Normally, there would be nothing sinister about a death by drowning and a motorcycle fatality—had these tragic occurrences not been predicted before the fact in a pair of macabre "Dialogues" submitted to a Yorkshire short story competition. Yet the local police department is slow to act—until the arrival of a third Dialogue...and another corpse.
A darkness is settling over a terrorized community, brought on by a genius fiend who hides clues to his horrific acts in complex riddles and brilliant wordplay. Now two seasoned CID investigators, Peter Pascoe and "Fat Andy" Dalziel, are racing against a clock whose every tick signals more blood and outrage, caught in the twisted game of a diabolical killer who is turning their jurisdiction into a slaughterhouse.
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The first dialogue
Hi, there. How’re you doing?
Me, I’m fine, I think.
That’s right. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but there seems to be some movement at last. Funny old thing, life, isn’t it?
OK, death too. But life . . .
Just a short while ago, there I was, going nowhere and nowhere to go, stuck on the shelf, so to speak, past oozing through present into future with nothing of colour or action or excitement to quicken the senses . . .
Then suddenly one day I saw it!
Stretching out before me where it had always been, the long and winding path leading me through my Great Adventure, the start so close I felt I could reach out and touch it, the end so distant my mind reeled at the thought of what lay between.
But it’s a long step from a reeling mind to a mind in reality, and at first that’s where it stayed, that long and winding trail, I mean, in the mind, something to pass the long quiet hours with. Yet all the while I could hear my soul telling me, “Being a mental traveller is fine but it gets you no suntan!”
And my feet grew ever more restless.
Slowly the questions began to turn in my brain like a screensaver on a computer.
Could I possibly . . .?
Did I dare . . .?
That’s the trouble with paths.
Once found, they must be followed wherever they may lead, but sometimes the start is, how shall I put it? so indefinite.
I needed a sign. Not necessarily something dramatic. A gentle nudge would do.
Or a whispered word.
Then one day I got it.
First the whispered word. Your whisper? I hoped so.
I heard it, interpreted it, wanted to believe it. But it was still so vague . . .
Yes, I was always a fearful child.
I needed something clearer.
And finally it came. More of a shoulder charge than a gentle nudge. A shout rather than a whisper. You might say it leapt out at me!
I could almost hear you laughing.
I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about it. But the more I thought, the less clear it became. By three o’clock in the morning, I’d convinced myself it was mere accident and my Great Adventure must remain empty fantasy, a video to play behind the attentive eyes and sympathetic smile as I went about my daily business.
But an hour or so later as dawn’s rosy fingers began to massage the black skin of night, and a little bird began to pipe outside my window, I started to see things differently.
It could be simply my sense of unworthiness that was making me so hesitant. And in any case it wasn’t me who was doing the choosing, was it? The sign, to be a true sign, should be followed by a chance which I could not refuse. Because it wouldn’t be mere chance, of course, though by its very nature it was likely to be indefinite. Indeed, that was how I would recognize it. To start with at least I would be a passive actor in this Adventure, but once begun, then I would know without doubt that it was written for me.
All I had to do was be ready.
I rose and laved and robed myself with unusual care, like a knight readying himself for a quest, or a priestess preparing to administer her holiest mystery. Though the face may be hidden by visor or veil, yet those with skill to read will know how to interpret the blazon or the chasuble.
When I was ready I went out to the car. It was still very early. The birds were carolling in full chorus and the eastern sky was mother-of-pearl flushing to pink, like a maiden’s cheek in a Disney movie.
It was far too early to go into town and on impulse I headed out to the countryside. This, I felt, was not a day to ignore impulse.
Half an hour later I was wondering if I hadn’t been just plain silly. The car had been giving me trouble for some time now with the engine coughing and losing power on hills. Each time it happened I promised myself I’d take it into the garage. Then it would seem all right for a while and I’d forget. This time I knew it was really serious when it started hiccoughing on a gentle down-slope, and sure enough on the next climb, which was only the tiny hump of a tiny humpback bridge, it wheezed to a halt.
I got out and kicked the door shut. No use to look under the bonnet. Engines, though Latin, were Greek to me. I sat on the shallow parapet of the bridge and tried to recall how far back it was to a house or telephone. All I could remember was a signpost saying it was five miles to the little village of Little Bruton. It seemed peculiarly unjust somehow that a car that spent most of its time in town should break down in what was probably the least populated stretch of countryside within ten miles of the city boundary.
Sod’s Law, isn’t that what they call it? And that’s what I called it, till gradually to the noise of chirruping birdsong and bubbling water was added a new sound and along that narrow country road I saw approaching a bright yellow Automobile Association van.
Now I began to wonder whether it might not after all be God’s Law.
I flagged him down. He was on his way to a Home Start call in Little Bruton where some poor wage-slave newly woken and with miles to go before he slept had found his motor even more reluctant to start than he was.
“Engines like a lie-in too,” said my rescuer merrily.
