When the remains of seven unidentified women are been discovered at a house deep in the countryside, DI Ray Mason is ready to risk everything in the hunt for their killers. But there’s one person who saw the murders and is now on the run in fear of his life – and so begins the race to track down this witness before the killers do.
For Ray Mason and PI Tina Boyd, the road ahead is a dangerous one, with bodies and betrayal at every turn…
Read on for the first chapter of The Hanged Man!
The Hanged Man
Hugh Manning knew he was a marked man but he’d planned for this day for a long, long time. Fifteen years ago he’d thrown in his hat with the wrong people and from that point forward he’d been preparing for a way out. In the interim he’d made a serious amount of money. Millions. Most of which the taxman had never seen.
Right now, though, sitting in the cramped spare bedroom of the cottage he’d bought through an offshore company three years earlier, he would have given up every penny just to be able to sleep properly at night. For the last two weeks he and his wife had effectively been on the run. Diana had had an idea who he’d been working for but, even so, she’d still been shocked when he’d announced one morning that they had to leave their beloved Georgian townhouse in Bayswater for ever, with just enough luggage to fit in the car.
She hadn’t liked it, of course. There’d been tears, anger and recriminations. But Diana had enjoyed the money just as much as him, and anyway there was nothing she could do about it. If she’d stayed behind, they’d have come for her too.
The plan had been to take a ferry from Felixstowe to Rotterdam using the fake passports he possessed in his and Diana’s names, buy a pair of airline tickets for cash in a bucket shop, then fly from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Panama City. Panama was a country neither of them had ever visited, or even researched online, so no one would come looking for them there. Manning had watched a programme on it once, though, and thought it looked a nice place to live. Even the healthcare system was world class. They’d rent a property and settle in one of the quiet towns on the Pacific coast, living comfortably on the $2.2 million he kept in a numbered bank account in the Cayman Islands until they died peacefully of old age many years down the line.
As plans went it was thorough and well thought-out, but then, like most good lawyers, Manning was a thorough man. Unfortunately, what looks great in theory can fall apart very quickly in practice, and when they’d arrived at Felixstowe there’d been some sort of security alert going on. Diana had panicked, convinced that the alert was about them, and had refused to travel. In truth Manning had panicked too, but he’d still blamed Diana for their hesitation, and now, instead of basking in the tropical sunshine of Central America, they were stuck out here in the featureless flatlands of rural Lincolnshire, waiting for the police to conclude that the two of them were dead or had fled the country and lift the all-ports alert Manning was sure they had put in place.
He was sitting at the window in the spare bedroom from where he had a good vantage point over the rolling, treeless fields, watching for Diana’s car. She’d left to go shopping for supplies in Horncastle – an hour’s round trip at most, but she’d been gone close to an hour and a half, and he was beginning to get anxious. Diana had never been the ideal wife and he certainly hadn’t been the ideal husband. They’d lived in a state of mutual tolerance for years, and he knew she’d had at least one affair (which was about ten fewer than him), and even now, years later, she still bitterly resented the fact he’d never given her children. But right now she was the only person he had in the world, and he needed her.
The cigarette in his hand was shaking, and he drew deeply on it, trying in vain to stay calm as he blew the smoke out of the open window. He was meant to smoke outside as Diana couldn’t stand the smell of it ‒ something she never tired of telling him. Just as she never tired of telling him how she couldn’t understand why he’d taken up the cigarettes again at the age of thirty-nine after ten years without them ‒ but then she hadn’t known the full extent of the depravity of the men he’d been working for, or the things he’d seen. Cigarettes had been one way of coping with the stress of his work. The other was alcohol.
He looked at his watch. 4.55 p.m. Where the hell was she? She was usually pretty efficient at the shop, being just as keen to avoid being out in public as he was. The problem was, he couldn’t even phone her. Although they both carried unregistered mobile phones, the reception at the cottage, and for at least a mile around, was non-existent, so he was just going to have to sit tight. So far the authorities hadn’t put out photos of either of them ‒ and it was possible they wouldn’t since there was no direct evidence linking Manning (or indeed Diana) to the crimes they wanted to question him about. After all, he was just a middleman. But if they did…
If they did, it was going to be almost impossible to stay hidden.
And in the end, it wasn’t the police he was scared of. It was the men he worked for. Because they could get to him anywhere, even in police custody. If he was caught, he was a dead man. There was no question of it.
