M. J. Arlidge
Pop Goes the Weasel
The second book in the Helen Grace series, 2014
The fog crept in from the sea, suffocating the city. It descended like an invading army, consuming landmarks, choking out the moonlight, rendering Southampton a strange and unnerving place.
Empress Road industrial estate was quiet as the grave. The body shops had shut for the day, the mechanics and supermarket workers had departed and the streetwalkers were now making their presence felt. Dressed in short skirts and bra tops, they pulled hard on their cigarettes, gleaning what little warmth they could to ward off the bone-chilling cold. Pacing up and down, they worked hard to sell their sex, but in the gloom they appeared more like skeletal wraiths than objects of desire.
The man drove slowly, his eyes raking the line of half-naked junkies. He sized them up – a sharp snap of recognition occasionally punching through – then dismissed them. They weren’t what he was looking for. Tonight he was looking for something special.
Hope jostled with fear and frustration. He had thought of nothing else for days. He was so close now, but what if it was all a lie? An urban myth? He slammed the steering wheel hard. She
Nothing. Nothing. Noth-
There she was. Standing alone, leaning against the graffiti-embossed wall. The man felt a sudden surge of excitement. There
He pulled his car off the road, parking up out of sight by a chain link fence. He had to be careful, mustn’t leave anything to chance. He scanned the streetscape for signs of life, but the fog had cut them off completely. It was as if they were the only two people left in the world.
He marched across the road towards her, then checked himself, slowing his pace. He mustn’t rush this – this was something to be savoured and enjoyed. The anticipation was sometimes more enjoyable than the act – experience had taught him that. He must linger over this one. In the days ahead, he would want to replay these memories as accurately as he could.
She was framed by a row of abandoned houses. Nobody wanted to live round here any more and these homes were now hollow and dirty. They were crack dens and flophouses, strewn with dirty needles and dirtier mattresses. As he crossed the street towards her, the girl looked up, peering through her thick fringe. Hauling herself off the wall, she said nothing, simply nodding towards the nearest shell of a house before stepping inside. There was no negotiation, no preamble. It was as if she was resigned to her fate. As if she
Hurrying to catch up with her, the man drank in her backside, her legs, her heels, his arousal growing all the time. As she disappeared into the darkness, he picked up the pace. He couldn’t wait any longer.
The floorboards creaked noisily as he stepped inside. The derelict house was just how he had pictured it in his fantasies. An overpowering smell of damp filled his nostrils – everything was rotten here. He hurried into the sitting room, now a repository for abandoned G-strings and condoms. No sign of her. So they were going to play ‘Chase me’, were they?
Into the kitchen. No sign. Turning, he stalked out and climbed the stairs to the second floor. With each step, his eyes darted this way and that, searching for his prey.
He marched into the front bedroom. A mildewed bed, a broken window, a dead pigeon. But no sign of the girl.
Fury now wrestled with his desire. Who was she to mess him around like this? She was a common whore. Dog shit on his shoe. He was going to make her suffer for treating him like this.
He pushed the bathroom door open – nothing – then turned and marched into the second bedroom. He would smash her stupid fa-
Suddenly his head snapped back. Pain raged through him – they were pulling his hair so tight, forcing him back, back, back. Now he couldn’t breathe – a rag was being forced over his mouth and nose. A sharp, biting odour flared up his nostrils and too late instinct kicked in. He struggled for his life, but already he was losing consciousness. Then everything went black.
They were watching her every move. Hanging on her every word.
‘The body is that of a white female, aged between twenty and twenty-five. She was found by a Community Support officer yesterday morning in the boot of an abandoned car on the Greenwood estate.’
Detective Inspector Helen Grace’s voice was clear and strong, despite the tension that knotted her stomach. She was briefing the Major Incident Team on the seventh floor of Southampton Central Police Station.
‘As you can see from the pictures, her teeth were caved in, probably with a hammer, and both her hands have been cut off. She is heavily tattooed, which might help with IDing, and you should concentrate your efforts on drugs and prostitution to begin with. This looks like a gang-related killing, rather than common-or-garden murder. DS Bridges is going to lead on this one and he’ll fill you in on particular persons of interest. Tony?’
‘Thank you, Ma’am. First things first, I want to check precedents…’
As DS Bridges got into his stride, Helen slipped away. Even after all this time, she couldn’t bear being the centre of everyone’s attention, gossip and intrigue. It was nearly a year since she’d brought Marianne’s terrible killing spree to an end, but the interest in Helen was as strong as ever. Bringing in a serial killer was impressive enough, shooting your own sister to do so was something else. In the immediate aftermath, friends, colleagues, journalists and strangers had rushed to offer sympathy and support. But it was all largely fake – what they wanted were
Helen had spent her entire adult life building a high wall around herself – even the name Helen Grace was a fiction – but thanks to Marianne that wall had been destroyed for ever. Initially Helen had been tempted to run – she’d been offered leave, a transfer, even a retirement package – but somehow she had caught hold of herself, returning to work at Southampton Central as soon as they would allow her to do so. She knew that wherever she went the eyes of the world would be on her. Better to face the examination on home turf, where for many years life had been good to her.
That was the theory, but it had proved far from easy. There were so many memories here – of Mark, of Charlie – and so many people who were willing to probe, speculate or even joke about her ordeal. Even now, months after she’d returned to work, there were times when she just had to get away.
Helen snapped to, oblivious to the desk sergeant she was walking straight past.
‘Goodnight, Harry. Hope the Saints remember how to win for you tonight.’
Her tone was bright, but the words sounded strange, as if the effort of being perky was too much for her. Hurrying outside, she picked up her Kawasaki and, opening the throttle, sped away down the West Quay Road. The sea fog that had rolled in earlier clung to the city and Helen vanished inside it.
Keeping her speed strong but steady, she glided past the traffic crawling its way to St Mary’s Stadium. Reaching the outskirts of town, she diverted onto the motorway. Force of habit made her check her mirrors, but there was no one following her. As the traffic eased, she raised her speed. Hitting 80 mph she paused for a second before pushing it to 90 mph. She never felt so at ease as when she was travelling at speed.
The towns flicked by. Winchester, then Farnborough, before eventually Aldershot loomed into view. Another quick check of the mirrors, then into the city centre. Parking her bike at the Parkway NCP, Helen sidestepped a group of drunken squaddies and hurried off, hugging the shadows as she went. Nobody knew her here, but even so she couldn’t take any chances.
She walked past the train station and before long she was in Cole Avenue, in the heart of Aldershot’s suburbia. She wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing, yet she’d felt compelled to return. Settling herself down amidst the undergrowth that flanked one side of the street, she took up her usual vantage point.
Time crawled by. Helen’s stomach growled and she realized that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Stupid really, she was getting thinner by the day. What was she trying to prove to herself? There were better ways of atoning than by starving yourself to death.
Suddenly there was movement. A shouted ‘bye’ and then the door of number 14 slammed shut. Helen crouched down. Her eyes remained glued to the young man who was now hurrying down the street, tapping numbers into his mobile phone. He walked within ten feet of Helen, never once detecting her presence, before disappearing round the corner. Helen counted to fifteen, then left her hiding place and set off in pursuit.
The man – a boyish 25-year-old – was handsome with thick dark hair and a full face. Casu ...