CITY OF DREADFUL NIGHT

PROLOGUE

BRIGHTON GAZETTE, SATURDAY, 23 JUNE, 1934

GHASTLY FIND AT BRIGHTON

BODY IN TRUNK

WOMAN CUT TO PIECES

SCOTLAND YARD’S TASK

Brighton was shocked early in the week by the news of a particularly horrible crime which came to light with the finding of the nude torso of a woman in a trunk at Brighton Central Railway Station, and the discovery of the legs in the King’s Cross Station Luggage Office.

The grim discovery was made on Sunday evening, 17 June. The trunk was forced open after there had been a complaint to the police that there was an offensive smell coming from it. The naked remains of the woman were found inside. The head, legs and arms had been sawn off. The trunk had been deposited on Wednesday, 6 June.

CLUE OF LETTERS

The remains were wrapped in brown paper and tied with window cord. On the edge of the paper, written in blue pencil, are the letters “ford”.

Scotland Yard was called in to deal with the ghastly affair, in conjunction with the local police. Chief Detective-Inspector Donaldson and Detective-Sergeant Sorrell at once came down and set to work after a long conference with the Brighton Chief Constable, Capt. W. J. Hutchinson.

It was at first thought that the woman was about 40 years of age, but later Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the country’s leading forensic pathologist, gave as his opinion that she was in her twenties and certainly not more than thirty years old.

LEGS FOUND AT KINGS CROSS

There came a startling development on Monday evening, 18 June, when detectives from Scotland Yard visited King’s Cross station and in the left luggage department found a suitcase which contained the legs missing from the Brighton body.

The suitcase at King’s Cross was deposited on 7th June, the day after the trunk was deposited at Brighton. The attention of an attendant at King’s Cross was drawn to the case by the odour.

THE INQUEST

The proceedings only lasted two minutes before Mr Charles Webb, the Deputy Coroner, adjourned the inquiry until Wednesday, 18th July, at eleven o’ clock.

Mr Webb summarized the events of the past few days since the body was discovered. Referring to Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s examination of the previous day, Mr Webb said there were no marks or scars on the body by which it could be identified. The cause of death was not known.

CITY OF DREADFUL NIGHT

Chapter One

I will not screw up.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Gilchrist repeated the sentence to herself like a mantra. She was determined to do everything right. Aside from anything else she refused to give Finch the satisfaction. He was boorish about women police officers at the best of times but when it came to them taking part in armed response operations he was positively Neanderthal.

For the same reason she was determined not to show her fear. All the way here in the van he’d been coming on Mr Machismo whilst she’d been trying not to vomit.

John Finch was now at least out of sight around the other side of this seedy house whilst Gilchrist crouched in its rubbish-strewn back garden, her pistol clenched tightly in her fist. She was anxious but determined, trying to stay focused - on her breathing, on the job in hand.

Three officers were crouched beside her. Two more were poised beside the back door, the battering ram hanging from short leather loops between them. There were police marksmen in upstairs rooms of the houses immediately behind her.

They were all waiting for the word in their earpieces to signal the start of the operation. In her anxiety Gilchrist’s physical discomfort loomed large.

It was a hot, humid evening; beneath her body armour she was dripping sweat. Her knees were aching from the crouching, her thighs and calves were feeling constricted. One of the team, possibly her, had trodden in some dog-shit. The stink made her want to vomit even more.

She felt heavy, weighed down, sinking into the soft earth beneath her boots. Yet in a moment or two she would have to surge forward and go through that back door at the gallop.

Her unit’s job was to secure the ground floor of the house. The kitchen was the other side of the back door, then there was a passage with first the dining room then the living room off to the right. On the left, the staircase to the first floor faced the front door. The other unit would come through that door at the same time and head for the first floor and its target.

The target had entered the house at 8pm carrying bottles in a plastic bag from the local off-licence. He was reported to be upstairs in the front bedroom. He was reported to be alone.

This would be Gilchrist’s fourth armed home arrest but she was more anxious than she’d been on her first.

Partly this was because of the relative inexperience of the members of this evening’s task force. It was supposed to comprise the Tactical Firearms Unit of the South East Constabulary, acting as support for an elite team from Gatwick Airport.

The airport officers were well used to armed operations but the Gatwick team couldn’t leave the airport because of a terrorist alert. Her team had become the lead unit whilst a second unit from three different divisions had been hurriedly assembled. For some members it was their first operation. And none of them had worked together before. That would have been okay had Danny Moynihan been leading the operation on the ground. Moynihan, ex-SAS, was experienced, careful, as cool as they come. She trusted him implicitly after her other three operations with him. But at the last moment he’d been stood down – she didn’t know why - and replaced by Chief Superintendent Charlie Foster. Who was definitely second eleven.

