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A Natural Killer?

By

Tracy Groman

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Tracy Gorman 2018

Smashwords Edition

Hardback ISBN: 9781629898995

Paperback ISBN: 9781629899008

eBook ISBN: 9781629899015

First Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC, April 16, 2018

http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com

Smashwords Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

Editor: Maxine Bringenberg


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two


CHAPTER ONE


Elise Sampson sank into her favorite armchair. Her lips were trembling, and there was a tingling in her bones that hadn’t been there before. She folded her hands together, interlocking her fingers in a cat’s cradle. She’d never been afraid of anything, yet tonight a deep sense of foreboding clutched at her chest. She couldn’t pinpoint the source of her unease, but it seeped through her body like oil through a well.

She rose from her seat and drifted across to the window. The driveway was dark and quiet, a murky void of shapes and shadows. Her eyes fixed upon a distant streetlight. Its fluorescent glow was little more than a dull haze from where she stood. Nevertheless, its presence was oddly comforting. It reminded her that there was a world beyond her curtains.

The light flickered, and Elise shuddered involuntarily. There was a chill in the air that her trusty wood burner couldn’t seem to quell. It added to the darkness of her mood. She pulled her cardigan tightly across her chest. Perhaps it was just the cold that was unnerving her. After all, the temperature had dipped considerably in recent days.

She retraced her footsteps, sinking easily back into her seat, just as the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed a quarter past nine. Usually at this time of the evening she’d engage in a little knitting, or tackle one of her many puzzles. It was her way of winding down…a little end of the day treat. But tonight, not even the promise of such pleasures could placate her.

An idea struck her, and she pulled herself up, heading purposefully toward the kitchen. A nice cup of hot cocoa would do the trick. It would soothe her uneasiness and warm her bones. She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before. Cocoa was the perfect antidote for the winter blues, and once it was inside her, she’d be back to her normal self in no time.

Her joints creaked as she moved slowly through the darkened space, reminding her of the disadvantages of age. If it wasn’t for the fact that every bone in her body now groaned, she’d still feel twenty-one. She shuddered at the thought. Where the hell had the years gone? It was as if she’d blinked and turned the corner into God’s waiting room…an unsavory maze of creaking joints, sleepless nights, and sympathetic looks. God, how she hated those sympathetic looks.

The thought brought a brief smile to her dry lips. At least she had no regrets. A stab of conscience prickled the back of her neck. OK, everyone had some regrets. Bad choices they’d made, things they wished they’d done differently. But they were the traits that defined a person, the scars that ensured they never make the same mistakes again…and at least hers had been made with the best intentions.

She reached the kitchen and flicked on the light switch. When nothing happened, her uneasiness returned. She’d changed the bulb less than a week ago. Surely it couldn’t have burned out already. She craned her neck to see behind her. The lounge light was still on, so it couldn’t be a problem with the circuit breaker.

A cold sense of dread ascended her spine, a visceral awareness that she wasn’t alone. She shook herself firmly. She had to get a grip. She was eighty-two years old, for heaven’s sake. If someone had wanted to send her to an early grave, they’d have done so long before now.

The thought appeased her, and she stared ahead into the gloomy kitchen. Without the light, it was impossible to see more than five feet ahead. Still she persevered, forcing her eyes to focus. There was a set of spotlights right above the cooker. They’d provide ample illumination for her to replace the bulb. And when it was done, she’d make that cocoa.

The kitchen tiles were cold against her bare stockinged feet. Still, she propelled herself forward, again scolding herself for her foolishness. It wasn’t as if her house wasn’t secure. She had the tallest fence in the street, not to mention the latest in burglar alarm technology. Christ, she was practically living in Fort Knox. Houdini himself would struggle to get in. Not that he or anyone else would want to.

She was about to reach for the spotlights when a loud shuffling stopped her in her tracks. It was so unexpected, she instantly felt her heart quicken. She made to turn, but before she’d gotten all the way around, something had gripped her legs and was pulling her backwards. Her face hit the kitchen worktop with such force it took her breath away and sent shockwaves of pain surging through her skull.

Confusion prevailed. Elise opened her eyes, desperate for some form of clarity. But the room was spinning, and she was forced to close them again. She tried to lift her head, but something or someone was holding her down. Then a warm, moist liquid trickled down her cheek, and she could taste the sharp, salty tang of blood. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out, and her head felt so fuzzy she wasn’t sure if she was standing of her own accord or if someone was propping her up.

In the seconds that followed, she was aware of something cold piercing her neck. Its icy bite sent a shiver along her spine. Then it was no longer icy. It was a red-hot fire, streaming through her body like lava through a volcano. Its tortuous heat taunted every inch of her tender flesh, scorching her from the inside out, and the pain was excruciating.

More seconds passed, and Elise’s body contorted in agony. She tried to scream, but the torment had taken such a hold, she no longer had control over her mortal functions. All she wanted was for the pain to be over. She longed for death, prayed for it with every inch of her being. But the release she craved eluded her.

A faint murmur escaped from her lips, finally fading to a dull whisper. Then a bright light flashed before her, followed by a deep, impenetrable darkness. Her head jolted backwards, and a solitary voice echoed from within. The devil had come for her, and the fiery furnace of hell awaited.

A sudden sharp pain stabbed at her chest, the definitive act in her torment. Her body convulsed and, as her heart struck its final beat, the figure behind her breathed a sigh of relief. It reverberated through the darkened space like a faint whistle, then retreated back into the blackness from which it had come.


