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I was putting the finishing touches to my weekly column in the Daily Independent"Matt Wells on Crime" when I heard the key turn in the lock.
"Hi," I called. "It's a filthy night, Detective Chief Inspector."
Karen Oaten hung up her coat and sat on a chair to pull off her knee-high black boots.
"Oh, no," I said, as I went to greet her. "I was looking forward to you dominating me in those."
She raised her blond head and gave me an intimidating look. "Don't push your luck, Matt. I have not had a good day."
I leaned over and kissed her, feeling cold cheeks and only slightly warmer lips. "What's up? You been pounding the streets?"
She got up and pushed me away gently. "No, I couldn't find a bloody parking space anywhere near these poxy rich people's flats."
"Oh, shit." I'd moved into the Chelsea Harbour block about a year back, after my book The Death List had been a global success. Although I was a novelist at heart, the book was nonfiction and detailed my battle with the vicious killer who called himself the White Devil and had put all my other efforts in the shade. The fact that Karen featured in it, but didn't get a penny of royalties, needled her when she was feeling down. Not that her career prospects had exactly been damaged.
She went over to the drinks table, her long legs striking even without footwear.
I caught up with her. "What would you like, darling?"
She looked at me curiously. After years of living on her own, she was still surprised when I did things for her when she came to my place three or four times a week. She hadn't given up her own house. We'd been together a couple of years, but she still needed her independence.
"Oh, I don't know." Her stern features relaxed. "A gin and tonic would be great." She went to the nearest of the four black leather sofas I'd bought to fill the enormous living area. "What have you been up to today, Matt?"
"My column," I replied, handing her a glass and sitting down beside her. I picked up the stereo remote and got Peter Bruntnell's latest CD playing.
She took a long sip of her drink. "I thought you were meant to be starting the novel."
I gave a wry smile. "I did. Pages of deathless prose, done and dusted."
She jammed her elbow into my ribs. "Smart-ass. What's it about?"
I put my arm around her and took a slug of malt whisky. "The usual stuffkillers, stunningly beautiful cops, violent death "
She didn't push me off. If she'd wanted, she could have floored me in under a second. She'd been a seriously good athlete as a student and she'd recently got her judo black belt. Then again, so had I.
"Oh, nothing much," she said with a yawn. "The usual run-of-the-mill Violent Crimes Coordination Team fare. A drugs gang killing in East London, an unidentified torso in the river and the assistant commissioner all over me for the quarterly report."
"Lucky him," I said, and got another, harder nudge for my pains. "Can I have the inside story on the gangland killing for next week's column?" Since we'd met during the White Devil case and subsequently started dating, Karen had used me as an unofficial conduit between the Metropolitan Police and the public. Several times I'd been given information that had elicited information from readers, leading to arrests.
"Depends," she said, emptying her glass.
"On how nice you are to me."
"How about a steak, a good claret, crème brûlée and a massage?"
I went to the kitchen at the far end of the living area. "You can talk to me while I slave over the stove."
Karen sat at the bar that separated the kitchen from the eating area. She shook her head. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
"That's what you always say. Come on, Karen. Your boss knows you talk to me about cases."
"About cases that he approves. He hasn't cleared the latest killing."
I laid the steaks on a board and started to pound them. "He will."
She shrugged. "Maybe. But how many of the Daily Independent's readers are going to send you e-mails identifying a gangland hit man?"
"Several members of the opposition gangs?" I suggested.
"Oh, yeah, like that will stand up in court."
I turned to the stove. "All right, it doesn't bother me. I've got plenty of other contacts in the Met."
Karen laughed. "Plenty of other contacts who want to take you down the cells and kick the shit out of you."
It was true that my diligence in publicizing Karen's cases had made me some enemies at New Scotland Yard. I laughed. "I seem to remember you wanted to arrest me once."
She screwed up her face at me. "No, I didn't. That was Taff."
"How is that Welsh sheep abuser?"
"I'll let him know you called him that."
Karen's sidekick, Detective Inspector John Turner, wasn't my biggest fan. Then again, he didn't like anyone except his wife and kidsand Karen.
I tossed a green salad and served the steaks. We both liked them rare.
"Let's not talk about work right now," Karen said.
