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Excerpt for Betrayal of Innocence by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Betrayal of

Innocence

New Star Elite Series – Book 1


by


REBECCA KING




BETRAYAL OF INNOCENCE

By

Rebecca King

© Rebecca King 2018

SMASHWORDS EDITION



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

STAR ELITE – A NEW ADVENTURE BEGINS

DOUBLE ENTENDRE

MARLEY’S SECOND CHANCE

OTHER BOOKS BY REBECCA KING


CHAPTER ONE

Justin sighed and stared hard at the ceiling while he puffed out his cheeks and made popping noises with his mouth. To give himself something to do, he tilted precariously on the back legs of the spindle chair he sat on and tried to balance himself at an awkward angle for longer and longer periods of time in a demi-game of skill.

The rhythmic squeak the chair made was irritating enough to make his good friend and colleague, Angus, glare balefully at him.

“Do you not have anything else to do with your time?” Angus growled, blithely ignoring the fact that the only activity to challenge his own day was reading the same broadsheet for the third time while pretending to be interested.

“I am bored,” Justin grumbled. “Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored. I need something to do with my time.”

“I confess, when I joined the Star Elite I expected life to be a bit busier than this,” Aaron admitted from his perch in the corner of the room. He peeked out from beneath is own broadsheet and yawned widely as he looked askance at his colleagues, seeking their agreement.

Phillip prised one eye open and peered at the men lounged casually at various points around the large square study. “Can I remind you that we are having a break before we start our next job? We only completed the last investigation a few hours ago, and already you are bored. We need to rest. Boss’s orders.”

“We had a rest,” Jasper replied sharply. “Last night. Before we all left our beds at dawn to arrest the bounders. Why do we need to rest some more already?”

“Because we have been busy lately,” Angus reasoned. “Really busy, as a matter of fact.”

Aaron nodded. “Too busy.”

“So, we are supposed to go from running around like headless chickens after criminals only to then stop and lounge around like toffs at White’s,” Jasper snorted. His tone left his colleagues in no doubt as to what he thought about toffs at White’s.

The derogatory term ‘toff’ was frequently used to describe the wealthy members of aristocracy who frequented the exclusive gentleman’s club. Today, Jasper’s use of it drew Angus’s frown.

“I would caution you to be careful, friend. Our boss is one of those toffs, and so is Simon Andrews. You won’t curry any favours if they hear you and take offense,” Angus chided. “Just enjoy this time to yourself and stop complaining.”

Justin smiled at Jasper and began to rock in his seat again. There was little he could do about the unease that refused to allow him to relax and enjoy the quietude like he was supposed to. He was on edge, restless, as though something was missing in his life.

Something is missing from my life, he thought with a disgruntled sigh. I need something to do.

Suddenly, the door opened. Sir Hugo, their boss, and two of their colleagues who had just returned from delivering several newly arrested prisoners to gaol, entered the room. The men tensed as they watched Sir Hugo, grim faced, take up position in front of the fireplace and turn to face them. They all knew from the look on his face that the news he had to impart was not good.

“What is it?” Justin prompted, eager to carry out whatever task Sir Hugo asked of him, if only so he could get out of the room for a while.

If there was one thing he hated more than anything it was being confined for too long. The longest period he usually spent indoors was when he was asleep, otherwise he preferred to be out in the open air. It was one of the pitfalls of taking a job with the Star Elite. The confined, often cramped city streets could be claustrophobic sometimes; suffocating with the stench of too many people and not enough fresh air. Still, it was a job, and it kept him busy – most of the time.

“We have had a request from the magistrate in Leicestershire, a Mr Weeks,” Sir Hugo announced to the deathly silence. When nobody moved or spoke, he looked at each man in turn.

Each member of the Star Elite before him was different in stature, looks, age, and experience. He knew this new group of men who made up some of the Star Elite had proven their worth on more than one occasion over the last several months. Even so, on the investigation he was about to send them on they were going to need all their investigative experience and then some to succeed.

