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INTRODUCING SENIOR DETECTIVE TESSA VANCE

When a young barker at a seaside amusement park is found dead with a steak knife plunged into his gut, Senior Detective Tessa Vance is called to investigate. Assigned to an unfamiliar Homicide division and having to win the trust of a new partner, Tessa soon discovers a grisly trail of bodies with nothing in common except for a ...
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Overview


INTRODUCING SENIOR DETECTIVE TESSA VANCE

When a young barker at a seaside amusement park is found dead with a steak knife plunged into his gut, Senior Detective Tessa Vance is called to investigate. Assigned to an unfamiliar Homicide division and having to win the trust of a new partner, Tessa soon discovers a grisly trail of bodies with nothing in common except for a series of gruesome clues left behind by a ruthlessly clever killer.

Tessa knows the deaths form a hideous pattern. But once she and her partner decipher its shocking secret, they find themselves in a race against time—fast approaching a deadline set by a cunning, murderous mind. . . .
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Homicide detective Tessa Vance's plans for a romantic birthday dinner with her boyfriend, Brett, are foiled when she's suddenly called away to investigate a murder at the local amusement park. Arriving at Funworld, she meets her less-than-amicable new partner, Steve Hayden, and makes the disturbing discovery of an unsigned birthday card left at the scene of the crime. Similarly executed murders follow at the furious pace of one a day, and Tessa must focus her reputed sharp investigative powers on capturing a presumed serial killer. A victim's date book provides Tessa with a crucial break in her case, one that she believes will lead from the dead to potential future victims. With new insight into the murderer's psyche, Tessa races to prevent the next seemingly imminent crime. Although entertaining, Rowe's (Lamb to the Slaughter) mystery suffers from its pedestrian plot twists and the tiresome internal dialogue of heroine Tessa Vance. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345427939
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/1/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 245
  • Product dimensions: 4.22 (w) x 6.85 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

In her native Australia, Jennifer Rowe is widely recognized as an acclaimed novelist and a former editor of The Australian Women's Weekly. Before creating the Tessa Vance series, she wrote four crime novels featuring TV researcher Verity "Birdie  Birdwood as well as several nonseries novels of suspense. Ms. Rowe has been called the "Agatha Christie of Australia --and with good reason; she shares Dame Agatha's passion for complex, puzzle-driven stories populated by vividly depicted heroes, suspects, and villains.

Under the name Emily Rodda, Jennifer Rowe has also written stories for children--five of which have won the (Australian) Children's Book of the Year Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Steve knew what it was. There had been men like Jacko with all the traveling circuses and carnivals that had ever trailed into Steve's home town.

Those men hadn't worn baseball caps. And they hadn't always run ghost trains. Sometimes they ran rifle-shooting or ball-throwing games, with a giant fluffy toy that no one ever won stuck up at the back as first prize. Sometimes they sold hot dogs, sometimes they sat at the doorway of the "half-man, half-woman" exhibit, sometimes they seemed just to walk around with their hands in their pockets. But every one of them could have been this man's clone.

Jacko kept turning to look over his shoulder, past the scene of crime tape to the silent ghost train, where a bizarre black and white figure sprawled half-in, half-out of a car, skull head lolling, a knife sticking out of its stomach, dead center between painted ribs and hip bones.

The surrounding buildings were dark, except for a small, brutal brick box tucked away to one side and screened by shrubs. The office annex. Behind its dully glowing windows, the ground staff who had been asked to stay huddled over weak tea and coffee from the cafe bar, and ate the absent office staff's undefended shortbreads.

But the ghost train blazed with light like a small, tacky island in the middle of a black bay. The dead man was its center-piece. But he was almost lost in the crowd. The forensic team was crawling all over the place.

The tall, elegant figure of their superior, Lance Fisk, stood surveying the scene. Beside Fisk stood Inspector Malcolm Thorne. Very upright. Making his presence felt.

"Looking for fingerprints and that, are they?" the old man mumbled."Mine'll be all over everything. They would be, wouldn't they? Like, it's my ride, isn't it?"

"Course," said Steve. "Relax." He knew what the man was thinking. They're going to lumber someone with this, he was thinking. That's how cops operate. And it could be me. Never mind I was out the front pulling in the punters the whole time. That won't worry them.

