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A Dark and Twisted Tide
By Sharon Bolton
Minotaur Books Copyright © 2014 Sharon Bolton
All rights reserved.
The pumping station sits near the embankment wall of the River Thames in London, close to the border of Rotherhithe and Deptford, like a woman at a dance who has long since given up hoping for a partner. The small, square building has mostly been forgotten by the people who walk, cycle or drive past it each day, if indeed they ever noticed it in the first place. It has always been there, like the roads, the high river wall, the riverside path. Not a striking building, in any sense, and nothing ever happens in connection with it. No deliveries come to the wide wooden doors on one side and certainly nothing comes out. The windows are all sealed with wooden planks and heavy steel nails. Occasionally, someone lingering on the riverside path might notice that the brickwork is a perfect example of Flemish diagonal bond and that the pattern surrounding the flat roof is beautiful, in an understated way.
Few do. The roof is above normal sight lines and the nearest road isn't on a bus route. River traffic, of course, is far below. So no one ever appreciates that the pale grey of the building is relieved by bricks of white in a repeating criss-cross pattern, and by uniform pieces of stone set on the diagonal. The Victorians decorated everything, and they didn't neglect this insignificant building, even if few of them would have mentioned its original purpose in polite company. The pumping station was built to pump human sewage from the lower-lying lands of Rotherhithe and discharge it into the Thames. It once played an important role in keeping the surrounding streets fresh, but bigger, more efficient stations were brought into play, and there came a day when it was no longer needed.
If passers-by were curious enough to find a way inside, they'd see that, Tardis-like, the interior is so much bigger than its external framework suggests, because at least half of the pumping station is underground. Two storeys up, the boarded-up windows and the large double door are all high in the walls. To reach them, it is necessary to climb an iron staircase and step along an ornate gallery that runs round the entire circumference of the chamber.
All the engineering equipment has long since been taken away, but the decoration remains. Stone columns rise to the roof, their once-crimson paint faded to a dull red. Tudor roses still entwine at the tops of the pillars, even though they no longer gleam snow-white. Mould creeps up the sides of the smooth brickwork, but can't hide the fine quality of the bricks. Anyone privileged to see inside the pumping station would consider it a minor architectural gem, somewhere to be preserved and celebrated.
It can't happen. For years now, it has been in private hands, and those hands have no interest in development or change. Those hands are unconcerned that a piece of riverside real estate this close to the city is probably worth millions. All those hands care about is that the old pumping station serves a purpose particular to them.
It also happens to be the ideal place to shroud a dead body.
* * *
In the centre of the space are three iron plinths, each roughly the size of a modest dining table. The dead woman lies on the one closest to the outlet pipe and the killer is panting with the exertion of getting her there. Water streams off them both. The dead woman's hair is black and very long. It clings to her face like the weed on an upturned boat hull at low tide.
Above, the moon is little more than a curled blond eyelash in the sky, but there are streetlamps along the embankment and some light reaches inside. Together with the glow from several oil lanterns set in the arched recesses of the walls, it is enough.
When the hair is gently lifted, the pale, perfect face beneath is revealed. The killer sighs. It is always so much easier when their faces haven't been damaged. The wound around the neck is ugly, but the face is untouched. The eyes are closed and that is good, too. Eyes so quickly lose their lustre.
Here it comes again, that heavy sadness. Regret – there is no other word for it really. They are so lovely, the girls, with their flowing hair and long limbs. Why lure them away with promises of rescue and safety? Why live for the moment when the hope in their eyes turns to terror?
Enough. The body has to be undressed, washed and shrouded. It can be left here for the rest of the night and taken out to the river tomorrow. Close to hand are the hemmed sheets, the nylon twine and the weights.
The woman's clothes are soon removed; the cotton tunic and trousers are cut away easily, the cheap underwear is the work of seconds.
Oh, but she's so beautiful. Slender. Long, slim legs; small, high breasts. Pale, perfect skin. The killer's strong fingers run the length of the firm, plump thigh, trace the outline of the small round kneecap and go on down the perfectly formed shin, over the spreading curve of the calf. Perfect feet. The high, graceful arch of the instep, the tiny pink toes, the perfect oval of the toenails. In death, she is the absolute picture of unattainable femininity.
A rasping sound. Then a cold, strong hand clutching the killer's arm.
* * *
The woman is moving. Not dead. Her eyes are open. Not dead. She's coughing, wheezing, her hands scrabbling around on the iron block, trying to get up. How did this happen? The killer almost faints in shock. Eyes that have turned black with horror are staring. More river water comes coughing out of those pale, bitten lips.
Lips that should not have anything more to say.
The killer reaches out, but isn't quick enough. The woman has scrambled back and fallen off the plinth. 'Ay, ay,' she cries, the sound of a terrified animal. The killer, too, is terrified. Is it all over, then?
The woman is on her feet. Bewildered, disorientated, but not so much that she has forgotten what happened to her. She starts backing away, staring round, looking for a way out. When her eyes meet those of her killer they open wider in dismay. Words come out of her mouth, which may or may not be the words the killer hears.