“There have been several disappearances over the last few weeks,” he announced solemnly. He opened the parchment in his hand, and read the note from Montague Weeks, the magistrate for Leicestershire, to the men. “These are kidnappings, we think, rather than murders. So far, four young girls have gone missing and one boy. They have all disappeared from within a fifteen-mile radius of the same stretch of the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border, near a place called Brecester. The magistrate is completely lost to know how to handle it. His men have gotten nowhere in their investigation and, according to Weeks, have managed to upset the locals more than find the culprit. Weeks considers he needs a gentler hand at the tiller as it were. It would help if someone not familiar with the villagers were to investigate this.”

“Undercover?” Justin asked, his mind racing in several different directions at once.

Sir Hugo pursed his lips. “If necessary, but it isn’t essential to begin with. I think it might get the villagers talking if someone from London were to investigate.” He held his hand up when several of the men looked about to protest. “I know what you are going to say. The locals are more likely to want to talk to someone, well, local. However, Weeks has made it clear the locals are anxious and wary. They don’t seem to have much faith in him now and refuse to speak in case they draw attention to themselves. There is a lot of suspicion, I am afraid. It is what can sometimes happen in places like this. The magistrate’s men have done little to help placate the locals seeing as more disappearances have taken place while they have been investigating.”

“What has the magistrate’s men found out so far?” Callum asked in his usual quiet manner.

“Nothing,” Sir Hugo replied flatly. “Not a damned thing. Nobody has seen anything, heard anything, or been anywhere nearby when the young girls have vanished. Nobody has found any trace of a struggle, heard any argument, or screams, or noticed anything unusual about the girls’ behaviour before they vanished.”

“They simply disappeared off the face of the earth?” Oliver asked, his brows lifted in astonishment. He shook his head, totally disbelieving of it. “There has to be something.”

“I know,” Sir Hugo replied with a knowing nod. “It is up to you to find it. I don’t care whether it is a broken twig out of place on a tree, or a tiny scrap of an apron string. Find it. I want whoever is snatching girls off the streets found, and quickly.”

“The four – five – who have vanished are all from the same village? Do they have any family link?” Oliver demanded.

“As far as I am aware there is no family link. Two are from different villages in Derbyshire. Two others are from the same village in Leicestershire - Brecester. The boy is from the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border; a place called Umperley, I believe,” Sir Hugo replied having read the place name from Weeks’ letter.

“Do we have descriptions?” Angus asked with a heavy scowl.

“Yes, but weeks will give you more information on all of that,” Sir Hugo replied. He took to pacing before the fireplace, anxiety evident in the stiff set of his shoulders and heavy tread on the floor.

“Do you think this may be murder?” Justin asked as he studied his boss’s unusually tense features.

“As good as,” Sir Hugo replied briskly. He shook his head and sighed. “I have a daughter not much younger than the oldest victim. It strikes home.”

“How old are they?” Justin asked. “The victims, I mean.”

He knew Sir Hugo had six children in all, and thought they were all in their teens or early twenties now.

“The oldest is four and twenty, the youngest eleven,” Sir Hugo reported. “The victims, that is.”

“That’s a huge age gap,” Oliver murmured thoughtfully. “I wonder why the ages are so random?”

“When you are rested, I want you all off to Leicestershire. Go and see Weeks. He will give you more information on who has vanished, when, what they were doing when they were snatched, and give you more details of what his men have done so far. As far as I know, his men have not got anything much to go on, so it would be best for you to start afresh. Do whatever you need to do. Just get this kidnapper caught. I want to know where those young people are and get them returned to their families as quickly as possible,” Sir Hugo ordered briskly. His face turned dour. “Dead or alive.”

“Yes sir,” Jasper replied as he rose out of his seat.

Sir Hugo suddenly stopped pacing and looked at his men. “I don’t want to interrupt your rest period, but the faster you can get moving on this the better. If this is kidnap and not murder, we don’t want this kidnapper moving his victims too far away from home.”

