Extract: In the Dark by Cara Hunter
A woman and child are found locked in a basement room, barely alive. No one knows who they are – the woman can’t speak, and there are no missing persons reports that match their profile. The elderly man who owns the house claims he has never seen them before.
The inhabitants of the quiet Oxford street are in shock – how could this happen right under their noses? But DI Adam Fawley knows that nothing is impossible. And that no one is as innocent as they seem…
Read on for an extract from In the Dark by Cara Hunter!
In The Dark
She opens her eyes to darkness as close as a blindfold. To the heaviness of old dank air that hasn’t been breathed for a long time.
Her other senses lurch awake. The dripping silence, the cold, the smell. Mildew and something else she can’t yet place, something animal and fetid. She moves her fingers, feeling grit and wet under her jeans. It’s coming back to her now – how she got here, why this happened.
How could she have been so stupid.
She stifles the acid rush of panic and tries to sit up, but the movement defeats her. She fills her lungs and shouts, flinging echoes against the walls. Shouts and shouts and shouts until her throat is raw.
But no one comes. Because no one can hear.
She closes her eyes again, feeling hot angry tears
seeping down her face. She is rigid with outrage and recrimination and conscious of little else until, in terror, she feels the first sharp little feet start to move across her skin.
Someone said, didn’t they, that April is the cruellest month. Well, whoever it was, they weren’t a detective. Cruelty can happen any time – I know, I’ve seen it. But the cold and the dark somehow dull the edge. Sunlight and birdsong and blue skies can be brutal in this job. Perhaps it’s the contrast that does it. Death and hope.
This story starts with hope. May 1st; the first day of spring – real spring. And if you’ve ever been to Oxford, you’ll know: it’s all or nothing in this place – when it rains the stone is piss-coloured, but in the light, when the colleges look like they’ve been carved from cloud, there is no more beautiful place on earth. And I’m just a cynical old copper.
As for May Morning, well, that’s the city at its most eccentric, its most defiantly ‘itself’. Pagan and Christian and a bit mad, and it’s hard to tell, a lot of the time, which is which. Choirboys singing in the sunrise on the top of a tower. Hurdy-gurdy bands jostling the all-night burger vans. The pubs open at 6 a.m., and half the student population is still pissed from the night before. Even the sober citizens of North Oxford turn out en masse with flowers in their hair (and you think I’m joking). There were over 25,000 people there last year. One of them was a bloke dressed as a tree. I think you get the picture.
So, one way or another it’s a big day in the police calendar. But it’s a long straw on the uniform roster, not a short one. The early start can be a bit of a killer, but there’s rarely any trouble, and we get plied with coffee and bacon sandwiches. Or at least we were, the last time I did it. But that was when I was still in uniform. Before I became a detective; before I made DI.
But this year, it’s different. This year, it’s not just the early start that’s the killer.
* * *
By the time Mark Sexton reaches the house he’s nearly an hour late. It should have been a clear run at that time of the morning but the traffic on the M40 was nose to tail, and the queue backed up all the way down the Banbury Road. And when he turns into Frampton Road there’s a builder’s truck blocking his drive. Sexton curses, slams the Cayenne into reverse and screeches backwards. Then he flings the car door open and steps out on to the street, narrowly missing a splatter of sick on the tarmac. He looks down in distaste, checking his shoes. What is it with this bloody city this morning? He locks the car, strides up to the front door, then digs into his pockets, looking for his keys. At least the scaffolding’s gone up now. The sale took far longer than expected, but it should still be done by Christmas, if they’re lucky. He lost out on an auction for a place on the far side of the Woodstock Road, and had to up his bid to get this one, but by the time he’s finished, it’ll be a bloody gold mine. The rest of the housing market might be treading water, but what with the Chinese and the Russians, prices just never seem to go down in this city. Only an hour from London and a top-notch private school for the boys only three streets away. His wife didn’t like the idea of semi-detached but he told her, just look at it – it’s bloody enormous. Genuine Victorian, four storeys above ground and a basement he plans to fit out as a state- of-the-art wine cellar and home cinema complex (not that he’s told his wife that yet). And only some old git living next door – he’s not going to be having many all-night parties, now is he. And yes, his garden is a bit of a state, but they can always stick up some trellis. The landscape designer said something about pleached trees. A grand a pop but it’s instant cover. Though even that won’t solve the problem out the front. He glances across at the rusting Cortina propped up on bricks outside number 33 and the three bicycles chained to a tree; the pile of rotting pallets and the black plastic sacks spilling empty beer cans on to the pavement. They were there the last time he came, two weeks ago. He’d shoved a note through the door asking the old git to get them moved. Clearly, he hasn’t.
