Chapter Ten


Sunday, bloody Sunday!

Day 11

I have just returned from the local store with milk and bread and a paper. It is Sunday and I intend to slob it today. If I hadn’t needed milk and bread I probably would not have bothered to even get dressed. Emma has left saying it would be good for her to vanish for a few days. When I asked where she was going, she explained that her mum has recently moved to the Isle of Man into sheltered accommodation, and she has kept her address a secret. Once her boyfriend had succeeded in isolating her from friends and family, including her mother, he had showed no further interest in them, but Emma had managed to keep up a furtive conversation with her mum.

   Anyway, I’m sure you too have days where you just feel like doing as little as possible, apart from eating, catching up on reading and getting down to doing some much-needed housework. I guess that’s my agenda for the day. And it is going to begin with toast and marmalade, washed down with a mug of tea.

   I settle down at my kitchen island, perched on a high stool and glance at the paper I have brought back with me. It’s the Mail on Sunday. I was going to get the Sunday Times but there is just too much of it. I know I will never read even half of it.

   The front page has a splash about the Health Secretary resigning. Looks like he was having an affair with an aide. I sigh. Why can’t these guys keep their trousers on? A career ruined, and for what?

   As I turn the pages a page lead catches my eye. It is all about Chinese spying. Suddenly, I am riveted.

   I put the paper down. Is it really possible there’s a spy ring on my campus? I showed the memory stick to Sgt Bannon when he came to the flat yesterday. The files meant nothing to him either but one of them was headed by ‘The Department of Science and Engineering’ which obviously pointed to them having been copied. He said we should both go to the Dean of faculty and show him the files. I readily agreed. Anything to put an end to this nonsense. He decides to make an appointment for tomorrow morning.

   I have had an industrious morning. The pile of ironing has disappeared; the apartment has been thoroughly cleaned and I have decided to make an Irish stew, the way it should be made, with lamb I had in the freezer as well as onions, leeks and carrots, the way my old ma used to make it, bless her.

   It will take about three hours to bubble away slowly and so I decide to watch the mid-day news on TV and then to catch up on some reading I should have done a week ago.

   The news is depressing. It’s full of Covid and political shenanigans as well as the lifting of restrictions in tandem with the need to get both jabs. I must register with a surgery and get mine. I make a note in my diary to call the university health line in the morning and get advice as to which surgery to go to.

   I switch the TV off in disgust. It’s no wonder there are so many mental health issues around; people are just pissed off with bad news. I pick up a copy of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It’s a novel that has intrigued me with the concept of a place where you can undo all your regrets and try out alternative lives; something I would have dearly liked to have done. At last, I can settle down for an hour or two and really get into it.

  I have just started the third chapter when the intercom buzzes. A feeling of extreme annoyance surges through me. Who the hell can that be? I consider just ignoring it in the hope that whoever it is will just go away. But then it may be something important or a delivery, so I wearily walk over and press the button, asking who is there. A man’s voice says his name is Button, Hugh Button, and that it is vital he talk to me about my recent experience. There is a slight emphasis on the last two words. I stay silent for long seconds until he says that he has spoken to Sergeant Steve Bannon of Merseyside Police. That persuades me and I buzz him in but tell him to wait outside my apartment because I need to get dressed.

   Ten minutes later I open the door to a smartly dressed man in his mid-forties wearing Michael Caine glasses and a Fedora. He even has blonde hair to complete the look-a-like. I suppress a smile as he hands me a card. It says he is an agent from Special Branch. I invite him in, and he removes his hat.

   He begins by asking about the encounter with the mystery man who dumped the memory stick in my bag, so I tell him. It doesn’t take long because it literally lasted seconds. He holds up the stick and tells me that the agency has an interest in it and then, almost as an afterthought, asks me if I would recognise him again. I know I wouldn’t because I only saw his back. I feel sure that what he really wants to know is if he was Chinese, so I tell him that my friend Emma did see his face and she said he wasn’t.

   Obviously, Sgt Bannon has given him the stick. So, who contacted who I wonder? I ask if this is connected to the story in the Mail on Sunday and Chinese spy rings. There is a slight pause, and he says it is entirely possible.

   I felt like giggling. Entirely possible. What a load of boloney. It’s a bloody cast iron certainty and then it suddenly occurs to me that the other reason he is here isn’t just to do with the memory stick.

   It could well be that Special Branch suspect me in some way.

Chapter Nine


Admiral Street Police Station

Day 10

We are waiting in reception for Sergeant Bannon at Admiral Street. Emma is looking uneasy and pacing up and down. It took all my blarney at breakfast to persuade her to come. At one point I think she was just going to walk, but in the end, I persuaded her that her boyfriend, and his thugs, aren’t going to give up; they will find her wherever she is, and they will take her back into captivity, unconscious if necessary. There is only one way to end her nightmare, and this is it.

   Bannon opens the door and summons us to follow him. He looks at me questioningly, no doubt thinking it has something to do with the murdered boy in the park. He takes us to an interview room, and we all sit around a table. He stares at us expectantly and asks how he can help us.

   I introduce him to Emma and tell him that we were attacked last night by two thugs sent by Emma’s boyfriend Steve Keane. Their intention was to take her back home, forcibly if need be.

   He looks at us in turn and asks Emma why she left him. She tells him the tale of physical abuse, threats and controlling behaviour and that she was a virtual prisoner and how she planned her escape carefully over two months. He asks where this was. She says he has a large, detached house in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Bannon has taken out a notebook and is writing down details. He asks what her surname is, and she says it is Threlfall. She is twenty-eight.

   ‘So, what exactly happened last night?’ he says looking at us both quizzingly.

   ‘We had just left the Head of Steam on Hanover Street and two blokes grabbed us and dragged us down a street into a doorway,’ says Emma looking tearful. ‘They told Maggie to fuck off. It was me they wanted. The one holding me said I was going home.’ Bannon takes a note of that.

   ‘How did you manage to escape?’ he asks.

   ‘Maggie attacked them,’ she says grinning.

   He looks at me with renewed interest. ‘How did you manage that? What did you do to them?’

   ‘I persuaded them to go away,’ I say. ‘They may have needed a little help from A&E on the way though.’

   ‘You aren’t going to arrest her, are you?’ says Emma. ‘If it weren’t for her, they would have abducted me and taken me back.’

   ‘Not at all,’ Bannon assures her. ‘You are perfectly entitled to defend yourself if attacked. I hope you gave them a bloody nose.’

   I laugh. ‘Oh yes, I certainly gave one of them that. I probably broke it as well. As for the other heavy, he may be talking in a high-pitch voice for a while.’

   ‘Good,’ says Bannon grinning. ‘I will contact colleagues in Birmingham CID, and they will have a word. He will no doubt deny he had anything to do with it. But that’s fine. He will have got the message. His boys will have got back to him no doubt. If there is any repetition of anyone following you or harassing you, we will act. In the meantime, change all your passwords, tighten up your security on social media and try not to be on your own, especially of a night. Do they know where you live do you think?’

   ‘I don’t think so,’ she says. ‘I haven’t noticed anyone suspicious by my flat.’

   ‘How long have you been in Liverpool?’

   ‘Just over a year.’

   ‘How do you think they found you?’

   ‘Well, he knew I was an arts teacher and I have an aunt in Liverpool. They no doubt kept an eye on her house and no doubt did a stake out of art colleges until I was spotted. He probably had teams out everywhere looking for me.’

   ‘He really is determined, isn’t he?’ Bannon murmurs quietly.