“When did the first victim get taken?” Angus asked as he watched Jasper, Oliver, and Niall prepare themselves to leave.

“That’s just it,” Sir Hugo replied darkly. “They have all been taken over the last ten days. I don’t want many more disappearing, understand?”

Aaron ran a hand down his face and looked at his boss. “Are we all to go?”

“Everyone. I want every man available on this case,” Sir Hugo replied sternly.

“I thought we were the only ones available,” Oliver replied dryly.

“You are. So, get going,” Sir Hugo said with a small smile.

Angus rolled his eyes and followed his colleagues toward the door.

“I want reports as soon as you get there. Keep me updated on this one. I will have men on standby in Derbyshire if you need them. They are busy with the burglary case going on in the big houses up there and are about to catch their culprit. It might take them a few days to get to you if you need them, so you are mostly on your own in this. I would send them, but there isn’t the time to waste.”

Minutes later, Sir Hugo stood in the yard at the back of the house, and watched his men mount their horses. He was a little surprised that they didn’t argue about leaving but was pleased they understood the urgency of the case.

“Do you think you should get Barnaby to oversee this?” Simon Andrews, his right-hand man, murmured when he came to stand at his elbow.

Sir Hugo shook his head. “They don’t need it. They know what they are doing. Look how swiftly they caught those muggers. There is a credible leader in Justin. I don’t doubt he will take the lead on this. Besides, Barnaby is up to his knees with the new baby and the burglary case. He doesn’t have the time spare to help with this investigation.”

“You think it is a local, don’t you?” Simon murmured.

“Local to Leicestershire or Derbyshire, most probably. However, you know from Sayers just how wide some networks can go. We can’t become complacent and rule anything out until we have more facts. These young girls could have been snatched for slave labour, depravation, have been targeted by a killer, or are being held captive for a ransom for some strange reason.”

“Are they from wealthy families?” Simon murmured as he watched the last of the men ride out of the compound.

“I have no idea,” Sir Hugo sighed. “I just know that it is highly unusual for the hierarchy in our organisation to get involved in anything like this, and odd for a man like Weeks to request assistance in this way. I don’t like it, Simon. I don’t like it one bit.”

Simon looked sharply at his boss, but Sir Hugo was already mounting his own horse. Simon looked at the gates of the yard for a moment or two before, with a growing sense of impending doom, went to find his own horse.


“Will you slow down?” the young man chided gently, his eyes alight with mirth.

When the young girl darting in and out of the trees grinned cheekily at him, his smile widened in spite of himself. He shook his head in disbelief. He knew she was going to fall over at some point, but for the life of him couldn’t find the will to deny her the moment to enjoy herself. Not when she looked at him like that, with her eyes alight with an intimately knowing look that stirred up intimate memories. They brought forth a shiver from within him that made him want to venture closer and hold her hand again. Quickly glancing around to make sure they were still alone, he carefully stepped closer. He sighed impatiently when he found the tree Felicity had been standing behind completely empty.

“Where are you?” he called, his voice hushed for fear of discovery.

Silence greeted him. Sighing again, he began to look for her, and swiftly spotted the brilliant blue hue of her skirt peeking teasingly from behind a tree. He tip-toed toward her. When the material vanished, he lunged forward.

“There you are,” he cried only to stare in disbelief when he saw the space behind that tree empty too. “Where are you?”

“Here,” Felicity cried teasingly from a tree only a few feet away. She promptly vanished again, her laughter tinkling merrily around the empty woods.

“No. Here,” she called again from a different tree a few feet further away.

“Don’t go too far,” he snapped, frowning a little when he realised just how staid and boring he sounded even to his own ears. Throwing back his shoulders, he decided that if he couldn’t catch her he could at least join her. Tiptoeing toward the tree behind which she had once stood, he paused and waited. This time, he didn’t call out to her, but let the silence fall instead. He waited. One moment passed, then two, then three.

