From a distance, they seem to be sleeping. Three bodies, sitting propped up against the ancient stones of Hadrian’s Wall. Until a closer look reveals the horror of their too-white faces.
The victims were found by schoolgirl Isla Bell, out on an early morning run along the historic site. That day changed the small town of Briganton forever, and shaped Isla’s life. Twenty years later, she’s a professor of criminal psychology, wrestling with the question that still haunts her: why? Why did Heath McGowan kill those people—and two more besides—before he was finally caught by Isla’s police detective father?
At last, Isla has a chance to get answers when Heath agrees to take part in her research. Isla’s husband, Ramsey—the only one of Heath’s victims to survive—cautions her against the meeting. But no matter how ready Isla feels to peer within a killer’s mind, there is no way to prepare for the fresh horror about to engulf Briganton. Another body is found, displayed just as before . . . and then another. Is this a copycat, or could the truth be darker still?
“The red herring-filled conclusion should surprise even the most careful reader.”
“Smart, fierce, and absorbing, this is a novel that begs to be read deep into the night.”
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Twenty Years Later: Friday, October 21
The bogeyman — Isla
Monsters rarely look the way you expect. Isla watched Heath McGowan through the window. He lay prostrate, his head held in place with a cylindrical cage. He should have looked like the devil. And yet there he lay, all five feet nine inches of him, a thick frame supporting a square head, hair cut bluntly short, somehow smaller now than the last time she saw him. An ordinary man, a small pot of a belly beginning to form, nails bitten down to the quick. And yet it would be no lie to say that she had thought of him every night for twenty years, that every night, as her hand grazed the lamp switch, she had paused to drink in the last of the light and had thought of the killer on the wall. She was a thirty-five-year-old woman, and she was afraid of the dark. Heath McGowan was the reason.
"You okay in there, Heath?" She leaned closer to the microphone, depressing the speaker button, keeping her voice light, friendly even. "We're going to get started in just a minute."
She watched him on the monitor, his eyes darting upward as they dissected her words. What was he looking for in there?
But Isla had done this kind of thing many times before, and she knew full well what Heath McGowan was hoping to find in her.
"You take your time, Professor." His voice was calm, almost relaxed, as if somehow he had made the coffin of the MRI scanner, the guards, and the shackles that waited for him disappear, and he was lying on a beach.
Isla released the button and glanced across at the prison guard. Steve? Stan? Attractive in an overmuscled way, he stood flush with the window that separated the control room from the scanner — separated him from his prisoner — his gaze locked on the machine and what could be seen of Heath McGowan's body. It was a strange sensation. To know that the room had been swept, that anything that could, even in the wildest of imaginings, be transformed into a weapon had been removed, that there was a guard here, one outside the door, another outside the door beyond that, and yet still to feel that your safety relied on the good grace of a monster.
"There's coffee there." Isla waved to the table beside her. "And cake. You should make yourself at home. This will take a while."
The guard nodded, risking the briefest of glances in her direction. "I'm good. Thanks."
"MRI is ready." The radiographer was a small woman, neat and gray, unimpressed with the caliber of the patient. She drummed her fingernails on the desktop.
Isla depressed the button. "Okay, Heath. We're starting the structural scan now. This will take a few minutes."
It was a special kind of madness this, lunacy in the pursuit of science. To remove a man convicted of two or three or four or more murders from his prison cell, to place him into a transport, with guards who look at you like you have lost your mind. To bring him to a hospital, take him into a room in which you will have to remove his handcuffs, encourage him to lie down on a sliding table and be slotted into the clanging wildness of an MRI. All the while hoping against hope that whatever evil put him in prison can remain boxed away, at least for this little while.
And yet here they were.
"Lucky number thirteen." Connor leaned against the back wall, cradling a chipped mug.
"Lucky number thirteen," Isla agreed.
Thirteen serial killers. Thirteen times they had removed monsters from their cages, had peered into their brains, had felt their hot breath, their ice- cold smiles, and thirteen times, Isla had known that her survival depended on the good grace of the devil.
Isla watched Heath's feet, white sneakers slack against the table, and wondered what he was thinking. Of course, the real question was: Did any of the previous twelve count? Really, if she was being honest with herself, hadn't it always been about this moment and this man?