The old man glanced at him, wasn't reassured, and turned back to the ghost train. His monkey-paw fingers went on fingering his belt buckle. "That your boss there in the front?" he muttered. "You tell him what I said. Poor young bloke getting topped's got nothin' to do with anyone here. Some weirdo done it. That's who."

"How long have you been doing this, Mr. Jackson?" asked Steve, to recall his attention.

The old man took a couple of seconds to react, as though he didn't realize Steve was speaking to him. He wasn't used to being called "Mr. Jackson." He'd been called Jacko for so long, and so universally, that he'd almost forgotten there was a longer version of the name.

"Worked the rides all me life," he muttered finally.

"Here? At Funworld?"

"Oh. Here? Nah." He thought for a moment, mumbling his lips. "Been here, on the ghost train, forty years, prob'ly. Give or take."

"Ever had any trouble before?"

"Nah. Never any trouble. Except for drunks. The odd stoush. Girls gettin' groped. Kids playing silly buggers and falling out. That sort of stuff. Bloke had a heart attack once. After he got off. Never nothing like this, but."

Steve made a note. Forty years. Forty years spruiking horrors, loudspeakers screaming in your ear, dealing with the drunks, the yobbos, the weirdos, the creeps, the lovers, the families, the mobs of kids. Packing them, singly or in pairs, into the battered little cars, wasting no time--time was money, and bums on seats was the name of the game. Seeing them laughing, chattering, squealing in anticipation as the ghost train swallowed them up through swinging doors. Hearing their amplified shrieks as the cars ran the dark maze inside. Watching them burst back into the open air through the exit doors, exposed in whatever state of hysteria, tears, laughter, or shock to which the tricks inside had reduced them. Then hauling them, limp, shaking, blase or whatever, to their feet and out, and shoving more bodies into the empty cars while the seats were still warm.

Never any trouble. Till tonight, ten minutes before the park closed, when the exit doors flew open and a car sailed out carrying a man in a skeleton suit, stabbed through the stomach.

The old man fidgeted. But he wasn't going to ask when he could go. He wasn't going to ask what happened next. He was just waiting, not drawing attention to himself. He was one of those people who kept a naturally low profile where the cops were concerned. It was probably a lifelong habit, begun in the days when he was a skinny, sharp-eyed little boy dodging through the twilight world of the carnivals and fairs that had sustained him, and whoever cared for him. If it had been possible, Steve knew, he'd have melted away with the crowd who'd seen the dead man clatter out onto center stage, who'd screamed, stared, then scattered, long before the police arrived.

Steve became aware of a change of atmosphere, a stirring, among the throng of Fisk's gnomes even before he saw Thorne glance towards the fun park entrance.

Dr. Imogen Soames, pathologist, known to colleagues for reasons lost in her dim past as `Tootsie," was bearing down on the ghost train. Always a considerable presence--very tall, with a strangely sweet face, given her occupation, she was tonight looking even more impressive than usual in loose black trousers and a vividly striped tunic top that emphasized her height.

Fisk glanced at her warily. He'd had the field to himself up till now. But Tootsie wasn't the woman to wait patiently for his pleasure indefinitely. He drew himself up, preparing to defend his territory.

Steve caught the eye of a uniformed constable he'd found congenial on his arrival, and put Jacko into her care. He'd extracted about all he was going to get from the old man for now. And if Tootsie was about to charge Fisk's barricades, Steve was going to follow in her wake.

With or without Tessa Vance.

Tootsie was fronting Fisk now, hands on ample hips. The body of the skeleton-man, skull face turned upward to the glaring lights, lolled waiting for her.

As Steve ducked under the scene of crime tape and sauntered towards them, he noticed Thorne glance at his watch. The fearless leader wanted to leave. But he was waiting around for Vance. And Vance was taking her time.

You'd have thought she'd be fronting bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on her first call with the division. It looked like she'd decided to make an entrance instead. Well, that wouldn't impress anyone, least of all Thorne. Thorne's disapproval wasn't written all over his face--nothing was ever written all over Thorne's smooth, politician's face. But he'd remember this.

