Murder Down To A Tea

The ninth book in the detective Hannah Robbins series was published last week. Today I thought I'd share an inside look. A sneak peek at the story unfolding on the pages. Read on for the first two chapters. The Broken Places Prologue The night was darker than anything Adrian Sykes had seen before. Like someone had switched off the stars and the moon. The street lights were far apart and only offering a puddle of glow. As he moved between them, Adrian was plunged into the depths of blackness again. Pull yourself together. What the hell are you – a five-year-old child? You’re a grown man. You can walk home without being scared of the dark, for fuck’s sake. Adrian pulled the collar of his coat closer to his neck to stave off the wind that whipped around him. His shoulders hunched up to his ears. And yet his footsteps didn’t slow. Because if they slowed then something could reach out of the blackness and touch him. A subconscious voice was telling him there was something in the dark to be afraid of. Home was only ten minutes away. He’d been to band practice and though it was early April, winter clung on, but Adrian refused to use the car for journeys short enough to walk. Cars were bad for the planet. How he wished he cared less. It didn’t help that the homes on this section of London Road were set back, behind thickets and trees. He wouldn’t be visible to the residents behind curtains closed to the night. Adrian quickened his pace. He pictured Safiya waiting for him at home. How she’d laugh at him for this stupid fear, and yet he still couldn’t push it away. The street was quiet. No one wanted to be out if they didn’t need to be. He was alone out here. But how ridiculous was he? Why so jumpy? He was scared of shadows, like a child. But he wasn’t a child. Adrian straightened and pulled his shoulders back. He was a grown man. He pushed one hand in a pocket to provide a show of nonchalance and marched forward. His other hand clutching hard to his clarinet. Knuckles turning white. As he walked, his footsteps rang loud in his ears. Adrian smiled. Safiya didn’t see a macho man when she looked at him, but she loved him all the same. Safiya took his music and animal-loving soul to her heart and cradled it with her own. He couldn’t wait to get back home to his wife and forget about tonight’s ridiculousness. There was no one else out here. Not at this time of the evening. Not in this wind. People hibernated until spring had really sprung. They didn’t stroll the streets looking for people to chat with. Another few minutes and he’d be safely wrapped up in his dressing gown with a mug of hot chocolate and Safiya in his arms with a box set on Netflix before bed. There was a sound behind him, an echo. It was the sound of footsteps. Someone was attempting to be quiet behind him but he was so strung out, his senses were on high alert. Of course, it was fine for someone else to be out here. This was a public path. That’s what it was for. His mind was rambling. A jumble of thoughts, rushing around inside his head. There were footsteps behind him. On a public footpath. In the dark. During the night. Adrian’s heart thundered. Blood pumped in his ears. He held onto the image of Safiya at home waiting for him and clutched the clarinet case tighter. It was a weapon if he needed it to be. It was large and it was heavy. Slug someone round the head with it and they wouldn’t get very far. Bravado swept over Adrian and he straightened his spine, only now realising how scrunched and small he’d become. He strode towards home and towards Safiya. She was waiting for him. He was being ridiculous. Adrian should have looked behind him. Because tonight there was danger lurking in the shadows. 1 Hannah The fields were soaked. There had been a downpour last night and a light rain continued to fall. This was the wettest April I could remember and I dressed for the weather, in wellies and a waterproof coat. I ploughed forward, my feet squelching as I pulled them up with each step, following Barney who was bounding ahead. I was worried he might struggle with PTSD after his owner, Audrey King, had been brutally murdered in front of him, but he’d taken to our family like a duck to water. The black and white Dalmatian was mostly black at this point, mud flicking up his legs and stomach as he bounced across the fields chasing crows that dared to land in his view. Mocking him, the birds cawed and lifted their wings, taking flight out of his charging line of attack. I hadn’t known that dogs could suffer from PTSD until I found articles that said military dogs were affected with the anxiety disorder, though there had been no extensive research into the issue. Barney ran over to me. I pulled a piece of chicken out of my pocket and held it tight between my fingers so he couldn’t snatch it, then hovered my hand over his nose until he dropped his bottom into the thick mud with a squelch. His nose twitched as the scent tickled his senses. I loosened my grip and lowered my hand to his mouth, allowing him to take the meat gently. ‘Good boy.’ I patted his head and his beautiful dark eyes peered up at me. The trust this dog placed in me stopped me in my tracks sometimes. My therapist at the rehab clinic said I needed to focus on my own mental health and recovery, but having Barney would give me somewhere to place my attention when negativity overwhelmed. I had to take care of him as well as myself. A car pulled up in the distance at the side of the field. The occupant would not be happy to have been dragged out here in the rain. Meetings were usually held in offices, in restaurants, in coffee houses, not in muddy fields with a dog rampaging around like a blackened monster who was likely to rub that extra blackness on to you if you got too close. I shrugged. If rehab taught me anything it was to be true to myself if something was healthy and honest. I squelched forward and Barney took this as his sign that he could bound off again. My heart swelled as I watched him. The driver of the car got out and with a hand up to their eyebrows, peered over the field to where I was, now heading their way. I raised a hand. They returned the gesture. I waded through the mud and water and wiped the rain from my face. The driver was in the field now and as I neared I could see Detective Superintendent Catherine Walker had taken on board my advice for field-walking in April showers, wearing wellies and a waterproof coat, as I did. It was unusual to see her this way as she usually wore a suit and looked immaculate. Barney reached her first, pushing his nose into her pocket in greeting. She laughed, bent forward and rubbed the top of Barney’s head. He revelled in the attention and pushed his filthy body closer still. Walker didn’t flinch. ‘I did warn you,’ I said as I reached the pair of them. ‘Don’t worry about it. I came prepared.’ She put her hand in her pocket where Barney was rudely investigating and handed something to him. He plopped his bottom on the mud and took it greedily from her. At least he had manners. Walker smiled at me. ‘We should talk.’ I pushed my hands into my own pockets. We’d had a conversation on the phone. Walker had kept abreast of my situation. When she was unable to contact me she’d talked to my dad and Zoe. But this was our first face-to-face meeting since my suspension. When I called her yesterday – and that had been a hurdle – and said I wanted to see her, Walker asked where the best place would be. My mind immediately came here, to the open space. My stomach twisted and I took a deep breath, held it a moment and released. Part of the meditative exercises I’d been taught. Barney had taken a shine to his new friend. Walker rubbed his ear. ‘He’s great. I was surprised when you offered to take him in, but he’s a wonderful dog.’ ‘He has his troubles,’ I said. There was a pause as we both acknowledged the truth of that sentence. ‘How are you?’ she asked. I turned and started walking. Walker dropped into step beside me and realising he wouldn’t be getting any more treats from either of us, Barney ran off ahead again. I took another steadying breath. Walker wasn’t here to hurt me. She’d asked me a simple question I’d not yet answered. How should I respond? It was complex. Life was never going to be the same for me again and the police service had to acknowledge that. And that’s what she was here for, in her capacity as police superintendent, not as a friend of Hannah Robbins. ‘Shall we try something a little easier?’ she said. ‘The team have sent their love.’ Was that easier? It might appear that way to Catherine, but my world was littered with stumbling blocks. ‘They’ve missed you, Hannah. They’re worried and want you to know that.’ I was grateful for them. Of course I was. No one judged me when they could have torn strips off me. I wiped the rain from my face with the back of my hand. The scent of cooked chicken clung to my skin. I wrinkled my nose, then shoved my hand back in my pocket. ‘I miss them,’ I said finally. ‘How are you?’ she asked again, face forward, watching Barney as he continued to chase any bird that dared to land on his ground. Tail wagging furiously as he did so. It was a loaded question. There were so many ways I could respond. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of what she’d asked. Was she referring to my mental health, my sobriety, filling my time outside work, or waiting for someone else to decide if I had a career to go back to? The latter loomed over us like a dark cloud. Heavy and leaden. ‘Oh, you know…’ ‘No, Hannah. I don’t. That’s why I’m asking. Tell me.’ Walker was never afraid to face a problem head on and today I was that problem. I let out a breath. I’d agreed to see her. That alone had been a big step. After all, I’d managed to avoid her for the longest time and she’d allowed it to happen. But time was ticking by and the misconduct hearing was coming up soon. We obviously had to talk. ‘How’s Aaron?’ I went with instead. Aaron Stone, my detective sergeant, my second-in-command, my right arm. The common sense to my emotional ramblings. Aaron was autistic. It had been called Asperger’s when he’d originally been diagnosed. I worried most about him and how he was dealing with the huge change at work. He’d been present when I mishandled my last investigation and may have felt he’d allowed it to happen and in some way was responsible for the predicament I found myself in. But there was nothing Aaron could have done. Yes, he’d picked up on some of my behaviour and called me out on it. At that stage I wouldn’t have allowed any further interference from him and he’d have struggled to do the right thing. I placed him in the most difficult position and for that I carried incredible guilt. My therapist talked to me about this guilt I held onto around Aaron. I was to let it go. Aaron may have struggled with the decision I placed on him by allowing him to see the problem that was building up in me, but he was a grown man. And he made a decision to stand by me for a while to see how things played out. Would I be in a different place if Aaron had taken different steps when he was concerned about my pill addiction? We would never know. ‘He’s quiet.’ Walker kept her face forward. Eyes on Barney. ‘But it’s clear he’s struggling with events.’ I hadn’t needed her to tell me that. I knew my friend well enough. And yet I’d avoided his calls. Because I wasn’t yet strong enough to support him. I was still rebuilding myself. ‘And the others?’ ‘They understand what’s happened. They’re keeping their noses to the grindstone and hoping things work out. They swing between hurt that you won’t respond to their calls or messages and understanding why that is. They’re also supporting Aaron as best they can.’ I was glad of that. Though there was little they could do to support him, other than to give him the time to process and work his way through. His wife Lisa and their two kids were best placed to help. ‘Now you have to answer.’ Her voice was stern. I swallowed and it caught in my throat, causing me to cough into the cold air. Walker turned and watched. I waved a hand to indicate I was fine. Not that she was offering to help. I tried to speak. It was like talking through broken glass. Like I hadn’t used my voice in so long. And I hadn’t, not to talk to my colleagues. But Catherine Walker was my direct supervisor and she’d driven out to see me rather than having me walk into her office where I’d have to see other officers. Have staff look and stare at me. Whisper about me behind my back and not so discreetly. Yes, I had to talk. ‘It’s slow going,’ I said. ‘But I’m getting there. Barney has been a tremendous help.’ ‘That’s the dog’s name?’ She nodded to the bouncing bundle of mostly black now. ‘Yeah, that’s his name.’ ‘From Audrey King’s address?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘He adjusted okay?’ ‘We help each other.’ She nodded. We walked on a little further in silence. The rain let up and the sun tried to peek out from behind the blanket of grey that covered the sky but it was fighting a losing battle. ‘The PCC is calling for your job,’ she said eventually. I nodded. It was only to be expected. ‘He doesn’t have any say though. He doesn’t make up the misconduct hearing panel. He’s simply blowing hot air up his own arse, if you ask me,’ Walker let a small smile slip at her unprofessional comment before continuing. ‘Says you put the lives of the people of Nottinghamshire and the surrounding areas at risk by allowing a killer to escape.’ The smile was gone. ‘I thought you should know.’ ‘Thanks.’ There wasn’t much I could say to that. It was expected, but to hear it out loud was another thing entirely. Like someone had taken a blowtorch to my skin. I rubbed at my cheeks with cold damp palms. ‘You have a lot of support behind you, Hannah. You need to be aware of that. The PCC is simply throwing his weight around. Having his say. He might control the finances and the structure of how we work, but he doesn’t control how we deal with disciplinary issues. Tierney is a blowhard.’ Walker was in her element, her back straight and her sleek dark bob barely ruffled by the weather. If she had a high horse to get on, she always climbed up and had her say, regardless of who her audience were or what they thought. Luckily, she was on my side by the sound of it. This woman who protected the department she managed, at all costs, was protecting me against the police and crime commissioner. Maybe not to his face, though maybe she did, but to me and with a passion she rarely exhibited. Tears pricked at my eyes. It wasn’t right that she do this for me. I didn’t deserve it. What I’d done had been well below the standards the police service expected of their officers. A flock of birds landed on the field together, wings flapping, beaks opening as they cawed. Barney was so excited, his tail could have wagged itself off his bum as he ran towards them and I laughed out loud, forgetting the shame circulating through my veins for a moment. This was why my therapist agreed with me about taking him in. The joy he could bring. ‘You asked to meet me today, Hannah,’ Walker said as we reached the corner of the field and turned to ramble down the next stretch. ‘Is there something you want to talk about, or is this simply about reaching out? It’s been a while. Everyone tried.’ I pressed a palm over my lips and shook my head. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘We understood you weren’t ready and that you’d talk to us when you could.’ My throat thickened. I wasn’t sure the words I had to say would come when I needed them, but I had to try. ‘You know where I’ve been…’ A tear leaked from my eye, damp on my cheek. Walker was patient and waited for me to continue, smiling occasionally at Barney as he padded and bounced around the field and failed to get the birds to play with him. ‘I have to apologise to you.’ This had to be genuine. It had to be real and it had to be from my heart. I couldn’t hide from it. I turned and looked directly at her. ‘I screwed up. You trusted me to lead my team, to lead the investigation and to represent the department and the police service as a whole and I let you down. For that I am so sorry.’ Walker’s face contorted. Her mouth twisted. She blinked hard. Her jaw tightened. She looked from me to Barney and back to me again. ‘Oh, Hannah.’ A stillness slipped over and around us. We’d stopped walking as if there were huge thick roots pulling me to the ground. Keeping me in this spot. Time slowed as I waited for more of a response. Catherine Walker wasn’t my friend, she was my boss. I’d let her down. I had no right to ask for her forgiveness and that wasn’t what this was. I’d apologised for the wrong I had done. Whatever came next, I had to accept because this was about the other person, their feelings, not mine. Time stretched out between us, my stomach somersaulting as I waited for her to respond. I had no idea of her thoughts on the subject. I hadn’t taken her calls over the recent months. Initially because I’d been in rehab, but after, well, it was a case of hiding away and trying to build myself up again. Because it’s one thing to do it in the safety of the rehab clinic but another entirely to do it in the real world. I needed time. Time to adjust and to feel and to do the sober thing. It might be that Walker shared Tierney’s opinion. Though it hadn’t sounded that way. But still, it didn’t mean she was all for welcoming me back with open arms. But we weren’t there yet. I didn’t know if I wanted the misconduct hearing to go my way and to return to the role I once loved. After all, it was the job that had sent me spiralling in the first place. My injury – nearly two and half years ago now – was what started me on the painkillers. Then Lucas Harper abducted me from the street in broad daylight and kept me locked in a bedroom for weeks before stamping on my hand multiple times and so hard that it shattered in several places, requiring surgery. My response had been to push pain medicine to an addiction level and the potential permanent loss of my job. I used so many more pills than I was supposed to. Not just for the pain from the old and the new injury, but also to soothe myself. They lessened the jangling sensation I walked around with. I told myself the pills kept me level so I could function in the job. They helped me, supported me. They were not an issue, because they were what actually kept me going. Except I’d been lying to myself. Whatever Catherine’s personal feelings for me, she was responsible for a whole department and couldn’t have problems like the ones I’d potentially cause. ‘That can’t have been easy.’ Her arm twitched. As though she was about to reach out and touch me but changed her mind. ‘No one can even begin to imagine what you’ve been through, Hannah.’ Her voice was quiet. The birds started their cawing again. The wind was blowing. The world was moving again. Barney bounced towards us, having grown bored of not catching the birds. I pushed my hand in my pocket and fetched him out a piece of chicken. It was out of my hand in a split second, unchewed, swallowed. Then off he went again. ‘You struggled after Harper and I torture myself every day that I didn’t pick up on it. You should have been given more support than you were. It should have been mandated and not wishy-washy, as it was. You were allowed to finish it after you’d completed a set amount of sessions regardless of how you were doing. There was no follow-up. I should have done that. We should have had weekly meetings. Yes, it would have frustrated you at the time, but it would also have given me an opportunity to see what was happening and to do something about it. Or even, God forbid, you could have reached out during one of those meetings and ask for help. But…’ She emptied all the breath she held in a sigh. Her body sagged. ‘We can’t go backwards, we can only go forwards. So it’s what we do from here on in. I have your back, Hannah. I thank you for the apology. I accept it, gratefully, and I’m here for whatever you need.’ I gasped. ‘But Hannah…’ She hadn’t finished. What else was to come? I tightened the hold of the breath in my chest again. Her whole stance softened. ‘When are you going to forgive yourself?’