Andrew Fenwick must stop a serial killer in Elizabeth Corley's Grave Doubts, a thrilling and unputdownable mystery filled with chilling clues, deadly twists, and taut psychological suspense.
Viciously attacked by a serial rapist, intent on murder, Sergeant Louise Nightingale is recovering from her ordeal, relieved that the psychopath has been put behind bars for a very long time. Escaping to a remote family home for a well-earned rest, she is unaware that her nightmare has only just begun. When a nameless, faceless terror starts stalking the country, her colleague, Detective Chief Inspector Andrew Fenwick, questions whether or not they have the right man. Leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, the killer soon makes clear his ultimate goal—Nightingale--and he will not rest until he can exact his cruel and calculated revenge. Desperately trying to reach her before the killer does, DCI Andrew Fenwick wonders if her continued silence means he is already too late in this electrifying, pulse-pounding psychological suspense novel from the author of Requiem Mass. With a captivating plot that races through switchbacks and hairpin turns, this is a book you won't dare put down.
"Sergeant Louise Nightingale is a fully rounded and interesting heroine… There are elements of the Gothic here, and of romance, but both those elements and the ever increasing body count are described with great subtlety. The detection element is cleverly done and the story genuinely exciting." --Literary Review
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About the Author
ELIZABETH CORLEY was born and brought up in West Sussex. She manages to balance her passion for crime-writing with a successful position as Chief Executive for a global investment company, dividing her time between London, UK; Germany; and France.
Read an Excerpt
The barrister for the defense leaned forward, his nose as sharp as his tone, his wig knocked askew in the passion of his assault. Nightingale tried to form a sensible reply but her mind froze. All she could remember were her mother’s remarks uttered in response to some school-age failure: “Fancy forgetting your lines. Your brother would never have let us down like that.”
The memory robbed her of confidence and she felt sweat dampen her blouse beneath her suit. She breathed deeply and pressed her fingers hard against the wood of the witness stand. For thirty long minutes she had been cross-examined. Her evidence was crucial as the rest of the prosecution’s case was circumstantial. She reminded herself that it was simply a matter of telling the truth, without letting this bully of a man confuse her.
“We’re waiting, Sergeant.”
“Yes.” She coughed as if to clear her throat and focused her eyes on a point just above his right shoulder.
Nightingale squared her shoulders, not aggressively she hoped, but politely, as if respectful of his role. She knew how successful witnesses behaved: firm, confident but without assertiveness. As a police officer, every member of the jury would see her profession first and then the person. Whatever prejudices they’d brought into the courtroom would affect their interpretation of everything she said. If they had been brought up to trust the police, then they would want to believe her. Should they consider the Force corrupt or prejudiced, anything she said would be viewed with skepticism. For all of them, she had to be Louise Nightingale, victim of a serious sexual assault by a man capable of rape.
“Could you repeat your question please?” Her voice was level again.
“I asked how you came to encounter the defendant and so far, despite repeated requests for elaboration, you have said only that you replied to an email that eventually led you to exchange electronic messages in a chat room.”
“That is correct. We conversed electronically over the Internet about THE GAME.”
“And how did you come to meet in this way?”
“I’ve already gone through this several times, sir.”
“Then tell us again.” He was angry with her. His defense was to prove entrapment by the police and if he could force Nightingale to give her testimony in the wrong way he might yet succeed.
Details of how THE GAME was played had already been covered in previous testimony by experts from the company that had created it. They’d made THE GAME sound harmless fun, a challenge of skill and quick-wittedness, but every rape victim had played it. Eventually, when other leads failed, the police investigated it as a potential link with the rapist.
“The senior investigating officer had recovered evidence that the victims of a series of rapes had all participated in an online contest called THE GAME. There are several sites and chat rooms dedicated to it.”
“And you entered one of these chat rooms with the express purpose of luring the defendant into an exchange of messages which you, Sergeant, made increasingly incriminating and licentious!” Spittle flew from his tongue and he dabbed at his mouth.
