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Read an extract of The Curator by M.W. Craven

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Christmas Eve

 

It was the night before Christmas and all wasn’t well.

It had started like it always did. Someone asking, ‘Are we doing Secret Santa this year?’ and someone else  replying,  ‘I  hope not,’ both making a pact to avoid mentioning it to  the office manager, both secretly planning to mention it as soon as possible.

And before anyone could protest, the decision had  been  made and the office was doing it again. The fifteenth year in a row. Same rules as last year. Five-quid limit. Anonymous gifts. Nothing rude or offensive. Gifts that no one wanted. A total waste of everyone’s time.

At least that’s what Craig Hodgkiss thought. He hated Secret Santa.

He hated Christmas too. The yearly reminder that his life was shit. That, while the colleagues he outwardly sneered at were going home to spend Christmas with their families and loved ones, he’d be spending it on his own.

But he really hated Secret Santa.

Three years ago it had been the source of his greatest humili- ation. Setting himself  the  not  unreasonable  Christmas  target of shagging Hazel, a fellow logistics specialist at John Bull Haulage, he’d wangled it so he was the one who’d bought her Secret Santa gift. He reckoned buying her a pair of lace panties would be the perfect way to let her know he was up for some extracurricular activities while her husband long-hauled across mainland Europe.

 

His plan worked. Almost.

It had been the perfect way to let her know.

Unfortunately she was happily married, and instead of rush- ing into his bed she’d rushed to her husband, who was between jobs and was having a brew in the depot. The six-foot-five lorry driver had walked into the admin office and broken Craig’s nose. He’d told him that if he ever so much as looked at his wife again he’d find himself hogtied in the back of a Russia-bound shipping container. Craig had believed him. So much so that, in front of the whole office, he’d lost control of his bladder.

For two years everyone had called him ‘Swampy’. He couldn’t even complain to Human Resources as he was terrified of getting Hazel into trouble.

For two years he hadn’t made a dent in the girls in the office. But eventually Hazel and her brute of a husband had moved on. He took a job driving for Eddie Stobart and she went with him. Craig told everyone that Hazel’s husband had left the com- pany because he’d caught up with him and given him a hiding, but no one had believed him. Actually, one person seemed to.

 

By Craig’s own standards, Barbara Willoughby was a plain girl. Her hair looked like it had been styled in a nursing home,  her teeth were blunt and too widely spaced, and she could have done with dropping a couple of pounds. On a scale of one-to-ten Craig reckoned she was a hard six, maybe a seven in the right lighting, and he only ever shagged eights and above.

But there was one thing he did like about her. She hadn’t been there when he’d pissed himself.

So he’d asked her out. And to his surprise he found they got  on really well. She was fun to be with and she was popular. He liked how she made him feel and she was adventurous in bed.  He also liked how she only wanted to do things at the weekends. During the week she would stay in and study for some stupid exams she was taking.

Which suited Craig just fine.

Because, after a few weeks of dating Barbara, he’d got his swagger back. And with it he began carving notches again.

 

To his amazement he discovered it was actually easier pulling the type of woman he went for when he told them he was in a long-term relationship. He reckoned it was the combination of his boyish good looks and the thought of doing over someone they didn’t know. Which gave Craig an idea: if those sort of women enjoyed the thrill of being with someone who cheated, they’d go crazy for someone who had affairs . . .

So Craig Hodgkiss, at the age of twenty-nine, decided he would ask Barbara to marry him. She’d jump at the chance. She was in her early thirties, had some biological clock thing going  on (but was unaware he’d had a  vasectomy  two years  earlier) and would almost certainly be left on the shelf if she said no. And then he’d reap the rewards. A faithful doormat keeping his bed warm and a succession of women who’d happily shag a man wearing a wedding band.

And because he wanted everyone in the office to know he was about to become illicit fruit, he’d decided to put past experiences behind him and propose during the office Secret Santa.

Arranging it hadn’t been straightforward. He’d got Barbara’s ring size by stealing her dead grandmother’s eternity ring, the one she only wore on special occasions. While Barbara turned  her flat upside down looking for it, he’d been asking a jeweller    to make the engagement ring the same size and to recycle the diamonds and gold. The whole thing had only cost him two hun- dred quid.

