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By William Shaw
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Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi is a recent transfer from the London metro police to the rugged Kentish countryside. She’s done little to ingratiate herself with her new colleagues, who find her too brash, urban, and — to make matters worse — she investigated her first partner, a veteran detective, and had him arrested on murder charges.
Now assigned the brash young Constable Jill Ferriter to look after, she’s facing another bizarre case: a woman found floating in local marsh land, dead of no apparent cause. The case gets even stranger when the detectives contact the victim’s next of kin, her son, a high-powered graphic designer living in London. Adopted at the age of two, he’d never known his mother, he tells the detectives, until a homeless womanknocked on his door, claiming to be his mother, just the night before: at the same time her body was being dredged from the water.
Juggling the case, her aging mother, her teenage daughter, and the loneliness of country life, Detective Cupidi must discover who the woman really was, who killed her, and how she managed to reconnect with her long lost son, apparently from beyond the grave.
The day the woman who claimed to be his mother arrived at the door, Julian Keen was killing Nazis in the spare room. He didn’t even hear the bell.
‘Can you get it, darling?’ Lulu called.
He had no idea, as he thumbed his PlayStation controller, that the woman at the door would change his life for ever.
At that moment, he was outside Castle Wolfenstein, climbing the wall by the lift shaft, and he knew from previous experience that if he didn’t kill the Nazi at the top within seconds, he’d be shot and have to go all the way back to the castle entrance again.
He had spent the afternoon in the park pushing Teo on the swing, then spent the last half hour reading The Gruffalo to him, twice. She should know by now, this was his me-time. Tomorrow morning he would be back at work; why shouldn’t he spend just a couple of hours on a Sunday evening playing games?
‘Julian? Didn’t you hear it? The doorbell.’
‘Can’t you get it?’
‘I’m making dinner.’
He wasn’t sure how much of the story Teo actually understood, but Lulu was convinced that the more you read to them at this age, the smarter they’d be.
It would only be someone selling cleaning equipment. Those young men with bad tattoos and lean faces who came round every week, box full of dusters and brushes tucked under one arm, dubious-looking ID held up in the other.
For God’s sake.
The Nazi had shot him anyway, sending him plummeting back down the lift shaft; the screen dimmed. He hadn’t been fast enough. He sighed, stood, put down the controller.
He heard it now, the doorbell ringing. ‘Coming,’ he shouted, irritated, pushing back his chair and setting off down the steep stairs.
Their flat was a duplex; first and second floors. Three bedrooms. Two bathrooms. Magnificent views of canal from big glass windows. Use of swimming pool and gym. He squeezed past the buggy and his new bike. ‘Yes?’ he said, yanking open the door.
He saw and smelt the old woman simultaneously.
It was warm, late summer, yet she was cocooned in a dark men’s overcoat, greasy at the cuffs, frayed at the collar. Her face was filthy, the lines on her skin crusted black. The air around her was infected with the sharp scent of the unwashed.
She moved her head to one side slightly, as if examining him.
He returned her look, puzzled. ‘What?’
Her mouth opened, but nothing emerged.
She was scared, he realised; and, equally, he was too, because there was something frightening about homeless people. She was old and dirty and would want something from him.
It was a crime that such poverty existed in this modern city, but it was also impossible to know what to do about it. Maybe that’s what was so disturbing; the sense of not knowing what was to be done.
‘Look, I don’t know what you want. I’m sorry,’ he said, and firmly tried to close the door.
‘Who is it?’ Lulu called from upstairs.
But the door wouldn’t shut. He looked down and there was a threadbare shoe in the way. Dimly, Julian registered that it was a blue Converse, the kind of thing a teenager would wear, comical on a woman her age. Just before he had swung the door to, the old woman must have thrusted her foot into the gap. The thin shoe can’t have been much protection. It was a thick door, heavy with security features. The weight of it must have hurt her, he thought.
When he opened it, she was standing there weeping dirty tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But you shouldn’t have…’
She was mumbling something.
Was this some attempt to extort him? Would she claim that he had assaulted her? It struck him that it might be some kind of scam. There might be more of them. They had heard stories of a barrister – or a journalist – being stabbed to death on his own doorstep. Hadn’t it been on the news? He looked past her into the darkness of Canada Street, more afraid now, but no one moved from behind the rows of cars. She was alone.
‘What are you doing, Julian?’ Lulu was at the top of the stairs now, above the baby gate, a glass of Gewürztraminer in her hand.