She had run across the moor on that July day twenty years ago, her heart beating hard, unsure whether she was running from or running to. Had flung herself through the back gate, past the goldfish pond, screaming for her father like she was the one being murdered. She didn't know how she had made him understand, how she had put into words that which seemed so far beyond them, and yet somehow she had, and then she was running again, this time her father alongside her, pulling ahead of her, seeming to lead instead of follow. She had thought that Ramsey would be dead, that he couldn't possibly have survived the hours, years that it had taken her to call for help. And yet, miraculously, he was not, remained clinging to life, still facedown in the sodden grass. She had thrown herself down beside him, had clung to his hands, muttering comfort that she did not believe, while her father had stood and stared at the dead. Then a drowning cascade of sound, wailing sirens, blue lights thrown up against the stone walls of the nearby cottages, and people, everywhere, it had seemed.
More childhoods than hers had ended that day. Because it seemed now that all of Briganton had been experiencing a prolonged infancy, that it had been cradled by Hadrian's Wall and the Cheviots and the ocean of moorland, that the world had been kept at bay for longer than should have been possible. And then, on that July day, all that had been kept back came crashing in, and the faces that had before been creased up only with petty concerns now wore the telltale signs of terror. It seemed clear that whoever had done this was one of them. No one could quite put their finger on why this must be so. Perhaps it was because that was the worst they could imagine, and the entire village had suddenly realized that they were not immune to the worst, after all. There was no talking on street corners, no evenings in the local pub. The summer fete held three days after the deaths was attended by, at most, a dozen hardy individuals. Briganton had experienced real fear for the first time. Its response was to lock itself away. Isla's father vanished: Detective Sergeant Eric Bell was now needed far more elsewhere than he was in their little home. He became a ghost to them, a poltergeist leaving traces of bread crumbs on kitchen counters, creaking floorboards in the wee small hours as he returned for a few hours' sleep before beginning again.
Then, three weeks later, came the next one. The murder of nineteen-year- old Amelia West, a trainee nurse living two streets over from Isla's own home. And disbelief warped into blind panic. He, whoever he was, was not done. He was hunting.
Isla's parents began to talk about moving, about leaving the village that was in their blood, their bones. Her father, on the rare occasions she saw him, had grown older, more weighted down, either by the deaths or by his inability to solve them.
Two weeks after that came the murder of Leila Doyle. Twenty-five years old. She had vanished while putting her washing out.
Isla stopped sleeping then, moved into her sister Emilia's room, where she would lie, staring into the lamp that remained steadfastly on as the night rolled around into morning. Waited each day, each night, for him to come for her.
And then, after six weeks of torment, there came a day on which her father was gone, for a day, a night, another day. She started to wonder if he, too, was dead, if her mother was simply afraid to tell them. Then the phone ringing late in the evening, her mother's hand shaking as she picked it up, silence and then her face changing transformed back to something that Isla had not seen in six long weeks. He got him. Your father got him. His name is Heath McGowan.
Heath McGowan had been arrested in a pub in Newcastle. He had gone there straight from the flat of his then girlfriend, Lucy Tuckwell. Eighteen years old and six months pregnant with their first child. When police — or, more specifically, her father — had arrived at the flat, they had found Lucy dead on the floor, the final victim of the series.
"Maybe we'll get a nice fat tumor pressing on the amygdala," Connor suggested. He sipped his coffee, watching the screen. "Love me a nice fat tumor."
Isla glanced back at him. Lanky and lean, hair cut short, but not short enough to prevent the ends of it from flicking up into those inexorable curls. It was different for him, she reminded herself. Some days, she felt she had known Connor her entire life, like he was a brother to her. But then she remembered that he had not been here back in the dark days, that he had not survived what they had survived, and so he would forever remain separate, able to know them only as one looking in through a window. They had worked together for six years, knew each other's rhythms and tastes. And yet, for Connor, what they did remained an adventure, a walk through a jungle on an organized tour, the simulation of danger, where the real threats had been filtered out, packaged away. Perhaps, thought Isla, that was why he always seemed so much younger than she, even though they were the same age. Perhaps it was the excitement in him, the thrill of academic exploration. For him, the horrors that they heard were little more than a scary story shared around a campfire. For her, they were her life and her home.
