Detective Constable Kate Marshall was on the train home when her phone rang. It took a moment of searching the folds of her long winter coat before she found it in the inside pocket. She heaved out the huge brick- like handset, pulled up the antenna and answered. It was her boss, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Conway.
‘Finally. She picks up!’ he snapped, without preamble. ‘I’ve been calling you. What’s the bloody point in having one of these new mobile phones if you don’t answer?’
‘Sorry. I’ve been in court all day for the Travis Jones sentencing. He got three years, which is more than I—’
‘A dog walker found the body of a young girl dumped in Crystal Palace Park,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘Naked. Bite marks on her body, a plastic bag tied over her head.’
‘The Nine Elms Cannibal . . . ’
‘Operation Hemlock. You know I don’t like that name.’
Kate wanted to reply that the name had now stuck and was bedded in for life, but he wasn’t the kind of boss who encouraged banter. The press had coined the epithet two years earlier, when seventeen-year-old Shelley Norris had been found in a wrecker’s yard in the Nine Elms area of south-west London, close to the Thames. Technically, the killer only bit his victims, but the press didn’t let this get in the way of a good serial killer moniker. Over the past two years, another two teenage girls had been abducted, each in the early evening, on their way home from school. Their bodies had shown up several days after their disappearances, dumped in parks around London. Nothing sold newspapers more than a cannibal on the loose.
‘Kate. Where are you?’
It was dark outside the train window. She looked up at the electronic display in the carriage.
‘On the DLR. Almost home, sir.’
‘I’ll pick you up outside the station, our usual spot.’ He hung up without waiting for a response.
Twenty minutes later, Kate was waiting on a small stretch of pavement between the station underpass and the busy South Circular where a line of cars ground slowly past. Much of the area around the station was under development, and Kate’s route home to her small flat took her through a long road of empty building sites. It wasn’t somewhere to linger after dark. The passengers she’d left the train with had crossed the road and dispersed into the dark streets. She glanced back over her shoulder at the dank empty underpass bathed in shadows and shifted on her heels. A small bag of groceries she’d bought for dinner sat between her feet. A spot of water hit her neck, and another, and then it started to rain. She turned up the collar of her coat and hunched down, moving closer to the bright headlights in the line of traffic.
Kate had been assigned to Operation Hemlock sixteen months previously, when the Nine Elms Cannibal body count stood at three. It had been a coup to join a high-profile case, along with promotion to the rank of plain- clothes detective.
In the eight months since the third victim’s body was found – a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl called Carla Martin – the case had gone cold. Operation Hemlock had been scaled back, and Kate had been reassigned to the drug squad, along with several other junior officers.
Kate squinted through the rain, down the long line of traffic. Bright headlights appeared around a sharp bend in the road, but there were no police sirens in the distance. She checked her watch and stepped back out of the glare.
She hadn’t seen Peter for two months. Shortly before she was reassigned, she had slept with him. He rarely socialised with his team, and during a rare night of after-work drinks they’d wound up talking, and she’d found his company and his intelligence stimulating. They had stayed late in the pub, after the rest of the team went home, and ended up back at her flat. And then the next night he had invited her over to his place. Kate’s dalliance with her boss, on not one but two occasions, was something that burned inside her with regret. It was a moment of madness – two moments – before they both came to their senses. She had a strong moral compass. She was a good police officer.
I’ll pick you up at our usual spot.
It bothered her that Peter had said this on the phone. He’d given her a lift to work twice, and both times he had also picked up her colleague, Detective Inspector Cameron Rose, who lived close by. Would he have said our usual spot to Cam?
The cold was starting to creep up the back of her long coat, and the rain had seeped in through the holes in the bottom of the ‘good shoes’ she wore for court. Kate adjusted her collar and huddled into her coat, turning her attention to the line of traffic. Almost all the drivers were men, white, in their mid-to-late thirties. The perfect serial killer demographic.
