‘The knowledge will be of no use to you, of course.’


Freya felt her stomach clench. She thought she might be sick.


‘You understand what I am saying.’


The walls of the room seemed very near, the air felt as if it was giving out. They might have been in some cellar or underground space where they would only have air for a little longer. Her chest hurt her as she tried to breathe normally. Wait. Remain calm and think, think. You have to get out of here and there are only two exits. He has the front-door key in his pocket so you have to get out through the kitchen. Let him talk and keep talking. Whatever he claims and however he seems, his own nerves will be strained and his blood pressure will have risen in excitement. He wants to tell you about the women. Let him. Hold his attention and then think, one move at a time. When you do move, move very fast and without warning, move from this sitting position across the room, into the kitchen, out of the door, up the passage and scream as you go and keep on screaming, scream loudly, scream, ‘Police! Police! Police!’ Never mind if no one is likely to hear, it will throw him. Think. Think. Is the back door bolted? Yes. Is the key in it? Jesus, she couldn’t remember. If it was not, it would be on the shelf which meant another move. Was there time? As you go, look at the door, reach for the key, unlock, unbolt … no, he will be right behind you trying desperately to stop you and he will have greater strength than normal in his panic and because he has absolutely nothing to lose.


Think, think. If you reach the kitchen door and he is behind you, turn, swing round on him because then you’ll catch him off guard and have the upper hand, you can bring him down. He is not large or very heavy. If necessary, chop him across the side of the neck and wind him, then knock him out. This is not going to be easy. He won’t give anything away. You will have to fight.


She sat without moving, looking at him, trying not to think so feverishly that her breathing quickened. He was trained. He would see it. He was watching her as intently as she had ever been watched.


‘Are you going to tell me?’ Freya said.


‘I think I should like a drink. Shall we be companionable and have a drink?’


Don’t make your move while you are getting the bottle and glasses from the cupboard. He is watching, he is expecting you to seize the moment, so don’t.


She set a bottle of whisky down on the low table between them.


‘If you want water, I’ll have to go into the kitchen.’


‘I would like water.’


She hesitated, then got up. So did he. He followed close behind her and stood watching her take the jug and fill it from the cold tap. She did not glance at the door leading to the passage, merely turned and went back into the living room. She could feel his warmth, smell his smell behind her.


‘Thank you.’ He gestured as she added water to his drink. ‘Please join me.’


Freya shook her head.


‘Something else then? I don’t like drinking alone.’


She poured herself a glass of water.


Aidan Sharpe smiled. ‘That’s right. Humour him, don’t make him angry. But my dear, I am not in the least angry.’ He sipped his whisky, looking at her across the top of the glass.


She was glad of the water.


‘Tell me,’ he said, in a voice so pleasant and reasonable she was taken aback; they might still have been in the Embassy bar. ‘What do you think motivates a serial killer? It’s something I have long wondered about.’


She opened her mouth and her tongue felt sticky.


‘I imagine you must have come across one or two during your time in the Met?’


‘They … they are less common than people imagine. But yes.’


‘And?’


She knew what to answer and yet could not say it, not here in her own living room sitting opposite this man. It seemed ludicrous to engage in a rational, intelligent discussion of the motives of murderers.


‘For instance, Dennis Nielsen was mad but he killed for company, you know. The Wests were simply evil. Bad but never mad. Those who kill children are the scum of the earth, satanic paedophiles. But has it ever occurred to you that there may be good motives? Understandable ones?’


She swallowed more water, shaking her head. Speech was beyond her now.


‘I kill in the course of my work.’ He stared at her and paused.


Don’t react, don’t move a muscle, don’t give anything away.


‘The benefits will be immense. The study of the human body in its many stages will lead eventually to more knowledge about the process of ageing, the process of disease, the course taken by different ways of dying and then by the process of death, than has ever been gained before. I kill to further that work. Those I kill die to benefit mankind and, as you have discovered, they leave scarcely any behind to mourn them. I am extremely careful. Angela Randall was not missed. She is of far greater value dead than she ever was alive, you know. And she owes that to me.’


