We are all creatures of habit. Even murderers. When things work out for us, we fix on some talisman to credit for the success.
Lucky pants; not shaving; performing the same actions in the correct sequence; having the identical breakfast; walking on the right side of the street.
When murderers reveal their talismans to us, we call it a signature.
From Reading Crimes by Dr Tony Hill
Eight years previously
Murder had been far from Mark Conway’s mind that Saturday afternoon. Although he liked to consider himself an expert on the subject, he was also capable of compartmentalising the different elements of his life. And today, he was all about football. He stood in front of the glass wall of Bradfield Victoria’s boardroom, absently swirling the red wine in its generous goblet, gazing down at the crowds pouring into the stadium.
He knew what they were feeling. Conway had been one of the rank and file himself once. Match day meant superstitious rituals. Since the afternoon twenty years ago when the Vics had won the League Cup, he’d always worn the same pair of black socks with Snoopy dancing on each ankle. He still did, though these days he hid the inappropriate graphic beneath thin black silk. Multi-millionaire businessmen didn’t wear novelty socks.
Match day also meant a low thrum of anticipation in the chest and the stomach. Even for games that had no bearing on league position or the next round of the cup, the excitement fizzed inside him, electric in his blood. Who would be picked for the team? Who would referee the game? What would the weather hold? Would the end of the afternoon bring rapture or stinging disappointment?
That was what it meant to be a fan. And although Mark Conway was now a member of the board of the club he’d followed from boyhood, he remained just that – a fan. He’d shouted himself hoarse as they climbed up – and memorably once, tumbled down – through the divisions to their current position in sixth place in the Premier League. There was only one thing that thrilled him more than a Vics’ victory.
‘Fancy our chances today?’
The voice at his shoulder made Conway turn away from the view. The club’s commercial director had come up behind him. Conway knew the motive; the man was already trying to confirm pitchside advertising for next season and he’d want to get Conway’s name on a contract and his money in the bank sooner rather than later. ‘Spurs are a tough side to beat these days,’ Conway said. ‘But Hazinedar is on great form. Four goals in the last three games. We’ve got to be in with a shout.’
The commercial director began an exhaustive analysis of both teams. He had no gift for small talk and within a couple of sentences, Conway’s attention had drifted, his gaze moving round the room. When he caught sight of Jezza Martinu, his lips twitched in the ghost of a smile. Now there was a man who could have served as the avatar of fandom. Jezza was his cousin; their mothers were sisters. Family legend had it that ‘Vics’ was the first word Jezza had uttered. ‘Excuse me, would you?’ Conway drained his drink and stepped past the commercial director. He crossed to the bar, where the young woman serving the drinks abruptly ignored everyone else who was waiting and poured him a fresh glass of wine, delivering it with a quick tight smile. He moved through the thronged boardroom towards his cousin. Jezza was clearly excited, rabbiting away to the poor bloke he’d cornered over by the buffet table. Bradfield Victoria was his obsession. If there had been a church where Jezza could worship the club, he’d have been its archbishop. When Mark Conway had told his cousin he’d been invited to join the board, he’d thought Jezza was going to faint. The colour had drained from his face and he’d staggered momentarily. ‘You can join me in the directors’ box,’ Conway went on to say. Tears sprang up in his cousin’s eyes. ‘Really?’ he’d gasped. ‘You mean it? The directors’ box?’ ‘And the boardroom before and after the game. You’ll meet the players.’
‘I can’t believe this is happening. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of.’ He pulled Conway into a hug, not noticing the other man flinch. ‘You could have chosen anybody,’ Jezza added. ‘Somebody you wanted to impress. Somebody from work you wanted to reward. But you chose me.’ He squeezed again, then let go.
‘I knew what it would mean to you.’ Which was perfectly true.
‘I can never repay you for this.’ Jezza roughly wiped his eyes. ‘God, Mark, I love you, man.’
This was the moment he’d planned for. It had taken a sig- nificant investment and a lot of smarming up to people he despised to get that coveted seat on the board. But he knew that once he’d handed Jezza Martinu the golden ticket, his cousin would do anything to keep it. The final element in his insurance policy in case his ambitious plans didn’t pan out. Conway smiled. It looked sincere because it was. ‘I’ll think of something,’ he said.
But he already had.
When a small group of FBI agents came up with the idea of offender profiling, the one thing they knew for sure was that they didn’t know enough about the minds of those who kept on killing.
And so they went looking in the one place where they could be sure of finding experts – behind bars.
From Reading Crimes by Dr Tony Hill
It was the smell that hammered home his whereabouts as soon as he woke. There was no prospect of drifting out of sleep with that momentary sense of dislocation, that half- awake wondering, Where am I? Home? Hotel? Somebody’s guest room? These days, as soon as consciousness arrived, so did the miasma that reminded Dr Tony Hill that he was in jail.