“Objection!” The prosecution barrister was on his feet. Reginald Stringer QC was deadly in defense, with a reputation for having a particular dislike of police witnesses. The judge upheld the objection and Nightingale answered a rephrased question.
“To join certain chat rooms you have to be given the full web address and a password. I was invited into this particular chat room by the defendant.”
Nightingale felt stronger now. The police had three computer experts who’d all confirmed the email trails between herself, the defendant and the chat room. As she described her electronic conversations the judge leaned forward to interrupt.
“I still find this use of terminology confusing and I imagine some of the jury might as well. We had an explanation of what a chat room was earlier but I wonder if you could refresh our memories.”
“Certainly, My Lord. The chat room is an address on the web, sometimes public but in this case private, where one can engage in a digital conversation by typing and sending messages to other participants. Many people can join in; the message is identified by sender. It is like having a public conversation. One person talks, i.e. writes a message, and someone else responds while others watch, i.e. listen. Participants can decide to leave public chat rooms and engage in private conversations using personal addresses, rather like going into another room.”
The judge was satisfied with the explanation and Stringer resumed his cross-examination.
“Tell us about the characters in THE GAME.”
Nightingale pointed to the board version of THE GAME on the evidence table. It was one of a dozen spin-offs from the original computer game that had made the teenage inventors multi-millionaires. The film was due out in a year.
“There are six major player-characters and hundreds of minor ones. Sometimes combatants…”
“Players—they call themselves combatants.”
“And which ‘combatant’ did you elect to become, Sergeant?”
“Artemesia is based on the Greek Goddess Artemis—the huntress—is she not? Very appropriate, given what you then set out to do.”
“And the number, what does that signify?”
“I was the thirty-thousand and fifty-fifth person to join THE GAME as Artemesia. That became my ID. She’s one of the less popular characters as she has fewer obvious powers.”
“So, Artemesia 30,055, how did you encounter the defendant?” Stringer smiled at his own attempt at a joke but it didn’t fool Nightingale.
She would have preferred to be called by her name. If he focused on her game character he would inevitably highlight the huntress’s dark side. She was one of the players who gained strength and new powers from tracking and killing demons and trolls. The two other female characters—a healer and a sorceress—succeeded by using less aggressive tactics. Nightingale had been an exceptional Artemesia, rising quickly through the league tables. It was the reason that the defendant had noticed her. He played the Demon King, the most challenging and dangerous role, but the one with highest points potential. She looked across at him now, a mousy-haired man in his twenties. Hardly someone who would stand out in a crowd.
“Sergeant, we’re still waiting.”
“I first encountered the defendant in the chat room. He called himself Demon King 666. He’d worked out how to bypass the automatic character numbering and chose the one he wanted—the devil’s number. He was considered an expert on THE GAME, not just on his own role but others as well. The Demon King is the target for everybody else. If you capture or kill him, you automatically win THE GAME and maximum points. Demon King 666 had never lost. He was considered invincible.”
From the corner of her eye she could see the defendant shift. He was staring at her and smiling. Nightingale shuddered. Despite his situation, he was enjoying the dialogue about THE GAME and his own superiority. It was one of the reasons she’d found it so simple to engage him in electronic conversation. The more successful she became in THE GAME, the more attention he’d paid her.
“Demon King 666 was very clever. Most of the time he gave out misinformation. After all, many of the people he was advising aspired to kill him in a future game. But he also wanted other Demon Kings to be killed so that his lead in the rankings would continue, so he gave out enough genuine clues to keep people asking for more.”
“No, I never asked him directly for advice. It can reveal too much about your own game. I scanned the public dialogue, adding the occasional comment. He sent me the first personal message, not the other way round.”
“I find it hard to believe that you would rely on the possibility of him finding you.”
“That’s what happened. All the records prove it.” She avoided a smirk. Of course he had come to her, she’d made herself irresistible by winning and remaining silent. It had just been a question of patience.