“Where are you?” Felicity called tentatively.

He smiled and followed the sound of her voice. Darting quickly through the dense vegetation, he shifted from one tree to the next, creeping gradually closer until he circled around her. Closer and closer he drew until he could see her hiding behind a thick tree-trunk. Slowly, he stepped toward her, careful not to disturb any twigs or branches underfoot. When he was right behind her, he leaned forward and blew gently on her ear. She squealed and ducked away from his outstretched arms. He dived after her, his husky chuckle echoing her infectious squeal of delight.

They chased around the woods until they struggled for breath. Eventually, when they grew bored with their chase they subsided on a small knoll overlooking the small village of Lunville.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she breathed as they studied the dusky haze enveloping the sleepy valley before them.

He didn’t reply. He wasn’t interested in the buildings over which stood the tall tower of the old Norman church. Without removing his gaze from the delicate curve of her pale cheek, he nodded.

When he didn’t speak, Felicity looked at him. Her cheeks blushed when she saw the predatory look in his eye. There was something in his smile this time that elicited a shiver down her spine. Boldly, she brushed aside the small ripple of unease it brought with it. Instead, she smiled at him, a small knowing curve of her lips that was boldly daring.

“I really must go,” she whispered, even though her gaze fell to his mouth with rampant curiosity he knew he would satisfy before he released her.

“I know,” he replied quietly. “In just a few minutes, though.”

Felicity thought she knew why.

The only sound to break the silence between them was her heady sigh as she was slowly lowered into the lush grass.


Ten minutes later, he rose and stared down at the woman at his feet. With her eyes closed she looked like a porcelain doll. He had seen one once, in a shop window in the posh end of town. The pale cheeks of the lifeless doll had looked very much like the young woman whose body was equally as lifeless - now. He clenched his fists; a small frown on his face. Deep inside, a shiver of something distinctly alarming swept through him, but he refused to look at it. He couldn’t. It was too worrisome and made him feel bad.

With a shake of his shoulders he studied the area carefully but knew they were alone. The hour was late given nightfall was almost upon them. Nobody was going to be out on a cold, foggy night like this. The village now stood in shadow, lit only by the gentle glow of candlelight from a few un-shuttered windows. It was doubtful anybody would have seen them, high atop the knoll. If they had happened to glance out of their windows they would see nothing untoward. He had made sure of that when he had chosen the spot.

With one last look at the body at his feet, he tugged the collar of his jacket up and slowly ambled away. He would come back of course, but he had more work to do before the night was over. Like a wraith in the moonlight, he slid back into the woods which had once housed a warm afternoon of teasing joy, but now stood a haunting echo of what once was. It would never hear the infectious laughter of joyous youth or house an afternoon of frolics between two carefree lovers. Not once the villagers heard of the murder. The woods neighbouring their homes would swiftly gain a reputation for being haunted. Nobody would venture near unless they absolutely had to.

“Well, I have to,” he murmured quietly.

He paused when he heard quiet rustling in the undergrowth a few feet away. Fingers clenching, he scowled and remained perfectly still while he waited. Suddenly, a rabbit hopped out from between the trees. It paused in the middle of the path before him, sniffed the air and waited. Man studied animal. Animal studied man. The rabbit lifted its nose, as if to scent the air. Whatever it scented in him, with a twitch of its tail it scuttled off.

Heaving a sigh, the man watched it disappear before he resumed his journey. It was impossible to go home just yet. Not least because he had to do something with the girl. It was a shame she had had to go. While he had enjoyed the afternoon with her, that laughter of hers had started to grate on his nerves. She had swiftly become irritating, and while he had liked the way she had looked at him, there was something deep within him; an inner voice of menace, that had taunted him, urging him over and over to stop her annoying habit of avoiding him. He hated that. He didn’t like it when people avoided him. He hated it. He hated them.

