I've been looking at stuff I wrote two years ago and it's better than I thought it was. Like Chancel Hall, I lose faith in the process after 50,000 words or so, and start to wonder what I'm waffling about. So it's nearly time to wrap it up and put it on ice until the summer.
The old book, Silent Obsession, grew as almost as fast as this one. I was juggling all the balls in my head which is fine for 10, maybe 20k but then you lose track of what you were going to say, and what you actually wrote. Plus I was going back and rewriting sections - which I'm starting to do now with Chancel Hall. Time to stop meddling and let it rest for a while.
So, for the Debut Dagger competition, I did go back and substantially move Silent Obsession (dreadful title, I'm terrible at titles) around. I 'knew' the lead characters at the beginning but basically they evolved, they grew and took on a different shape by the end. Caroline may be neurotic and have PTSD but she's no faded flower, she needs to deal with the man who attacked her and make him pay.
So: here is a sample of Silent Obsession - new titles suggestions very gratefully received!
Chapter One: Friday 6th November
I remember that night like it was yesterday, I can drop back into the memory when it’s cold or I’m outside in the dark. She was so small, so light. I had rehearsed it exactly in my mind, dozens of times. Get behind her, hand over her face, knife cleanly across the throat, drop. She was perfect, I lifted her clean off the path, the bones of her face dug into my hand, she was so shocked she didn’t even struggle. The knife went in but it was harder than I thought, people are rubbery, the knife gets caught up in the skin and muscle, stretches rather than cuts. Still, her throat gaped open and a black spray spurted over the path, her coat, her breath coughing out of the wound. I dropped her away from me, but she threw her hands up, a few drops were flicked onto my sleeve. I had to burn the coat, shame, but you can’t wash DNA off pure wool. The rasping stopped within thirty seconds, so I heaved her over with my foot. The streetlight glinted in her open eyes, she was still, the blood just oozing.
I was completely certain she was dead.
* * * * *
‘What makes you think you are being stalked?’
She hadn’t even sat down. He looked at her over his glasses, reminding her of her old maths teacher. She pulled the chair back, sat down carefully so she wouldn’t jar her neck, and put her bag against her left boot within reach. He was younger than she had expected, maybe early forties, his dark hair had a touch of grey around the temples. The office was a jumble of files, piles of paper, the desk circled with cup rings.
‘I don’t know for certain. That’s why I came to see you.’ Despite months of speech therapy, her voice was still hoarse.
He rested one hand on the desk in front of him, thick fingers sprinkled with dark hairs. She followed its movements, felt her breath frozen in her chest. When the fingers stopped moving, she breathed out, tried to loosen the tension in her shoulders.
‘Why do you think you are being stalked?’
She lifted her bag onto her lap, took out the tin of caviar in its plastic bag. ‘This is going to sound very stupid. This appeared in my flat.’
He didn’t say anything to her, but leaned forward and shouted over her shoulder at the open door to the shop front of Hammond and Jansen. ‘Bridget!’
She flinched, hands clenching.
The receptionist, a strongly built redhead who had taken her address and credit card details, pulled up another chair and smiled at Caroline.
‘Well, Miss Evans here is actually Miss Caroline Forster, victim of an assault eleventh November 2007. The police thought it was likely she was a victim of James Telford, convicted of three murders blah blah April 2008, acquitted of Caroline’s assault and attempted murder October last year. She lives at 117 Campion Gardens flat 3, as far as I can see, alone. She was born on the seventeenth of January 1984 which makes her twenty-six years old. The credit card was real.’ Her smile was sunny, teeth white in her tanned face, eyes green as they looked Caroline over.
‘Shall we start again?’ He smiled crookedly at her, lines around his dark eyes crinkling. ‘I understand that you are cautious, Miss Forster. But you need to trust us.’
She realised she had stiffened against the back of her chair, a prickling of sweat on her forehead and neck. ‘I have post traumatic stress disorder.’ His eyes slid to the hand painted batik scarf wound around her neck. She touched a finger to it nervously.