Nightingale looked at the clock on the opposite wall. She’d been on the stand nearly an hour now and regretted her sleepless night and lack of breakfast. The timing of the cross-examination was perfect for the defense. Outside, it was an unseasonably sunny day. The windows were set along the east wall, framed by columns of carved oak that matched the heavy courtroom furniture. English air-conditioning, unused to coping with real heat, was already starting to fail. London in April was not meant to be warm. The first fingers of eager yellow light were advancing across the blue carpet toward the witness stand. Defense and prosecution tables were set further back, in the relative comfort of the shadows but she would soon be in full sun.
“Might I have some water, please?”
The judge took pity on her and a plastic glass of tepid tap water was brought to her. She sipped it and continued with her never-ending testimony. Most of it she knew by heart, but she referred to her notebook anyway to remind the jury that she was a policewoman engaged in a serious investigation, not a computer-game hobbyist.
The sun reached her. There was a hiatus when the judge ordered the blinds to be tried again, but they remained broken, sitting stubbornly at half-mast.
“You may remove your jacket should you wish, Sergeant.” He was solicitous, apologetic.
Even without a jacket, the hair at the back of her neck grew damp, then wet. From time to time, the air-conditioning groaned and seemed to redouble its effort to chill the room but its only effect was to make defense counsel and witness shout over the noise. Nightingale began to lose her voice.
In contrast Stringer blossomed in the heat. His face was pink and shiny but his rhetoric sparkled. It was as if he could sense her growing weakness. Bands of shadow inched across the floor, distracting Nightingale as the colonnade of mock-Grecian columns outside barred the sunlight. Her throat was sore and her head ached. Stringer was trying once again to imply that she was a ruthless huntress of innocent prey. She fought him with every calm, considered sentence or gentle shake of her head, her temper held under tight rein. Throughout her testimony she hoped that the judge and jury could see the truth, that she’d been the hunted. A drop of sweat dripped from her fringe, making her left eye smart.
“Come on, Sergeant. We haven’t got all day to wait for your answer!”
“I’m … I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?”
“What?” His voice echoed in her head, louder than the air-conditioning.
“I said,” she swallowed, trying to find saliva, “please could you repeat the question?”
She put fingers to her cheek, surprised at the heat she found there. It disconcerted her and she rested her free hand on the hot varnish of the dock. Black spots formed in front of her eyes.
“… said that you … stretching credibility if you think…” His voice oscillated in and out. She blinked again and tried to focus but the black dots grew larger. Somewhere, the judge was speaking.
“… think the Sergeant may be a little faint.”
“No, I’m fine,” she said, and promptly pitched forward, to be caught by an anonymous pair of hands.
As the blood rushed to her head her vision cleared and she could hear again. She drank the water that was handed to her and stood up slowly, resting heavily against the witness stand.
“Are you all right, Sergeant?”
“Yes, it’s just the heat. I’m so sorry. Could I have a few minutes to sit down somewhere cool?”
In the corridor outside, the prosecution hugged her briefly.
“I’m so embarrassed, I…”
“That was brilliant. The show of vulnerability, reminding the jury that you’re a woman. Fantastic! It was an inspired move.”
Nightingale sat down, stunned into silence. What sort of person did he think she was, to be able to behave like a machine in the course of duty at no matter what personal cost? The advice of her counselor had been that she should not be compelled to take the stand as a witness. The woman rightly suspected that the trauma of the attack was deep-seated and had little to do with the physical injuries themselves. It was the memory of her helplessness, his strength and the weight of his body on hers, his fingers groping, touching her. That was her horror. She felt defiled and unworthy, but she’d been prevailed upon to testify, to relive it all, and the confidence placed in her had so far been proved right.
“Ready to go back in?”
“I don’t think so. I feel very shaky. Could it wait until tomorrow?”