The door opens. It’s Tim Knight, his architect, a roll of plans in hand. He smiles broadly and waves his client in.
‘Mr Sexton – good to see you again. I think you’re going to be pleased with the progress we’ve made.’
‘I bloody well hope so,’ says Sexton, with heavy irony. ‘This morning can’t get much worse.’
‘Let’s start at the top.’
The two men head up, their footsteps booming on the stripped wood. Upstairs, local radio is on full volume and there are builders in most of the rooms. Two plasterers on the top floor, a plumber in the en-suite bathroom and a specialist window restorer working on the sashes. One or two of the workmen glance over at Sexton but he doesn’t make eye contact. He’s got his tablet out and is annotating every job, and querying most of them.
They end up in the extension out at the back, where the old brick lean-to has been knocked down and a huge double-height glass and metal space is being built in its stead. Beyond the trees sloping down at the bottom of the garden they can just see the Georgian elegance of Crescent Square. Sexton wishes he could have afforded one of those, but hey, the market’s gone up 5 per cent since he bought this place, so he’s not complaining. He gets the architect to take him through the plans for the kitchen (‘Jesus, you don’t get much for sixty grand, do you? They don’t even throw in a sodding dishwasher’), then he turns, looking for the door to the cellar stairs.
Knight looks a little apprehensive.
‘Ah, I was coming to that. There’s been a bit of a hitch on the cellar.’
Sexton’s eyes narrow. ‘What do you mean, hitch?’
‘Trevor rang me yesterday. They’ve hit an issue with the party wall. We may need a proper legal agreement before we can fix it – whatever we do will affect next door.’
Sexton makes a face. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, we can’t afford to get the bloody lawyers involved. What sort of a sodding problem?’
‘They started taking off the plaster so they could chase in the new cabling but some of the brickwork was in a pretty bad way. God knows how long it’s been since Mrs Pardew went down there.’
‘Stupid old bat,’ mutters Sexton, which Knight decides to ignore. This is a very lucrative job.
‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘I’m afraid one of the young lads didn’t realize quick enough what he was dealing with. Don’t worry, though, we’re going to get the structural engineer in tomorrow–’
But Sexton is already pushing past him. ‘Let me see for my bloody self.’
The light bulb on the cellar stairs flickers bleakly as the two of them make their way down. The whole place reeks of mildew.
‘Mind where you’re treading,’ says Knight, ‘some of these steps aren’t safe. You could break your neck down here in the dark.’
‘Have you got a torch?’ calls Sexton, a few yards ahead. ‘I can’t see a bloody thing.’
Knight passes one down and Sexton snaps it on. He can see the problem straight away. Paint is blistering from what’s left of the old yellowing plaster and, underneath, most of the bricks are crumbling with dry grey mould. There’s a crack as wide as his finger from floor to ceiling that wasn’t there before.
‘Christ, are we going to have to underpin the whole bloody house? How come the surveyor missed this?’
Knight looks apologetic. ‘Mrs Pardew had units all along that wall. He wouldn’t have been able to get behind them.’
‘And more to the point, how come no one was monitoring that stupid little tosser who’s taken lumps out of my fucking wall–’
He picks up one of the builder’s tools from the floor and starts poking at the bricks. The architect steps forward. ‘Seriously, I wouldn’t do that–’
A brick falls away, then another, and then a chunk of masonry slips and crashes into dust at their feet. This time, Sexton’s shoes don’t escape the mess, but he doesn’t notice. He’s staring, mouth open, at the wall.
There’s a hole, perhaps two inches wide.
And in the gloom beyond, a face.
* * *
At the St Aldate’s police station newly promoted Detective Sergeant Gareth Quinn is on his second coffee and his third round of toast, his expensive tie flipped over one shoulder to keep it out of the crumbs. The expensive tie that goes with the expensive suit and the general aura of being just a bit too smart to be an ordinary copper. And that’s smart in both senses of the word, needless to say. The rest of the CID office is half empty; just Chris Gislingham and Verity Everett have arrived so far. The team don’t have a big case right now and DI Fawley is out all day at a conference, so it’s the rare indulgence of a late start followed by the always-enticing prospect of catching up with the paperwork.
There’s a moment, dust floating in the sun slanting through the blinds, the rustle of Quinn’s newspaper, the smell of coffee. And then the phone rings. It’s 9.17.
Quinn reaches over and picks it up.
‘CID.’ Then, ‘Shit. You sure?’
