David Swain is two years into his life sentence for murdering the lover of his ex-girlfriend, Katya Osman. In the dead of night, he escapes from prison. Hours later, Katya is found murdered in her uncle's home, Blackwater Hall.Having first brought Swain to justice two years earlier, Inspector Trave of the Oxford police heads the manhunt. Once Swain is recaptured and put on trial for his life, a guilty verdict seems guaranteed.But Trave's investigation has taken an unexpected turn. Katya's uncle is a rich diamond dealer with a grudge against Trave, and his sinister brother-in-law has gone to great lengths to create a new identity. Now convinced that they have arrested the wrong man, and with personal scores to settle, Trave must risk everything he holds dear to bring his unlikely target to justice.
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Simon Tolkien was a successful Criminal Justice barrister in London specializing in serious crimes before moving to California with his wife and two children to take up writing full time. He has been acclaimed as a naturally gifted storyteller with a terrific command of language and a unique perception into the darker sides of human nature. The grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, with whom he had a very special relationship, Simon Tolkien's writing is set firmly in this world.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Outside it was late summer. The red-brown leaves hung heavy on the trees in the woods beyond the house, and in the front courtyard silver water splashed down from the stone mermaids’ open mouths into the blue-grey basin of the fountain to be reabsorbed, pumped back up and out again in an endless cycle. The courtyard was empty and it was the only sound. Above, the last golden light of the sinking evening sun glinted here and there in the polished glass of the three symmetrical rows of sash windows that ran along the façade of Blackwater Hall. All of them the same, except for one window high up on the left, a window with steel bars inside the reinforced glass. Behind it Katya Osman sat at her desk writing in her diary.
She wrote sideways with her body leaning over the book as if to conceal its contents, but this was clearly from force of habit, not necessity, since there was no one else in the room and the door was locked. Her long, unbrushed blond hair fell down over the desk, and every so often she pulled it back behind her head with an irritated gesture. She was concentrating hard and she bit down on her lower lip as she wrote, occasionally looking up and out into the darkening sky beyond the bars of her window as if in search of inspiration. She had always been pretty but suffering had changed her. Her bright blue eyes, swollen from too much crying, had become larger and more luminous than ever before in her gaunt and ravaged face, and in the last few days she had almost stopped eating so that her clothes had now begun to hang off her body, as if they had grown out of her. She wore them carelessly—the buttons on her grey dress were unevenly fastened, and there were stains around the collar.
The room too was a mess. Clothes, dirty and clean, were everywhere, falling out of drawers, draped over the open doors of the wardrobe in the corner, and an overflowing ashtray competed for space with a framed photograph and a plate containing a half-eaten apple and an untouched sandwich on top of a crowded bookcase by the door.
“I cannot bear the pain anymore,” she wrote. “I feel like I’m going mad. I think it would be better to die than to carry on like this. But how? That’s the question. Perhaps I can steal the matches from Jana when she comes in to feed me and then we’ll die together she and I. Burn until there’s nothing left. There would be justice in that. But I know that at the last moment I won’t be able to go through with it; I’ll draw back—I know I will. Why? Why, in God’s name, why? It’s not fear of death that stops me. I know that. It’s hope; hope for life. Hope is my curse. It always has been. I see that now. God, how much better I would be without it. How much…”
Katya stopped writing suddenly, her pen suspended in midair. Outside she could hear footsteps. She knew the sound of them—patent leather soles clicking on the wooden floor. They were coming down the corridor toward her door. Quickly she crossed to the bookcase and pulled out a thick book from the bottom shelf. Back in happier days Katya had hollowed out its interior to create a perfect hiding place for her secret diary. And then for years it had lain there forgotten until she’d begun to keep it again in recent weeks, adding almost daily entries in her tiny, spidery writing.
She’d just finished replacing the book and got back to her chair when she heard the key turn in the lock behind her and a tall thin woman dressed entirely in black came into the room.
Jana Claes had never been pretty, but then again she’d never claimed to be. Her nose was too big and her eyes too small for her pallid face, and her lack of any figure emphasised an enduring impression of semimasculinity. She was almost fifty now, more than twice Katya’s age, and, just as she had always done since she was a girl, she wore her hair, now greying, tied up in a severe bun at the back of her head. Katya had never seen her let it down; just as she had never seen her dressed in anything but black. Unmarried, Jana wore no jewellery except a small silver crucifix that hung on a thin chain around her neck. Bloody hypocrite, Katya always said to herself whenever she saw it.
The eldest of a family of five, Jana had had domestic responsibility for her siblings since the age of thirteen, when her mother was admitted to hospital one winter afternoon suffering from scarlet fever and had never come back home again. Life was a serious business. There was no room in it for frivolity or vanity. And in all the years that she had known the elder woman, Katya had never once heard her laugh.