The next thing was to think of a cool way of proposing.

 

Something that would get the office girls talking about how romantic Craig was. A rep like that could only help. He decided on a mug. It was the perfect Secret Santa gift as it met the five- quid limit set by the office manager and, although half the gifts under the cheap fibre optic Christmas tree looked like they were mugs, half the gifts under the tree didn’t have ‘Will You Marry Me?’ printed on the side.

When Barbara read the message and then saw what was inside . . . well, he reckoned she’d burst into tears, shout yes and hug him for all she was worth.

The office floor was strewn with cheap wrapping paper. All reindeer and snowmen and brightly wrapped presents tied with ribbons.

Barbara was next. She picked up her parcel and looked at him strangely.

Did she know?

She couldn’t. No one did. Not even the girl he’d persuaded to swap with him so he was the one buying for Barbara.

Tiffany, Barbara’s best friend, began recording it on her  mobile phone for some reason. That was OK, though. Better than OK actually. He’d be able to post it on Twitter and Facebook and keep a copy on his phone. Ready to show girls at the drop of a hat. Look at me. Look how nice I am. Look how sensitive I am. You can have some of this . . . but only for one night.

Craig caught Barbara’s eye. He winked. She didn’t return it. Didn’t even smile. Just held his gaze as she lifted the wrapped box from one of his old gift bags.

Something wasn’t right. The wrapping paper was thick and white with black pictures; he thought his had been cheap and brightly coloured.

Barbara ripped it off without looking at it. The mug was in a polystyrene box. He’d taped the two halves together to increase the suspense. Barbara ran a pair of scissors down the join before separating them.

She pulled out the  mug  and  Craig’s  confusion  intensified. It wasn’t his. He hadn’t seen this one before. Something was printed on the side but it wasn’t proposing marriage. In inch- high black letters it said:

#BSC6

 

Barbara didn’t know she’d opened the wrong parcel, though. Without looking inside the mug, she glared at him and upended the mug’s contents.

‘Cheating fucking bastard,’ she said.

Craig didn’t protest his innocence. He couldn’t. He was unable to tear his eyes away from the things that had fallen on  the floor. They were no engagement ring.

He recoiled and gasped in revulsion.

A familiar and unwelcome warmth began spreading from his groin.

And then the screaming started.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Boxing Day

Someone else who hated Christmas was Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.

As a committed grouch he was against all forms of enforced joviality and, up until today, he’d managed to shun all festivities, organised or otherwise. He usually worked through the enforced Christmas break, spent it alone or found a pub full of like-minded misanthropes and drank until it was over.

But not this year. This year he’d been well and truly ‘Bradshawed’.

Because, instead of being in the pub or hunkered down in his two-hundred-year-old shepherd’s croft, with beer in the fridge and leftover roast potatoes in the oven, he was in a penthouse flat in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge.

His friend and colleague Matilda ‘Tilly’ Bradshaw  had dragged him to a baby shower.

Initially, he’d point blank refused.

She’d looked upset, but that was OK, she’d have got over it. She might be his best friend but a baby shower at a rich person’s house was his special kind of hell. She’d stamped her foot. He’d ignored her.

But then she’d used her most deadly weapon against him, one he was powerless against: incessant logic.

He’d told her that baby showers were for women.

 

She’d shouted at him in front of the whole office. Everyone   in the Serious Crime Analysis Section, the National Crime Agency unit charged with investigating emerging serial killers and apparently motiveless murders, stopped to listen.

And giggle.

‘Washington Poe, you might have a penis but that doesn’t mean you get to use the social privileges of the patriarchal soci- ety to get out of doing things you don’t like.’

Poe had been about to ask her what the hell she was talking about when he’d heard someone snigger, ‘What does she mean, “might have a penis”?’

He’d tried saying he couldn’t leave Edgar, his springer span- iel, on his own for that long.

She’d replied that Edgar could stay with Victoria Hume, his neighbour. ‘You know, like he does all the time.’

He tried the truth – that he didn’t want to go.

‘Well, gee golly, mister,’ she’d countered, ‘since when did Washington Poe always get what he wants? Our line manager, DI Stephanie Flynn, is having a baby and her sister has been kind enough to host a baby shower – we’re her friends, we’re invited, we’re going, it’s as simple as that.’