"Okay," I said, pouring her a glass of seriously expensive wine. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Mmm, this is good. I don't know is everyone all right?"
"I thought we weren't discussing work." I sniffed the wine's bouquet and took a sip. "God, it's actually worth what I paid for it."
"Just checking," she said, eyes on her plate.
What she wanted to know was whether my family and friends were in one piece. The White Devil's partner, my former lover Sara Robbins, had escaped and threatened revenge in the most chilling fashion, although I hadn't heard anything from her for over two years. I was still scared shitless of Sara. She'd pretended to be a normal person when we were together, while she'd been busy graduating to stone killer level. That included pounding one victim's head open with a hammer, biting off another's nipples and gassing several others, including children, fortunately not fatally. She'd also put several bullets into my best friend. Who could blame me for setting up a daily reporting system with my ex-wife, my mother and those of my friends who'd been involved in the hunt for the White Devil?
"Everyone's okay," I reassured her.
"Including Caroline and Lucy?"
My ex-wife had custody of my eleven-year-old daughter. They'd moved to Wimbledon. I saw Lucy every weekend, but I still missed having her nearby.
"Including Lucy and her mother."
Karen stretched out a hand. "I know how difficult it is for you, Matt."
I squeezed her hand. "It isn't long till the Easter holidays."
"Have you decided what you're going to do in your week?"
"Lucy wants to go to Euro Disney. I'm trying to get Caroline to do that."
"Good luck." Karen and my ex-wife couldn't be left alone unsupervised. "What are you going to fob Lucy off with?"
"I thought we could walk in the Peak District."
Karen laughed. "Yeah, that ought to do it."
"At least it'll get her away from the big city," I said defensively. "My little angel has become worryingly streetwise."
Thinking of Lucy always made me anxious. The divorce hadn't been easy for her. I regretted that, but back then I couldn't handle Caroline's scorn for my lack of success as a writer any longer. I managed to cheer up by the end of the meal, mainly because I'd succeeded in not torching the dessert to a blackened crisp like the last time.
"Well, Chief Inspector," I said, as I put the last of the cutlery in the dishwasher. "I believe I owe you a massage."
Karen gave me a foxy look. "Neck or full body?"
"Whatever Madame desires," I said, in a ridiculous French accent.
"Madame desires the latter," she said, opening the buttons of her blouse.
"Très bien," I said, feeling my blood quicken as I wiped the table and then followed her to the master bedroom. There was a trail of discarded clothing on the parquet floor.
Karen was lying naked and facedown on my bed, her head turned to the side but her features obscured by the blond hair she had loosened from its chignon. I managed to get my clothes off before I reached the bed. I straddled her and put my hands on her shoulders. She giggled and squirmed when she felt me between her buttocks. I started to work my fingers across her impressively muscular upper body, all the time moving my lower torso up and down. Things were getting very interesting.
And then her cell phone rang.
"What are we doing here, guv?" DI John Turner was waiting for DCI Oaten on the steps of number 41 Ifield Road. There was a uniformed policeman below him and a crime scene investigator in a dark blue coverall on his way into the house.
"Ask the assistant commissioner, Taff," she said. This time she hadn't cared about finding a space. She'd double-parked her silver BMW 318i next to the CSIs' white van. "He seems to think this is up our alley." She stamped her booted feet in the cold and had a flash of Matt's face when she was taking them off. She smiled and then let out a groan. "Shit."
The inspector followed her gaze down to the high-heeled boots. "They'll look good with a pair of overshoes on." He grinned, but not for long. Oaten, known only behind her back as Wild Oats, had a notorious temper.
A middle-aged man in a white coverall appeared at the door. "Any sign of the very important VCCT?" He made no effort to keep the scorn from his voice. Most other detectives saw the elite Violent Crimes Coordination Team as a gang of interfering glory-snatchers.
"DCI Oaten and DI Turner of the same," Karen said icily, taking out her warrant card. "And you are?"
"DI Luke Neville, Homicide Division West," he replied, his cocky manner suddenly missing in action. He chewed his unusually large lower lip as Oaten and Turner got into protective gear. "Bit of a weird one, this."
Oaten glanced up at him. "Who called it in?"