A grimy white van slid past, the driver’s face distorted by the rainwater on the windscreen. The police believed the Nine Elms Cannibal was using a van to abduct his victims. Carpet fibres matching a 1994 Citroën Dispatch white van, of which there were over a hundred thousand registered in and around London, had been found on two of the victims. Kate wondered if the officers who’d been retained for Operation Hemlock were still working through that list of Citroën Dispatch white van owners. And who was this new victim? There had been nothing in the newspapers about a missing person.
The lights up ahead turned red, and a small blue Ford stopped in the line of traffic a few feet away. The man inside was a City type: overweight, in his mid-fifties and wearing a pinstriped suit and glasses. He saw Kate, raised his eyebrows suggestively and flashed his headlights. Kate looked away. The blue Ford inched closer, closing the gap in the line of cars until his passenger window was almost level with her. It slid down, and the man leaned across.
‘Hello. You look cold. I can make you warm . . . ’ He patted the seat beside him and stuck out his tongue, which was thin and pointed. Kate froze. Panic rose in her chest. She forgot she had her warrant card, and that she was a police officer. It all went out of the window and fear took over. ‘Come on. Hop inside. Let’s warm you up,’ he said. He patted the seat again, impatient.
Kate stepped away from the kerb. The underpass behind her was dark and empty. The other vehicles in the line had male drivers, and they seemed oblivious, cocooned in their cars. The lights ahead remained red. The rain thrummed lazily on the car roofs. The man leaned farther over and the passenger door popped open a few inches. Kate took another step back, but felt trapped. What if he got out of his car and pushed her into the underpass?
‘Don’t fuck me around. How much?’ he said. His smile was gone, and she could see his trousers were undone. His underpants were faded and dingy. He hooked his finger under the waistband and exposed his penis and a thatch of greying pubic hair.
Kate was still rooted to the spot, willing the lights to change.
A police siren blared out suddenly, cutting through the silence, and the cars and the arch of the underpass were lit up with blue flashing lights. The man hurriedly rearranged himself, fastened his trousers and pulled the door shut, activating the central locking. His face returned to an impassive stare. Kate fumbled in her bag and pulled out her warrant card. She went to the blue Ford and slapped it against the passenger window, annoyed that she hadn’t done it earlier.
Peter’s unmarked police car, with its revolving blue light on the roof, came shooting down the outside of the row of traffic, half up on the grass verge. The traffic light changed to green. The car in front drove away, and Peter pulled into the gap. The man inside the Ford was now panicking, smoothing down his hair and tie. Kate fixed him with a stare, put her warrant card back in her bag and went to the passenger door of Peter’s car.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. Traffic,’ said Peter, giving her a brisk smile. He picked up a pile of paperwork from the passenger seat and put it behind his seat. He was a good- looking man in his late thirties, broad-shouldered with thick dark wavy hair, high cheekbones and soft brown eyes. He wore an expensive tailored black suit.
‘Of course,’ she said, feeling relief as she stashed her handbag and groceries in the footwell and dropped into the seat. As soon as she closed the door, Peter accelerated and flicked on the sirens.
The sunshade was down on the passenger side, and she caught her reflection in the mirror as she folded it back up. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, or dressed provocatively, and Kate always thought herself a little plain. She wasn’t delicate. She had strong features. Her shoulder-length hair was tied back off her face, tucked away under the neck of her long winter coat, almost as an afterthought. The only distinguishing features were her unusual eyes, which were a startling cornflower blue with a burst of burnt orange flooding out from the pupils. It was caused by sectoral heterochromia, a rare condition where the eyes have two colours. The other, less permanent mark on her face was a split lip, just starting to scab over, which had been caused by an irate drunk resisting arrest a few days before. She’d felt no fear when dealing with the drunk, and didn’t feel ashamed that he’d hit her. It was part of the job. Why did she feel shame after being hit on by the sleazy businessman? He was the one with the sad, saggy grey underwear and the stubby little manhood.
‘What was that? With the car behind?’ asked Peter.
‘Oh, one of his brake lights was out,’ she said. It was easier to lie. She felt embarrassed. She pushed the man and his blue Ford to the back of her mind. ‘Have you called the whole team to the crime scene?’