So Poe was at a baby shower, sulking in a corner. Up until then he’d avoided catching anyone’s eye. He planned to do that until he’d been there long enough to leave. His glass of Champagne had gone warm forty minutes ago but it gave him something to do with his hands.

Jessica Flynn, the boss’s elder sister, lived on the top floor of a renovated brick factory. It was an open-plan, loft-style apartment, more suited to Manhattan than semi-rural Cambridgeshire. There were at least fifty women there. Poe  was the only man, a fact he was reminded of every time someone gave him a weird look.

 

He’d barely spoken to his boss. Flynn had said hello when he’d arrived but had been dragged off by a succession of women. She was now seated on one of her sister’s large couches, surrounded by them. She looked angrier than he felt miserable.

He watched as someone reached over and patted her stomach. ‘Will you pack that in!’ she snapped, pushing the hand away.

Flynn wasn’t a stereotypical pregnant woman, if there were such a thing. She scowled rather than glowed, wore leggings and New York Dolls T-shirts rather than the Laura Ashley maternity dresses Poe knew her partner, Zoe, had bought her, and she flat out refused to take any leave. The only giveaway was that she   had a massive belly. Everything else about her was the same: her blonde hair was still tied back in a severe ponytail, her makeup was subtle and her work mobile was never away from her ear.

Flynn glared at the woman who’d touched her. ‘The next person who pats my belly is getting punched in the fucking throat.’

The woman smiled nervously, unsure whether Flynn was joking or not.

Poe knew she wasn’t.

Because, although Flynn was trying to act as if everything was the same, pregnancy had changed her in one small way.  She had  a rare pregnancy-related cortisol imbalance, the hormone that sends the body into fight or flight mode.

And Flynn didn’t back away from fights. Every new experi- ence and challenge had to be beaten into submission. Before she’d got pregnant she’d been a considered and courteous manager. Now she was a foul-mouthed ranting loony. Whereas before she would stay calm, even when up against the most intransigent, obnoxious moron that SCAS occasionally had to deal with, now you risked her wrath if you typed too loudly.

Poe thought it was hilarious, although he never acted like it was to her face.

He’d spoken to Zoe earlier but they had little in common.

 

Zoe worked in the City profiling world oil prices and he worked anywhere he was needed profiling serial killers. She earned seven figures a year, he earned . . . considerably less than that. They didn’t dislike each other but they had an unspoken agreement that they shouldn’t have too much contact.

Poe glanced at Bradshaw and smiled. She was wearing the dress she’d bought when they’d attended a charity gala during the first case they worked on together – a mosaic of thumbnail-sized comic book covers. She’d marked the night’s occasion by doing something different with her hair. Usually it was tied back and fastened with pigtails; now it was piled high like candyfloss. He wondered idly if she’d had it professionally styled or just followed an online tutorial. His money would be on the latter.

Bradshaw caught him looking and gave him a double thumbs up. She hadn’t been to a baby shower before and had attacked it with her usual mixture of enthusiasm and research.

She’d spent a small fortune on gifts – some, like the Spider- Man onesie, were cute and appropriate; others, like the electric double breast pump, were not.

‘It’s so you can express milk in the most time-efficient way,  DI Stephanie Flynn,’ she’d said in front of everyone.

Poe  envied Flynn her present. She wouldn’t have to use it  for long, whereas he knew the state-of-the-art pasta maker Bradshaw had bought him for Christmas would torment him for years. He didn’t like pasta. Didn’t care that it would lower his cholesterol, that it was a ‘gateway to a whole new cuisine’ or that making his own pasta was cost-efficient.

But that was Bradshaw all over.

Despite being in her early thirties, the Serious Crime Analysis Section was her first real job. In academia since she was a teen- ager doing degrees and PhDs, then working on the research grants organisations were throwing at her, she’d had neither the time nor the inclination to develop any social skills.