CHAPTER TWO


Detective Inspector Anna Rose leaned against her locked Mitsubishi Shogun. It was 5 a.m., and she was tired and cold. A combination of over-work and lack of sleep had driven her virtually insane these last couple of weeks. So much so that she was beginning to wonder if she’d ever feel rested again.

She glanced up, raising a hand to her aching temples. The sun hadn’t yet pierced the lead grey sky and a thin, thread-like mist veiled the nearby street lamps. She shuddered, crossing her arms tightly across her chest. Her black leather jacket clung to her body like a chrysalis to a moth, accentuating her slender frame and shielding the dark trouser suit beneath it. The ensemble cut a stark contrast against the light blonde of her hair, which, as always, had been tugged into a tight pony-tail.

A chill breeze ruffled the nearby hedgerows and Rose lifted the collar of her jacket. The weather had turned colder in the last few days. An icy December wind was slowly gaining momentum, its rhythmic thrashing targeting loose fence panels and gate posts. Before long the snow would arrive, and the streets would be gridlocked, making her job even harder than it already was. She cringed at the thought. She’d never been good with the cold. Maybe, when she retired, she’d move to warmer climes. It was a scenario she pondered often. The problem was, she still had twenty years of service to get through. If the job didn’t kill her first.

A further sound fractured her thoughts and her partner, Detective Sergeant John Stipes, emerged from the doorway of the nearby building. He’d hung back to remove the tapes from the property’s security cameras, and he now held them in his hands, wrapped in familiar plastic evidence bags.

Stipes paused to inhale a breath of air before continuing his ascent along the driveway. He was a good ten years younger than Rose, but in outlook there was little between them besides the obvious gender difference. They shared a mutual love of Italian cuisine and a deep-seated passion for rock music. Beyond that, neither had married. Both had become firmly wedded to the job, a choice that, however clichéd, had instilled a firm bond between them.

Stipes continued his ascent along the driveway, shoving the two small packages into his jacket pockets. Rose watched him in silence. She knew what was going through his mind. It was the same thought that had been plaguing her own mind these past fifteen minutes. Who in God’s name could’ve been capable of inflicting such violence upon a fragile old lady? But even as the question presented itself, she knew she wouldn’t like the answer.

Stipes reached the car’s passenger side and Rose disabled the central locking and climbed inside. Once seated, she took a last look into the now animated street. The incident had occurred in one of the most prestigious parts of Brackley. It was an area she rarely had cause to visit; yet, when she did, she was always surprised that such affluence sat so closely beside the city’s more deprived neighborhoods. It was as if the residents were deliberately flaunting their wealth…putting the proverbial middle finger up at their less privileged counterparts.

Of course, it wasn’t the residents who’d built these magnificent structures. It was the planners, architects, and officials. They were the ones who’d come up with the bizarre notion of social integration. Not that it made the reality any more palpable. She shook her head and pulled on her seat belt, wondering if social politics had anything to do with the incident they’d just witnessed. It seemed unlikely. So far there were no signs of forced entry or burglary; nothing to indicate that the perpetrator hadn’t been invited in, other than the open gates.

Rose turned the key in the ignition as Stipes shuffled in his seat. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, despite the cold, and an unhealthy pallor tainted his cheeks. She focused her attention on the road ahead, pretending not to notice. The scene they’d just witnessed had been particularly gruesome, with the age of the victim making it even less palpable. If she was honest, she was still reeling from the discovery herself.

The realization sent her mind drifting back to their arrival at the scene. The victim had been lying on her front, her head resting face down in a pool of her own blood, her body contorted in an unnatural pose that appeared to have resulted from her fall to the floor. Her thick pink nightgown had risen to above her knees, revealing deep red markings where, according to the pathologist, she’d likely been grabbed and thrown off balance.

Rose shuddered as the image replayed in her mind. The victim’s head had made contact with the kitchen work top as she’d fallen and had possibly been held there for quite some time. A thick pool of blood had seeped onto the smooth black granite, leaving a macabre stain that would taint the stone for many years to come.

Stipes pulled on his seat belt and a stab of annoyance prickled her senses. What was most disturbing was the pathologist’s reluctance to postulate cause of death, a sure and certain sign that things weren’t as they appeared. It was never a good omen when a pathologist withheld such thoughts. More often than not, it threw all sorts of ominous questions into the mix.

She pushed her foot down on the accelerator, discreetly viewing her partner through the corner of her eye. His face was slowly regaining color, though he hadn’t spoken since entering the car. She shrugged it off. Contrary to public opinion, murder wasn’t something you became desensitized to, just because you happened to witness more of it than was normal. Besides, a bit of emotional attachment was healthy. It helped stimulate the appetite for the job.

When Stipes finally found his voice, it voice was thin and dislocated. “What do you think, Guv?”

Rose ran her hands along the smooth leather steering wheel. “At this point in time, I don’t know what I think. I can’t imagine how anyone could do that to an elderly lady. Then again, I can’t imagine how people commit child abuse or bomb innocent bystanders. But we both know those things happen.”

Stipes leaned back in his seat, her answer clearly not quenching his curiosity. “But what possible motive could they have to do that to an old lady? I mean, she was hardly likely to have been much of a threat.”

Rose sighed. “That depends. This could’ve stemmed from something that went way back. It could’ve started as a heated debate and gotten out of hand. How many murders have begun as a simple dispute and escalated?”

Stipes shrugged his shoulders. “True. But that doesn’t change the fact that the victim was a defenseless old lady.”

