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Detective Constable Kate Marshall was on the train home when her phone rang. It took a moment of searching the folds of her long winter coat before she found it in the inside pocket. She heaved out the huge brick-like handset, pulled up the antenna and answered. It was her boss, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Conway.
‘Finally. She picks up!’ he snapped, without preamble. ‘I’ve been calling you. What’s the bloody point in having one of these new mobile phones if you don’t answer?’
‘Sorry. I’ve been in court all day for the Travis Jones sentencing. He got three years, which is more than I—’
‘A dog walker found the body of a young girl dumped in Crystal Palace Park,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘Naked. Bite marks on her body, a plastic bag tied over her head.’
‘The Nine Elms Cannibal … ’
‘Operation Hemlock. You know I don’t like that name.’
Kate wanted to reply that the name had now stuck and was bedded in for life, but he wasn’t the kind of boss who encouraged banter. The press had coined the epithet two years earlier, when seventeen-year-old Shelley Norris had been found in a wrecker’s yard in the Nine Elms area of south-west London, close to the Thames. Technically, the killer only bit his victims, but the press didn’t let this get in the way of a good serial killer moniker. Over the past two years, another two teenage girls had been abducted, each in the early evening, on their way home from school. Their bodies had shown up several days after their disappearances, dumped in parks around London. Nothing sold newspapers more than a cannibal on the loose.
‘Kate. Where are you?’
It was dark outside the train window. She looked up at the electronic display in the carriage.
‘On the DLR. Almost home, sir.’
‘I’ll pick you up outside the station, our usual spot.’ He hung up without waiting for a response.
Twenty minutes later, Kate was waiting on a small stretch of pavement between the station underpass and the busy South Circular where a line of cars ground slowly past. Much of the area around the station was under development, and Kate’s route home to her small flat took her through a long road of empty building sites. It wasn’t somewhere to linger after dark. The passengers she’d left the train with had crossed the road and dispersed into the dark streets. She glanced back over her shoulder at the dank empty underpass bathed in shadows and shifted on her heels. A small bag of groceries she’d bought for dinner sat between her feet.
A spot of water hit her neck, and another, and then it started to rain. She turned up the collar of her coat and hunched down, moving closer to the bright headlights in the line of traffic.
Kate had been assigned to Operation Hemlock sixteen months previously, when the Nine Elms Cannibal body count stood at three. It had been a coup to join a high-profile case, along with promotion to the rank of plain-clothes detective.