 

SCAS was her first step into the outside world and she’d found communicating with anyone with an IQ lower than 150 a chal- lenge. She was naive, literal and painfully honest but, although Poe had been initially wary of her, he’d recognised that she had the potential to be SCAS’s greatest asset. She specialised in math- ematics, but was so intelligent she would know more than anyone else on a subject in a matter of hours when she put her mind to   it. She could spot patterns in data when no computer could, she could devise bespoke solutions to intractable problems without breaking a sweat and she was intensely loyal.

Pasta maker aside, she was Poe’s best friend and he was hers. Bradshaw softened Poe’s harsher edges and he helped her plot a course through the outside world. They were a formidable team, which, considering the amount of trouble they frequently found themselves in, was probably for the best.

Jessica Flynn was a rich woman with rich friends, all of whom worked in the City. They would have been called yuppies in the 1990s. They’d taken Bradshaw into their collective bosom and before long she was the centre of attention. Poe would have stepped in if he thought they’d been taking the piss but it was clear they weren’t. Bradshaw was so honest and agenda-free –   the opposite to the people they usually socialised with, people   for whom backstabbing, double-dealing and flat-out lying was a way of life. Having a conversation with someone who answered the question you asked, rather than the one that gave a tactical advantage, must have been a breath of fresh air to them.

Poe looked round Jessica Flynn’s penthouse. It  covered the  top floor and there were huge windows on all four sides, at least ten feet high. Although it was dark, Poe could see that the win- dows facing the countryside and the windows facing the car park at the rear had large balconies. The front one was set out with wrought iron seats and benches. An upside-down ice bucket was on a small table.

 

The internal décor was open brick with expensive furniture and fittings. Jessica was obviously a mountaineer. Photographs and memorabilia adorned a whole corner. A shelf, filled with a collection of mountaineering curiosities, was the centrepiece of her collection. In pride of place was an old ice axe. It was on a beautiful teak plinth.

There was a brass plate on the bottom. He could see it was inscribed but it was too far away to read.

He wandered towards it. A woman joined him.

‘I see you’ve found my little obsession,’ she said, sticking out her hand. ‘We haven’t been formally introduced – I’m Jessica Flynn, Steph’s sister.’

They’d been introduced earlier in the evening but it had been quick and perfunctory.

She was tall and cat-like, lithe and graceful in her movements. She had Flynn’s golden hair although hers was cut much shorter, possibly because of the mountaineering. Poe had served three years in the Black Watch so was aware that personal hygiene was difficult to maintain in the field – anything you could do to make it simpler was not to be ignored.

She was well dressed, but not over the top like the others. Jeans and a cashmere jumper. Her only piece of jewellery was a delicate golden chain.

Poe studied the photographs. Jessica was in most of them. Ropes flung across her chest, a string of carabiners on her belt, huge smile on her tanned face. He leaned into one photograph and squinted. He recognised what she was climbing: a rock called Napes Needle in the Lake District. It was thin and tapered and looked like a missile.

‘That was taken a few years ago,’ she said. ‘It was afterwards, in a pub in Keswick, that we began planning for the big one.’

‘Scafell Pike?’ Poe said. Scafell Pike was the tallest mountain in England but it hardly needed expedition-type planning; on a nice day you could walk up it in shorts and trainers.

She pointed at a photograph of the most famous mountain in the world.

‘Everest?’

Jessica nodded. ‘Everest.’

Poe whistled. ‘Impressive. Dangerous.’ She shrugged. ‘Everything’s dangerous.’ ‘When are you going?’

‘They go next May, when the jet stream isn’t hitting the summit at one hundred miles an hour.’

‘They?’

‘I won’t be going with them, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh . . . what happened? You don’t seem the type to abandon difficult goals.’

‘I was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, unfortunately,’ she said.

‘I’m not familiar with it.’

‘You’re lucky then. It’s a long-term endocrine disorder. Means my adrenal glands don’t produce enough steroids.’

‘It’s treatable, though?’

‘It is. I’ll have to take tablets for the rest of my life but it won’t affect how long I live.’

Realisation dawned on him.

‘But for someone attempting an Everest summit expedition   it’s problematic?’

‘Altitude sickness. My condition means it would have a greater impact on me, and as Everest’s summit is 8848 metres – the cruis- ing altitude of a 747 – my diagnosis would have invalidated the group’s insurance.’

