22 January – Wednesday
Debbie stepped off the train at East Dulwich station, misjudged the drop and stumbled onto the platform. Icy breezes found their way beneath her jacket, pinching at her skin. She could feel eyes on her as other commuters watched her unsteady progress towards the exit, her cheeks burning as the January wind snapped at her face. She had considered splashing out on a taxi but it was more hassle than it was worth. None of the black cabs wanted to go south of the river. Whenever she said, 'Nunhead, please,' she would invariably get the same response. 'Just clockin' off, luv,' or 'I'm on my way home, only got time for a local drop-off.' South-east London was essentially a dead zone. No chance of a return fare. No chance of a taxi.
She reached the steps, the cold concrete penetrating the thin soles of her shoes, her toes tingling. She slipped, dropping her handbag but managing to right herself as she watched it tumble down to the bottom of the steps, its contents spilling out onto the dirty pavement: an empty wallet, an empty jewellery case and two packets of paracetamol. She stood, rearranging her grey pinstripe skirt, her fingers finding the broken zip. He had been rough tonight.
The night air was making her feel light-headed. She pressed the button at the traffic lights and waited, resting her head back on her shoulders, her body swaying. A bus stopped in front of her, its exhaust catching in her throat. She tipped her head forward and looked at her reflection in the shadowed windows. Her hair was a mess, strands hanging around her face, limp and lifeless. Even in this light she could see the smudges of mascara under her eyes. Why would he want her? She pushed the button for the lights again, her hand lingering, eager for the support.
She looked up the road at Lordship Lane. It was the 'in' place to be, trendy wine bars and gastropubs lining the streets, charging a fortune for their imported spirits with unpronounceable names. Groups of fashionable twenty-somethings huddled under the heaters outside The Bishop, their faces glowing red as they took drags on their cigarettes. Debbie doubted any of them had ever ventured into Peckham itself, despite it being less than a mile away. She watched as a group of girls waved and called to friends on the other side of the street, their smiles visible, their happiness evident. She would never be like them.
When the lights changed, she limped across the road. Goose Green Park stretched into the darkness on her left. The children's play area was shadowed and still. She turned away, preferring to focus on the houses and flats on the other side of the road. The lights glowing from numerous windows comforted her. She reached into her handbag, her cold fingers searching until they closed around her phone. She dialled her brother's number, thankful when it went straight to voicemail. 'Hey, Tom, it's me,' she said, trying to control the slur in her voice. 'I'm gonna come over tomorrow night with Mum. I've had a tough day. Give my love to Jules and kiss baby Jake. Bye.' She ended the call and dropped her phone back into her bag. It was quarter to nine. The baby would be in bed by now anyway.
As she approached the lights of the Tesco Metro she was looking for a gap in the traffic to cross when something stopped her. A shiver worked its way up from her aching feet to her throbbing head. Now she was away from Lordship Lane, the pavements were almost empty. She stared into the park, at the trees. Was there someone standing there in the darkness? She turned away and ran across the road, the sound of a car horn echoing behind her.
'Damn it,' she said, slipping on a patch of ice. She needed cash for tomorrow. Another birthday in the office and another fiver she would never see again. She walked over to the cash machine at the side of the Tesco, struggling with her purse until she finally got her card out. She punched in her PIN and waited. A breeze brushed the hairs on her neck; it felt warm.
'Don't turn around ... please.' The voice was low; the whisper sent his breath right into her ear.
'What ...?' Her voice sounded hoarse.
'Good evening, Deborah.' He stretched out her name, enunciating the syllables as if talking to a child, flattening his body against hers. She felt something sharp digging into her ribs. Her eyes darted to either side but she couldn't see anyone. She replayed his words in her head. How did he know her name? Her stomach dropped, her mouth suddenly dry. 'I'd like you to take a few steps into the alley there,' he said, his voice calm.
She wanted to vomit but she remained motionless, mute, as he whispered like a lover in her ear. 'Please ...' she croaked, 'just take what you want.' Tears fell onto her cheeks and lips. She knew she should shout, run, anything, but she couldn't.
'I can see I am going to have to be more direct.' His voice dropped to a low rumble.
It was then that she knew who he was. He was the eyes she had felt watching her on the platform, the shiver that ran down her spine when she had crossed the road. As the knife punctured her skin she realized he had been with her for weeks: following her. Her bladder let go. The warm urine soaked into her underwear and tights.
He put his arm around her waist, her feet barely touching the ground as he walked her towards the alleyway at the corner of the building. She had never felt so small in her life. 'Please ... please, don't do this.' Debbie didn't recognize her own voice; her words slurred, her breathing laboured. She fought to stay conscious as he lifted her into his arms. The lights of the car park were fading but she could see a figure standing in the darkness. She tried to cry out but could make no sound. All she could hear was his voice, whispering in her ear.
