By William Shaw
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After being wounded in the line of duty, Detective Sergeant Breen recuperates on the family farm of his former partner, Helen Tozer. To fill the long and empty hours, he reviews the open case file for a murder that has haunted Helen for years: that of her younger sister. Breen discovers that the teenage victim had been having a secret affair with James Fletchet, the son of an affluent local landowner, celebrated for his service in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising.
Breen and Tozer return to London’s Criminal Investigation Division, where their questions about Fletchet’s past are met with resistance and suspicion. The deeper they probe, the more people they implicate in their investigation. New Scotland Yard doesn’t look kindly upon breaking rank, and it’s only a matter of time before Breen and Tozer make themselves a target.
Shaw’s stirring, heartfelt and diabolically plotted mystery series is everything a reader looks for: enveloping, invigorating, and wonderfully entertaining.
Table of Contents
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She lies in soft tufts of grass, July sun warming her skin. Above her, ash branches droop, heavy with pale seeds. They sway, gently pushed by a southerly breeze. The thick smell of cut hay obliterates every other scent.
This spinney used to be her special place. Her secret. As a small child she used to scramble through the blackthorn to escape here when her mother needed help mucking out the chickens, or when her annoying older sister got on her nerves. They never found her. A hidden dip between old hedgerows thick with dogwood. A perfect hideaway.
Around her, roots swell, nuts thicken. The berries of a cuckoopint redden. A fat bee stuffs itself into the bell of a foxglove flower, fizzing angrily as it tries to back out. She lies so still a gatekeeper butterfly rests on her hand, opens its wings, the dark russet colour making her skin look paler than it is. Over the last two weeks it has been dry and warm.
Yesterday, while her sister had worked harvesting hay in the top field, she had sprawled face down on a towel by the estuary, bikini top unbuckled, soaking up ultraviolet. From above, on the footpath that ran across the railway bridge, a trainspotter had spied on her, licking his lips and focusing his binoculars on the pale bulge of flesh that pressed against the ground.
'Alex,' a voice calls now. That's her big sister. A flat-chested young woman, jealous of her younger sister's beauty and idleness. Of the way the men flock around her. 'Alex?'
Her sister has been calling her name for an hour, at least.
'It's your bloody turn to do the milking. I done it this morning.' A thick West Country accent.
It has been a summer of discotheques and cigarettes. Excitement. Glamour. Periods. A Bri-Nylon bra that she had to buy with her own pocket money. Real French perfume. Rich men with cars, eager to take her out. Dad shouting at her for coming in so late. Mum complaining that she should have phoned. The magnificent power of beauty in an age in which the young rule the world.
There are more important things too that touch somewhere much deeper. Watching A Hard Day's Night at the Riviera. Crying silently to John, Paul and George singing 'If I Fell'. And that new one, 'It's All Over Now'. The way Jeanne Moreau crosses her legs in Jules et Jim.
Everything new that is blowing away everything old. A life beyond this stupid, drudging farm.
Alexandra has a list she keeps in her other Secret Place. Not this one. The loose skirting board behind her bedside table in her stupidly small room. She made it on New Year's Day (after skinny-dipping in the estuary at night, drunk on cider).
I WILL BE 17 AND THIS WILL BE MY BEST YEAR EVER. I PROMISE I WILL–
Go in a plane
Meet J. Lennon
Do the beast with two backs!!
Learn 2 drive moped
SMOKE FRENCH FAGS
Go to Liverpool
Go to London
Go to Africa
LEAVE HOME 4 EVER
'It's not bloody fair,' the sister is shouting.
Far away, the beetle stops. Wiggles its antennae in the warm air. Sensilla activate. Process what they've gathered.
On the grey tree trunk it clings to, the beetle pauses a moment. Then waves the antennae again. With an almost inaudible click, the wing cases pop open. Two veiny wings, larger than it seemed possible for it to store in that slender abdomen, emerge and spread.
It has found its purpose.
Buzzing faintly, it flies, following the signal of airborne molecules. They pour towards it over woodlands green with summer leaves, over cow pastures and fields full of wheat, over warming water. And as it travels, their scent grows stronger.
