Paperback

Published: Lightning Books (April 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632266

The Rapunzel Act

Abi Silver

£8.99

Can you find justice…when the world is watching?

When breakfast TV host and nation’s darling, Rosie Harper, is found brutally murdered at home, suspicion falls on her spouse, formerly international football star, Danny ‘walks on water’ Mallard, now living out of the public eye as trans woman, Debbie.

Not only must Debbie challenge the hard evidence against her, including her blood-drenched glove at the scene of the crime, she must also contend with the nation’s prejudices, as the trial is broadcast live, turning it into a public spectacle. For someone trying to live their life without judgment, it might just be too much to bear.

Legal duo Judith Burton and Constance Lamb are subjected to unyielding scrutiny as they strive to defend their most famous client yet.

Another thought-provoking courtroom drama from the acclaimed author of the Burton & Lamb series.

OUT APRIL 2021. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

The sun was sinking behind Shoreditch Park’s granite monolith, casting its long shadow across the grass. The air was alive with the sounds of an English summer evening; voices raised in animated conversation, the pounding footsteps of transient joggers, the grinding rattle of skateboards on asphalt, the music blaring out from the nearby pub and the low hum of rush-hour traffic, two streets removed. It had been another glorious June day, the kind that makes tourists, boating on the Serpentine or picnicking on Parliament Hill, declare London the best city in the world and locals proclaim their love for their hometown. The thermometer hovered around 22 degrees Celsius.

Debbie was reaching the penultimate part of her training session. Sometimes, at this stage, she moved the team to penalties, sometimes to set piece corners. Today, she had asked them to push on for the ‘golden goal’. It was their first practice since they had taken a break, a month earlier, and they were noticeably tired.

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Extracts

The sun was sinking behind Shoreditch Park’s granite monolith, casting its long shadow across the grass. The air was alive with the sounds of an English summer evening; voices raised in animated conversation, the pounding footsteps of transient joggers, the grinding rattle of skateboards on asphalt, the music blaring out from the nearby pub and the low hum of rush-hour traffic, two streets removed. It had been another glorious June day, the kind that makes tourists, boating on the Serpentine or picnicking on Parliament Hill, declare London the best city in the world and locals proclaim their love for their hometown. The thermometer hovered around 22 degrees Celsius.

Debbie was reaching the penultimate part of her training session. Sometimes, at this stage, she moved the team to penalties, sometimes to set piece corners. Today, she had asked them to push on for the ‘golden goal’. It was their first practice since they had taken a break, a month earlier, and they were noticeably tired.

She was occupied trying to watch all the players, making a mental note of what to say to each one in her debrief at the end. Debbie always tried to make her feedback meaningful – try moving forward earlier, mark more closely, own the ball – and to give plenty of praise. After all, the team was young and inexperienced, and she would always remember the coaches who had taken time with her.

She checked her watch: 6.48pm. Later on in the season, she would push the girls harder, finish the session with them breathless and cursing. But not today. So, at first, she didn’t see the couple striding towards her across the fields. Older man, tight-fitting raincoat, a bulge just below his left armpit; younger woman, hair cut short, razored at the sides, trailing behind. A warning shout and she noticed them crossing the pitch, their expressions grave, their attention fixed on her. The man waited to speak till he was very close. ‘We’re looking for Debbie Mallard?’ he said, clearing his throat.

Debbie’s first thought was that they might be scouts from Arsenal Ladies or West Ham. She had lost two of her best players to their under-21 squad last year. Two talented girls, full of energy and determination; a striker and a left back. She had gritted her teeth and wished them the best of. She wouldn’t stand in the way of progression for any of the girls, whatever the personal impact. Hackney South was never going to win the FA Cup. But the man’s solemn air was more akin to a politician about to deliver bad news, albeit with the usual spin. God knows there had been enough of them on TV over the past few months.

‘Yes.’ She flung the word out over their heads, simultaneously waving the girls to play on.