The timing of the operation was unfortunate too. The other operations she’d been involved with had been dawn raids, the targets asleep in their beds. Sunrise streaking the sky as the house doors front and back had been breached, the explosion of violence rupturing the morning’s calm. But this was ten in the evening. Dusk had just fallen but there were lots of people out in their gardens, television shows and music blaring from open windows, cars revving by. Ten in the evening there were all sorts of problems. Especially here, in this neighbourhood.

The main reason for her anxiety. “It’s straightforward enough,” Charlie Foster had said in the briefing before they left the station thirty minutes before - but he was sweating when he said it. “Career criminal called Bernard Grimes. Wanted in connection with a string of armed robberies and the shooting of two security guards in a payroll robbery in Willesden. Hard nut.

“He’s got a place on the Cote de Crime – all the best crooks prefer Provence to the Costa Brava these days.” He got a rumble of laughter for that. “We have a tip from a reliable source that he’s heading there via tomorrow morning’s Newhaven-Dieppe car ferry. And that he’s spending tonight in a house in Milldean.”

Several people groaned when Foster mentioned Milldean. It was one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Brighton, ruled for generations by half a dozen crime families. The closely packed housing estate was a virtual no-go area for the police.

“We’re going in mob-handed, I hope, sir,” Finch said. He was a burly man with a shaved head and a little indent in his ear where once he used to wear a ring.

“On the contrary, John. We don’t want a pitched battle or a riot. We want it to be fast. We’ll set the roadblocks, isolate the house, get the marksmen in position. Then we’ll flood into the premises, close him down, get him out of there and off the estate. It’s a classic Bermuda.”

Bermuda as in Bermuda Triangle. That was the name the Force used for its standard armed building entry technique because it was a triangulated operation. Front, back, marksmen outside at elevated points. Not that Gilchrist was superstitious, but she’d always wondered if the name could also mean that the target might be disappear without trace.

“Lean and mean,” Finch said.

It was Finch’s first operation with the tactical firearms unit. Gilchrist assumed his bravado was a mask for his nerves. He couldn’t really be like that – could he? If he was, she couldn’t understand how he had got on the team. Sure armed response units comprised people like him who were fit and had quick reflexes. But these people were also calm, focused and thoughtful. Well, that was the theory. How somebody as gung-ho as Finch had got through the psychological testing, Gilchrist couldn’t imagine.

“This is a one night only offer, ladies and gentlemen,” Foster said. “We miss him tonight and he’s gone. Any questions?”

Geoff “Harry” Potter, one of the more phlegmatic of the team, raised a hand.

“If he’s being sheltered by one of the families he’s unlikely to be alone.”

“The intelligence we have indicates there’s no link with any of the families. I’m confident it’s 100% accurate. We’ve had the house under surveillance for the past two hours.”

Gilchrist shifted in her crouch to ease her legs. She’d been in the back garden about three minutes but it seemed ten times longer. She strained at the static in her ears, willing Charlie Foster’s voice to come through.

She was vaguely aware of muffled music from the pub on the corner. It became louder when the pub doors opened and a raucous din spilled out.

“We’re going on a count of three,”’ Foster said quietly, his voice unexpectedly intimate inside her ear.

A car horn blared.

“Damn!” The voice in her ear was strained. “All units: go!”

As Gilchrist hurled herself towards the rear of the house, the two officers stationed against the back wall swung the ram and hit the door just above the lock. The door flew open, splinters flying. The two men took up positions either side of the door.

Lights came on in the house. Her three colleagues with Kochler machine pistols went into the kitchen first. She scanned left to right as she came through the door.

Unwashed crockery piled in the sink. Harsh fluorescent lighting set crookedly in the ceiling.

The passage was ahead, a turn, then the staircase. She was aware of the unit that had come through the front door pounding up the stairs.

Her unit fanned into the dining room. Prints of seaside landscapes in cheap frames on the walls.

They looked behind the door, under the table. Nobody.

Down the hall to the living room. Widescreen TV and DVD player in the corner. Magazines and redtop newspapers strewn on the sofa.

Toffee wrappers and cigarette stubs overflowing an ashtray.

They looked behind the sofa and the single armchair. Nobody.

From upstairs she heard shouted commands. Then, the sharp crack of a gunshot. And another. Her three colleagues looked at each other. Ignored her. Jostled into the hall. Started up the stairs. More shots, too close together to say how many.

When Gilchrist moved to follow, the last one on the stairs waved her back. She remained in the living room doorway, tilting her head to try to see up to the first floor. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a door under the staircase open.

