How the Dead Speak

Val McDermid

The following is an exclusive excerpt from How the Dead Speak, by Val McDermid. Psychological profiler Tony Hill has found himself in prison and his partner, and ex-DCI Carol Jordan is working with a group attempting to overturn miscarriages of justice. But when skeletons are dug up on the grounds of an old orphanage, and evidence claims that one of them belongs to a currently incarcerated man, Tony and Carol must use their new situations to work together on their strangest case yet.

“When a small group of FBI agents came up with the idea of offender profiling, the one thing they knew for sure was that they didn’t know enough about the minds of those who kept on killing.

And so they went looking in the one place where they could be sure of finding experts—behind bars.”

—From Reading Crimes by Dr. Tony Hill.


It was the smell that hammered home his whereabouts as soon as he woke. There was no prospect of drifting out of sleep with that momentary sense of dislocation, that half-awake wondering, Where am I? Home? Hotel? Somebody’s guest room? These days, as soon as consciousness arrived, so did the miasma that reminded Dr Tony Hill that he was in jail.

Years of talking to patients in secure mental hospitals and prisons meant he was no stranger to the unpleasant cock-tail. Stale sweat, stale smoke, stale bodies, stale cooking, stale farts. The sourness of clothes that had taken too long to dry. The faintly vanilla musk of too much testosterone. And under it all, the harsh tang of cheap cleaning chemicals. In the past, he’d always been glad to escape from the smell of incarceration and back into the outside world. These days, there was no escape.

He’d thought he’d get used to it. That after a while, he’d be inured to it. But six months into his four-year sentence he was still brutally aware of it every single day. Because he was a clinical psychologist, he couldn’t help wondering whether there was some deep-seated reason for what had begun to feel like hyper-awareness. Or maybe he simply had a particularly acute sense of smell.

Whatever the reason, he had grown to resent it. Not for him those half-asleep moments where he could imagine himself waking in his bunk on the narrowboat that had become his base, or in the guest suite in Carol Jordan’s ren- ovated barn where he’d spent time enough to consider it a second home. Those dreamy fantasies were denied him. He never doubted where he was. All he had to do was breathe. At least now he had a cell to himself. When he’d been on remand for weary months, he’d had a succession of cellmates whose personal habits had been a particularly arduous punishment in themselves. Dazza, with his tireless commitment to wanking. Ricky, with his phlegm-choked smoker’s cough and perpetual hawking into the steel toilet. Marco, with his night terrors, screams that woke half the landing and provoked even more screaming and swearing from their neighbours. Tony had tried to talk to Marco about the bad dreams. But the aggressive little Liverpudlian had leapt up and gone nose to nose with him, denying via most of the swear words Tony had ever encountered that he had ever had a bastarding nightmare.

Worst of all, Maniac Mick, awaiting trial for chopping off the hand of a rival drug dealer. When Mick discovered that Tony had worked with the police, his first response was to grab the front of his shirt and smack him up against the wall. Spittle had flown as he explained to Tony why they called him Maniac and what he was going to do to any fucking fucker who was in the pocket of the fucking feds. His fist—the one tattooed across the knuckles with C-U-N-T—was drawn back, ready  for  the  strike that Tony knew would break something in his face. He closed his eyes.

Nothing happened. He opened one eye and saw a middle-aged black man with his hand between Mick and Tony. Its presence was like an improbable forcefield. ‘He’s not what you think, Mick.’ His voice was soft, almost intimate.

‘He’s filth,’ Mick spat. ‘What do you care if he gets what’s fucking coming to him?’ His mouth was a sneer but his eyes were less certain.

This man’—the apparent saviour jerked his thumb towards Tony—‘this man put away scum. The animals that kill and torture for the pleasure of it.

‘He’s got nothing to do with the likes of us. He doesn’t give the steam off his shit for robbers or drug lords or lying scheming bastards like you and me. This man’—the apparent saviour jerked his thumb towards Tony—‘this man put away scum. The animals that kill and torture for the pleasure of it. Not for gain, not for revenge, not to prove how big their dick is. But just for fun. And the people they kill? They’re randoms. Could be your missus, could be my kid, could be anybody that’s got a face that fits. Just some poor sod that crosses the wrong monster’s path. This man is no danger to proper criminals like you and me.’ He turned so Mick could see his face, an amiable smile creasing his cheeks.

‘Mick, we should be pissed off that he’s in here. Because the people we love are safer with him doing his thing on the outside. Believe me, Mick, this man only puts away the kind of animals that never see the inside of a jail because they’re doing their multiple life sentences in the nut house. Leave him be, Mick.’ He used the man’s name like a caress. But Tony sensed threat behind it.

Mick moved his arm sideways, as if it were an intentional action, a planned stretch of his muscles. Then he lowered it to his side. ‘I’m gonna take your word for it, Druse.’ He stepped back. ‘But I’m going to be asking around. And if it’s not like you say . . . ’ He drew a finger across his throat. The smile that accompanied the gesture made Tony’s stomach clench. Maniac Mick swaggered away down the wing, a couple of his sidekicks falling into stride behind him.