The man hesitated and opened the button on his jacket and it gaped tantalisingly. His face was flushed from the walk.

‘I’m Chief Inspector Dawson. This is PC Thomas.’

Debbie had not identified the couple as police and it bothered her, too, that neither officer was in uniform. That suggested some need for secrecy, and now the intruders’ identities were revealed, Debbie chastised herself for not considering the possibility earlier. At least they weren’t journalists.

‘If this is about my moped, your men found it,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘returned it in one piece, and with petrol in the tank.’

‘It’s not about a moped.’ Chief Inspector Dawson dug the toe of his shoe into the grass and ran the tip of his index finger around the inside of his frayed collar.

‘Girls, move to penalty shoot-out. Siobhan, you go in goal first and rotate as usual,’ Debbie shouted, circling her hands around each other. She took a few steps back, standing just outside the makeshift touch line, and the police officers followed suit. She waited until the first penalty was taken: a barnstorming shot straight into the top left corner. No one, not even Jordan Pickford, would have reached that one. She clapped her hands loudly and the hollow sound bounced off the high wall dividing them from the kids’ adventure playground. ‘Fantastic penalty, Judy,’ she called, the grin spreading across her face. ‘Let’s see more like that one.’

She turned her head towards the police officers.

‘What is it you want?’ she said. ‘I’m Debbie Mallard.’

Dawson forced a lukewarm smile and his eyebrows raised. PC Thomas coughed into her hand. Debbie folded her arms.

‘It’s…this is a very public place to talk,’ Dawson stammered. And, right on cue, the arm of a giant, eavesdropping crane, overhanging the neighbouring building site, swung towards them with a creak and a groan.

‘We don’t have an office or a changing room,’ Debbie said. ‘I’m working on it. The girls shower at home. Welcome to the world of fourth division amateur women’s football. Can it wait ten minutes? We’re nearly done.’

She glanced from Dawson to PC Thomas and, this time, both remained silent. ‘What is it? You’re making me nervous,’ she said.

‘Send the girls home early,’ Dawson said, touching Debbie’s arm fleetingly. ‘They look all done in, anyway.’

‘I’ll decide when they’re “done in”. Maybe you should tell me what’s going on?’ Debbie drew herself up to her full height and flicked at her long blond ponytail. A sudden gust of wind and Dawson’s coat blew apart, revealing his holster and gun. ‘It’s your wife,’ he said, fastening his buttons and motioning to PC Thomas to move in closer.

‘My wife? You mean Rosie, my ex-wife?’

‘Miss Rosie Harper. I’m so sorry to have to bring you such bad news. Miss Harper is dead.’

Debbie’s body crumpled sideways without warning and she might have fallen, if Dawson had not grabbed her and guided her, gently, to her knees on the grass.

‘I don’t understand. I just saw her,’ she said. ‘How can she be dead? Was she in an accident?’

‘You saw Rosie today?’

‘A few hours ago. She was fine. Are you sure it’s Rosie?’

‘I’m afraid so. She was murdered.’

‘No!’ Debbie wailed.

One of the girls came rushing forward, but PC Thomas waved her and the others away, flashing her badge defensively.

‘This afternoon. They found her about an hour ago,’ Dawson said.

Debbie lifted her head and stared at Dawson. Then she hugged her chest and began to sway and choking sounds came from the back of her throat.

‘Air, I need some air,’ she said, struggling to her feet, her arms flailing to capture the elusive air.

She staggered across the pitch and over to the toilet block, tucked underneath the trees. Dawson tried to follow her inside.

‘I just need a minute… to wash my face,’ Debbie said, spinning around suddenly and filling the doorway with her imposing frame.

Dawson and PC Thomas exchanged glances. Dawson sniffed the air and withdrew with a nod. How are the mighty fallen he mused, as he sank down onto the remains of a nearby bench. Who would’ve thought it? Danny Mallard, hero of Euro ’96, now ‘Debbie’. That much he had read, but coaching an amateur team of schoolgirls? Danny Mallard! He allowed the name to circle around his head again. The goal volleyed in from 30 metres in the quarter final, the header, finding the most acute of angles in the semis, the run from the far end of the pitch and the sublime nutmeg of the keeper to score the winner in the final.