When the world around him started to fade and become overwhelmed by darkness again, the man glanced about him, his gaunt features fearful. As usual, he felt the same disturbing darkness settle over him, despite his best efforts to keep it away. It was so fetid, so stench-filled that he couldn’t stand it but was helpless to deny anything it demanded of him. He was its servant, it was a simple as that. It was the voice, the horrible feelings that resurfaced that made him do it. It wasn’t him. He knew it wasn’t. It couldn’t be him. He couldn’t ever be so vile; so inhumane as to take another person’s life. It was the voice.

“It’s the voices,” he whispered aloud, as if saying the words would confirm it.

He looked down at his hands and clenched his fists again when he saw how much they trembled. They didn’t feel like his hands anymore. But they were. He just didn’t know what they did, or why. Taking her life had been something he truly hadn’t wanted to do, but he knew he had to. They wouldn’t leave him alone if he hadn’t killed her, just like they had told him to. He knew that for a fact. Every time he had thought about taking another one, and chosen not to, the voices and feelings had grown worse, until he had been forced to take another one so he found the blessed silence that followed.

“Like now,” he muttered. “I have blessed silence right now.”

He smiled and heaved a relieved sigh. As they usually did, the disturbing feelings eased with the satisfaction of having done his job well. Without even bothering to glance over his shoulder, he slowly wandered around the woods. Carefully picking a spot deep within the thick copse of trees, he dropped to his knees and began to dig. He hadn’t thought to bring a shovel. It would have looked too odd for him to carry it through the village, and he hated it when people looked at him, so he had to make do. His hands needed something to do anyway, if only to stop them shaking, so he began to scoop out great mounds of earth with his fingers.

Time was irrelevant to him. He had no idea how long it took, but he didn’t stop. Thankfully, the girl wasn’t all that big. He didn’t have to move too much soil.

When he was satisfied he had moved enough earth, he went to fetch the body.

Half an hour later, he stood at the foot of the make-shift grave and took a moment to respectfully say the Lord’s Prayer. He finished his impromptu service by crossing himself. Now that his job was complete, he brushed his hands off and began to make his way home.

Of course, not all his victims ended up the same way. The others were different, but he didn’t want to think about them right now because that awful feeling would come back again, and he didn’t want that. No, he didn’t want that. Not yet. But soon.




CHAPTER TWO

Two days later, the magistrate unwittingly stood in the same spot the killer, also staring down at the body in the make-shift grave. Weeks shook his head sadly. The weight of the world was bearing down on his shoulders and there was nothing he could do about it.

“When are the Star Elite getting here?” he asked Dixon, his assistant.

Dixon, who was still on his knees studying the ligature marks around the young girls’ neck, looked up at his boss.

“Should be here any day now. I have yet to have the mail today,” Dixon replied solemnly. “They had better hurry up, though.”

“There are times when I really hate this job,” Weeks sighed.

“Aye, it’s a rum job, and that’s a fact,” Herriman, Dixon’s second in command murmured sadly. “The family are going to be distraught.”

“Why has he taken to killing them?” Dixon whispered.

Weeks snorted. “He might not have taken to killing them,” he replied dourly. “We have just not found the bodies of the other victims yet.”

“We have to consider they have all been murdered,” Herriman added. “This is a murder investigation now.”

“We can’t change anything yet. They are still assumed kidnapped. Understand? We can’t just assume they are dead. People will stop looking for them. There is still a chance they might be alive somewhere.” Even Weeks didn’t believe that, not now, and his doubt was evident in his tone.

“We won’t stop looking,” Dixon declared harshly. “But what do we tell the search parties who are out looking for her?”

“The truth,” Weeks growled. “But we have to be careful what we say.”

“The villagers will be uneasy now, and will automatically assume the rest are dead,” Dixon replied.

“Well we will just have to assure them otherwise, won’t we?” Weeks snapped.

“Yes sir,” Dixon and Herriman dutifully replied.

“I will go and inform her family,” Weeks murmured, his entire demeanour reluctant.

