When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems. Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, learns the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover - and when word gets out, she discovers that small communities can have a mean streak with bigger, nasty nails than a Bengal tiger. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast aside her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands. To find the murderer...and clear her name.
About the Author
Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series has climbed to number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and also been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. She currently lives in Dunedin, with her husband and two sons.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue The day it was ordained that Gabriella Knowes would die there were no harbingers, omens or owls’ calls. No tolling of bells. With the unquestioning courtesy of the well brought up, she invited Death in. Death politely showed his identification and explained that there had been a telecommunication problem in the area. He then requested Gaby check if her landline had a dial tone. She left him on the doorstep under the watchful gaze of Radar, hallway sentinel, and turned back into the house. She recalled she had left the phone in the bedroom after her usual morning chat with her mother, and smiled at the memory of her mother’s excitement when she told her about Angel’s first faltering steps. The distant clatter of plastic told her that Angel was happily strewing Duplo around the lounge floor. Gaby picked up the phone and pressed the ‘Talk’ button: sure enough, no dial tone. ‘You’re right, it’s dead,’ she said, as she walked back to the door. ‘It was fine an hour ago when I was talking to Mum. Are everyone’s phones down?’ ‘Just the homes in this block. It seems to be a localised fault,’ he said. ‘How long will it take to fix?’ ‘Well, if I can come in and check each of your jack points, we can eliminate them as the problem.’ The man bent down to pick up a large black tool bag. ‘In any case, we should have it sorted out within two hours, so you won’t be without a phone for too long.’ Gaby opened the door wide for him. ‘Oh sure, come in. But would you mind taking your shoes oﬀ? We’ve just got new carpet and I’m still a bit precious about it.’ ‘Of course.’ He put the bag down and leaned over to untie his work boots. ‘We’ve carpeted recently too. Where are your jack points?’ She walked down the hallway and pointed into the bedroom. ‘There’s a phone in there, another in the dining room through here,’ she waved her arm to the right, ‘and one in the bedroom straight ahead. I’ll shut the dog away so he doesn’t hassle you.’ She grabbed Radar by the collar. ‘Thanks for that. I’ll start in there,’ he said, and indicated the main bedroom. He shifted his bag out of the way and closed the front door. Gaby watched him for a moment as he found the jack point in the bedroom and began to unzip the bag. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she said. She deposited the dog in the end bedroom and went back to the lounge, where Angel was sitting on the floor amid a riot of coloured plastic. She bent over and kissed the top of her daughter’s wispy blonde head, then continued through to the laundry to empty the machine and put on the next load. It never ceased to amaze her howmuch extra washing one kid could produce. She had just tossed in the last of the towels when she heard footsteps approach. She turned and was surprised to see the Telemax man carrying Angel on one hip. ‘Oh, you found my Angel. Come to Mummy, poppet,’ she said, and stepped through into the kitchen, arms outstretched to take her. But the man backed away into the dining room, putting the table between them. ‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘No, no, just pass her straight to me, she’ll be fine.’ Again, she reached out for her Angel. ‘Sit down at the table,’ the man said, all pleasantness gone from his voice. ‘What are you doing? Just give her to me.’ Gaby was moving around the table. Unease weighted the bottom of her stomach. ‘Sit down. Now.’ His tone made it clear there was no room for discussion, and his right hand drew what looked like a flick knife from his pocket. ‘You’ve got such a pretty girl here. It would be a pity to have to spoil that face.’ Gaby lowered herself onto the chair; her legs no longer had the strength to support her. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and struggled to hear over the pulsating, rushing noise in her head. Te world had started to turn grey around the edges. She sucked in a deep breath and thought, Don’t faint, don’t faint. Tink. Look for something – a weapon, anything. But she couldn’t tear her eyes from her daughter who, oblivious to the threat, was smiling in the stranger’s arms. ‘We can make this easy or we can make this hard. It’s up to you,’ he said as he adjusted Angel’s weight on his hip. ‘I need you to write a note. ‘If it’s money you want, my purse is in the bedroom. Take it, take anything, just give me back my daughter.’ ‘Ah, money. Well, no. It’s not that simple.’ Gaby watched him gently tease Angel with the flick knife, tickling her under the chin. Angel giggled and kept reaching out, trying to grab at it. Gaby felt her gorge rise, and swallowed back hard. She could not allow herself to retch or faint. She had to keep a cool head. With her eyes she begged Angel not to hit the damned button by accident. Ten her anger flared up, momentarily breaking through the fear. She leaped to her feet. ‘What do you want, you fucking sick bastard! If you hurt her, I will kill you, I fucking swear— ‘Well, I’m afraid I’m not the one who’s going to be dying today.’ A contemptuous grin spread across the man’s face. ‘Like I said, wecan make this easy, or we can make this hard. It’s up to you. Me, I have a job to do. I don’t personally like hurting children, so if you cooperate, we can just get this done and your daughter will be fine. If you make any trouble…’ With a lightning-fast action he activated the flick knife and deftly removed a lock of Angel’s hair. Gaby flopped back onto the chair, fighting the urge to vomit as she watched the curl drift down to the floor. Her hands ﬂew up to her face, to physically hold back the need to scream. It took her several seconds to regain control. She forced herself to lower her hands back to the tabletop, to battle the constriction in her throat. ‘I’ll do anything,’ she whispered, and then looked up to meet his gaze. ‘Just don’t hurt my baby. For God’s sake, just leave her alone.’ He looked at her, appraising, then reached down and pressed the blade of the knife on the table. The click as it closed made Gaby flinch. ‘Now get a pen and a piece of paper. I need you to write that note.’ Gaby reached over and grabbed at the pen and pad she kept by the telephone; she almost dropped them, her hands were shaking so much. ‘What do I have to write?’ she asked. ‘Oh, I think we’ll keep it simple. “Sorry, Honey, I love you” – something like that.’ ‘What?’ ‘Let me spell it out for you. You are going to die. I want you to write a simple, fitting suicide note. That’s it. It’s not that hard. Now write.’ His words hit like a blow to the stomach. A gasping sob escaped her and she grasped the edge of the table to steady herself. Te man was tall, muscular and probably twice her weight. He had Angel, squirming now, tired of being held and wanting her mother’s arms. Disbelief surged up, and Gaby found herself banging her fists on the table. A keening noise escaped her mouth. ‘Don’t be so bloody childish, lady. It’s not going to help you or your daughter. I’m going to get my bag. You, pull yourself together. Try anything, and it’s the girl who will pay.’ He turned, still carrying Angel, and walked out into the hall towards the bedroom. She had only a moment; she had to think. Tere was no way she’d let people believe she’d killed herself, no way she could leave that legacy for Angel or Lockie. Quickly, and with a badly shaking hand, she scrawled a note on the pad, then ripped the piece oﬀ, screwed it up and flung it into a pile of old newspapers in the kitchen. Maybe, just maybe, he’d miss it. She could already hear the man’s footsteps returning. She breathed heavily. Her heart still raced, but suddenly, Gaby felt strangely calm, almost disconnected, a mere observer. A thought entered her head and as soon as it solidifed her lips formed the question. ‘Why?’ He came back into the room and swung the bag up onto the table with one arm, making a heavy thud. ‘Why?’ she asked again. ‘Why are you doing this to me? What did I ever do to you?’ ‘To me? Nothing. I’m just doing my job, lady. Shit happens.’ He hoisted Angel up where she’d slid down from his hip. ‘Now get on with writing that note before I get pissed oﬀ.’ Gaby picked up the pen again and tried to think of a way to get the message across – this was not her doing, not her in control. There was no way she would dream of committing suicide. The last few months had been hellish, but she loved her husband and she lived and breathed for her daughter. Surely Lockie knew that. Her mother would know it too. She would know Gaby could never leave her Angel. Gaby made herself stand up. She watched the man’s muscles tense, then relax when he realised she was reaching across the table to the box of tissues by the window. She looked outside, but there was no one there, no hope of rescue. It was up to her. Tissues in hand, Gaby sat back down, then blew her nose hard. She shoved the used tissues into the pocket of her track pants, and cursed herself for not putting the secret note in there too. Too late now. Or maybe he would have found it anyway. She took a deep breath and set her mind to the note. She wrote the words with deliberation, and managed to minimise the shaking of her hand. She only hoped it was enough. Enough for Lockie to know it wasn’t right, wasn’t her. ‘Tere you are, you bastard. One fucking note.’ ‘I’m glad you’ve decided to play the game,’ he said, and moved around beside her. Gaby held her breath as he looked the note over. ‘That’ll do the job,’ he said. ‘See, it wasn’t so bad.’ He patted her on the head as if she were a pet puppy, and she flinched away from his touch. Angel had started to writhe and grizzle. She lurched over, arms outstretched for her mother. Gaby reached up to take her, but the man pulled the child back against his body, moved around to the other side of the table and set Angel down in the chair opposite. ‘Now what?’ Gaby asked, voice flat. She sat, shoulders hunched, hands limp where they had dropped in her lap. Te black tool bag was on the table between them, another barrier to her Angel. ‘Now we get to work,’ he said. He completely unzipped the bag, and she watched as he pulled out a small rolled bag and placed it just out of Angel’s inquisitive reach. Ten he reached back in and pulled out a large bundle of black fabric. He shook it out to its full size and tossed it down onto the carpet. Gaby’s heart leaped in her chest, bile rose up into her throat: she had seen enough movies to recognise a body bag when she saw one. ‘This is what you are going to do,’ the man said, as he unrolled the first small bag. It contained several syringes, vials and a prescription box of tablets all in their own pockets. ‘I am going to give you an injection, but I will make it as painless as possible. If you struggle, if you do not do exactly as I ask, I will kill your daughter and make it look like you did it. If you cooperate and just let this happen, she’ll be left alone.’ Gaby looked across the table to where her beautiful Angel was investigating the bag. She blinked back the tears, but this time couldn’t halt their path down her cheeks. ‘How can I trust you to leave her?’ she said in a small voice. ‘Lady, what choice do you have?’ Gaby watched as he drew up a dose from the vial with businesslike precision. For a moment she wondered if she could jump him – grab the syringe and stab him in the neck with the bloody thing. But he was too big, Angel too close. He knew exactly what he was doing, and she was just another job. ‘Go and get a glass of water,’ he said. Gaby looked up as he moved around behind Angel and pointed the loaded syringe at her shoulder. The child was distracted at play with the empty vial and went to put it in her mouth. ‘Uh-uh, Angel, yucky. That’s not for eating.’ Gaby said it without thought, and stood up, hand reaching out to grab the vial from her daughter’s fingers. ‘Get the fucking water!’ Her hand dropped. She went into the kitchen and got a glass out of the cupboard. As she walked across to the sink, her eyes darted to the knife rack on the counter. She looked back up at the man and her eyes met his. He gazed back, eyebrows arched in question, and then combed his fingers gently through Angel’s hair. Gaby pulled her eyes away and filled the glass with water. She walked back to the table and sat down with her hand clawed around the tumbler He tossed her the box of tablets. She misjudged the catch and they bounced oﬀ her chest to clatter onto the table. ‘Take some. Five or six will do.’ Her hands shook as she opened the box and managed to pop four of the tablets out of their foil strip into her hand; another slipped out and onto the floor. ‘Pick it up.’ She bent down, and the tablet danced through slippery fingers before she managed to trap it. Gaby sat back up and shook oﬀ the giddiness that swept over her. She carefully placed the tablet next to the others and glanced at the label on the box before stopping dead. The prescription was in her name. ‘What the hell? What have I done? Why is this happening to me? What the hell have I done to deserve this? For God’s sake, tell me.’ ‘I don’t know, lady. I just do the job and collect the money. Now shut the fuck up and take the fucking tablets.’ He yanked on Angel’s hair and pointed the syringe at her exposed throat. ‘No!’ Gaby screamed and jumped to her feet. Angel had erupted with a screech, her tiny arms flailing desperately at the hand that pulled her hair. She rubbed at her head when finally the man let go, her face a blotch of pink, her mouth dropped. ‘I’ll take them, I’ll take them,’ Gaby gasped. She threw the tablets into her mouth and tried hard not to gag as she washed them down with the full glass of water. Then, arms outstretched, she pleaded for her daughter. ‘Please let me hold her. Please.’ ‘Not yet.’ He jerked his head towards the lounge. ‘Go and lie down on the sofa.’ With barely obedient legs, Gaby walked around the end of the table and into the lounge. How could Angel grow up thinking her mother killed herself and abandoned her? Fresh tears wound their way down her face. No. She wouldn’t do this, couldn’t do this without a fight. Before her resolve fled, she wheeled around and with a cry launched herself at the man. The response was immediate and brutal. He dropped Angel to the floor; she erupted into a scream that tore through Gaby’s heart. The massive hands reached out and stopped Gaby dead, wrapped around the fabric at her throat, lifted her oﬀ the ground and propelled her backwards, her legs pedalling pointlessly in the air. He threw her into the sofa with a strength that forced the air out of her lungs, and then, with shocking speed, strode back to Angel and yanked her up by the hair. ‘You stupid bitch,’ he bellowed. ‘Do you want me to hurt her? Do you?’ He dropped the pink-faced child, shocked by now into silence, onto the floor again. Then he was standing over Gaby once more, syringe back in his hand, his face twisted with anger. ‘Lie down and keep fucking still.' All fight evaporated. Gaby’s eyes couldn’t leave her daughter’s as she pulled her legs up and then stretched her body out along the sofa. ‘Keep fucking still,’ he growled, as he jabbed the needle through her clothes into the flesh of her buttock and then slowly pushed the plunger down. Gaby could feel where the liquid entered, a cold stream against the warmth of her body, a venom commencing its deadly path. The sting lingered well after he withdrew the needle. It was done. Gaby looked up to her killer, gazed squarely into his eyes and asked, ‘Can I hold her now?’ He turned away and, to her relief, walked over, picked up Angel, brought her over and laid her on Gaby’s chest. At last she had Angel safe in her arms. But she knew there was nothing she could do. Already the eﬀects of the drug were apparent; she could feel inertia creep over her as it pervaded her entire system. She hugged and stroked her Angel as she repeatedly whispered, ‘I love you, Angel, Mummy loves you, I’m so sorry, I love you so much.’ Gaby quietly sobbed. Ten she buried her face in Angel’s hair, and rocked and cried herself to sleep.