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By Leigh Russell
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2015 Leigh Russell
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The bench jolted as someone sat down. From the wheezing, she judged it to be an old man. Annoyed that someone was sharing her seat, she stared stonily ahead.
Beneath her puffa jacket she felt her body tense.
'It is Caroline, isn't it? Caroline Henderson?'
She hadn't been called that for years. It was Caroline Robinson now, worse luck. She turned to the stranger and glared at him. She had noticed him in the park before. Once or twice she had suspected he might be watching her, but they had never spoken. Until now. At close quarters he wasn't as old as she had imagined, probably not much older than her, with a scraggy face and thinning ginger hair. She nearly stood up but she sat on this bench every day. It had the best view of the grassy area where the boys liked to kick a football around. They called it their pitch. Besides, she was curious.
'How do you know my name?'
'You remember me, Brian from Cartpool Juniors.'
She trawled through her memories. There had been a Brian in her class in junior school, but she could barely remember him. She certainly didn't recognise the innocuous-looking man sitting beside her on the park bench.
Pale eyes peered at her from a pock-marked face. Despite his stooping shoulders, he gave an impression of latent physical power. He wasn't bad-looking, in a way, although there was something off- putting about the coarse yellowy hair sprouting from the backs of his large hands. It even grew on his stubby fingers. He was wearing a grey raincoat and grey trainers. There was nothing remarkable about him. No wonder she couldn't remember him.
'Brian, of course!' Beneath her falsely effusive greeting, she was wary. They might have been at junior school together, but that was twenty-five years ago. 'How are you?'
He shrugged. 'You know.' His eyes slid away from hers.
The breeze picked up and she thrust her fists into her jacket pockets with a shiver. It was chilly for May, more like late autumn than spring.
An awkward pause followed the brief disturbance of mutual recognition.
'Are you married?' He was looking at her again.
'Yes,' she replied firmly, not meeting his eye.
'You don't sound very happy about it.'
He was fishing. All the same, she hesitated before replying. 'We're fine.'
'I was married,' he said, although she hadn't asked.
'How long have you been divorced?'
'We weren't divorced. She's dead.'
He looked away. 'Suicide.'
Caroline felt a tremor of guilt at having jumped to conclusions, and pity for the softly spoken man seated beside her. He had been through a terrible experience. Besides, he knew she was married. There was no harm in expressing sympathy. 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Do you want to talk about it?'
'There's not a lot to tell, really. She killed herself after I found out she'd been cheating on me. She was having an affair.' He shuddered. 'It was horrible at the time ... '
It wasn't clear if he was referring to his wife's infidelity or her death.
'I can imagine.' It was a stupid remark. Of course she couldn't imagine what he must have gone through. 'I'm so sorry,' she repeated. She didn't know what else to say.
'We were fine until she met someone else.'
Studying his profile, she saw his lips press together, contorting his face. Afraid he might break down, she was relieved when he spoke calmly.
'It had to end. It couldn't go on.'
Wanting to comfort him, she couldn't think of the right words. Only his disgusting hairiness restrained her from reaching out and putting her hand on his.
'I know how you feel,' she said quietly.
She turned away, unnerved by the intensity of his gaze. The bench beside her creaked as he shifted position.
'How could you possibly understand?'
A few yards away on the grass the boys were playing football. With nothing else to distract her, she had a sudden urge to confess her unhappiness. Brian had told her about his wife's suicide. That must have been a painful confidence to share, inviting her to divulge secrets of her own. It would be heartless to hold back. What did it matter anyway? Barely a vague recollection from the past he was, effectively, a stranger.
'My husband's unfaithful,' she blurted out. All at once she thought she was going to cry. She had never spoken the words out loud to anyone but her husband who doggedly denied her accusations, claiming she didn't understand his relationships with other women. She had believed him at first when he used to say he was working late, but it had been impossible to ignore the evidence. He was permanently besotted with one young girl or another. No amount of pleading on her part made any difference.
'Bastard!' Brian said.
She warmed to his anger. There was no reason for him to care about her distress. He didn't know her, not any more. The fact that they had once sat in the same class room was irrelevant. The past had been overshadowed by a more immediate bond: betrayal.
Ed ran towards them, waving and calling out something she couldn't hear. As soon as she waved back he ran off again.
'Yours?' he asked.
'Yes. They're football mad.' She chuckled. 'Have you got kids?'
'No. I'd have liked a family but somehow it never happened. We never did get to the bottom of it, and then ...' He paused.
They watched the twins in silence for a few moments.
'Your boys look as if they're enjoying themselves.'
She followed his puzzled gaze.
'Of course. Thought I was seeing double there for a minute.' He smiled. 'Must be hard work. How old are they?'
