<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> The books were burning. <p> Pages crackled and bindings split. The fire snarled and spat like a wild creature, freed from captivity to feast on calfskin, linen and cloth. Paper blackened and curled, the words disappeared. Poetry and prose, devoured by the flames. <p> Smoke stung George Saffell's eyes. Salt tears filled them, blurring his vision, dribbling down his cheeks. His head throbbed where the club had smashed into it; he'd drifted in and out of consciousness, barely aware of the serrated blade of the knife gliding along his throat, nicking the skin as a warning, before gloved hands tied him up and pushed him on to the floor. <p> His assailant had said nothing. Even the soft murmur of satisfaction might have been Saffell's mind playing tricks. Now he was alone, but bound so tightly that he was as helpless as a babe. He couldn't move his arms or legs, couldn't even wipe his face. Couldn't do anything but watch the beast gorge on its prey. <p> Shelves stretched along both sides of this room, and rose from the floor to the sloping roof. He called this the library, with tongue in cheek, since whoever heard of a boathouse with a library? Saffell always liked to be different. Prided himself on it, liked to say that Sinatra's <i>My Way</i> might have been written for him. It was his little joke. People said he lacked humour, but that was unfair. <p> He was never lonely, not with his books for company. Books never complained, never asked awkward questions. Here he was free to savour the sweetness of possession. <p> Words of reproach echoed in his head. <p> <i>You care about your books more than you care about me.</i> <p> He'd protested, but even to his ears the denial sounded hollow. She was right, they both understood the truth. <p> De Quincey, Coleridge, Martineau, for twenty years he'd hunted down their books and thousands more. Twenty years spent searching and haggling, sorting and hoarding. He loved to touch a dusty volume, run his finger down its spines and test the boards for bumps. How intoxicating to hold a warm book to his nose and inhale that musty perfume, hear the soft rustle of pages fanning. His skin tingled at the scratchy texture of brittle paper when he brushed it with his palms or fingertips. <p> He thrilled to the chase, and gloried in victory, and yet the prize was never quite enough. The shape of the words laid out on the page had a sensual charm that meant more to him than what they said. He'd read a mere fraction of his purchases. One in ten, perhaps one in twenty? <p> So little time, and soon it would run out forever. Somehow, he'd become the hunted, not the hunter. Someone meant him to die along with his treasures. <p> He felt blood matting his thin hair, leaking on to his scalp. The stench of petrol burned his sinuses, filled his throat with bile. He tasted the fumes, felt himself sucking their poison deep into his gut. Yet he couldn't bring himself to shut his eyes and surrender to the dark. The fire cast a spell upon him, he was hypnotised by the horror, impossible to wrench his gaze from his books as they shrivelled and died. <p> Rope chewed into his thin wrists, gnawed at the bone of his ankles. He hadn't been gagged; there was no need. If he shouted himself hoarse, nobody would hear. Outside the waves lapped against the jetty; on so many nights their murmuring soothed him to sleep. He kept the window ajar even on the coldest days, and if he jerked awake, he might hear the hoot of owls, the flap of bats' wings, the scurrying of water rats. But not this evening, with all sound lost in the fire's roar. On the lake were no boats, on the shore no lights. This stretch of Ullswater was deserted in winter. He'd chosen this spot for tranquillity; a haven where he got away from it all. Now he and the fire were alone with the night. <p> Wood cracked and snapped like rifle shots. Glass windowpanes shattered. The shelves started to give way. A timber beam crashed on to the floor. The beast had conquered his boathouse. Soon the roof would be gone. <p> The shelves were crumbling, and his books were blackened beyond recognition. He felt moisture between his legs, a warm and wet trickling down his thighs. The smoke made him cough, his throat filled with phlegm, he began to choke. Flames lunged towards him, devouring the Turkish kilim stretched between the leather chairs. The beast was deranged, and bent on destruction. <p> Heat scorched his lips. Within moments, it would singe his hair and dry those tears. And then the fire would become him, he would become the fire. <p> He dreaded pain, he must keep his gaze glued to the books, empty his mind of everything but the destruction of his life's work. <p> No good. His brain betrayed him, and he succumbed to dread. Dread like a knife that drove between his ribs, through his flesh and ripped into soft tissue beneath. Opening him, eviscerating him. <p> Dread of agony to come. He was, after all, a bookish man, a self-proclaimed coward with a terror of pain. The only certainty was that he was about to die. No last minute rescue. He had no hope of salvation, no faith that it might be an easy death. <p> A flame licked the bare soles of his feet, then bit into his flesh. Saffell shrieked and begged for a quick end. But it was too late to pray to a God in whom he had never believed. Even though now he understood that the Devil was real, and knew that the beast took the form, not of man, but of fire. <p> Cruel, sadistic fire. <p> It took its time and, cruellest of all, he never knew who had done this to him, and his books. <p> Or why. <p> <p> <h3> Chapter Two </h3> 'New Year's Eve.' Marc Amos swivelled on the kitchen stool, a dreamy look in his eyes. 