Best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe novels, which were adapted into a hit BBC series, Reginald Hill proves himself to be a “master of . . . cerebral puzzle mysteries” in his stand-alone thrillers as well—now available as ebooks (The New York Times).
When four-year-old Noll is abducted from an Essex kindergarten, his grieving mother, Jane Maguire, sets off alarms for Det. Inspector Dog Cicero. She’s a liar, has a quick-temper, and a dodgy reputation for taking out her frustrations on her little angel. Then Jane makes a startling confession: She murdered Noll and threw his body in the Thames. For the first time since Dog met her, he’s sure of one thing: Whatever Jane was guilty of, she hadn’t killed her son. The question now is, who is she protecting with this grim deception? And if Noll isn’t dead, where is he? Even Dog isn’t prepared for the answers as it leads down a serpentine trail for the truth—and into the heart of a desperate mother with more to lose than she can imagine.
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About the Author
Reginald Hill is a native of Cumbria and former resident of Yorkshire, the setting for his novels featuring Superintendent Dalziel and DCI Pascoe, ‘the best detective duo on the scene bar none’ (‘Daily Telegraph’). Their appearances have won him numerous awards including a CWA Gold Dagger and Lifetime Achievement award. They have also been adapted into a hugely popular BBC TV series.
Read an Excerpt
'Life is either comedy, tragedy, or soap,' said Oliver Beck.
'All right. What are these two?'
A middle-aged couple strolled by them on the promenade deck.
'He's tragic, she's comic, together they're soap,' said Beck promptly.
She laughed out loud and for the next half hour they lounged in their deck chairs, categorizing passers-by and giggling together behind a glossy magazine.
The all-seeing purser intercepted her as she went down to the gymnasium.
'Miss Maguire,' he said grimly. 'I think you should remember you're a recreation officer on this ship, not a first-class passenger.'
'We could soon change that,' said Beck casually when she told him.
'For good maybe.'
She'd come to his cabin for a night cap, but she knew then she was going to stay.
It was her first time and she modestly turned aside as she slipped off her pants. His hand flapped her buttocks, more a caress than a slap, but she spun round, modesty forgotten, and blazed, 'Don't do that!'
A small child being dragged unwillingly along a busy street, her mother pausing to lift the girl 's skirt and administer a sharp slap to the upper leg. 'I'll really give you something to cry about, my girl, if that's what you want.' People passing by, indifferent.
'Sorry,' he said. She saw a veil of wariness dim the bright desire in his eyes. I'm spoiling it, she thought desperately. A child again, but now a child wanting to please, she raised her right leg till it pointed straight in the air, then bent her knee and tucked her foot behind her head against the cascade of long red hair.
'Can you do that?' she challenged.
'Oh my God,' he said thickly. 'That's real crazy.'
If she amazed him with her double-jointed athleticism, she amazed herself even more with the depths of her sensuality. Afterwards they rolled apart, exhausted, and she examined his face. In the liner's public rooms he looked smooth, sophisticated, a successful businessman in his thirties, clearly at least ten years her senior. Now, his hair tousled, his face muscles relaxed with satisfied desire, he looked barely twenty.
'What are we?' she asked softly. 'Tragic, comic, or pure soap?'
He grinned and lost a couple more years.
'None of those, my crazy Jane,' he murmured. 'There's a special category for people like us. We're the ones who decide what the rest are. We switch them on and off. We're the Immortals, baby. We're the Gods.'
And lying there, lulled by the great seas streaming under the ship's bow and bathed in the afterglow of those ecstasies which had lifted her out of this time, this space, into a universe of their own creating, she almost believed him.
The sea again, that same sea, picked up in handfuls and hurled like gravel against the storm windows of their house on Cape Cod. A ringing at the door bell. Two men in sou'westers.
'It's bad, I'm afraid, Mrs Beck. Your husband's boat. They've spotted some wreckage.'
'But that could be anything. In weather like this ...' 'They found this too.'
An orange life preserver. Stencilled on it 'The Crazy Jane'.
Still she protests. 'But that doesn't mean ...'
