In the long shadows of an alley a young man is murdered by an unknown assailant. The shattering echoes of his death will be felt throughout a small provincial community on the edge—because the victim was far from innocent, a youth whose sordid secret life was a tangle of bewildering contradictions. Now a dedicated policeman beset by his own tormenting demons must follow the leads into the darkest corners of the human mind in order to catch a killer.
Delving into the complicated human psyche, Blood at the Root showcases Peter Robinson’s singular talent in an exceptional novel of suspense that will linger in readers’ minds long past the final page.
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Blood at the Root
The boy's body sat propped against the graffiti-scarred wall in a ginnel off Market Street, head lolling forward, chin on chest, hands clutching his stomach. A bib of blood had spilled down the front of his white shirt.
Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks stood in the rain and watched Peter Darby finish photographing the scene, bursts of electronic flash freezing the raindrops in mid-air as they fell. Banks was irritated. By rights, he shouldn't be there. Not in the rain at half past one on a Saturday night.
As if he didn't have enough problems already.
He had got the call the minute he walked in the door after an evening alone in Leeds at Opera North's The Pearl Fishers. Alone because his wife, Sandra, had realized on Wednesday that the benefit gala she was supposed to host for the Eastvale community center clashed with their season tickets. They had argued-Sandra expecting Banks to forgo the opera in favor of her gala-so, stubbornly, Banks had gone alone. This sort of thing had been happening a lot lately-going their own ways-to such an extent that Banks could hardly remember the last time they had done anything together.
The limpid melody of the "An fond du temple saint" duet still echoed around his mind as he watched Dr. Bums, the young police surgeon, start his in situ examination under the canvas tent the scene-of-crime officers had erected over the body.
Police Constable Ford had come across the scene at eleven forty-seven while walking his beat, community policing being a big thing in Eastvale these days. At first, he said, he thought the victim was just a drunk too legless to get all the way home after the pubs closed. After all, there was a broken beer bottle on the ground beside the lad, he seemed to be holding his stomach, and in the light of Ford's torch, the dark blood could easily have passed for vomit.
Ford told Banks he didn't know quite what it was that finally alerted him this was no drunk sleeping it off; perhaps it was the unnatural stillness of the body. Or the silence: there was no snoring, no twitching or muttering, the way drunks often did, just silence inside the hiss and patter of the rain. When he knelt and looked more closely, well, of course, then he knew.
The ginnel was a passage no more than six feet wide between two blocks of terrace houses on Carlaw Place. It was often used as a short cut between Market Street and the western area of Eastvale. Now onlookers had gathered at its mouth, behind the police tape, most of them huddled under umbrellas, pajama bottoms sticking out from under raincoats. Lights had come on in many houses along the street, despite the lateness of the hour. Several uniformed officers were circulating in the crowd and knocking on doors, seeking anyone who had seen or heard anything.
The ginnel walls offered some protection from the rain, but not much. Banks could feel the cold water trickling down the back of his neck. He pulled up his collar. It was mid-October, the time of year when the weather veered sharply between warm, misty, mellow days straight out of Keats and piercing gale-force winds that drove stinging rain into your face like the showers of Blefuscuan arrows fired at Gulliver.
Banks watched Dr. Burns turn the victim on his side, ease down his trousers and take the rectal temperature. He had already had a glance at the body himself, and it looked as if someone had beaten or kicked the kid to death. The features were too severely damaged to reveal much except that he was a young white male. His wallet was missing, along with whatever keys and loose change he might have been carrying, and there was nothing else in his pockets to indicate who he was.
It had probably started as a pub fight, Banks guessed, or perhaps the victim had been flashing his money about. As he watched Dr. Bums examine the boy's broken features, Banks imagined the scene as it might have happened. The kid scared, running perhaps, realizing that whatever had started innocently enough was quickly getting out of control. How many of them were after him? Two, probably, at least. Maybe three or four. He runs through the dark, deserted streets in the rain, splashing through puddles, oblivious to his wet feet. Does he know they're going to kill him? Or is he just afraid of taking a beating?
Either way, he sees the ginnel, thinks he can make it, slip away, get home free, but it's too late. Something hits him or trips him, knocks him down, and suddenly his face is crushed down against the rainy stone, the cigarette ends and chocolate wrappers. He can taste blood, grit, leaves, probe a broken tooth with his tongue. And then he feels a sharp pain in his side, another in his back, his stomach, his groin, then they're kicking his head as if it were a football. He's trying to speak, beg, plead, but he can't get the words out, his mouth is too full of blood. And finally he just slips away. No more pain. No more fear. No more anything.
Well, maybe it had happened like that. Or they could have been already lying in wait for him, blocking the ginnel at each end, trapping him inside. Some of Banks's bosses had said he had too much imagination for his own good, though he found it had always come in useful. People would be surprised if they knew how much of what they believed to be painstaking, logical police work actually came down to a guess, a hunch, or a sudden intuition.
Banks shrugged off the line of thought and got back to the business in hand. Dr. Bums was still kneeling, shining a penlight inside the boy's mouth. It looked like a pound of raw minced meat to Banks. He turned away.
A pub fight, then? Though they didn't usually end in death, fights were common enough on a Saturday night in Eastvale, especially when some of the lads came in from...Blood at the Root
. Copyright © by Peter Robinson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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"Sociologically acute." -The New York Times Book Review