Track a stalker. Catch a killer. The Death Messenger is a tense police procedural following The Silent Room in the thrilling Matthew Ryan series by Mari Hannah.
When a mysterious DVD is delivered to Northumbria Police Headquarters, DS Matthew Ryan and Detective Superintendent Eloise O’Neil are among the few to view its disturbing content. With little to go on the only lead comes from the anonymous and chilling woman’s voice narrating the blood-soaked lock-up depicted on screen.
But with no victim visible, nor any indication of where the unidentifiable crime scene is located, Ryan and O’Neil get the distinct feeling someone is playing with them. What is certain is that the newly formed special unit has just taken on its first challenging case.
As further shocking videos start arriving at police stations around the country, the body count rises. But what connects all the victims? And why are they being targeted? As the investigation deepens, the team is brought to breaking point as secrets from the past threaten to derail their pursuit of a merciless killer . .
About the Author
MARI HANNAH is the award-winning author of the Kate Daniels crime fiction series, a former Probation Officer whose career was cut short when she was injured on duty. She’s a scriptwriter who has written a feature length film and the pilot episode of a crime series for television, the latter as part of a BBC drama development scheme. She lives in Northumberland with her partner, an ex-murder detective. The Death Messenger is the second in the Matthew Ryan series.
Read an Excerpt
Control patched the call through to Detective Superintendent Eloise O'Neil as soon as it came in. The woman's voice was devoid of emotion as she delivered precise directions to the location. She was savvy too, refusing to be drawn into conversation, seeing through O'Neil's strategy of keeping her on the line long enough to trace her location. The moment she hung up, Eloise was on her feet and heading for the door.
As he followed her to the car, Detective Sergeant Ryan was conscious of O'Neil's concern, but also her excitement. There was nothing more stimulating than taking on a fresh investigation. They had spent the morning viewing a DVD sent to Northumbria Police HQ anonymously. As footage of a crime scene filled the screen, an unidentified female described, in graphic detail, just how she'd managed to achieve such a staggering spectacle of blood spatter on the ceiling and walls, using the eye of the camera to draw their attention to the spot where the victim bled out. She was calm and controlled. No discernible accent. No waver in her voice. She didn't mess up or stutter. Having listened to her on the phone to O'Neil, there was no doubt in Ryan's mind that the caller and narrator were one and the same. He noticed that the time-stamp at the bottom of the screen read Sunday, 8 December: 1545 hrs.
Two days ago.
He blipped the doors open and got in, a list of questions already forming. He held back, hoping O'Neil would offer an opinion first, but she said nothing as he turned the engine over, put the car in gear and pulled away.
O'Neil took out her phone and began typing.
Ryan drove in silence, replaying the DVD in his mind. From the first viewing he'd been struck by the way it had been shot: no shaky, amateurish camerawork, no lens flare from direct light sources, just a long smooth shot panning slowly and steadily across the bloody scene. It seemed to him that the person shooting it was deliberately trying to eke out the suspense, building up to the moment when the lens zoomed in dramatically on a man's shoe, a bloody axe abandoned next to it, the butt-end of its blade illuminated by the overhead light.
Joining O'Neil in a newly formed unit – one that could potentially cross international borders, working on- or off-book on assignments deemed too hot to handle – was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Given the unit's remit, there was no telling where in the world a case might take them. It had therefore come as a surprise and something of a disappointment when his first crime scene in the new job turned out to be a stone's throw from HQ.
'Any thoughts?' he said, dying to get her take on it.
'Plenty.' She kept her eyes on the road.
'Bizarre, wasn't it? The way the camera paused for effect. It felt staged to me. I'm wondering if it's all fake, some kind of sick joke. If it's a hoax —'
'It's not. The woman on that tape means business.'
'So why us and not the Murder Investigation Team?'
'You have one guess.'
'One? Will I be sacked if I get it wrong?
'That's the deal.'