The second man, impatient of hope, cuts in. 'He was wearing it, Mrs Beck. We'll need you for identification.'
She begins to sway, clutches the door frame for support. Behind her, deep in the house, a child begins to cry.
'So you're back,' said her mother. 'You could have given me a bit more warning.'
'It was a snap decision.'
'Act in haste, repent at leisure, always your way. And he's dead? Drowned, you said?'
'Well, I'm sorry for your sake. I can't say more than that, never having had the pleasure of meeting him. And this is the boy.'
'Come over here, Oliver, and let's be taking a look at you. What's up with the child? I'm your gran, Oliver. Though it's maybe not so odd he's shy. Most kiddies know their gran before they get to four.'
'He's a bit tired. And we ... I call him Noll.'
'Noll? He'll not thank you for that. What's the point of baptizing a child if you're going to start fiddling with his name?'
'It's what I want to call him. And he's not baptized.'
'Holy Mary, Mother of God. How can you take such a risk? We never know the moment when we'll be called. You should know that better than most, you who've had both your da and your man snatched away from you in their prime. Never mind. We can soon put that to rights.'
'No!' she cried. 'I don't want him baptized, Mam. And it's no use bringing in the Inquisition, I'll not talk to any priests, especially not old Father Bleaney from St Mary's. He's half dotty and he doesn't wash!'
'You're not wrong there, girl. He smells of more than sanctity, there's no denying it. But he's a holy man for all that. And you'd better understand this. I'm the one who says who'll come into this house, and you're the one who'll be polite to them while you're living here. God preserve us, if you'd come a half hour earlier you'd have met Father Blake. What would you have done then, my girl? Turned on your heel and flounced off like you used to do?'
'No. Of course not. Who's Father Blake anyway?'
'A colleague of your Uncle Patrick's, rest his soul. Do you not read my letters as well as not answer them? He comes across from time to time to inspect the Priory College where your uncle worked. He always calls to pay his respects and he brought me pictures of Patrick's grave. You'll meet him if you stay long enough. And you'd better be polite. How long are you staying, anyway?'
'Till I get settled, if that's all right.'
'All right? This is your home, whatever you may treat it as. What do you mean, settled?'
'Till I find a job.'
'Did he not leave you provided for? Typical Yank. All show. Any man rich enough to drown in his own boat ought to be able to leave his wife looked after. What'll you do? Try the teaching again?'
Mist on Ingleborough. Not yet thick but blowing in patches. A crocodile of teenagers descending, now visible along its length, now segmented.
Two girls crouching in the lee of a rock to light cigarettes.
'What are you two playing at? Didn't you hear Miss Marks tell you to keep close?'
'We'll be along in a minute, miss. We'll soon catch up with them wallies.'
'You 'll get along now. Come on. Put those fags out and move yourselves.'
The girls exchange glances, neither wanting to show weakness.
'For heaven's sake, don't act so stupid. Don't you know how dangerous it can be out here in the mist?'
'We're almost down, aren't we? And who are you calling stupid?'
'Don't give me any of your cheek, Betty. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. Move it.'
One girl rises, the other lowers her head sullenly, draws deep on her cigarette, mutters, 'Get stuffed, you smelly dyke.'
Mist on Ingleborough. An experienced teacher might play deaf, save it for later.
'What did you say, Betty?'
A glance at her friend. Too far for retreat. The cigarette dangling from the side of her magenta mouth. 'Everyone knows what old Ma Marks is like. Same with all PE teachers, I expect. Is that what the hurry is? Can't wait to get us in the showers?'
'You foul-mouthed slut! And put that cigarette out!'
A hand snakes out. Flesh cracks on flesh, the cigarette goes flying in a trail of sparks.
'You rotten slag! I'll get the law on you for this! My mum 'll have your eyes out when I tell her.'
'Betty, come back. Not that way. Betty!'
'No need to shout,' said Mrs Maguire. 'You always were too sensitive, even as a child. Stop dwelling on things. You'll never get anywhere if you're always lugging the past along with you. Oliver, that's not to play with. Oliver, put that down ... There, now look what you've done. Are you not going to chastise him then? It's the only way he'll learn.'
