When popular high school student Rob Beresford comes home crying and covered in blood, his mother, Clara, can’t believe the boy’s shocking admission: “He’s dead. I killed him.” Nor can she fathom that only hours later her son’s body would be found drowned in the English Midlands. An open-and-shut case of murder/suicide? To ex-Detective Inspector Naomi Blake and her boyfriend, DI Alec Friedman, there must be more to the story. Why would a model student stab a complete stranger to death, openly confess to the crime, then fling himself into the canal?
The answers aren’t at all what Naomi expects. Especially after an unlikely alliance develops between Clara and the father of the dead man—and the sordid tragedies from the past come to light.
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Killing a Stranger
By Jane A. Adams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2006 Jane A. Adams
All rights reserved.
'I saw the police car and the ambulance and they took Rob's mum away and then I left. I didn't know what to do.'
Becky's face crumpled with distress. Charlie was scuffing his feet against the mud and gravel of the towpath, his hands thrust deep in his pockets and his back half turned to them. Patrick recognised the body language of extreme discomfort and knew he'd get no help from that direction.
He managed to ask, 'You said you went back this morning?'
Becky, who had already reprised her story several times, nodded emphatically. 'I knocked at the door and then went round the back. The gate was open; Clara never leaves the gate open. I went and looked through the window and, like I told you, there was this policeman in the kitchen and this guy in a white overall, like you see them on the telly.'
Patrick nodded. 'SOCO,' he said. 'Scenes of Crime Officer.'
'I know who it was. I watch CSI, don't I?'
Charlie laughed. 'They don't wear white overalls on CSI, they go around in their posh clothes contaminating the crime scene. Isn't that right, Patrick?'
Charlie was hiding behind the incidental again, just like he had all morning. Patrick just nodded. 'Where the hell did Rob get to?' he fumed. 'I mean ...'
Becky hunched her shoulders deeper into her coat and shivered. 'It's cold,' she said. 'They didn't take Rob away, just Clara.'
She got up, angry with herself. 'I should have asked them, should have gone up and told them I was looking for my boyfriend and that they were taking his mam away. I should have gone up to Clara and talked to her.' She bit her lip hard enough to blanch it where her teeth pressed down. Patrick could see the tears about to start again.
'Mum and ... Him ...' Him Patrick knew, was her step-father.
'Mum and Him, they said I should keep out of it and if the police came round I was to say nothing. Just to tell them Rob was at the party and then he left and I don't know where he went.'
Charlie's laugh was harsher this time. 'Well, you don't bloody know, do you? I mean, none of us bloody do.'
Patrick sighed and got up from his cold seat on the iron bench. He slid an arm round Becky's shoulder. They'd been good friends now for almost a year and he felt that a brotherly arm was ok. She seemed to think so too because she laid her head against his shoulder and swore softly at the unfathomable pain of it all.
Patrick towered over her now, while only six months or so ago he had been eye level. He was still skinny as a lath though, attempting to disguise the fact with baggy shirts and skater jeans and, lately, a long leather coat that had been an early Christmas present from his mother and step-father in America.
Patrick liked his step-father and his stepbrothers. It would never have occurred to him to think of Ray as Him. He spoke to his mother once a week and the new husband and surrogate brothers always joined the conversation on the speakerphone they had set up in the living room of the large bungalow they owned a few hundred yards from the beach.
It was a striking contrast to the tiny little house – two up, two down, kitchen and bathroom tagged on the back – which he shared with his dad. His dad, Harry, had been a bit put out with the gift of the coat, but, as Patrick said to him, 'Mum and Ray can only buy me things. I'm not there, am I?' He thought his dad had understood. The coat was too cool to send back anyway.
'Will the police still be there?' Charlie asked.
Patrick glanced at Charlie and shrugged. 'I don't know,' he said.
'You must have some idea. I mean ...'
Patrick knew what he meant. His friend, Naomi was an ex-policewoman and her boyfriend was a Detective Inspector. 'It would depend what went on,' he said. 'If they've got SOCO in ...'