She shrugged. "You never know. Although, frankly, he's always been a prick."
The sounds began, thunderous bangs as the hydrogen atoms were shifted, realigned, shifted again. A rising harmony of beeps, one picture, two, three, four, a thousand. Isla leaned back in her chair, her eyes trained on the hands of the killer on the wall. They lay limp at his sides. Large, the fingers shorter than you would think, stubby. The hands that had wrapped themselves tight across the throats of Kitty Lane and Ben Flowers and Zach.
Isla had waited for this since she was fifteen years old.
They had said that she wouldn't get him, that Heath McGowan had built himself into a legend, that in twenty years he had not once spoken about the dead bodies he left seated against Hadrian's Wall. Many had tried. For ten years following McGowan's arrest, Stephen Doyle, the husband of Leila, had written to him once a week, pleading for a meeting, begging to know what had happened to his wife in those last precious hours of her life, just how her end had come. "I just want to sit across from him," Stephen had said. "I just want to look into the eyes of the man who took Leila, so I can try to understand." But Stephen, like the journalists, the police officers, and the academics that followed him, had been met with a hefty wall of silence. McGowan, it seemed, would take his stories with him to the grave.
Isla, however, never afraid to tilt at a windmill, had written to him, pouring into the letter all the charm and the persuasion that she could muster. Had reminded him of their childhood connection, tenuous at best. And had promised to provide him with answers, to delve into the glorious mystery that was the McGowan brain and to lay the results before him.
To the amazement of all but Isla, he had written back.
It was a week ago that Isla Bell had first made the hour-long drive to Winterwell Prison, a fortress that stood alone on the edge of Kielder Forest, had watched as Heath McGowan was led into the room, seated at the desk before her, and had known that she had done what none had done before. She had got in.
"You look different." Heath McGowan had studied her with that spotlight focus that would have told her, had she not already known, that she was in the company of a psychopath.
"I'm older," Isla had replied coolly.
"Yeah." Heath had laughed, head dipping down, coquettish almost. "Aren't we all? But you ... Age suits you. What are you? Thirty-four?"
"Thirty-five." Isla had sat at the desk, had watched Heath opposite her. Had felt her heart thundering. Had told herself that this was simply number thirteen. That she had done this many times before. That this was no different. Of course, all of that was a lie, wasn't it? Because this time, with this man, it wasn't about the stories, about victims who were simply names in a crime story. This time it was about the person who had left three dead for her to find. Who had tried to murder Ramsey and had failed. It was a feeling of the wind blowing as you stood on a cliff edge.
"Of course. Four years younger than me. I remember you from school, you know."
In her memory, Heath was a ghost in a ripped denim jacket, his lip curled into an ever-present snarl. One of them and yet not one of them. His mother a drinker, his father who knew where, he had landed on his grandmother's doorstep, would stay awhile, long enough to get himself a reputation as trouble, then would leave again each time his mother resolved to do better, to be stronger than her need for the alcohol. Yet weeks or months later, he would always return, each time angrier.
"I'm surprised you were there often enough to remember me," Isla said wryly. They were old acquaintances chatting about days past. They were neighbors sharing a history. They were a serial killer and the teenage girl who had found his first victims.
Heath gave another laugh. "Aye, well ... had better things to be doing with my time. Your sister. Emily? Emilia? Now, she was always a looker. How is she?"
He was testing her, a great white nibbling around the edges of a cage to see if it really would protect the diver within. Isla looked at him, her gaze steady. Emilia had moved away from the village as soon as she was able to. She had married her first boyfriend, had three little boys, a detached house on a modern estate in Newcastle, and a rampant anxiety disorder — the last thanks to the man before her.
Isla smiled. "Emilia is fine. So, Heath, shall I tell you a little bit about our study? See if it's something you're interested in participating in?"
"Aye." He watched her, gaze hungry.
"I'm a professor of criminal psychology at the University of Northumberland. I specialize in brain function and its influences on criminal behavior." She slid into the speech like it was a comfortable pair of shoes. "I've worked on this with a number of other people in the past. What I'd like to do with you is have a bit of a chat, talk about some of your experiences, childhood, things like that, get you to take part in a few tests, and then, in a couple of weeks, we'll arrange for you to go through a functional MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, which will allow us to see how your brain is working, how it responds to stimulation, things like that."
