Previously published as Retriever of Souls
Say Your Prayers: Chapter 1
“Please, no. Oh God. No more. Please.”
Excited by her pleading, he pounded his fists into her face. He craved release, but couldn’t give in. Not yet. Not while she could defile him. Only when her swollen lids meant she could no longer see did he allow himself to take her throat between his hands and free her soul.
He waited for her death throes to pass, then relaxed his grip and moved down the bed to suck and caress her breasts. His heart pounded. Now. He had to move now before it was too late. Shifting position, he straddled her body. Arching his back, he emptied his hatred onto her breasts.
Shuddering, he slid from the bed and fell to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “So sorry, so sorry, so…”
His throat constricted. As tears flowed, he screamed. Thrashing wildly, he knocked against the chair holding the woman’s clothes. Her tights fell across his neck and he panicked, clawing himself free.
“God forgive me,” he sobbed. “She made me. Forgive me, God. Forgive me.”
Crawling to the corner cupboard, he opened the door and reached for the scourge. He braced himself, then flicked the nine-tailed lash, the tiny spiked ends digging into his flesh.
Each strike lifted him closer to purity, until he collapsed. Exhausted, he slept.
He woke at first light, ready for the next stage. Filling a bowl with water, he brought it to the bed, then scraped under each of the woman’s nails before washing most of her body in the warm water. He swabbed above and below her breasts, careful not to disturb his gift, the sign of her salvation. From under the bed he brought out a small black leather casket. He removed a fine-toothed comb and ran it through her pubic hair, placing the loose hairs in the envelope he’d already marked with a number four.
Detective Inspector Paolo Sterling hunched deeper into his sheepskin. The cold suited his mood. A biting wind, typical for the dying days of February, gusted across the front of the criminal courts and played havoc with the press microphones. One of the reporters dropped his dictaphone. It bounced once before landing in the gutter. A spasm of disgust crossed his face as he reached down and brought it up, dripping with sludge. For the first time that day, Paolo felt like smiling. He didn’t like reporters, and that one in particular enjoyed knocking the police.
He couldn’t understand why the press considered it was okay to have a go at the people trying to put criminals away. Lowlife cons had more rights than their victims. He tried to contain his anger but he was too mad at the world in general, and justice in particular.
Paolo and his Detective Sergeant, Dave Johnson, stepped back to allow the solicitor and Frank Azzopardi to pass. The reporters began yelling questions, each determined to be heard. Matthew Roberts stood beside his client, waiting for the noise to abate.
“Seems the bastard’s got away with it, sir,” Dave whispered.
Paolo turned his head slightly to answer; the icy wind was making his eyes water. “Yeah, that tends to happen when the only witness disappears, particularly when she’s also the victim. Ssh, let’s hear what Roberts has to say.”
“My client, Frank Azzopardi, a well-respected businessman, has been the victim of yet another effort by the police to improve their conviction rates. He has been unfairly targeted, accused of attempted murder and grievous bodily harm, yet not one witness to the alleged attack has come forward. Even the supposed victim hasn’t felt it worth her while to follow up on her original statement. We have been told today that the Crown Prosecution Service cannot find sufficient evidence to bring the case to trial and that all charges against Mr Azzopardi have been dropped. We shall be making a complaint about the harassment he has suffered at the hands of an overzealous police force. Depending on the outcome of that complaint, we will consider our legal options. That is all, we have no further comment.”
Paolo knew they were most probably too far away for Roberts and the reporters to hear him, but he lowered his voice just in case.
“I could’ve written that speech for him,” he said. “He’s like Pavlov’s bloody dog. See a camera – badmouth the police.”
They made an incongruous pair, the Maltese pimp and his legal representative. Matthew Roberts dressed with a quiet elegance at complete odds with his client’s flamboyant attire. It was easy to see why Roberts made female heads turn: tall and good-looking, he exuded confidence and charm. Azzopardi was only a few inches shorter, but a swarthy complexion, shiny black hair and flashy designer clothes made him look almost a caricature of his companion.
Roberts and Azzopardi had a close friendship that went all the way back to their shared schooldays. As a teenager in the same school, Paolo had once wanted to be part of Matthew Roberts’ inner circle, but even back then he’d loathed Azzopardi. Now the less he had to do with his former classmates the better, but with Roberts representing Azzopardi it was impossible not to run up against both of them.
The two walked away, the reporters at their heels still calling out questions.
Paolo sighed as they passed. “I’ll get that bastard one day. We’d best try and track down our missing witness.”
They walked towards Dave’s car, Paolo silently running through the possibilities of what might have happened to Lisa Boxer, until Dave interrupted his thoughts.