And then he’d married Rosie Harper, the BBC’s pin-up girl, and they became the “golden couple”, gracing the covers of many a glossy magazine. The perfect match: that had been the cheesy headline, when they exchanged their marriage vows at a remote Scottish castle, later that year.

Dawson’s eyes narrowed, as he tried to superimpose the face of the middle-aged Debbie over the youthful image of Danny he recalled. Not just his consummate skill but his presence; Danny striking the ball with a confidence belying his years, Danny taunting his opponents as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and Danny’s fist-pumping, supercilious strut of celebration, when the ball hit the back of the net, sealing the match and the title.

The girls had packed their stuff up now, one of them scowling at Dawson, before collecting the bag of balls and hauling them into her car.

‘Make a note of everything she said,’ Dawson snapped, checking his watch. ‘That she saw her a few hours ago, that she particularly said “ex-wife”.’

PC Thomas nodded. Dawson kicked at the grass again. His stomach grumbled and he tapped at it smartly, as if he was switching off an alarm. He checked his phone. His wife was away this week, which meant no evening meal unless he made it himself. His teenage daughters were unlikely to have considered his needs, even if they were home. No messages.

Who’d have thought it? He said the words aloud this time and PC Thomas frowned.

He worried, suddenly, how she would sell this back at the station. Would she try to imitate him, his mouth hanging open, his face flushing crimson as he tried to pretend this was a normal situation, well as ‘normal’ as any other day in his turbulent life. She’d laugh, that was certain, as would all the others. But he thought he’d handled it pretty well, given the circumstances. The diversity training the Met had insisted they all undergo had clearly done the trick; a whole series of previously standard, universally understood, derogatory words, now consigned to the dustbin of unacceptability. Of course, it was harder to wash away the underlying sentiments, but you had to start somewhere.

Another two minutes passed and the field was empty, apart from a water bottle slung in the nearest goal, rocking backwards and forwards in the wind. PC Thomas had completed her notes and returned her book to her pocket. Dawson gestured towards the toilet block.

‘You want me to go in?’ she asked.

‘It is the ladies.’

‘On my own?’

‘I don’t think you’re in any danger,’ Dawson said, ‘but I’ll be right behind.’

PC Thomas rose, straightened her shirt, prodded tentatively at the toilet door, then went inside. She returned almost immediately.

‘She’s gone,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘She’s gone. Must have slipped out when we were talking.’

‘You’re joking.’

Dawson slammed the flat of his hand against the door and rushed at the chilly bathroom. The two cubicles and outer washroom were glaringly empty. He rubbed his smarting palm across his forehead. He’d been too slow, too trusting. He should have sent Thomas in with her.

He ran out of the building and around the back and followed the winding path left to the main road. Debbie Mallard was nowhere to be seen. As his stomach erupted for a second time, Dawson shouted at no one in particular, then, seeing PC Thomas approach, he closed his mouth tight, to ensure that none of those now forbidden words he was struggling to restrain came spewing out. Instead, he stamped his foot twice, the second time more forcefully than the first, before heading off towards his car at speed, with PC Thomas close behind.


***


Inspector Dawson knocked at the door of Debbie Mallard’s rented ground-floor flat, half a mile away. No reply. He surveyed the narrow street, keen to spot any sign of movement, but all was surprisingly still. A black cat padded its way along the pavement, darting into a garden fifty metres away. Dawson’s gaze returned to PC Thomas, who was leaning against the police car with her arms crossed, squinting into the sun.

He bent down and squinted through the letterbox. A shooting pain across his back caused him to grunt, then stiffen and shift his position. He was just straightening up, when he thought he saw something inside the property, less an object and more a change in the light, as if someone or something had cast an abrupt shadow across the hallway.  