'What are you?'
And it's enough to bring back the rage. Not 'Who are you?' Not 'Why are you doing this?' Both of which would be perfectly reasonable questions in the circumstances. But 'What are you?'
The woman is running now, looking for a window – which she won't find on this floor – or a door, which won't help her.
She's spotted the upper floor, is heading for the staircase. There is no way out up there – the windows are all boarded, the heavy door can't be opened – but there are skylights that she might be able to break, attracting the attention of people outside.
The killer surges forward, crashing painfully into the iron frame of the steps, catching hold of the woman's ankle, biting hard on the fleshy part of the calf. A howl of pain. Another hard pull. A squawk, then she comes tumbling down.
The killer has her now, but the woman is naked and slippery with water and sweat. She isn't easy to hold and she's fighting like an eel. The biting and scratching and the continual wriggling are exhausting. The killer's grip loosens. The woman is up. Reach out, grab. She's fallen, slapped down hard on the stone floor, hit her head. Dazed, she's easier to manage. Heave. The sound of flesh scraping along stone. Arms flailing, claw-like hands trying to grab hold of something – anything – but they've reached the smooth, metal pipe that in the old days took the water out of here. Lift her in. Climb after her. Push her along. The pipe is short, not much more than a metre in length.
There is water below, feet away, and gravity is helping now. Lean, pull and – yes – they both hit the surface.
And the world becomes calm again. Silent. Soft and easy.
Easy now. Let go. Let her sink. Let her panic. Wait for her to rise up, to take her last desperate breath, then make your move. Up and out of the water in one massive surge, and down again with your hands around her throat. Then down, down into the depths. Down until she stops struggling.
Two of them clasped together. A tight embrace. A good way to die.CHAPTER 2
A single drop of rain falling on the village of Kemble in the Cotswolds is destined to become part of the longest river in England and one of the most famous in the world. On its 216-mile journey to the North Sea, that one drop will hook up with the hundreds of millions of others that wash daily past London Bridge.
Sometimes, as she swam amongst them, Lacey Flint thought about those millions of drops and her entire body shivered with excitement. Other times, the notion of the unstoppable force of water all around made her want to scream in terror. She never did, though. Catch a mouthful of the Thames this close to the estuary and there was every chance it could kill you.
So she kept her head up and her mouth largely shut. When she opened it to snatch in air, because muscles swimming at speed through cold water need oxygen, she relied upon a prior rinsing with Dettol to kill the bugs on contact. For nearly two months now, since she'd bought the vintage sailing yacht that was her new home, she'd been wild-swimming in the Thames as often as tide and conditions allowed, and she was healthier than she'd ever been.
At 05.22 hours on a June morning, as close to the solstice as made little difference, the river was already busy and, even staying close to the south bank, she had to take care. River traffic didn't always stick to the middle of the channel and no boat pilot was ever looking out for swimmers.
The tide was as high as it was going to get. There was a moment at high tide, especially in summer, when the river seemed to pause and become still. For just a few minutes – ten, maybe fifteen – the Thames became as easy to glide through as a pool and Lacey could forget that she was human, dependent on a wetsuit and fins and antiseptic rinse to survive in this strange, aquatic environment and become, instead, part of the river.
A sleek arrowhead of a gull skimmed the water ahead, before disappearing below the surface. Lacey pictured it beneath her, beak open wide, scooping up whatever fish it had spotted from above.
She carried on, towards the jagged black pilings of one of the derelict offshore landing stages that ran along this stretch of the south bank. Built when London was one of the busiest commercial ports in the world to allow larger vessels to moor up and offload their cargo, they had fallen into disrepair decades ago.
Not for the first time, Lacey found herself missing Ray. She missed seeing his skinny arms ahead of her, missed the shower of bright water when he occasionally kicked too high, but he'd picked up a summer cold a few days earlier and his wife, Eileen, had put her foot down. He was staying out of the river until he was well again.
Less than thirty metres to the landing stage. Her senses on full alert, as they always were in the river, something caught her eye. There was movement in the water, over by the bank. Not flotsam – it had been holding its position. There were otters on the Thames, but she'd not heard of any this far down. Other people swam in the river, according to Ray, but higher up where the water was cleaner and the flow more gentle. As far as he knew, he and now Lacey were the only wild-swimmers this close to the estuary.
Slightly unnerved, Lacey struck out faster, suddenly wanting to get past the landing stages, turn into Deptford Creek and be on the home stretch.
Almost there. Ray usually swam through the pilings, a little ritual of his own, but Lacey never got too close. There was something about the blackened, mollusc-encrusted wood that she didn't like.
Another swimmer, after all, directly ahead. Lacey felt the moment of elation that comes from shared pleasure. Especially the guilty sort. She got ready to smile as the woman came closer, maybe tread water for a few seconds and chat.