'There'll be none of that, not with my son, Mam.'
'No? Well, it's your business, I suppose. And it'll be you who gets to suffer later. But I'll tell you this, my girl. I kept that ornament on that shelf all the time you were growing up, and it never got broken. So make what you like of that!'
The streets of home, unchanged but measuring change, familiar sights that no longer include her, that make her a ghost.
Then suddenly a welcoming and welcome voice.
'Jane? Jane Maguire! I'd know that hair anywhere. I didn't know you were back in Northampton.'
'Jimmy. How are you? It's good to see you. Still running the club?'
'Such as it is. Tell you what, Jane, we could do with a few young prospects like you. Remember the Junior AA? By God, you shifted that day! I thought, another two, three years, next Olympics maybe ... Anyway, what are you doing now? You went to PE college, didn't you?'
'That's right. But I didn't take to teaching. I worked as a recreation officer with a cruise firm for a while, but now I'm back on the market. Any ideas?'
A shrewd examination. 'Still in good shape? You look it. PE qualifications? Aerobics, physiotherapy, that kind of thing?'
'I did a bit on the liners. And I specialized in sports injuries at college. Why?'
'Chum of mine, George Granger, has started a health centre and I know he's looking for qualified staff. Trouble is, it's down in Romchurch, just outside London, so it won't be cheap living and I doubt if he'll be paying a fortune.'
'Romchurch in Essex? I did my training in Essex, near Basildon, not too far away ...'
The returning ghost clings to the familiar ...
'Jimmy, can you give me a number? Essex would suit me very well.'
'Going?' said Mrs Maguire. 'But you've been here no time at all.'
'Nearly a month. It's long enough.'
'This job. I thought you said you weren't starting till the beginning of September?'
'I've got things to do, arrangements to make.'
'About Oliver, you mean?'
'About Noll. Yes. And other things.'
'I don't see how you're going to be able to work and look after him. He'll be a tie. You're not settled inside yourself yet, I can see that. Why don't you leave him here till you see how things work out?'
'Leave him with you, you mean?'
'No need to sound so disbelieving. I've got used to him. He's a bit on the spoilt side, maybe, but that's the Yank way, and he's young enough not to have suffered any lasting damage. His old gran will soon lick him into shape ...'
'Well, it's a fair offer and for the child's sake, I'll let it stand. Remember that when things start going wrong for you, as they surely will. It's not your fault, you take after your da, God rest his soul, and like him, you're proud and stubborn, never admitting you're in the wrong, always looking for someone else to blame ...'
'How dare you! You of all people, after what you did to him and me ... '
'There you go. What was it I just said? Well, blame me all you like, my girl, but remember, there'll be no excuse for blaming little Oliver, not when he's got a good home waiting for him here.'
She left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
Jane stood for half a minute, perfectly still. She forced herself to relax, but when she looked down she saw that her hands were still tightly balled into fists. Slowly, finger by finger, she opened them wide.
Her power over me is finished, she told herself. The power of family, the power of priests. It's all in the past, everything is in the past, my mistakes, other people's mistakes. The future is mine to make it what I will. Mine and Noll's. Together.
Nothing will make me leave him here.
I'd rather ...
It was still raining when Jane Maguire came out of the pub.
She'd had three gin-and-tonics and a packet of crisps which she'd only bought because the barman had said, 'You OK, darling?' as she ordered the third gin, as if buying something to eat changed her from a woman with a problem to a working girl on her lunch break.
Coatless, she ran across the car park, feeling as light and easy as when she'd been fourteen and one of the best sprint prospects in England. She hadn't bothered to lock the car. Once inside, only a madman would steal it. There were spoors of rain down the windows where the sealing had perished, and the carpet was soggy through the rust holes in the floor.
But at least it started first time. There was always something to be grateful for, as her mother used to say. Including presumably slaps across the leg.
She didn't want to think about that, not after this morning.
