Whenever James was reminded of the serial killer who struck in Kirkby Abbey a year ago, he found it hard not to dwell on it. Now, as he left the cottage and drove towards Kendal, the memories came rushing back.
He could still picture those dreadful crime scenes with unwelcome clarity, along with the blizzards that had hindered the investigation.
The media dubbed the perp ‘The Christmas Killer’ and the damage that was inflicted had left scars in the community that may never fully heal.
It had all started just seven weeks after he’d moved into his new home and his new job, and he was thrust right into the thick of it because the killer had contacted him personally. It had turned out to be one of the biggest and most disturbing cases James had ever worked on, but during the course of the investigation he’d got to know a great deal about Kirkby Abbey and the people who lived there.
The village was typical of many in the sprawling northern county of Cumbria that encompasses the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. It had two pubs, a school, a monthly farmers’ market and a population of around seven hundred. And throughout the year it attracted lots of sightseers and fell walkers.
There was also the Catholic church of St John’s, which was supposed to have closed at the start of the year because of falling numbers in the congregation. However, just like the primary school, it had secured a reprieve, thanks to a funding boost from a campaign to save it and a government grant, and had been given a fresh lease of life with the appointment of a new priest.
It was a quiet village and, before last year’s murderous rampage, had been crime free, save for the occasional act of vandalism committed by bored youths. The county at large also had a low crime rate and was regarded as one of the safest areas to live in the UK.
The Constabulary consisted of over two thousand personnel, most of them active police officers, and operated from fourteen stations, including the one at Kendal where James was now employed.
As a detective inspector, James was one of the most senior officers based in the market town and had a highly professional team working with him.
Though not everyone welcomed him with open arms when he’d started. There were some who viewed him as an outsider and resented the fact that he had been given the job that another long-serving detective had expected to get. Others just couldn’t fathom why he would want to move from the busy metropolis to a county where nothing much happened. His stock answer was that he and his wife no longer enjoyed living in London and so had seized the opportunity to move to Kirkby Abbey after Annie inherited the family home from her mother.
He’d not told most people the real reason; only a small number of his superior officers were privy to that information.
The twenty-five-mile drive to Kendal took James through some of Britain’s most stunning countryside, and as the sun had made an appearance, the landscape was displayed in all its glory.
Winter had stripped the fells of life and laid down a carpet of snow that was criss-crossed by a web of low dry-stone walls. Wind ruffled the tops of the trees and ice-covered streams glittered like precious gems.
James had never realised just how beautiful the area was until he’d moved here, and he had since come to fully appreciate why it was regarded as one of the ‘crown jewels’ of England. The stunning landscape contained a treasure trove of spectacular and unusual features – dramatic waterfalls, brooding lakes, deep ravines, awesome cave systems and towering white cliffs. Now a resident, he was determined to make the most of it and in the future planned to visit as many places as possible with his wife and their son or daughter.
He arrived at the station on the dot at nine, and found that most of his colleagues were already in the office. Several had got there just before him and were in the process of unwrapping themselves from winter coats and scarves.
As he approached his desk, someone called his name and he turned to see the smiling face of Detective Constable Jessica Abbott. She was standing on the other side of the room holding a tray and she gestured to it, asking silently if he wanted a coffee from the canteen.
‘Yes please,’ he said. ‘And in case you’ve forgotten, it’s milk and no sugar.’
She laughed. ‘I’d not forgotten, guv. You haven’t been away for that long.’
He removed his overcoat and hung it up, then sat and turned on his computer.
There was a mound of paperwork on his desk, but he wouldn’t go through it until after the morning briefing when those officers who’d been on duty over Christmas would bring the rest of the team up to date. He already knew they hadn’t been worked off their feet, and if something serious was going down he was confident he would already have been notified.
His computer screen flickered to life and he was about to check his emails when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
‘Morning, boss. Did you have a good break?’
He glanced up to see Detective Sergeant Phil Stevens leaning against the edge of his own desk while chewing on a slice of toast. His shirt was unbuttoned and his tie hung loose at the collar.
‘I did, thanks, Phil,’ James said. ‘What about you?’
Stevens shook his head. ‘I couldn’t wait to come back in this morning, if I’m honest. It was hard work spending three days and nights with the in-laws.’
It occurred to James that his colleague did look tired. His eyes appeared heavy and sandpaper stubble coated his chin.
‘I gather you’re in charge today,’ Stevens said.