Steve hadn't yet met Tessa Vance. He'd been in court last week, when she started. He'd had today off. A day in lieu, they called it, though he thought they'd probably have to give him about a year off to make up for the actual hours of unpaid overtime he'd worked. But he'd started hearing bits and pieces about her as soon as she'd been named as his old partner's replacement.

From what he'd heard, Tessa Vance was a live wire, a handful, ambitious, unpredictable, a hotshot. He'd also heard she was neurotic, obsessive, aggressive, abrasive. And gorgeous-looking with it.

Steve liked women. He liked them a lot. He'd worked with women before, and enjoyed it. They'd been good mates, all of them--well, most of them. But Tessa Vance didn't sound to him as though she was going to fall into the "good mate" category.

She sounded more like a princess who was going to be a complete pain in the ass.

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First Chapter

Chapter One


    The man in the skeleton suit was sweating, skulking in the darkness. The darkness was thick with the smells of metal, people, paint, and dust, and the all-pervading tang of salt and dry seaweed that penetrated even here. The darkness was filled with sound. The dull rattling of the ghost train cars on the rails. Echoing wails and groans. The raucous screams and laughter of the customers.

    A car rounded a corner and rattled towards him. It slowed, stopped. Inside it, a chubby girl, giggling, jiggling in a tight, low-cut pink knit top, clutched at a thin youth. The youth was leering, leaning back, his arms spread wide across each side of the seat back. Big man.

    The skeleton-man waited. The darkness veiled him. Except for the glimmering white-painted bones, the hideous skull face gleaming.

    "It's so dark! Oh, why have we stopped? Ooh, what if it's broken down?" tittered the girl, squeezing closer, scrabbling at the youth's shirt front. "Ooh, look at the skeleton!"

    "It's just a dummy. What's wrong with ya?" the boy sniggered. He could feel one of her breasts pushing against his chest. Smell the perfume that rose from her warm, slightly damp skin in waves. He knew what she was after.

    Still, still the skeleton stood. Like a dummy. Like a painted image.

    The girl was closest to him. They always put the girls in the danger seat. He focused on the side of her plump, white neck, where the thin line of a gold chain clung. There. Just there.

    With a jerk the car began moving again. Slowly, slowly. It was level with him now. It was almost past ... Now!

    He caught a glimpse of his own glowing bony arm, the nightmare clawing hand, as he stretched forward and brushed the girl's soft, folded flesh.

    The girl screamed — a high-pitched shriek of pure terror. The thin youth swore violently. The car rattled on.

    Sucked in, the skeleton-man thought. Cretins.

    He drew back from the rails once more. Another car emerged from the darkness. Slowed. Stopped. It was empty. Stupidly gaping. But still it waited, for him to scare it. To lunge forward and touch, and wait for the scream.

    An empty car. Customers must be thinning out, he thought. It must be nearly closing time. He had no watch. He had no sense of time in here. He could have been standing in this spot for minutes, hours, centuries, smelling the heat, hearing the sounds.

    The empty car jerked and rattled past him. Because it was empty it rocked slightly on the rails. There was a wad of sickly-green bubble gum stuck to its torn seat. That was probably why no one had taken it. So maybe it wasn't near to closing time after all.

    He felt overwhelmingly, absurdly disappointed. Thinking the shift was nearly over had made him suddenly frantic to be gone. He was conscious of a headache starting — a dull, bored heaviness pressing down, and spreading. There was no air in here. The Lycra suit clung to him like a clammy second skin. He was sweating like a pig.

    He wished himself far away. Not just outside in the fun fair, all fake, all front, its screens of flimsy brightly painted wood masking the truth of it: grinding machinery, cynical men, and money tins. Not with the gabbling, hyperactive crowds, trailing home along the promenade after yet another failed night in search of something to make them feel they were really alive.

    He wanted to be somewhere clean and open, with a breeze.

    A beach, maybe. But not this sort of beach. Not a city beach, its flaccid waves and mean strip of sand hemmed in by a low concrete retaining wall, with flat, exhausted grass and roasting car parks beyond. Not a place with a bloody promenade lined with takeaways, cafes, supermarkets, and souvenir shops, litter bins and trees in little cages and crawling with kids and fat old guys in baggy swimsuits and snooty girls who acted like you were shit.