In spite of himself, Julian leaned towards the woman, trying to catch her words. And finally heard what she was saying.
He was so shocked by the five words she spoke, he took a step backwards, recoiling.
‘What’s wrong, darling? Has something happened. Shall I call the police? Julian?’
But he just stood there, open-mouthed, looking at the old woman, who was weeping on his doorstop.
‘Why did you invite her in?’ demanded Lulu in whispers.
‘Because she said…’
I am your mother, Julian.
‘You told me. But it doesn’t make any sense.’
They were in the kitchen. The woman was sitting in the living room on the orange Eero Saarinen butterfly armchair, waiting for the cup of tea Julian had said he would make her.
‘You don’t even have a mother,’ Lulu said. ‘Your mother is dead.’
He was in weekend clothes – jeans and a sweatshirt. In a slate grey skirt, Lulu always looked like she was dressed for work.
‘She is dead, isn’t she? Your mother?’
Through the open door, Julian peered at the woman. She was perching uncomfortably on the edge of the designer chair, looking down so that he couldn’t see her face.
‘I mean. I was told she died before I was adopted. But what if she wasn’t?’
Lulu was behind him now on tiptoes, attempting to examine her. ‘I don’t think she even looks like you. Did you see the scab on her face? It’s revolting. She’s just trying it on. Or sick in the head or something.’
‘Probably,’ said Julian.
‘You’re upset, aren’t you?’
‘Well, obviously. Yes.’
‘Tell you what. Ask to see some proof.’
‘What sort of proof?’
Behind them, the kettle roared.
‘I don’t even understand why you’re making her tea.’
‘I couldn’t really offer her wine.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
He went to put a teabag into a cup. Lulu remained at the door. ‘She’s probably got lice. I’m going to call the police.’
‘Don’t,’ said Julian. ‘Not yet.’
‘But she can’t be your mother. It’s not possible. She’s obviously mental or something.’
‘Keep your voice down. She’ll hear you.’
Julian realised his hand was in front of his face. It took him a second to realise he had been chewing the skin on the side of his thumb, something he hadn’t done for years.
They were in the downstairs ladies’ washrooms, facing the row of sinks. ‘It’ll be fine,’ said Constable Ferriter. ‘You just have to read out what they’ve wrote on the card.’
‘We had television in London, too, you know,’ answered Detective Sergeant Cupidi.
‘Right. Obviously.’ Her junior officer pouted into the mirror. Cupidi was still new around here; the young constable was just trying to be helpful. ‘What is it then? Are you nervous?’
Behind them, a toilet flushed. ‘Nervous? No.’
‘I would love to give it a go, being on telly. So why don’t you want to do it, then?’
Ten minutes ago the Kent Police press officer had announced it would be better if a woman did the piece to camera, so Inspector McAdam had suggested his newest officer do it, the woman who had joined them from the Met: Sergeant Cupidi of Serious Crime.
‘In London nobody knows who you are,’ said Cupidi. ‘It’s different round here.’
Ferriter ran a finger across her neat eyebrows. ‘What’s the point of going on telly if people don’t recognise you? Half the fun. Your daughter will be proud.’
‘You don’t know my daughter. Besides. I’m supposed to be at home. She’ll be wondering where I am.’
Ferriter smacked her lips together. ‘Want a lend of some of my concealer?’
‘I could have a go at your hair too, if you like.’
‘Jesus. It’s an appeal to the public to identify the body of a dead woman.’
‘I know. But there’s nothing wrong with trying to look nice.’
Alex Cupidi frowned at herself in the mirror. What was wrong with her hair? ‘I do look nice.’
‘Yeah,’ said the young constable. ‘Course you do. That’s the spirit. See?’
A fist banged on the door. ‘Ready for you now, Sarge.’
Cupidi paused, ran her fingers through her hair, and looked at herself again, conscious of the younger officer’s critical gaze. For a second, she imagined she saw not herself, but the dead woman looking back.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Ferriter.
As if the glass were water, and her face was floating below it, just as the corpse had been.
She blinked. Opened her eyes again.
The man from the Marine Unit, in long waterproof waders, hands beneath the pale body floating in the dark ditchwater, preparing to lift her out. The long greying hair swirling about her white-skinned face, as if it were her own. She shivered. She felt suddenly old.
They had set a camera on a tripod facing the sign that said Kent Police. A man from the BBC was trying to clip a mic to her lapel as she mouthed the words, written on the board that someone was holding up next to the camera.