Rose let out a deep, frustrated sigh. She hated playing devil’s advocate, but all possibilities had to be considered. She pushed her foot down harder on the accelerator. “She might not have been defenseless. Not all threats are visible. That old lady could’ve had sensitive information on our killer. She could’ve been blackmailing him or her. Or she could’ve committed horrendous crimes in the past. Until we run a background check, we should probably reserve judgement.”

As they pulled out of the street, a van Rose recognized as a mortuary vehicle pulled in. Rose nodded her head. Even so, when the vehicle had passed, she visibly shuddered. Soon the victim would be sealed in a body bag and transported to the path lab, where science would reveal the last few moments of her life. She found the process sickening, despite its necessity.

A few minutes later, all thoughts of the mortuary having dissipated from her mind, Rose was heading along Main Street in the direction of the station. Even though it was still dark, neither she nor Stipes would want to be anywhere else. The station was where they did their best thinking, and at this time of the morning it would give them the peace and quiet they needed. Besides, she wanted to get a head start on the case before the rest of her team arrived, for something told her this one was going to be complicated.


CHAPTER THREE


Thirty minutes later, having turned the office into an incident room, Rose and Stipes sat staring at the newly constructed murder board. At present, there was no photo of the victim to take pride of place at its center. It could be a couple of hours before the crime scene pictures filtered through. In the meantime, they needed to take stock of the information they’d acquired so far. Which, by all accounts, was very little.

It was Stipes who broke the tense silence. “At least there’s no next of kin to inform.”

Uniform had already run a brief background check. The victim, eighty-two year old Mrs. Elise Sampson, a former obstetrician who’d dropped her title on retirement, had no remaining family. She’d lived alone at her address in Amber Court for the last twelve years, since the death of her husband, and appeared to have enjoyed a fairly uneventful life. Not that official records necessarily provided an accurate depiction of a person’s private endeavors. Mrs. Sampson could’ve committed any number of crimes and, unless they’d been uncovered, Joe Public would be none the wiser.

Rose ran her fingers along the arch of her brow. Lack of information regarding cause of death was still frustrating her. Until they had that, they had nothing to help them construct a profile of the killer. It was a major setback. She leaned forward, scrutinizing the scant black writing on the murder board. The pathologist had promised to begin work on the autopsy ASAP, whatever that meant. But that didn’t help them now.

She fumbled with the tapes Stipes had retrieved from the surveillance equipment. They’d played them the minute they’d gotten back to the station, but they’d apparently been disabled at 8:15, most likely by the killer. According to the pathologist, death had occurred less than an hour later. She turned belatedly to her partner.

“I’m not sure how much of a blessing that is. Still, this lady must’ve had acquaintances. Friends, ex work colleagues, neighbors...people she spent time with, who might yield some insight into why she was killed. We need to construct a list of everyone who knew her, plus an itinerary of her movements these last couple of weeks and any regular routines she had. We need to know where she went, with whom, and why.”

She slouched back in the cold metal chair, her mind ticking over like a clock on speed.

“And we should consult with her doctor. A lady of that age is likely to have had regular appointments. We need to know if she had any unusual conditions. Or medication. Perhaps she chose to self-medicate, which could’ve put her in contact with some very unsavory characters.”

Stipes pulled a note pad from his pocket and began jotting down potential lines of inquiry. It was his way of generating ideas. Plus, it would give him something to refer to later, when the rest of the team arrived.

Rose closed her eyes, her mind drifting once again to the crime scene. When they’d left, the house had been filling up with SOCOs (scenes of crime officers) and Forensics. With any luck, they’d find something that would help. The guys were miracle workers these days. Even the tiniest of anomalies could yield vital clues to a killer’s identity.

Stipes leaned forward in his seat, purposefully eyeing the tapes. “At least the recordings should help us identify visitors. Who knows? One of them might be our guy.”

“Or girl.”

Stipes shrugged. It was true. The female perps were as violent as the men these days. If not more so.

Rose hunched her shoulders, cradling her chin in the palms of her hands. “The question still remains; how did the killer get in? Was it someone the victim knew? Did she let them in, perhaps even invite them over? They would’ve had to have known the exact location of the security cameras, so if they weren’t acquaintances, they’d have had to have staked the place out beforehand. Then there’s the light bulb….”

Uniform had discovered that there was no bulb in the main kitchen light fitting, a strange coincidence considering the old lady had been killed in there. Normally she’d have concluded that the killer had removed it prior to the attack. The problem was, if the killer was already inside the house, as preliminary findings suggested, why the need for such a measure?

She fumbled with the tapes again. “You’re right, these might be of more use than we thought. We’ll get Willis to check them out.”

Willis was a member of Rose’s newly constructed homicide squad. Like the other members, he’d been contacted shortly after their arrival at the station. Willis’s area of expertise was finding the most obscure of details, however small, amidst the most mundane of material. It was a highly specialized skill.

Rose pushed thoughts of the tapes aside, her mind turning instead to the lavish property they’d recently visited, and to the seemingly elaborate security system surrounding it. “I still keep thinking about the amount of security Mrs. Sampson had. It seemed a lot for one old lady. The fences were huge. Then there were the electric gates and the security cameras. Was all that just a deterrent for potential intruders? Or was there more to it? Was Mrs. Sampson waiting for someone to come after her?”

The question hung in the air like a stale odor. The likelihood of this having been a random killing was slim. Apart from there having been no obvious signs of a break-in, nothing appeared to have been taken. Not that that they had any kind of inventory, but if anything specific had been taken, that still pointed to the killing having been premeditated. Plus, whoever had entered the building had already assessed the security cameras and knew how to disable them without alerting the owner. It appeared that Mrs. Sampson had been deliberately targeted. The question was, why?

