Rough hands woke her, scrabbling at her breasts. At first she thought it was one of those shameful dreams, but the accompanying grunts and muttered curses were anything but erotic. Also it hurt, in a very real way. She rolled instinctively to try to evade them but the hands pursued her relentlessly. She cried out, but the sound caught in her throat as he hit her hard.
She had folded down the sheet because of the unseasonable warmth, and was now aware that her T-shirt had been pushed up and partly obscured her face. Everything she had was on display, though veiled by the protecting darkness. He had one knee on the bed by now and was manoeuvring to straddle her, the better to pin her down. She made a valiant effort to hurl him off, but he cracked her round the face again then moved a pillow to stifle her squeals and held it down firmly while he scrabbled to part her thighs.
She could smell his sweat and sense his growing excitement, all the while punctuated by those terrible words.
‘Fucking cunt! Filthy whore! Slut!’
She continued to struggle but her assailant was that much stronger and the lack of air was beginning to make her weak. She could feel him now fumbling with his zip but was far too frantic to focus on that. All she needed, and urgently, was air. Unless he released her she was surely going to suffocate. And that had to be worse than anything else he might have in mind.
She made an extra effort to throw him off and succeeded in unseating him long enough to grab some great gulps of air. With a renewed bout of cursing he clipped her again, then threw aside the pillow and flipped her instead on to her face.
The voice was dimly familiar but how on earth could that be? Whoever was violating her in this terrible way had to be sub-human and viewing her solely as his prey. Perhaps if she lay still enough he would finish and go away. She ceased her struggling for an instant and he grabbed her wrists and pinned them in one hand, searching wildly in the dense darkness for something with which to tie them. His hand located the bedside phone. She heard its clatter as it tumbled from the table and that impersonal operator’s voice repeating over and over until he jerked the wire from the wall. Cold plastic cord was wrapped around both wrists and he knotted it tightly before releasing his grip. She was trussed face down, powerless to stop him as she heard him unzip his fly.
It hurt far more than she ever might have imagined – a fierce, tearing spasm of unendurable agony.
He left her for a while, bleeding and deeply in shock, and through her muted sobbing she heard descending feet on the stairs. A tiny flicker of hope rallied then in her numbed brain; he was going, he had finished. She might yet come out of this alive.
The house was so still and the street outside so empty that her ears could track him as he moved stealthily about. He was in the kitchen and looking in the fridge. All that exertion must have given him a powerful thirst he was needing now to slake. She remembered, with a jolt, the half-finished bottle of Australian sauternes. He had found it and was glugging it down, she could imagine that from his silence. Would that make him wilder? She really didn’t know, but had heard how men could get on drink. There was a sudden sharp crack as if of glass shattering, then he began to move again. Slowly, carefully, he was remounting the stairs. Her reprieve was over; he was coming back after all to finish the job.
The pain of the jagged glass was worse, far worse, than anything that had preceded it. There was no way she was going to survive this, she realised now for certain, so that when the heavy, repeated blows began to hammer down it was almost a relief as her consciousness flickered away. She was finally impervious to his frenzied slashing and jabbing, and her body ceased twitching as her blood soaked into the white sheets.
She wasn’t aware of the final indignity as he unzipped once more and urinated, for by that time she was already mercifully dead.
The bells rang out joyfully that Easter Sunday morning and Peggy Dawes, up as usual with the lark, opened the front door of her lavender-painted cottage and picked up the papers lying folded on the step. She stood there for a while in her pristine quilted housecoat, sniffing the spring air appreciatively, imbued as it was with scent. Clouds of pink blossom, weighing down the branches of the cherry trees, floated around her like candy floss, littering the gutters with their carelessly strewn petals. Peggy clucked with automatic disapproval; Arthur would have to come out later with his broom. The forecasts had predicted unseasonably mellow weather, the hottest Easter on record, they said, since 1907. So far, although it was warm enough to stand out here in her night-clothes, the soaring temperatures had yet to arrive, which was probably just as well. What with global warming and the way the seasons had all gone haywire, they didn’t need a heatwave yet, not with her seedlings newly potted.
Next door’s papers still lay on the step; her neighbour was obviously not yet up. They weren’t what they used to be in her day, these young women, keeping late hours and frittering away their lives. Peggy sniffed delicately as she closed the front door and shuffled back to the kitchen to boil the kettle. Upstairs Arthur was already on the move. He liked a cooked breakfast, and it was Easter, after all.