   ‘That’s what worries me,’ she says.

   ‘Cheer up. He will over-reach himself and then we will have him. Do you have a picture of him?’

   She says she will hand it in later in the day. Bannon tells her to be watchful wherever she goes.

   I tell him she can stay with me for a few days.

   As we are walking out, I ask Bannon if there is any progress on the dead boy. He shakes his head and says they are no further forward. They need information from students but all they are getting is silence.

   I tell him there is definitely something going on at the campus. I mention all the huddles and the whispering. I tell him I will be in touch if I hear anything. Before we leave, he asks me for my phone number and stares at it quizzingly when I give it to him. We leave him in reception and decide to head for the nearest bus stop intending to head into town for a coffee and something to eat.

   We are standing at a bus stop on Park Road when a man almost knocks me over. I am about to tell him what I think of him, but he is away down the road. I stare after him.

   ‘Are you OK?’ says Emma. ‘Some people, honestly. He didn’t grab your bag, did he?’

   I am carrying an open canvas bag holding my purse as well as odds and ends. I still have it and I can see my purse inside. I breathe a sigh of relief. I hold it up triumphantly. ‘Looks like he was just a clumsy eejit,’ I tell her.

   I am about to return it to the bag when I notice something else inside.

   It is a memory stick. We both stare at it and then at each other.

   ‘He deliberately banged into you to drop that into your bag,’ says Emma. ‘There was plenty of room on the pavement. He was targeting you. No doubt about it.’

   ‘Did you see if he was Chinese?’ I ask her.

   ‘He definitely wasn’t. He was young though from what I could see of him.’

   ‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ I mutter staring at the stick in my hand. ‘Let’s see what’s on it when we get back to the flat,’ I say as our bus approaches.

I plug the stick into my laptop and six files appear on the screen. Emma is leaning over my shoulder. I open one at random and stare at it. It looks like a series of complex chemical formulae.

   ‘Make any sense to you?’ I ask Emma. She shakes her head.

   I open the other files. They are also technical documents dealing with what I suspect are metallurgical properties to do with the reduction and oxidation of metals, and their chemical performance.

   Other files appear to deal with crystallographymaterial characterization, mechanical metallurgy, phase transformations, and failure mechanisms.It’s all a bit beyond me and has nothing to do with mathematics or the department I work in.

   ‘Why would he give it to you?’ Emma asks. ‘And what does it all mean do you think?’

   It is obviously not intended for me, so whoever is behind this must think I am somebody I am not. I close the laptop and sigh. ‘We need to go to your flat to pick up a few things, don’t we? I think you should stay here for a week or so. I could do with the company and apart from that, whoever gave me that file is going to want it back.’

   ‘So, we could both have thugs after us,’ says Emma giggling.

   ‘It’s no laughing matter,’ I say with a mock seriousness and then join in with her giggles.

   ‘What are you going to do?’ she finally asks.

   ‘I think I am going to ring the good sergeant,’ I say.

   ‘She looks at me curiously, a half-smile hovering. ‘Do you fancy him?’

   That takes me by surprise. I haven’t even thought of him in those terms. In fact, I have had quite enough of men for a while.

   ‘Not at all,’ I say briskly. ‘You’re away with the fairies if you think that?’

   She gives me a knowing smile.

Chapter Eight


The trouble with Emma…

Day 9

I have just been online to view developments in Dublin and what I read in the Times is a bit disturbing. How can they have any doubts about the identity of ‘my’ body? And why are they ‘keeping an open mind’ over the explosion. I was so meticulous. Could it have something to do with the jubilee clip around the gas pipe? I only loosened it very slightly and I was wearing gloves.

   Anyway, whatever their suspicions I doubt they will ever make the connection with the real Maggie Taylor and Roisin Doyle has disappeared and is very unlikely to be found here in Liverpool so I think I can relax.

   My thoughts turn to Naomi whom I met yesterday. She saw something. I am certain of it. Why else would she tell me to ‘be careful where I go’ and then walk out. What did that mean I wonder? I should have asked her to elaborate.

   It is just another inexplicable event in a growing list since I arrived here. Life in Dublin was childishly predictable by comparison. If I didn’t know better, I would have said there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the students. Why else are there huddles in corners, whispered chats and furtive glances that appear to be aimed at me? And then there is the hostile Mr Darke. I suppose it might just be an anti-Irish thing which I have encountered before once or twice but I would not have expected to encounter it here in Liverpool which has a high proportion of Irish residents.

   No, it must be something else. I have not forgotten the note either which may, or may not, refer to my past although my gut feeling is that it has something to do with whatever is going on here on campus.

   I have opened a bank account here. They accepted my ID without question, and I have transferred what little cash was in Maggie’s account into it. I have also converted a large part of the Wirex crypto cash into pounds and transferred that as well. I still have a substantial sum left in Wirex…just in case.

   I have been mostly in my office on campus today. I have been asked to prepare a presentation on how a modern application of mathematics can typically draw from differential equations, numerical analysis, and linear algebra. It’s a fascinating subject and it will be a public PowerPoint presentation in the Autumn or whenever the Dean sees fit.

   ‘Mr Hostile’ made a point of snubbing me in the corridor earlier but that is simply fine – for now. The day will dawn when he will face a reckoning from me for his boorish behaviour and I guarantee he will not like it!

   I am on my way to a pub called The Head of Steam in Liverpool One, a trendy part of the city centre full of designer shops and swanky bars and restaurants. I am meeting Emma, the art lecturer I met a couple of days ago in the Blackburne Arms.

   She is already sitting in a cubicle when I get there. She is nursing a pint. I ask if she wants another, but she says she would prefer a Guinness to the mild. She stares at the pint she is holding disdainfully. ‘It tastes like cat piss,’ she explains. I grin and head for the bar and return with a couple of pints.

   She asks how long I stayed in the pub the other night and I tell her I was plagued by a barfly.

   She grins and asks what that is.

   ‘A pain in the arse,’ I respond. ‘Some middle-aged tosser who thinks he’s God’s gift and that just because a woman is on her own in a bar, it is open season on her.’

   ‘What did you do?’ she asks grinning hugely.

   ‘I persuaded him to go away,’ I say.

   ‘And did he?’

   ‘With alacrity,’ I say, grinning back.

   ‘I won’t ask how you managed that.’

   ‘Better not.’ She erupts in a gale of laughter.

   We decide to change the subject and I tell her that I intended to get to the Tate, but I was diverted. I ask if she has been to their latest exhibitions. She has and mentions that she has a studio in a place called Waterloo, about five miles up the Southport coast. She says I must visit now that university and college are on the cusp of breaking for summer. I tell her that I would really enjoy that.

   As we are talking, I notice two men leaning on the bar behind Emma, a little distance away. They are staring at us. No, I’m wrong. They are staring at her, and she is obviously the subject of their conversation. I sense trouble.

   I lower my voice and mention that there are two dodgy-looking characters who seem to be talking about her and am about to tell her not to turn around but before I can she does, but there is nobody there. I assure her that that they were there. She looks uneasy. I have a strong feeling that she knows exactly who they are. I don’t like it.

   We continue chatting for another hour or so and then decide it is time to go. I scan the place to see if there is another entrance but there isn’t. I take out my keys and palm them in my left hand with a key protruding through my fist.

   We turn right to walk to the bus stops up the road. As we do, we are about to cross a narrow, dark street called School Lane on our right when the two men grab us and drag us to a doorway just down the street.