"Next-door neighbor," Neville replied, angling his head to his right. "He was ranting about loud music coming from number 41. Said the lady was always quiet as a mouse. He'd hammered on the door, but got no reply."
"What kind of music?" Turner asked.
Neville was looking pleased with himself again. "Well, that's one of the weird things." He paused for effect, then started speaking rapidly when Oaten's eyes bored into his. "We found a CD with only one song repeated ten times on it."
Oaten went up the steps. "And the song was ?"
"An old Rolling Stones one, actually." Neville gave a weak smile. "'Sympathy for the Devil.' The volume was turned up full."
Oaten raised an eyebrow. Matt had got tickets when the band had played Twickenham a couple of years back. That song had been the standout number, Mick Jagger high above the stage in a red top hat and tail coat.
"I was always more of a Beatles man, myself," Turner muttered.
They followed DI Neville inside. The house was impeccably clean and tidy, shelves full of books on every wall. At the far end of the long sitting room, a familiar figure was standing over the short but bulky female corpse lying facedown on the floor. The dead woman wore a calf-length blue skirt, and pink slippers with pom-poms were lying at irregular angles to her feet, about a meter away.
"DCI Oaten, what a pleasure."
"Good evening, Dr. Redrose," Karen said, her tone formal. She didn't much like the potbellied, red-cheeked pathologist, even though he was good at his job. "What have you got here?" She bent over the remains of the obese woman. The thick legs were bare and marked by the purple cobwebs of varicose veins. There was a patch of blood on the gray carpet at the left side of her head.
"What I've got," said the medic, "is something less than pleasant." He looked up at his assistant, who was standing by. "All right, the police photographer's finished and we've taken our shots. Let's turn her over."
The woman was moved onto her back, the two men grunting with the effort. The victim's face was a mess of blood and ripped skin.
Taff Turner swallowed hard, trying to prevent his weak stomach from erupting.
"And also rather unusual," Redrose said, his normally languid tone replaced by one that suggested a fascination bordering on the unhealthy. "Severe lacerations and heavy blows to the face." He extended an arm. "And the left ear has been removed."
"Jesus," Turner said, averting his eyes from the sight.
Oaten looked at the carpet around the body and the nearest wall. There was no blood spatter. "I take it the injuries were inflicted after death."
Redrose nodded. "I've examined the skull. There's a serious depressed fracture, probably from a fall." He shook his head and then smiled. "But that wasn't what killed her."
Oaten was irritated by the pathologist's ability to take pleasure from his work, but she didn't show it. That would only have encouraged him. She looked back at the dead woman. It was impossible to tell if any other trauma had been inflicted. Apart from the face and head there was no blood, and her clothing didn't appear to have been disturbed.
"Let me help you, Chief Inspector," Redrose said. He turned the victim's head to the right and put his forefinger close to an area of the neck. "You see the ligature mark?"
Oaten nodded. The dull red line was narrow. "Any sign of what was used?"
"Not in the immediate vicinity, ma'am," a uniformed officer said.
The pathologist laughed. "Careful, laddie. The chief inspector's one of those female officers who prefers to be called 'guv.'"
Oaten gave Redrose a tight smile. "So she was strangled."
"Correct. The marks suggest by something pretty narrow, like a shoelace. I'll see if there are any fibers later."
"And the time of death, Doctor?" Oaten asked.
The pathologist looked affronted. "Surely you realize it's too early to say."
She raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Would you care to hazard a guess?"
"Oh, very well," Redrose said, with a brief smile. "Given the body temperature, I'd say no more than two hours ago."
Oaten looked at her watch. It was nearly ten.
DI Neville appeared at her side. "The neighbor called about the noise at 8:43 p.m. So that gives us a pretty tight window of eight to around eight-thirty. I've just been talking to the guy next door. He isn't sure, but he reckons that the music started about a quarter of an hour before he made the call."
"Did he see anyone leave the house?" Turner asked, his notebook and pen out.
Neville shook his head.
Karen Oaten stood up and took in the room. The back door was ajar and on the carpet near it were some small bloodstains. "What happened there?"
Neville stepped up. "The CSIs have already taken them away."
"The severed head and body of a black cat," the detective inspector said. "There's more blood on the paving