Long, black and grey, almost ant-like, it is not a beautiful beetle, but it is a fortunate one. It has been an exceptionally warm July.
After an hour it lands on red mud. Close. Very close.
A scrabble through twigs and seedlings and then it is there.
Without pause, it starts to cut through soft skin with its mandibles. The flies are already here, buzzing. They will make maggots for the beetle's progeny to feed on.
The sun moves slowly across the sky. The dappled light travels in the opposite direction across her nakedness. The chiffchaffs start their banal song again.
Her dad is shouting. 'Alexandra!' Anxious now. A quiet man who rarely shouts. But he is bellowing, 'Alexandra?'
Always Alexandra, never Alex.
At dusk a badger, cautious of her human scent, ducks back down into the sett and waits, snout sniffing the air.
The bluebottles are crowding where her nipples had once been; where the knife had removed them. Dark black blood-crusted rings on her teenage breasts. They are laying eggs on her skin, so the maggots can burrow beneath it. Flies crowd into her open mouth, skitter across her dry eyeballs.
A puffball breaks the ground by her thigh. At night a vixen approaches, cautious at first. She trots round her, sniffing before tentatively starting to feed where the skin is already broken on the belly. But a dog fox barks somewhere and she leaves the feast.
The list lies undiscovered behind the skirting.
She has smoked Gauloises and had sex. The other items are still unticked and will remain that way. The local police who will search her room, turning out her drawers, peering under the mattress, will never find it. Nor who mutilated her, tortured her and left her dead like this on the farm where she had been born sixteen years earlier.
'Paddy. Wake up. You were screaming.'
A woman's voice, close to his ear.
Cathal Breen opened his eyes but saw nothing in the dark. What was a woman doing in his flat? How did she get in? Had he brought someone home with him? Had he been drunk? His head felt heavy enough. But no. Not drunk.
'Was he having another nightmare?' Another woman's voice in the darkness. Two women?
Breen leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp and hit a wall hard with his fingertips. A wall next to his bed? What was that doing there?
Fingers smarting, he realised, fuzzily at first, that this was not his bed at all. He was not at home in London.
It was starting to come back to him as he surfaced from the dark. He had been dreaming about the shooting again. He was here to convalesce from his injuries. That pain in his shoulder; the bullet wound. Where was here?
He turned to the other side of the bed, almost knocking the bedside lamp to the floor as he fumbled for the switch.
Light. He blinked.
They were standing around his bed as he struggled to wake: Helen Tozer and the strange one who called herself Hibou. Signed off sick, he was at the Tozers' farm in Devon.
'Are you OK?'
'Did we wake you?'
'You were having a bad dream.'
He was still panting. Helen sat on the bed next to him and put her cold hand on his forehead. Breen started to relax.
Hibou hovered at the end of the bed. 'What were you dreaming about?' she asked.
'I don't remember,' said Breen.
'Shh,' Helen scolded Hibou. 'Not now.'
He knew where he was finally. The dead girl's room.
'You're the one who's always telling me that if I don't talk about stuff like that, I'll explode,' said Hibou. 'He should talk, too, after what happened to him.'
In his dream he had been shot again; only this time it was him who had fallen from the tower block, not Cox. He focused on his watch. Ten minutes to five. The girls would be getting up for work soon anyway.
He could already hear Helen's mother downstairs, stoking up the stove. She would appear soon with the first of her mugs of tea.
He sat up properly now, fully awake. Behind the curtain, it was black outside. Winter was hanging on.
Helen stroked his forehead. 'Poor Paddy. You need a bit of time to get better, don't you? Not just from the wound, is it?'
It was soothing, her hand against his skin. Like a mother's, almost.
'It would be better if he talked about it, though, wouldn't it?' said Hibou. 'I mean, he almost died. That has to mess with your head, doesn't it?'
Hibou would be seventeen this week, but looked older. It wasn't just the borrowed winceyette nightdress. It was the visible curve of her body beneath it. He closed his eyes again. Two women in a bedroom with him; a man, he should be happy, but he wasn't. He was losing all sense of himself. He woke up scared. He didn't feel like a policeman any more. Something had been taken.