    But a real beach. A beach that made you feel you were at the edge of forever. With waves swelling, breaking, froth hissing as it ran up thick, yellow sand.

    If he had the money, he could get up the coast. Go on the dole. Drop out for a while.

    Plenty of people did it. He could do it. He didn't even need much money. It was Monday night now. He'd get his pay on Thursday. There'd be a bit extra on top, this week. He could leave the next morning. He could hitch up the coast. Or maybe he'd go south. Might be cooler, down south. He could stop somewhere — anywhere he liked. Sleep on the beach. Just use the money for food ... He could do that. There'd be others there ...

    Another car drew up in front of him. This time he' d hardly noticed it rounding the corner. Like the last car, it was empty. His heart lifted. He'd been right after all. Soon, then. Very soon ...

    His thoughts drifted back to his beach, his plans. He was just imagining the clean-skinned, long-haired girl, not too tall, who'd drop her towel next to his on the sand and tell him her name, when the cord slipped round his neck and jerked him backwards.

    He gurgled once, fought briefly. Then there was only the sound of harsh breathing in his ear, and the terror, and the futile struggle for air, and life, and the blackness closing in.


    As soon as the pager sounded, Tessa Vance knew. Knew what it meant. But still, as she crossed the room to turn it off, ring in, the glass of mineral water warming in her hand, Brett's eyes on her, she pleaded with fate.

    Don't let it be that. Not now. Not tonight. Let it be something else. A reminder. A meeting for tomorrow. Something I forgot to do today. Steve Hayden, back at work tomorrow, wanting to introduce himself beforehand. Anything. Anything ...

    Her stomach knotted as she punched in the numbers.

    But the voice at the other end of the line was the voice she had expected all along. In an odd sort of way, it was a relief. At least she didn't have to fear it any more.

    Tessa listened to the voice, staring at the windows though there was nothing to see. The long curtains were drawn to shut out the city and the night. The curtains were a pale gold color. She'd wanted something lighter. Brett had wanted something brighter. Finally they'd settled on the gold. The curtains were a year and a half old now. She'd hoped they might fade a bit, but they hadn't.

    The room smelled of roses, dinner cooked and waiting, the perfume Brett had given her. Glenn Miller was playing.

    The voice stopped giving information, asked a question.

    "Yes, I know it. I'll be there," she said quietly. "Soon as I can."

    She hung up, put down her glass, and turned to face Brett, bracing herself. He'd put his glass down too. He was drinking the champagne he'd brought home. He'd presented it with a flourish. It was French. French champagne, for her birthday. French champagne, long-stemmed red roses, and perfume. The stuff of romance. He'd opened the champagne before she could stop him. He'd been so hurt, when she'd said she couldn't drink it.

    He did it deliberately. He knows you can't drink when you're on call.

    He'd just forgotten.

    He hadn't.

    He stood by the table, already set for dinner, where the roses lay dewy in their cellophane, waiting for water. He had his hands in his pockets. She knew that was so she couldn't see the clenched fists. He, too, had been waiting for this moment.

    You could have had dinner last night. On Sunday night. You told him you were on call Monday. You said a day early wouldn't matter, but he said no, no, that's no fun. It has to be on your birthday ...

    She spread out her hands, tried to look casually, humorously resigned, as though she didn't know what this meant. "It's always the way," she heard herself say inanely.

    He said nothing. Just looked. His eyes were angry, the hazel darkened almost to brown. When he was happy, or planning something, his eyes shone green. Whatever they'd been like at work, they hadn't shone green at home much lately. Not for a long time.

    "I'm really sorry, Brett. I was so terrified this would happen."

    She knew it wouldn't help. Apologizing never helped. In her head, the flat, ironic voice that so often provided a commentary on her life seemed to laugh. This is such a cliche, it was saying. Such a cliche. You, him, this situation ...

    "How long will you be?" he asked, though he knew the answer.

    She shook her head, fighting down a wave of irritation. She reached for her phone, stuffed it in her handbag. Did she have time to change? She wasn't really dressed for the occasion. She was dressed for Brett. For the birthday dinner that was doomed the moment murder first entered the mind of someone yet unknown. "I don't know. Could be all night."

