Belfast, Northern Ireland: Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew. It doesn't take her long to clear out the dead man's remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked. When Rea finally forces it open, she discovers inside a chair, a table—and a leather-bound book, its pages filled with locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.
Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but her family intervenes, fearing that scandal will mar her politician father's public image. Rea turns to the only person she can think of: disgraced police inspector Jack Lennon. He is facing suspension from the force and his new supervisor, DCI Serena Flanagan, is the toughest cop he's ever met. But a gruesome murder brings the dead man's terrifying journal to the top of the Belfast police's priority list.
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Raymond Drew wanted to die on the towpath. Even if there was no sun, no blue sky to die beneath, he wanted it to be by the river. He didn’t care if the ground was sodden with rainfall as he collapsed.
If he could manage it, he’d fall dead into the water. At least that way he could be sure. To survive and be brought to a hospital was unthinkable. They would contact his family, such as it was, and his sister Ida would go to his house.
And the things she would find there.
He should have destroyed them, but he couldn’t, he was not strong enough to take that action and endure the consequences. It would be easier simply to die. At least if he was gone, he would not have to face that terrible discovery. The real Raymond Drew, the creature that had hidden beneath this human skin for more than six decades, would be revealed.
Raymond locked the front door of his house, the three-bedroom semi on Deramore Gardens he’d lived in for thirty years. Just one of many identical structures on this street, red brick, early 1900s, the kind of houses that middle-class couples and property developers were falling over themselves to buy until the financial crisis. Raymond had shared the first two years here with a wife he’d barely known, let alone loved. Dead and buried now, and he hadn’t missed her for a moment.
He tucked the keys into his pocket. The grass of his lawn looked like stubble on a drunkard’s chin. He hadn’t cut it in years. The man next door, Hughes his name was, gave up asking Raymond to mow it and did it himself every few weeks. The spring would soon start it growing again.
Not that it mattered to Raymond any more.
He left his car on the driveway, closed the gate behind him, and walked. The Vauxhall Corsa didn’t have an MOT or tax. It hadn’t been driven in months.
A few minutes took him down the shallow incline of Sunnyside Sreet, past the corner shops and Chinese takeaways, to Annadale Embankment. He avoided eye contact with students and housewives on the way. At the bridge by the river, he waited at the pedestrian crossing for the green man to appear and tell him to go. Like a good boy. Raymond had learned to be a good boy long ago, to be quiet, respectful, obey all rules while outside his home. Not to draw attention.
Once across the dark slow-moving water to the Stranmillis side, he walked south along the river’s edge, beneath the bony branches of the still winter-bare trees. Past the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre, on further, the blocks of apartments with their waterside views. Traffic rumbled to his right, cars, vans and lorries filtering in and out of the city, heading north or east.
That sickly swelling in his chest, pulsing, robbing him of breath. He did not slow his pace, even as the sweat dripped from his eyebrows. Cold on his back, running down his spine.
Raymond had gone to the doctor two months before. A softspoken and serious young woman, she had talked about medication, pills, things to ease the tired muscle in his breast. She talked about more tests, bloods, wires tethered to his skin, a specialist at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
It was serious, the young doctor had said. It was only a matter of time before an attack came, perhaps a big one. Appointments were made, a prescription printed on patterned paper.
Raymond did not keep the appointments, nor did he have the prescription filled. He simply wanted to know.
It had been a month since the fluttering in his chest had intensified. Then the dizzy spells, the cold sweats, the feeling of his torso being crushed by some invisible hand. He awoke throughout the night, gasping, wild horses galloping inside his ribcage.
Only a matter of time.
A cool wave washed across his brow, and his legs weakened. He gripped the railing to steady himself. Waited while the blood coursed through his body.
A pub just ahead, perched on the riverbank, tables and benches and umbrellas damp and pathetic in the grey. A drink. Just one last swallow to see it done.
Raymond entered the pub. The only other patrons were a pair
of businessmen comparing charts over cups of coffee. They did
not notice him. But the girl behind the bar did.