Once the toast was browning and the bacon beginning to curl, Peggy undid the heavy padlock and pushed back the wrought-iron security grating to let in some more of the balmy spring air. She stepped out on to her tiny patio to check up on yesterday’s planting. She loved the evocative smell of damp compost and beamed down with approval on her row of tidy pots. You wouldn’t believe you were in the centre of a city here; on Sundays particularly this small Kensington backwater was as remote and quiet as a rural village, at least while the pub was closed. Now that the hospital had gone from across the road and those fancy new Regency-style houses built in its place, the volume of noise had noticeably lessened without the scream of ambulances, which had moved off down to Chelsea. There was still that green glass monstrosity, of course, on the corner of the Cromwell Road, but Peggy preferred to ignore its existence and pretend it simply hadn’t happened. Luckily the patients came and went in low-purring limousines, usually with smoked windows so you couldn’t see inside. The less seen, the better, was Peggy’s opinion. Men with their heads wrapped in tablecloths, their women showing only their eyes. It wasn’t that she was racist, oh no, just intent on preserving her territory. Keep London for the Londoners, was her cry, as if all those milling tourists weren’t enough.
This curving enclave of pretty pastel cottages was in sharp and startling contrast to the development over the road. Built at the turn of the century as humble artisans’ dwellings, they had rocketed in value over the years and were now worth an arm and a leg. Peggy and Arthur had lived here for fifteen years, since their children had left home and they’d needed something smaller. There were only two bedrooms and the interior was compact but that was space enough for just the pair of them and it did mean less housework. Also fewer visitors which was a blessing. Although she loved her grandchildren, Peggy knew from experience what a honey-trap fashionable Kensington could be to the casual caller passing through.
The Dawes’s house backed on to the garden of the pub, as did all the houses on that side of the street, and a flimsy wooden trellis formed a rough partition between their patio and the one next door. Peggy raised herself on her toes and peered through the rambling honeysuckle. She couldn’t help it, it was an in-built part of her nature, an insatiable curiosity about the doings of those around her. A folding canvas chair and a white wrought-iron table were all that adorned Miss McLennan’s patch. Apart from an empty beer glass left out on the table. Peggy mentally tutted again; such sloppiness made her skin prickle. She noticed also that the patio door was ajar even though the newspapers were still neatly folded on the front step. Now that sort of carelessness verged on the positively criminal. Especially in an affluent area like this, it paid to take security precautions, what with the jungle of Earl’s Court only yards away, just across the busy Cromwell Road. And the stories you heard, they grew worse by the day. Muggings and bag-snatching and people having their Rolex watches ripped from their wrists in broad daylight. They had caught the famed Notting Hill Rapist eventually but now there were rumours of a new one at large, committing copycat crimes around the Kensington area. It didn’t cost anything to be over-cautious, especially for a single woman living on her own.
‘Jinx is obviously having a lie-in,’ she reported when Arthur came down. ‘Though she went to bed and left the door ajar, silly girl. At her age she ought to be more responsible.’
Arthur, immersed in the Mail on Sunday, merely grunted. Years of habit had taught him to filter his wife’s conversation effectively. Very little of what she said warranted his full attention, and these days she never even noticed that he wasn’t listening. He did perk up, however, when she served him his bacon and eggs. Even folded the newspaper carefully and laid it aside for later.
‘But no sign yet of that heatwave they promised. Just as well.’ Too much sunshine was bad for your skin. These days those so-called best things in life grew fewer and fewer. You couldn’t even leave your garden door open for fear of what might come in. She’d keep her eye on the house next door just to be on the safe side.
When they left for Evensong the papers were still there, so on their return Peggy made it her business to ring the doorbell of number 7. That’s what Neighbourhood Watch was all about; no point having those meetings if you didn’t rise to the occasion. No answer, rather as she’d expected. Yet the patio door was still ajar, the empty glass untouched upon the table.
‘You don’t suppose she’s gone away for the weekend and forgotten to lock up properly?’
Arthur, never surprised at the vacuousness of women, merely grunted. He was flicking through the television listings, entirely uninterested in the doings of his neighbour.
‘Could be. I don’t know. Now come and sit down. Antiques Roadshow is about to start.’ He changed into his old tartan slippers and poured them each a schooner of sherry which he carried into the front room. But Peggy was fidgeting, unable to settle.