Years of talking to patients in secure mental hospitals and prisons meant he was no stranger to the unpleasant cock- tail. Stale sweat, stale smoke, stale bodies, stale cooking, stale farts. The sourness of clothes that had taken too long to dry. The faintly vanilla musk of too much testosterone. And under it all, the harsh tang of cheap cleaning chemicals. In the past, he’d always been glad to escape from the smell of incarceration and back into the outside world. These days, there was no escape.
He’d thought he’d get used to it. That after a while, he’d be inured to it. But six months into his four-year sentence he was still brutally aware of it every single day. Because he was a clinical psychologist, he couldn’t help wondering whether there was some deep-seated reason for what had begun to feel like hyper-awareness. Or maybe he simply had a particularly acute sense of smell.
Whatever the reason, he had grown to resent it. Not for him those half-asleep moments where he could imagine himself waking in his bunk on the narrowboat that had become his base, or in the guest suite in Carol Jordan’s renovated barn where he’d spent time enough to consider it a second home. Those dreamy fantasies were denied him. He never doubted where he was. All he had to do was breathe. At least now he had a cell to himself. When he’d been on remand for weary months, he’d had a succession of cellmates whose personal habits had been a particularly arduous punishment in themselves. Dazza, with his tireless commitment to wanking. Ricky, with his phlegm-choked smoker’s cough and perpetual hawking into the steel toilet. Marco, with his night terrors, screams that woke half the landing and provoked even more screaming and swearing from their neighbours. Tony had tried to talk to Marco about the bad dreams. But the aggressive little Liverpudlian had leapt up and gone nose to nose with him, denying via most of the swear words Tony had ever encountered that he had ever had a bastarding nightmare.
Worst of all, Maniac Mick, awaiting trial for chopping off the hand of a rival drug dealer. When Mick discovered that Tony had worked with the police, his first response was to grab the front of his shirt and smack him up against the wall. Spittle had flown as he explained to Tony why they called him Maniac and what he was going to do to any fucking fucker who was in the pocket of the fuck- ing feds. His fist – the one tattooed across the knuckles with C-U-N-T – was drawn back, ready for the strike that Tony knew would break something in his face. He closed his eyes.
Nothing happened. He opened one eye and saw a middle- aged black man with his hand between Mick and Tony. Its presence was like an improbable forcefield. ‘He’s not what you think, Mick.’ His voice was soft, almost intimate.
‘He’s filth,’ Mick spat. ‘What do you care if he gets what’s fucking coming to him?’ His mouth was a sneer but his eyes were less certain.
‘He’s got nothing to do with the likes of us. He doesn’t give the steam off his shit for robbers or drug lords or lying scheming bastards like you and me. This man’ – the apparent saviour jerked his thumb towards Tony – ‘this man put away scum. The animals that kill and torture for the pleasure of it. Not for gain, not for revenge, not to prove how big their dick is. But just for fun. And the people they kill? They’re randoms. Could be your missus, could be my kid, could be anybody that’s got a face that fits. Just some poor sod that crosses the wrong monster’s path. This man is no danger to proper criminals like you and me.’ He turned so Mick could see his face, an amiable smile creasing his cheeks.
‘Mick, we should be pissed off that he’s in here. Because the people we love are safer with him doing his thing on the outside. Believe me, Mick, this man only puts away the kind of animals that never see the inside of a jail because they’re doing their multiple life sentences in the nut house. Leave him be, Mick.’ He used the man’s name like a caress. But Tony sensed threat behind it.
Mick moved his arm sideways, as if it were an intentional action, a planned stretch of his muscles. Then he lowered it to his side. ‘I’m gonna take your word for it, Druse.’ He stepped back. ‘But I’m going to be asking around. And if it’s not like you say . . . ’ He drew a finger across his throat. The smile that accompanied the gesture made Tony’s stomach clench. Maniac Mick swaggered away down the wing, a couple of his sidekicks falling into stride behind him.
Tony let out a long breath. ‘Thank you,’ he croaked.
Druse held out a hand. It was the first handshake Tony had been offered in the fourteen months he’d been inside. ‘I’m Druse. I know who you are.’
Tony shook his hand. It was dry and firm and Tony was ashamed of the sweat he was leaving on it. He smiled with one side of his mouth. ‘And yet you saved me.’
‘I come from Worcester,’ Druse said. ‘My sister was in the same English class as Jennifer Maidment.’
The name triggered a series of images. Teenage victims, heart-breaking crimes, a motivation as twisted as a DNA helix. At the time, he’d been struggling himself with the sort of revelation that turned lives inside out. Unravelling his own past as he’d so often done with offenders had nearly driven him to walk away from everything. But this man Druse, whoever he was, would have known nothing of that. Maybe nothing much beyond the headlines. Tony nodded. ‘I remember Jennifer Maidment.’