She felt trapped. The corridor was as stuffy as the court room. Sunshine burned through the grimy windows, intense between the black bars of shadow. She shifted sideways into the dark and leaned her head back against the wall, eyes closed.
Around and above her voices gathered to persuade her that she should continue. If the defense was left to regroup and reconsider tactics their advantage might be lost. She capitulated and pushed herself to her feet. As she entered the courtroom her knees started shaking and she felt dizzy. It was only nerves she told herself, not a premonition.
She risked a glance toward the gallery. Her brother was sitting there beside a suntanned stranger with curiously bright eyes. They both smiled back and she took a deep breath.
Stringer had noted her glance away and raised an impatient eyebrow, anything to undermine her confidence. If only he knew how little she had left! But her smart suit and careful makeup presented a perfect, professional picture. Impervious camouflage.
“Let us turn to the night of 12th February last year. The night that the prosecution alleges the defendant attacked you.”
“The night he tried to rape me.” Stringer bristled. “Yes sir, I remember it well.”
“Then use that recall to describe your version of events to us.”
Nightingale took a deep breath. Her mouth was dry. All the remaining moisture in her body seemed to have collected in chill pools around the waistband of her skirt and under her arms.
“It was the second time that the defendant invited me to join him for a date. On the first occasion he didn’t turn up, although it was from that night I had the sense that I was being followed.”
“A ‘sense,’ Sergeant, is not evidence, as you well know, and the facts are that despite a significant police presence, there were no sightings of the defendant following you. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir.” She resisted the desire to tell the jury that her car had been vandalized and her rubbish searched. It had all happened in the five days between the first and second invitations but as there’d been no trace of the defendant it was purely circumstantial.
“On February 12th I followed the directions I’d received from the defendant. I arrived at the meeting point, which was by the bandstand in Harlden Park, three minutes late at five thirty-three p.m. I waited until six fifteen and then left. To reach my car, I had to walk back through the rose garden and along a path through rhododendron bushes.”
“Why didn’t you choose a better-lit route? It was dark, after all.”
“That would have taken me fifteen minutes instead of five and normally the path is well lit.”
“As I entered the shrubbery, there was a noise from the bushes so I looked around to find another way. There wasn’t one so I walked on.”
“You make yourself sound alone but you were, in fact, surrounded by police and were carrying a wire, is that not so?”
“I was wired. However, the problem with the bandstand rendezvous was that it meant the officers watching had to remain on the edge of the park. There were two posing as a courting couple, and another three playing football on the grass, but as the light went they had to leave. Four other officers were in the car park, two on benches in the rose garden—they were the closest—and the rest held a loose perimeter.”
She felt the slightest tremor start in her throat. Despite the counseling, this was the most difficult part of her testimony. Memories of the attack infested her sleep, creating vivid nightmares overlaid with images of his other victims. She lost the momentum of her narrative and waited for him to ask a question.
“You have a remarkable physical resemblance to the victims of the attacks you were investigating. Did that cause you any particular distress?”
Nightingale sensed that he was changing tactics. Perhaps Stringer wasn’t confident that he’d be able to convince the jury the police had used THE GAME to entrap his client so now he was going to attack her account of the attempted rape. It was a moment that she had been dreading. Apart from the police account of the attack on her and the traces recovered from her fingernails there was no other physical evidence. The rapist had never left semen, saliva or even a hair follicle on his victims. When they’d searched his flat SOCO had found it pristine, without even fingerprints and with nothing to connect him to the crimes. Faced with such lack of evidence, the CPS had decided to concentrate prosecution on three rapes that were identical in method to the attack on Nightingale. Four others, including one that had resulted in the victim’s death, had been left on file. In these the victims had been attacked in their own homes, not outside, and none of them had been able to pick the defendant out of a lineup.
“Let us turn to the ‘attack’ in which the defendant, by the way, sustained material injuries. I put it to you that it was you who approached the defendant and encouraged him into a physical embrace, which you subsequently rejected, violently?”
“No, that is not true.”