Dawson rolled back his shoulders, as his absent wife had suggested (he had refused, despite entreaties from her to see either a doctor or a physiotherapist – ‘just a twinge’ he had told her), pressed a thumb into the aching spot and clenched his teeth, in order to stifle the inevitable moaning the action would normally produce. Now he leaned in close and placed his ear against the door. He heard nothing for a few seconds and then the tiniest click, like the sound of the arms of a mechanical clock shifting forward or a key turning in a lock. All his senses were at attention. He held his breath and dropped to his knees on the cold, concrete step, to peer through the letterbox once more. This time nothing.

He stared over his shoulder again at PC Thomas. Her eyebrows were raised expectantly in his direction. He shifted his weight back and rocked on his heels, preparing to rise in the manner which, he gauged, would cause least discomfort, when he heard the sound of an engine starting up nearby. Craning his neck to the right, he spotted a moped pulling out of the street next to them.

Dawson stumbled to his feet, cursing as another wave of pain radiated across his lower back and, as he reached the gate, he could see the tall, helmeted figure astride the bike, her long blond tresses poking out and flapping behind her.

For a second, both he and PC Thomas were rooted to the spot, then he battered his way through the low metal gate towards his car.

‘That was her…wasn’t it?’

‘Yes guv. Shall we?’

‘Follow her?’ He stamped his foot in annoyance. ‘Damn right we follow her. Did you get the number plate?’

‘Yes. Should I…?’

‘Get in. I’ll drive. You call it in.’


***


Debbie kept her head down at first. Zigzagging around vehicles, even though the traffic was slow-moving, required all her concentration. The bus lanes were the worst. You would cut inside the stationary traffic only to be trailed by a black cab, or worse, a bus barrelling disinterestedly along. True, the cyclists often came up fast, silent apart from a low whistle, as the wind caught their spokes, but they were unlikely to cause as much damage as an 11-tonne vehicle.

Debbie had heard the two police officers arrive outside her flat, the sound of the engine dying, the car door being closed with suspicious care, the surreptitious opening of her garden gate, before she caught the older one, Dawson, invading her hallway with his piercing, pillar-box stare. Well, if they really wanted her, they were going to have to catch her and she was confident that she had the upper hand, in the evening crush.

As she swerved to avoid a broken bottle in the gutter, she tried to calm herself. She needed to be focused and keep her cool. This was no different from situations she had encountered numerous times on the pitch, throughout her career. Granted, most often she’d rehearsed her moves over and over, those set pieces she’d used to devastating effect to win the league three times, but she was also adept at taking her chances, trusting her instinct to take over and guide her on.  

A police siren sounded close behind her. Debbie darted into a one-way street and halted in a dank and smelly doorway, her heart thumping inside her chest. She steadied herself with one hand pressed against the brickwork, and then a sudden lurch from her stomach and she vomited into the gutter. The whine of the siren, gradually increasing in volume then joined by a second and a third, their timing slightly out of synch and creating a weird, discordant rhythmic lament, accompanied her retching.

Debbie wiped her mouth, put her moped in gear and shot out of the alleyway onto Hackney Road. She had no game plan, no strategy. Rosie was dead. All was lost.

quotes

‘It is Abi Silver's imaginative touches as well as her thorough legal knowledge that make her courtroom thrillers stand out’

Jake Kerridge

‘Rumpole of the Bailey, Kavanagh QC, Perry Mason – now joining their ranks is Judith Burton’

Jewish Chronicle

reviews

extras

ABOUT

Abi Silver

Abi Silver was born in Leeds and is a lawyer by profession. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and three sons. Her first courtroom thriller featuring the legal duo Judith Burton and Constance Lamb, The Pinocchio Brief, was published by Lightning Books in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award. The Aladdin Trial, featuring the same legal team, was published in 2018, followed by The Cinderella Plan in 2019.

Read more about Abi and her work at www.abisilver.co.uk.

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