He gestured to the ice axe and read out the inscription on    the brass plate: ‘Tenzing Norgay’s mountaineering axe. Mount Everest Expedition, May 1953.’

 

The axe had a wooden handle and was a more basic design than the ones Poe saw in the Lake District’s plague of mountaineering shops. The shorter end was wide and flat, like a pickaxe; the longer end was pointed and curved. The handle ended with a tapered metal spike.

‘The axe Sherpa Tenzing used to reach the summit is a pretty decent consolation, though,’ he said.

‘The one he used to reach the summit is actually in a Nepalese museum. This is a replica of the axe he used to save the life of Sir Edmund Hillary earlier in the expedition when he fell down a crevice. It was why Hillary chose Norgay as his climbing partner when he made his summit attempt.’

‘You never thought about trying to get the real thing?’ Jessica snorted. ‘Way out of my league, Sergeant Poe.

Artefacts like that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.’

He looked at his surroundings. ‘You seem to be doing OK, though. This place can’t be cheap.’

She burst out laughing.

‘The bank owns the apartment, Sergeant Poe, I just pay sub- sidised rent. I’m expected to entertain at home and investment banking is all about projecting an image.’

‘And is that what you do? Investment banking.’

‘It is, and it’s not as much fun as it sounds,’ she said with a grin. ‘Walk with me?’

She opened the double doors. A blast of chilled air filled the room. She stepped outside. Poe followed.

She turned and leaned against the balcony’s glass and metal guard.

‘Stephanie tells me you’re a bit under the weather?’ ‘Bit of a bug,’ he said.

‘Bug’ was an understatement. He’d been laid up for almost a week now. The grandparents from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had spent less time in bed. It had started as a headache but had evolved into a hacking cough that had turned his throat red-raw. He felt he was through the worst but it hadn’t been nice. Winter bugs never were.

‘I’ve got a fine single malt that’ll sort that out,’ Jessica said. She disappeared inside, returning a minute later with two crystal tumblers full of amber liquid.

Poe sniffed it, then took a  sip.  The  whisky  was  like  fire  and ice. Beautiful, smoky and unlike any hard drink he’d had before.

‘Why are you here, Sergeant Poe?’

He was tempted to say, ‘Because Tilly made me,’ but it seemed flippant. He decided on the truth.

‘Steph’s a good friend. We’ve been through a lot together.’

Jessica nodded thoughtfully. ‘I need you to do something for me.’

Poe said nothing. Jessica seeking him out had been no accident. ‘I need you to talk my sister out of this ridiculous career path

she’s chosen for herself.’

‘And why would I do that?’ Poe said carefully.

‘In the next month or so she’s  having a baby. My nephew or niece. She’ll have responsibilities she hasn’t had to consider before. Being a police officer’s fine when you’re young and single but she can’t keep putting herself first any more. People are relying on her now and this job you do isn’t conducive to sensible decision-making. She needs to quit playing cops and robbers and rejoin the real world.’

‘It’s not like that,’ Poe said. ‘Most of what we do is office-based.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘Didn’t you nearly burn to death in a house fire last year?’

‘Yes, but—’

‘And weren’t you arrested for murder recently?’

‘Yes, but that was a misunderstanding. What happened, was this man had—’

 

‘But you’ll agree what you do has its . . . unnecessarily exciting moments?’

Poe didn’t know what to say. It was true they had been in a few scrapes recently. He blamed Bradshaw – she kept finding new and inventive ways to get closer to the bad guys . . .

‘Is this not something that the two of you should discuss?’ he said.

‘Stephanie doesn’t listen to me, Sergeant Poe. She used to.

Used to hang on her big sister’s every word. Not any more.’

But Poe had stopped listening. Flynn was talking on her phone and she was frowning. She caught his eye and nodded. He drained the whisky, grimacing as it burnt his raw throat.

‘Duty’s about to call,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’ ‘Go,’ Jessica sighed.

By the time Poe got to her, Flynn was already reaching for her coat.

Zoe walked across and joined them.

‘Steph, your absence is conspicuous,’ she said.

‘Sorry, Zoe. We’re going to have to leave, I’m afraid.’ ‘Oh no!’ Bradshaw cried.

‘Oh no,’ Poe said.

‘Thank fuck,’ Flynn muttered.