Heath leaned forward, his forehead knitted in a frown of concentration. "So ... like, this functional ... whatsit ... does it, like, tell you why I do the stuff I do? I mean, will you be able to see if there's something wrong with my brain? If that's why?"
"It will certainly give us some indication, yes."
Heath sat up straighter then, and Isla knew. She had him.
A low buzz and Isla's head snapped around as she was pulled back to the present, the monster in the tube.
"Professor Bell?" The radiographer tapped some keys. "Structural scan is complete."
"Okay," said Isla. "Let's start with the moral decision — making task." She leaned forward, spoke into the microphone. "Heath? We've completed the structural scan. Now we're entering into the functional phase of the MRI. Keep looking at the screen in front of you. I'm going to present you with a series of choices. Use the button box I gave you to select one. You happy?"
"As a clam, Prof." His gaze on the monitor was flat, unmoving.
The guard snorted, rolling his eyes at Isla.
She pushed the microphone away, smiled. "Could be worse. The last guy we had in here decided to mark his territory by pissing on the floor."
Connor pulled out a chair beside her, lowered himself into it, one hand carefully grasping a cupcake. "Yeah, he was a beaut. Cupcake?"
Isla shook her head. "How the hell do you eat so much but stay so skinny?"
He grinned. "Good genes." He lowered his voice. "How's Ramsey doing?" Nodded toward the scanner. "He, ah, he got any issues with this?"
"Why has McGowan agreed to do this?" Ramsey had asked. Her husband had put the pan on the stove harder than was strictly necessary, had lit a blue flame beneath it, had poured in a glug of oil.
Isla had kept her gaze averted, her full concentration directed to checking the tomatoes for inadequacies. "Ramsey, he's been in prison for twenty years. He's probably bored. The chance to have a nice day trip, even if it's just to an MRI scanner, probably seems like a pretty sweet deal." She had pushed closed the door to the fridge, expression effortfully light. Because it had seemed somehow crucial that she kept it hidden, how much this mattered to her, how great her own need was to sit across from the killer on the wall.
Ramsey nodded, the back of his blond head dipping up and down, just once. Swept the onions into the pan. Were his hands shaking?
"I just ... I don't trust that guy." The rest was left unsaid. Because he tried to murder me. Because he murdered my brother, five others besides.
Isla turned, watched her husband's wide shoulders, the arch of his arms, quiet muscles beneath a plaid shirt. He still had nightmares that kept her awake into the small hours of the morning, her husband twisting and pulling at the sheets, his hands grasping at the pillow, at her, as in his dreams he attempted to save himself. To save his brother. And she would cradle him to her, mother to a small child.
It had become a rhythm in their marriage, calm waters shaken by something and by nothing, the swell of a wave, a crest, and then, from nowhere, calmness again. There would be long periods in which Ramsey slept peacefully, and then a change — restless nights leading into sallow mornings, quietness becoming a dense silence. His features gaining a sad slackness, a jumpiness, as if her husband had moved into a perpetual state of waiting, ready to leap at the closing of a door or the unexpected fall of a foot. The counselor had said that it would be like this, that there would be periods of peace laid alongside periods of unrest. Post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with relapsing/remitting depression. A diagnosis that Isla could have made herself. This period, these past five years, this had been the most peace they had known. Isla had begun to wonder if the storm had finally passed. If life could in fact be different. Then those words — "I'm going into the prison. I'm going to meet with Heath McGowan."
"If he's agreed to be a part of the study," Ramsey said, stirring the onions, the oil spitting, sizzling, "maybe it's because he knows who you are. You know what these guys are like, with their grandstanding. Wouldn't it just be the perfect twist of the knife to get to you? Your father's daughter. My wife?"
Isla dug the point of the knife into the tomato, and its "ripe to the point of bursting" skin ruptured beneath the pressure. She sliced with a fast sweep. Tried very hard not to feel that flush of anger. That she was by definition to be explained only by her relationship to someone else. To the men in her life. That she had got to Heath, had squeezed her way inside — had met with this success — only because of her father, the man who'd arrested Heath; and her husband, the man he had attempted to kill.
