A Killer in the Family
He’d watched them ever since that first fire back in October. Followed their little team from scene to scene as they tried to unpick it all.
He’d been with them, in an ironic sort of camaraderie, while they’d walked it over and attempted to work out who had been burned to ashes in the forest. Though none of them had seen him. He was good at being invisible when he wanted to be.
He’d been with them, invisibly, for most of the three months since. Always watching them. Always unseen. He’d followed them to the victim’s house, and on visits to bars and shops and cafés. He’d followed them as they’d gone to interview possible suspects, and smiled to himself as he’d seen them leave with expressions of frustration.
He hadn’t just watched them, of course. He’d read about all of it, in print and online. He’d known the moment they’d identified the victim as forty-six-year-old Jacqueline Clarke. He’d read all about her lonely life in Brockenhurst, as viewed through the eyes of a journalist.
He’d cut around each photograph of striking, sandy-haired Jacqueline and kept it. And each photograph of the team too.
One of the local press had used the term “Bonfire Killer” in a follow-up piece, and even though it hadn’t been picked up elsewhere, he’d liked it and started using it privately.
Two weeks after Jacqueline Clarke had been found, he’d watched them rush to a second pyre, this one still burning. He’d seen them douse it, even though it was abundantly clear that there was no body on it this time. And then he’d smiled to himself at their confusion. Their consternation.
He knew what they were thinking. He was too far away to hear most of their conversation, but he could read their expressions in the harsh lights that arrived with them.
They think it might happen again, he told himself. They’re expecting another Jacqueline Clarke now. Another Bonfire Killer victim.
The little team had begun to travel farther afield as they tried to tie in other crimes, and he’d followed them. Many of them had been laughably dissimilar, but as some of them had picked over the burnt remnants of a house in West Gradley, where a woman of Jacqueline Clarke’s age had died, he’d enjoyed their angst. Their uncertainty about whether to investigate it further.
Their agitation had been clearer still at the next two sites. Two more fires, each without a victim. And at each one their movements had been faster, like ants disturbed by a stick. He’d found it all amusing.
The thing he hadn’t expected to feel, however, was an increase in his own sense of camaraderie toward them. Somehow, in watching them all work, he’d developed an odd sort of affection. For DCI Jonah Sheens and his wry thoughtfulness. For DS Domnall O’Malley and his warmth.
Maybe even for DS Ben Lightman, whose model-handsome looks had produced an immediate revulsion in him. As though he were some Hollywood actor pretending to be a police officer. He’d hated him on sight.
But it had been hard to keep up the same level of distaste when he’d seen Ben Lightman pull on Wellingtons and wade through mud, and then stand in drizzle for an hour and a half at an extinguished pyre. That hour and a half of standing in the rain was an experience the two of them had shared, despite Ben Lightman not knowing it.
And then, of course, there was Juliette. He thought of her as Juliette, not her title. She was different. So easy to watch. To be drawn to. He found himself watching her even when the action was elsewhere. When more interesting things were going on.
Things had shifted for him after the third pyre, too. He’d left before the team, heading back to the four-by-four he’d hired for the occasion, using a fake driver’s license. He’d parked it farther up the track, to be out of sight, and as he walked back to it he’d passed Juliette’s little Nissan Micra, which she’d parked off to the side of the poor-quality road.
The Micra was clearly, profoundly, and irretrievably stuck in the mud. Something Juliette was going to discover when she tried to drive it away.
He looked at his watch. It was almost midnight. She’d be making that discovery at close to one a.m., at a guess.
He went to the car and tried the door. It was, he realized with a shiver of excitement, unlocked.
A strange, thrilling thought had run through him. He could actually help her. He could help Juliette. Do something kind for her. And if he did it right, she might suspect that it had been him, but never know for sure.
He’d glanced back toward the lights of the crime scene, way back down the track beyond a locked gate. They were half a mile away, and most of the forensics team would be there for hours.
Without any further hesitation, he’d gone to get the rental four-by-four with its steel-cable pulley, attached it to the Micra’s tow bar, and pulled it clear of the mud. He’d done it with his lights off, the revs low, and his gaze half on where the police might return from at any moment. But by the time he’d dragged the car onto the stony road, nobody had come.
With a smile to himself, he’d unhitched the cable and driven away, feeling a bond that he’d not expected connecting the two of them. A strangely satisfying one.
Now, as he dressed carefully, he thought of the help he’d given her. It warmed him as he pulled his shirt on in the chilly bedroom.
He wondered, idly, what she’d think of his outfit. Though what he really wanted to know was what she would think of the little surprise he had in store for her today.