He made no attempt to move. He studied the ground beneath their feet but knew it would be impossible to get any evidence from it. The branches littering the floor were all broken, mostly because of their presence, but that couldn’t be helped. The nettles, thistles, and fallen and decaying twigs hid any trace of anybody else’s boot prints. There was no point searching.

“You found her like this?” he asked of the farmer who stood, pale and shaken, on the edge of the woods about ten feet away.

The farmer gulped and quickly averted his eyes when his gaze fell instinctively to the young girl they were talking about.

“I thought it was one of the sheep. My eyes ain’t that good now. When I got closer I then thought it was a rabbit but when I moved the branch-” He shook his head, too sickened by what he had discovered to say anything more.

His stomach roiled alarmingly but that was more down to the alarming smell coming from the decomposing corpse. It was disturbing how little the lawmen seemed to be affected by it. Quickly trying to think of something to say to change the subject and get his mind off the possibility of losing the contents of his stomach, he glanced around.

“Who are the Star Elite?” he asked.

“Professionals from London who are going to investigate the disappearances,” Weeks replied officiously, seeing no reason to lie to the man.

He had been assured by his good friend, Sir Hugo, that help would be sent. After this, he knew he was going to need all the assistance he could get.

The presence of ‘outsiders’ investigating poor Felicity’s death, and the others’ disappearance would reassure the villagers, but also unsettle them at the same time. Strangers couldn’t be trusted. That was what the villagers firmly believed anyway. That said, if it became known the Star Elite were in the village to hunt for clues, and the killer was nearby, their presence might be enough to stop this horrendous barbarity once and for all. He hoped so in any case.

“I want you to tell nobody about this right now,” Weeks ordered the farmer, Mr Benson. “I need time to tell the family. I am sure you understand.” It wasn’t a question. He didn’t care if the farmer understood or not.

Mr Benson nodded. “Aye, you can count on me.”

“Leave this to us. For now, just go home and discuss this with nobody. When you hear news of the death then you can mention you were the one who found her if you like, it is up to you. We aren’t going to make it public for now. We will just tell everyone that a member of the public found her and leave it at that.”

Mr Benson nodded gratefully. He was aware of the rather judgemental characteristics of some of the villagers who would make his life Hell if they chose to suspect him.

“I need to ask you some more questions at some point, Mr Benson,” Weeks declared with a nod. “So, don’t go anywhere.”

“Aye. You take as long as you want. Do you want to use my cart? You know, for er-” He waved ineffectually at the body.

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. She must go to the mortuary for the doctor to examine. I will send one of my men over to get the mortuary cart over here. Leave that to us, Mr Benson. Thank you.”

Weeks nodded dismissively and waited until the farmer had left the area.

“Do you think he is responsible?” Herriman asked when the man had gone.

“We cannot take anything for granted in this game,” Weeks replied. “We have to consider every possibility, and person, until we can rule them out.”

“Are we still going to be involved in the investigation once the Star Elite arrive?” Dixon frowned. He wasn’t at all sure whether he wanted to work with anyone on this. It felt as though it was a private matter seeing as he lived in the village himself. He didn’t see why Weeks had felt the need to call in help from anybody, but of course, he didn’t say as much to Weeks.

He had heard, through gossip running rife amongst lawman circles, that the Star Elite were a formidable force nobody really would be wise to mess with. They had connections in high places, and authority to do practically anything they wanted to do, whenever they wanted. No doors could be barred to them, and nobody was in any position to deny them anything they wanted. There were rumours afoot amongst his contacts in Derbyshire that the Star Elite were solely responsible for the demise of Terrance Sayers, a well-known gangster whose crimes had infiltrated practically every county. While details were sketchy, the sudden disappearance of the gangster, together with the cessation of his many criminal activities, together with the local and regional gaols suddenly bursting at the seams had generated a lot of speculation. Of course, nothing could be proven, such was the nature of the organisation everyone talked of, but nobody really knew much about.

Despite this, Dixon still didn’t want to work with them.