And he shouldn't be here, anyway. He didn't belong. The bedroom was not his own. It was the dead girl's. Tozer's sister.
It would be better if he talked about it, he thought.
No one talked about the dead girl in whose room he slept any more. Cathal Breen understood that. Some things you hide.
He had been on the Tozers' farm a week now. But though they didn't talk about her, not a day went past when she wasn't present in some way. The pauses in the conversation. The flicker in her mother's eyes and the long silences at the dinner table. The photograph on the dresser downstairs of them all standing next to the family car: a Morris Oxford. Mrs Tozer in the middle, Mr Tozer next to her with his arm around Alexandra, who smiled brightly at the camera. Helen standing a little apart from the rest, frowning. Alexandra: the beautiful one, feminine and womanly even as a teenager. Helen: the difficult one, long-limbed and awkward. The space between them, even when Alex had been alive.
Time passed so slowly here. Every hour was like lead. It was driving him mad. Around eight he got up, dressed slowly, then mooned around the house.
'Are you up, dear? That's nice?'
Read the paper. Tried a Len Deighton book. Tried the crossword. Gave up.
'Where you going, m'dear?' called Mrs Tozer from the kitchen.
He was a Londoner. A police sergeant. There was nothing for him to do in a place like this except eat and sleep and grow sluggish on Mrs Tozer's food. But sleep brought the nightmares.
'Just out for a walk,' he called back, irritated that she had noticed him leaving. He had hoped to make it out of the front door without attracting any attention.
'You wrap up and be careful. There's a wind.'
He had spent the first days in bed, feeling the farmhouse wrapping itself around him. Its thick walls and ticking clocks were deadening. Mrs Tozer's food made him pasty. He needed to get out.
He walked through the passageway down to the front door, conscious of being observed by a second pair of eyes, pale in the darkness. Mr Tozer, Helen's father, lurked in the living room, smoking cigarette after cigarette behind drawn curtains. He's not been himself, they said. Breen had tried to make small talk with him but failed. His only topic of conversation seemed to be cows, and recently he had even lost interest in them. Would it be better if old man Tozer talked about it?
It was a lightless morning. Outside the front door, Breen looked right, down to the black estuary, then left, up towards the hills. Instead he walked straight ahead, crossing the rutted driveway and into the front field. The grass was brown, dead and thistly. He kept away from the middle, edging around towards the clump of trees, assuming he was less likely to be spotted if he kept close to the hedgerows.
The ground was slippery and uneven. He had to be careful. He had only been out of bed a day and the wound in his shoulder was still sore, his arm wrapped up in a sling within his coat.
He looked down at his brogues. He should have worn better shoes. The leather soles slid on the wet grass and he fretted about getting cow shit on them.
The spinney was less choked in winter but after more than four years, the thorns that the police had cut their way through to reach the site had grown back.
Breen peered into the dark depression, but could make out nothing. The undergrowth was too thick, the light too low. Between the finger and thumb of his good arm, he clutched one of the bramble stalks and started to tug it out of the way. Instead the stem flailed in the air, snagging on his duffel coat. Picking it off, a single thorn wedged into the round of his thumb. Breen pulled his hand away and stared at the round glob of blood that emerged from his skin, then put it in his mouth and sucked it clean.
Now he peered a little further into the darkness, trying to guess where the body had been left. He could smell rotten mud and standing water. He felt stupid, ill-equipped for this, one bad arm tucked inside the coat, and almost turned back. The farmhouse would be warm. Mrs Tozer was making scones.
A cry came from one of the upper fields. Breen ducked low. He didn't want to be seen, not here at least.
'Steady. Steady.' A woman's voice, still far away. 'Back her up.'
Breen relaxed. The shout had not been intended for him. He had not been spotted. He straightened again. It was Helen shouting orders to Hibou somewhere over the ridge of the hillock. Winter days were short on the farm. There was a lot to get done in a few hours. Helen Tozer worked hard. Hibou didn't seem to mind the life either. There was a new pinkness in her cheeks. She seemed to love it here.