    It was what she always said. But always he asked the question. She made an effort to change the pattern. "It's at Funworld. You know? The old amusement place on the promenade at Barrow Beach?" she said. "A young guy's been knifed. One of the staff. There were no witnesses — "

    "I don't want to hear about it," he interrupted quickly. His face registered distaste. His hands bulged in his pockets as he clenched and unclenched his fists.

    Tessa looked round for the car keys. The dialogue in her mind went on.

    How did I get into this? How did it happen? It wasn't like this at first. He was proud of me, then. He liked it when people were interested in my job. Used to make jokes about me preferring corpses to him. All that.

    He just got sick of it. He didn't think it would go on, and on, and on. A failure of imagination.

    He's gone on with his job. He goes to conferences. He works long hours. Like tonight. He couldn't get home till nine-thirty. Dinner had to be late. I didn't mind. I never mind.

    Get it through your head, you dope. He thinks it's different for him. He'll always think it. That's the way it is.

    Tessa shook her head impatiently. She saw the car keys on the table where she'd left them, beside the roses.

    "Brett, this isn't my fault. I can't help it!" Against all her resolutions, she was defending herself. It was instinctive, these days.

    He shrugged. "You didn't have to ring in."

    "Of course I did. I'm on call. I told you that, when you first said ..."

    "You could have changed with someone."

    "I couldn't. God, I've only been in the place a few days. I couldn't start mucking them around. Brett, I told you ..."

    Same old thing. Same old pattern. Next he'll say ...

    "You'd better go then, hadn't you?"

    Right on cue.

    She'd thought moving to another division, closer to where she lived, would help. But nothing was going to help.

    They stared at one another. The seconds ticked away. She knew she had to go. She should have gone by now. But the familiar feeling was rising. Anger mixed with guilt mixed with pain mixed with ...

    "Brett, it's not my fault! It's my job. It's what I do. I'm sorry if — "

    "If you were sorry, you'd fix it."

    Tessa dumped her handbag on the table and walked quickly from the room, down the short hallway into the bedroom. As she bent to the bottom drawer of her dressing table, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Tizzed-up hair, perfect makeup, figure-hugging little black dress cut down to here at the front and finishing halfway up her thighs. Anything less like a homicide detective it was impossible to imagine.

    She couldn't turn up like this. Not at a fun park right on the beach.

    At Barrow Beach. Funworld. Remember ...?

    Not on her first call with her new division. Not the first time she met Hayden.

    But the dress fastened at the back, with a long row of tiny covered buttons. She couldn't get in or out of it alone. That was one of the reasons Brett liked it. But it would be grotesque to ask him to help her now.

    Why did I put on the stupid thing?

    Because it's the sexiest thing you've got. Because you wanted to please Brett. Show him you'd go to trouble for him. Make things right again. Great plan, Tessa. Worked a treat, didn't it?

    She glanced at her watch and was shocked to see how much time had passed.

    I'll be there. Soon as I can.

    This was like one of those dreams she had sometimes. You're trying to get ready for something, and somehow you can't get it together.

    But this wasn't a dream.

    Her thoughts started to race, tumbling over one another:

    You can't change the dress. Cover it up. Wear a coat. The gabardine thing.

    It's too hot for a coat. I'll end up taking it off.

    The shoes, then. At least change the shoes.

    The high-heeled toe-peepers with ankle straps. "Follow me home and fuck me shoes" her friend Bridget called them — or used to, before she joined the rape squad and started to watch her language. Brett didn't like Bridget. Once he'd said she was a bad influence. Often he'd said she had no class. But she was probably Tessa's best friend, these days. They'd trained together.

    Concentrate! Change the shoes!

    The dress would look ridiculous with sensible shoes. Tessa decided it was better to try to carry the whole thing off. Being on call didn't mean you couldn't go out, dress up. She'd attended homicides in all sorts of gear. She'd seen colleagues do it, in her old division. She'd seen some of them turn up looking as if they'd had an invitation to a come-as-you-are party.

    But this is the first time with this division. The first time I've met Hayden. What will he think?