   One has his arm around my throat and Emma is held by the second. He hisses in my ear. ‘Why don’t you just fuck off so that we can talk to Emma?’ He gives me a shove. I glance at Emma. She looks terrified.

   I turn to face him. He has an ugly leer on his face, his lips parted in a sneering grin. I move quickly and with the ball of the palm on my right hand I slam it into the space just under his nose. His head snaps back and blood immediate begins pouring out. He yelps like a mongrel and falls to the ground. Emma’s assailant lets go of her and makes the mistake of moving towards me. I yell at her to run as he faces up close to me with his fist drawn back. I move within a couple of inches in front of him and bring up my knee between his legs crunching into his balls and at the same time using the key in my left hand to stab the fist that is about to be slammed into me. He cries out in agony, and I turn and follow Emma around the corner.

   There is a Hackney cab rank quite close. I yell at Emma and wave at her to follow me. We climb in and I tell the driver to head for the Ropeworks.

   Emma is looking dazed. She stares at me, her eyes wide. I put my finger to my lips, and she leans back in her seat. Her hands are trembling.

   In my apartment I pour us both a generous Jameson. I look at her. She is white. ‘Want to tell me about it?’ I ask.

   For a while she is silent and just stares at the floor ‘I have been really stupid,’ she begins softly. ‘I had a boyfriend who was great – at first. He took me to expensive restaurants, we went on fabulous holidays, no expense spared. I just took it all for granted and never really asked where the money was coming from. He said he was a dealer.’ She looks up at me. She has tears rolling down her cheeks.

   ‘I didn’t ask what kind of dealer. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Obviously, it was all too good to be true. And then he began to get possessive, you know?’ She looks at me questioningly. I nod. I know all too well what that is like.

   ‘It got to the point when I was a virtual prisoner at home. He said I shouldn’t want to see anyone else without him.’

   I think I know what is coming. ‘You escaped, didn’t you?’ She nods. ‘I changed my name, moved to Liverpool and got a job at the college. I didn’t think he would ever find me.’

   I had to conceal a smile. The similarity with me is uncanny. The only difference is that she didn’t murder him. Perhaps she should have, but I don’t think I will tell her that, or my story for that matter. Not yet anyway.

   ‘It looks like he has found you though,’ I say. ‘You have to go to the police, you know, because the two heavies he sent after you are not going to stop. They have been paid to find you and they are not going to stop just because I hurt them.’

   ‘Where did you learn to fight like that?’ she asks, a look of apt admiration replacing the fear on her face.

   ‘I had a tough upbringing,’ I say grinning at her. ‘You will stay here tonight and tomorrow morning we will both go and see a nice sergeant I know. He will know what to do.’

Chapter Seven


A detective calls

Day 9 

There is a message awaiting me when I arrive at campus this morning. It seems one of my students has been found dead in a park in the suburbs. A detective is on his way to talk to me, although I doubt that I will be able to help him very much. I haven’t had time to get to know many of the students on a personal level yet. He will probably want to talk to the other students which is fine as far as I’m concerned.

   When I arrive there are small groups of students in huddles in corners and doorways who appear to be discussing something quite earnestly. They glance at me as I walk past. It is only when I get to my office that I make the connection between the huddles and the dead student. Word has obviously got around but then I daresay it has been on the news which will be on every smart phone by now. I have only just got round to switching mine on!

   Ten minutes later my phone rings to inform me that two detectives, a sergeant Bannon and a female officer, are on their way up. I look at my schedule. I can give them half an hour before I deliver a lecture; come to think of it they may like to address the students beforehand. I will give them that option, I think.

   Shortly after there is a smart rap on the door. A sharply dressed, slim man, probably in his late twenties with blond hair walks in, followed by a younger, attractive, equally slim, woman whose face is devoid of expression. He introduces himself and then her as DC Fairchild.

   ‘It’s a while since I was on a campus,’ says Bannon gazing around my office and the papers and books in piles everywhere. Reminds me of my tutor’s room.

   ‘Where was that?’ I ask him curiously.

   ‘Corpus Christi, Cambridge. I did classics,’ he explains.

   ‘I can imagine you got a First too,’ I say smiling.

   ‘And you?’ he says, rising an eyebrow.

   ‘Oxford, New College. Double First in Maths and Psychology.’

   He looks impressed. I tell him my primary subject here is maths but that I also teach applied psychology. I ask him about the dead student.

   ‘Johnny Zhang, 20, originally from Dublin. We don’t have a next-of-kin address. We are hoping you can help us with that.’

   I tell him that welfare and registration will be able to and tell him who to contact. I ask what happened to John. I didn’t admit that I was expecting it to be a Chinese student.

   ‘He was murdered,’ says Bannon bluntly. I am about to ask how but decide not to. I daresay he wouldn’t tell me anyway. DC Fairchild has said nothing but simply stares at me impassively. I don’t like her. I don’t know why but I don’t like the way she looks at me and decide to stare her out. She is the first to look away. I get a small feeling of victory. Yes, I know it’s childish, but I don’t care. This is my domain, and I am not going to be intimidated by some female copper with a personality problem. I turn my attention to DS Bannon and invite him to talk to the students before I deliver my lecture.

   I decide there is something decidedly odd about DC Fairchild. It is almost as though she has a personality gene missing. She has opted to stay out of the lecture hall saying that she will be outside to speak to anyone who has information.

   There is an uneasy silence as Bannon delivers his appeal for information. Some students rather pointedly study their notes or stare at the ceiling. Nobody has questions when he finishes. He thanks them for listening and says that he is available to talk at any time and that I have his number. He hands me his card as he says it, smiling apologetically.

   Back in my office, I file my lecture notes and stare out of the window at the street outside. It is one of those gloomy days accompanied by a fine drizzle which I am so used to in County Cork. There are times when I miss my life there, but I know there is no going back and not just because of events in Dublin. I will explain why some other time.

   My thoughts turn to the note that Joe’s friend Naomi gave me. At first, I thought it might have been a student joke. ‘We know who you really are.’ Whoever ‘they’ are can’t possibly know about my name change…can they?’ No, that is just too crazy.

   I was very, very, careful planning the house fire and my name change. Nobody could possibly have known about it. I am certain I was not followed either before or after the fire. Indeed, I had already left Ireland when the place blew up. And believe me, I would have known if anybody was keeping tabs on me. I learned all the tricks in my old life. It is also tempting to think that somebody has followed me to Liverpool. They didn’t. I would have known.

   No, the more I think about it, the more likely it is the note has a completely different meaning. Indeed, perhaps ‘they’ confused me with someone else. The alternative is that it has something to do with the old days. If so, I have good reason to be twitchy.

   I decide I need a decent coffee and set off for the local coffee shop. I sit at a table spooning froth into my mouth and get an uncanny feeling that somebody is staring at me. I turn around and there, sitting a few tables away is Joe’s friend Naomi who I met briefly yesterday when she handed me the note. She smiles and gives me a little wave. I beckon her over.

   Naomi is an attractive lady, no doubt about it. She has the same denim jacket she had on the last time I met her. The boots have been replaced by trainers and a pair of battered jeans with streaks of paint in places. I guess she is a woman who doesn’t particularly care what others think of her and in that respect, I am with her. I ask her if she lives locally.

   ‘Just down the road on Rodney Street,’ she says staring at me with a strange intensity which I find oddly unsettling.

   ‘Isn’t that the road where all the consultants have their surgeries?’ I ask.