He approached. The girl smiled. Blonde hair tied back, dressed in black trousers and a shirt that clung to her form. He stared for a moment. Felt his teeth with his tongue.
“What can I get for you?” she asked.
A foreign girl, Eastern European.
Raymond had been to Eastern Europe more than once. Even before the Soviets lost their hold. He had tasted many things there. Things few men ever taste.
He went to reply, but his throat and his tongue would not obey. Sweat tingled on his cheek. Something pulsed inside his skull.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked. “Do you need help?”
“Whiskey,” he said, his voice crackling in his throat.
She hesitated, a thin line between her eyebrows. “Bush, Jameson, Jack Daniel’s.”
“Black Bush,” he said. “A double, no water.”
She fetched him the drink, served it in a tumbler. The liquidglowed amber, swaying in the glass as it clinked on the bar top.
A shrill thought sounded in his mind, causing a moment of giddy panic. Had he brought any money? Raymond checked each pocket in turn, the fear building in him, until his fingers touched leather at his hip. He opened the wallet, sighed when he found
a twenty-pound note, and handed it over.
“Keep . . .” His lungs betrayed him. He inhaled as much air as they would hold. “Keep the change.”
A smile flashed on her face, then was swept aside by concern. “Are you sick?” she asked. “Do you need a doctor?”
Raymond shook his head, no breath to spare. He took the glass to the farthest table, pausing on the way to let another dizzy wave pass. Raising the tumbler, he smelled warm earthy peat, sweet caramel, spice. Heat in his throat, the aftertaste of aniseed.
As he sat sipping at the whiskey, a knot of pain tightened around his left arm. It travelled up through his shoulder and neck before hammering on the inside of his skull. He held the table’s edge.
Not here. Not here.
Raymond downed the rest of the whiskey in one gulp, coughed, and marvelled at the constellations that flowered across his vision.
The girl approached. “Sir? I can call a doctor.”
He shook his head, stood, made for the exit, carried more by his momentum than his legs.
Outside, he went to the towpath.
Too close to the pub and the houses. Half a mile downriver, past the boat club, the buildings would recede, nothing but grass and trees along the river’s edge. He had walked the towpath many times, letting the quiet air enshroud him, the calm seeping in through his pores.
Another charge of pain coursed from his arm up to his brain, stronger than before.
Walk. Jesus Christ, walk.
His legs obeyed. Time bent and cracked around him. Grey turned to green. Civilisation faded into the distance, only the rough ground and the sound of the wind through leaves.
A woman and a dog. It sniffed at him as he passed, whined, smelling the death on him. His and that of the others.
A cyclist, wrapped in Lycra, a helmet on his head, skidding to avoid a collision.
“Fuck’s sake, watch where you’re going,” the cyclist shouted as he pedalled away.
Raymond did not answer.
He stepped off the gravel path, toward the grass and weeds at the edge. His shoes sank in the wetness. Hard, needling cold swamping his feet. The river flowed past, fat from the rainfall.
“God, let it be now,” Raymond said.
He laughed at the futility of his prayer. He and God had parted ways half a lifetime ago.
He dug his fingers into his pocket, the tips already going numb. His keys snagged on a thread. He pulled harder, and they came free. It took the last of his strength to toss them six feet. They splashed in the water without a sound. At least none that he could hear.
Another shock of pain, bigger than his body could hold, raging up through his left arm, his shoulder, his neck, then an explosion in his brain like the birth of a star.
“Now,” he said.
The water came to meet him, swallowed him, as tender as it was cold. A million images streaked through Raymond’s mind, each one as bold and brilliant as the last, faces he’d known, many he hadn’t, some of them twisted in terror.
They sparked and fell like the scatterings of a firework, falling into black, down to where the fire awaited him. Down into the final silence.
Rea Carlisle sat on the stairs, looking at the black plastic bags, a man’s life wrapped up and ready to be dumped.