By the time Rose’s team began filtering through the door at seven thirty, they were no further into unravelling the complexities of the case. Still, they’d viewed the evening’s recording again and ascertained the length of the security tapes, which was approximately four months in total. Presumably, the previous tapes had expired at that time and had been replaced with fresh ones. Rose made a mental note to find out where the victim had archived used copies, and to establish whether or not the security company had them backed up.

They’d also been in touch with Forensics, though initial findings pointed to there being very little, if anything at all, to help identify the killer. On the plus side, the crime scene photos had been faxed over. They now decorated the murder board like some gruesome jigsaw puzzle. Rose ran her eyes along the well-defined images. If nothing else, they conveyed the severity of the attack.

As for cause of death, there’d still been no news from Pathology, though Rose knew that was to be expected. Post mortems took time. She didn’t even want to contemplate the complex procedures that bodies went through on those cold stainless-steel gurneys. Sometimes ignorance really was the best policy.

There were a few moments of muddled confusion while everyone found their places. When they were all seated, Rose positioned herself beside the murder board. Aside from herself and Stipes, her team consisted of five individuals of varying skills and abilities. Each had been assigned to her following her recent promotion to detective inspector. Most she’d worked with before, but two were new to her: Detective Constable Willis and Detective Constable Reece. Both had recently transferred from Vice and considered Homicide and Special Crimes an upgrade. Which, for Rose, was an asset.

Silence descended, and Rose began trailing through the details of the case so far, which sadly took less than five minutes. When she was done, she looked to her team for inspiration.

Willis was first to contribute. His thick Irish accent reverberated throughout the modest room. “If you ask me, this has the markings of a revenge attack. The level of brutality way exceeded what was necessary, especially considering the age of the victim…I mean, who could do that to an old lady…?”

His words echoed Stipes’s earlier sentiments, and Willis looked around the room as if to reaffirm his point. When he turned back to Rose, there was an edge to his voice. “Are we really ruling out the head injuries as cause of death?”

Rose tried hard to keep the sarcasm from her voice. “At present, we’re not ruling out anything…we’re waiting on confirmation. As for the revenge theory, I’m inclined to agree with you. At first sight, this doesn’t seem like a random attack, unless we’re missing something. The killer doesn’t appear to have forced entry; the alarm was still intact and there were no obvious signs of burglary. Plus, he or she was probably familiar with the security cameras.” She took a deep breath. “Still, we can’t afford to be complacent. We’ve had nothing back from Forensics or Pathology yet, and we all know how quickly things can change. So, for the time being, let’s just stick to the facts. If it turns out the killer had an agenda, we’ll get to it soon enough.”

She draped her arm over the murder board, more for support than anything else. She was so fatigued she was starting to feel light headed, and the fact that she hadn’t eaten since early yesterday evening wasn’t helping. If she didn’t get sustenance soon, she was likely to pass out. A voice detracted her from her thoughts.

“And this was called in by a neighbor? I thought those houses were so far apart, they were practically on different streets.”

DC Matt Banks, a short, stocky man with spiky red hair and a head that looked too big for his body, was peering up at her through his thin rimmed glasses. Rose managed a fleeting smile. She’d worked with Matt on numerous occasions in the past, and knew he was reliable and thorough, even if he did sometimes have a tendency to be obnoxious. She turned back to the murder board, realizing she should’ve given her team more time to examine its contents.

“They are. But fortunately, the lady at number eight works nights. She passed the victim’s house around 4 a.m. and noticed that the gates were open, which seemed odd. So, being a good neighbor, she decided to check it out. When Mrs. Sampson didn’t answer the door and she found it unlocked, she ventured inside. And when she saw her neighbor lying on the kitchen floor....”

Banks sank back into his chair. “Must’ve been one hell of a shock. But why would the killer leave the gates open?”

Rose shrugged her shoulders, the complexities of the case again compounding her. “That’s anyone’s guess. Maybe they wanted the victim found. Or maybe they were just in a hurry to leave. Either way, they wouldn’t have expected anyone to find the body ‘til morning.”

She stepped away from the murder board and began slowly pacing the small area of carpet in front of it. “I’ll be honest with you. Right now, we don’t have a great deal to work on. Uniform started work on house to house last night, and they’re following up today on anyone they couldn’t get hold of. But so far no one seems to have seen or heard anything untoward.” She paused to convey the gravity of their predicament. “So we need to find out what we can. Cover the ground work and see what comes up. Firstly, we need to compile a list of Mrs. Sampson’s known acquaintances. Friends, neighbors, old work colleagues. Anyone she had contact with over the last five years. We also need to establish whether she’d been involved in any quarrels or disputes, and if she had any regular routines or appointments the killer might’ve used to determine their time slot.”

DC Reece raised a hand. “I’m on it, Guv.”

Rose nodded. “Good. On top of that, we need to access the victim’s financial and medical records. If she made any large deposits into her bank account, or suffered from any condition that required costly, perhaps even illegal medication, it could’ve provided our killer with a motive. And we need to check her phone records. I don’t know if she had a mobile, but there’s definitely a landline.”

DC Grace Sherman nodded her head in acceptance of the task. Aside from Rose, Sherman was the only female member of the team.

Rose smiled before continuing. “We also need to ascertain who the estate falls to now that Mrs. Sampson is dead, and whether or not there were any unusual caveats in the will.”

This time it was DC Banks who conveyed his acknowledgement.

Rose glanced back at the murder board. She was keen to get this wrapped up quickly, so she could get back to the business of detecting. Besides, all this talking was making her throat dry. She kept up the momentum. “In addition to those tasks, the victim was formerly an obstetrician. We need to ascertain if there were ever any cases of negligence brought against her. Banks, can I rely on you for that one, too?”