Tony let out a long breath. ‘Thank you,’ he croaked.

Druse held out a hand. It was the first handshake Tony had been offered in the fourteen months he’d been inside. ‘I’m Druse. I know who you are.’

Tony shook his hand. It was dry and firm and Tony was ashamed of the sweat he was leaving on it. He smiled with one side of his mouth. ‘And yet you saved me.’

‘I come from Worcester,’ Druse said. ‘My sister was in the same English class as Jennifer Maidment.’

The name triggered a series of images. Teenage victims, heart-breaking crimes, a motivation as twisted as a DNA helix. At the time, he’d been struggling himself with the sort of revelation that turned lives inside out. Unravelling his own past as he’d so often done with offenders had nearly driven him to walk away from everything. But this man Druse, whoever he was, would have known nothing of that. Maybe nothing much beyond the headlines. Tony nodded. ‘I remember Jennifer Maidment.’

‘And I remember what you did. Now, don’t be under any illusions about me, Tony Hill. I’m a very bad man. But even bad men can sometimes do good things. As long as you’re in here, nobody’s going to bother you.’ Then he’d touched one finger to the imaginary brim of an imaginary cap and walked away.

Tony hadn’t yet grasped how information moved through a prison. He’d suspected Druse of promising a lot more than he could deliver. But he’d been delighted to be proved wrong. The perpetual undertow of fear that pervaded the remand wing gradually subsided but never dissipated completely. However, Tony was careful not to let his wariness slip; he remained constantly aware of the anarchy that fizzled close to the surface. And anarchy was no respecter of reputation.

Even more surprisingly, somehow Druse’s protection had followed him to the Category C prison he’d been assigned to after sentencing. The last thing he’d expected from incarceration was that he’d be protected by organised crime.

Druse had turned into a buffer on one side; Tony’s past as a criminal profiler had earned him a similar bulwark on the other. If anyone had ever asked him, he’d have reckoned he’d made more enemies than friends in high places over the years he’d been working with the police and the Home Office. But it turned out he’d been  wrong  about that too. He’d made a request early in his spell on remand for a laptop. Neither he  nor  his lawyer had expected it to be granted.

Wrong again. A week later, a battered old machine had turned up. Obviously, it had no internet capability. The only software on board was a primitive word-processing program. While he was sharing his cell, he’d persuaded  the officer in charge of the library to let him keep it there.

Otherwise it would have been smashed, stolen or used as an offensive weapon by one of his cell mates. It limited the time Tony could spend with the machine, but that had forced him to be more focused when he did have access. And so, the only person who had reason to be cheerful about Tony’s prison term was his publisher, who had come to despair of Reading Crimes ever being finished, never mind published.

All of this had left Tony with uncomfortably tangled feelings. Engrossing himself in his writing made it possible to let go the fear that had run like an electric current through his veins from the moment he’d entered custody. That had been relief beyond words. There was no doubt about that. Losing all awareness of his surroundings while he sat at the key- board and tried to marshal his knowledge and experience into a coherent narrative was a blessing. What tempered these comforts was guilt.

He’d taken a life. That had broken the most fundamental taboo of his profession. The fact that he’d done it to prevent the woman he loved from having to do it herself was no excuse. Nor was their conviction that taking that one life had saved others. The man Tony had killed would have murdered again and again, and who knew whether there would ever have been a shred of significant evidence against him? But that didn’t diminish the enormity of what Tony had done.

So he deserved to be suffering. There should be a component of pain and retribution in his days. But truly, all the grief he knew was that he missed Carol. And if he’d been willing to, he could have seen her every time he was granted a visiting order. Refusing to allow her the opportunity to sit with him was a choice he told himself he was making for her sake. Maybe that was his form of atonement. If it was, it was probably a lower price than everybody else he was banged up with was paying.

When he considered what his fellow inmates had lost,  he couldn’t deny that he felt lucky. All around him, he saw lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost families, lost hopes. He’d escaped all that, but it felt wrong nevertheless. His escape came with a constant scouring of guilt.

And so he’d decided he needed to find a more constructive way to repay what people glibly called the debt to society. He’d use his talents for empathy and communication to try to make a difference in the lives of the men who shared his current address. Starting today.

But before he could get ready for that, he had something far worse to prepare himself for.

His mother was coming to visit. He’d initially refused her request. Vanessa Hill was monstrous. That was a word whose weight he understood and he did not use it lightly. She had blighted his childhood, stolen his chances of knowing his father, attempted to steal his inheritance from him. The last time he’d seen her, he’d hoped it would be the last time.

But Vanessa was not so easily thwarted. She’d sent a mes- sage via his lawyer. ‘I’ve always known we were the same, you and me. Now you know it too. You owe me, and you know that too.’ She still knew how to push his buttons. He’d fallen for it in spite of himself.

Hook, line and sinker.


From How the Dead Speak, by Val McDermid. Used with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic. Copyright © 2019 by Val McDermid.

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