'New house, new start.' <p> New start? <p> Hannah Scarlett gave him a cagey smile as she spooned coffee into a paper filter. She wouldn't pour cold water anywhere other than into the glass jug. Things were looking up; they'd survived Christmas without a single row. Seven claustrophobic days cheek-by-jowl with Marc's family was perfect relationship therapy for the two of them, if for nobody else. Thank God she didn't have to live with his garrulous sister, let alone his humbug-guzzling mother, or his rugby-mad brother-in-law and his rowdy nephews and nieces. Much more of their taste in holiday television, and she'd no longer be investigating murders, but committing them. <p> The tears and fist-fights of four unruly children aged from nine to nineteen had stifled her maternal instincts for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that was Marc's plan when he'd persuaded her to agree to a family get-together. The constant din in Gayle and Billy's overcrowded semi in Manchester made this rambling old house on the outskirts of Ambleside seem like a sanctuary. They'd moved in three months ago and, with so much work to be done on renovations, she'd rather have stayed at home for the holiday. Families fascinated her, but Marc's was the exception that proved the rule. She didn't dislike Gayle and Billy, or old Mrs. Amos, let alone the kids; she just had nothing in common with them, except for Marc. Now they'd escaped, she didn't intend to breach the peace. <p> Say something bland, Hannah. <p> 'Let's hope it's a good one.' <p> He dropped a colour magazine on to the breakfast bar, as if in surprise. Meek acquiescence never came naturally to her. The magazine fell open at a double page spread of horoscopes for the year ahead. She never bothered checking her stars, although her best friend Terri swore by them, and yet her eye was seduced against its will to the forecasts for Cancer. <p> Marc jumped off the stool and peered over her shoulder. <p> '"Your relationships are everything—as will become clear shortly, when planetary activity brings important issues to the surface. How you deal with them will affect not just your life, but other people's too. Make sure you get it right."' He chortled. 'Better watch your step!' <p> Hannah winced. Astarte the Astrologer was in sententious mood. 'It is possible to be too possessive. It is possible to care too much. You must learn to let go.' <p> 'The woman knows what she's talking about,' Marc grinned. 'Look at mine. "You are not afraid of hard work, but you don't always receive the rewards you deserve." Spot on, I couldn't put it better myself. It can't be an accident. There must be something in this stuff after all.' <p> 'You reckon?' <p> His sign wasVirgo. Expansive Jupiter was urging him to devote more time to romance, while obsessive Pluto would bring greater intensity to his love affairs. But it was up to him to decide how far he wanted to go, and how deeply he wanted to commit. <p> Terri had once chastised him for his failure to propose to Hannah. She'd pointed out in her imitable fashion that cohabiting allowed a man to drink the milk without buying the cow. But as he retorted, who wants to marry a cow? Besides, Terri had no room to talk after divorcing three husbands. Although Gayle and Billy had stuck together, they weren't the best advertisement for the joys of married life. They'd tied the knot at nineteen, and jogged along in the same old rut ever since. Gayle talked non-stop, Billy never pretended to listen. Perhaps he found it relaxing to have the endless tide of words wash over him. For Hannah, the nadir came during the sales, when Gayle nagged her into joining the plague of locusts that descended on the Trafford Centre, and stripped the bargain counters clean. The shopping mall was only half an hour away, but the car journey there and back lasted a lifetime. Billy was right: there was no need to answer. An occasional murmur, an amiable throat-clearing were all the encouragement Gayle asked for when in full flow. She and Billy were twelve years older than Hannah and Marc. Was this how couples ended up after so long together? Was that what children did to you? Hannah wondered if she would ever find out. <p> 'Go on, break it to me gently. What are your New Year resolutions?' <p> He asked the same question every year; a ritual as predictable as the chimes of Big Ben. Yet the shifting of the calendar from December to January meant nothing to her. It was simply an excuse for people to obey a civic duty to get pissed and pretend they were having a good time. In her early days as a police constable, she'd too often seen boisterous high spirits turn into something crude and ugly ever to be misty-eyed about New Year revelries. But she'd hate to sound churlish, or give him an excuse for moodiness. So she switched on the coffee machine and feigned deep thought. <p> 'I need to lose a few pounds.' <p> An hour ago, she'd tried on a pair of figure-hugging velvet trousers that might be suitable for this wretched New Year party they'd been invited to. They came from a pricey boutique in Kendal, an impulse buy tinged with the guilty pleasure of self-indulgence. Six months on, the boutique had gone out of business and the trousers felt too tight for comfort. As she battled to zip them up, she had a nightmare vision of their splitting apart the moment she bent to pick up a drink. The year ahead promised more guilt, less pleasure. <p> 'You look slinky enough to me.' He screwed his features into a comical leer and made a grab for her. 