She let her knife race through the tomatoes, her heart beating fast. The trouble was, she wasn't at all sure he wasn't right.
Isla took a deep breath, her tread careful. This was, after all, her husband's story more than it was hers. She could bow out. Get Connor to do it. He was more than capable. And yet ... Isla thought of that moment every single night, when, her hand on the light switch, she felt the fear race from her abdomen up to her mouth at the thought of the darkness about to come. She was not good with fear. Ramsey had caught her once, had come home late on a night when darkness had plummeted early, brought about by wild weather, had found her walking the blackened house, bare feet, wearing nothing but a camisole and absurdly short shorts. Had looked at her like she was insane. And she had never said it, had never explained to him that she had been pushing herself to the point of her greatest terror. With the darkness and the vulnerability of near nakedness, it had been like a private dare. I bet you can't ... Isla had always been a sucker for dares.
"Well, I'm sure it will be fine. All the authorization is in place, so I don't really have much choice in the matter now," Isla lied. "Just ... Look, these guys, they want something to fill their days in there. A study like this, it gets them interested. And they get to brag. You know, tell someone how clever they were, how they almost got away with it. I'm sure McGowan has no clue who I am."
Now Isla sipped her coffee, black, the bitterness of it making her wince. "Ramsey's fine. He gets that this is important. You finished up all the childhood stuff, right?"
They were two halves of a coin, she and Connor. He: developmental and environmental influences. She: cognition, genetic factors. Taken together, they could tell a story — how a serial killer became a serial killer. Because if you could tell that story, then maybe, just maybe, you could change it.
"Yeah. It's ... not great. I mean, it's not as bad as some I've heard. Pavel Devreaux still gets to keep his 'worst childhood imaginable' crown."
Pavel Devreaux had killed eleven men, mostly homeless, helpless, in and around Calais in the late nineties. He had then eaten their internal organs.
"Heath's mother was an alcoholic, father erratic, but around just long enough to sexually abuse Heath from the ages of four to seven. Pretty vile stuff. The mother alternated between affection and fury, and it looks like little Heath had no way of predicting which way she would go. The most consistent presence seems to have been the grandmother. From what he says, she tried her best, but sounds like she was pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing. Heavily critical, not much in the way of affection. Would routinely tell him that he had been taken over by Satan."
"Well, she was right about that much," muttered the prison guard, keeping his stare on the unmoving feet of Heath McGowan.
Isla nodded, watching the screen where Heath's selections were flashing by. The test was coming to its conclusion. The attentional focusing one would begin shortly. She pulled a file closer, flipped the cover open. "I finished going through the PCL-R."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Am Watching"
Copyright © 2019 Emma Kavanagh.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
July 22, 1996,
Twenty Years Later: Friday, October 21,
The bogeyman — Isla,
To stay or to go — Ramsey,
The sense of being stared at — Mina,
Inside a killer — Isla,
Saturday, October 22,
"It'll be okay" — Mina,
The body on the wall — Mina,
Beginning again — Isla,
Briganton below — Ramsey,
The price of fear — Mina,
A policy of murder — Mina,
Sunday, October 23,
An exercise in death — Isla,
The next step — Ramsey,
Family connections — Mina,
Another one? — Mina,
Monday, October 24,
Bringing in an expert — Isla,
The arrival of a letter — Ramsey,
The pen pal — Isla,
A cold case — Mina,
Those with experience — Isla,
An opportunity — Mina,
Tuesday, October 25,
The journey of the dead — Mina,
The victim — Ramsey,
Dying flowers — Mina,
Loose lips sink ships — Mina,
Wednesday, October 26,
Through the eyes of the victims — Isla,
The truth of it? — Isla,
Buried treasure — Mina,
And so it goes — Ramsey,
First the one — Mina,
The shadow within — Isla,
Where the evidence leads — Mina,
Thursday, October 27,
Someone to stop me — Isla,
The killing path — Mina,
Getting what you want — Ramsey,
Unmasked — Mina,
Making everything okay again — Isla,
Spin of the wheel — Mina,
An end and a beginning — Ramsey,
The right thing — Mina,
The missing one — Isla,
The wall — Mina,
The no longer great Eric Bell — Eric,
The killer on the wall,
The man beside me — Isla,
Thursday, November 3,
One week later — Mina,