Except – that wasn't swimming. That was more like bobbing. The arm that, a second ago, had seemed to be waving now moved randomly. And the arm wasn't just thin – it was skeletal. For a second the woman was upright. Then she lay flat before disappearing altogether. Another second later she was back. Maybe not even a woman; the long hair Lacey had seen in the dazzling, reflected light now looked like weed. And the clothes, trailing like a veil around the corpse, had added to the feminine effect. The closer she got, the more sexless the thing appeared.
Lacey drew closer, telling herself there was nothing to be afraid of. She'd yet to see a body pulled from the river. Despite her two months with the Marine Unit, despite the Thames's record of presenting its caretakers with at least a body a week in payment of dues, she'd either been off-duty or otherwise occupied when bodies had been retrieved.
She knew, though, from a briefing talk in her first week, that the Thames wasn't like still water, where a body usually sank and then floated to the surface after several days. The currents and tides of the river swept a corpse along until it got caught on an obstruction and was revealed at low tide. There were sites along the Thames that were notorious body traps, that the Marine Unit always searched first when someone went missing. Bodies that went into the river were usually found quite quickly and their condition was predictable.
After two or three days, the hands and face would swell as internal gases began to accumulate. After five or six days, the skin would begin the process of separation from the body. Fingernails and hair would disappear after a week to ten days. Then there was the impact of marine life. Fish, shellfish, insects, even birds that could reach the corpse would all leave their mark. The eyes and the lips would usually be the first to go, giving the face a startling, monstrous appearance. Whole chunks of the body could be ripped away by boat propellers or hard obstacles in the water. Floaters were never good news.
Very close now. The figure in the water seemed to bounce in anticipation. I'm here. Been waiting for you. Come and get me.
Not a recent drowning, that much was clear. There was very little flesh left on the face: a few soggy pink clumps of muscle stretching along the right cheekbone, a little more around the chin and neck. Lots of bite marks. And the river's flora, too, had staked its claim. The few remaining patches of flesh were attracting a greenish growth where some sort of river moss, or weed, had taken root.
Small facial bones, hair still attached to the head, weed that seemed to be growing from the left eye socket. And clothes, although these were usually lost in the river. Except not clothes exactly, but something that seemed to have been wrapped round the body and was now coming loose, trailing towards her, like the long hair. The corpse seemed to be reaching out towards Lacey. Even the arms were outstretched, fingers clutching.
Telling herself to get a grip, that she had a job to do, that a dead body couldn't hurt her, Lacey began treading water. She had to check that the corpse was secure, and if not make it so, then get out of the water and call it in. In a pocket of her wetsuit she always carried a slim torch. She found it, swallowed down the rising panic, told herself that sometimes you just had to bloody well get on with it, and went under.
Nothing. Utter blackness that even the torch's beam couldn't penetrate. Then a swirling mass of greens and browns, light and shadow. Complete confusion.
And the sounds of the water were so much more intense down here. Up above, the river splashed, gurgled and swished, but beneath, the sounds suggested pouring, draining, sloshing. Beneath the surface, the river sounded alive.
Weird, alien shapes appeared to loom towards her. The black, shell-encrusted wood of the pillar. Something brushing her face. Mouth clamped tight – she was not going to scream. Where was the body? There. Arms flailing, clothes stretching out. Lacey ran the torch up and down the suspended figure. The river surged and the corpse was completely submerged. Now its eyeless sockets seemed to be staring directly at her. Christ almighty, as if her nightmares weren't bad enough already.
Don't think, just do it. Point the torch. Find out what's holding it still.
There! One of the strips of fabric was wrapped tight around the pile, anchoring the body in place. It looked secure.
Lacey broke the surface with air still in her lungs and looked past the corpse to the bank. No beach – the tide was too high – but she had to get out of the water. The landing stage above her was largely intact, but too high to reach. Her only chance would be to clamber up on to one of the crossbeams until help arrived. A few yards away there was one that looked solid enough.
She struck out towards it, checking back every couple of seconds to make sure the corpse hadn't moved. It held its position in the water, but seemed to have twisted round to watch her swim away.
The cross-beam would hold for a while. Out of the water, Lacey shrugged off the harness she wore round her shoulders. In a waterproof pouch that lay in the small of her back was her mobile phone; Ray insisted she carry it with her.
He answered quickly. 'You all right, love?'
Lacey's eyes hadn't left the trail of fabric streaming out from the pier. As the waves rose and fell, she caught glimpses of the woman's round, moon-like skull.
'Lacey, what's up?'
No one was close, but she still felt the need to speak quietly. 'I found a body, Ray. By the old King's Wharf. Fastened round the landing stage.'
'You out of the water? You safe?'
'Yeah, I'm out. And the tide's turned. I'm fine.'
'Looks that way.'
He was gone. Ray had worked for the Marine Unit years ago and knew the significance of a body in the water. Like Lacey, he and his wife lived on a boat moored in Deptford Creek, a nearby tributary. Ten minutes was an under-estimate; he couldn't possibly reach her in fewer than twenty. In the meantime, she had to stay warm.
Excerpted from A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton. Copyright © 2014 Sharon Bolton. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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