It’s one of the most disturbing cases DI Fawley has ever worked. It’s the Christmas holidays, and two children have just been pulled from the wreckage of their burning home in North Oxford. The toddler is dead, and his brother is fighting for his life.
Questions are being asked. Why were they left in the house alone? Where is their mother, and why is their father not answering his phone? Then new evidence is discovered, and DI Fawley’s worst nightmare comes true: the fire wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
Read on for an extract from No Way Out by Cara Hunter!
No Way Out
I bloody hate Christmas. I suppose I must have liked it once, when I was a kid, but I don’t remember. As soon as I was old enough I’d walk – anything to get out of the house. I never had anywhere to go, but even walking the streets in circles was better than sitting around the living room staring at each other, or the exquisite torture of yet another Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special. And the older I’ve got the more I loathe this time of year. Cheery festive tat from the end of October to long after New Year. You’ll change your mind, people said, when you have kids; you’ll see – Christmas with a child of your own is a magical time. And it was. When we had Jake, it was. I remember him making the most amazing paper decorations, all on his own – reindeer and snowmen and polar bears in cut-outs and careful, intricate silhouettes. And we had holly, and oranges in the toes of knitted stockings, and little white lights strung across the garden. I remember it actually snowed one year, and he sat there, at his bedroom window, completely entranced as huge flakes swirled softly down, barely heavy enough to fall. So yes, it was magical. But what happens when you’ve lost the child who made it so – what then? People never talk to you about that. They don’t tell you how to cope with the Christmas that comes After. Or the next, or the one after that.
There’s work, of course. At least, there is for me.
Though Christmas is a crap time to be a police officer. Just about every crime you can think of goes up. Theft, domestic violence, public disorder. Mostly low-level stuff, but the amount of bloody admin it creates is still the same. People have too much to drink, too much time on their hands, and so much twenty-four-hour proximity to people they’re supposed to love they find out that, actually, they don’t. And what with that and everyone wanting to take leave, we’re always short-staffed. Which is a very long way of explaining why I’m standing in a freezing cold kitchen at 5.35 a.m. in the dead zone at the fag-end of the holidays, staring out at the dark, listening to the Radio 4 news while I wait for the kettle to boil. There are dirty plates in the sink because I can’t be bothered to empty the dishwasher, the bins are overflowing because I missed the change to the collection day and the food caddy has been upended all over the side path, possibly by next-door’s cat, but more likely by the fox I’ve spotted in the garden once or twice lately, in the early hours. And if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing up at such a godforsaken time, well, you won’t have to wonder very long.
The radio switches to Prayer for the Day and I switch it off. I don’t do God. And definitely not at this time in the morning. I pick up my mobile, hesitate a moment then make the call. And yes, I know it’s stupid o’clock, but I don’t think I’ll wake her. She turns her phone off at night. Like a normal human being.
I hear the predictable four rings, the click, and the not-quite-human female voice telling me the person I am calling is not available. Then the tone.
‘Alex – it’s me. Nothing heavy. Just wanted to check you’re OK. That it’s helping. I mean, having time to think. Like you said.’
What is it about talking to machines that makes sup- posedly intelligent people blither like morons? There’s a sticky brown stain on the work surface I can’t remember being there yesterday. I start scraping at it with my thumbnail.
‘Tell your sister I said hello.’ Then a pause. ‘That’s it, really. Look, just call me, OK?’ I listen to the silence. I know it’s impossible but half of me is hoping she’s listening too. That she’ll pick up. ‘I miss you.’
I love you.
Which I should have said, but didn’t. I’m trying not to remember exactly how long it is since she actually spoke to me. A week? More. I think it was the day after Boxing Day. I kept hoping New Year would make a difference. That we could put the whole thing behind us then, as if a completely arbitrary change in the numbering of the days could make the slightest difference to how she feels. How I feel.
The kettle boils and I poke about in the cupboard for coffee. All that’s left is the jar of cheap instant Alex keeps for plumbers and decorators. Those poncey pod things ran out days ago. It was Alex who really wanted that machine. The cheap instant has some balls, though, and I’ve just poured a second when the phone rings.
‘No, boss. It’s me. Gislingham.’
I can feel my cheeks redden. Did I sound as desperate to him as I did to me? ‘What is it, Gis?’
‘Sorry to call so early, boss. I’m at Southey Road. There’s been a fire overnight. They’re still struggling to get it under control.’
But I know the answer before I ask. Gis wouldn’t be calling me at 5.45 otherwise.
I hear him draw breath. ‘Only one so far, boss. A little kiddie. There’s an older boy too, but they managed to get to him in time. He’s alive – just. They’ve taken him to the John Rad.’
‘No sign of the parents?’ ‘Not yet.’
‘I know. We’re trying to keep that from the press but it’s only a matter of time. Sorry to drag you out of bed and all that, but I think you should be here –’
‘I was already awake. And I’m on my way.’
Enjoyed this extract from No Way Out by Cara Hunter? Let us know in the comments below!