'Come here. The stargazer's right, it's time for me to receive the rewards I deserve.' <p> She skipped out of reach. Any moment now, he'd ask whether she was wearing the lingerie he'd bought for a special Christmas treat. The outfit was a man's idea of sexy, black and minimalist, and not designed to suit anyone who wasn't borderline anorexic. The label said it was made in Macau and the garments felt stiff and scratchy against her bare skin. She tried not to shudder when he asked her to model for him, and vowed silently never to wear it again, unless and until she owed him big time. <p> 'Tonight. Provided we make a quick escape from Stuart Wagg's party before you're drunk and incapable. Deal?' <p> 'You bet.' <p> Until she'd met Marc, she'd assumed that second hand booksellers had straggly grey hair and smelled of mildew. But he was slim and fair and gorgeous, for all the hints of below-the-surface discontent. He'd asked her to drive them to the party, so he could have a few drinks. Their host, a rich lawyer famed for conspicuous consumption, was sure to be generous with champagne and mulled wine. Ten to one, Marc would over-indulge, snore all the way home, and need to be put to bed as soon as they were back. <p> 'We've got to stay to see the New Year in,' he protested. 'I already compromised and told Stuart we won't arrive until half ten. He's spent a fortune on fireworks, it would be rude not to watch his money go up in smoke.' <p> 'You should have persuaded him to buy a first edition from you instead. After the quotes from the builders, we need all the cash we can lay our hands on.' <p> The breakfast kitchen of Undercrag looked out to the heather-splashed lower slopes of the fells. The view was worthy of a picture postcard, with an acre of grassland cropped by deer on the roam and spreading oaks whose leaves would shade the grounds in summer. But the window frames were rotten. The first priority had been to fix the roof; they'd spent their early weeks here skipping around strategically positioned buckets. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen cried out for a makeover. The wall tiles were a bilious shade of orange, the units drab and beige. The water pipes rattled and clanked, the floor was uneven and the dishwasher had sprung a leak. At least they kept warm, thanks to the Aga, but whenever they ventured into another room, it felt like walking inside an igloo. They'd need to stretch their overdraft beyond the limit before the place truly became a home. <p> 'Stuart is an important customer. Especially since George Saffell died.' <p> George Saffell, yes. She'd met him once, a couple of years ago. A tall man in his fifties, he had the reserved courtesy she associated with a bygone age. Yet a streak of selfishness lay beneath the superficial charm. He'd made his money as an estate agent, flogging second homes and time-shares, and pricing properties at a level that drove away kids born and bred in Cumbria, who didn't have a prayer of raising a hefty deposit. After selling his business to take early retirement, he'd devoted much of the proceeds to expanding his collection of rare books. He'd come round to their home to pick up a copy of <i>A Guide through the District of the Lakes in the North of England,</i> by William Wordsworth. Marc had picked it up for a song from a junk shop in Penrith; he had a dealer's eye for something special, a diamond glinting in a pile of dross. And this was all the more special since Wordsworth had inscribed the flyleaf in his neat hand and presented the book to the Earl of Lonsdale. Saffell hadn't haggled over the price and the profit paid for their holiday in Tuscany that summer. She supposed the book had perished in the fire that killed Saffell. To imagine his lonely and terrible end made her guts churn. <p> Years ago, her former boss Ben Kind had teased her that she had too much imagination to be a detective, but for once he was wrong. Imagination was an asset, maybe even essential. If you could not picture what people endured, how could you figure out what drove them to crime? <p> As for Saffell, the civilised small talk hadn't masked his greed. She recalled the naked hunger for possession, the moment he took the little muslin book in his hand. His eyes gorged on it, he was salivating. He ran his fingers down the spine with the delicacy of a lover caressing tender flesh. <p> While her thoughts wandered, Marc was fretting about Stuart Wagg. <p> 'The bad news is, I heard a rumour he has a new woman in his life.' <p> 'That's bad news?' <p> 'Think about it. Someone to squander his cash on when he ought to be investing in rare books as a hedge against a downturn in his pension fund.' <p> 'Does anybody really do that? Treat books simply as an investment?' <p> 'Not as often as I'd like. Though given that the economy is a train wreck, they could do a lot worse. Did I ever tell you that a signed first of <i>Casino Royale</i> would have been a better investment over the past twenty-five years than a five-bedroom house in the poshest part of Kendal?' <p> 'Only half a dozen times.' <p> 'Sorry to bore you.' His mock-sheepish grin still charmed her, though now she realised that he deployed it too often. 'Never mind, we'll have a great time tonight.' <p> 'If you're still sober by the time we get back.' <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Serpent Pool</b> by <b>Martin Edwards </b> Copyright © 2010 by Martin Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.