If SOCO were there, then something bad had happened. Something that needed a fingerprint officer, forensics, samples taken ... samples of what?
'Not good, then,' Charlie was just confirming what they had all been thinking. 'Fuck, Rob, what the hell have you done?'
'Rob wouldn't do nothing,' Becky defended. She pulled away from Patrick and flopped back down on the bench, head bent, shoulders shaking.
'I didn't mean ...' Charlie threw his hands in the air and turned his back once again. Patrick could see him clenching and unclenching his jaw. You couldn't cry when you were male and just turned eighteen, but Patrick could see it was costing him to keep up that pretence. Charlie and Rob had been friends for years, for long before Patrick had come on the scene; Charlie was thinking the worst.
Patrick glanced along the towpath. Rain clouds gathered down by the marina, behind the burnt out factory building scheduled for demolition, cranes already in place. Patrick had been trapped in that building the day it caught fire. Hard to believe it was more than two years before. It had taken them a long time, he thought, to figure they should pull the rest down.
The day was bleak and grey and moisture chilled the air even before the threatened rain began. His feet were frozen in his boots and his hands, never good with the cold, were numb at the fingertips and turning blue.
'Come on,' he said, gesturing to the other two and striding off towards the steps that led back on to the road.
'Come on where?'
'Naomi. We're going to see Naomi. She might be able to find something out. Ask Alec.'
'You think she can?' Becky's voice was thick with tears.
Patrick shrugged. He didn't know. If she could, she probably would, but he'd been round Naomi and Alec for long enough to be familiar with the idea of operational integrity; they might well not be able to tell him anything that wasn't already in the public domain. 'Don't know,' he admitted, 'but you got any better ideas? It's too cold to hang about here anyway. It's either that or back to Rob's place.'
He halted, waiting for a decision. Rob's house was in the other direction.
Charlie shook his head. 'No,' he said, 'if Clara wasn't there an hour ago and the police were ...' It was unlikely she'd be back there now.
'Ok, Naomi's it is then.' Decision made, Patrick walked fast, the others scurrying to catch him and then keeping pace with the same sense of urgency. He could hear Becky sobbing still, trying not to, but the odd sniff and gulp giving her away. He reached out a hand and took hers, conscious of how warm her hand was in his cold one. She squeezed his fingers gratefully and then let go. Patrick angrily pushed the thought away that, in any case, Rob wasn't good enough for her.
Where the hell was Rob? And wherever he was, was he all right?
Naomi opened the door and stood aside. 'How many of you are there?' she asked. 'Oh, and Patrick, your dad phoned, thought you might turn up here. He said to tell you he'll be home about two.'
'OK, thanks,' Patrick mumbled. 'There's me and Charlie, you've met Charlie?'
'Um, yes. Hi Charlie.'
'And this is Becky.'
'Hi, Becky, come along in. You want some coffee?'
'Thanks,' Patrick said.
Naomi heard him go past her and slide the heavy coat from his shoulders before dropping on to the blue sofa beneath the window; his favourite spot in her flat. The others moved more uncertainly, hovering a bit before Naomi told them to make themselves at home. 'You take sugar?'
'Um, one please,' the girl called Becky told her.
She's been crying, Naomi thought. Either that, or she had the mother of all colds. 'Should I come and help you ...?' Becky offered.
Naomi smiled in her direction. She was used to people being disconcerted by her blindness and assuming she might not be able to manage on her own and she had long ago given up taking offence. 'I'm fine,' she said. 'But thanks anyway. Say hi to Napoleon.' She added. 'Don't let Patrick get all the fuss.'
Becky laughed uncertainly but Naomi heard her go over to where Patrick was sitting and the steady thump thump of the dog's heavy tail against the wooden floor as he realized he was about to get twice the attention.
What was going on, Naomi wondered as she went through to her little kitchen and started to make the coffee. It was always a pleasure to have Patrick visit and he was a frequent occupant of the blue sofa, but, she sensed, this was different. She could tell, without needing to see their faces, that this trio felt the weight of the world on their shoulders.