23 January – Thursday
DI Mike Lockyer opened his eyes, unable to ignore the insistent buzzing of his mobile. He picked it up and rolled onto his back. 'Hello,' he said, stifling a yawn. There wasn't a trace of daylight around his curtains so it was early, very early.
He sat up and looked over at his alarm clock. A call at 4.10 a.m. from Jane Bennett, his senior detective sergeant on Lewisham's murder squad, wasn't good. 'Morning, Jane. What's up?'
'We are, sir,' she said, no trace of sleep in her voice.
He tried to engage his brain as he grabbed a pair of boxers from a pile of clean washing and dragged on yesterday's suit trousers, already scanning his bedroom for some deodorant. 'Go on.'
'The on-call team are on site. East Dulwich Road, Tesco Metro, SE22 9BD. Female. Eighteen. DOA ... it looks like there might be a connection to the Atherton and Pearson cases, sir.' She might not sound tired but he recognized tension when he heard it.
'I'll be there in ten minutes. Anything else?' he asked, already walking out of his bedroom, down the hallway, grabbing his jacket and coat as he passed.
'No. Ballinger is the DI on call, so he'll fill you in when you arrive. I've called the team in. Do you want me with you, or shall I get things prepped here, for when you get into the office?'
'You stay put. I'll brief everyone as soon as I arrive.' He was about to hang up when he heard her clear her throat. 'Is there something else, Jane?'
There was a slight pause on the other end of the phone. 'The chief asked me to tell you ... to mention that he wants the scene processed ASAP. He doesn't want ... in his words, "a media circus" invading Peckham again.'
'I'm sure he doesn't,' Lockyer said, slamming his front door, a gust of freezing wind hitting him full in the face. 'I'll see you in a sec.'
* * *
Lockyer zipped up his jacket as he approached the officer in charge of the outer perimeter. He couldn't help but be slightly amused as she struggled to hold the police tape aloft for him. The scent of her perfume filled his nostrils as he brushed past. It was strong, way too strong for 4.30 in the morning.
'Thank you, Officer,' he said, trying not to breathe in any more of the musky odour.
A thin layer of ice crunched beneath his feet as he crossed the road. The temporary traffic lights were on red, the ice reflecting the colour onto his shoes and legs. It looked like he was walking through a pool of blood.
East Dulwich Road was deserted, apart from four police vehicles, the SOCOs' van and a redundant ambulance. The squad cars' flashing lights cast an eerie glow over the supermarket car park. A low muttering was coming from the alleyway that ran alongside the Tesco Metro, a squat red-brick building. It had only opened three months ago and already its reputation was tarnished by violent crime. A sixteen-year-old had been stabbed two weeks ago for his mobile phone and last week three young people lost their lives in the car park in a gangland dispute over territory. Nothing stayed unblemished for long; not in his experience, anyway.
The Tesco itself was fronted by a wall of glass. The shadowed panes seemed to watch him, distorting his tall frame into a ghastly image. His head looked tiny, his torso stunted and his legs stick-thin and fun-house long. He looked away and veered towards the alley.
Three dead girls.
Phoebe Atherton, twenty, body found on 14 December on the edge of Camberwell New Cemetery. Katy Pearson, twenty-two, body found on 4 January by a group of twelve-year-olds in New Cross. An image of Katy Pearson's body, discarded like a piece of rubbish on scrubland behind the Hobgoblin pub, flashed into his mind. His team weren't dealing with the case but he had seen the crime-scene photographs. The poor girl had been no more than twenty feet away from help during the entire attack.
Both of the girls had had their wrists cut, then they were raped and finally their throats were slashed. The wrist wounds hadn't been the killing stroke, but the more the girls struggled during the sexual assault, the faster their blood would have been pumped out of their bodies. The thought made his palms sweat. He stopped and took a lungful of the January air, grateful now for the bite of cold on the back of his throat.
There was no confirmation of a link between Katy and Phoebe, not officially, but the whispers around the squad were getting louder. This body wasn't going to do anything to quieten the rumours. All three murder sites were within two miles of each other. If the modus operandi was consistent with the others, he and the murder squad could potentially be dealing with south-east London's first serial killer. It felt like he had wandered onto a film set instead of an unremarkable suburban street in East Dulwich.
He approached the inner cordon at the mouth of the alleyway and dragged on some shoe covers held out to him by another young officer. It was only then that the smell hit him. The cold would have slowed down the first stages of decomposition but there was no mistaking the sweet, metallic odour of blood.
The scene of the crime officers had laid down numerous three-bytwo platforms of toughened plastic to protect the site. He stepped up onto one of them, aware that he was inches away from vital evidence. The platforms criss-crossing the piles of debris made the scene look like some sick collage, the forensics team hovering around the body, obscuring Lockyer's view. All he could see were two bare feet.