Banks mumbled in response and Rose continued pacing, finally halting beside Willis. “Willis, I’d like you to take a thorough look through the surveillance tapes. If you find anything in there that looks unusual, anything at all, let me know ASAP.”

“Right, Guv.”

She placed the tapes on his desk. “Plus, I want pictures of all visitors to the Sampson property enhanced. They can then be cross-referenced against the database to see if anything comes up. And get copies of the images to Reece. He might be able to identify some of them as friends, work colleagues, neighbors, etc. If not, we might be able to ID them throughout our inquiries.” She went to turn, then remembered something. “And find out if there’s any CCTV in the street, will you? In an area like that, you’d expect at least one camera. If there is CCTV, get as much footage as you can.”

Willis nodded, sliding the first of the tapes into a small black machine on his desk. Rose stepped back, her attention drifting to the final member of the team, DC Jack Blake. At twenty-four, Jack was the youngest member. Nevertheless, his talents couldn’t be underestimated. In Rose’s opinion he was a born detective, a natural to police work, and if he hadn’t chosen a career in law enforcement, he’d probably have made a pretty good criminal. A fact that wasn’t lost on her.

She stopped beside his table, resting the palms of her hands on its only available space.

“Blake, I’d like you to look into the people involved in the area’s development. I know it was a while ago, but I’ve always found the location a bit odd. Plus, if my memory serves me correctly, there was a lot of opposition to it in the early days. I know it’s a long shot, but if Mrs. Sampson or her deceased husband had any links to the development process, it could provide grounds for revenge.” She paused for a moment, considering the implications of what she’d just asked. “But keep it on the low, will you? We don’t want to go ruffling any feathers. At least not yet. Like I said, it’s a long shot. But seeing as though we don’t have much else at the moment, we’d might as well explore the possibility.”

Blake smiled reassuringly, turning to his computer. Rose straightened herself up and clapped her hands together in a “let’s get moving” gesture. “OK guys, that’s it for now. Once we get cause of death, we’ll have more to go on. In the meantime, let’s keep all lines of inquiry under wraps. One whisper of the ‘m’ word and the media will be all over it.”

Even as she said it, she wondered how long they had before details of what had happened became common knowledge. A bulletin had been released a short while ago, relaying news of a death in the exclusive Dahlia area of Brackley. But so far, details had been sparse. Once the word “murder” was bandied around, it would be a different story. The media would be out in droves. Not to mention the crime nuts who hoped to become the next Sherlock Holmes. It was then that the mayhem would really begin.

Bodies gradually dispersed, and Rose scanned the room for her partner. Stipes was leaning against the far wall, apparently deep in thought. She considered giving him a moment’s repose. He looked calm and pensive, serene even. But they had work to do and peace was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Besides, there’d be plenty of time for reflection on their forthcoming journey.

Stipes sensed her presence before she got to him. “Guv?”

“I guess we should head back to the crime scene. SOCOs should be done by now, and we might pick up on something we missed. There has to be something there that could help us.”

Stipes grabbed his coat from the back of a nearby chair, and together they headed for the door.


CHAPTER FOUR


On the journey back to Amber Court, Rose stopped for a snack at Diego’s Drive-Through. She’d been craving a strong cup of coffee and a warm toasted bagel since she’d left the station, but in the end, she had to be satisfied with a dry Danish pastry and a cup of lukewarm tea. She grimaced as she forced the cake along her throat, washing it down with the uninviting beverage. If nothing else, at least it would sustain her until she could get a proper meal.

When they arrived at Amber Court, she slowed the car to a virtual standstill. Inquisitive neighbors would be on the lookout for any sign of police activity, and in the event of an ambush she wanted to be prepared. She scanned each property’s meticulous façade, along with the row upon row of pretty Georgian windows. Suspicious deaths in this neck of the woods weren’t an everyday occurrence. The Sampson house would be a source of curiosity for many years to come, its victim more notorious in death than in life.

Seeing nothing untoward, Rose parked the car outside number six and killed the engine. After placing the keys in her jacket pocket, she pulled two sets of boot covers and gloves from the glove box and handed a set of each to Stipes, shoving the remaining items in her pockets. She’d put them on just before entering the house, thereby minimizing the chances of cross-contamination.

When she was done, she stepped from the car into the quiet street. For a few moments she simply stood there, eyeing the property as if for the first time. When she finally gained the impetus to move forward, Stipes stepped up alongside her. His long black coat billowed in the breeze, and his heavy black boots tapped noisily against the hard pavement. Like Rose, he was tall and slim. But there the similarity ended. His hair was as black as ink, and he had a rugged, square jaw that tended to jut out when he spoke. His shoulders were unnaturally broad, and he had the hands of a builder, sizeable and strong. On the outside he was the archetypal detective. On the inside, he could be as soft as butter.

Rose lifted the collar of her jacket. The weather showed no sign of improvement. A relentless drizzle trickled icily from a dull grey sky, its spindly fingers coating every surface in a fine, freezing mist. It added to the coldness of her mood. She propelled herself forward, her enthusiasm dwindling with every step.

When they reached the house, it was cordoned off by crime scene tape, and they had to duck beneath it to access the gates. Rose punched in the four-digit security code she’d gotten from the tech guys. As she did so, she wondered if the numbers had been significant to Mrs. Sampson. The first four digits of a specific date, perhaps. Or part of a memorable number or password. If they had been significant, that might have made them easier for the killer to ascertain.