“Do you exercise regularly?”
“Pardon?” She was thrown by the question. He repeated it tersely.
“Have you engaged in self-defense classes?”
“Only as part of routine police training.”
“But you are fit and strong, are you not? Quite capable of taking the fight to a man.”
He was deliberately baiting her and would use any show of emotion to his advantage. The thought made her angry but in a way that sharpened her wits and drove all signs of emotion beneath the surface.
“I didn’t attack the defendant. He leaped out at me and knocked me to the ground. There’s evidence to prove that he lay in wait within the bushes for some time.”
“How tall are you?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Come, come, Sergeant, I thought all ladies knew to the ounce what they weighed.”
“I see.” His tone implied that she was avoiding the question.
“Would you take a look at the defendant, please.”
Nightingale licked her dry lips. She had avoided meeting his eyes since she had taken the stand. With a slight twist of her head she directed her gaze to the defendant’s chest. His chin and mouth were just at the top of her vision and she flicked her eyes down a fraction.
“How tall would you say he was?”
“A giant,” she thought. “I don’t know.”
Another exasperated sigh.
“He’s five foot nine, Sergeant, shorter than you are.” He left a significant pause. “Hardly an over-powering assailant for a fit, tall woman like you.”
“From the ground, with a knife at one’s throat, all men look tall … sir.” Some of the women on the jury nodded in sympathy and Nightingale pressed her advantage. “And as for my attacking him, I was in no fit state to do so. I received a concussion—the X-rays show deep bruising to the back of my skull,” she felt again the crack of her head as it made contact with the paving, “a sprained wrist and dislocated shoulder, bruising to my face and thighs,” his strength had been terrifying, “and I had to have dental work on two of my teeth.”
“So you say, Sergeant, but how does the jury know that those injuries were not inflicted by yourself or your colleagues in an attempt to build up evidence against my client?”
His callousness made her gasp and to her horror tears filled her eyes, yet when she risked a glance at the prosecution table they were hiding smiles. Confused, she turned to the jury. Five women, seven men; all looked shocked, one openly angry. Stringer had miscalculated.
“Excuse me,” she whispered as she took a shaky sip of water.
“Are you all right?” The judge leaned forward solicitously. “I’m sure,” he said with a meaningful glance toward Stringer, “that this cross-examination is nearing its end.”
It was. The defense asked a few more questions but the heat had vanished from his attack. After ten minutes Nightingale left the stand and the judge called a recess for lunch.
As she drove home she replayed the prosecution’s words of praise but they meant nothing to her. She worried over every hesitation and weak answer, convinced that she could have handled the cross-examination better.
On the top floor, high enough to have a view over the trees, Nightingale slipped her key into a sturdy Yale lock and was home at last. This was her place. The only tiny blessing from her parents’ death was that she was now financially independent. They had not left her so much that anybody would consider her wealthy but sufficient to be able to put down a deposit and start buying her own home. She raised a hand to ward off a fly and brushed aside the unwelcome reality that there had been a benefit from their deaths. The thought filled her with guilt and her stomach ached in physical response.
A light was blinking on her phone; three messages. Her brother had called, sounding exactly like their late father.
“Look, come and spend the weekend. I’m off on Sunday and Monday for a change.” At twenty-seven, he’d qualified and was dutifully serving his time before moving on to try and become an orthopedic surgeon.
She shook her head. He was her only family now, but she found Simon and his wife, Naomi, depressing company. They inhabited a world where domestic bliss was commonplace and Nightingale felt like an alien whenever she visited. They also insisted on calling her Diane, her mother’s chosen name for her, despite the fact that she had determinedly called herself by her middle name since senior school.
The new message light was still flashing. She felt too exhausted to care who else had called but dragged her mind away from memories of childhood arguments and pressed the play button for the second time to be greeted by silence and heavy breathing. The third message was the same. She deleted them both, cursing the crank caller who must have selected her number at random, and abandoned herself to sleep.
Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Corley