'How could your husband even think of cheating, when you've got kids their age?' He turned to her. 'Tell you what, why don't you let me help you? If I can, that is.'
Instantly on her guard, she asked what kind of help he had in mind.
'I was just thinking,' he paused, 'it might be a good thing if we could wake your husband up with a dose of jealousy. What I mean is, he's busy playing away from home, right?'
She nodded cautiously.
'And all the time he knows you're sitting at home. You're always there whenever he wants to come back to you. I expect you even cook him dinner.'
She was tempted to tell him it was none of his business what went on between her and her husband, but she kept quiet, intrigued.
'What he needs is a bit of a scare, something to make him think he might lose you if he's not careful.'
'Lose me?' Her gaze wandered back to the boys, kicking their football around. 'I could never leave him. Not before they're grown up anyway.'
'Good lord, no! I'm not suggesting you leave him. But there are other ways.'
'I don't know what you're talking about.'
He must have realised that she was irritated, because he spoke quickly.
'What I'm suggesting is that I could maybe go to your house and make him think I'm interested in you. I can turn up on the doorstep and pretend I'm looking for you, didn't expect him to be there, that kind of thing. Put the wind up him a bit. Let him wonder who the hell I am and what I want with you. People who are playing away from home always suspect everyone else is doing the same. It's the way their minds work. That's all I'm suggesting. Make him sit up and notice you.'
She smiled at him. 'That's sweet of you, but he'd never believe it. If you told him you fancied me he'd just laugh. He knows I'd never leave him. Not while the boys are around.'
She didn't add that she was afraid Dave simply wouldn't care if she found someone else. He might jump at a chance to get rid of her so he could pursue every little tart that took his fancy, without fear of recrimination.
'Tell you what,' Brian went on, warming to his idea. 'Let's take a selfie together, and I'll make sure he sees it. "This is the woman I'm looking for — do you know where she lives? I seem to have come to the wrong house." That kind of thing.' He grinned. 'What's he going to think when he sees a picture of me with my arm round you? He won't carry on taking you for granted, that's for sure. You can brush it off by explaining I'm just an old friend, we met in the park — all true. But he'll always have that doubt in his mind to keep him on his toes.'
She couldn't help laughing at his childish enthusiasm. He had lost his hangdog air and looked quite attractive. He was a man, anyway. It could work.
'Oh, go on then.'
He put one arm round her shoulders, extended his other arm and took a few pictures.
Wriggling out of his embrace, she scrolled through the images. They weren't bad. She picked out one where they were both smiling, and wrote down her address on the back of an old receipt he had in his pocket.
'Add a message,' he urged her.
'What sort of message?'
'Nothing too incriminating. How about: "See you soon", something along those lines, and sign it with a kiss.'
He watched her writing, then tucked the slip of paper away in his pocket.
'When will he be at home by himself? I'd better do it when you're not there.'
'You could come round tomorrow afternoon. I take the boys to football practice at two, and we're gone all afternoon. They're football crazy. We don't get home until five at the earliest.'
He nodded briskly and stood up with the air of a man who had concluded a satisfactory business transaction. She felt as though she had hired a hit man. In reality all she had done was arrange for an old school friend to go and have a talk to her husband. The innocent subterfuge gave her a guilty thrill. For so long she had been the victim with Dave. That was about to change. She started to thank Brian, but he was on his way to the exit and she would have had to shout. Watching his figure striding through the gate, she smiled, imagining Dave's surprise when another man came to the house looking for her.CHAPTER 2
Geraldine glanced at her watch. It was only seven o'clock. There was no need for her to get up yet. As a detective inspector working in Serious Crime Command in London, she was prepared to work round the clock if necessary, but right now she wasn't on a case. The paperwork for her previous investigation was finished, and she was on call waiting for the next job. Plumping up her pillow, she lay back in bed and gazed at the blind on her window. The slats were slightly open, allowing narrow shafts of bright sunlight to penetrate. That was what had woken her up. It was only May, but blue skies already held a promise of warm weather to come, heralding summer. She smiled and stretched out her legs, luxuriating in the knowledge that she could stay in bed all day if she wanted. For the first time in years, she felt at peace with her world.
After dozing for another hour she got up and opened the blind. Dazzling light hit her. It was a beautiful day. She couldn't decide whether to have breakfast in her flat or walk down the road and treat herself to a pastry and cappuccino in one of the smart cafes along Upper Street. Early promotion to the rank of inspector, together with a generous inheritance from her mother, had enabled her to buy a flat in Islington when she had relocated to London from the Home Counties. It was expensive living in Central London, but she loved the area. Added to the lively atmosphere, it suited her working hours that shops stayed open through the night. She didn't miss the slower pace of life on the Kent constabulary at all.