Once they were in the driveway, they watched the gates close behind them and cast a good long look at the house. Somehow it looked bigger than it had earlier…more formidable. Rose scanned its magnificent façade, along with its seemingly impenetrable boundary. Even from a distance it had a rigid, almost military look about it. It was the kind of place one retreated to, to escape the outside world. A fortress. The words Fort Knox suddenly sprang to mind.

The analogy made her question the killer’s instincts. When he or she had targeted Mrs. Sampson, had they known how seriously the old lady took her security? If they had, then they’d risked a great deal in the pursuit of their plan, and that either made them desperate or careless.

She stepped forward, viewing the house as the killer might’ve viewed it on their first visit. She was looking for any sign of vulnerability…a chink in its outwardly perfect armor. Nothing leapt out. She walked further forward, craning her neck to see around the corner where the driveway led to a tall side gate. It had been dark when she’d last been here, and there were many details she hadn’t noticed. Like the thick poison ivy that trailed the walls, and the tiny wooden building that sat almost camouflaged at the property’s periphery. It looked like the sort of thing that might be used for garden tools and other miscellaneous items. She wondered if the victim had used it recently and made a mental note to check it out when they were done in the house.

When they finally approached the doorway, the sickly scent of chemicals was so overwhelming it struck them like a bolt of lightning to the chest. Rose felt her gag reflex jolt and took a deep breath to stem it. Forensics might have left the building, but their presence lingered. She pulled on the gloves and boot covers and shot a glance at her partner. As always, Stipes was ready and waiting. She reached into her pocket for the small silver key she’d placed there earlier, and seconds later they were standing in the property’s immaculate foyer.

Once they were inside the chemical smell intensified a hundred-fold. It hit the back of Rose’s throat with the force of a thousand angry bees. She wished she’d brought a face mask, then realized she probably had a spare one in the car if she had the patience to go back for it. She decided she didn’t. Patience was a virtue that seemed to elude her these days. Besides, it was too late now anyway. The smell was already within her.

She shot a glance at Stipes and they moved forward, their steps silent against the plush cream carpet. When they reached the hallway, Rose hesitated. Her gut directed her to the kitchen, but she hung back. She was still deliberating over the killer’s mode of entry. If they had been invited in, they’d have walked this exact route just hours earlier, and if there was the slightest possibility that both she and Forensics had missed something, she wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

When they finally reached the kitchen door, Rose again considered the possibility of a break-in. Even though the property’s exterior and garden had been thoroughly checked, the killer might’ve been clever. They might have penetrated the property in such a way that it would be virtually impossible to detect. She recalled a case she’d worked on a few years earlier, where a similar incident had baffled detectives. It had turned out that the owner had left an old outdoor drain cover, which had led to a downstairs cellar, unlocked. The killer had managed to squeeze through it undetected and later cover his tracks. It was a shrewd, if uncommon, tactic.

She shook the thought off. This hadn’t been a break-in. Everything about it pointed to the contrary. Plus, the fact that Mrs. Sampson had been attacked from behind appeared to further corroborate that theory. If the killer had been known to the victim, it would’ve made it harder for him or her to initiate a head-on attack.

Rose let out a deep sigh. Now she was taking things too far. A lot of killers attacked their victims from behind, simply because it was the best way to catch them unawares. Besides, anyone with a conscience would surely have been incapable of committing such an act in the first place. She was giving the killer more credit than they deserved…but what about the light bulb?

Not for the first time the anomaly taunted her. Was she simply reading too much into it? Coincidence or not, perhaps the light bulb had simply become loose and fallen. The victim was elderly. She might not have been able to replace it.

The theory temporarily placated her, and her mind flashed back to the image of Mrs. Sampson lying motionless on the kitchen floor, her thin white hair infused with blood. It had been a shocking sight; unnatural on so many levels. She pitied the poor neighbor who’d stumbled upon it. That image would probably haunt her for the rest of her life. Rose promised herself she’d check with the neighbor at the earliest opportunity. Even though the woman had already been interviewed, things were often missed in the confusion of the moment. In calmer circumstances, she might recall a seemingly minor yet vital detail. It would certainly be worth a try.

Rose turned the corner and stepped into the kitchen, almost snagging her jacket on a nail protruding from the wall. At some point it had probably been used to hang a calendar or some other practical item. She wondered if fragments of the killer’s DNA might’ve inadvertently adhered to it. Like every other facet of her theory so far, it was a long shot. But, more often than not, it was the long shots that broke a case. She made a mental note to check with Forensics that the nail had been dusted and subsequently tested for DNA.

When she was barely a foot from the door Rose paused. Sometimes the only way to tell if something was off kilter was to examine a scene in its entirety. So she stood perfectly still, her eyes following every line of the modest space. Stipes remained behind her. Being familiar with the subtle nuances of her routine, he knew better than to disturb her at such a crucial juncture.

When she’d completed her initial inspection, she took one step forward. Nothing struck her as obviously out of place; but then nothing struck her as particularly in place either. The room was a mish-mash of miscellaneous cooking implements and utensils, none of which appeared to be stored in order. Mrs. Sampson had clearly held no interest in things culinary. Either that or she’d possessed an unusual method of composition. Even the small white labels that had been left by Forensics blended into the chaos.

Rose switched her thoughts from the victim to the killer. It was most likely they’d followed Mrs. Sampson into the kitchen and struck when she was at her most vulnerable. A dark kitchen with granite surfaces would provide a perfect backdrop.