   She laughs and nods. ‘They are all on the ground floor with brass plates,’ she explains with a wry smile. ‘My place is on the third floor with no brass plate.’

   ‘Do you need one? Joe said you were an artist “among other things.” I was intrigued by what that could mean.’

   She gives me a twisted smile, sighs, and replies that she is a psychic, obviously expecting me to respond with what I imagine is the standard response of deep scepticism or outright disbelief or sneering scorn. But I have encountered the real deal before. My mother was one when we lived in Cork, an orphic lady who was well respected for her abilities in the neighbourhood.

   Naomi is staring at me with those magnetic eyes of hers and then down at her mug of coffee, tapping her finger on the side. When she looks up, her face is troubled.

   She suddenly says she must go without looking at me. I somehow get the feeling she knows about Dublin, but not in any detail. I want to ask her what she has seen but something is stopping me. She stands up and just as she is about to walk out, she half turns, looking me square in the face.

   ‘Be careful where you go,’ is all she says and then she is gone.

   I wonder what that means.

Chapter Six

Forensic Pathology Unit,

Royal Liverpool University Hospital

Day 8

Professor Clive Bixter is in his office, leafing through a report when DCI Salisbury and DS Bannon arrive.

   ‘Good morning professor,’ says Salisbury.

   ‘Do come in gentleman,’ booms Bixter, standing up. They shake hands. He ignores Bannon.

   ‘I take it you would like to know exactly how your young lad died. The one in the park,’ he adds to dispel any doubt.

   ‘That’s the general idea,’ murmurs Bannon.

   ‘Facetious as usual,’ I see,’ says Bixter fixing him with a penetrating stare. Professor Bixter is not a man who is easily ignored. He is head of the Forensic Pathology Unit. He has crossed swords with Bannon on previous occasions.

   He indicates for them to follow him. ‘Something I want you to see,’ he says. ‘I hope you aren’t squeamish,’ he smiles mischievously at Bannon. ‘I know you have seen it all before chief inspector, but this case has some unusual aspects. It is not your run-of-the-mill killing.’

   ‘Even we had come to that conclusion when we were confronted with a naked body, half buried and with an enigmatic note attached to it,’ Bannon pipes up. Salisbury frowns at him.

   Bixter ignores that and leads them to another room where a body is lying on a stainless-steel examination table covered by a sheet.

   He consults his notes. ‘The victim is Johnny Zhang, 20, of Primrose Gardens, Norris Green.’ He looks at Salisbury for confirmation. Salisbury nods. ‘We have the parents arriving later today to give a positive identification,’ he says. e He con sults

   ‘What is most interesting is the cause of death,’ Bixter says, drawing back the sheet. ‘This is not the usual stabbing with your kitchen knife or any of the other fashionable accessories young thugs carry around these days.’ He points to a small puncture wound in the woman’s chest. ‘Almost looks like a bullet hole,’ doesn’t it?

   Salisbury leans over to study the wound. ‘I suppose that explains why there wasn’t really very much blood around the body,’ he says. Bixter nods.

   ‘In my opinion that was caused by a sharp pointed implement, something like an Épée.’

   ‘That’s a type of sword used in fencing, isn’t it?’ says Bannon.

   ‘So it is sergeant,’ says Bixter. ‘But before you get excited let me say that it could also have been caused by any kind of spike.’

   ‘Offices used to have spikes mounted on wooden plinths where bills or invoices would be ‘spiked’ when they had been paid,’ says Salisbury. ‘I don’t imagine they still have them in these paperless days.’

   ‘Yes, that would have done the job and you would be surprised there are still a few around,’ murmurs Bixter. He turns to study the body. ‘Anyway, it would have been around a foot long, enough to penetrate the right atrium and enter the left ventricle. No sign of sexual activity. No bruising to speak of. No sign of substance abuse. Death would have been almost instantaneous. I would hazard a guess that he knew his attacker.’

   They follow him back to his office where he hands Salisbury his detailed report. ‘I have a few additional observations you may be interested in,’ he says frowning. ‘I consulted a forensic psychologist at the university about this case and included his thoughts in an addendum at the back of my report.’

   ‘I suppose you are going to mention the message that had been attached to him,’ says Bannon.

   Bixter sighs. ‘Yes, I am sergeant, but only en-passant, so to speak. The cypher is relatively unimportant really. It is, in my opinion, essentially a smoke screen in that it was written in very bad Mandarin.

   He smiles thinly at Bannon. ‘I’m sure you will have noticed that for yourself sergeant. Its purpose was to make you think that this was a Chinese killing, whereas the opposite is actually the truth. Once you have understood that it is only a matter of half an hour or so to arrive at the killer’s real message.’ He pauses and grins at Salisbury. ‘It’s hardly worth the trouble really because you will not be any the wiser when you have deciphered it.’

   ‘What do you mean,’ says Bannon.

   ‘Well sergeant since you evidently have not yet deciphered it, when you do you will find that the message is just the killer’s way of taunting you. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you will be no nearer arriving at his identity than you are now.

   ‘He’s just having fun with you sergeant.’ He smiles at Bannon sardonically.

   ‘What is more pertinent is what the psychologist had to say once he had been acquainted with the facts surrounding the case.’

   ‘Does he give an indication of the killer’s personality?’ asks Salisbury.

   ‘Absolutely. Not only that but what motivates him, or indeed her, and more importantly whether this is a one-off or whether he will kill again.’

   ‘You have my undivided attention,’ says Salisbury.

   ‘I think his most important conclusion is that the killer is a malignant narcissist and a psychopath.’

   ‘Psychopath I can understand,’ says Salisbury. ‘But malignant narcissist?’

   ‘Well, he pointed me to Psychology Today where Carrie Barron, M.D., described it as: “Intelligent, high functioning, soft-spoken, charming, tearful/seemingly emotional, gracious, well mannered, kind and have the ability to form relationships.”’

   He points up a finger and grimaces: ‘But there’s a downside as well because while it is easy to see why, at first glance, this type of person would be appealing, Barron also wrote, “The combination of subtle paranoia, lack of conscience and sadism in these people renders these individuals scary, dangerous, and ruthless.”’

   And there you have it, chief inspector. You are dealing with a very complex killer who is highly intelligent, well-motivated and by the way, could be either male or female.

   ‘That narrows it down a bit,’ mutters Bannon. They both stare at him and then Bixter claps his hands to his head.

   ‘I almost forgot chief inspector. A thousand pardons. The unfortunate Master Zhang had a clenched fist. At first, we thought it was rigor mortis but now we aren’t so sure. When we managed to prise his fingers open there was a slip of paper inside. I have it on my desk.’ He rummages around the various files and triumphantly holds it up when he locates it. He hands it to Bannon who looks at it with a bemused expression. He gives it to Salisbury.

   ‘That number rings bells,’ he says quietly.

Chapter Five

Day 7

University of Liverpool

Faculty of Science and Engineering

Press release

The University of Liverpool today announces a major breakthrough in developing new composite materials that will transform the aerospace industries.

The new composites will create aircraft and spacecraft that weigh less. Lighter vehicles use less fuel and reduce carbon emissions. Carbon, glass, metal, and ceramics are essential components in composites, ten times stronger than aluminium and will revolutionise the aerospace industry.

The new innovative materials will be used in a wide variety of areas – from lighter, more agile aircraft and emerging hypersonic systems, to personal protection equipment and anywhere risks or damage can be reduced.

Progress in developing these advanced materials is expected to address the integration of functions such as energy harvesting, camouflage, structural and personal health monitoring.