She was beyond terror. Only her mind still worked, still struggled to remember the plan of escape. Give nothing away, wait, then move, move fast, fast, fast.


Aidan Sharpe sipped his whisky. ‘There are the simply mad, of course,’ he said, ‘those who have no motive, nor very much knowledge of what they do. They simply repeat a pattern, as children play certain games. If they have a reason for what they do it is usually a deranged, distorted one, a product of madness. Schizophrenics hear voices commanding them to kill. They deserve sympathetic treatment, do you not think?’


She wondered what his motive could be in telling her that he had killed. Pride? Boastfulness? Gloating? She glanced at him. He looked so neat, trimmed, contained, so pleasant sitting there – what her mother would have called a pernickety little man. But he was right about one thing. She did want to know. Before escaping, she needed him to tell her what he had done with the missing women and how, and whether there had been others before now, others nobody knew about.


She drank more water.


‘They are perfectly safe, you know,’ he said, smiling faintly again. ‘I take very good care of them.’


Then she saw in his eyes not only that he was mad but the extent of his madness and the intensity of its focus.


‘I plan. I go to a lot of trouble. Sometimes I wait for months. I waited a long time for poor Debbie Parker.’


‘Iris Chater?’ She heard her own voice, odd, distorted in her ears like a voice at the wrong end of a speaking tube.


Aidan Sharpe inclined his head. ‘You’re right,’ he said, as if in real regret, ‘of course you’re right about that. There was no plan. I went against all my instincts. It was foolish. It was wrong. But I didn’t kill her. She died of a heart attack and I kept the body. I took a risk and as it happens it paid off, but it might so easily not have done.’


‘You mean … you are sorry?’


‘Oh, no, not that. I regret taking a chance. But if it had not been Mrs Chater it would have had to be someone like her. An elderly woman was next on the list. I had come to exactly that stage in my work. How could I be sorry?’


Freya was dazed, with fear and with a wild sense that she herself was becoming deranged, locked with a madman in his own claustrophobic yet oddly plausible mental world. How could he possibly be sorry? How could he have been so careless as to take the chance he did? Supposing it had not worked? Think of the consequences to his life’s work, think of the stupidity … surely she had to agree with him?


‘You’re very quiet, Freya? You seem unlike yourself. I expected a torrent of questions – awkward questions, perhaps, or interested questions, but not this silence. Has nothing I have said interested you? You seem somewhat detached.’


But the questions were there, like bats fluttering round inside the walls of her skull, flapping about, confusing her. She wanted to let them out, to voice them, to quieten them, but she could not open her mouth now. She simply clung on somehow to the awareness of what she must do and how and at what moment.


‘Perhaps I might have a little more of your excellent whisky?’


Aidan Sharpe bent slightly forward and reached out his hand.


A light went on inside Freya’s brain. Now, she said, now. Go. Go. Go.


Fifty


‘Yes!’ Nathan shouted. ‘Yesssss!’ and jumped on to the dining table.


‘Get down, you idiot.’ But Emma was laughing.


‘Naw, I might pull you up here and we’ll have a dance. I want to dance, Em. Where can we go to dance?’


‘Get down – and there isn’t anywhere at this time of night.’


‘I feel like it. I wanna dance …’ and he began a mock tap routine, waving his arms in the air.


Emma had said yes. He knew she would and had been terrified she wouldn’t, he’d been sure she’d want nothing better than to marry him and certain she’d kick him downstairs. He would wait, he thought, he wouldn’t ask her now, she’d just had a long journey, she was tired, he’d wait till the weekend. Or the one after. Or until their holiday.


She’d dropped her bag and gone straight to the shower. Ten minutes later, as she had walked into the kitchen with her damp hair tied up and wearing her old velour tracksuit, he had turned round from the sink where he was washing his hands and said, ‘Em, I really, really want to marry you. Will you marry me?’


‘Yes,’ Em had said and gone to the fridge to get out a bottle of fizzy water.


‘You what?’


She had glanced up. ‘Can you open this top? I can never do them. I said yes.’