‘You don’t look well,’ whispered Ferriter. ‘Want me to have a word with the DI?’
‘I’m fine. Who even wrote that?’ She pointed at the board.
‘It’s from the press office.’
‘There’s only one “t” in requesting.’
‘You don’t have to spell it out loud, just read it,’ muttered the BBC man, who had moved to stand behind the camera. ‘We’ll cut from you to the artist’s impression of the victim. Stand a little to your left… Do you mind crouching down a bit so you’re in line with the sign?’
‘Won’t that look stupid?’ At 5' 11" she was tall for a woman.
‘No one will see your legs.’
‘Maybe you should get someone shorter to do it.’ But she dutifully bent her knees. ‘That better?’
‘Magic. Hold it there. In five, four, three…’
Cupidi took a breath and read from the card. ‘Kent Police are requesting…’ She stopped, seeing the dead woman’s face again, staring back at her from the mirror. ‘Sorry. Can I start again?’
‘Is everything OK?’
‘Come on.’ He clapped. ‘Let’s go. Try again.’
‘Kent Police are…’ Again she faltered, straightened up.
‘Are you all right?’ asked the man, looking out from behind his camera. ‘Is she going to be OK? We’re short on time you know.’ Behind him she saw Constable Ferriter and DI McAdam watching her, concern on their faces. McAdam would be wondering if he had made the wrong decision, asking her to do it.
‘I’m all right,’ she declared. ‘Just give me a second.’
‘Only I’ve got a deadline. It’s going to go to edit any minute.’
‘Go on then.’ She crouched down again.
‘Go,’ said the man.
She ignored the cue card this time, looking straight into the camera. ‘We found a body,’ she began.
A woman had called in three days ago. Her thirteen-year-old son had woken her in the night, crying. He and his mate had found a body when they were fishing for pike, but they didn’t say anything because they were scared they would get into trouble for not having a licence.
‘He’s a good boy,’ his mother had said. ‘Normally.’ That doubt in her voice that Cupidi recognised. We reassure ourselves that we know our children, that they will turn out fine.
A pair of local PCSOs had gone to take a look. With no tools to hand, they had borrowed a pair of old golf clubs from a nearby house and had spent forty minutes prodding the layer of weed and had almost given up, thinking it was a hoax, when one of the clubs hit something heavy, floating below the surface. Whatever it was sank further down for a few seconds, and then rose briefly to the surface again, pale and white.
The corpse had been lying face-down in the water off Salt Lane; she had remained concealed by a layer of thick green that lay across the top of the water like a blanket.
‘How we getting her out?’ Sergeant Moon demanded. The ditches round here were deep, the banks steep.
‘Call the Marine Unit,’ said Cupidi.
‘I don’t know. Cost a bit.’ These days everyone was so nervous about budgets.
They stood looking down at the weed that covered her.
‘In you go then,’ Cupidi had said, nodding down at the water.
In the end, the men from the Marine Unit had lifted her gently, carefully, with such respect it had almost made Cupidi weep. The dead woman rose from the water, dripping, arms splayed, her corpse pale and shiny, dressed only in a pair of white underpants.
‘She would have been in her early forties,’ Cupidi was saying, straight to the camera. ‘Her eyes are blue and her hair was brown, going grey. There were no identifying marks on her body. We searched the area as thoroughly as we could, but we’ve found no possessions and no sign of her clothing. If you recognise this woman, call us now. We really, really need to find out who she was.’ Behind the camera, the man was making circular motions. Wind it up. ‘We think she had been in the water about ten days before we found her. That would make it around the second of July. Think back.’ The man’s arm movements were becoming more insistent. He was short on time; the longer the news item, the less time he’d have to edit it. ‘If you saw her or anyone you think might have been her in the area around Romney Marsh, in the area that’s roughly between Fairfield and Lydd, please let us know. There was no abandoned car or bicycle present at the scene. We don’t know how she got to the place she was found. Did you see her walking? Did she get a lift? If you think you can help us in any way, call 0800 555…’
‘A bit bloody long,’ said the cameraman afterwards. ‘They’ll probably try and cut it.’
‘That’s why I didn’t pause for breath,’ answered Cupidi.
‘But you don’t even know how she died.’ He was packing the camera into its case. ‘What if it was just a swim that went wrong?’
‘What kind of weirdo swims in the ditches round here?’ interrupted Ferriter.
