went to the back of the Vauxhall and opened the boot. She took a crime scene kit from a plastic crate: Tyvek one-piece protective coveralls and overshoes, surgical mask and gloves. She tossed Shaw the cellophane wrap, then lifted out another.
Shaw tested the torch, then started towards the cordon. Wilde fell in beside him.
When they reached the police car, Shaw held up his warrant card. ‘Detective Sergeant Tom Shaw, Cardiff Bay CID.’
Wilde showed her badge. ‘What have we got?’
The officer laid the scene log on the bonnet of the patrol car. ‘The body’s in an area of woodland just off the track. CSIs are en-route and so is the forensic physician.’
‘No need for an ambulance?’
A shake of the head. ‘I know it’s protocol, but you don’t need to go in there.’
Shaw stared into the darkness beyond the patrol car. ‘Any witnesses?’
‘Not so far. The initial call came from a woman named Paula Young. She discovered the body while walking her dog at around six o'clock this morning. She lives in the smaller of the two houses down the lane. The larger property is vacant. We’re conducting house-to-house in the area, but there aren’t many doors to knock.’
‘Where does this lane go?’
‘Nowhere. There’s a derelict farmhouse a mile or so along the way. It’s being renovated to be resold as high-end housing.’
Shaw tore the coveralls from their plastic wrap. He pulled the Tyveks on over his clothes. Beside him, Wilde was also kitting up.
‘Entrance to the scene is along the lane,’ the officer said. ‘I’ve established an entry route and a perimeter.’
Shaw nodded his thanks, then lifted the tape for Wilde to duck under. He matched her pace, sweeping the torch from side-to-side, picking out intricate shapes in the winter-dead branches.
The torchlight flared off a police traffic cone and a scrap of crime scene tape: the way into the woods.
Shaw kept Wilde close on the approach to the perimeter. Ducking beneath the reach of the dead branches, Shaw entered the woodland, Wilde just behind him on the narrow track.
He crept forward, the frozen ground uneven underfoot. The torch picked out another cone. Shaw stopped, something else caught in the beam of light.
She lay on the cold, hard ground. Laid out on her back, arms at her side, legs straight. The dress she wore might once have been white: a paper bag drenched in blood, torn open. She’d suffered multiple stab wounds, her thighs and stomach slashed, her underwear, if she were wearing any, lost to the amount of blood that spilled from her abdomen. Wide lacerations yawned across her breasts, her chest cut down to the ribs. Hollow wounds gouged her cheek and jaw, up to the temple: blonde hair and scalp hacked away from the skull. A deep knife-tear opened her throat, flesh and cartilage carved down to the spine.
Shaw reeled backwards, bile rising into his throat. He turned, unsure of his footing, and urged Wilde back, gripped by a sudden need to protect her, back the way they’d come. Following the cones, moving fast. Out of the woods. Back to the lane.
At the cordon, the response officer didn’t look at them.
Shaw pulled at the paper suit. ‘Call MCU,’ he said. ‘Get major crimes here now.’