Half an hour later she was sauntering along Upper Street in bright sunshine, alone in a seething metropolis. Even at that hour the streets were busy with people hurrying by. Cafes had already put tables and chairs out on the pavements, in expectation of fine weather, although it was too chilly to sit outside that early. Only a few smokers were perched on the pavement, huddled in jackets, warming gloved hands on steaming mugs of coffee. Geraldine walked past them, enjoying the atmosphere. She had lived there for nearly two years, but walking along Upper Street still gave her a holiday feeling. In England's capital city, all it took was a little sunshine to make her feel she could be in a Mediterranean town, with its cafe culture spilling out onto the street.
After a leisurely breakfast in one of the cafes, she walked briskly back to her flat. When she had finished a few household chores, she planned to catch up on a DVD box set she had been given for Christmas that she had not yet got round to watching. That, and a takeaway, would complete her lazy day.
The breeze had picked up and she wished she had worn a warmer jacket. She rounded the corner into Waterloo Gardens and her building came into view. The ground floor was occupied by offices, closed at the weekend. The first and second floors of the block were private flats, accessible only through electronically controlled metal gates. For a detective working on murder investigations it was perfect, discreetly tucked away in a side street, yet central, and, above all, secure.
Reaching her building she hesitated, and her good intentions vanished. She couldn't bear the thought of a case being opened while she was at home messing around. It would be different if she had something useful to do with her time off. It was shameful to hanker after the challenge of a murder investigation, but she sometimes felt that her work was all that stood between her and despair about the futility of her life. In another era she might have become a missionary, or a suffragette. As it was, she dedicated herself to the pursuit of justice in an attempt to find purpose in her existence. It was ironic that she felt most alive when investigating the circumstances of someone else's death.
Twenty minutes later, instead of loafing around at home, she was sitting in traffic on her way to work. By mid-morning she was gazing despondently at a pile of claim forms piled neatly on her tidy desk, regretting her decision to go into her office. No new case had turned up demanding her attention. She had merely exchanged her chores at home for mundane tasks at work. As she turned to stare out of the window, she heard the door to her office open and a voice broke into her reverie.
'You're looking thoughtful today.'
Geraldine recognised the drawling voice of Nick Williams, the detective inspector who shared an office with her. She looked round to see him smiling at her, his eyes fixed on hers.
'Penny for your thoughts,' he said softly.
'I'm busy,' she fibbed, resenting the intimacy his tone seemed to imply.
'I can see that.' Nick heaved an exaggerated sigh. 'I just thought you might be ready for a little distraction.'
'I don't like being distracted when I'm working.'
He laughed. 'Your powers of concentration are enviable. You know, I'm just the opposite. I find it almost impossible not to be distracted when you're in the same room as me.'
She laughed, trying to quell her irritation at his flirting. She knew his reputation for womanising. Out of the corner of her eye she watched him meticulously arrange papers on his desk into neat piles. It looked as though he had forgotten all about her. So much for him finding her impossibly distracting. They worked in silence, side by side for a while.
'Geraldine.' He spoke so quietly she could barely hear him. 'You haven't heard anything about a white van on an undercover op?'
'Or seen a white van hanging around outside?'
'I haven't seen a white van, or heard anything about a white van. Why?'
'It's nothing. Oh shit, I nearly forgot. Reg asked if you were in today. I said I'd let you know he was asking for you when I saw you.'
It couldn't be important or Reg would have sent a formal summons rather than passing a casual message via Nick. All the same, she was apprehensive about going to see the detective chief inspector. She hoped she wasn't in trouble.
'Ah, Geraldine, I thought you'd be in at some point today,' Reg greeted her.
He knew it was her day off but had assumed she would turn up anyway. She wasn't sure if he considered that was to her credit. Being unable to switch off from work wasn't healthy. They all knew of cases where officers had suffered burnout from overwork. She hoped he wasn't about to suggest she take some time off.
'I want you to meet Max Grey,' Reg continued affably, 'drafted in from West London to cover for Samantha Haley while she's out of action. He's in his early twenties, a graduate on the fast track, a bright young lad, should go far. Take care of him, won't you?'
Geraldine nodded. The sergeant she had been working with, Sam Haley, was recovering from an injury she had suffered on their last case.
'You'll find him,' Reg added with a nod at the door.
Geraldine understood she was being dismissed. Relieved, she left the room and went to search for Max Grey. She eventually found him in the canteen, where he was chatting to another young officer over coffee.
'That's Geraldine,' she heard his companion say as she approached their table.
Max leaped to his feet. Small and wiry, he had closely cropped dark hair and sharp pointed features.
'Hello, I'm Max Grey,' he announced. 'Fast track graduate, DS, and posted here to work with you. Reg told me to look out for you, and here you are.'
Excerpted from Killer Plan by Leigh Russell. Copyright © 2015 Leigh Russell. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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