That had been a couple of hours ago and Nathan had still not come down from his high of excitement, surprise, delight and disbelief. He stood on the table and stretched out his arms. ‘King,’ he shouted. ‘Yessss.’


‘GET DOWN.’


He jumped lightly on to the floor.


‘Nath, shut up, there are people below us asleep.’


‘How do you know they’re asleep?’


‘Because they go to bed at ten o’clock and now it’s after midnight.’


‘Yeah, true.’


‘I’m whacked as well.’


‘Oh no you’re not, you’re going to marry me. We can’t just leave it there.’


‘Well, I wasn’t going to just leave it there, I was going to marry you, but not tonight.’


‘Let’s go out and find somewhere … let’s knock someone up.’


‘Don’t be daft.’


‘Haven’t you got any mates just coming off duty?’


‘No. They’re either in bed asleep or they’re working. Same as your mates.’


‘Yeah, we could go down to the station. Or up to the hospital.’


‘They wouldn’t thank us. We can tell everyone in the morning.’


‘Let’s just go for a drink then.’


‘Where?’


‘We’ll find somewhere.’


‘Not anywhere legal we won’t.’


‘Hey, I know what – there’s that bottle of champagne you won in the raffle.’


‘It’s too late to start on that, it gives you a terrible hangover.’


‘Not if we only have a bit and we’ll only have a bit cos we’re going to share it.’


‘Who with?’


‘I’ll tell you who with. Do you know who pushed me into this “Will you marry me” thingy?’


‘You mean it wasn’t your own idea?’


‘Yeah, well, I just hadn’t got round to it.’


‘I’d noticed.’


‘I don’t know when I would have, to be honest, what with this and that and you know how shy I am.’


‘Hello?’


‘Yes I am, I’m a very shy person actually. It was Sergeant Graffham made me think about it. I can’t remember why it came up – something to do with them missing women, I think. Only she said to get on with it, kept on at me, told me how good you were for me … and how good a husband I’d make and all that. Honestly, you owe her, Em.’


‘I’ll remember to thank her.’


‘You can do it now, we’re going round there. We’re going to dance outside her house and we’re taking this bottle. Come on.’


‘Nathan, don’t be stupid. You can’t just barge round to your sergeant’s house and wake her up.’


‘Oh, she won’t have gone to bed, she never does till two in the morning, she told me, and anyway, she was singing in some concert tonight in the cathedral so she’ll definitely be up for a drink.’


‘More likely crashed out.’


‘Naw … come on, I’ll push your bike.’


‘I don’t need pushing. Are you sure about this, Nath? I don’t know …’


But Nathan had grabbed her hand and the bottle of champagne and propelled her out of the door.


The streets were empty and peaceful. Their bikes made a silky swishing sound on the dry tarmac.


‘It’s like when you’re a kid, doing something daft like this, creeping out when your mam and dad think you’re in bed.’


‘You never told me you did that.’


‘There’s a lot of things I haven’t told you. Why should I have?’


‘Because I’m a copper. You’ll be a copper’s missus. Carries responsibilities that does.’


They swerved round the corners of the narrow streets, meeting no one, avoiding the odd cat that streaked across the road, giggling.


‘Tell you what, why don’t we go the long way round, on the road past the Hill?’


‘What for?’


‘It’s real spooky round there, I fancy frightening you to death.’


‘It’d take more than the Hill on a dark night to frighten me, Nathan Coates.’


‘Not if I told you what had been going on there it wouldn’t. Not if I told you –’


‘OK, race you!’


Emma whisked off ahead, catching him out, so that he had to pedal furiously to reach her.


Freya got into the kitchen, unlocked the door and hurtled down the narrow passageway. She had managed to surprise him after all.


He did not catch her until she had her hand on the bolt of the side door into the street but then she felt a pain in the middle of her back as he put his fist into it, taking her breath away, and another as he wrenched her wrist from the door. He had not looked strong, not as strong as this.


Freya began to scream. She screamed until he put his arm across her mouth and throat, at the same time pushing her hard, back into the kitchen, back into the sitting room. She tripped and fell, hitting her face on the floor.

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