The story had taken a while to tell, Naomi coaxing it out of them at first, then, as they became more confident of her willingness to listen without judgement, they talked over one another in their hurry to get the story out and Naomi had to slow them down, go back over some details to make sure she had it right.
'So,' she said slowly. 'Charlie's eighteenth birthday party and everything seems fine, except Rob had something on his mind for days that he wouldn't talk about.'
'Weeks, more like,' Charlie interrupted.
Naomi held up a hand to pause before he went off on that tangent again. 'OK, we'll get back to that. Let's get the time- line sorted first. You all agree it was just after ten when Rob left the party?'
She felt the pause as they all looked at one another.
'Yeah,' Charlie said. 'It was only just after ten. My dad and my uncle decided it was time for speeches.' Naomi could hear the embarrassment in his voice as he remembered. 'They were pissed.'
'Part of parental duties,' Naomi told him. 'Embarrassing your kids.'
She heard Patrick laugh.
'Yeah, right,' Charlie said. 'Anyway, I got dragged back into the quiet room and someone told the band to stop playing for a bit. Patrick was with me but I looked round for Rob and I saw him by the exit door, with Becks. He went out and Becky followed him. I wondered what was going on, but Dad and Uncle Tim were well into it by then and by the time they'd done making their speeches and stuff, Becks was back. That was about half ten and we reckon they must have started up not later than about ten past.'
'You've talked about this a lot, obviously.'
'Rob stormed off down the street,' Becky took up the story from her perspective. 'I shouted after him to come back or at least wait up for me. He just told me to go back inside. I thought about going home, but it was too early and I knew Mum and Him would want to know what was up and they're down on Rob anyway, don't like me seeing him.'
'Him,' Naomi enquired, noting the emphasis.
'My so called step-father. Like he's got any right to criticize.'
Naomi decided to let that can of worms remain unopened for the moment. She asked, 'So, when did you eventually leave the party?'
'It was about eleven fifteen, eleven thirty, something like that. I decided to walk to Rob's place, have it out with him, tell him if he didn't stop fu ... messing me around, that was it. Finished. I got to his house a bit after twelve and the police were there and the ambulance.'
'No sign of Rob?'
She sensed the girl shake her head, then remember that Naomi couldn't see. 'No, nothing,' she said. 'And when I went back this morning, the police were still in the house, at least, one of them was and the SOCO woman in the back room.'
'What do you think might have happened?' Patrick's voice shook slightly. He coughed to cover up.
Naomi thought about it. 'Have you spoken to anyone? Parents?'
Of course they hadn't, she thought, at least not in any detail.
'My mam wanted to know where I'd been. I didn't get home 'til half one and I was supposed to come back in a taxi at half twelve. I told her ... sort of.'
'You told her you'd gone to the house?'
'And they told me to say nothing if the police asked. Not to get involved. He said it was none of my business, but Rob's my boyfriend, so of course it is.'
'If the police do ask you anything,' Naomi cautioned, 'you've got to tell them all you can remember. If you don't, you could end up in deeper trouble than any your parents can hand out.'
She left that to sink in while she made more coffee. Patrick wandered into the kitchen behind her and half closed the door. 'Nomi, it's bad, isn't it?'
'It doesn't sound good. There's been nothing on the news?'
'No, we listened on the local radio.'
'So, it's unlikely to have been a fire, car accident, anything like that. Patrick, did you know Rob well, I've heard you talk about him, but ...'
'Pretty well. We'd only really been friends this year.'
'Could he have got into a fight?'
He was close enough in the tiny kitchen for her to feel him shrug. 'Maybe, he has a bit of a temper, he gets frustrated and impatient with stuff, but it's all over in a flash. He never goes looking for trouble. Naomi, we've texted everyone we know, no one's seen him since last night.'
Texted, she thought, not phoned or spoken to. It was an interesting generational shift.
'Here,' he said. 'Give me the tray and then you can bring the biscuit tin.'
'Have you thought to call the hospitals?' Naomi asked as they settled down again.