In the background, Sky News was playing on a loop on the portable TV, with the same story dominating: the aftermath of the June Brexit vote, now a month old but still the subject of endlessly rehashed and increasingly redundant arguments, both for and against, as if any of it really mattered. But at least it kept the hunt for him off the headlines.
Manning stubbed the cigarette out in the mahogany ashtray he’d once used for his Cuban cigars, and as he looked back out of the window he saw the old red Mercedes C Class saloon he’d bought for cash at auction appear from behind the hedgerow and turn on to the long dirt track that led down to the cottage. He could make out Diana in the driver’s seat, nervously hunched over the wheel – she hated driving, having got used to not doing
it during the years they’d lived in London – and he felt an immediate relief that she was home. They were safe for another night at least. As soon as they’d unloaded the shopping he’d open a bottle of decent red wine and pour them both a glass.
He switched off the TV and shut the window, then went downstairs to the lounge and put some Beethoven on. As the first bars of Symphony No. 9 filled the room, he walked into the hallway. Diana was fiddling with her key in the lock, probably trying to open it with all the shopping in her hands.
As he opened the door for her a single spasm of pure shock surged through his body because in that one moment he knew that it was all over, and that all he could hope for was that death would come quickly.
Diana was standing in front of him, trembling with fear. There were two men with her, both dressed from head to foot in the same plastic overalls that police officers wear when searching murder scenes, their faces partially obscured by surgical masks but still recognizable, which Manning knew was always a bad sign. The youngest was in his early twenties, a shock of blond curly hair poking out from beneath his plastic hood. He held a large black army knife tight against the skin of Diana’s throat. A grotesque, almost childlike grin spread behind the mask.
Manning had never seen him before. He would have remembered. But the young man had the look of a true sadist.
The man standing next to him was familiar. Manning remembered seeing him once before, on a dark and terrible night many years earlier that was etched on his memory for ever. The man was much older now, in his sixties, but with the same strangely blank face that was hard to describe, and an unforgettable air of malevolence. He held a pistol in his hand with a long silencer attached, which he pointed at Manning’s chest. Strangely, though, it wasn’t the pistol that terrified Manning so much as the battered-looking briefcase the man held in his other hand. Manning dreaded to think what might be inside it.
‘We’ve been looking for you, Mr Manning,’ the gunman said quietly. His voice was a low hiss, partly muffled by the mask, with the hint of an eastern European accent, and there was an almost playful quality to his words as if he was expecting to enjoy whatever was coming.
‘I’m er…’ Manning tried to speak but he couldn’t get the words out. His mouth was dry and his legs felt weak.
Diana was whimpering quietly and a tear ran down her face, but Manning couldn’t worry about her. He was too busy desperately trying to think of something to say that would stop these two men from killing them both.
The gunman nodded to the blond man, who pushed Diana into the house, still holding the knife to her throat, brushing Manning aside as he came in. The gunman came in afterwards, shutting the door behind him.
‘Do you have a desk in here anywhere?’ he asked.
Manning looked at him, not sure if he’d heard correctly, so the gunman repeated the question, except this time he pushed the barrel of the gun against Manning’s forehead.
‘Yes, yes,’ Manning answered urgently, wondering what on earth they wanted a desk for. ‘We do. It’s in the main bedroom.’
‘Take us there,’ said the gunman, motioning with the gun.
Manning stole a look at Diana but she was staring straight ahead, the blond man holding her tight to his body. He was grinning like a schoolyard bully. Manning forced himself to turn away and walk slowly up the stairs knowing that, in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be coming down again. He wanted to run, to fight back, to do something, but the gunman was following right behind him. If this was a movie, all it would take was for Manning to turn round, deliver a hard kick to his chest, and send him tumbling down the stairs, then he could make a break for it out of the spare bedroom window, across the conservatory roof, and down into the field beyond. He’d have to leave Diana behind, but he’d be willing to do that. If it meant saving himself.
The problem was, this wasn’t a movie, and Manning was no hero.
So he did as he was told, trying to stop his body from shaking, wondering what he could say that could possibly stave off the inevitable. And all the time he cursed himself for his stupidity, and for the greed that would now be the death of them both.
The bedroom was the biggest room in the house with a large double bed and a writing desk facing the window that Manning occasionally worked at. He stopped in front of it and the gunman put down his briefcase and told him to take a seat.
‘You now have two choices,’ he said as Manning sat down. ‘You can watch your wife die very slowly, then die slowly yourself…’ He paused as the blond manhandled Diana into the room, threw her roughly on the bed, and stood above her with the knife. ‘Or she and you can both die quickly and painlessly.’