‘It may sound silly,’ she said in a minute, ‘but I think I’ll just call the police.’
Two police constables, one a woman, were there in a matter of minutes. Easter was quiet and the station not far away, just round the corner in the Earl’s Court Road. They had left their panda car in Stratford Road in order not to block access to the cul-de-sac. They tried the doorbell at number 7 and when there was no answer, asked if they might come inside. Peggy, full of importance, led them through to the patio.
‘See,’ she said, ‘the door isn’t properly closed. And it’s not like my neighbour to be so forgetful.’
The policeman looked at the fragile fence, and Peggy showed him where he could climb up. There was a concrete post supporting it at one end; he was up and over in a jiffy.
‘Hello,’ he called cautiously, peering in through the door. ‘Anyone at home?’ When no one answered, he pushed aside the curtain then took a tentative step into the room.
‘You’d best come and join me,’ he said to his female companion. ‘Just in case.’
Peggy was dying to go in there with them but wasn’t sure she could manage the climb. In any case, they were excluding her now, talking quietly and seriously between themselves, very much on the job. They disappeared. Six and a half minutes later, after what seemed an agonising wait, the woman appeared with an ashen face and her radio on the go, and told Peggy that they had called for reinforcements. There had been an accident - that was all she would say - and they would be round to talk to the Daweses later. No need for Peggy to hang around now.
Detective Chief Inspector Hal Burton of the Murder Squad stood in the Dawes’s pin neat front room, a cup of tea in his hand. What they had found upstairs in the house next door almost defied description. He was trying not to dwell on it too much and was not about to share the gruesome details with the white-faced elderly couple facing him now. All he would concede was that their neighbour was dead and certainly not by accident or her own hand.
‘Murdered, you mean?’ said Arthur with goggling eyes, his full attention belatedly on the subject. ‘Good God in Heaven, what a truly terrible thing.’
Her name was Jinx McLennan, they told Hal, and they’d known her for the six years since she first moved in. Alone; she had never shared the house and they didn’t believe she’d been married. It was certainly something she had never mentioned and Peggy would have winkled that one out if anyone could.
‘Nice girl,’ ruminated Arthur, valiantly trying to get a grip on himself. ‘Friendly and sociable. Good to have living next door.’ Good grief, whatever next; what was this old world coming to? Slaughtered in her bed, they said, in the middle of the Easter weekend. As bad as Johannesburg and the terrible happenings in Kosovo. Maybe living in the heart of London at their time of life wasn’t as sensible as it seemed.
‘Age?’ asked the detective, putting down his cup. His constable would take down the details later. First he needed to get the general picture.
‘Recently turned forty,’ said Peggy, piping up. ‘Had a big party in October. Was nice enough to include us.’
‘So you knew her well and you also knew her friends?’
‘Not all of them. They were always coming and going. Hugely popular and social, she was. Always so much fun.’
‘Jinx McLennan.’ The name tripped off his tongue. Forty years old and a woman of the world. No husband, no children, no apparent live-in lover. Parents both dead, Peggy had already volunteered that, and no siblings either, an only child.
‘Boyfriends that you knew of? Anyone special?’
Arthur and Peggy looked at each other then Peggy shook her head.
‘There were a couple, one of whom we met. But he wasn’t here much, and I think it was something from the past. She had loads of friends, though, of both sexes. Always entertaining, people forever dropping in.’
‘She was a lovely girl,’ repeated Arthur with more emotion. ‘A real cracker. One of the absolute best.’ The sort you would like your son to marry, the archetypal girl next door. Friendly, sweet-natured and squeaky clean.
‘We did, as it happens, see her only just recently,’ said Peggy. ‘Out with a man we’d not met before. Wednesday it was, we were driving down to Dorking to deliver the eggs. They came out of her door at the same time as us and she wished us a Happy Easter.’ She dabbed at her eyes. Just imagine, if only they’d known that that was the last time they would see poor Jinx alive.
‘And the man?’ asked Hal alertly, his fingers on his phone.
Peggy and Arthur looked at each other blankly. It was clear the old geezer had no recollection at all. ‘Tall,’ Arthur said vaguely, but Peggy was rallying.