'Hospitals? You think Rob might be hurt?' They'd all thought of this, Naomi guessed, but Becky sounded horrified at it being spoken aloud.
'I'm thinking,' Naomi said calmly, 'that if Rob's mum was taken to hospital, he might be there with her.'
'How would he know?'
'If he turned up at home, the police would have told him. It sounds as though there's been an officer there overnight. Clara might have been hurt, maybe, worst case scenario, there was a break-in and she interrupted them. That would explain the SOCO.'
'Right,' Patrick said. She could feel the relief. Focused so much on their friend, they hadn't thought that he might be the secondary character in the drama.
'I mean, that would still be terrible,' Patrick added. 'But ... Naomi, can you call them?'
'Get me the phone book and read out the numbers,' she said. 'Let's see what we can find out.
They struck lucky on the second call. Mrs Clara Beresford was an in-patient, brought in late last night, but they could release no further details. Was Naomi Blake a relative?
Naomi considered lying, but she had already guessed there might be an officer on watch in the hospital and they would like as not recognize her name.
'Is her son with her?' Naomi asked.
'No,' she was told. There had been no sign of her son.
Naomi replaced the receiver, aware of the expectant hush. 'Clara was admitted last night,' she said. 'But I'm sorry, there's no sign of Rob.'
The disappointment was palpable and she felt bad about having let them down after building their hopes.
'You said he's seemed worried about something for the past few weeks. Any idea what?'
'No,' Becky replied so quickly Naomi knew they'd already covered that ground over and over. 'I kept on at him to tell me, we all did.'
'He let something slip,' Charlie added slowly and Naomi knew she was now being trusted with information the other adults in their lives wouldn't be getting. 'He said he was looking for his dad and he didn't want his mum finding out in case she got upset. He said he'd found a letter or something.'
'His dad,' Naomi prompted. She could feel the collective closing of ranks and knew she'd get little more from them until they'd had a chance to talk it through.
'His mum brought him up on her own,' Becky told her. 'She's nice,' she added unexpectedly. 'She always made me feel at home when I went round.'
Not like my parents, Naomi heard the implication. She asked. 'What did your mother have against Rob? Something specific, or just the fact that he was your boyfriend?'
She felt the renewed tightening of their small but serried ranks, then Becky sighed and the trio relaxed. 'She found out I was on the pill,' she said wearily.
'Sounds sensible enough,' Naomi commented. But then, she considered, she wasn't a parent. Would that have made a difference to her attitude? Actually, she didn't think so.
Becky laughed harshly 'Listen to Mum and Him you wouldn't think so,' she said.
Alec arrived about an hour after Patrick and his friends had left. Naomi told him about their visit.
'You know something, don't you?' She'd been aware of the tension when she mentioned Rob Beresford's name.
Alec didn't reply straight away, he leaned forward to fondle Napoleon's ears, the big black dog wriggling with pleasure at his ministrations. 'Do you think they told you everything?'
'I doubt it. Patrick knows me, but the others don't. They're scared, Alec, they know something serious must have happened and they're thinking all sorts of stuff. I don't imagine the truth can be anything like as bad as anything they've already imagined.'
Alec said nothing.
'Can it?' Naomi demanded.
He sighed, reached out for her hand and pulled her down on to the blue sofa. 'Rob Beresford came home last night, covered in blood,' he said.
'Rob's hurt? Becky was sure the ambulance only took the mother away.'
'It did,' Alec told her. 'Clara Beresford was taken to hospital suffering from shock. We've managed to talk to her this morning. Rob arrived home just before midnight. As I say, he was covered in blood, but it wasn't his. She hugged him and it got on her clothes. It was also on the floor, on the kitchen chair ...' he paused. And added unnecessarily, 'There was a lot of blood, Naomi.'
'Do we know whose?' We. She still included herself in the equation even after nearly four years being off the force since an accident took her sight. She didn't correct herself though, knowing Alec would understand.
Excerpted from Killing a Stranger by Jane A. Adams. Copyright © 2006 Jane A. Adams. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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