‘Please don’t do this,’ said Diana, sitting up on the bed.
In one swift movement the blond man slapped her hard round the head with his free hand, knocking her sideways. The suddenness of the action made Manning jump in his seat. He hated seeing violence. His employers might have been thugs but theirs was a very different world to the one he liked to inhabit. Diana fell back on the bed, crying, and he instinctively leaned forward to comfort her.
‘Don’t move,’ snapped the gunman, and Manning immediately returned to his former position.
The gunman then addressed Diana. ‘The next time you speak, or even move, my friend here will cut you with the knife. Do you understand?’
Diana nodded fearfully.
The gunman looked satisfied. ‘Good.’
He leaned down and opened the briefcase, pulling out a notebook and pen, which he put on the desk in front of Manning. Next, he pulled out a half bottle of cheap whisky, placing it next to the notebook.
‘Do you like whisky, Mr Manning?’ he asked, taking a step back.
Manning swallowed, looking down at the floor. ‘No, not really.’
‘That’s a pity, because you’re going to have to drink the contents of that bottle in the next three minutes. If you don’t, your wife loses an eye.’
‘Look, we don’t need to—’
‘Shut up.’ The words cut through the hot, still air of the room. ‘I’m not interested in your feeble begging. You just have to do as I say. Now.’
The fear Manning felt in those moments was worse than anything he’d ever previously experienced, because he knew now that the gunman couldn’t be reasoned with. He and Diana were going to die in this room.
He stared at the whisky bottle, ignoring Diana’s anguished weeping. He couldn’t face her. Not now. Not in the knowledge that what was about to happen to her was his fault.
‘You’ve already lost thirty seconds,’ said the gunman.
Manning made his decision. He picked up the bottle, unscrewed the top, and drank deeply, ignoring the fiery hit of the alcohol. If he had to die, then at least this way he’d be pissed and not really knowing what was going on.
He took two more gulps, swallowed hard, felt his eyes watering. The end of the gun barrel was barely two feet from his face. Six months earlier he’d taken a week’s crash course in the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, having wanted to learn how to defend himself in dangerous situations. One of the techniques he’d been taught was how to disarm a gunman. He’d been good. The instructor had called him a natural. He knew exactly how to get the gun off this man now. But what you could never replicate in the classes, however good they were, was the sheer limb-stiffening terror that came from having a firearm pointed at you for real.
Manning took another gulp of the whisky. The bottle was now half empty and he was beginning to feel lightheaded.
‘Stop,’ said the gunman. ‘Put down the bottle and write the following sentence on the notepad. “I am so sorry. I cannot go on.” Write it now.’
Manning put down the bottle, focused on the page in front of him, then picked up the pen and did as he was told. His handwriting, never the best in the world, looked terrible but he could make out the words and, in a way, they were very apt.
The gunman examined the page and made an approving noise before nudging the bottle towards Manning.
Manning closed his eyes and took another mouthful of the whisky, preparing himself for the end in the easiest way possible.
And then he heard a yell like a battle cry coming from Diana, and a commotion behind him as she tried to scramble off the bed. It seemed she wasn’t going to die quite as easily as him.
He opened his eyes and saw that the gunman had momentarily pointed his gun towards the bed.
Without even thinking about it, Manning jumped up from the desk, his mouth still full of whisky, and grabbed the man’s gun arm by the wrist, yanking it so it was pointing away from him. As the gunman swung round to face him, Manning spat the whisky straight into his eyes and shoved him backwards hard enough that he fell down on his behind, still holding on to the gun while frantically rubbing his eyes.
The blond knifeman meanwhile had grabbed Diana, pulling her backwards into his grip. She looked at Manning desperately, and he looked back at her for the briefest of moments as the knife blade punched through the pink T‑shirt she was wearing – and then he was running for his life, literally jumping over the gunman, his foot making contact with his head with a satisfying whack.
Manning felt a euphoria he hadn’t felt in years as he sprinted the few yards across the landing and into the spare bedroom, slamming the door behind him. He crossed the room in a moment and yanked open the back window facing on to the garden, and scrambled out.
There was a drop of about four feet on to the conservatory roof and, as the door flew open behind him, Manning jumped down, hoping the glass would hold. It did, and he scrambled down the angled roof before rolling off the end and landing feet first on the patio, impressed by his agility.
When he’d been writing the suicide letter, Manning knew the gunman wouldn’t want to shoot him. He’d want to make his death look as natural as possible. But now, with him making a break for it, there’d be no such hesitation.