Graphene, for example, is a carbon-based material, which is one atom thick and can be used to make batteries that are lightweight, durable, and applicable in high capacity energy storage – plus, they charge more rapidly than a typical battery. 

Development of the new composite is a triumph for both the university and British industry and gives the UK a world lead in aerospace engineering.


For more information, contact the Director of Communications and Public Affairs:

Admiral Street Police Station

Day 7

DCI Mark Salisbury gazes at the new member of his detective team as she stands in front of his desk to attention. He suppresses a smile. She is one of the new recruits in the Fast-Track programme which at one time was open to people straight from university, and which led to frustration in the ranks. Now it is only open to serving constables. Having said that, someone with a good degree and the ability to show an intelligent grasp of current affairs, business, computers, and determination, could go far. But first, they must undergo the two-year probationary period and basic training like all Police officers.

   Salisbury’s bag man is Sergeant Steve Bannon, one of the last direct entry officers, but despite the mutterings behind his back and the resentment, he proved his worth and sailed through his sergeant’s exam. That was a few years ago. Now he is pushing for promotion to inspector. Along the way, he has won Salisbury’s respect, no mean feat for somebody who has become something of a legend in the Merseyside force. Salisbury does not take fools or laziness lightly. His round, moon-like, beaming face can give quite the wrong impression but steely-grey eyes don’t. His officers, and especially Bannon, will tell you that he is fair but demanding and expects his team to go the extra mile when necessary.

   The new recruit clears her throat and says: ‘Good morning Sir’ in a clear, but firm voice. Salisbury looks at the file in front of him which declares her to be Lucy Fairchild, aged 25, from Chester. He notes that her father is a retired solicitor and her mother a nurse who is still practising. She has a First in applied psychology from Durham University.

   ‘You don’t need to stand to attention constable. You aren’t in the army, and you are also in plain clothes.’ He looks behind her to where Bannon is leaning casually on the door frame, a grin on his face. ‘If you ever see Sergeant Bannon stand to attention, let me know because it would have to be somebody pretty bloody important.’ He treats her to a smile. ‘But I suspect you might have a long time to wait.’ She turns and gives Bannon a questioning look. He just nods.

   Salisbury is reading her file and looks up. ‘So why did you join Merseyside Police. Have Cheshire Police offended you in some way?’

   ‘No Sir. I have always enjoyed coming to Liverpool and I think there is more diversity as far as crime is concerned.’

   ‘That’s one way of putting it,’ mutters Bannon. She half turns at that but ignores the remark and continues, wiping away strands of blonde hair that have fallen across her grey eyes.

   ‘I wanted to get away from my home city,’ she explains and then as Salisbury’s brow furrows questioningly: ‘I didn’t want to have my leg pulled because I chose to be a copper,’ she says quietly. ‘Most of my friends have become lawyers or doctors but crime, real crime, has always interested me and I’m more likely to see that here rather than in mostly rural Cheshire.

   ‘You’re likely to be called things a great deal worse than copper,’ says Bannon. ‘This can be a tough city and there are some seriously nasty people out there.’ She turns and stares at him. Bannon is slightly under six feet, smartly dressed in a good grey suit. His slicked back dark hair and intelligent brown eyes study her with a sardonic gleam. 

   ‘All cities have an unpleasant underbelly,’ she retorts. ‘I don’t expect Liverpool to be any different.’

   Salisbury nods and closes the file. ‘Well, welcome to Admiral Street,’ he says, holding out his hand. She shakes it formally. ‘This is a busy city centre station as you will be finding out,’ he says grimly. ‘You will be working to sergeant Bannon here who will show you to your desk and give you the guided tour.’ And with that she is dismissed.

   As they walk away from his office, Bannon grins at her: ‘His bark is worse than his bite, take my word for it. There are far worse bosses around I can assure you.’

   Later, as he sits at his desk staring at his computer, Bannon reflects on the enigma that is Lucy Fairchild. There is something about her that is unfathomable. As he showed her around there was a coldness about her; an absence of any warmth; a distance that he could not understand. It had been him who had done most of the talking. In the past he has had difficulty getting new recruits to listen in between an avalanche of questions. Why were there no questions? Maybe she has had a bad experience with men; he had noticed there were no rings in evidence, nothing to suggest she was with anyone.

   He looks around. She is sitting at her desk. None of the other DCs appear to be interested and yet Lucy is an attractive woman; blonde hair, an attractive, oval face and conservatively dressed.

   He frowns. He is being unfair. The woman is new; she is probably a bit shy and this is her first CID job. She might be terrified inside for all he knows. Perhaps towards the end of the shift he will invite her to the local pub along with one or two others in a get-to-know session. Maybe then she will unwind.

   He is about to investigate evidence of a county line operation when his phone rings. It is the control room who have had a message about a body found in Prince’s Park which is almost around the corner from Admiral Street. Bannon walks briskly into Salisbury’s office and informs him.

   ‘Set up a crime scene Steve, let the forensic people know and inform the pathologist. You know the drill. I’ll come and take a look a bit later.’ He pauses and smiles. ‘Take the new girl with you since she wants to experience crime diversity.’

They arrive at the park and are directed to where a small group of officers are standing with another officer talking to a man with a dog a little distance away.

   ‘What do we have?’ Bannon asks one of them.

   ‘IC5, male. Looks like his throat has been cut.’ He points to where two large tree trunks are lying on the ground and in between them lies a body in a pool of blood. They walk a little closer but stop when Steve holds up his hand.

   ‘No closer. We do not want to disturb the crime scene,’ he explains to Fairchild who stares at the scene apparently unmoved. Bannon looks at her curiously. Usually, an officer’s first experience of such a scene of horror is accompanied by a rush to the nearest toilet, or bushes if there is not one nearby. Fairchild simply nods and backs off.

   They walk over to the dog walker who is sitting on a tree stump looking pale. His name is Archie Monroe, a man is his early sixties by the looks of him and out for a morning walk when his dog discovered the body. Bannon introduces himself and Fairchild and asks him if he saw anyone else in the vicinity at the time. His dog, a Border Colley, wags his tale encouragingly. Monroe shakes his head and says there one or two people at the other side of the field but otherwise the place was deserted.

   ‘What does the piece of paper say?’ he asks Bannon.

   ‘What piece of paper?’ Bannon replies sharply.

   ‘There was a piece of paper on the body,’ he says. ‘I think one of the officers took it.

   Without responding, Bannon strides over to the group of constables nearby and asks which one of them removed it.

   ‘I did serge,’ says one sheepishly. ‘It was in danger of being blown away.’ He takes a paper out of his pocket and hands it over.

   ‘For fuck’s sake Carter, the forensic people will be all over this. It should have been put in an evidence bag immediately. You should have known better. At least you were wearing gloves.’

   As he speaks, the formidable grey-haired figure of Dr Clive Bixter, the head forensic scientist, is striding towards them purposefully. At 6ft 3in he is a stern, no-nonsense man of military bearing in his 50s with a thin pencil moustache who has a reputation for being something of a martinet among his colleagues. With him is a pathologist who immediately heads to the corpse. They are both wearing forensic coveralls.

   ‘Well Bannon, where’s Salisbury. I would have thought an unexplained death might have warranted his attendance. If he isn’t here who is SIO?’

   ‘He will be. He’s on his way,’ lies Bannon handing him the piece of paper which is now in an evidence bag.

   Bixter unfolds it and they both stare at it.


   ‘God knows what that means,’ mutters Bannon.

