On her first day back after the Easter break Manchester based Private Investigator, Sal Kilkenny takes on two new cases. The first is to discover who is sending offensive poison pen letters to hotel receptionist Lucy Barker. The second is surveillance work for a couple who want reassuring that there are no nuisance neighbours or criminal activity in the area they're planning to buy a new home.
As Sal prepares to stake out the streets a bitter cold snap plunges the country into arctic conditions. Her stress levels are not helped by the escalation of the campaign against Lucy Barker and her inability to nail the perpetrator who maddeningly avoids capture. Plus there's trouble at home as Sal's daughter Maddie seems unable to settle at school. When Sal's normally mundane surveillance duties bring her face to face with a grim discovery and violent crime she's sure that it just can't get any worse before it gets better. Unluckily for Sal there is more than one surprise in store for her and a nightmarish sequence of events may well turn out to be a matter of life and death...
I ran like mad to reach my office: legs aching, lungs bursting, cheeks aflame, my bag banging against my hip. Hoping that my new client would still be there, that she'd hang on when no one answered the door at the Dobson's house. That she'd been delayed too.
Why today? School re-opening after the Easter holidays and Maddie, my seven-year-old, had mutinied. She'd refused breakfast saying she had tummy ache. When I told her that a lot of people felt the same the first day back she began to cry. I sent Tom to get dressed and tried to find out why Maddie suddenly thought school was the worst place in the whole world. Was it the work, her teacher; had something happened? She wouldn't elaborate.
"We'll have to go, love. Go brush your teeth. We'll think of something nice to do later, something to look forward to?"
She shot me a filthy look.
"I can write Miss Dent a note; tell her you're a bit upset."
"No," she blurted out, horrified at the idea.
"Maddie, you need to go in. You'll be fine once you get there."
"You don't know ..."
I glanced at the clock. Late. "So tell me?"
She shook her head, gave a sob and turned to leave the room. I moved to hug her and she pushed me away.
She also refused to hold my hand on the walk there. Six-year-old Tom ran ahead, stopping to kick anything unattached and practising scissor jumps. When we got to the school gates there were a couple of other stragglers but the place had that deserted look. Everyone in registration. I handed them both their lunch boxes, gym kits and book bags. Tom gave a wave and ran through.
"Do you want me to come in with you?" Hoping she'd say no.
She shook her head.
"You'll be okay," I reassured her.
"Can you see I've been crying?" She rubbed at her face.
"No." It was true the red eyes and streaked cheeks had vanished though she didn't look happy.
"We could invite Katy for tea," I said. Katy was her best friend; she'd joined the class at the beginning of the year.
She shrugged. I resisted the temptation to sigh. I kissed her head. "Off you go."
As soon as she was out of sight I turned and pelted along the pavement. Arriving late and flustered was not how I wanted to present myself to a new client. I really needed the business. I turned into the side road and slowed to a quick march. It wasn't raining yet, though more was forecast, and it wasn't all that cold. Please let her be there. Please, please.
I wonder now how long she would have given me? Another five minutes? Ten? If I'd walked instead of run, if Tom had forgotten his lunch box or Maddie begged me to chaperone her, if it had been raining, if I'd slipped and broken my ankle ... if, if, if. Then maybe none of it would have happened like it did. None of the whole, stupid, bloody mess of it.
As I neared the house I could see her, back to the door, scanning the street. I gave a wave and turned into the drive.
"Miss Barker?" I said as I reached her.
A slight inclination of the head.
"Sal Kilkenny. I'm so sorry, I got delayed. Have you been here long?"
"Quarter of an hour." Her tone was cool, her lips a thin, red line.
But she'd stayed, she hadn't given up and gone home in a huff. I could soothe the waters, win her round.
I unlocked the door, my breath still laboured, hands trembling a little from the run but immensely relieved.
My office is situated in the basement of the Dobson's family home, near where I live. They don't need it and so for a modest sum I have dedicated space away from home which, so the theory goes, I can lock up and walk away from when my working day is done.