'Mike, delighted you could make it. I was entering rigor myself waiting for you.' Dave Simpson stood and walked towards him, removing his gloves.
'David. What have we got?' Lockyer asked, resting a hand on his friend's shoulder. Dave was the senior pathologist for Southwark. His district included the boroughs of Greenwich, Lambeth and Lewisham. It was a massive area to cover and meant a lot of overtime. He dealt with everything: gang-related shootings, a young girl stabbed to death for twenty pounds, a mercy killing in New Cross, a man beaten to death by his neighbour because of a kid's bike, and that was a quiet week. Every hour the poor sod had worked seemed etched on his face.
'Female, Deborah Stevens, eighteen years old ... and we're looking at the same MO as the others. It's too early for me to officially confirm but ... unofficially, you're looking for the same man. Wrists, rape, throat.' Dave shrugged.
He stepped over to another platform to get a better look at the shrouded body. 'How long are these guys gonna be?' Lockyer motioned towards the SOCOs.
'They're almost done. Five minutes. Once they're done I'll talk you through what I have so far and we can discuss the ... differences.'
'Differences? You just said it was the same MO?' 'It is, bar a couple of things.' Dave put his finger to his lips. 'I'd prefer to talk to you about them when this lot have gone. Lot of ears here.'
'Can we get this scene cleared, now?' Lockyer's tone left no room for interpretation. The group of bent figures finally acknowledged his presence and began shuffling out of the alley, their papery outfits crackling as they went. 'So? Come on. I don't want to waste any time if you've got something I can move on.' He took a step towards the body but Dave stopped him. 'What's up with you?' he asked, looking at Dave and the firm hand holding his arm.
'Before we go and look at her, there are two things,' Dave said.
'And they are?'
'Firstly, there are two additions to the MO. It appears that the attacker used a knife to initially subdue the victim and then drugged her. I won't know for certain until I have her on the table, but she has a puncture wound just below her ribs and an entry site and bruising on her neck.'
'I'll need confirmation on that ASAP. If the suspect bought or stole prescription drugs, it could be a great lead.' Lockyer was already thinking who in the Serious and Organized Crime Division would be the best person to ask about purchasing or stealing prescription medication. 'And ... the second thing?' Dave didn't answer. Lockyer looked down at the hand still holding his arm. 'What the hell is up with you?' he asked, trying again to shake free of his friend's grip.
'I just want you to be prepared before you see her. She ... I mean ... there's a resemblance to ...' Dave drifted into silence and seemed to be looking everywhere but at Lockyer.
'Come on, Dave ... what resemblance?' He wrenched out of Dave's grip and stepped towards the body. Her bare feet were smeared with mud and filth from the alleyway. Her scraped knees were splayed outward, her right leg lying at an awkward angle with what looked like badly torn tights stuck to her thigh. Her skin was translucent. A sheet covered her torso but Lockyer could still see the blood. It looked viscous, like oil. It had pooled around her wrists where they had been cut.
As he took another step forward the victim's face came into view. Her auburn hair was plastered against her right cheek. He squatted next to her and tilted his head to look into her lifeless eyes. 'Oh my God,' he whispered.
'That's what I was trying to tell you,' Dave said, pulling him to his feet. 'I'm sorry, mate. I almost had a heart attack myself, when I arrived. Took me a couple of seconds to realize it wasn't her.'
Lockyer tried to focus, to move or speak.
'Mike ... are you all right?'
The iron clamp crushing his heart suddenly released its grip. He swayed as his senses rushed back to him. '... I'm fine. It isn't ... it isn't her,' he said, touching the chain around his neck, rolling the ring back and forth beneath his shirt.
'No, it isn't. I'm sorry, I handled that badly. I wasn't sure what to say,' Dave said with a shake of his head.
'It's fine, just knocked me off for a second, I'm fine ... what else have you got for me?'
He tried to listen to Dave's preliminary report but all he could think about was Megan. All he could see was her face.
23 January – Thursday
Sarah crossed the road and walked onto Peckham Rye, Antonia close behind her dragging a less than willing terrier. There were three joggers on the opposite side of the park but other than that they were the only ones braving the cold weather. That was good.
Cars queued at the temporary traffic lights at the bottom of the park, their cold engines sending white clouds into the air. She found the normality of it almost comforting. People still went to work, still effed and blinded when they missed the lights. Everything carried on as before. Only she had changed. 'So, whose dog is it?' she asked.
'Sally's. Well, her friend's, actually. She's dog-sitting. He's sweet, really, just a little hyper,' Toni said, tugging on the dog's lead as it struggled to go back the way they had come. 'Monty
stop it,' Toni said. Monty sniffed the air, looked up at them both and then resumed his game of tug of war.