The cameraman turned towards the constable, looked her up and down. ‘Just saying. Probably just an accident. How do you know she was actually killed?’ He stopped. ‘Hey. I’ve met you before, haven’t I? You do yoga, don’t you? Sundays, up at the Millennium Hall.’
‘Yeah. I recognise you.’ They smiled at each other.
‘You’re good.’ He zipped the camera case. ‘I’m almost done here. Fancy meeting up after, for a drink?’
He’d lost interest in Cupidi. ‘Maybe later,’ Ferriter was saying. ‘I’m working a late in the incident room answering all the millions of calls that are going to come in once you’ve broadcast this.’
DI McAdam approached, all smiles. ‘That was very good, Alex,’ he said. ‘Very good indeed. Very… passionate. Very real. I liked that.’
‘Well, because it was real, obviously,’ she said.
‘Yes. Indeed. I didn’t mean to say it wasn’t…’ He stood awkwardly. ‘I just wanted to say well done.’
It was late. She needed to get home. Her shift should have ended twenty minutes ago. Her daughter would be wondering where she was.
‘You moved to a house at Dungeness, I hear. Settling in OK?’
‘Fine, sir.’ She looked down at her watch.
‘Extraordinary place. Some people hate it. I love it. Oh. My wife tells me you’ve joined her book group.’
‘Colette. She said you’d gone to her book thing last week.’
It was true she had joined a book group. It was part of her attempt to make new friends, to fit in around here. It wasn’t something she was good at, but here she was trying to make the effort. At the one meeting she had been to so far, she had drunk too much wine and been drawn into a pointless argument about sex offenders. She tried to think which one of the well-spoken women there could be McAdam’s wife.
‘We must have you around for dinner some time. I’m sure you and my wife would get along.’ Cupidi wasn’t listening; instead, she was watching Ferriter. The cameraman had taken out a business card, grinning at her while writing his number on the back.
‘Just a thought,’ he said.
Ferriter had given the man a little wave goodbye and was now walking away, back into the station.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ Cupidi muttered.
‘Right. Of course.’
She pushed past her boss, up the ramp towards the doors of the station, catching up with Ferriter in the lobby.
‘Are you going to call him?’
‘That man. The one who gave you the card.’
‘You know what card. I bloody saw you take it.’
Ferriter shrugged, smiled. ‘Maybe. He was all right.’
Other officers pushed past them. Cupidi lowered her voice. ‘He was trying to get information out of you, you know?’
‘No. He was asking me out for a drink actually. He’s in my yoga class.’
‘He also happened to be asking you to discuss forensic details of the case which we haven’t revealed yet.’
‘It was just chat.’
Cupidi looked at her; lips neatly glossed, blonde bob carefully combed. ‘Look. You’re young. All I’m doing is watching your back. If you meet up with him, be careful. That’s all.’
Ferriter rolled her eyes. ‘Keep your hair on. I wouldn’t go out with him anyway. He’s old enough to be my dad.’
Cupidi realised he probably was. ‘Right. I should go.’
‘What? Aren’t you staying for the news? Goes out in twenty minutes. Then the phones will start. Hopefully, anyway.’
‘I need to be home for my daughter. Call me, won’t you?’
Ferriter’s smile was small and tight. ‘Oh yeah. Right. Forgot.’
Cupidi drove home fast, in a bad mood, cursing the summer insects that splattered on the windscreen.
In the light of a summer evening, there was something lunar about Dungeness. It lay on the tip of a vast, flat stony landscape that jutted into the Straits of Dover; banks of shingle built over centuries by the churn of tides. The wooden shacks and chalets that dotted the promontory cast long shadows across the scrubland.
She drove along the pitted track, past the old black lighthouse, towards the huge industrial bulk of the Dungeness nuclear power station, its orange lights already glowing against the red sky. Her mood lifted a little as she approached.
At the security fence, the narrow road turned northwards towards lines of pylons that marched away across the flatland, past the empty Arum Cottage to the row of houses that sat, defiantly suburban, in this wild landscape.
Zoë was sitting on the front door step of their house.
‘I don’t know why I even bother to pay for your phone,’ said Cupidi.
‘I forgot it, as it happens.’
‘And your keys?’
‘Obviously, yes. Else I wouldn’t be sitting here.’ Spindly-limbed, bleached hair tinted purple, she wore khaki camouflage trousers and a shabby military jacket. Around her neck she hung a pair of binoculars. ‘Hi, Mum,’ she said, standing. ‘Nice to see you too.’
‘Sorry.’ She folded her arms around the girl.