I led my new client downstairs and into the room. It was cooler in there and I switched on the convector heater, hung up our coats and offered her a drink.
"Coffee would be nice." Her manner softened a little. "Just milk please."
"I forgot to ask you on the phone, how did you hear about me?" It's useful to find out how clients arrive.
"Yellow Pages, you were the nearest to me."
Word of mouth counted for the bulk of my enquiries, the rest came via the phone book as this one had.
"Where are you?"
"Levenshulme," she smiled.
I guessed she was in her late twenties. She was slightly built with glossy brown hair which she had drawn back and clasped in a leather barrette. She wore small gold teardrop earrings and an engagement ring on her left hand. Her eyes were almond shaped, blue like faded denim, her mouth small, the lips coloured a high gloss carmine shade. She wore a tailored red suit and court shoes, that, along with the polished make-up, made me think of an air-stewardess or a beautician. Someone whose job description included the words well-groomed. Elegant not flash.
I handed her coffee and sat down opposite her at my desk. As yet I'd no idea why she required the services of a private investigator. She had booked an appointment without disclosing her problem. A lot of people do that; they prefer to speak face to face.
Blowing on my coffee I took a cautious sip. Then pulled pen and paper towards me. "What can I do for you?"
"It's this." She opened the black leather handbag on her knee and drew out a sheet of paper. "Came through my door." It was folded in half. Plain paper, A4. She slid it across to me. Nodded that I should open it.
YoU arE DEAd BITch
I flinched: an instinctive reaction. A death threat.
Four words. The letters taken from different sources, newsprint, magazines, stuck side by side.
I met her gaze.
She pulled a face, her shoulders joining in the shrug. "I want you to find out who sent it."
Looking back at the note it was clear that the sender had done all they could to preserve anonymity. No handwriting and not enough text to give any clues away. It hadn't been an impulsive gesture, a scrawl of pen, posted in the heat of the moment. No. Whoever had sent it had assembled newspapers, magazines, scissors and glue, they'd selected, cut and pasted, stewing in their hatred and then they'd gone to Lucy Barker's and delivered it. Two questions: who and why? The answer to one would lead to the other.
YoU arE DEAd BITch
Not whore or slag but bitch. Redolent of anger, of someone done wrong but perhaps not specifically of sexual jealousy. Bitch. You are dead. With one intent: to frighten.
"When did you get it?"
"Last week. Wednesday, when I got in from work. Just there."
That meant no postmark, even less easy to trace.
"Have you any idea who might have sent it?"
"No. There was one before, exactly the same but it just said bitch. I threw it away."
"How long ago?"
"About a week earlier."
"Have you had any disputes with neighbours, problems at work, boyfriend trouble?"
"No." She shook her head, the tiny earrings jiggled.
"Anything else odd - phone calls, feelings of being watched, anyone hanging around, acting suspicious? Anything at all?"
She stared at me, an element of surprise on her face. "Yes. One day, I thought there was someone round the back of the flats, I just saw this movement. I thought perhaps someone was putting their rubbish out but no one came back in."
"Have you reported this to the police?"
"I don't want to," she said quickly.
"I think you should consider it. A threat like this."
She held my gaze. Blinked. "I want you to look into it."
I took a breath. "It will be very difficult for me to trace. If not impossible. They've made sure that there's nothing here to give them away. There are no clues," I explained. "No handwriting, no postmark. Nothing - unless someone saw them posting it at your house. And I'm not equipped to check for fingerprints, anything like that."
"Can't you do anything?"
Thinking for a moment, I stared at the note. "If I took the case I'd approach it from the other end."
"Rather than spend time looking at that," I tapped the letter, "I'd concentrate on investigating among your friends and acquaintances to establish if there's anyone with a grudge. Something like this, there's usually some history there. It comes down to finding the connection between you and this person. You'll see from the contract that I guarantee a set amount of time but I can't guarantee a result. It could be intrusive too. It would mean talking to people at work, to family and friends."