Breen leaned forward once more, peering into the black, past the thickets and an ancient rusting bed frame. The local police would have searched it thoroughly of course. There would be nothing to find. It was pointless coming here. All the same, he kicked the debris aside to push his way further into the copse.
Go careful now. You are supposed to be recuperating.
There was a hint of old pathway, leading down. Encouraged, he grabbed a dead elder branch for support. He was only going to have a quick look, wasn't he? He leaned forward again.
Then his left foot slipped on the slick red mud.
A loud snap. The dead branch gave. Body twisted as feet skidded from under him, thumping down sideways onto the cold ground. Rooks exploding into the air above him.
Pain, pain, pain; his left shoulder screamed. Blinding, all-enveloping pain.
He curled up on the cold wet ground, eyes firmly clamped shut, trying not to shout out loud.
Shit, shit, shit.
The smell of musky rot. And the mud and rabbit shit all over him.
Now Cathal Breen lay back in the same bed again, in the room that had been hers.
'So you're a policeman,' said the doctor. A man with yellow ridged fingernails and huge eyebrows.
'Yes,' said Breen. The pain had dulled now.
The doctor cut another piece of pink plaster and stuck it to the bandage on Breen's shoulder. Breen tried not to wince as the doctor pressed down.
'Yes,' said Breen again.
'The big smoke, eh?'
'Friend of young Helen's, I hear?' The doctor's nicotine fingers shook as he laboured.
'I worked with her when she was in the Met.'
In half-moon glasses, the man tilted his head back a little to examine his work, looking down his nose at Breen. 'Down here to get better, I hear?'
'That was the idea.'
'I knew that wouldn't last with young Helen. No job for a lady, the police,' said the doctor. 'I know her mother's happy to have her back where she belongs, isn't she?'
'I am so glad,' said Mrs Tozer from the doorway. Helen's mother. Rounder, shorter than her angular daughter.
'I expect she's helping her father with the farm now?'
'Hel's doing most of it these days. Mr Tozer's not been himself.'
'No. I heard that.'
'We got the new girl helping too. From London. Another waif and stray.'
'All mouths to feed, Mrs T.'
'I don't mind. I like a bit of company. It was too quiet when Helen was away.'
The doctor tutted. Licked his lips. Cut the last section of sticking plaster. The scab had cracked and bled again because of the fall.
'A bullet wound, I gather,' said the doctor finally. He'd clearly been dying to say something about it throughout the whole time he'd been there.
Breen looked at Helen's mother, still hovering by the bedroom door. 'Yes,' said Breen.
The doctor whistled. 'Only, you don't get a lot of those around here.' A giggle.
'I washed the shirt,' said Mrs Tozer. 'Left it to soak in cold water. A bit of vinegar will have the blood out.'
'Very good, Mrs T.'
'He going to be OK, Doctor?'
Breen lay back and looked at the cracks on the ceiling. He knew what the doctor was dying to ask him. But people round here were not like Londoners. They didn't come out with it. How did you get shot? They were just as nosy, probably, only didn't show it.
The doctor frowned as he worked. 'The projectile must have grazed the clavicle a little, I should say. You were lucky.'
'That's what they told me in London.'
The doctor replaced his scissors in his black leather case.
'You shouldn't have been up and about, anyway. You're a naughty boy. You have to stay still. Mrs Tozer? See this young man stays inside.'
Helen's mother, still at the bedroom doorway, nodded.
'Have I messed it up?' said Breen, feeling for a cigarette on the bedside table with his good hand. 'Will it still heal OK?'
'I'm confining you to quarters. No getting up and wandering around. Don't want a wonky arm, do you?'
Breen lit the cigarette, not offering one to the doctor. He was going to go mad, just lying here, he thought. In this small room. This room particularly.
They had put the family radio in his bedroom. When the doctor had gone, Breen listened to the news. The government was calling up reservists to put down some rioting in Ulster. Someone reckoned Soviets were planning to send bacteria to Venus to generate oxygen in the atmosphere there. In London, they were selecting jurors for the Kray brothers' trial at the Old Bailey.
Just the thought of London made him homesick.
He switched from FM to VHF and twisted the tuner until he came across a police frequency. On it, you could only ever hear half of the conversation.