Without looking back, Manning raced across the patio to the line of mature laurel trees that marked the property’s boundary, keeping his body low.
There was a sound like a pop, followed by the ping of a bullet ricocheting off one of the flagstones a few feet away, and Manning realized with a surreal sense of surprise that he was being shot at. He angled his run, staying low, and leaped through foliage as another shot rang out. Knowing he was temporarily sheltered by the trees, he ran alongside them until they gave way to the farmer’s field at the back of the property.
Here, the wheat crop was waist high but not thick enough to hide in, so he kept running across the uneven ground, knowing that the further he got from the house the harder it would be to hit him with a bullet. One of the intruders must have travelled to the house in the back of the Mercedes, which meant they’d hijacked Diana somewhere nearby. It wouldn’t have been too hard to do in an isolated area like this, where traffic was almost non-existent at the busiest of times. But it meant they had the keys to the Mercedes as well as access to the car they’d travelled up here in. It wouldn’t take them long to cut him off.
Manning looked back over his shoulder. The house was now fifty yards away and there was no one following him, but as if on cue he heard the engine of the Merc starting up round the front of the cottage. He kept running, increasing his pace. A stone wall with a single line of barbed wire separated the field he was in from the next field along, where a bright yellow rapeseed crop grew. Beyond that was the road. He had to get there before they did, and figured he had three minutes at most as it was about a mile by car to the point where he was going to emerge.
He vaulted the wall, catching his wrist and leg on the barbed wire, ignoring the pain as it cut into him, and kept going through the rapeseed field. On the other side of the road he could see a small wood, little more than a few rows of trees but enough to give him cover.
Manning wasn’t particularly fit. He tended to use the cross-trainer and the weights in the gym but it wasn’t enough to compensate for his sedentary lifestyle, and the last time he’d had such a burning in his lungs was on day one of the Krav Maga course when he’d thrown up twice. He was panting like a dog and his hamstrings seemed to be tightening with every step as he approached the end of the second field. A large, impenetrable hawthorn hedge taller than he was stood between him and the road and he felt another spasm of fear as he realized he had no idea where the gate was. He looked round wildly and his heart sank as he saw that it was a good hundred and fifty metres away in the direction his pursuers would be coming from.
Somewhere in the distance he could hear a car. He recognized the sound of the engine.
It was them. Closing in.
Manning slowed down, suddenly crippled with indecision. There was no way he’d get to the gate before they cut him off. And yet there was no other way out. He considered turning round and running back to the house, but what if one of them had stayed behind? He had to do something. Now.
He made a snap decision, and immediately accelerated, sprinting at the hedge. As he reached it, he jumped up and grabbed at the top branches, tearing his hands on the thorns as he forced his way over it through sheer willpower, the thorns shredding his clothes. He fell down the other side, landing in the road, and looked both ways. The car wasn’t in sight and, as he got up and ran into the trees and the first sign of shelter, he felt the euphoria return.
He knew this area well enough. As the trees gave way to another field, this one sloping down towards another, smaller copse at the bottom, he saw the house up ahead of him. He had no idea what he was going to do when he got there, but right now it was his only hope. He glanced back over his shoulder. He could hear the car, moving slowly and still some distance away, but the road was no longer visible, which meant they couldn’t see him.
The house, a rambling detached cottage with ivy strangling it on every side, was separated from the field by a single wooden rail fence. Manning clambered over it, slowing as he ran into the back garden. He needed to hide, and plan his next move. The garden was a mess, full of tangled bushes, and an old shed, but nothing that offered effective concealment.
He stopped and listened, realizing that he could no longer hear the car. The warren of back roads, tracks and country lanes round here was chaotic and, even though he was still less than a mile away from where he’d started, his pursuers wouldn’t necessarily be able to find him here.
He walked round the house, looking in the windows. Nothing moved inside and there was no car in the driveway at the front, so he tried the back door and smiled with relief as it opened into a kitchen and dining area that was filled with all kinds of junk and clutter. A pile of crockery was drying on the draining board and there were drops of water in the sink so whoever lived here hadn’t been gone that long.
Manning picked up a china tea cup and poured himself a drink of water, gulping it down in one go, then wiped the sweat from his forehead with a tea towel before setting it back. His breathing was slowing down, and for the first time he thought of Diana, who by now was almost certainly dead. He hoped at least they’d made it quick, and hadn’t punished her for his sins.