    You're wasting time.

    Tessa ripped open the bottom drawer and pulled out her belt, holster, and gun. She strapped them around her waist. Looked in the mirror.

    Absurd No question.

    She took off the holster again, grabbed her gabardine coat from the wardrobe, and almost ran back to the living room, pulling it round her shoulders.

    Brett was still standing where she'd left him. He turned his head to look at her as she snatched up her car keys and stuffed the gun into her handbag.

    "I'll see you later," she said. He didn't move. She went over to him, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. His skin was cool and damp.

    He nodded, smiled slightly, but he didn't say anything, and he didn't touch her.

    She was out the door and on the stairway down to the garage before she remembered that the roses were still lying on the table. She hoped Brett would think to put them in water. For a moment she thought of going back, but immediately realized she couldn't. She couldn't meet his eyes and tell him she'd only returned for the roses.

    She put them out of her mind, and hurried on down the stairs.


    "He was a lovely boy. One of the best. I'm telling you. No way anyone would've wanted to hurt Marry."

    "Someone killed him."

    Senior Detective Steve Hayden watched the old man reacting to this, mumbling his lips together over his almost toothless gums, his hands fiddling with the elaborate silver buckle on his belt. The beach murmured in the background like traffic noise.

    "Plenty of weirdos hang round this place," the old man said finally. His face was as shriveled and intent as a monkey's. His hands, plucking at the silver buckle, were like leathery brown paws. He wore a baseball cap jammed tight over a hard, small head. His name was Ignatius Jackson. Predictably, everyone called him "Jacko." There was something utterly alien, yet incredibly familiar about him.

    Steve knew what it was. There had been men like Jacko with all the traveling circuses and carnivals that had ever trailed into Steve's home town.

    Those men hadn't worn baseball caps. And they hadn't always run ghost trains. Sometimes they ran rifle-shooting or ball-throwing games, with a giant fluffy toy that no one ever won stuck up at the back as first prize. Sometimes they sold hot dogs, sometimes they sat at the doorway of the "half-man, half-woman" exhibit, sometimes they seemed just to walk around with their hands in their pockets. But every one of them could have been this man's clone.

    Jacko kept turning to look over his shoulder, past the scene of crime tape to the silent ghost train, where a bizarre black and white figure sprawled half-in, half-out of a car, skull head lolling, a knife sticking out of its stomach, dead center between painted ribs and hip bones.

    The surrounding buildings were dark, except for a small, brutal brick box tucked away to one side and screened by shrubs. The office annex. Behind its dully glowing windows, the ground staff who had been asked to stay huddled over weak tea and coffee from the cafe bar, and ate the absent office staff's undefended shortbreads.

    But the ghost train blazed with light like a small, tacky island in the middle of a black bay. The dead man was its center-piece. But he was almost lost in the crowd. The forensic team was crawling all over the place.

    The tall, elegant figure of their superior, Lance Fisk, stood surveying the scene. Beside Fisk stood Inspector Malcolm Thorne. Very upright. Making his presence felt.

    "Looking for fingerprints and that, are they?" the old man mumbled. "Mine'll be all over everything. They would be, wouldn't they? Like, it's my ride, isn't it?"

    "Course," said Steve. "Relax." He knew what the man was thinking. They're going to lumber someone with this, he was thinking. That's how cops operate. And it could be me. Never mind I was out the front pulling in the punters the whole time. That won't worry them.

    The old man glanced at him, wasn't reassured, and turned back to the ghost train. His monkey-paw fingers went on fingering his belt buckle. "That your boss there in the front?" he muttered. "You tell him what I said. Poor young bloke getting topped's got nothin' to do with anyone here. Some weirdo done it. That's who."

    "How long have you been doing this, Mr. Jackson?" asked Steve, to recall his attention.

    The old man took a couple of seconds to react, as though he didn't realize Steve was speaking to him. He wasn't used to being called "Mr. Jackson." He'd been called Jacko for so long, and so universally, that he'd almost forgotten there was a longer version of the name.

    "Worked the rides all me life," he muttered finally.

    "Here? At Funworld?"

    "Oh. Here? Nah." He thought for a moment, mumbling his lips. "Been here, on the ghost train, forty years, prob'ly. Give or take."