She drove steadily, blanking out past and future. Dead on three, she turned into Charnwood Grove. Perhaps once the narrow street had been lined with trees, but now only a few lamp posts rose between the twin terraces of big bayed Edwardian villas confronting each other so self-importantly, like wise guardians of the poor ... where had that phrase popped up from? It was hardly apt, especially at this time of day. Until the arrival of her mobile rust bucket, there was little sign of poverty outside Number Twenty-nine which housed the Vestey Kindergarten. Mercs, BMWs and Audis gleamed and purred here, most of them newish and many, she guessed, second cars. Fathers sometimes figured in the morning drop, but the afternoon pickup was entirely female.
As she went up the steps a couple of women, expensively wrapped against the rain, looked at her strangely. Nearly three months of twice daily encounters hadn't got her past the nodding stage with any of them. She didn't blame them. People who drove cars like theirs steered clear of people who drove cars like hers – in every sense! She paused in the doorway to confirm their wisdom by shaking the raindrops out of her hair, then stepped inside.
Mrs Vestey did her best with beeswax polish and ozone-friendly aerosols, but on a wet day it was beyond even her powers to stop the school from smelling like a school. As usual she was standing by the entrance to the cloakroom, in which a melee of staff and mothers were preparing the youngsters for the perilous passage from front door to kerb. She was a tall, dark woman with a slightly hooked nose and long white teeth which she flashed in a welcoming smile as she said, 'Hello, Mrs Maguire. No problems, I hope?'
'No,' said Jane harshly.
'Oh, good. I feared that you might be going to tell me that the little upset had turned into something communicable. It's a constant nightmare as I'm sure you can imagine. So, what can I do for you?'
'Nothing,' said Jane. 'I'll just pick up Noll and be on my way.'
She pushed past the headmistress into the cloakroom and stood there a minute looking at the children.
Then she turned and said quietly to Mrs Vestey, 'Where's Noll?'
The woman gave her another long-toothed smile, this time not of welcome but incomprehension. At the same time her nostrils flared as though catching a worrying scent.
And Jane knew that the moment was close, the moment when fear became fact. But there were still lines to speak.
'Please, Mrs Vestey,' she said, 'has something happened? Has he been taken ill?'
'Yes, yes ... at least I understood so ...' said the woman uncertainly. 'But you yourself ...'
She paused, took a deep breath, and when she spoke again, it was in the assertive tone of someone who needs to get basic facts established in a welter of uncertainty.
'Noll is not here, Mrs Maguire,' she said.
'Not here? Where is he then? Has he been taken to hospital? Why wasn't I ...'
'No! Mrs Maguire,' interrupted Mrs Vestey, 'I mean Noll has never been here today. You yourself rang to say he was ill ...'
'I rang? What do you mean? Why should I ...'
'Someone rang,' said Mrs Vestey firmly. 'But if it wasn't you, then why didn't you bring Noll to school as usual?'
'I did!' cried Jane, her voice rising now and attracting the attention of other parents. 'I did!'
'You brought him yourself? And brought him inside?'
'No,' admitted Jane. 'Not inside. I was going to, but I was very late, so I left him on the steps with Miss Gosling ...'
'I'm sorry? With whom?'
'Miss Gosling. For God's sake, what kind of school is this where you don't know your own staff?'
'I know my staff very well,' said Mrs Vestey. 'And I assure you, I employ no one called Gosling.'
'So I've got the name wrong!' cried Jane in a voice of rising panic. 'She's the new one. She started last week. I want to see her, where is she? What's she done with Noll?'
And now a little compassion crept into Mrs Vestey's voice as she produced her clinching argument.
'Perhaps you'd better sit down, Mrs Maguire. I can assure you I have appointed no new member of staff for over a year now, so whoever you left your son with had no connection with this establishment. Mrs Maguire, are you all right? Mrs Maguire!'
But Jane was swaying away from her. This was worse than her worst imaginings. Her body was no longer her own. She heard a voice say, 'It's all my fault. I shouldn't have hit him.' The room turned and a carousel of anxious faces undulated round her. But she could see beneath their surface concern to the grinning skulls, and the wintry light was flickering at the edges as though cast by flame.
It was time to fall into that flame and let it consume her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Only Game"
Copyright © 1993 Estate of Reginald Hill.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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