Gislingham and Everett look up. Gislingham, who’s always described as ‘sturdy’ and ‘solid’, and not just because he’s getting a bit chunky round the middle. Gislingham, who – unlike Quinn – hasn’t made DS and, given his age, probably won’t now. But don’t judge him on that. Every CID team needs a Gislingham, and if you were drowning, he’s the one you’d want on the other end of the rope. As for Everett, she’s someone else you can’t afford to judge on appearances: she may look like Miss Marple must have done at thirty-five, but she’s every bit as relentless. Or as Gislingham always puts it, Ev was definitely a bloodhound in a previous life.
Quinn’s still talking into the phone. ‘And there’s definitely no answer next door? OK. No – we’re on it. Tell uniform to meet us there, and make sure they bring at least one female officer.’
Gislingham’s already reaching for his jacket. Quinn puts the phone down and takes a last bite of his toast as he gets to his feet. ‘That was the switchboard. Someone called from Frampton Road – says there’s a girl in
the cellar next door.’
‘In the cellar?’ says Everett, her eyes widening.
‘Someone knocked through the wall by mistake. There’s an old bloke living in the house, apparently. But they can’t raise him.’
‘Yup. That’s about the size of it.’
When they pull up outside the house a crowd is already gathering. Some of them are clearly the builders from number 31, glad of any excuse to stop working that won’t get them more shit from Sexton; others are probably neighbours, and there’s a scatter of revellers with flowers in their hats and cans of lager in hand who look decidedly the worse for wear. The slightly surreal atmosphere isn’t helped by the life-size plastic cow pulled up by the kerb, draped in a floral tablecloth with daffodils round its horns. A couple of Morris men have started an impromptu performance on the pavement.
‘Blimey,’ says Gislingham as Quinn switches off the engine. ‘Do you think we can get them for parking that thing without a permit?’
They get out and walk across the road, just as two patrol cars draw up on the other side. One of the women in the crowd wolf whistles at Quinn and falls about laughing when he turns to look at her. Three uniformed officers join them from the cars. One of them has a battering ram; the female officer is Erica Somer. Gislingham spots a glance between her and Quinn, and sees the smile in her eyes at his embarrassment. So that’s how it is, he thinks. He’d suspected those two might have a thing going. Like he said to Janet the other night, he’s caught the two of them at the coffee machine together far too many times to be just coincidence. Not that he can blame Quinn –she’s a looker all right, even in uniform and sensible shoes. He just hopes she doesn’t expect too much: if Quinn was a dog, no one would call him Fido.
‘Do we know the name of the old man who lives here?’ asks Quinn.
‘A Mr William Harper, Sarge,’ says Somer. ‘We’ve called the paramedics, just in case there really is a girl there.’
‘I know what I bloody well saw.’
Quinn turns. A man in the sort of suit Quinn would buy if he had the money. Slim cut, silk weave, and a claret satin lining that glares with a purple check shirt and a pink spotted tie. He has ‘City’ written all over him. As well as ‘Very Pissed Off’.
‘Look,’ the man says, ‘how long is all this going to take? I have a meeting with my lawyer at three and if the traffic’s as bad getting back–’
‘Sorry, sir, and you are?’
‘Mark Sexton. Next door – I own it.’
‘So you were the one who called us?’
‘Yeah, that was me. I was down in the cellar with my architect and part of the wall gave way. There’s a girl in there. I know what I saw and, unlike this rabble, I’m not half-cut. Ask Knight – he saw it too.’
‘Right,’ says Quinn, gesturing the officer with the battering ram up to the door. ‘Let’s get on with it. And get that lot on the pavement under control too, will you? It’s like something out of the fucking Wicker Man out here.’
As Quinn moves away Sexton calls him back. ‘Hey – what about my bloody builders – when can they get back in?’
Quinn ignores him, but as Gislingham passes he taps him on the shoulder. ‘Sorry, mate,’ Gislingham says cheerily, ‘that posh refurb is just going to have to wait.’
On the front step, Quinn pounds on the door. ‘Mr Harper! Thames Valley Police. If you’re in there, please open the door or we will be forced to break it down.’
‘OK,’ says Quinn, nodding to the uniformed officer. ‘Do it.’
The door is tougher than it looks, considering the state of the rest of the house, but the hinges splinter at the third blow. Someone in the crowd cheers tipsily; the rest press forward, straining to see.
Quinn and Gislingham go in, and pull the door to behind them.
Inside the house, all is still. They can still hear the bells of the Morris dancers, and flies are buzzing somewhere in the stale air. The place clearly hasn’t been decorated for decades; paper is peeling off the walls and the ceilings are sagging and blotched with brown stains. There are newspapers scattered across the floor.
Quinn moves slowly down the hall, the old boards creaking, his shoes scuffing against the paper. ‘Is there anyone here? Mr Harper? It’s the police.’