“We are going to have to assist them, but we won’t be part of their investigation unless they ask us for our involvement,” Weeks replied cautiously. “I hate to say it, but this is completely out of our remit. I have no experience in anything like this.” He waved to the young girl at their feet.

“This is far too close to home,” Herriman replied.

“I do hope they hurry up,” Dixon replied as he pushed to his feet. He turned around and, with his back to the woods, stared at the village he called home. “I think we have got a killer in our midst.”

“Well, let’s get her moved. She can’t stay here like this. The sun will be warming up soon and this situation is going to get worse,” Weeks murmured as he quickly moved to his horse, and away from the stench that hovered over all of them.

He didn’t think he would ever be able to forget the smell he had endured this morning. It was something that would remain with him for the rest of his life, he was sure of it. To think of someone – anyone – working with such things and not being disturbed by it was, well, disturbing. With a shudder, he put as much distance between him and the corpse as he could, and began to suck in deep breaths of fresh, clean air as soon as he was able. It did little to ease the churning in his stomach, though, and he swallowed uncomfortably as he turned his horse around.

“I am going to see the family and will then go home to see if the Star Elite has arrived. You had better go and notify the doctor and get her moved to wherever he wants. Keep this quiet, though. I don’t want this discussing right now.”

“What do we do about the search parties?” Herriman asked. “They are still looking for her.”

“Just tell them-” Weeks paused and thought about that. He shook his head, well aware that most of the villagers had been out searching for Felicity since her father had raised the alarm in the tavern late last night. Thankfully, none of the search parties had ventured this far given how poor the light was, but it would only be a matter of time before one of them did.

“I can’t leave them to keep searching,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” Herriman asked with a scowl.

“Tell them she has been found, but don’t give any details right now.”

“They will want to know,” Dixon warned.

“Well, for now just stay out of the way. Herriman, you go and get the doctor and don’t delay or stop to talk to anybody. Get the body covered and out of the area within the hour if you can. I don’t want a load of hawkers up here. By the time you have it sorted, I will have informed her parents. They can tell me what they want people to know.”

“Want me to come with you?” Dixon offered helpfully.

Weeks considered it for a moment but then shook his head.

“I can manage,” he muttered grimly. “Just get on with removing her.”

Weeks nudged his horse into a walk, suddenly eager to be on his way.

He rode through the village at a steady trot, only lifting his hands to those villagers he was friendly with. To everyone else, he was busy going about his official business and didn’t bother to slow down.

Minutes later, he reluctantly dismounted outside Felicity Inson’s house. Felicity, being their only daughter, was going to be a great loss to the people inside the small cottage. While he walked up the narrow path to the front door, Weeks braced himself for what was about to happen. He squared his shoulders and lifted his hand to knock, but mentally cursed when the front door was suddenly yanked open, and Mr Inson appeared in the doorway.

Mr Inson’s eyes widened when he saw the grim look on Week’s face. His face suddenly crumpled. Behind him, his wife let out a wailing cry of disbelief and fell to the floor beneath the weight of the grief that struck her.

“Can I come in?” Weeks asked quietly.

Silently, Mr Inson nodded and stood back to let him in.


Later that day, Justin, and the men from the Star Elite, rode steadily through the village.

“It’s quiet,” Jasper murmured, studying the myriad shops and houses lining the narrow, cobbled streets of the tiny village which clutched precariously to the side of the rural hillock.

“Where is everyone?” Angus growled.

He peered into one of the houses they passed and lifted his brows when the shutter immediately slammed closed. Somewhere to his left he heard the distinct sound of a bolt being slammed shut and lifted his brows.

“Not very friendly, are they?” Oliver muttered, his ears tuned to the deathly silence which was only interrupted by the rhythmic clackety clack of their horses’ hooves.

“Something is wrong,” Justin whispered. A deep sense of unease settled heavily across his broad shoulders as they ventured closer to the village green.

“Where do we find this Weeks person?” Niall asked from the rear of the group.