James nodded, but didn’t say that he had only just remembered that DCI Tanner wouldn’t be in until Friday because he’d spent Christmas in Scotland with his family and was still up north. ‘I’ll kick things off once everyone is settled.’
Stevens nodded. ‘Feel free to offload any crap onto me. I’ll need to keep myself busy so I don’t doze off.’
James smiled to himself as he thought about how far he and Stevens had come. They’d had a rough start to their working relationship when James first moved to Cumbria, as Stevens had felt ousted by the new arrival. But the longer they worked together, the easier it became, and he was now James’s righthand man.
James returned his attention to the computer screen and brought up his emails.
The very latest had dropped into his inbox only ten minutes ago and when he saw who it was from his pulse jumped a notch.
Leo Freeman was one of his former colleagues in the Met and he only ever got in touch to provide updates on a man named Andrew Sullivan, who was the main reason James and Annie had moved out of London.
James opened up the email and learned that Scotland Yard wanted to question Sullivan in connection with a gangland murder that had taken place in the capital a week ago.
‘I thought you’d want to know that the bastard has dropped off our radar,’ Freeman wrote. ‘He’s not at home and we haven’t been able to trace him. I’ll keep you informed of progress. Meanwhile, stay vigilant.’
James felt a ripple of unease; Sullivan was one of London’s most vicious gang bosses. He’d served thirteen months of a life sentence for murdering a nightclub owner but was released from prison fifteen months ago after a man who was himself already serving life for another murder confessed to the killing. There was no doubt in James’s mind that the confessor was lying. After all, he had nothing to lose since he would almost certainly die in prison given his age and the length of his sentence.
As it was James who secured Sullivan’s conviction while working with Scotland Yard’s Murder Investigation Team – and because previous to that he’d spent time with the National Crime Agency, where he and his team caused serious disruption to Sullivan’s illicit activities – Sullivan had made it known upon his release that he intended to seek revenge.
He blamed James for putting him away and for the fact that whilst he was in prison his wife of five years had left him and took their four-year-old son with her, moving abroad to make sure he wouldn’t find her.
In a phone call a year ago, he’d told James, ‘You and me have some unfinished business. So sooner or later we’ll be meeting up. And it’ll be at a time and place of my choosing.’
During the past year James had come to believe that Sullivan now posed less of a threat because he hadn’t been in touch again and his movements in London were being monitored by the Met. Even Annie had stopped worrying about him and he was rarely mentioned these days.
But the fact that he had now vanished from the Met’s radar made James wonder if he would seek to settle old scores before the net closed in on him once again.
‘Here’s your coffee, guv. Milk, no sugar.’
DC Abbott’s voice broke into his thoughts and he was glad because he didn’t want to spend any more time fretting over Andrew Sullivan. He told himself that there was probably no need, anyway.
‘That’s kind of you,’ he said, taking the Styrofoam cup that she held out for him. ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’
She shrugged. ‘It was no different to any other year, guv. My boyfriend and I gave each other presents neither of us really wanted and we drank far too much gin and wine, which meant we were nursing hangovers for much of the time.’
James cracked a smile. ‘Sounds like your Christmas was no different to most other people’s.’
She blew the fringe out of her eyes and smiled back at him.
‘That’s exactly what my mum told me,’ she said, before moving on to hand out more drinks.
James had a lot of time for DC Abbott. She was in her early thirties and one of the youngest members of the team. She was also sharper than a syringe and easy to get on with.
He turned back to the emails and was relieved that they didn’t reveal any further nasty surprises.
After that, he convened the morning meeting.
There were eleven people present, including three civilian staff, and they all listened attentively as the list of cases that were being dealt with from the last couple of days were read out, including two burglaries, a public order offence, three acts of vandalism and an attack on a pensioner. The group learned that there were also officers currently attending a domestic dispute in town and a suspected hit and run in Burnside.
Once everyone had been updated on all the active investigations, James handed out various tasks.
‘So, it seems we haven’t got too much on our plate right now,’ he told the group. ‘I think it’s safe to say that we can look forward to an easy day. It’ll give us time to get—’
He was interrupted by one of the civilian staff who thrust his arm in the air and said in a loud, shaky voice, ‘You might have spoken too soon there, sir. I’ve just heard from control. Uniform are responding to a three-nine and it sounds serious.’
‘Any details?’ James asked.
‘The call came from a woman who’s at a farm a few miles south of Kirkby Abbey. She claims there are three dead bodies in the farmhouse. And she’s described it as a bloodbath.’