Ryan put on his best thinking pose. 'This isn't the first DVD?'
'Bravo! You get to keep your warrant card.'
'Thanks, but it's still a case for MIT – unless you know something I don't.'
'Me? I know nothing ... yet. But I agree with you, there's something odd going on here.' Eloise swivelled in her seat to face him, excited as he was by the mystery surrounding their first investigation. 'While you were working your notice in Special Branch, I was down in Brighton, checking out a DVD that had been sent to Sussex Police. Like the one you've just seen, it showed a crime scene – blood all over the place, weapon on display, no victim in sight. Within hours of the DVD arriving at the Sussex Police HQ, a call came in giving directions to the crime scene. Forensics confirmed the blood was human. I'm no voice-recognition expert but I'm as sure as I can be that the narrator was the same woman who featured on this morning's DVD. Trust me – this is no hoax.'
The crime scene was an unremarkable lock-up on North Shields Fish Quay, eight miles east of Newcastle, not far from the mouth of the River Tyne. The building next door had been completely demolished leaving rough brickwork on the western gable end. A rusted mesh panel secured the window, its weatherbeaten frame showing through the few remaining flecks of blue paint. White corrugated sheeting covering the space that was once the door. It had been prised open to reveal an eerie dark hole beyond.
An empty Coke can lay abandoned near a much larger entrance, this one secured by a grey, concertinaed metal shutter. A sign to the left said: ALL DELIVERIES TO MAIN FACTORY. Underneath the wording, an arrow pointed west. Crime scene investigators were all over it, inside and out, the perimeter guarded by uniformed personnel, a roadblock in place to deter passers-by from wandering in off the street. No body had been found.
Ryan peered inside. What he saw was no surprise: it matched the video he'd viewed at HQ. The men in white suits were packing up their gear, preparing to leave. Now the real detective work could begin.
As he followed O'Neil inside, the Crime Scene Manager approached, her bright green eyes scanning the scene with forensic attention to detail, her expression inscrutable. She turned to face them, unaffected by the awfulness, professionally detached.
'I have work elsewhere. Any questions before I leave?'
'Is the blood human?' Ryan asked.
'Affirmative. You want type?'
His eyebrows almost met in the middle. 'You have it already?'
The CSI tipped her head at O'Neil. 'Cages have been rattled.'
'What can I say?' O'Neil said. 'There's no job more pressing than ours.'
She was right. They were in a different league now. Fast-tracking samples at the lab was not a favour they had to beg for. They were briefed and bound by the Official Secrets Act but with a lot more clout than your average copper. If they wanted to hire in specialist help, they only had to ask. Still, their newfound status would take a bit of getting used to. The thought alone made Ryan's heart beat faster. He was about to ask a question when O'Neil cut him off, indicating with a tilt of the head for him to follow.
Once they were out of earshot, she told him, 'The blood is female, Ryan. AB negative, same as yours.'
Ryan looked at her. 'And you know that, how?'
'Have you forgotten who was standing over your hospital bed like Florence Nightingale not so long ago, hoping you'd pull through? That would be me, Ryan. I want to be ready next time you need a pint or two of the red stuff.'
He gave a wry smile. 'Medical records are confidential, guv.'
'Unless you work for me. I'm in charge of this unit and I've done my homework. When you're special ops it's basic procedure to know blood types and allergies in case of emergency. Mine is engraved on the underside of my watch, in case you need it.' She narrowed her eyes, a playful look on her face. 'There's nothing I don't know about you.'
There was a good deal she didn't know. Ryan had the distinct feeling that the same could be said of her. He rather liked it that way.CHAPTER 2
Despite the amount of blood spilt and the likelihood that the axe found at the scene was the murder weapon, without a corpse the detectives had to assume that the victim might still be alive. An outside chance, undoubtedly, but they couldn't rule it out. Left in situ, the poor sod may have survived, though the rare blood type wouldn't have helped her chances. Transported and deprived of medical attention, she most certainly would have bled out.