Jana stood in the doorway surveying the room with her thin lips drawn back in an expression of unconcealed disgust.
“Why don’t you clear this up?” she asked, speaking with the thick Flemish accent that Katya had come to dislike so much.
“Because I choose not to,” said Katya defiantly.
“It’s horrible,” said Jana, advancing into the room and closing the door behind her. “You have no self-respect.”
“Nor do you. You’re nothing but a common gaoler. That’s all you are.”
“It is for your own good.”
Katya snorted with contempt. “Have you got a light?” she asked after a moment, taking a cigarette out of a battered packet lying on the desk. It humiliated her to have to ask, but she had no choice. Jana had taken her matches away after an accident with the bedclothes a week earlier, and she badly needed to smoke. Her hands were shaking as she held out the cigarette.
“No. Not now. I need to give you something to make you sleep,” said Jana, taking a syringe out of her pocket and removing the cover from the needle. “Your uncle is worried about you. If you carry on having no sleep, you will be ill. It won’t hurt, I promise. Just a little prick—that’s all.”
Katya had gone white at the sight of the syringe. Her defiance disappeared like air from a burst balloon, and she backed away into the far corner of the room, terrified.
“No. Not that. Please not that,” she pleaded with her trembling hands held out in front of her in a gesture combining resistance and supplication in equal measure. “It made me sick last time, don’t you remember?”
“It was fine. You went to sleep and then you woke up and you felt a whole lot better,” said Jana, advancing slowly toward Katya with the syringe in her hand, the needle pointed at the ceiling. She tried to inject a soothing tone into her voice, but her words only seemed to make Katya more hysterical. She regretted coming alone now. There was a crazy look in the girl’s eye like she was toppling over the edge into madness, and Jana wished that she’d brought her brother, Franz, with her, but she hadn’t wanted to bother him. Like Titus, Katya’s uncle, he had a lot of things on his mind. She’d wanted to show her brother that he could rely on her, and last time it had been easy with Katya. She’d been ill in bed and there’d been no trouble.
Reaching Katya, Jana took sudden hold of her arm and forced her down onto the bed. Katya felt the strength in Jana’s hand. It was like a vice on her wrist, temporarily paralyzing her. She felt the prick as the needle pierced her skin, and, as if in slow motion, she watched Jana’s thumb move to press down on the stopper of the syringe. But then, at that precise moment, it was as if some outside force suddenly possessed her: a surge of adrenaline coursed through her body like a charge of electricity, filling her with an overpowering determination not to allow this withered old woman to treat her like she was nothing, a body to be drugged and starved and imprisoned in an attic room at someone else’s whim. She pulled her arm away and pushed up suddenly with all her strength into Jana’s chest, taking the older woman by surprise and sending her reeling back against the corner of the desk, where she sank down onto the floor. The syringe, half-full, fell out of Jana’s hand and rolled away under the bed.
Getting to her feet, Katya looked down at her adversary. Jana wasn’t moving. Perhaps she’d hit her head on the side of the desk. Quite deliberately Katya took aim and kicked Jana hard in the small of the back. Jana cried out and curled herself up into a ball on the floor.
“You deserved that,” said Katya with grim satisfaction. “I’m not a fool: I know why you’re trying to drug me. It’s because someone’s coming, isn’t it? Just like before. And you don’t want them to see me, don’t want them to know what you’re doing to me up here. Well, too bad. This time I’m going to talk. I’m going to tell them everything you’ve done. And when I’ve finished, I hope they lock you up and throw away the key. So you’ll know what it feels like.”
Katya felt like kicking Jana some more but resisted the temptation. Glancing out the window, she saw that the courtyard was still empty, but nevertheless she felt sure that a car would soon be pulling up. And if she was to stand a chance of telling the visitor her story, she needed to find somewhere to hide until he or she arrived. For a moment Katya remained in the centre of the room, swaying backward and forward on the balls of her feet, her brow furrowed in concentration, but then, drawing a deep breath, she seemed to make up her mind.
Crossing to the door, she smiled. The key was still in the lock. Jana hadn’t taken it out when she came in, and so she wouldn’t have to search the older woman’s pockets and run the risk of another fight. It seemed like a good omen. With one backward glance, Katya closed the door, locked it, and then, with the key in her hand, ran away down the corridor. But before she’d reached the end she felt her legs buckle beneath her as the drug started to take effect, and she had to lean on the wall for support before she turned the corner and started down the stairs.