‘Of course,’ said Peter, glancing over. ‘After we spoke, I got a call from the assistant commissioner, Anthony Asher. He says if this murder is linked to Operation Hemlock, I only have to ask and I’ll have all the resources I need at my disposal.’
He sped around a roundabout in fourth gear, and took the exit to Crystal Palace Park. Peter Conway was a career police officer, and Kate had no doubt that solving this case would result in a promotion to superintendent or even chief superintendent. Peter had been the youngest officer in the history of the Met Police to be promoted to detective chief inspector.
The windows were starting to fog up, and he turned up the heater. The arc of condensation on the windscreen rippled and receded. Between a group of terraced houses Kate caught a glimpse of the London skyline lit up. There were millions of lights, pinpricks in the black fabric of the sky, symbolising the homes and offices of millions. Kate wondered which light belonged to the Nine Elms Cannibal. What if we never find him? she thought. The police never found Jack the Ripper, and back then
London was tiny in comparison.
‘Have you had any more leads from the white van database?’ she asked.
‘We brought in another six men for questioning, but their DNA didn’t match our man.’
‘The fact he leaves his DNA on the victims, it’s not just carelessness or lack of control. It’s as if he’s marking his territory. Like a dog.’
‘You think he wants us to catch him?’
‘Yes . . . No . . . Possibly.’
‘He’s behaving like he’s invincible.’
‘He thinks he’s invincible. But he’ll slip up. They always do,’ said Kate.
They turned off into the north entrance to Crystal Palace Park. A police car was waiting, and the officer waved them through. They drove down a long straight avenue of gravel, usually reserved for people on foot. It was lined with large oak trees shedding leaves, and they hit the windscreen with a wet flapping sound, clogging up the wipers. In the far distance the huge Crystal Palace radio transmitter poked up above the trees like a slender Eiffel Tower. The road banked down and ended in a small car park beside a long flat field of grass, which backed onto a wooded area. A police tape cordon ringed the entire expanse of grass. In the centre was a second, smaller cordon around a white forensics tent, glowing in the darkness. Next to the second cordon sat the pathologist’s van, four squad cars and a large white police support vehicle.
Where the tarmac met the grass, the tape of the first police cordon flapped in the breeze. Kate and Peter were met by two uniformed police officers – a middle-aged man whose belly hung over his belt and a tall, thin young man who still looked like a teenager. Kate and Peter showed their identification to the older officer. His eyes were hooded with loose skin, and as he glanced between their warrant cards, he reminded Kate of a chameleon. He handed them back and went to lift the police tape, but hesitated, looking over at the glowing tent.
‘In all my years, I ain’t never seen nothing like it,’ he said.
‘You were the first on the scene?’ asked Peter, impatient for him to lift the tape, but not willing to do it himself.
‘Yes. PC Stanley Gresham, sir. This is PC Will Stokes,’ he said, gesturing to the young officer, who suddenly grimaced, turned away from them and threw up over the police tape. ‘It’s his first day on the job,’ he added, shaking his head. Kate gave the young officer a look of pity as he heaved and threw up again, thin strings of spittle dangling from his mouth. Peter took a clean white handkerchief from his inside pocket, and Kate thought he was going to offer it up to the young officer, but he pressed it to his nose and mouth.
‘I want this crime scene locked down. Not a word to anyone,’ said Peter.
‘Of course, sir.’
Peter fluttered his fingers at the police tape. Stanley lifted it and they ducked under. The grass sloped down to the second police cordon where Detective Cameron Rose and Detective Inspector Marsha Lewis were waiting. Cameron, like Kate, was in his mid- twenties, and Marsha was older than all of them, a thickset woman in her fifties, wearing a smart black trouser suit and long black coat. Her silver hair was cropped short and she had a gravelly smoker’s voice.
‘Sir,’ they said in unison.
‘What’s going on, Marsha?’ asked Peter.