The summer holidays; a nightmare for any working parent.
The house in the country. Cupidi and her daughter. A fresh start.
Though much of their stuff was still in boxes, she was doing her best to make it home on time, most days at least; cooking meals from scratch instead of heating them in the microwave. And while she had meant to start eating supper at the table, it was easy to slip into the habit of sitting on the sofa with the plates, watching telly with a big glass of white.
‘Seriously, though,’ said Cupidi. ‘I worry.’
‘Round here? I’m perfectly safe, Mum. I just forgot it.’
‘What if one day you’re not?’
‘But I am.’
On the television, a chef was tossing a huge salad in a glass bowl. She shouldn’t be watching TV. She should be reading her book for the book group.
‘See anything good?’ she asked.
‘Birds? Not really.’
‘Trying to make conversation.’
‘I just mean, nothing you’d understand.’
‘Indulge me,’ she said.
‘Not a greater one?’
‘You’re taking the piss.’ Her daughter glared at her.
‘Sorry. Is it pretty?’
‘It’s not about being pretty, Mum,’ said Zoë, anger in her voice. Cupidi remembered standing in front of the mirror with the perky young Constable Ferriter. ‘It would have been getting ready to go to the Middle East. Sudan. Even further south than that,’ her daughter said. ‘Three and a half thousand miles. Just think. Travelling all that way.’
‘Just to come here, of all places.’
‘Amazing, though, isn’t it? Titchy little thing.’
This obsession with birds. She wondered about this need to know every last detail, to record every species. Her daughter was a strange girl, which was almost certainly her fault. She was not the easiest woman to get along with either; on more than one occasion men had told her that. Or maybe Cupidi’s own mother’s fault; she was no better.
She was topping up her wine in the kitchen when Zoë called from the living room, ‘Mum. You’re on the telly.’
It was half past ten. They would be showing the segment again.
She arrived back in the living room, glass in hand, to see the artist’s drawing of the dead woman on the screen.
‘What do you think happened to her?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Cupidi. ‘I really don’t.’
‘Was she raped?’
‘It’s not really the kind of thing we should be talking about, you know.’
‘But was she?’
‘There are no signs of violence at all.’
The phone rang. ‘I’ll get it,’ said Zoë, standing.
‘It’ll be for me. Probably somebody’s called something in.’
The screen cut back to her, standing in front of the station. Detective Sergeant Cupidi: Serious Crime Directorate. And then they were talking about the weather. Hot all week, they said, smiling, and getting hotter.
Zoë came back with the phone in her hand. Cupidi held out her hand for it, but Zoë said, ‘It wasn’t anyone.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I just said hello and they rang off. Must have been a wrong number.’
‘Right,’ she said. Nobody had called; it looked like the TV appeal had not worked, which was frustrating. A woman with no name; no identity. Any murder was disturbing, but this one had spooked Cupidi. No one knew who the dead woman was; nobody had missed her, or come forward to weep over her.
When they’d both finished picking at their meals, Cupidi collected the dirty plates, and, as she straightened, caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the fireplace. ‘Do you think my hair needs attention?’ she asked.
‘Thought you didn’t care about stuff like that.’
- "Salt Lane was my introduction to William Shaw, and when I finished it I instantly went to his backlist. He is a meticulous, thoughtful and insightful writer. I can't wait for Sgt. Cupidi's next case."—Sara Paretsky
- "Salt Lane is taut, terrifying and timely; the emotional tension never slackens."—Val McDermid
- "Excellent.... Reverses readers' expectations: Rather than having all their roots in the distant past, these crimes have more to do with the evils and inequities of the modern world."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "Excellent....The combination of great characters and a gripping plot will leave readers eager for a sequel."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "DS Alexandra Cupidi is complex, conflicted, and conscientious... Shaw's rattling good writing will hold readers to the very end. Fans of the author's Breen and Tozer series as well as aficionados of atmospheric police procedurals will enjoy this series launch."—Library Journal
- "William Shaw is one of the great rising talents of UK crime fiction. This is his best book to date, instantly engaging, beautifully written with really well observed and rounded characters."—Peter James
- "A modern crime master.... Shaw scores subtle political points in this atmospheric, state-of-the-nation thriller that, as always, features intricate plotting, realistic dialogue and believable characters."—Natasha Harding, The Sun (UK)
- PRAISE FOR WILLIAM SHAW AND THE BIRDWATCHER
- On Sale
- Jun 26, 2018
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Mulholland Books