‘And I remember what you did. Now, don’t be under any illusions about me, Tony Hill. I’m a very bad man. But even bad men can sometimes do good things. As long as you’re in here, nobody’s going to bother you.’ Then he’d touched one finger to the imaginary brim of an imaginary cap and walked away.
Tony hadn’t yet grasped how information moved through a prison. He’d suspected Druse of promising a lot more than he could deliver. But he’d been delighted to be proved wrong. The perpetual undertow of fear that pervaded the remand wing gradually subsided but never dissipated completely. However, Tony was careful not to let his wariness slip; he remained constantly aware of the anarchy that fizzled close to the surface. And anarchy was no respecter of reputation.
Even more surprisingly, somehow Druse’s protection had followed him to the Category C prison he’d been assigned to after sentencing. The last thing he’d expected from incarceration was that he’d be protected by organised crime.
Druse had turned into a buffer on one side; Tony’s past as a criminal profiler had earned him a similar bulwark on the other. If anyone had ever asked him, he’d have reckoned he’d made more enemies than friends in high places over the years he’d been working with the police and the Home Office. But it turned out he’d been wrong about that too. He’d made a request early in his spell on remand for a laptop. Neither he nor his lawyer had expected it to be granted.
Wrong again. A week later, a battered old machine had turned up. Obviously, it had no internet capability. The only software on board was a primitive word-processing program. While he was sharing his cell, he’d persuaded the officer in charge of the library to let him keep it there.
Otherwise it would have been smashed, stolen or used as an offensive weapon by one of his cell mates. It limited the time Tony could spend with the machine, but that had forced him to be more focused when he did have access. And so, the only person who had reason to be cheerful about Tony’s prison term was his publisher, who had come to despair of Reading Crimes ever being finished, never mind published.
All of this had left Tony with uncomfortably tangled feelings. Engrossing himself in his writing made it possible to let go the fear that had run like an electric current through his veins from the moment he’d entered custody. That had been relief beyond words. There was no doubt about that. Losing all awareness of his surroundings while he sat at the key- board and tried to marshal his knowledge and experience into a coherent narrative was a blessing. What tempered these comforts was guilt.
He’d taken a life. That had broken the most fundamental taboo of his profession. The fact that he’d done it to prevent the woman he loved from having to do it herself was no excuse. Nor was their conviction that taking that one life had saved others. The man Tony had killed would have murdered again and again, and who knew whether there would ever have been a shred of significant evidence against him? But that didn’t diminish the enormity of what Tony had done.
So he deserved to be suffering. There should be a component of pain and retribution in his days. But truly, all the grief he knew was that he missed Carol. And if he’d been willing to, he could have seen her every time he was granted a visiting order. Refusing to allow her the opportunity to sit with him was a choice he told himself he was making for her sake. Maybe that was his form of atonement. If it was, it was probably a lower price than everybody else he was banged up with was paying.
When he considered what his fellow inmates had lost, he couldn’t deny that he felt lucky. All around him, he saw lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost families, lost hopes. He’d escaped all that, but it felt wrong nevertheless. His escape came with a constant scouring of guilt.
And so he’d decided he needed to find a more constructive way to repay what people glibly called the debt to society. He’d use his talents for empathy and communication to try to make a difference in the lives of the men who shared his current address. Starting today.
But before he could get ready for that, he had something far worse to prepare himself for.
His mother was coming to visit. He’d initially refused her request. Vanessa Hill was monstrous. That was a word whose weight he understood and he did not use it lightly. She had blighted his childhood, stolen his chances of know- ing his father, attempted to steal his inheritance from him. The last time he’d seen her, he’d hoped it would be the last time.
But Vanessa was not so easily thwarted. She’d sent a message via his lawyer. ‘I’ve always known we were the same, you and me. Now you know it too. You owe me, and you know that too.’ She still knew how to push his buttons. He’d fallen for it in spite of himself.
Hook, line and sinker.
How the Dead Speak is the most eagerly anticipated Tony Hill and Carol Jordan thriller yet!
by Val McDermid
Don't miss the electrifying new Karen Pirie thriller - STILL LIFE is out now
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'One of today's most accomplished crime writers' Literary Review
'We are all creatures of habit. Even murderers . . .'
When human remains are discovered in the grounds of an old convent, it quickly becomes clear that someone has been using the site as their personal burial ground. But with the convent abandoned long ago and the remains dating back many years, could this be the work of more than one obsessive killer?
It's an investigation that throws up more questions as the evidence mounts, and after their last case ended catastrophically, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan can only watch from afar. As they deal with the consequences of previous actions, someone with a terrifying routine is biding their time - and both Tony and Carol find themselves closer to the edge than they have ever been before . . .
Electrifying and filled with masterful suspense, this is the most eagerly anticipated thriller yet from number one bestseller and queen of crime Val McDermid.