   ‘You don’t need to ask him,’ says Bixter. ‘I can tell you. I worked in China for a while. It says: He betrayed us.’

   ‘Does it indeed,’ says Bannon quietly. ‘Sounds like a gang killing.’

   ‘You may be right,’ says Bixter as he headed off to join his colleague.

   ‘You had better brush up on your Mandarin,’ he shouts back.

A new female cult figure

A number of people have written to me saying how much they identify with my character Naomi who first appeared in a ghost story but who has since been the central character in two full novels and who will also be the central character in a third which I am writing. You can read that original stor y on my website, given below.

She is a psychic and all the stories in which she is featured have a supernaural element. You may also be interested to know that the inspiration for her comes from a real person who had exeactly the same abilities. That person was my grandmother.

If you enjoy Naomi, read The Poseidon Files, and Kill Joy.

Chapter Sixteen

The Poseidon Files

Chapter Sixteen

Liverpool, Tuesday, October 30

Alex was not somebody who had ever really been ill; she has always enjoyed robust good health, apart from the abuse she suffered from her ex-husband that put her in hospital once or twice. Like many women who are mentally or physically abused by their partners, she suffered in silence and never allowed it to get as far as a prosecution. She now realises how profoundly stupid she had been. Once the first slap was delivered, she should have left and never returned.

   As she gradually regains her strength, the realisation begins to dawn that what has happened to her is no accident. Irrespective of how difficult it is to believe, there is no escaping the realisation that she has become a target; the police have told her as much, and the doctors have explained in no uncertain terms just how lucky she is.

   The key question of ‘why’ remains. Why her? She never met Parry, so he couldn’t possibly have passed anything on to her. It is possible, of course, that the people who tried to kill her did not know that; it is also possible that word has got around that she is working for the FBI and if so, the question remains; why target her? She is nobody of any importance and as an FBI grunt or foot soldier, she has little clout. It is only people like Rogers who really carry any weight.

   She is also feeling guilty about deceiving Naomi. Alex is profoundly grateful for everything she has done since her attack, and it really is the height of kindness to invite her into her home. She feels she should confess what her real purpose is in coming to Liverpool and who she is working for. After all, she thought with a shrug, if it really is me that is attracting all this attention, Naomi should have the opportunity of backing out.

   Her train of thought is interrupted by Naomi entering the room.

   ‘Ready to go,’ she smiles.

   ‘Can’t wait.’ Alex returns her smile. ‘Are you Ok to walk?’ Naomi looks concerned. ‘’We can grab a cab outside.’

   ‘Yeah, I think I’ve got my strength back. Let’s Go.’

When they get to Naomi’s apartment, Naomi shows her the spare room with a single bed, a desk and a wardrobe. ‘It’s only small,’ she looks at Alex apologetically.

   ‘It’s great, it really is. I honestly can’t thank you enough. You have been so kind.’

   ‘I’ll make coffee.’ Naomi heads for the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, Alex emerges from her room, smiles at Naomi: ‘It’s a lovely room. It’s real cosy.’

   Naomi is putting her coat on: ‘I’m afraid I have to go out very soon. I have a psychic session in a local pub. I’m going to be out for around three hours or so. Will you be OK?

   ‘Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ll watch the news or something and have a snooze. It’ll be a pleasure to be away from all the hospital hubbub. As she speaks the intercom buzzes. There is a muttered conversation as Naomi opens the door and Sid the Fixer walks in giving Alex a toothy grin.

   ‘Hiya luv. You must be Alex unless you’re one of Naomi’s spirits’ He shakes his head. ‘Got a bit of a throat on me this morning. Got proper bevvied last night. Me bruvs birthday,’ he says by way of explanation.  

   Naomi frowns at him. ‘It’s not funny. She could have died a couple of days ago. Somebody tried to kill her.’

   The smile disappears from Sid’s face: ‘You’re joking hun?’

   ‘Fraid not Sid.’

   ‘Listen you guys, you think you need somebody to ride shotgun, you ring me – day or night. OK?’

   ‘Thank you, Sid, you’re a real gem’ Naomi goes over and gives him a hug and a peck on the cheek.

   She turns to Alex: ‘We’ll be on our way now. Lock the door with the mortice and don’t answer it to anybody, whoever they are, whatever they say.’ She hands her a mortice key.

   Alex takes the key. ‘I think I’ll have a read and an early night. Thanks again Naomi. Hope tonight goes well.

   ‘Oh, I daresay it will be the usual; some sad, some thinking it will be a bit of fun and some just plain lonely. See you later.’

   After they leave, Alex locks the door and walks over to look out of the window. The rush hour is just beginning; people on their way home, bent over with their collars up to give some protection against the biting October wind. Alex studies the street carefully. There is no sign of watchers, but Alex knows that anyone determined enough and resourceful enough would not be seen.

   She sighs, turns away and decides it’s time to ring Rogers. She keys in Rogers’ mobile number, and it is answered almost immediately. Before she can say anything, he asks where she is. ‘I’m in Naomi’s apartment. She is letting me use her spare room for a while.’

   ‘I’ll be right round. I’ve just arrived in Liverpool. Give me the address.’ Alex does so. Fifteen minutes later, the intercom sounds. She buzzes him into the building and then unlocks the apartment door. He strides in and gives her a hard stare.

   ‘Tell me,’ he instructs, sitting down. Alex shrugs: ‘It was a walk-by injection on the street. I couldn’t have seen it coming. There were a lot of people on the sidewalk and somebody bumped into me. Next thing, everything went black. A leather strip on my sleeve saved me, I’m told, otherwise I’d be toast but I was still in hospital for a couple of days.’

   There is a short silence and then: ‘You made headlines even down in London. Fortunately, the agency wasn’t mentioned. The cops have done well to keep your name out of it.’

   ‘So far. But I wouldn’t bet on that continuing. Nobody knows I work for you. As far as anyone is concerned, I am from HAARP. I have the ID to prove it remember. And by the way, I want you out of here before Naomi gets back. She is going to be out for a couple of hours or so.’ Rogers just nods and grimaces: ‘You should never have let yourself be exposed to that kind of attack.’

   ‘There was nothing I could have done to prevent it, Rogers,’ Alex protests indignantly. ‘I almost get killed and all you can do is kick my ass. Do have any humanity in you at all?’ Rogers ignores that.

   Finally, he glares at her: ‘Look, you are supposed to be a pro for chrissake. You are not supposed to make it easy for somebody to take you out. You are not here to play happy families. You are here to do a job and it’s about time you remembered that. Like I said you’re a pro. Use your tradecraft. Watch your back at all times. Don’t take anything or anybody for granted. And that includes this Naomi Richards. Play her. Become her sister confessor. Find out what makes her tick because that is the key to finding these files. The sooner they are found and handed back to HAARP the sooner we can all sleep easy in our beds’

   ‘Well I would hate to think of your sleep being disturbed,’ Alex replies dryly staring sullenly at the floor. She is smarting from her ticking off and Rogers’ apparent ruthlessness. She also wonders whether his motives are entirely aimed at recovering the files or does he have another agenda? She doesn’t trust him, and she doesn’t agree with his assessment of Naomi.

   ‘There is something else you might also like to consider,’ he is saying. ‘Has it occurred to you that you may have been mistaken for her?’ He looks at her and raises his eyebrows questioningly. ‘It hasn’t has it?’ Alex shakes her head. ‘Well, think about it now. You have both been seen together, here, on the streets. Anybody could have seen you but not known which one of you is Naomi. You agree?’ Alex nods again. There is no denying Rogers’ logic. ‘Well, that could be useful to us. It could lead us to the files. Let me tell you these people who tried to waste you are not just going to give up. Those files must be somewhere here in Liverpool. If she don’t know where then somebody else does.’