She re-thought the implications of what she’d just surmised. Perhaps the killer had removed the light bulb after all, even if it wasn’t necessary. Perhaps it was the first time they’d done anything like this, and it just made it easier for them to carry out what they’d planned. After all, it wouldn’t have been difficult. They could simply have pretended to be using the facilities and made a quick detour. She smiled to herself. It made some semblance of sense, even if it was just conjecture.

Stipes patted her shoulder and she moved slowly forward. For a house so large, the kitchen was relatively small. A long oak table took pride of place at its center, and a large, old fashioned larder occupied the far wall. This was flanked on either side by a succession of mahogany cabinets with granite worktops. Her eyes drifted to the surface where the victim had hit her head. A layer of stale blood still clung to its surface, like marmalade to toast. She turned away. The pastry she’d eaten earlier was already making her stomach churn, and she had no intention of revisiting it.

Stipes closed a nearby cupboard and Rose lowered her gaze to the tiled floor. A white chalk figure now occupied the space where the victim had lain. It sent a shiver along her spine. Nevertheless, her attention remained fixed on it for a long time. It was the reason she was here. If only it could tell her what had happened.

Again, the ambiguity surrounding the victim’s demise niggled at her. Once cause of death had been established, she was certain other irregularities would fall into place. She glanced at the clock on the wall above her. If it was right, it was only eight forty-five. It could be a good few hours before they received any news from the pathologist. She had a sudden urge to call him, then decided against it. If he was busy, the interruption wouldn’t be welcome. Besides, by the time they’d finished checking the house, examined the out-building and followed up with the neighbor, they could probably drop by the lab. A congenial visit had to be better than an impromptu call.

She reached the room’s center and raised her head to examine the small glass light shade. It possessed a standard fitting, the type that required a screw cap bulb. It would’ve taken little effort to remove the bulb and dispose of it. She scanned the kitchen for a bin, finally discovering one wedged between two small units. Placing her foot on the pedal, she popped the lid. It was empty, and there was no bag inside. As ever, SOCOs had been thorough. They’d have to call them to see if a light bulb had been discovered amongst its contents.

Stipes stepped up beside her. Until now he’d remained silent, allowing them both to gain an objective interpretation of the scene. Now it was time to share those thoughts. “What’re you thinking, Guv?”

Rose arched her neck, raising her head to the smooth cream ceiling. “I’m thinking the killer was someone Mrs. Sampson knew. Or at least knew of. She lets them in and probably leads them through to the lounge.” She walked forward, leading the way to a large room situated almost directly opposite the kitchen. It was tastefully decorated in rich reds and browns and had a cozy ambience that radiated comfort and warmth. “They talk, perhaps regarding the reason for the visit, and the killer excuses themselves for a few minutes, probably on the pretense of using the bathroom. But instead they head to the kitchen and remove the light bulb; either that or the light bulb simply slipped from its casing and has no relevance whatsoever. Maybe we’ll never be able to answer that conclusively. Anyway, when the victim later offers to make a cup of tea, they seize the opportunity to follow her out and....” The end of the sentence eluded her. They still weren’t certain what had happened next.

There was a moment of silence which Stipes soon broke. “So we’re definitely ruling out an intruder?”

“We can’t totally rule it out. At least not until we have all the evidence. But the signs do point to the killer having been someone the victim knew.” Rose leaned back on her heels, silently surveying the room. “There appears to have been little resistance. I know the victim was elderly, but you’d still expect to see at least some sign of a struggle. Plus, the burglar alarm wasn’t disabled. Then there’s the light bulb. If the killer had already planned to kill her in the kitchen, it’s likely they knew the house’s layout.”

Stipes shook his head, which immediately set alarm bells ringing.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure. Something just doesn’t feel right. This whole light bulb thing….”

Rose was glad she wasn’t the only one who had an obsession with the anomaly.

“What if the killer had a way of disabling the alarm? In this day and age, it wouldn’t be difficult to access the technology. And we already know he or she was clever enough to tamper with the security cameras.” Stipes stared through the large bay window into the quiet street beyond. “If the killer had been invited in, why kill her in the kitchen? Why not kill her in the hallway? Or the lounge? Surely the most likely scenario is that the killer was already in the house. They could’ve removed the bulb and lain in wait. There’d be little disruption because they’d have utilized the element of surprise. The victim wouldn’t have known what hit her.”

Rose nodded. It was a valid explanation, particularly as Mrs. Sampson had been seen leaving the house earlier that evening, and there was no footage of her returning. They could check the alarm’s usage with the security company, but evidence of tampering was often difficult to prove. She looked around the room for inspiration but found none. “I guess it’s possible. It would’ve achieved the same end result. Perhaps we should focus on looking for motive for the time being.”

A search of the downstairs proved fruitless. Other than the usual extraneous artefacts amassed throughout the victim’s lifetime, there was nothing that might help them resolve what had taken place. A search of the upstairs proved similarly unrewarding, until Stipes discovered a small wooden box in the bottom of Mrs. Sampson’s wardrobe.

On initial glance, it appeared to possess a compilation of files. Stipes ran his eyes along the first of the neatly typed papers. It looked like some kind of medical itinerary. But other than name, date of birth, and a list of unticked medical conditions, it contained very little. He scanned furtively through the others, ten in total. Each subject was female and appeared to have been pregnant at the time the file was created.

He lifted the box onto the bed and Rose stepped up alongside him. There were no contact details or dates on the files. They’d probably been created years ago, when Mrs. Sampson had been at the height of her career.

“What do you think, Guv? Ex patients?” He looked relieved to have found something.

Rose leaned forward and picked up one of the files. “More than likely. As an obstetrician, Mrs. Sampson probably cared for scores of pregnant women. The question is, what made these unique?”

