27th April 1827, The America Ground, outside Hastings, Sussex
It was the perfect night to kill her: a flat, overcast sky with only the barest sliver of a moon. The whole of the Sussex coast had been supressed into the shadows; he would be able to slip in and out undetected.
In his black buckskin trousers and tailcoat, he melded seamlessly into the absolute darkness of the cottage. His progress up the stairs had been slow, having tested each step before fully applying his weight to ensure that his approach was silent.
He reached a short corridor with two doors.
He stopped and listened.
A soft feminine wheeze emanated from behind the first door. Eliza Lovekin’s bedroom.
Slowly and carefully, he lifted the latch and gently pushed, recoiling momentarily at the low sigh it emitted, as it swung open.
Her rhythmical breathing remained unaltered.
From the thin shard of light that defied the window shutters, he could see that she was lying prone with her back to him, the edge of her shape brushed in a soft pallid blue. It was a warm night and the blankets were peeled back, leaving her white nightdress exposed perfectly, making his job all the easier.
Without a trace of apprehension, his hand glided to his waist and withdrew the sheathed knife. Silently, he pulled the blade from the leather casing and moved closer to her.
Still she slept, oblivious to the fact that she had just seconds more left to live.
Time seemed to congeal mulishly as he reached the side of her bed, now gripping the blade more tightly. Thoughts from his past flitted in and out of his mind.
Finally, after a long while visualising this very moment, it had arrived.
His knuckles whitened as he took a deep breath and plunged the knife into her back.
She offered no words and no resistance, just a barely audible gasp as the knife penetrated through the back of her ribcage.
Without pausing, he slid the knife out and stabbed her again.
Her rhythmical breathing faltered as the knife thrust inside her again and again.
Then her breathing stopped.
He stood over her, listening. Eliza Lovekin was dead.
Lydia Bloom was dead.
Amelia Odden was next.
21st March 1988, Shepherd Street, St Leonards, Sussex
She knocked on the faded red door of number 2 Shepherd Street, with her usual three taps, slid the key into the Yale lock and pushed the door open. She stepped into the lounge, which was unusually dark and set down her hessian jute bag. The flowery curtains—one of the few remnants from her grandmother’s time—were still drawn and the house was as cold inside as it was out.
She knew that something was wrong. She’d been coming to see her grandfather pretty well every other day since she could remember. Well, she had to—her brothers and sister were next to useless. Not that she minded. She’d been as close to him—if not closer—than to her own father. Some of her earliest and fondest memories were with him in this house.
She closed the door and shivered. ‘Grandpa?’ she called out, but the silent house offered no reply.
Something was definitely wrong.
She looked at the staircase with its pale green carpet, thinned back to the matting from countless years’ wear. A cold fear came over her and she suddenly didn’t want to climb them. ‘Grandpa?’ she shouted again, trying to keep her voice from quivering.
She turned and pulled open the curtains. Then she switched on the light. It was better, but it still failed to remove the eeriness that was hanging in the room.
‘Grandpa?’ she repeated, as she approached the stairs.
Maybe just a couple of stairs, she thought, tentatively placing her left foot on the bottom step. Upstairs, the thin hallway curtain battled against the daylight, letting in a peculiar, veiled shade of blue that made it appear all the more unnerving.
Don’t be so stupid, she told herself. You’ve climbed these stairs thousands and thousands of times.
‘Right, I’m coming up, Grandpa—so I hope you’re decent,’ she said in as normal a voice as she could muster.
She took another step. Then another. Then stopped.
She stood at an angle so that she could see both the bottom and top of the stairs simultaneously.
Another step. Just one more and she would be halfway.
She exhaled sharply, annoyed at herself and took another two steps.
A realisation dawned on her. What if Grandpa needs help and I’m dithering on the stairs?
With a sudden burst of confidence, she marched to the top and pushed open her grandfather’s bedroom door. She stood poised in the doorway, unable to enter. He was still in bed. She could see his left foot just poking out from under the white blankets. ‘Grandpa?’ she cried, desperately hoping that he was in a very deep sleep. His hearing had begun to deteriorate when she had been just a girl, but as much as she tried to convince herself that maybe he hadn’t heard her, she knew from the loudness of her voice that that simply could not be true.
She edged forward, his still body slowly revealing itself as she moved from behind the door. His thin torso, wearing navy blue pyjamas, was slightly twisted to one side. Then his face finally came into view, ashen and drawn, with his mouth agape.
She gasped and flung her hands to her face. Her grandpa, her precious grandpa was dead.
On the other side of the bed—where she had a vague and hazy memory of her grandmother once sleeping—were empty bottles and dozens of empty packets of paracetamol.
She wiped the tears from her eyes and just stood, staring at the sorrowful sight in front of her. ‘Goodbye, Grandpa,’ she murmured, placing a kiss on his forehead. She left the room and descended the stairs, her initial irrational fear of the place having completely abated.
She knew what she had to do.
Entering the old-fashioned kitchen that had last been updated in the 1960s, she selected the backdoor key from a rack beside the fridge, then ventured outside.
The garden was shamefully overgrown—her father had promised to come and sort it out, but settled instead on rolling up once every few months with a lawnmower and removing anything and everything that wasn’t grass. She remembered the pond and the intricate carefully nurtured flowerbeds that her grandpa had so loved. Now there was just a knee-high lawn and a wild medley of aggressive weeds.
She shivered and pulled her multi-coloured cardigan tight, as she made her way slowly towards the greenhouse.
Most of the glass panes had been victim to last year’s hurricane that had swept along the south of England, lying smashed and discarded in the brambles that were beginning to consume the pitiful structure.
She slid the door to one side and carefully stepped inside.
It had been a long time since her grandpa had brought her in here, but just last month he had assured her that the hiding place had remained intact.
The concrete slabs that created a central walkway were uneven and strewn with broken glass. Nettles, bindweed and bramble thrived on either side, where once the plumpest tastiest tomatoes and cucumbers had grown.
Looking towards the other end of the greenhouse, she knew that someone had gotten here first.
The neat towers of stacked empty flowerpots of every conceivable size had been toppled and the concrete slab, above which they had been placed, lifted and discarded to one side.
The hole was empty.
Someone had found the documents although, judging by the complex web laced over the hole, not recently. Certainly not today.
She moved back inside the house and dialled 999. ‘Ambulance, please,’ she sobbed. ‘It’s my grandfather—he’s killed himself.’
Once she had placed the call, she sat calmly on the worn armchair—his armchair—and waited for the ambulance and police to arrive.
Of course he hadn’t killed himself, she knew that. He was surrounded by packets and packets of brand new Tesco paracetamol. He didn’t—couldn’t—shop in Tesco, it was on the other side of town and he was housebound. Besides, it was she who did his shopping every week.
She knew with certainty that they had come for him.
Just as he had warned her they might.
They might have gotten to her beloved grandpa, but they didn’t have the documents.