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A most grievous sin has been committed. In pursuit of justice, Decker—with the help of his tough-as-nails partner, Marge, and an able assist from his teenage daughter, Cindy—follows a twisted path that winds through a sinister maze of hospital politics, misplaced passions, and torturous mind games that can all too easily lead to murder.
His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Billy's sister, Nan, and her miner husband, James Bordon, live with their three sons, all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only seven, is enjoying his last summer aboveground.
Meanwhile, in London, a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp wants compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Despite their polarized views on slavery, Ashton's beautiful sister, Jane, encounters Erasmus Kemp and finds herself powerfully attracted to him.
Lord Spenton, who owns coal mines in East-Durham, has extravagant habits and is pressed for money. When he applies to the Kemp merchant bank for a loan, Erasmus sees a business opportunity of the kind he has long been hoping for, a way of gaining entry into Britain's rapidly developing and highly profitable coal and steel industries.
Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for . . .
With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the powerless and the captive against the rich and the powerful, and what weight mercy may throw on the scales of justice.
The crime was called in by Rina Lazarus, and Decker is relieved to discover that she is a calm and intelligent witness. She is also the only one in the sheltered community willing to speak of this unspeakable violation. As Rina tries to steer Decker through the maze of religious laws the two grow closer. But before they get to the bottom of this horrendous crime, revelations come to light that are so shocking that they threaten to come between the hard-nosed cop and the deeply religious woman with whom he has become irrevocably linked.
Two human skeletons, charred beyond recognition, are identified by a forensic dentist as teenage girls--and for Decker, the father of a sixteen-year-old daughter, vacation time is over. Throwing himself professionally and emotionally into the murder case, he launches a very personal investigation: a quest that pulls him deep into the crack dens of Hollywood Boulevard and painfully close to the children of the streets and a nightmare world he must make his own.