Stipes shrugged. “Perhaps they were special to her.”

“But how?”

Rose scanned the documents again. At face value they contained nothing remarkable. It looked like Mrs. Sampson had created them herself, perhaps as a reminder of particular cases or achievements. She placed them back in the box. With any luck, further research would reveal something their initial analysis couldn’t.

When they were finally finished with the property, Rose led the way to the small out- building to the side of the driveway. They couldn’t find a key to open the padlock, but finally it yielded to Stipes’s sheer brute force. At the end of the day, most things did.

Once the padlock was removed, they stepped back to examine the building’s contents. It was pretty much as Rose had anticipated. The walls were lined with garden tools and other practical implements, and there was a long oak table containing a selection of hacksaws. At some point, they’d probably been used in the preparation of logs for the wood burner she’d noticed earlier.

She stepped inside. The building was full of insects and cobwebs and had the musty smell of a space rarely used. Mrs. Sampson had probably taken to buying her logs prepared these days. Rose added another item to her “to do” list. If the logs had been delivered, they needed details of the delivery company she’d used. After all, they’d have had regular access to the property and its owner.

She took another step forward. A small box on the floor in the building’s far corner caught her eye. At first glance it looked remarkably similar to the one Stipes had found in the bedroom, and she wondered if it might contain more files. She moved towards it, crouching down to remove the lid. Her fingers were trembling, and she took a deep breath to help steady them.

When she’d finally removed the lid and placed it on the floor, she leaned forward and peered inside. The box contained numerous cassettes identical to the ones Stipes had removed from the cameras. She glanced up at her partner. If they were what they appeared to be, they could contain valuable footage of comings and goings to the Sampson house in recent months. They might even possess footage of the killer. She pulled herself up and continued her search, resolving to take the box with her when they left.

Despite their successes in the house and out-building, a third accomplishment wasn’t to be. A knock on the door of number eight revealed that the neighbor, a middle-aged widower named Ms. Andrea Mills, wasn’t home. Rose stepped from the doorway, pausing to glance through the large front window. It was partially obscured by thick net curtains, and she could barely see more than three feet inside. Still, there were no signs of movement. Perhaps the stress of the morning’s events had proven too much for Mills and she’d chosen to take temporary respite with a friend or relative. Rose just hoped she’d followed instructions and notified the station.

With their time in Amber Court momentarily at an end, Rose suggested a visit to the pathology lab. There was a chance the pathologist might have something by now, even if it wasn’t conclusive. Stipes tossed the box of tapes onto the car’s rear seat, and they both climbed in out of the hostile weather.


CHAPTER FIVE


It was ten minutes to eleven when they reached their destination. The pathology lab was a surprisingly modern-looking building, with a façade consisting almost entirely of glass. Rose supposed it was appropriate for a team that operated at the forefront of science, even if it did briefly house dead bodies. She found a space in the parking lot and they stepped out into the blustery air.

When they arrived at the building’s entrance they were greeted by a tall, middle-aged receptionist, who, after phoning the pathologist, led them down a narrow corridor to a spacious autopsy suite. Rose peered through the wide glass door. The pathologist appeared to be cleaning up. She noted the polished surfaces and immaculate stainless-steel bowls. They brought to her mind images of severed body parts and displaced organs. She shook them off before she started feeling queasy again. The receptionist left, and she knocked on the door.

Dr. Malcolm Weller was a short, stocky man with a full head of chestnut brown hair and unusually long arms. Rose had often wondered if they aided in the undertaking of his professional duties. Though on reflection, she couldn’t imagine how. Weller stepped towards them, wiping his hands in a huge paper towel.

“Good morning, detectives.”

Rose walked forward. On the outside she was smiling, but on the inside her stomach was churning like butter. “Good morning, Dr. Weller. I’m sure you know why we’re here.”

“Indeed. Mrs. Elise Sampson. I’ve literally just finished her post mortem…an unusual case.”

He tossed the paper towel into a large stainless-steel bin and Rose felt her spine tingle. “Unusual in what way?”

“Well, when I first opened her up, there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. I removed the organs and, after examining the heart, I almost recorded cause of death as a simple case of heart failure due to cardiac arrest. Not an unusual symptom for an elderly lady who was under attack. That was before I noticed the tiny puncture wound at the back of her neck. It was so minute, I almost missed it.”

Rose shot a glance at her partner. Just when they seemed to be making progress, something had arisen to throw a spanner in the works. “So she was injected with something?”

The doctor nodded, causing a thick flap of hair to fall onto his forehead. He pushed it away. “It appears so. Though, at the moment, I have no idea with what. There was no residue left on the surrounding skin, and there appear to have been no visible side effects.”

Rose felt a surge of optimism. “So the puncture wound could be unrelated?”

“It’s unlikely. It’s fresh, and its location would’ve made it very difficult for the victim to have made it herself.”

Rose ran a finger along the arch of her brow, a habit she’d adopted to help her think straight. “What if she had someone who came in and injected her? Say, with something she was prescribed.” She hadn’t seen a copy of the victim’s medical report yet.

“Again, it’s unlikely. I can’t think of anything that would need to be injected in that area. Plus, most prescribed drugs would leave some trace, even something as innocuous as smell. And I managed to access her medical records. She was remarkably healthy for a woman of her age.”

“And it’s definitely a needle mark, as opposed to something she might’ve done by accident?”

“It’s definitely a needle mark.”

There was a moment of silence while they all considered the implications of the doctor’s find. It was Stipes who broke it.

“So what happens now?”


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