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Michael White

Equinox

Prologue

Oxford: 20 March, 7.36 p.m.

He cuts the fuel line to the girl's car while she enjoys an early dinner at her friend's house, and then watches the petrol spatter onto the tarmac and run down the hill away from the car, the residue evaporating slowly.

Minutes later he sees her emerge from the house and he follows the car for a quarter of a mile into the country, observing silently as she pulls the dying vehicle to the side of the road.

Flicking off the lights and turning his ignition key to 'off', he allows his own car to glide to a quiet halt fifty yards along the lane behind her. He listens as the girl tries in vain to fire up the parched engine.

He steps out of his car and walks slowly along the lane, keeping out of the moonlight and staying in the tessellated shadows.

She is a mere silhouette, as the lemon lunar radiance spills across the car roof and lights up the branches of trees and the leaves overhead.

The plastic covers over his shoes squelch against the soft turf. He can hear his own steady breathing, which hits the inside of the plastic visor covering his face. He quickens his pace.

The girl stops turning her ignition key and looks around her through the windows, but she doesn't see him in the deep shadows as he walks towards her car.

He sees her pick up her mobile phone from somewhere on the passenger seat. Two more paces and he is at the door. Opening it, he thrusts inside, scalpel first.

The girl screams and her fingers loosen on the phone, letting it slide down her front and onto the floor of the car. In one seamless movement he leans in close and raises his arm. She cannot see his face, obscured as it is by perspex.

The girl starts shaking involuntarily, her mouth open, speechless with terror. As she is about to scream her attacker's free hand comes down hard over her mouth. His face is only a few inches away from hers now — she can see through the visor that his black pupils are huge.

Her pain starts as a pinprick, but in an instant it swells into her chest. In disbelief, she feels liquid spill out of her, soaking her blouse. The metal of the blade feels like it is rearing up inside her neck, pushing on to pierce her brain.

She shudders and a roar comes from her throat. It hits dead air and is swallowed up.

The next thing that flies from her mouth is a stream of blood. Arterial spray flies over the front seat and hits the windscreen.

Seconds later she is dead.

Chapter 1

Laura Niven was led to the door of the Bodleian Library by her old friend, the Chief Librarian, James Lightman. They had been seeing a lot of each other during the past three weeks — her first visit to Oxford in four years. They descended down the steps leading to the street. Laura kissed Lightman on the cheek and he held her at arm's length, considering her. She was tall and slender, dressed in a wide-lapelled crimson jacket, faded blue jeans and suede loafers, her blonde hair done up in a loose bun.

The Chief Librarian shook his head slowly and appreciatively. 'It's been wonderful seeing you again, my dear,' he said. 'Please don't wait so long for the next visit, will you?' His croak of a voice was almost a whisper.

Laura smiled at him, studying the wrinkled, benign face. Lightman looked for all the world like an ageing tortoise, his shell the Bodleian, home to the most magnificent collection of books in the world. She placed a hand on his shoulder before

turning and continuing on down the steps. At the bottom she stopped and looked back, but the old man had gone.

Laura loved this city and felt a twinge in her abdomen at the thought that she would soon be heading home. Oxford had seeped into her blood when she had been here as a student more than twenty years earlier. It had become part of her, just as in her own tiny way she had become part of it, part of that vast, complex human tapestry that was the history of the city.

She turned along Broad Street, strode past the Sheldonian and started to cross over. But she hadn't looked each way: a young woman in subfusc pedalling an ancient black Hercules bike almost ran her over. The cyclist swerved at the last moment, ringing her bell furiously. Laura, feeling strangely exhilarated, watched her wend her way towards St Giles. Twenty years ago that would have been her, deliberately intimidating American tourists.

Perhaps, she thought, she was pining for her youth. But it wasn't just her own personal story, her part in the tapestry that made her love this place. It was. . what? What was it that she loved? She couldn't define it: it was one of those indescribable human feelings, as mysterious as honour, altruism, sentimentality.

When she'd been here as a student Laura had written long letters to her friends in Illinois and South Carolina and to those at home in California about what she had learned. She had boasted about the place because she'd felt that she had become a part of it. To Laura, Oxford was a city of dreams, a super-real place that lavished unmatchable riches upon strangers and breathed fresh air into one's lungs. It was, she thought as she crossed St Giles on her way to the restaurant where she was expected at eight-thirty, quite simply a place that made life worthwhile.

Philip Bainbridge's image of Oxford at the same moment was altogether different. He had come into the city from his house in the village of Woodstock about fifteen miles beyond the old city walls to pick up his daughter Jo from her room at St John's College on St Giles. During the drive in he had seen only the worst aspects of the city. He had been cut up on the dual carriageway by a rusty Rover 216 containing three hyperactive youths from the local estate, Blackbird Leys, a sprawling ghetto only a few miles from the dreaming spires. Then, at a traffic light, he'd been verbally abused by the driver of a Mini Metro who had accused Philip of cutting him up on the slip road off the main route into the city. A few moments later, a drunk had stepped out onto Banbury Road directly in front of his car as he'd pulled away from another set of traffic lights — and it was not yet half past eight in the evening.

But Philip was used to it. He loved this city, warts and all, and had been in love with it since he had come up to read philosophy, politics and economics — PPE — at Balliol in 1980. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, he could never imagine living anywhere else in the world, claiming completely seriously that if Oxford had a Mediterranean climate, it would be a city called Complete Paradise and he could spend eternity there.

And this from a man who spent a great deal of his time contemplating — or rather, being forced to contemplate — the seamier side of the ancient city. He had been a freelance photographer for years, and now he earned most of his income with the Thames Valley police force working as a crime-scene police photographer. During his time in this job he had seen oceans of blood and had witnessed the outer limits of pain. Because of this, he knew that at its heart, in its human soul, Oxford was just the same as South Central LA or the East End of London. He still loved the place but he knew that, like all places in the mortal world, anything divine about Oxford was tainted with the blood and grey matter of many a corpse. That, he understood, was simply the way of the world, be it Venice Beach, Eighth Avenue or The High on an English summer's evening.

Parking on St Giles, he ran over to the porter's lodge of St John's where Jo was waiting for him. She looked incredibly beautiful, an Arthur Rackham painting in faded denim and a Ralph Lauren leather jacket. Her russet hair cascaded in tight natural curls to her shoulders. She had burned-wood eyes, pale skin, high cheekbones and full lips.

'Sorry I'm late.'

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