‘I’m sorry, Pootle,’ he whispered, using the pet name he’d had for her back in the early days of their relationship when life had been a lot easier. He was going to miss her. He really was. Because now he was truly on his own with just the money in his pocket and a mobile phone with no signal. Even his passport was back at the cottage, and for the moment at least that was where it was going to have to stay.
He continued into the hallway and saw a landline phone on a sideboard next to the front door. He could dial 999, surrender to the police and take his chances, and for a long minute he stood there looking at the phone before finally dismissing the thought. If he cooperated with the police for a lesser sentence, he probably wouldn’t even make it to trial before his employers got to him. And if he kept his mouth shut he’d carry the rap for all kinds of crimes, and probably never see the outside of a prison again. At least for the moment he was still in control of his own destiny. He had a chance of getting out of the country and making that life for himself in Panama. It wouldn’t be as much fun doing it alone but it was still considerably better than the alternatives.
His breathing was coming back to normal now and he was just contemplating his next move when there was a loud knock on the front door.
Manning froze when he saw the silhouetted head at the frosted glass of the door’s small round window.
It was the gunman.
He cursed. He’d been a fool to think they wouldn’t be right on his trail. These people were professionals. They weren’t going to let him go that easily. And he hadn’t locked the back door behind him either.
The man knocked again and Manning took a step backwards into the shadows at the bottom of the staircase – which was when he heard the sound of the back door opening.
Trying to stay as calm as possible ‒ and Jesus, it wasn’t easy ‒ he turned and began crawling up the stairs, making himself as small a figure as possible so the man at the front door wouldn’t pick up movement. The stairs were thickly carpeted and didn’t creak, and he was up them in a few seconds and looking around for somewhere to hide. The door in front of him led into the bathroom but there was never going to be anywhere suitable in there so he doubled back on himself and crossed the landing, darting into what looked like a junk room, before closing the door gently behind him.
He looked around. The room contained a single bed covered in boxes of junk, with more boxes littering the floor, and an old ceiling-high dressing cupboard covered in scratches. He could hear movement downstairs. They were in the house now and it wouldn’t be long before they came up. He needed to think fast.
He went over to the old-fashioned sash window and stared out. It was a long drop to the ground, further than he could jump without risking injury. But what choice did he have? The first place they’d look for him was the cupboard. Unless…
He glanced down at one of the boxes on the floor, a large, heavy-looking wooden chest, and a thought suddenly occurred to him.
Slowly he prised open the sash window until it was fully extended and the gap wide enough to climb out of, then he opened the chest. It was full of old clothes, and what looked like a whole curtain.
He was sure he could hear someone coming up the stairs now, imagined that gun with the silencer attached. And the knife… the knife with the black blade he’d last seen slicing through Diana’s T‑shirt, and which he knew could eviscerate him in seconds.
Moving as quietly as he could, he emptied the chest of clothes, placing them on to a pile of books stacked up in one corner. There still wasn’t a lot of space left but, probably for the first time in his life, Manning was thankful that he was only five feet seven, because he was small enough to squeeze inside. He pulled his knees up so high it felt like they were breaking, grabbed the chain attached to the lid and brought it down ‒ and then cursed. The lid almost shut but not quite, leaving an inch-wide gap. But there was nothing he could do about it now because almost with his next breath he heard the soft bump of footfalls outside on the landing.
He quieted his breathing, trying without success to force himself down and allow the lid to close, until he heard the sound of the door to the junk room slowly opening.
Then he stopped breathing altogether.
Through the gap he watched as a man came into the room. He could only see his legs but recognized the jeans as belonging to the blond knifeman with the malicious smile.
Manning swallowed, the terror he was experiencing so intense it was like every bone in his body had turned to ice.
The legs stopped at the window and, as the blond man crouched down to put his head out to look, Manning saw the razor-sharp tip of the knife in his gloved hand. He heard the man curse in a London accent and turn away. Next the man opened the cupboard, before going down on his hands and knees to look under the bed.
Manning could see him clearly now. He was barely three feet away. The moment he stood back up he was going to see the not-quite-closed chest right in front of him. He’d lift the lid, see Manning inside, and drive the knife into him. Again and again.
It took all his willpower not to cry out. He could hear his heart hammering in his chest and was sure that any second now the other man was going to hear it too.
The blond man rose, and Manning could see him turning towards his hiding place, imagined him spying the chest and smiling that malicious smile…
He began to shake. Please make it quick. Please make it quick.
The legs were now right in front of the box, and Manning held his breath as the man bent his knees as he reached down to open the chest.
It was all over.