She hadn’t seen her uncle for twenty-eight years, and she remembered the occasion better than the man. She had been six years old, a funeral in a draughty church whose location she could not recall. People had whispered, asking what her mother was doing bringing a child that age to a funeral? The babysitter hadn’t turned up, and Rea’s mother had scrubbed her face with spit and tissue before bundling her into her best Sunday school dress and dragging her out to the car.
Uncle Raymond had stood quiet and still throughout, had smiled and shaken hands with people who seemed to be as strange to him as they were to Rea.
Her mother embraced him.
“Och, Raymond, I’m so sorry,” she said.
His arms remained by his sides, his back stiff and straight. “Thanks for coming, Ida,” he said.
When they put his wife in the ground, Uncle Raymond brought a finger to his eye. But there was no tear to wipe away. Even though Rea could recall only the most vague image of his face, she remembered clearly how silly the action of wiping away a non-existent tear seemed to her.
She asked her mother about it on the drive home in the Mini Metro.
Ida stayed quiet for a while, watching the road ahead. Then she said, “Well, he was always an odd cratur.”
After that, they never talked much about him. Rea knew her mother had tried to contact Raymond, by telephone, by letter, but never a reply. He faded from their lives like mist from a window.
The phone call had come a week ago.
Rea had been sitting at her kitchen table, eating a microwaved ready meal straight from the plastic container, scrolling through the listings of a jobs website on her iPad. She lifted her mobile knowing it would be her mother’s name on the display. Ida had a knack of calling at awkward moments. When Rea was eating, or in the bath, or on the toilet, or trying to get out the door, she could almost guarantee the phone would ring.
“It’s Raymond,” Ida said.
Rea’s mind scrambled to connect the name to anyone she knew. God help her, she didn’t want another one of those verbal tennis matches where her mother insisted Rea knew someone while Rea swore blind she didn’t.
Och, you know him surely, Ida would say.
I don’t, Rea would counter.
Och, you do.
No, I don’t.
Back and forth until Rea would be ready to scream.
Before any of that could happen, Ida said, “He’s dead.”
Rea heard a watery sigh in the phone’s earpiece.
“Who’s dead?” she asked.
“Raymond,” Ida said, exasperation in her voice. “Your uncle Raymond. My brother.”
The white wisp of a man by the graveside came back to her. The finger at the dry eye. The features she could not form into a real face.
“Jesus,” Rea said.
Ida tutted at the minor blasphemy.
“Sorry,” Rea said, not meaning it. “How did he die?”
“They’re not sure,” Ida said. “Maybe drowned, but they don’t know.”
“He was found in the Lagan yesterday afternoon, all snagged up in the weeds.”
Rea heard a crack in her mother’s voice. A sharp, high-pitched inhalation. She pictured a tissue screwed up in Ida’s fingers, ready to dab at her cheeks. Keeping it all bound up tight like a ball of string in her breast in case she made a show of herself. Ida Carlisle was the kind of woman who wept at her kitchen table, a cup of tea going cold in front of her, at least one closed door between her and anyone else.
“They found out who he was from his wallet,” Ida said. “It took them a day to find out he was related to me. The police called at the house this evening.”
“Was Dad there?” Rea asked.
“No, he was at a party meeting. He says he’ll be home as soon as it’s over.”
Rea suppressed a curse. Graham Carlisle made his wife look like a well of warm emotion. God forbid he should let Ida’s bereavement get in the way of his ambitions. He’d had a seat at the Stormont Assembly for five years now, and they were grooming him for Westminster. They would announce his candidacy at the next general election. To him, all else was secondary.
“I’ll come over,” Rea said. “Give me half an hour.”
Before she could hang up, Ida said, “I didn’t know him.”
Rea kept silent, left the space for her mother to fill with whatever troubled her.
Ida took a quivering breath and said, “He was my brother, and I didn’t know him. I haven’t seen him in near thirty years. I don’t know if he still lives in that wee house. I don’t know if he married again. I don’t know if he had any children. I could’ve passed him on the street, and I wouldn’t have recognized him. I should’ve known him better.”
“You tried,” Rea said. “I remember you writing him letters and sending him Christmas cards. You did try.”
“I should’ve tried harder.”