‘I can see you are nervous.’ His voice was deep, sounded sympathetic. ‘Bridget and I are former police officers, we have both seen people who act like you, victims of violence. Some of them feel like they are being followed, even threatened, sometimes for years after the attack.’
‘You mean paranoid.’ Caroline’s voice sounded harsher than usual, even in her own ears.
‘I mean naturally defensive. Now, why would a tin of caviar in your flat make you think you were being stalked?’
She put the bag with the tin in it on the desk. It looked innocuous, and she felt foolish for a moment, but its presence annoyed her.
‘A week ago, I went to the cupboard where I keep my cat food, and a tin of caviar was there behind a tin of Whiskas. Three weeks ago I completely ran out of cat food, it wasn’t there then, the cupboard completely empty. I asked my parents, and the few friends who have been in my flat in the last couple of months, but no-one put it there. My conclusion is someone put a tin of caviar in my cupboard when I wasn’t there.’
Bridget was making notes at her side, the pad on her lap. Caroline noticed she had tiny ankles on her rather thick legs, above bright red stilettos. She missed wearing heels.
He leaned back in his chair into a bar of sunlight slanting through the dusty windows at the back of the shop he was using as an office.
‘So you put the tin in a plastic bag and brought it to us. After phoning everyone you know.’
Her breath huffed out of her in frustration.
‘So, you think I’m barking mad as well.’ She put her hand out for the tin but Bridget stopped her.
‘Let me check it over, at least.’ Bridget picked up the bag and stood.
‘Why bother?’ Caroline crossed her arms, staring up at the tall woman, who wasn’t much older than herself.
‘Well, if you are murdered in your bed, we’ll be able to assist the police.’ Bridget’s rich contralto was full of laughter, disarming Caroline. ‘On the plus side, if you have a stalker at least you aren’t paranoid.’ She left the room with the tin.
He leaned forward again, the half smile creeping out again. ‘Oh, I haven’t ruled out the possibility that you are both. Even people with paranoia get stalked.’
‘It’s not just the can.’ She looked at his dark eyes, saw something there, some interest, maybe kindness. Taking a deep breath, she told them. ‘I have a feeling I’m being followed by a man in a car. It’s a dark colour, an old estate car. I’ve seen it several times.’
‘Tell me about the first time you noticed it.’
‘I…I think the first time was about six or seven weeks ago. I was coming home from my parents’ house after my Dad’s birthday. That was the sixteenth, and when I got to my front door I noticed a car going slowly, as if he was looking for something. Then he drove off fast, I think because he noticed me looking at him. I’ve seen the same car, behaving the same way twice since.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a week after the first time, and again last Sunday.’
‘Bridget’s got a computer programme that will help you sort out the model of the car, at least to narrow it down to make and model if not year. You thought it was old?’
‘The numberplate said N213 or N218, I think.’
He started making notes, for the first time. Bridget poked her head around the door, into the small office, making Caroline jump, her heart start racing.
‘Sorry.’ She didn’t sound sorry. ‘I’ve tracked down the make of caviar, it’s very pricy, mostly sold in luxury hampers. No prints except a few ridges around the rim, which is weird.’
Caroline craned her neck to look at her. ‘Why weird?’
‘Well, apart from paranoid people, who avoids leaving fingerprints on a tin of caviar? The distributor, packer, the person it was delivered to, all have left a mark of some sort. Now smell it.’
Caroline cautiously sniffed the bag containing the tin. It was acrid, and made her jump back. ‘What is that? Bleach?’
‘Exactly. Easy way to remove DNA. Someone was trying to leave it without leaving any identifying clues. Did you clean it in any way?’ Caroline shook her head, feeling lost.
The man leaned forward, hand extended.
‘I’m Jack Hammond, this is Bridget Jansen. We’ll look into it for you. How are you off for money? We have to keep the agency running.’