A lorry broken down on a hill somewhere. A pensioner complaining about a tramp stealing vegetables from an allotment. Ridiculous country crimes.
Breen switched off the radio and looked at the cracks in the ceiling again.
Nothing happened around here. He should not have agreed to come.
Around five, Mrs Tozer returned with shepherd's pie and cabbage and white bread. She refused to believe that Breen did not like tea, so there was a cup and saucer there too. He ate out of boredom.
Helen Tozer came up at around eight, smelling of the milking shed.
'You've got gravy on your face,' she said, and sat on the bed next to him.
'Where?' he asked.
She pulled a checked cotton hanky out of her jeans pocket and dabbed his chin.
'You look tired,' he said.
'Another cow's gone dry. And we're going to have to buy hay in.'
She put her handkerchief back into her pocket. They could hear her mother in the kitchen, her father in the front room, telly on loud. The Dick Emery Show.
'My bloody dad didn't grow enough fodder for the winter. I don't know what got into him. He never used to be like this.'
'And you? Are you OK?' he asked.
Helen Tozer looked different down here on the farm. In London she'd worn miniskirts and mascara. Here she wore loose jeans and jumpers that unravelled at the elbows. It wasn't just the way she looked, though. She was as lost here as he was.
She shrugged. 'Not really.'
He enjoyed her closeness now, her body warm against his. It didn't happen often.
They had met in London when she was a policewoman, before she had come back down here to look after the farm. They were never lovers. Not properly. They had had sex just once in his under-heated flat in Stoke Newington. Both of them drunk. He had hoped for another chance, but it had never come. When he came down to Devon to recuperate from the gunshot wound, he had imagined she would be looking after him. Instead she was out all day, working. Someone had to run the farm, didn't they? Her parents only had the one child now.
'Stay for a while,' Breen said, reaching out to take her hand. The skin was rougher. She pulled the hand away and rolled off the small bed onto her feet.
'I'm going to have a bath, then I'm going to bed,' she said. 'I'm up at five.'
She picked up his tray, but instead of leaving she stood by the door, watching him.
'What?' he said, irritated at the way she was keeping her distance from him.
'Dad saw you,' she said, 'by the spinney.'
The spinney where Alexandra's body had been found. Down the hill a little way from the farmhouse, the piece of land that was too steep, too awkward to plough. He tried to read the flat expression on Helen's face.
'Was he upset?'
'He doesn't like people going there.'
'I was curious, that's all,' said Breen. 'I wanted to see… I get bloody bored, just lying here.'
'Well, you're going to bloody well have to lie there now, aren't you?' she said, and pulled the door behind her.
Murdered people never really go away. They stay with you. If you never discover why they were killed, or who the killer was, it's worse. As a policeman he knew this from the families and friends of victims that he'd met over the years. Now, living here, the dead girl was all around him in this house.
From downstairs came the noise of washing-up. Clattering plates.
He turned the radio back on. 'Gamma One. Can't hear you, over.'
Something about someone pilfering eggs from a kitchen window ledge now.
The hills here made communication hard. He decided he didn't like hills. He longed for the grey flatness of London. The possibility that something was going to happen.
When he had worked with her back in London, Helen Tozer had never wanted to tell Breen about her sister. Breen had insisted. Women were more emotional than men, weren't they? Less rational. It would affect her work. Wanting to understand why she had joined the police in the first place, he had insisted she talk about it. She had resented having to tell him about Alexandra, but in a way, that had been the start of their friendship.
He lay awake with it all going around in his head still.
Had the dead girl been left there? He assumed so. She had been subjected to a violent assault, he knew that. No one would have been able to murder a schoolgirl in the middle of a farm without someone noticing, would they? So why would you go to the trouble of dumping the body back here? There had to be a reason for that. Somebody wanted the body found. Yes. Did it mean that the killer was someone who knew the farm well? The local police would have been through everything, of course. There would be reports.
He tried rolling over onto his left side but the pain was too bad, so he sat up straight instead. This was stupid, lying awake like this. There was nothing he could do, anyway. He should try and sleep. Or think of something else at least.
