Authors: Alice Clark-Platts
Alice Clark-Platts is a former human rights lawyer who has worked at the UN International Criminal Tribunal in connection with the Rwandan genocide and also on cases involving Winnie Mandela and the rapper Snoop Dogg. Her fiction has been shortlisted for literary prizes and she is a graduate of the Curtis Brown creative writing course.
is her first novel.
For my mum and dad
The body was found in the icy coffin of the weir. The cathedral loomed above, its shadow stretching flat across the dark waters which had played with her hair. It streamed out behind her body in the flaky current, turning this way and that. Damp tendrils stuck to her face, her eyes open, knowing. She wore a university T-shirt, purple and clinging. Tight jeans hugging her splayed legs in the lapping water; fingers teasing the weeds in which she had become entangled.
A heron plopped its foot in the water. It turned its head slowly to one side, considering. Grey-bearded clouds bumped into each other above, sagely taking on board the crime scene below. All that could be heard, aside from the swishing of the universe, was the sucking of the air pocket beneath the small of her back:
fnuck, pause; fnuck, pause; fnuck, pause.
Steady and meditative, the heron spread his wings and took flight.
A fluorescent glare from Martin’s phone stabbed into the darkness of the bedroom. Awake already despite the untimely hour, she was quick to sit up and put it to her ear, murmuring softly to avoid waking the sleeping form next to her. The blue of a cold sunrise inched through the cracks in the curtains as she finished the call and swung her legs off the bed. She looked across the room to the mirror which hung above a chest of drawers, her reflection becoming clearer as more light entered the room. Her red hair was mussed, her mouth and eyes still drowsy with inaction.
‘What is it?’ Jim asked, stirring to life beneath the covers. His hand touched her back for a moment before being withdrawn. Martin considered this retreat for a second before she answered.
‘Work,’ she said, twisting round to look at her husband, who had pushed himself up on to his elbows. ‘Could be something … I might not be home for a while.’
Jim gave a querying look. Martin touched his hand briefly and then stood, rolling her shoulders back, setting her chin.
‘A body’s been found down by the weir,’ she said in the quiet, reaching for her clothes.
Martin found her way to the crime scene thirty minutes later. Approaching the gate on the track leading to Prebends Bridge, the car headlights swept the thick line of trees bordering the slope down to the riverbank. Darkness was lifting to reveal dank cobwebs of mist spun through the air. Martin parked her car next to the gate and jumped out, taking a pair of white rubber wellingtons from the car boot and replacing her ballet pumps with them. She pulled on a plastic raincoat, shoving the arms of her parka bulkily through the polyester sleeves. She walked down past the gate and on to the bridge. From there, drifting over the water, she could see the lights of the response unit and the dayglo outline of the tent being used to house the body. The river stretched on beyond the morbidity, blackish navy and glistening, its banks sloping upwards to where last night a thousand students had caroused in bars. Martin jogged down the steep path which led to the river and flashed her card at the constable on the cordon.
‘I’ll take you to Doctor Walsh, ma’am,’ he said, turning away from her.
‘Don’t bother. I’ll find him. You’d better stay here and watch for marauders.’
‘They’ll all be sleeping off their hangovers, this early in the day,’ the constable sniffed.
Martin carried on past him and headed to the tent, briefly acknowledging the various SOCOs who
stood around, waiting for the call to start the minutiae of their investigation. As she pulled on her protective shoe covers and plastic gloves, she noticed the outline of what must be a boathouse further up river, bunting flapping forlornly from its roof, detritus of some sort scattered in front of it over the dewy grass. Martin bent to open up the tent flap before peering inside.
‘DI Martin?’ The man who spoke was crouched over the shape of a girl. He considered Martin with a frown as she edged inside stiffly where body heat fused with the dank smell of sodden ground. ‘When DCI Butterworth said you’d be the SIO, I assumed he meant a man. Sorry.’
He didn’t sound sorry, Martin thought. Perhaps if she was called DI Flowers, she could prevent the continual assumption that she was male – although why her sex actually mattered, she wasn’t entirely sure. She chose to ignore the stab of irritation this caused and turned to look at what faced her. The body stared upwards, her head crooked to one side and her palms spread, as if she were shrugging. She looked abandoned, Martin thought. The girl’s mouth was twisted in condemnation, indelibly taken aback by what had happened to her. Her chin was high and her blonde hair, dirtied by the mud of the riverbank, coiled around her neck in wet strings. A tiny black leaf stuck to her cheek, a beauty spot gone wrong.
‘Doctor Walsh,’ she said to the doctor, giving a curt nod. ‘Has she been moved?’
Walsh nodded. ‘Couple who found her dragged her up here. Tried to give her mouth to mouth.’ His eyebrows lifted at the futility.
Martin breathed deliberately, steadying her instinct to move fast, the loud clock of the crime scene ticking relentlessly within her. The scent of mildew cloyed in the enclosed space, and she could feel the beginnings of a headache as the infinite possibilities crowded her brain; those possibilities more tortuous for someone like her than an empty trail.
‘Could be a baptism of fire for you,’ Walsh continued, gently moving the girl’s hair to reveal dark wine-coloured bruises bisecting the line of her throat. ‘Might be drowning I suppose, but these marks are nasty.’
Martin bent over double to ease herself further into the tent, awkwardly shuffling on her haunches up to where the body lay. She swallowed, wanting to hear her own voice, to normalize the scene.
‘I wish they’d make these things bigger. They know average-sized human beings will have to work in them.’
‘Better ones in Newcastle, were there?’ Walsh said without looking at her, shifting in his squat to the left to give her access to the body. She ignored him, looking intently into the girl’s face.
