Authors: Paul Finch
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense
Published by Avon an imprint of
77–85 Fulham Palace Road
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Publishers 2014
Copyright © Paul Finch 2014
Cover photographs © Shutterstock
Cover design © Andrew Smith 2014
Paul Finch asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780007551279
Ebook Edition © July 2013 ISBN: 9780007551286
For my children, Eleanor and Harry, with whom I shared many a chilling tale when they were tots, but whose enthusiasm is as strong now as it ever was
The girl was quite content in her state of semi-undress. The man wasn’t concerned by it either. If anything, he seemed to enjoy the interest she attracted as they drove from pub to pub that sultry August evening.
They commenced their Friday night drive-around in Buckfastleigh, then visited the lively villages of Holne and Poundsgate, before penetrating deeper into Dartmoor’s vast, grassy wilderness, calling at ever more isolated hamlets: Babeny, Dunstone and finally Widecombe-in-the-Moor, where a posse of legendary beer-swilling reprobates had once ridden Uncle Tom Cobley’s grey mare to an early grave.
The girl was first to enter each hostelry, sashaying in through the guffawing hordes, and wiggling comfortably onto the most conspicuous bar stool she could find, while the man took time to find a place in the car park for his sleek, black and silver Porsche. On each occasion, she made an impact. The riot of noise under the low, gnarly roof-beams never actually subsided, but it never needed to. Looking was free.
She wasn’t behaving overtly flirtatiously, but she clearly revelled in the attention she drew. And why not? She had ‘all the tools’, as they say. A tall, willowy blonde, her shapely form showcased to perfection in a green micro mini-dress and strappy green shoes with killer heels. Her golden mane hung past her shoulders in a glossy wave. She had full lips, a pert nose and delicate, feline cheekbones. When she removed her mirrored shades, subtle grey shadow accentuated a pair of startling blue eyes. In each pub she made sure to sit prominently: back arched, boobs thrust forward, smooth tan legs sensually crossed. There was no denying she was playing it up, which was much appreciated by the taproom crowd. For the most part, these were beefy locals, countrymen to the last, but there were also visitors here: car-loads of lusty lads openly cruising for girls and beer; or bluff, gruff oldsters in denims and plaid shirts, down in Devon for the sailing, the fishing, or the moorland walking. They might only be away from their wives for a few days, but they too revealed an eye for the girls; in particular, an eye for this girl. It wasn’t just that she smiled sweetly as they made space for her at the bar, or that she responded with humour to their cheeky quips, but up close it could be seen that she wasn’t a girl after all – she was a woman, in her late twenties, and because of this even more of a taunting presence.
And still the bloke with her seemed oblivious to – or maybe was aroused by – the stir his girlfriend (or perhaps his wife, who knew?) was causing. He was well-dressed – beige Armani slacks, a short-sleeved Yves St Laurent shirt, suede Church’s brogues – and of course, he drove an impressive motor. But he was plumpish, with pale, pudgy features – ‘fucking snail’, as one leery barfly commented to his mate – and a shock of carroty red hair. And he drank only shandies, which made him seem a little soft to have such a tigress on his arm – at least from the locals’ point of view. And yet by the duo’s body language, the man was the more dominant. He stood while she sat. He bought the drinks while she disported her charms, leaning backward against the bar, her exposed cleavage inviting the most brazen stares.
‘Got a right couple, here!’ Harold Hopkinson, portly landlord of The Grouse Beater, said from the side of his mouth. ‘Talk about putting his missus on show.’
‘She’s loving every minute of it,’ Doreen, his foursquare wife, replied.
‘Bit old to be making an exhibition of themselves like that, aren’t they?’
‘Bit old? They’re just the right age. Where do you think they’ll be off to next?’
Harold looked surprised. ‘You don’t mean Halfpenny Reservoir?’
‘But surely they
? I mean …’ Harold frowned. ‘Nah, can’t be that. Look, she’s a bonnie girl, and he likes showing the world what he’s got.’
Doreen pulled another pint of Dartmoor IPA. ‘You really believe that?’
Briefly, Harold was lost for words. It all made an unpleasant kind of sense. Halfpenny Reservoir wasn’t Devon’s number one dogging location – it was a long way from anywhere of consequence – but it was well-known locally and it got busy from time to time; at least, it used to get busy before the panic had started. He eyed the fulsome couple again. The woman still perched on her bar stool, sipping a rum and lemonade. Now that he assessed her properly, he saw finger and toenails painted gold, a chain around her left ankle decorated with moons and stars. That was a come-on of sorts, wasn’t it? At least, it was according to some of his favourite websites. Of course, it wouldn’t have been unusual at one time, this. The swinger crowd would occasionally trawl the local boozers en route to Halfpenny Reservoir – somewhat more covertly than this, admittedly, but nonetheless ‘displaying their wares’, as Doreen liked to call it, looking to pick up the passing rough that seemed to be their stock-in-trade.
Things were markedly different now, of course. Or they should be.
‘They must be out-of-towners,’ Harold said. ‘They obviously don’t know.’
‘They’d have to be from another planet not to know,’ Doreen replied tersely.
‘Well … shouldn’t we tell them?’
‘Tell them what?’
‘I don’t know … just advise them it’s a bad idea at the present time.’
She gave him her most withering glance. ‘It should be a bad idea at
Harold’s wife had a kind of skewed morality when it came to earthy pleasures. She made her living selling alcohol, and yet she had a problem with drunks, refusing to serve anyone she suspected of sampling one too many, and was very quick to issue barring orders if there was ever horseplay in the pub. Likewise, though she consciously employed pretty local girls to work behind her bar, she was strongly antagonistic to ‘tarts and tramps’, as she called them, and was especially hostile to any women she identified as belonging to the swinger crowd who gathered for their midnight revels up at the reservoir – so much so that when ‘the Stranger’ had first come on the scene, targeting lone couples parked up late at night, she’d almost regarded him with approval.
Until the details had emerged, of course.
Because even by the standards of Britain’s most heinous murders, these were real shockers. Harold couldn’t help shuddering as he recalled some of the details he’d read about in the papers. Though no attack had been reported any closer to The Grouse Beater than a picnic area near Sourton on the other side of the moor, twenty miles away as the crow flew, the whole of the county had been put on alert. Harold glanced around the taproom, wondering if the predator might be present at this moment. The pub was full, mainly with men, and not all of the ‘shrinking violet’ variety. Devon was a holiday idyll, especially in summer – it didn’t just attract the New Age crowd and the hippy backpackers, it drew families, honeymooners and the like. But it was a working county too. Even up here on the high moor, the local male populace comprised far more than country squire and Colonel Blimp types in tweeds and gaiters; there were farm-labourers, cattlemen, farriers, hedgers, keepers; occupations which by their nature required hardy outdoor characters. And hadn’t the police issued some kind of statement about their chief suspect being a local man probably engaged in manual labour, someone tough and physically strong enough to overpower healthy young couples? Also, he was someone who knew the back roads, so was able to creep up on his victims unawares, making his getaway afterwards.
There were an awful lot of blokes satisfying those criteria right here, right now.
The more Harold thought about it, the more vulnerable the young couple looked in the midst of this rumbustious crowd. Even if the Stranger wasn’t present, the woman ought not to be displaying herself like that. The man should realise that several of these fellas had already had lots to drink, especially those who were openly ogling; he should know that temptation might get the better of them and that it would be so, so easy just to reach out and place a wandering hand on that smooth, sun-browned thigh. If that happened there might be trouble, swingers or not, and that was the last thing Harold wanted.
‘We have to say something,’ he muttered to Doreen, after they briefly stepped away together into the stock-room.