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It wasnt the first dead body that hed ever seen, and Jack Nightingale was fairly sure it wouldnt be the last. The woman looked as if she was in her late thirties but Nightingale knew she was only thirty-one. She had curly brown hair, neatly plucked eyebrows and pale pink lipstick, and her neck was at a funny angle, which suggested that the washing line around her neck had done more than just strangle her when shed dropped down the stairwell. She was wearing a purple dress with a black leather belt. One of her shoes had fallen off and was lying at the bottom of the stairs, the other dangled precariously from her left foot. A stream of urine had trickled down her legs and pooled on the stair carpet, turning the rust-coloured pile a dark brown. Death was always accompanied by the evacuation of bowels, Nightingale knew. It was one of the unwritten rules. You died and your bowels opened as surely as night followed day.

He stood looking up at the woman. Her name was Constance Miller and it was the first time he had ever laid eyes on her. From the look of it shed stood at the top of the stairs, looped a piece of washing line around her neck and tied the other end around the banister, then dropped over, probably head first. The momentum had almost certainly broken her neck and she probably hadnt felt much pain, but even so it couldnt have been a pleasant way to go.

Nightingale took out his pack of Marlboro and a blue disposable lighter. Dont mind if I smoke, do you? He tapped out a cigarette and slipped it between his lips. You look like a smoker, Constance. And I saw the ashtray on the kitchen table so Im guessing this isnt a non-smoking house.

He flicked the lighter, lit the cigarette and inhaled. As he blew a loose smoke ring down at the stained carpet, the womans arms twitched and her eyes opened. Nightingale froze, the cigarette halfway to his mouth.

The womans arms flailed, her legs trembled and she began to make a wheezing sound through clenched teeth. Suddenly her eyes opened wide. Your sister is going to Hell, Jack Nightingale, she said, her voice a strangled rasp. Then her eyes closed and her body went still.

Nightingale cursed and ran to the kitchen. The back door was open the way hed left it. Next to the sink was a pinewood block with half a dozen plastic-handled knives embedded in it. He stubbed out his cigarette, took one of the biggest knives and ran back to the hall. He took the stairs two at a time until he was level with her then he reached over and grabbed her around the waist. He grunted as he hefted her against his shoulder and climbed up the stairs to take the weight off the washing line. He held her tight with his left arm as he sawed at the line with the knife. It took half a dozen goes before it parted and her head slumped over his shoulder.

She was the wrong side of the banister and he couldnt pull her over so he let her weight carry him down the stairs until her feet were touching the floor, then he lowered her as best he could before letting go. She fell against the wall and slid down it, her hair fanning out as the back of her head scraped across the wallpaper. Nightingale hurried around the bottom of the stairs just as the woman fell face down on the carpet. He rolled her over and felt for a pulse in her neck with his left hand, but there was nothing. He sat back on his heels, gasping for breath. Her skirt had ridden up her thighs, revealing her soiled underwear, and Nightingale pulled it down.

Get away from her! bellowed a voice behind him.

As he turned he saw a burly uniformed police sergeant wearing a stab vest and pointing a finger at him. Just behind him was a younger PC, tall and thin and holding an extended tactical baton in his gloved hand.

Drop the knife! shouted the sergeant, fumbling for his baton in its nylon holster on his belt.

Nightingale stared at the knife in his right hand. He turned back to look at the cops but before he could open his mouth to speak the young PCs baton crashed against his head and Nightingale slumped to the floor, unconscious before he hit the carpet.

Stephen Leather Midnight | Midnight | c