'I'd better give Libby a ring,' Ryan said. Libby French was the Home Office pathologist, new to Northumbria, highly experienced. Everything he'd heard about her was encouraging. Like most in her profession, she was meticulous in her approach to her work.
'I have it covered,' O'Neil said. 'She's standing by.'
Ryan bent down for a closer look at the shoe that had featured in the video. It was a man's, grubby, recently scuffed, a brown leather wingtip brogue, hand-stitched round the upper. 'Left foot,' he observed. 'Expensive. More than I can afford on my salary.'
'Same here.' The last remaining crime scene investigator looked up from his evidence collection kit. Though most of his face was concealed, Ryan recognized the bloodshot eyes peering through the narrow strip between hood and mask as belonging to Pete Curtis, a CSI who'd been around since the days they were still called SOCOs. 'Won't be many in North Shields who can pay those prices,' he added. 'None who work for Northumbria Police anyway.'
'Don't suppose you managed to lift any prints?' Ryan could hope.
'Not even a partial.' Pete's voice was muffled by the material covering his mouth. 'It's not been here long – it's too clean for that.'
'Someone hightailed it out of here in a hurry. Take a look near the door.'
Ryan glanced in the general direction. Pete was no slouch. There were uneven marks in the dust near the entrance, evidence that would suggest someone moving at speed, scuffing their feet as they fled.
The killer, he supposed.
O'Neil's mobile beeped an incoming text. She turned away to access it. Seconds later, she pocketed the device, eyes trained on the shoe, an avoidance tactic if ever Ryan had seen one.
'I wonder if she left the shoe there on purpose,' she said.
Pete looked up, a question in his eyes: she?
O'Neil looked away.
Ryan managed not to react. The content of that message was serious, enough for her to take her eye off the ball. Quick as a flash, he covered for her, his focus back on the CSI. 'That goes no further, Big Ears. It's information way above your pay grade.'
'Understood.' The eyes behind the mask were smiling. 'Discretion is my middle name.'
Ryan could see that O'Neil was cursing herself for letting her guard down. He'd spent years in Special Branch, working undercover, living with the knowledge that the smallest slip of the tongue had the potential to cost lives, so a high level of secrecy came as second nature. That wasn't something she'd had to contend with in Professional Standards.
It wasn't the first time he'd seen her floundering and he hated to see her that way. From a shaky start – their first encounter had found them on opposing sides of a disciplinary action – she'd grown on him. No, more than that. A strong bond had developed between them, a chemistry that wasn't easy to define. It intrigued and excited him.
He dropped his voice to a whisper, reassuring her that the crime scene investigator was a man who could be trusted.
Her expression remained troubled.
'Guv, is there something you're not telling me?'
'I'll explain later.' O'Neil put her hand on his forearm, preventing him from moving off. 'Thanks, Ryan.'
He threw her a smile. 'Don't mention it.'
'This scene is much the same as Brighton: bloody but clean. Looks like our offender is forensically aware.'
'It wouldn't surprise me. She doesn't seem the type to compromise her safety by leaving physical evidence for us to find. On the tape, she was clinical. Flat calm. Not an agitated killer looking over her shoulder. She sounds like a woman on a mission to me.'
'On the phone too,' O'Neil said. 'I can't get that voice out of my head.'
Ryan could still hear the voice in his own head, but it was vying for attention with thoughts of his new role and responsibilities, the information O'Neil had given him on the way over, her uncharacteristic lapse in concentration a moment ago, and all the while he was trying to process details of the crime scene in front of him and identify any that didn't match the DVD footage. O'Neil's voice took him in another direction ...
'The time and date on the DVD can't be relied upon.' Her observation was spot on; the perpetrator could have tampered with the camera to throw them off the scent. 'Then again, most of this blood is dry, so it's possible whatever happened in here did take place on Sunday as the counter suggests.'
Ryan nodded his agreement.