* * *
The first thing that Jana felt when she came to was the intensity of the pain in her head. Her right temple was throbbing so hard that she felt it would burst. It terrified her. Involuntarily she put her hand up to her hairline and felt blood seeping between her fingers. She opened her eyes and the room started to turn, spinning round and round, faster and faster. Quickly she closed them again tight shut, but it was too late. She was turning herself now, and, as she felt her stomach heaving upward, she leant over to the side and was violently sick onto Katya’s ruby-red carpet. The movement and the retching made her suddenly conscious of a new hurt low in her back. For a while she lay motionless on the floor facing her own vomit while the two pains fought each other for supremacy until finally they fused together into one solid agony. And the pain was mixed up with shame and fear. She knew what she had done: she had messed everything up. She shuddered as she thought of what Franz would say when he found her. She had to get up, to warn them before this Vanessa woman arrived. Because she didn’t know where Katya was. Not in the room certainly. The terrible, shameful retching had at least cleared her head and she found she could open her eyes now without the furniture rising up to meet her. She took in the unmade bed, the syringe that had rolled away underneath it, a photograph of Katya’s dead parents on top of the bookcase, and beyond it the door. It was closed. She felt in her pockets for the key, without success. Like a fool she must have left it in the door when she came in, and, if so, Katya would almost certainly have locked her in as she fled.
The pain came back in waves, and for a moment she thought she would pass out again, and perhaps she might have if she hadn’t heard the sound of a car driving up and parking in the courtyard below. Now she knew she had almost no time left—a minute or two at most—before Titus opened the front door and brought his guest inside. And so, gritting her teeth, she dragged herself across the carpet to the door and then, putting her hand up to the handle, she found her worst suspicions confirmed. It was indeed locked. But she’d already thought of what to do. She reached down and took off her shoe and then, using all her strength, banged it on the door frame again and again, while she shouted out for help. After half a minute she came to the end of her strength and fell back in a swoon. But it was enough.
Two doors down and one floor below, Jana’s brother, Franz, was sitting on his bed, polishing a pair of expensive black shoes. They were spotless, gleaming, and clearly didn’t need polishing, but he still shined them every night, enjoying the ritual, the backward and forward strokes. He was in full evening dress, apart from his tie, and, just as he had been doing all day, he was thinking resentfully about Titus’s ill-considered association with the policeman’s wife, searching his brain for a way to get Titus to break off the relationship. Franz had his door shut, so he didn’t hear Jana fall or Katya running in the corridor up above. He did, however, hear Vanessa Trave drive up into the courtyard and Titus come out to greet her. And it was probably the way in which he strained to hear their conversation down below that enabled him to catch the sound of his sister banging on Katya’s door, crying out for help.
He ran upstairs, but he couldn’t release her straightaway. He had spare keys to all the rooms in the house, even Titus’s study, but they were back in his room, and so he had to return there to get the spare for Katya’s bedroom. Once inside, he helped his sister onto the bed and listened patiently while she explained what had happened. He wasn’t angry with Jana; instead he blamed himself. He ought to have gone with her to give Katya the injection. The fact that the girl hadn’t resisted last time didn’t mean she’d always be that way. And she’d obviously kicked Jana in the small of the back while Jana was down on the ground. He’d have a score to settle with little Katya when he found her, which had to be quickly. Vanessa Trave was downstairs, and she couldn’t be allowed to know what was going on. Once again Franz clenched his fists in angry frustration. Why wouldn’t Titus do what he asked? The woman was married to a police inspector for Christ’s sake, the same police inspector who’d asked all those awkward questions after Ethan died, poking his nose into other people’s business. So what if she and Trave were separated! They probably still talked to each other. Couldn’t Titus at least have taken her somewhere else? No, no, always no. Titus was a law unto himself.
Franz looked down at his sister, trying to decide what to do. She was too badly hurt to help with the search. That much was obvious. And there was no time to lose.
“Stay here, Jani, I’ll come back when I find her,” he said, speaking in Dutch. His voice was gruff but not unkind, and Jana picked up on her brother’s use of his pet name for her.
“Yes, I’m sorry, Franz,” she said, sounding relieved. “She went crazy. I didn’t expect it.”
“I know. Rest now. I’ll be back soon.” He picked up his sister’s hand, held it lightly for a moment, and then let it go.
It was the nearest Franz Claes could get to tenderness or affection. Such emotions didn’t come naturally to him. But he was fond of his elder sister. They went back a long way. And the idea of her being pushed around and kicked by bloody little Katya made him angry inside. He could feel the rage building like a knot in his stomach. But he had it under control. It was something he prided himself on—he was always in control of his emotions.
Franz went out into the corridor and stood there for a moment, listening intently. With his left forefinger he stroked a long white scar that ran down from the hairline above his left ear to a blotch of red puckered skin just below his jaw, but otherwise he was entirely still. Titus and the Trave woman wer...
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