DANCING ON THE GRAVE

a standalone crime thriller featuring CSI Grace McColl and DC Nick Weston

Synopsis

In one of the most beautiful corners of England something very ugly is about to take place.

A sniper with a mission…
a young cop with nothing to lose…
a CSI with everything to prove…
a teenage girl with a terrifying obsession…

There’s a killer on the loose in the Lake District, and the calm of an English summer is shattered.

"Like Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, Dancing On The Grave hooks you with incredible magnetism, builds with irresistible tension and then holds you close for a superb climax."

Matt Johnson, author of the bestselling DI Robert Finlay thrillers

For newly qualified crime-scene investigator, Grace McColl, it’s both the start of a nightmare and the chance to prove herself after a mistake that cost a life.

For Detective Constable Nick Weston, recently transferred from London, it’s an opportunity to recover his nerve after a disastrous undercover operation that left him for dead.

And for a lonely, loveless teenage girl, Edith, it’s the start of a twisted fantasy—one she never dreamed might come true.

From the author's notebook

Having worked both as a professional photographer and lived on the eastern side of the Lake District, I’d always had a hankering to use both those elements in a novel. I first tried out the character of Grace McColl in a short story called Tell Me and felt she deserved more space to develop.

Then the Washington Sniper attacks a few years ago caught my imagination and I started to ferment an idea about what it might be like if that kind of incident happened here in the UK. And not just here, but somewhere known for its calm tranquillity, like the Lake District.

Coupled into that, I wanted to examine the nature of fame in today’s society, of people’s idea of what it actually meant and what they might be prepared to do in order to achieve it. And finally, perhaps most strongly, this is a story about loyalty, about ties created in bloodshed, and how tightly they bind.

I wrote the bulk of this novel a few years ago. Just as I finished it, thinking it was complete fiction that could have no basis in reality (certainly not here in England) a man called Derrick Bird went on the rampage on the western side of the Lake District, shooting 23 people and killing 12 of them before taking his own life. It made me put the book aside for a long time. As I’ve thought on many previous occasions, you have to be very careful where your imagination leads you…

Excerpt

Over the years, Patrick Bardwell had learned to trust his own survival instinct implicitly. Now, as he was juggling with Vise-Grips to tack the last part of the makeshift bracket in place to the Land Rover chassis, it tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.

You are not alone.

Casually, he slid out from underneath the vehicle and laid aside his welding mask. Carefully, he propped the rest of the rig so any residual heat didn’t set fire to the straw-strewn floor of the barn, and climbed stiffly to his feet, placing both fists into the small of his back as though to stretch it out.

True, his spine was feeling the pinch from the awkward position, but it also gave him a good excuse to twist slowly in both directions.

Over to his right, on what remained of the haystack, he caught a tiny glimmer of movement that might have been someone ducking down. Not a professional, then.

One of the first things they’d taught him was never to move quickly unless sure he’d been compromised. The most astounding levels of exposure could be countered by the simple act of stillness.

Bardwell shuffled over towards the workbench, which brought him closer to the stack, while his brain ran possibilities with a glacial smoothness behind a blank expression. There was a door in the far back corner where his unknown watcher must have squeezed through into the barn and climbed onto the haystack.

But how did they know to look? And how much have they seen?

The Barrett squatted on its bipod legs, taking up almost the entire length of the bench. Bardwell had thrown a sheet over it, more to keep dust and dirt at bay than for disguise. But he’d uncovered the gun several times, to take measurements and to check the fit of the bracket. If they’d been watching then…

He clattered around at the bench for a few moments while he considered the risks, hands distractedly moving over the tools he’d laid out as though searching for some misplaced item.

There’s still a chance they’ve seen nothing…

Then, from the other side of the hay came a sound, too loud to pretend he hadn’t heard. A scrambling noise with a smear of panic to it.

They’ve seen it all right.

Abandoning his shambling gait, Bardwell threw himself at the wall of hay, hands grasping the thin twine binding each crumbling bale to launch himself up and onto it. He rolled down onto the other side amid a billow of choking dust, landing right on top of a scrawny teenage boy. The boy reared back, tripped over his own feet and went down shrieking.

Bardwell’s only thought was to silence him. He piled in, using aggression and body mass to drive the boy down into the hay, clamping one hand over his mouth to cut the screams, grabbing for his throat with the other.