He was a very merry fellow altogether, full of jest, a marvelous advert for the AA. When he asked if I were a member and I told him I’d lapsed, he grinned and said, “Never mind. I’m a lapsed Catholic but I can always join again if things get desperate, can’t I? Same for you. You are thinking of joining again, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes,” I said fervently. “You get this car started, and I might join the Church too!”
And I meant it. Not about the Church maybe, but certainly the AA.
Yet already, indeed from the moment I set eyes on his van, I’d been wondering if this might not be my chance to get more than just my car started.
But how to be certain? I felt my agitation growing till I stilled it with the comforting thought that, though indefinite to me, the author of my Great Adventure would never let its opening page be anything but clear.
The AA man was a great talker. We exchanged names. When I heard his, I repeated it slowly and he laughed and told me not to make the jokes, he’d heard them all before. But of course I wasn’t thinking of jokes. He told me all about himself, his collection of tropical fish, the talk he’d given about them on local radio, his work for children’s charities, his plan to make money for them by doing a sponsored run in the London marathon, the marvelous holiday he’d just had in Greece, his love of the warm evenings and Mediterranean cuisine, his delight in discovering a new Greek restaurant had just opened in town on his return.
“Sometimes you think there’s someone up there looking after you special, don’t you?” he jested. “Or maybe in my case, down there!”
I laughed and said I knew exactly what he meant.
And I meant it, in both ways, the conventional idle conversational sort of way, and the deeper, life-shapingly significant sort of way. In fact I felt very strongly that I was existing on two levels. There was a surface level on which I was standing enjoying the morning sunshine as I watched his oily fingers making the expert adjustments which I hoped would get me moving again. And there was another level where I was in touch with the force behind the light, the force which burnt away all fear, a level on which time had ceased to exist, where what was happening has always happened and will always be happening, where like an author I can pause, reflect, adjust, refine, till my words say precisely what I want them to say and show no trace of my passage . . .
For a moment my AA man stops talking as he makes a final adjustment with the engine running. He listens with the close attention of a piano tuner, smiles, switches off, and says, “Reckon that’ll get you to Monte Carlo and back, if that’s your pleasure.” I say, “That’s great. Thank you very much.” He sits down on the parapet of the bridge and starts putting his tools into his tool box. Finished, he looks up into the sun, sighs a sigh of utter contentment and says, “You ever get those moments when you feel, this is it, this is the one I’d like never to end? Needn’t be special, big occasion or anything like that. Just a morning like this, and you feel, I could stay here for ever.”
“Yes,” I tell him. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“Would be nice, eh?” he says wistfully. “But no rest for the wicked, I’m afraid.”
And he closes his box and starts to rise.
And now at last beyond all doubt the signal is given.
Down in the willows overhanging the stream on the far side of the bridge something barks, a fox I think, followed by a great squawk of what could have been raucous laughter; then out of the trailing greenery rockets a cock pheasant, wings beating desperately to lever its heavy body over the stonework and into the sky. It clears the far parapet by inches and comes straight at us. I step aside. The AA man steps backwards. The shallow parapet behind him catches his calves. The bird passes between us, I feel the furious beat of its wings like a Pentecostal wind. And the AA man flails his arms as if he too is trying to take off. But he is already unbalanced beyond recovery. I stretch out my hand to the teetering figure, to help or to push, who can tell? and my fingertips brush against his, like God’s and Adam’s in the Sistine Chapel, or God’s and Lucifer’s on the battlements of heaven.
Then he is gone.
I look over the parapet. He has somersaulted in his fall and landed face down in the shallow stream below. It is only a few inches deep, but he isn’t moving.
I scramble down the steep bank. It’s clear what has happened. He has banged his head against a stone on the stream bed and stunned himself. As I watch, he moves and tries to raise his head out of the water.
Part of me wants to help him, but it is not a part that has any control over my hands or my feet. I have no choice but to stand and watch. Choice is a creature of time and time is away and somewhere else.
Three times his head lifts a little, three times falls back.
There is no fourth.
For a while bubbles rise. Perhaps he is using these last few exhalations to rejoin the Catholic Church. Certainly for him things are never going to be more desperate. On the other hand, he is at last getting his wish for one of those perfect moments to be extended forever, and wherever he finally lies at rest will, I am sure, be a happy grave.
Fast the bubbles come at first, then slower and slower, like the last oozings from a cider press, till up to the surface swims that final languid sac of air which, if the priests are right, ought to contain the soul.
Run well, my marathon messenger!
The bubble bursts.
And time too bursts back into my consciousness with all its impedimenta of mind and matter, rule and law.
I scrambled back up the bank and got into my car. Its engine sang such a merry song as I drove away that I blessed the skilful hands that had tuned it to this pitch. And I gave thanks too for this new, or rather this renewed life of mine.
My journey had begun. No doubt there would be obstacles along my path. But now that path was clearly signed. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
And just by standing still and trusting in you, my guide, I had taken that step.
Talk again soon.