None of them had spotted it when they’d come down the corridor. It opened towards her, obscuring her view of who was on the other side of it. She heard the sound of someone hoofing it towards the kitchen.

Gilchrist took two steps and barged the cupboard door closed. A skinny guy in white t-shirt, jeans and trainers headed through the kitchen to the open doorway. He was holding something away from his body in his left hand.

The thought that there was only supposed to be one person in the house flitted through her brain. Was this skinny man Grimes? If so, then what was the shooting upstairs about?

She aimed at the man’s back.

“Halt, armed police officer!” she called, relieved that her voice was steady and clear. “Drop your weapon and halt!”

The man kept moving. Adrenaline surged in her. She knew she couldn’t – wouldn’t – shoot him. If she did, she’d kill him. She’d been trained to take no chances, trained to aim for the biggest target with the most body mass. Don’t try tricky leg, head or arm shots.

She’d been trained like that but even so she aimed at his left leg just above the knee. She aimed but she didn’t fire. The man went through the doorway into the garden. And almost immediately re-entered the kitchen, flung backwards, arms wide. He landed with a heavy thud flat on his back, blood spreading across his chest. As he hit the floor whatever was in his left hand skidded away into the corner of the room.

Fuck. Gilchrist edged cautiously towards the prone man, nervous of presenting a target to the trigger-happy police marksman outside.

The man wasn’t moving. Blood spread across the kitchen floor. Gilchrist swallowed. There was little doubt the man had died a split-second before he’d come flying back through the door.

She frowned when she realised she had stepped in his blood. Frowned again when she couldn’t immediately see what had fallen from his hand anywhere on the floor.

Whatever it was it could have slithered under one of the cupboards that lined the walls to her left. She was trying to puzzle out how to check without contaminating the crime scene or getting herself shot when she heard heavy boots clumping down the stairs.

Then, in her ear, intimate again despite its agitation, Foster’s voice.

“Stand down. Everybody stand down.”

Finch and two officers Gilchrist didn’t recognise filled the passage. Finch was white-faced, his eyes panicked. The three men crowded into the kitchen. Finch looked at the body at Gilchrist’s feet.

“Shit, Gilchrist – you do that?”

His voice trembled. One of the men with him pushed forward. Gestured to her.

“You’re needed upstairs. We’ll take care of this.”

Gilchrist bridled at his tone.

“And you are?”

The man was about six inches taller than her and broad enough to fill up most of the kitchen doorway. He smiled, revealing two missing front teeth. It made him look like a big kid.

“Just a messenger. You’re needed upstairs.”

He stepped to one side, extending his hand in an invitation for her to go past. Finch was still gawping at the body on the floor. The second man was smirking at Gilchrist.

She pushed past them and headed for the first floor. There was a bedroom at the top of the stairs. Harry Potter was standing against the wall looking blankly along the landing.

Gilchrist edged past him. A second door was open to her right. A bathroom. The toilet faced the door. A man was sitting on it, hunched forward, his head over his bony knees, his trousers and a widening pool of blood eddying around his ankles.

Most of the policemen were crowded in the doorway of the front bedroom, looking in, guns dangling. She could hear a television blaring somewhere in the room.

She was tall enough to see over the shoulders of the two who were blocking her way. She saw the double bed, saw the man sitting up in it. He was bare-chested, sitting askew, tilted to one side. There was a spray of blood and other material on the wall behind him and a red jagged hole in the centre of his forehead. Someone hadn’t been aiming at body mass.

The naked woman sitting dead beside him had no face left to speak of.

Gilchrist seemed to have a heightened sense of smell. The man and woman had been having sex, she could tell. But there was also the smell of cordite, sweat, blood and shit.

She could hear the heavy breathing of the policemen all around her. Ragged, snorting. Animal.

“I was told I was needed upstairs,” she said to the first policeman to notice her presence. He looked at her coldly. Slowly, they all turned to her. She shivered.

“Chief Superintendent Foster?” she said.

The first man she’d addressed tilted his head as if to get a better look at her. He frowned.

“Outside.”

She went back down the stairs. She glanced down the corridor to the kitchen as if she could picture tomorrow’s headline there, printed in large letters on the fridge. Neatly alliterative: Massacre in Milldean.

Finch and the other two policemen had gone. The body of the skinny man was still there. The pool of blood had spread wider across the floor, thick and syrupy, though there were other footprints as well as her own there now. Finch and the others she assumed.

She walked to the door of the kitchen and, crouching, peered under the cupboards. She was thinking about what had fallen from the man’s hand. But she could see nothing.

1 - 2 / 2

City of Dreadful Night excerpt