‘I have some money.’ She felt strangely elated. It was a relief not to be imagining things, even though the thought of a stalker turned to ice in her stomach.
‘It’s probably someone who followed the case in the papers, so you may just need us to identify them, and let the police warn them off. Now, you have to change your locks immediately. Do not leave any windows open, ever, when you are not in the room. Shred all your personal papers before you throw them away, and preferably hand the bags to the bin men. Bridget will help you identify the make and model of the car.’
* * * * *
The interview room at the prison was stark; scuffed paint, stained furniture, four flimsy chairs and a plastic table. James Telford had seen a lot of them over the years, police stations, prisons. He stared ahead as one of the four prison officers fumbled with the key to his restraints. He could see the man’s pulse racing in his neck, his body language giving away his discomfort in touching the larger man. Telford looked around the large, grey conference room with detached interest. Exits, glass observation window. A chair for a prison officer outside, within view but not earshot. A six pack of cheap bottled water. Having assessed the room, Telford allowed his gaze to stop at the man sitting at the table. He let his superior height and weight register before staring straight at the psychologist he knew from the back of several books. He catalogued the features of the man who gazed quietly up at him. Slim, maybe fifty or a little younger, soft hands, weak wrists. Older than the book jacket photographs. More used to wielding a pencil than tools. Longish, greying hair, cool green eyes.
‘You’re McIntyre. You looked bigger at the trial. You look bigger on TV.’
The psychologist smiled slightly as he looked up at Telford. ‘People do. Thank you for agreeing to help me with my research, Mr. Telford.’ McIntyre’s hand tapped once, twice on the table and Telford looked involuntarily, seeing a tiny release of nerves. He let his gaze wander to the skin, untanned, hairless, on the throat of the younger man. When that got no obvious reaction, he lifted his eyes to lock them with McIntyre. He knew how threatening that was, especially if he didn’t blink. He stood for a little longer, to overshadow McIntyre for another precious few seconds of power, then sat down. The chair creaked under his weight.
Telford knew what was on the forms in front of McIntyre. It must have taken all weekend, even at the home office’s request, to get the prison to agree to the format of the interview. The disclaimer declared that Robert Alexander MacIntyre – they had spelled it wrong, he noticed from his side of the table – would not hold the home office or any branch of Her Majesty’s government responsible should he be harmed while in the prison. He had to acknowledge that he had studied the records of Telford (prisoner) and was aware that he had committed crimes of violence while in prison as well as the three murders he had been found guilty of the previous May. He further would have to confirm that he had brought no drugs, weapons, intoxicating liquors or otherwise proscribed items or substances into the prison.
Telford had a similar sheet, giving consent to the interview. They signed in silence. The door, when it closed behind the prison officers, clicked shut, not the clang Telford was used to. The whole walk through the prison had been metallic clanks and squeaks, grinding of hinges and keys in locks, hard shoes on concrete and tiles. Telford rested his hands on the table, and looked across, dark eyes focused on McIntyre’s own. McIntyre smiled a little, one side of his mouth twitching upwards.
‘It’s good to finally meet you in person.’
Telford tilted his head slightly, unblinking, stretching the silence out until he felt he had the upper hand. McIntyre waited calmly and Telford wondered if he was quietly counting. The idea took him back to his childhood kitchen, his mother counting breathlessly as his father raged over her head.
‘Do you know why I agreed to this interview?’
‘Tell me.’ McIntyre’s pencil was sharp, poised over the page.
‘He had me down for all three murders. He wouldn’t listen to a fucking word I said. I’m going to be banged up, fair and square, for the ones I might have actually done. But that Bristol girl, I never went near her. And somehow, she’s the one with my DNA on her. Not a scratch on me, mind. Doesn’t that sound just a little suspicious?’ He leaned forward, his breath just disturbing the blank papers in front of McIntyre, touching a few hairs on his forehead. The psychologist smelled of soap, coffee. ‘I know why you’re here, you want to “understand” me, learn about people like me. I get that, I do, I’ve got three daughters of my own. I don’t want some bastard like me walking the streets snuffing them, either. But you’ve got to know, I didn’t do the Bristol girl. Some bastard’s out there laughing at me. They have to be part of the investigating team, one of the coppers. Put that in your book.’ Telford studied the smaller man, trying to get a sense of him. McIntyre gazed back calmly, hands folded on the notes in front of him.