Time and forensics would tell.
Being at the crime scene was like watching the DVD all over again. Blinking as a camera flash went off in the entrance to the lock-up, he surveyed the ceiling, visualizing the footage he'd seen at HQ, forcing the stream of thoughts racing through his mind to slow down so he could focus. There was something odd, something missing. He scanned the lock-up. 'She must've been standing right here when she was filming,' he said. 'Give or take a few feet.'
O'Neil agreed. 'The angle is consistent with the video.'
Fortunately, they were standing on tread plates to preserve evidence and avoid contamination. Ryan locked eyes with her. 'I'll say one thing, she's a dab hand with a camera. There was no discernible wobble on that recording.'
'She could have used a tripod.'
'She could.' He crouched down again to examine the dusty floor. 'There's no evidence to suggest that here though.' He stood up. 'She must have an accomplice, guv. Even if the victim is female, wouldn't a woman struggle to shift a dead weight on her own?'
'Not necessarily. Most coppers, firefighters, and half the nurses I've ever met could do it.' O'Neil swept a strand of red fringe from tired eyes. Under that tough exterior, Ryan sensed anxiety, not that he'd ever tell her that. She looked at him, perplexed. 'Why move the victim? It would have been a damned sight easier and a lot less risky to leave her here.'
Ryan frowned. 'The woman in the video said, "They both deserved to die." Maybe more than one victim's been moved.' O'Neil corrected him. 'What she actually said was, "They both deserved it," which means we can't be sure we're dealing with murder, serious assault or torture.'
'Either way, we could be looking at two victims.'
'Not from this scene.' The voice had come from behind them. Ryan and O'Neil swung round.
Pete tore away his mask as he moved closer. The man had war wounds, pain and suffering etched permanently on his brow. He'd seen more blood and guts than any individual could reasonably be expected to stomach in one lifetime. He held a hand up in apology.
'I know nothing,' he said.
O'Neil relaxed. 'One blood type is all you have?'
He nodded. 'If you have reason to believe there's a second victim, you need to be searching for another crime scene.' Hoisting his kit bag over his shoulder, he told them he was done, said goodbye and made for the door, his words echoing in their heads as he reached the plastic sheeting placed over the entrance.
'Hey!' O'Neil called after him.
He swung round to face her.
'What's your name?'
'Curtis, ma'am. Pete to my friends.'
'Thanks for the heads-up, Pete.'
It was one of the traits that had drawn Ryan to Eloise. She made it her business to get to know those whose expert opinions would be delivered in court. It was everyone's responsibility to preserve the chain of evidence, from crime scenes to the lab, reporting and storage. She didn't want to end up with a dismissal.
'You're very welcome,' Pete said. 'Someone will be back for the mobile lighting. We have all the photographs we need.'
Ryan's eyes flew to the ceiling. There was no overhead light. Rusty wires hung loose where a light had once been fitted. O'Neil locked eyes with him. She knew what he was thinking. This was the missing part of the puzzle he'd been struggling with earlier, quite literally a light-bulb moment.
'Ma'am?' Pete pointed to the mobile lights on tripods. 'You want them left?'
'There's no electricity in the building?'
'Not this century,' Pete said.
O'Neil didn't speak until he was out of sight. Her focus shifted from the loose wiring to the battery pack on the floor and then to Ryan. 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?'
'The killer must have brought her own.'
'Or, as you said, she had an accomplice standing by with a very large torch. We need to look at that video again.' She glanced at the exit. 'You sure you can vouch for Pete?'
'Relax, guv. He's a man of his word. He worked with Special Branch a lot. He's specialist-trained and vetted.'
'I hope you're right.'
'Trust me.' Ryan paused, considering. 'That's not what's bothering you though, is it? Are you going to tell me what is?'
'You want a list?'
'The woman who sent the DVD is really getting to you, isn't she?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Death Messenger"
Copyright © 2017 Mari Hannah.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.