‘Dark,’ she said decisively. ‘With very good teeth and a well-cut suit.’ Which didn’t sound much like Jinx’s usual sort. Those artist fellows she normally hung around with could hardly be described as smart. ‘And a signet ring.’
‘And his car?’
‘No car. They were waiting for a taxi. Heading into the West End for a meal, they said.’ There was some sort of an accent, though she couldn’t be precise. He had said very little, Jinx had done the talking. Australian, possibly American; maybe even some sort of a foreigner. What Peggy remembered most was how happy they’d both seemed. Bubbling over with it, in fact, now she came to think of it.
Thank heavens for nosy neighbours, thought Hal as he pocketed his phone.
The murder scene was unbelievably upsetting and even the forensic team gagged as they went about their work. WPC Trudy Taylor had never seen so much blood. When they’d first been called to the crime scene, the curtains had been closed so she’d been spared the full enormity of exactly what had occurred. Now the curtains were open and the body had been removed. But the pretty blue walls were laced with a network of blood, and the ghastly, ravaged sheets were still there, stiff with gore and spattered with yellow stains. Also, there was the smell which caused her to press her balled handkerchief to her mouth.
‘Beaten to a pulp, she was,’ said the fingerprints man. ‘We’re going to have to identify her from her dabs.’ They’d taken away the weapon that had been used, an art deco bronze and ivory figurine snatched, presumably at random, from the bedside table. By some miracle, it hadn’t even cracked, though the weighty onyx base had done its deadly work with horrifying efficiency. Far worse, however, at least to Trudy’s shocked gaze, were the police photos of what had been achieved with a broken bottle. How so much violence could exist in any human being was too terrible even to envisage. Whatever kind of an animal could it be who was out there now, prowling the Kensington streets?
Was it the work of a random intruder? That was the main question currently on their minds. There had been a series of local break-ins and rapes but nothing even halfway as awful as this. No one till now had actually been killed; the masked intruder had caught his victims by surprise then left abruptly after he’d robbed and violated them.
‘It must have occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning,’ said the pathologist. ‘After the pubs had closed and the punters gone home.’
‘And the odd thing is it appears that nothing’s been taken. Not that we can tell for sure without an insider’s knowledge. This room’s a mess but mainly because of the struggle. The rest of the house appears untouched. Which is unusual with this sort of a crime.’
‘You’re not suggesting it could have been someone she knew?’ Trudy’s gorge was rising as the possibilities grew even worse.
‘Could be,’ said Hal, still nosing around. ‘This sort of violent crime is more often than not domestic. Can’t rule out the people she hung out with. Maybe it was someone from the pub next door.’
Who might well have sat there, drinking in the garden, able at leisure to case the row of cute sweetpea cottages. At this stage nothing could be discounted. Every possible angle had to be exhaustively researched. First, however, they needed to establish next of kin.
Peggy Dawes was unable to help them there. All she really knew about the dead woman was that she was popular and sociable with an enormous zest for life and an ever-open door. Her friends were constantly coming and going. What a tragic waste.
‘Threw herself into her work, she did. A girl that pretty ought by rights to have been at home having babies.’
‘What sort of line was she in, do you know?’
‘Graphic designer with her own small company. Just up the street in the mews. Nice offices. You should go and see them.’
Trudy made a note.
‘What kind of a social life would you say she led? Bit of a raver, was she? Bars and clubs, that sort of thing? Picking up strangers perhaps?’ Hal was being deliberately provocative, studying the effect of his words on this eminently respectable lady.
Peggy was genuinely outraged. ‘Absolutely not,’ she said indignantly. ‘The very idea of it!’
Jinx, she told them, came from a solid, middle-class background, army folk as far as she could recall. Died quite early, both of them, leaving her on her own.
‘Went to a private boarding-school somewhere in the West Country. And after that to art school here in London.’
She had always been an achiever, had worked her way up through various different jobs then started this business some years back. When she was still remarkably young. Doing extremely well, or so they’d heard, with a nice tight circle of business colleagues who had always remained loyal to her through thick and thin.
‘Those are really the ones you should talk to,’ said Peggy. ‘More like family than work-mates, she always said. Nice people, too. We met them at one of her parties. They’ll be able to fill in some of the gaps.’
Trudy made a note of the address. It was Bank Holiday Monday; the office would be closed. First thing tomorrow they’d go round and break the news.
© Carol Smith 2003