And then he hears it. A whimpering noise. Close. He stands a moment, trying to work out where it’s coming from, then darts forward and throws open a door under the stairs.
There’s an old man sitting on the toilet dressed only in a vest. Tufts of wiry black hair cling to his scalp and shoulders. His underpants are round his ankles and his penis and testicles hang limply between his legs. He cowers away from Quinn, still mumbling, his bony fingers gripping the toilet seat. He’s filthy, and there’s shit on the floor.
Somer calls from the doorstep. ‘DS Quinn? The medics have arrived if you need them.’
‘Thank Christ for that – get them in here, will you?’
Somer stands back to let two men in green overalls come through the door. One squats down in front of the old man. ‘Mr Harper? There’s no need to be anxious. Let’s just take a look at you.’
Quinn motions to Gislingham and they back off towards the kitchen.
Gislingham whistles as the door swings open. ‘Someone call the V&A.’
An ancient gas cooker, 1970s brown-and-orange tiling, a metal sink. A Formica table with four unmatched chairs. And every single surface piled with dirty crockery and empty beer bottles and half-finished food cans alive with flies. All the windows are shut and the lino under their feet sticks to their shoes. There’s a glass door with a beaded curtain leading to a conservatory, and another door which must lead down to the cellar. It’s locked but there’s a bunch of keys on a nail. Gislingham seizes them, his fingers fumbling, and it takes three attempts to find the one that fits, but even though the key is rusted it turns without jamming. He pulls the door open and flicks on the light, then stands aside, letting Quinn go first. They make their way down slowly, step by step, the neon strip hissing over their heads.
‘Hello? Is there anyone down here?’
The light is drab, but it’s enough for them to see. The cellar is empty. Cardboard boxes, black plastic sacks, an old lampstand, a tin bath filled with junk. But apart from that, nothing.
They stand there, staring at each other, their hearts pounding so loudly they can barely hear. Then, ‘What was that?’ whispers Gislingham. ‘Sounds like scratching. Rats?’
Quinn starts involuntarily, scanning the ground at his feet; if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s bloody rats.
Gislingham looks around again, his eyes adjusting, wishing he’d brought the torch from the car. ‘What’s that over there?’
He pushes his way through the boxes and realizes suddenly that the cellar is much bigger than they thought.
‘Quinn – there’s another door here. Can you give me a hand?’
He tries the door but it won’t move. There’s a bolt at the top and Quinn eventually manages to yank it across, but the bloody door still won’t budge.
‘It must be locked,’ says Gislingham. ‘Do you still have those keys?’
It’s even worse finding the right one in the half-light, but they do it. Then they put their shoulders to the door and it slowly shunts forward until a wave of foul air hits them and they have to put their hands to their mouths to face the stench.
A young woman is lying on the concrete floor at their feet, wearing a pair of jeans ripped at the knees and a ragged cardigan that was probably yellow once. Her mouth is open and her eyes closed. Her skin is dead white in the sallow glare.
But there’s something else. Something nothing prepared them for.
Sitting by her, pulling at her hair.
* * *
And where was I when all this happened? I’d love to say it was something gritty and impressive like Special Branch liaison or anti-terrorism, but the dreary truth was a training course in Warwick. ‘Community Policing in the 21st Century’. Inspectors and above; aren’t we the lucky ones. What with the death by PowerPoint and the stupid o’clock early start, I was beginning to think the uniforms on the May Morning stint had decidedly the better deal. But then I got the call. Followed swiftly by an exasperated frown from the officious organizer person who’d insisted we turn our phones off, and an audible sigh when I duck out into the corridor. She’s probably worrying I’ll never come back.
‘They’ve taken the girl to the John Rad,’ says Quinn. ‘She’s in a pretty bad way – she’s obviously not eaten for some time and she’s severely dehydrated. There was one bottle of water left in the room, but I suspect she’s been giving most of it to the kid. The medics will be able to tell us more after they’ve done a proper examination.’
‘And the boy?’
‘Still not saying anything. But, Christ, he can’t be much more than two – what’s he going to be able to tell us anyway? Poor little sod wouldn’t let Gis or me anywhere near him, so Somer went in the ambulance. We arrested Harper at the scene, but when we tried to get him out of the house he started kicking and being abusive. Alzheimer’s, I’m guessing.’
‘Look, I know I don’t need to say this, but if Harper is a vulnerable adult we’ll have to play this one by the book.’
‘I know. We have it covered. I called Social Services. And not just for him. That kid’s going to need help too.’
There’s a silence and I suspect we’re both thinking the same thing.
It’s quite possible we’re dealing with a child who’s known nothing else – who was born down there. In the dark.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘I’m leaving now. I’ll be there by noon.’
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