   He leans back in his chair and puts his feet on the coffee table. Alex stares at them, affronted. He gives a little snort, a half smile on his face. ‘Stay with her. Be her best friend. You’re doing good work. When this is all over I will recommend you for promotion to the bureau chief, over here too if you like.’ Alex stares at him in disbelief. It’s the stick and the carrot, she thinks, but simply thanks him.

Rogers stands and stretches. I have to get back to London. I have a meeting with British Special Branch very soon.

    ‘Who are they?’ she asks. ‘British spooks’ he says, walking to the door.

   ‘Did you come up here just to see me?’ Alex asks finally. ‘Sure,’ he replies. ‘Why not. We look after our people.’

   As he walks out, he turns. ‘Watch your back at all times and call me if you have problems. OK?’

   ‘OK,’ replies Alex bewildered.

Chapter Four

Walk a Crooked Road


A Chinese watcher

Day 6

I wake up this morning yawning. I didn’t sleep well at all last night to which you will no doubt say that it is hardly surprising and that my conscience must be troubling me, but you would be wrong. It is not. I do not think about Graeme or his girlfriend. They deserved what was coming to them and they are history. But I am curious, I suppose, about what happened during the police investigation. I assume there was one. There would certainly have been a post-mortem, of course, and I would be interested in what the report on my ‘death’ had to say. I must go online and find out. It is almost certain to have been in the papers.

   No, that was not the reason for my insomnia. Curiously, I found my mind churning images of Chinese students staring at me with unblinking eyes, all mixed up with ‘Mr Hostility.’ Why does that guy bug me so much? What is going on with the students? Why were they all staring at me? Is it all in my imagination?

   While I think about it, you must be wondering about the hat pin concealed down my trousers. I must admit I don’t always include it on my anatomy, but then I don’t always wear trousers. It really stems from a previous life in Ireland before I joined academia when I mixed with people of a violent nature. More about that later. Anyhow, I quickly learned how to protect myself and, I can assure you that I earned a reputation of someone not to be messed with. The hat pin was ideal. It was easy to conceal and quite deadly when used carefully in the right places. And I can guarantee you that I know exactly where those places are.

    And now, although I live a completely different and theoretically safer life, I have taken to including it again because there are so many attacks on women on the streets of the UK these days. Have you noticed how many murders of women there are? It is truly shocking. We are not safe on the streets.

   Anyway, I am having a day off and have only recently discovered that Liverpool has a Tate on the waterfront in an old sugar warehouse. I was always quite good at art at school and my art teacher in Cork, which is where I grew up, at one time thought I might take it up seriously. But the beauty of mathematics has always been my first love, and at best, art would only ever have been a hobby.

   There are two exhibitions on now that are a must. The first is a Lucian Freud show, a slightly controversial British painter known for his portraits. I like controversial. It’s my middle name. I remember reading how he was a deeply private man who painted the people closest to him. What I always liked about his stuff was his ability to capture the mood and inner essence of his sitters. 

   The second, by complete contrast, is a gallery devoted to Emily Speed, a Scot, who explores how a person is shaped by the buildings they have occupied and how they occupy their own psychological spaces. It all stacks up to a really cool day in which I can forget all about university but not, perhaps, the Chinese. Let me explain why.

   I was leaving my apartment building at The Print Works on Henry Street in the Ropewalks this morning, ready to walk down to the waterfront. I stood at the doorway yawning hugely and blearily when I noticed a figure draped casually around a lamppost almost opposite. At first, I paid it no attention. The city centre is full of dropouts and rough sleepers, so it was no surprise to see people hanging about.

   I had decided to go for a coffee. I needed a good slug of caffeine before I did anything else and so I set off and then stopped and stared at the figure more closely. He was obviously not a rough sleeper or a drop out and, and more ominously perhaps, he was Chinese. Why would a Chinese person be perched on a lamppost studying my apartment building? I decided to go and ask him, so I dodged a couple of cars to cross over the road but when I reached the other side he had vanished.

   Was he really watching me? If so, why? Is it because I’m Irish? I know the Troubles cast a long shadow, especially here in Liverpool where there is a tradition of Irish emigres. Or am I just becoming neurotic and imagining things. Maybe it is my subconscious acting up and I don’t realise it. The students are probably just curious and nothing more and Mr Darke is no doubt just an embittered middle-aged lecturer who is going nowhere. I have met the type many times before.

   I sit at a table in my local coffee shop and sigh as I spread marmalade on a teacake and sip a large latte as I stare sightlessly out of the window idly people watching. My reverie is gradually broken as I am aware of someone standing at my table talking to me. It is a man, probably in his early twenties. I stare at him blankly hoping he is just on the scrounge and will go away when he gets no response. He stands there and stares at me. I realise he has stopped speaking.

   I realise he is not on the scrounge and sit up and apologise, saying I was miles away. He treats me to a lobsided grin and announces he is Joe Halsall and a post graduate student at Liverpool uni. He is saying he enjoyed my lecture on an introduction into Forensic Psychology and intends to do a Masters in the next semester.

   I look him over and smile. He is what my mum would have called scruffy, with a half-beard, uncared for and straggly, wild, uncombed black hair and an old pair of worn jeans that could not be confused with the designer variety worn by the smart set that have ready-made holes. Joe’s is undoubtedly the real deal. His most striking feature is startling blue eyes that are studying me curiously.

   I invite him to sit and ask him what his original subject was, and he replies that it was biochemistry and that he worked in the industry for a while but hated it and returned and did a degree in psychology which he enjoyed. I said that biochemistry could be useful in forensic psychology.

   ‘I had to get out of the corporate rat race,’ he explains. ‘They don’t like you if you don’t fit into their idea of what you should think, wear, or behave.’ He shrugs. ‘I got pissed off wearing a suit and a tie and all that bollocks.’

   ‘So I see,’ I say, smiling, noting that he evidently reverted to a student ‘uniform’ as soon as he possibly could.

   ‘Who the fuck wants to sacrifice their lives climbing a ladder to nowhere. To be successful, you must be a really good rat in some corporate race or other for maybe thirty years of your life, dreading Mondays, keeping up with the Jones’s and all that crap.’

   I burst out laughing. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m a lecturer,’ I say. ‘But this can be a rat race too, just a different kind of rat race. Maybe everything is in the end. Targets are everywhere, even in universities. Perhaps the only way of escaping it is to live in a cave and become a hermit.’

   It’s his turn to laugh. ‘I have a friend called Naomi who has the right idea. She’s an artist…among other things,’ he adds almost as an afterthought. She is on her way here. You’ll like her. She’s really cool.’

   I am intrigued by the ‘among other things’ which opens up a vista of possibilities. I look at the street beyond the window to see if there are any Chinese students lurking, or anyone else for that matter. There is nobody, just cars and vans passing by. I am about to stand and announce that I am on my way to the Tate when I notice a striking, slender, woman obviously heading for the door. Could this be Joe’s friend Naomi?She is tall with casual, shoulder-length blonde hair wearing a denim jacket, bright red jacket and brown boots.

   ‘Could this be your friend?’ I ask Joe, who turns and waves. She heads for our table and looks at me curiously with two brown eyes that have a strange, magnetic, quality.