She'd told him then that her sister had been raped, beaten and knifed. A brutal murder. Sometimes killers got away with it, he knew that. But how good had the investigation been?
It was only when the noise of Helen going out to do the morning milking in the winter darkness woke him, at around five in the morning, that he realised he had slept at all.
A little after eight the sun rose behind the curtains and Mrs Tozer came in with a tray of bacon and sausages and took away his ashtray.
He tried reading his paperback, but did not enjoy it any more than he had yesterday. Got to his feet and pulled a chair to the window. Helen had brought him a pad and some pencils; she knew he liked drawing. But whenever he tried to draw the scene he saw through the small, square window, his efforts looked childlike. It was hardly his fault. The cosy round hills and the fat hedgerows looked like a child's drawing to start with. He preferred drawing faces. People. Things.
He got back into bed. Yawned. Dozed.
Later, in the morning, Hibou came and sat with him for a while. Her break from the fields.
'Did Helen tell you to come?' Breen asked.
'Yes,' she said, blushing. There were an awkward few seconds, then she said, 'I don't mind.'
In London Hibou had looked fragile and feminine. A runaway, she had been taken in by squatters who had fed her drugs and used her for sex. She had been timorous and shy. Here in the countryside she was still strikingly pretty in a pink-skinned, English way, even in her dungarees and Land Girl headscarf. She was more confident, more muscular. The farm seemed to suit her. She was coming alive.
'We got a hundred and two gallons of milk this morning, Hel said.'
Breen tried to sound interested. 'Is that good?'
'Better. Was only getting seventy last week. We should be getting twice that, though. They say cows like music.'
'Are you going to sing for them?'
She snorted. 'That'd curdle it. I asked Mrs T if I could try to make some butter from it. Eggs are down, though. Don't know why.'
'Could somebody be stealing them?'
She curled her lip. 'Round here? Doubt it. Why?'
'Just something I heard on the radio. You like it here, don't you?'
Hibou nodded. 'I think I'm good at it,' she said. 'It's looking after things.'
Hibou was Helen's project. Helen had brought her here from London so she could have a place to quit heroin. She was the same age Alexandra would have been when she died. Breen had always assumed that was why Helen had wanted to save her.
'I think everyone should grow food,' said Hibou. 'It's about being connected.'
'Connected to what?' said Breen.
'The land. Nature. Everything. The Earth.'
Breen turned away.
'You're laughing at me,' she said.
'Don't you feel it? Back when we all lived on the land, we would all have been connected to the Earth energy and to the moon and stars.'
'The Earth energy?'
'You don't feel it because you don't want to be connected to nothing but yourself.'
'I thought Helen had sent you in here to cheer me up?'
'You think of something to talk about then,' she said.
'Do you think Helen is happy here?'
'Why wouldn't she be? I was asking her if maybe I could plant a biodynamic vegetable plot in the spring. And try and sell them at the market.'
'Biodynamic vegetables?' asked Breen.
'You know. Health foods. Grown without chemicals. Planted according to the moon's cycles. More natural.'
- "Superb . . . Shaw picks up multiple plot threads, expertly weaving them into a complex story . . . Shaw perfectly captures the end of an uneasy era, and the utterly terrifying final scene will leave readers breathless."—Publishers Weekly (starred)
- "Gripping . . . Echoes Robert Galbraith's crime novels, and neither author suffers by the comparison. This is a totally engaging series."—Library Journal (starred review)
- "Shaw raises the bar with each entry in this series. . . . A genre-bending psychological thriller, perfect for those who like Elizabeth George's Lynley novels."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Thoroughly gripping . . . Shaw draws incisive attention to little-known historical events and crafts a wholly satisfying thriller."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A first-rate mystery and a compelling and accurate portrait of a changing society"—Laura Wilson, The Guardian [UK]
- "Combines nostalgic period detail with an emotional intensity found only in the very best crime fiction."—The Sunday Times [UK]
- "A proper conspiracy thriller . . . William Shaw delivers a perfect motive in the third of his excellent Breen and Tozer mysteries . . . It involves real history, real people, real crimes with real consequence."—Jeff Noon, Spectator [UK]
- On Sale
- Jan 19, 2016
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Mulholland Books