She took that in, indicated that I should carry on.
I took her details. Her name was Lucy Loveday Barker. She gave a shrug explaining Loveday was an old family name. I'd guessed right about her age, she was twenty-nine. She worked as a receptionist at the Quay Mancunia Hotel in neighbouring Salford. Five star. Hence the grooming - or maybe she was that sort of woman anyway. She had a flat in a Victorian detached in Levenshulme near the Alma Park estate. Her parents had emigrated to Australia some years after her only brother went out there. She had trained in hotel management and worked in Leicester and before that in Kent.
When I pressed her on the issue of enemies she couldn't think of anyone who bore her ill-will.
"What about the past? Relationships gone sour, disputes at work, financial problems, old family feuds?"
She shook her head.
"And your friends, have you told them about this?"
She shook her head. "I didn't like to," she said quietly, "I just wanted to forget about it, I suppose but ... I began to get a bit frightened." Her hands tightened on the bag. "I rang you."
"Your fiancé- "
"There's no one," she interrupted.
"Just the ring, I thought ..."
"Oh," she gave a little gasp. "No," her cheeks flushed. "I was engaged, that is ..." Her eyes filled.
"I'm sorry," I felt clumsy at my mistake. But why wear a ring that misleads?
"Benjamin died," her voice faltered.
I murmured more apologies but she shook her head and carried on. "It was a long time ago. Sudden. A car crash. I don't always wear the ring but sometimes I want to remember him. I'm sure it sounds stupid but it makes me feel closer to him."
She took a drink, became calmer.
"The note was hand-delivered," I said. "Do you have separate letterboxes at the flats?"
"Yes, at the front door. There are five apartments and we have one each."
"And that's where you found this?"
"It could be a case of mistaken identity. A grudge against one of the other residents?"
She frowned. I noticed her eyebrows, thin dark brown arcs, more pencil than hair. "I hadn't thought of that. But our names are on letterboxes. And this is the second one."
Yes. If you went to all this trouble, you'd make sure your nasty little message reached its target.
Drinking some coffee, I considered my response. I wanted the work but I don't do the hard sell. It's better all round if my clients hire me with their eyes wide open.
"As I see it, you've three choices."
She swallowed, replaced her mug, gazed at me with total attention.
"You can do nothing, ignore the notes and hope they lose interest, perhaps come back if they persist."
Her eyes told me exactly what she thought about that for starters.
"You can report it to the police and see what they suggest ..."
A crisp shake of the head.
"... or you can hire me. If you do that I'll put my energy into trying to shed some light on who's behind it."
"Yes. I want you to do that."
"And if I can't come up with an answer?"
"I'd still feel reassured, I think. Like a sort of insurance."
"Okay. We need to make a list of all the people in the different circles in your life and pull out a few who you really trust, people I can talk to."
The names she came up with were other managers at the hotel. She explained that work had been demanding since her move to Manchester a year before and if she did socialise it tended to be with colleagues. As for her neighbours she knew them all in passing but no better.
"And there's not been any aggravation at home? No noise disturbance or quarrels about parking?"
"Nothing at all."
We agreed that I would speak to her colleagues first, the ones she trusted completely, and enlist their help, but without revealing all the details of Lucy's problem. The neighbours would be next. In a perfect world they would have seen the note being delivered and have photographic recall of the person carrying it. Their description would fit a person named by the hotel as having a vendetta against Lucy. I'd confront them, threaten police and they would apologise and desist. Case solved. In a perfect world ... I'd be out of a job.
Lucy Barker opened her handbag. "You said you'd need paying in advance. Is cash all right?"
I smiled. "Cash is great." And I felt my own sweet sense of relief as I drew out a contract. Work equals money. I wouldn't have to increase my overdraft. Everything was going to work out fine. As Tina Turner sang to Ike. Before she turned and ran.