   ‘This is Naomi,’ says Joe and then, before he can continue, she asks: ‘You must be Maggie Taylor.’ I nod, a little bemused.

   ‘Somebody stopped me outside and asked if I would give you this.’ She digs into a pocket and hands me a folded sheet of paper.

   ‘Was he Chinese?’ I ask. She gives me a searching look and says: ‘Don’t think so. Could be a student. I’m not sure.’

   I open it. There is just one line of text which says: ‘We know who you really are.’

Chapter Three

Walk a Crooked Road

Day 2 – Later

Rathmines Garda Station, Dublin

Inspector Paddy McNeil stared at the sea of faces outside the police station. He knew the local lads but there were others he had never seen before. Word has got around that this is not some ordinary house fire and that there is more to it than the Garda are letting on to.

   They are right but he has a prepared statement and he is going to stick to it.

   He tells them that he will read a statement and that he will not be answering any questions.

‘Thank you all for coming. As I’m sure you know there was an explosion at house at Harold’s Cross Road in this neighbourhood yesterday. There has been speculation that it may have been a terrorist-related incident. I can categorically say that terrorism has been ruled out and that the explosion was gas related.’

   He pauses.

   ‘I can tell you that two bodies have been found in the house, one male and one female and that we are conducting enquiries to establish their identities. Neighbouring properties escaped the effects of the blast and there were no further casualties. That is all I am able to tell you for now. Thank you.

   And with that, as reporters shout out questions, he turns and walks back into the station.


University of Liverpool, Peach Street

Day 5

It has been a heavy day. We have been preparing for graduations and adjudicating on exam re-sits for our second-year students. It will be the first graduations since 2019 because of the pandemic. It’s 5.30pm and I badly need a drink, so I decide to go to a pub on Catharine Street I discovered a couple of weeks ago, not long after the pubs re-opened fully. It’s just a short walk away and it’s a warm, pleasant evening. I tried to persuade one or two of my colleagues to join me, but nobody is free for an hour or two now. I didn’t even bother to ask ‘Mr Hostility’ who appears to have it in for me. His name is Harold Darke by the way. Darke by name and Darke by nature! I seem to recall a composer by that name from my days in a church choir. I was a useful alto then and it’s something I miss.

   Anyway, maybe Mr Darke has a problem with women, especially the attractive, intelligent variety which I flatter myself I am one of. It’s something I encountered in Dublin too. You really wouldn’t expect that in academia, would you? Or would you?

   There is something else that I find a bit odd too. Ever since I arrived, I could not help noticing Chinese students forming little huddles as soon as it became legal to meet more than six people again. There is nothing ominous in students getting together, of course. But as I walked towards them, they all glanced at me furtively and their conversation ceased. When I walked past them, I turned around and they were all staring at me. I thought at the time it was just a case of sizing up the new lecturer. Now I’m not so sure.

   I reach the Blackburne Arms and order a pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps. I like this place. It’s relaxing with a pleasing mix of academics and locals. I think back to getting my job so quickly. I guess I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. It seems a senior mathematics lecturer had died suddenly, leaving the faculty with a problem at a tough time. I was a gift from heaven and with my double First from Oxford as a calling card I think they would have taken me on even if there hadn’t been a vacancy. Did I mention my double First before? Possibly not. I occasionally suffer from an outbreak of modesty.

   I have never understood why anybody has difficulty with maths. It was something that always came naturally to me. They called me a genius when I was a little girl; I never really understood why because what I did was about as difficult as breathing. I was accepted into Oriel College when I was 14.

   I stare in the mirror behind the bar. I have a long, expressive face with a slightly upturned nose. It’s an attractive face, I think. I know men, and sometimes women too, also find it attractive. At least I no longer feel like a freak which I did until I got to Oxford. I hated my childhood. I was always alone, and I hated my parents too who I blamed for treating me like something from The Village of the Damned. They both died within days of each other when I was doing a post-grad teaching degree. I only went to their funeral because I was obliged to. I didn’t shed a tear and I left as soon as I could. I know my relatives were whispering about me and giving me furtive glances all the way through it, but I just didn’t care.

   I glance around the pub and spot a few people from college I have a nodding acquaintance with. We wave to each other and smile. One leaves a small group in the corner and sits next to me. She is also clutching a pint of Guinness. I know her name is Emma and that she teaches art at the city college at the end of the road.

   She asks how I am settling in. I nod sagely and say that I am finding my way around and that the only fly in the ointment is ‘Mr Hostility’ who seems to dislike me for no good reason.

   She asks if he is middle-aged and inclined to leer at females. I think about it, and she is probably right. He is. I did catch him once ogling my legs. She nods wisely and says that there is always one in every department. I ask if they ration them out and we both burst out laughing. She tells me not to be freaked out by him. I assure her that I am not about to be freaked out by anybody.

   I ask her if there are many Chinese students at her college. She shakes her head and says just a few and that it’s well known that they tend to target universities that teach the ‘hard’ subjects like maths and the sciences. She asks what my subjects are, and I tell her. She says that top universities like Liverpool increasingly depend on the Chinese for the fees they bring in.

   She says she must go and meet a boyfriend she is about to dump. I grin and wish her the best of luck. She is my kind of person. I like her candour. We agree to meet for a chat and drinks the day after tomorrow.

   I order another pint and sit at the bar lost in my thoughts. I suddenly notice that somebody has sat on the bar stool next to me. It is a man, middle-aged, thinning hair wearing a loose smile.

   ‘Not seen you before,’ he says brightly. I stare at him. Overweight, unfit, probably married and on the make. I have seen his type in bars all over the world. I call them barflies because they need to be swatted to persuade them to go away.

   ‘Can I buy you a drink,’ he says, moving closer.

   ‘Sure. A Jameson. A large one.’

   He orders it as well as a large whisky for himself. The drinks arrive and we sip.

   ‘Do you live around here?’ he asks hopefully.

   ‘I do yes,’ I say sweetly. ‘What about you?’

   ‘Oh, I’m in the suburbs. Are you new to Liverpool? From Ireland obviously. You must work around here. You can’t be a student,’ he says emphatically.

   ‘Why not?’

   ‘Well, you’re too…….’ He was obviously going to say old but thinks better of it.

   ‘Too well dressed,’ he ends up saying.

   I am beginning to tire of this chat-up nonsense. I down my Jameson and am about to stand up when he grabs me by the arm.

   ‘Why don’t we go to your apartment,’ he breathes in my ear.

   I extract a foot-long hatpin out of the side of my trousers where it is concealed in a hidden pocket. I look into his eyes as I slowly position it between his legs.

   ‘Why don’t you take a look down there,’ I say softly, nodding towards his crotch, my mouth wide open enticingly. He looks down and the smile melts from his face. He stares at me, disconcerted, and looks down again.

   ‘Unless you get up and walk out right now,’ I breathe into his ear: ‘that pin is going to pierce your cock and carry on going until it emerges from your arse. You won’t be the same man afterwards, I guarantee.’

   He stares at me, looks down at his crotch and goes pale, then the puzzlement gives way to uncertainty. He looks around the pub and just for a moment I get the feeling he might create a scene. I shake my head. ‘Don’t even think it,’ I murmur in his ear. He stands up and walks out without even a backwards glance.

   I wait a few minutes after replacing the hatpin, glance around the bar. One or two people give me a sympathetic glance. I smile briefly and walk out slowly.

   I am looking forward to seeing Emma again.

The next chapter will be published here on Monday, May 16.