“Do you reckon Roberts believes all that guff he spouts?” he asked, patting his pockets until he located his car keys. “I mean he can’t really be stupid enough to think you’d try to frame Azzopardi just to get a conviction, can he?”
Paolo wondered if Dave was questioning his integrity. They hadn’t been partners long enough to establish any kind of rapport yet, so he wasn’t sure what the younger man thought, especially as the case predated Dave joining the team.
“I don’t know what goes through his head. Maybe he just likes being on the box. I feel as though I can’t switch the set on without Mr Smooth spouting police corruption.” Paolo changed his voice to imitate the cultured tones of Matthew Roberts. “It is my belief the police couldn’t find their own stations without a map. They are incompetent.”
He waited until Dave stopped laughing. “All I know is, I had Azzopardi this time and I let him slip away. I should’ve insisted on protection for Lisa Boxer, but I didn’t. On the other hand, she might have done a runner. Prostitutes don’t like dealing with the police, not even when we’re on the same side.”
They got in the car and Dave manoeuvred it away from the kerb, edging smoothly into the Bradchester traffic.
“How come you never clean this garbage heap?” Paolo asked, kicking around to move empty Coke cans, burger wrappings and newspapers so that he had somewhere to put his feet.
“I never have time, sir. Maybe I should get myself a girlfriend.”
Paolo grunted. “Fat chance of that. You know what they call you back at the station?”
“Of course. Tomcat. I love ’em and I leave ’em. But I bet I could still get one of them to clean the car if I put my mind to it.”
“Sorry to ruin your daydreams, but we’re living in the twenty-first century, not the dark ages, or haven’t you noticed?”
“No! Are we really?” Dave asked, laughing in a way that irritated Paolo even more than his crass comments.
Paolo allowed his mind to wander until Dave’s next question caught his attention.
“So you believe Azzopardi did it, sir? I mean he says he didn’t, and his alibi seems pretty good. The girlfriend’s not budging, and we don’t have anything on him other than the prostitute’s story.” He paused. “What made you believe her, anyway?
Paolo fumbled in his pocket, bringing out his cigarettes. He shook one out and held it halfway to his lips. “I saw her in hospital after she’d been beaten,” he said, his voice hardened as he remembered. “There wasn’t a part of her that wasn’t bruised.”
Paolo fell silent, remembering the way Lisa had barely been able to move without crying out.
“You really think the girlfriend was ready to perjure herself?”
Paolo sighed. “Maria Vassallo has been Azzopardi’s girlfriend since she was fifteen. She’d say the sky was black at midday if he wanted her to, then hotfoot it to confession straight afterwards to wash her soul clean.”
“So why did he do it? I mean, why would he get his own hands dirty?”
“I think it was meant as a warning to the Albanians to stay off his turf.” He raised his lighter and lit the cigarette, then dragged the smoke deep into his lungs. “Azzopardi only took over his uncle’s empire a few years back; he’s got no intention of letting anyone else in. As for why he did it himself, I know for a fact he likes to slap the girls around. His Maria has carried the odd bruise.”
“Then why has Lisa Boxer disappeared just when we needed her to convince the CPS? D’you have to smoke? The car stinks for days afterwards,” Dave said, opening the car window.
The sudden rush of cold air hit Paolo like a physical blow. “Christ, you trying to give us both pneumonia? Close the window, for God’s sake. This car stinks whether I smoke or not.” He took another drag on his cigarette, then opened his window just enough to let the smoke out. “I agree with you, it doesn’t add up, which is why we’re going to pay a visit to Miss Boxer.”
The car moved steadily through the Bradchester streets. Paolo closed his eyes, uninterested in the change of scenery as they travelled away from the affluent detached properties that ringed the centre of town and headed towards the council estates on the outskirts. The thought of a man like Frank Azzopardi getting away with anything stuck in his gullet, but his real contempt he kept for Matthew Roberts. How Roberts could bring himself to represent someone like Azzopardi was beyond him. Even though he’d known both men for more than twenty-five years, he still didn’t get it. Strange how just recently he’d been running into people he’d gone to school with…
Paolo’s phone rang, bringing him back to the present.
“Sterling. Okay, where? Right, about fifteen minutes. Yep, we’re on our way.”
He put the phone back in his pocket. “Seems like our chat with Lisa Boxer will have to wait. Turn around when you can; we’re heading to Gallows Heath. Remember just after you’d joined the team, they found a woman’s body that looked like a lump of butcher’s meat?” At Dave’s nod, Paolo continued. “They’ve found another one.”