    "Ever had any trouble before?"

    "Nah. Never any trouble. Except for drunks. The odd stoush. Girls gettin' groped. Kids playing silly buggers and falling out. That sort of stuff. Bloke had a heart attack once. After he got off. Never nothing like this, but."

    Steve made a note. Forty years. Forty years spruiking horrors, loudspeakers screaming in your ear, dealing with the drunks, the yobbos, the weirdos, the creeps, the lovers, the families, the mobs of kids. Packing them, singly or in pairs, into the battered little cars, wasting no time — time was money, and bums on seats was the name of the game. Seeing them laughing, chattering, squealing in anticipation as the ghost train swallowed them up through swinging doors. Hearing their amplified shrieks as the cars ran the dark maze inside. Watching them burst back into the open air through the exit doors, exposed in whatever state of hysteria, tears, laughter, or shock to which the tricks inside had reduced them. Then hauling them, limp, shaking, blase or whatever, to their feet and out, and shoving more bodies into the empty cars while the seats were still warm.

    Never any trouble. Till tonight, ten minutes before the park closed, when the exit doors flew open and a car sailed out carrying a man in a skeleton suit, stabbed through the stomach.

    The old man fidgeted. But he wasn't going to ask when he could go. He wasn't going to ask what happened next. He was just waiting, not drawing attention to himself. He was one of those people who kept a naturally low profile where the cops were concerned. It was probably a lifelong habit, begun in the days when he was a skinny, sharp-eyed little boy dodging through the twilight world of the carnivals and fairs that had sustained him, and whoever cared for him. If it had been possible, Steve knew, he'd have melted away with the crowd who'd seen the dead man clatter out onto center stage, who'd screamed, stared, then scattered, long before the police arrived.

    Steve became aware of a change of atmosphere, a stirring, among the throng of Fisk's gnomes even before he saw Thorne glance towards the fun park entrance.

    Dr. Imogen Soames, pathologist, known to colleagues for reasons lost in her dim past as `Tootsie," was bearing down on the ghost train. Always a considerable presence — very tall, with a strangely sweet face, given her occupation, she was tonight looking even more impressive than usual in loose black trousers and a vividly striped tunic top that emphasized her height.

    Fisk glanced at her warily. He'd had the field to himself up till now. But Tootsie wasn't the woman to wait patiently for his pleasure indefinitely. He drew himself up, preparing to defend his territory.

    Steve caught the eye of a uniformed constable he'd found congenial on his arrival, and put Jacko into her care. He'd extracted about all he was going to get from the old man for now. And if Tootsie was about to charge Fisk's barricades, Steve was going to follow in her wake.

    With or without Tessa Vance.

    Tootsie was fronting Fisk now, hands on ample hips. The body of the skeleton-man, skull face turned upward to the glaring lights, lolled waiting for her.

    As Steve ducked under the scene of crime tape and sauntered towards them, he noticed Thorne glance at his watch. The fearless leader wanted to leave. But he was waiting around for Vance. And Vance was taking her time.

    You'd have thought she'd be fronting bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on her first call with the division. It looked like she'd decided to make an entrance instead. Well, that wouldn't impress anyone, least of all Thorne. Thorne's disapproval wasn't written all over his face — nothing was ever written all over Thorne's smooth, politician's face. But he'd remember this.

    Steve hadn't yet met Tessa Vance. He'd been in court last week, when she started. He'd had today off. A day in lieu, they called it, though he thought they'd probably have to give him about a year off to make up for the actual hours of unpaid overtime he'd worked. But he'd started hearing bits and pieces about her as soon as she'd been named as his old partner's replacement.

    From what he'd heard, Tessa Vance was a live wire, a handful, ambitious, unpredictable, a hotshot. He'd also heard she was neurotic, obsessive, aggressive, abrasive. And gorgeous-looking with it.

    Steve liked women. He liked them a lot. He'd worked with women before, and enjoyed it. They'd been good mates, all of them — well, most of them. But Tessa Vance didn't sound to him as though she was going to fall into the "good mate" category.

    She sounded more like a princess who was going to be a complete pain in the ass.

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