‘I’m not writing a book, it’s a report for the home office.’ McIntyre appeared relaxed.
Telford allowed himself a small smile, to see if he would play the game. ‘Well, in that case, tell them I didn’t do it. Any of them. Fucking choir boy, me.’ He stared straight into McIntyre’s right eye, unblinking. ‘Never even thought about making me into a bestselling book, then? I’ve had offers, you know. Books, newspapers, all sorts. I get fan mail, from all sorts of nutters. And they call me the psycho.’
McIntyre stared right back and smiled. ‘Well, I did think maybe a paperback deal. Serialised in the Daily Mail, made into a film with me played by David Tennant, maybe. Who do you want to play you?’
Telford finally blinked, laughed, a short cough of humour. He didn’t laugh often or long, was a bit rusty. ‘I’ll let you know. So, where do you want to start?’
McIntyre’s eyes narrowed, as he took the top off his pen. ‘At the beginning. Your family.’
Telford tapped his hand sharply against his knee, once, twice. It amused him that McIntyre, for all his rumpled suit and floppy dark hair and the way he sprawled in the chair, was watching and trying to interpret every move.
‘My Mum was a crazy bitch. I mean, she was fun, everyone liked her, but get a few martinis down her and she was mad, a real party animal. I liked being around her, it was always interesting, but she didn’t notice us kids most of the time.’ McIntyre narrowed his eyes and Telford realised he was hesitating momentarily before each question, trying to phrase them without being confrontational. Looking sharply across at McIntyre, he caught him looking away, tightly controlled. Telford took a deep breath, leaned forward on the edge of the table.
‘My Dad was just nasty. Violent with everyone, always having fights, accusing half the local blokes of shagging my Mum.’
‘How was he with you?’ The cool, analytical gaze was back, boring into Telford.
‘I already said.’
‘Violent to everyone. Yes, sorry.’ McIntyre waited quietly.
‘He belted us all around, my brother more than me. I was big, could look after myself, but Billy was smaller, used to cry.’ McIntyre looked down at his notes, possibly for dramatic effect, as he must have known what was in them.
Telford reached forward suddenly, enough to startle McIntyre into freezing, his jaw tightening. The big man picked up a plastic bottle and opened it, the plastic slowly giving way with deliberate cracks, loud in the suddenly tense atmosphere.
‘You’re scared of me.’ Telford took a small sip, then a larger one. Resealing the bottle, he put it carefully down in front of him, never taking his unblinking stare off McIntyre.
‘You’re bigger than me.’
After a moment, the convicted killer gave another cough of laughter. ‘Good answer. Look, I’ve been over this stuff. I can’t see how Billy’s death is relevant.’
‘No?’ McIntyre sat further back, relaxed his shoulders and hands a little.
‘I was already getting into trouble, setting fires, torturing animals. I have read the books. I know what I am.’
‘Tell me about the fires.’
‘No, the animals are more interesting.’ Take control, Jimmy. ‘I never understood it but I could get so fucking furious at everyone, then have to kick something to death, you know?’ He blinked once. ‘I never fought with my Dad. He didn’t touch me once I got taller than him. But nothing else was safe around me. Not even Billy, the stupid little prick.’
‘So – what happened to Billy?’
There was a long silence. Telford clenched his fists slowly, seeing tendons straining, his knuckles whitening through the pale skin. He released the tension gradually, seeing the skin pucker and wrinkle, aged by a lifetime of working with mortar and lime.
‘He just - died.’