‘Young.’ She paused. ‘Suicide, do you think? You
must get a few around exam time. Unlikely with those marks I guess.’
The girl’s eyes stared back at Martin. Glazed but judging. Walsh leaned forwards and closed them.
‘Hard to drown yourself,’ he said. ‘Not unheard of, I suppose. As I say, we don’t know yet.’
‘Time of death?’ Martin risked.
Walsh narrowed his eyes. He backed out in as dignified a manner as possible, his head the last bit of him to leave the tent.
‘I’ll be in touch when the post mortem’s done.’
Martin bent her head again to the body and breathed softly, the sound of it a comfort in the overly warm stillness of the tent. There was a tenderness to the girl’s face, a peacefulness now that her eyes were closed. Martin knew, though, that if the girl had been strangled, there would have been no serenity at the end. She would have battled. And she had lost.
Martin’s eyes travelled down the girl’s body. Why was she only wearing a T-shirt at this time of night? Even though it was May, the evenings were cold and the wind in the north-east was unkind to those not hardened to its charms. Martin studied the girl’s limbs, which were already taking on a marble-ish sheen. She turned the girl’s left arm over, and her fingers hovered over the scars running in neat horizontal lines from her wrist to her elbow. Funny to wear a
T-shirt too, she thought, if you were a self-harmer. In her experience, those scars would be desperately covered up for fear of discovery.
Martin let her eyes linger on the girl’s face for a last moment, knowing that she would soon be moved, that the clues to her death would be disturbed. Who was she? What had she seen before the end? Martin moved her lips, the words of a long-forgotten prayer coming to her briefly. Shaking it off, she crawled out of the morbid fug of the tent into the air and stood, stretching her back and flexing her fingers to the sky. She turned her head and lowered her arms as she saw a female figure approach.
‘Morning, boss,’ the woman said. ‘DS Jones. I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.’
Martin nodded and shook the proffered hand. Her promotion to Detective Inspector as head of the Major Crime Unit, moving here from Newcastle, had taken place only three weeks previously, and she had still to meet all the members of the force. She appraised Jones, a square sort of girl whose innate cheeriness was clearly being held in check with a frown and firm mouth, a seriousness represented further by her stolid laced-up shoes.
‘Good to meet you, Jones. Have we got any ID yet?’
‘Student card in the back pocket. Name’s Emily Brabents. She was at Joyce College. First year.’
‘Joyce. That’s on the Bailey?’
‘Anything else on her? Phone or bag?’
‘Not so far.’
‘We need to inform the next of kin. We’d better get ourselves up to Joyce and see the principal. Get someone to call him or her. Tell them we’re on our way.’
Jones spoke rapidly into her radio, and Martin indicated to the SOCOs that they could begin their work. The women turned from the tent, walking together up the slope, away from the water, their feet crunching on the wet and pebbled ground. Martin looked up at the fading crescent of the moon as they approached the stone ramparts of the bridge. ‘How long have you lived in Durham, Jones?’ she asked.
‘All my life,’ Jones answered, shoving her hands into her pockets.
Martin glanced across at her. ‘This was Regatta weekend, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes. It’ll make initial enquiries messy,’ Jones commented. ‘The amount of people traipsing along here over the last couple of days.’
Martin nodded, the eyes of the dead girl still emblazoned on her brain. She stopped and circled back for a second to look at the river as it wended its silvery way between the verdant bush of the trees framing the riverbank. As the morning mists began
to clear, Martin could see at last the vast, pale shape of Durham Cathedral emerge above the old mill on the right bank. Despite her short time in the city, the cathedral seemed to Martin to be ever-present, an unyielding frown buttressed by the might of its own endurance.
A sullen breeze huddled the tops of the trees, a crowd of crones bending to observe the crime scene and all its activity. The white-suited bodies of the SOCOs began to spread out along the bank, fingertipping the ground. Martin inhaled sharply, watching them, thinking it through. ‘A murder of a student is bad news. Bad for tourism, university morale. Press interest.’
Jones remained silent with her head down, falling in with Martin as she resumed walking.
‘What’s it like between the students and the locals here? Any tension?’
‘Some. Nothing out of the ordinary. Friday and Saturday nights are for the local kids to come out and play. The students mainly stick to weeknights. But the Regatta’s always on a Sunday.’ Jones looked at Martin, who seemed deep in thought. ‘Some of the uni lot might’ve been rubbing the town’s faces in it.’ She shrugged. ‘It happens.’
Martin nodded. ‘Is there CCTV along the riverbank?’
‘Nah, boss.’ Jones shook her head. ‘The council
won’t even approve proper street lights on Prebends Bridge.’ She smiled a little. ‘Technology is seen as the devil in some parts of the city.’
The women reached the car, and Martin began to take off her boots. ‘Do you read books, Jones?’ she asked as she put her pumps back on, divesting herself of the polyester jacket. The day was brighter now, the sun clawing its way through the clouds, scaling the grey sky.
Jones was nonplussed. ‘Uh, yes, I suppose so, guv. I like the odd murder mystery.’ She watched her new boss closely. Martin seemed different from the usual lot here. She took things in her own time, it was plain. Jones was less a thinker, more a grafter. But there was something about Martin she liked. She had a certainty about her, something you could trust. ‘My gut’s telling me this is murder, boss,’ she chanced, wanting to have Martin agree with something she said.
‘Save your gut for the Christmas party, Jones,’ Martin answered. ‘We don’t know anything yet. Stick around, though. Someone who reads murder mysteries will be good to have along.’ She winked at Jones and got behind the wheel.