‘All exits in and out of the park are sealed, and I’ve got local plod being bussed in for a fingertip search and house to house. Forensic pathologist is in there already, and she’s ready to talk to us.’
Cameron was tall and gangly, towering above them all. He hadn’t had time to change, and looked more like a louche teenager than a detective in his jeans, trainers and a green winter jacket. Kate wondered fleetingly what he had been doing when he got the call to come to the crime scene. She presumed he’d arrived with Marsha.
‘Who’s our forensic pathologist?’ asked Peter.
‘Leodora Graves,’ said Marsha.
It was hot inside the glowing tent, where the lights were almost painfully bright. Forensic pathologist Leodora Graves, a small dark- skinned woman with penetrating green eyes, worked with two assistants. A naked young girl lay face down in a muddy depression in the grass. Her head was covered by a clear plastic bag, tied tightly around her neck. Her pale skin was streaked with dirt and blood and numerous cuts and scratches. The backs of her thighs and buttocks had several deep bite marks.
Kate stood beside the body, already sweating underneath the hood and face mask of her thick white forensics suit. The rain hammered down on the tight skin of the tent, forcing Leodora to raise her voice.
‘The victim is posed, lying on her right side, her right arm under her head. The left arm lies flat and reaching out. There are six bites on her lower back, buttocks and thighs.’ She indicated the deepest bites where the flesh had been removed, deep enough to expose the girl’s spine. She moved to the victim’s head and gently lifted it. The length of thin rope was tied tight around the neck, biting into the now bloated flesh. ‘You’ll note the specific knot.’
‘The monkey’s fist knot,’ said Cameron, speaking for the first time. He sounded shaken. Everyone’s face was obscured by the masks of their forensic suits, but Kate could read the looks of alarm in their eyes.
‘Yes,’ said Leodora, holding the knot in her gloved hand. What made it unusual was the series of intersecting turns, like a tiny ball of wool, almost impossible to replicate with a machine.
‘It’s him. The Nine Elms Cannibal,’ said Kate. The words came out of her mouth before she could stop them.
‘I’ll need to conclude more from my post- mortem, but . . . yes,’ said Leodora. The rain fell harder, intensifying the thundering thrum on the roof of the tent. She let go of the young girl’s head, placing it gently back where it lay on her arm. ‘There is evidence that she was raped. There are bodily fluids present, and she’s been tortured, cut with a sharp object and burned. You see the burn marks on her arms and outer thighs? They look to be caused by the cigarette lighter from a car.’
‘Or a white van,’ said Kate. Peter gave her a hard stare. He didn’t like being corrected.
‘Cause of death?’ he asked.
‘I need to do the post- mortem, but off the record, at this stage I would say asphyxiation with the plastic bag. There are signs of petechial haemorrhaging on her face and neck.’
‘Thank you, Leodora. I look forward to the results of your post-mortem. I hope that we can quickly identify this poor young woman.’
Leodora nodded to her assistants, who brought in a pop-up stretcher with a shiny new black body bag. They placed it beside the body and gently turned the young woman over onto the stretcher. The front of her naked body was marked with small circular burns and scratches. It was impossible to tell what she looked like – her face was grotesque and distorted under the plastic. She had large pale- blue eyes, milky in death and frozen in a stare. The look in her eyes made Kate shiver. It was devoid of hope, as if frozen in her eyes was that last thought. She knew she was going to die.
From the breakthrough international bestselling author of The Girl in the Ice, a breathtaking, page-turning novel about a disgraced female detective’s fight for redemption. And survival.
Kate Marshall was a promising young police detective when she caught the notorious Nine Elms serial killer. But her greatest victory suddenly became a nightmare.
Fifteen years after those catastrophic, career-ending events, a copycat killer has taken up the Nine Elms mantle, continuing the ghastly work of his idol.
Enlisting her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper, Kate draws on her prodigious and long-neglected skills as an investigator to catch a new monster. But there’s much more than her reputation on the line: Kate was the original killer’s intended fifth victim . . . and his successor means to finish the job.