And suddenly he was plucked from the cool lushness of an English summer and plunged back into the harsh desert of northern Iraq. Back to when he and his spotter were compromised by a young Iraqi boy herding his goats through the wadi where they’d made their hide. They had already seen the dust haze thrown up by the rapid approach of the mobile Scud launcher they were tasked to disable, when the boy had begun to shout.

That time Bardwell had used a knife. He was a long-distance killer by training and temperament and it hadn’t been as quick, nor as silent, as he’d been misled to believe. The boy had taken his time about dying, ugly, and Bardwell was forced to leave him drowning in his own blood to go back to his gun.

It was one of the rare occasions when he had missed the precise point he’d chosen on the target with his first cold shot.

This time, even the distance of a knife was denied to him. He gripped tighter round the boy’s throat, feeling the skinny muscles start to tear. Already, his frantic struggles had weakened, the thrashing limbs beginning to flop.

And then, just as suddenly, the boy’s flowing bedou coat shimmered into a gaudily-patterned shirt with an open collar, and the bleeding, dying Arab boy became a pale, terrified English girl. Not just any girl, but one who was known to him.

Bardwell let go as if stung. He flung himself away and jerked his hands up as if just to look at her hurt his eyes. The girl sat half up instantly and scuttered backwards on her elbows and bony rump, whimpering with fright. Her heels scrabbled for grip in the soft loose hay.

She’d barely gone two metres when he heard her hand connect with something solid. She grabbed and swung it towards him. Bardwell let his hands drop and found himself looking straight down the gaping barrel of a shotgun.

Just for a second, neither of them moved. The only sound was the insistent bleating of lambs in the nearby fields and the rasp of the girl’s breath through her half-crushed windpipe. The sight of the gun pulled up into her shoulder tripped his memory, back to the field, and the dog.

So, she did see me after all.

He watched her hands tighten and knew he was as close to being killed here as he’d ever been in any godforsaken corner of the world.

And, in some strange way, he felt relief. If he died here—now, today—then the choice would be taken from him. There would be no more duty, no bonds of blood. It would all be over.

He sat on the edge of the bales and met the girl’s eyes without flinching. Moving at all was a calculated risk. She could have pulled the trigger just out of fright and no-one would have blamed her for it.

But she didn’t.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” he asked with gruff belligerence. “Didn’t dither about with that dog yesterday, did you?”

Her mouth dropped open. “How do you know that?” she demanded hoarsely and he cursed under his breath as he heard the surprise in her voice, saw the wheels turning and the crafty glint in her eye. “It was you, wasn’t it—with that big rifle?”

Coldly, Bardwell realised his mistake. Whatever she’d been doing up here, it wasn’t to spy on him. He noticed the bottle of cheap sherry lying on its side with the dregs leaking into the hay, the flush to her skin that wasn’t purely down to adrenaline.

The shotgun was heavy. The weight of it dragged at her narrow shoulders. Out of habit, Bardwell recognised it as Ian Hogg’s old Baikal. He’d spent time in the farmhouse study, occasionally invited to engage in awkward conversation with the Retreat’s owner. He’d always got the impression the gun was a relic of an earlier generation—that Hogg didn’t really approve. It even crossed his mind it might not be loaded now.

Could still finish what I started…

“Aye, it was me.”

But her angry response what not what he expected. “Then why didn’t you shoot it?” she wailed. “You ruined everything!”

Bardwell kept one eye on her whitened trigger finger. “Ruined what?”

She paused, took a shaky breath and drew herself up. “I was going to kill myself,” she announced with a dignity that was somehow pathetic.

Bardwell had dealt with a lot of things in his life, from fellow squaddies with their legs blown off to hordes of yelling fanatics waving spears. His reaction was to switch off emotion like a light, leaving only a cold logic behind.

“Not easy with a long gun,” he said after a moment. “Don’t go for a gut shot—you’ll die screaming. Seen it often enough. Mouth’s best. Instant, more or less. Take your shoes and socks off and work the trigger with your big toe.”

He saw her shoulders begin to shiver, and for a moment he thought she might shoot him by accident if not by design. He braced. At that distance, in a confined space, there wasn’t much else to be done.

Then, with something close to a moan, the girl sent the shotgun spinning away onto the bales and glared at him, eyes bright with the fever of unshed tears.

“See? Everyone wishes I was dead!” she cried, and bolted, slithering down the far side of the stack away from him.

Behind her, Bardwell sat bewildered, staring at the discarded shotgun and the empty bottle.