“Instructions tell us he has an office on outskirts of town,” Phillip replied conversationally, studying the area with wary concern. “But we have to go to his home to meet him. We are to go to the green, take the far left lane and follow it for about a quarter of a mile.”

“I suggest we veto securing rooms in the tavern for now. Let’s go and find out what’s happening with Weeks,” Justin suggested.

“I hope to God the village isn’t like this all the damned time,” Angus growled. “Or it is going to be a nightmare trying to get people to talk to us.”

It was something of a relief when they finally dismounted outside a large square house standing a few feet away from the road, a small sign over the door declaring: A Weeks, Magistrate.

“Let’s go and hear what he has to say,” Justin breathed.

“Thank God you are here,” Weeks declared effusively when he opened the door and saw the group of heavily armed lawmen waiting on his doorstep. He took an instinctive step back such was the menacing air they carried. Even so, he was hugely relieved to see them, and hurriedly stood back to wave them inside.

Before he closed the door, though, he peered cautiously up and down the street, and mentally gave thanks that none of the villagers appeared to have noticed them. Quickly slamming the door closed, he summoned his housekeeper and informed her that the guests had arrived before he led the men out of his cramped hallway and into the more comfortable confines of his study.

“I believe you are expecting us,” Justin murmured once he had introduced himself and stepped back to allow his colleagues to do the same.

“I am glad you are here,” Weeks replied. He waved everyone in to seats and offered them brandy.

“Is there some sort of problem in the village?” Angus asked curiously as he accepted a goblet off the magistrate with a grateful nod. “We have just been through it; it is practically dead.”

Weeks winced and helped himself to a healthy dose of brandy. Downing it, he refilled it and turned to face the room. It was then that he saw the looks the men traded.

“I don’t usually drink, but after the morning I have just had I need something.” His hand trembled a little as he made his way across the room and rested his hips precariously against a dainty side-table beside his favourite window.

If he was honest, he felt rather small and insignificant in the presence of such powerful men. While he hadn’t been sure what to expect, it hadn’t been anything like the men from the Star Elite. They were all well over six feet tall, with powerful builds and a no-nonsense air of command about them that was almost lethal. Weeks knew immediately that they would draw attention but couldn’t quite make his mind up if that would be a good thing or not. They positively screamed authority, and raw menace that would worry everyone. He wasn’t sure the villagers would want to talk to men who looked so damned threatening. He also suspected that his involvement in their investigation would be essential if they wanted to get any information out of the villagers.

“There isn’t a celebration in the village, I am afraid,” he declared solemnly. “A young girl in the village was found dead today. This morning as a matter of fact.”

“Who by?”

“Where?”

“Is she a local girl?”

Weeks flinched at the rapid flow of the questions the men fired at him. He lifted a hand to stave off yet more when the demands seemed endless, and quickly told them everything he knew.

“We will need to see the body,” Jasper declared suddenly.

“Of course, you may. I don’t know what you will find, though. It is clear the cause of death was strangulation. There were ligature marks around her neck. But we need a rough time of death and, of course, a certificate issuing.

“Why else do you know?” Justin asked curiously.

Weeks looked at the tall man with the fair hair and tanned complexion. He was, without doubt, the tallest there, and the most powerfully built. There was a ruthless no-nonsense air about him that warned Weeks he was the leader of this group of fighters. Because of that, Weeks wasted no time telling him everything he knew.

“Most of the villagers formed a search party and spent the night looking for the girl, Felicity her name is – was, so the streets are a lot quieter today than they usually would be. I made an announcement in the tavern once I had been to see the family. The family didn’t want us to withhold any information, you see, especially because the villagers were out looking for her. I think they wanted the village to be informed so they were left in peace, so they can try to come to terms with what has happened. They are devastated, as I am sure you will understand,” Weeks declared starkly, not least because he didn’t want the men turning up and unwittingly terrifying the Insons.

Jasper studied the man and read his underlying concern. “We are discrete,” he assured him.


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