Authors: Maureen Carter
Idling at a red in Temple Way, she felt a shiver down her spine. Either someone had walked over her grave or the temperature had taken a dive. She leaned forward, peered up through the windscreen, pinpricks of starlight glittered in a clear indigo sky, but the star turn was the moon, a perfect disc of white light. She blamed her goosebumps on the falling mercury, aware it wasn't the only cause.
Harries had been watching. âPenny for 'em boss?' He was licking his fingers.
âCost you more than that.' The light changed and she eased the car forward. Right now her thoughts weren't for sale, or to share. Still the front runner was how the world would be a better place minus Ram. For Sarah, professionally and personally, the judgement was questionable. She was a cop, for Christ's sake. Wanting some thug's premature demise wasn't exactly on the job description.
âActually, DC Harries.' She jabbed a finger towards the foot-well. âI'm wondering how many more sodding crisps are going to end up on my carpet.'
âWhoops.' He swept a hand across his lap. Bad move.
âJust because your motor doubles as a trash cart . . .' The corollary was tacit. Harries drove a red two-seater MG that Highgate clowns called the babe magnet. Sniffing â mock offended â he turned ostensibly to window-gaze. Catching his yada-yada face in the wing mirror, she masked a smile. The affectionate irreverence was good, stopped her taking herself too seriously, as long as he didn't cross the line.
She got a whiff of vinegar fumes as he leaned across to stuff the empty packet in his pocket. âShould be coming up on the left, boss.'
âYou don't say?' she muttered. Biggest clue was the burly cop in a high vis vest stopping traffic. He recognised Sarah, turned his salute into a hand signal, waved the car through. Three police vehicles, blues still flashing, were in situ and a forensics team stood round the open doors of a white transit. Towards the end on the right, blue and white tape cordoned off the pavement and a wide section of road. Duckboards had been laid and led into a gap between two properties. The architecture on both sides of the street was a mishmash: mock-Gothic stood cheek by jowl with Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian â you name it. It looked as if a load of hyperactive kids had been let loose with the Lego.
âStill, it's good to know you've got your priorities right, DI Quinn.' Harries' delivery had an arch you could drive through.
âMeaning?' She was cruising, eyes peeled for a parking place out of forensics harm's way. As well as registering a shed-load of black doors and brass knockers, the glint from discreet wall plaques caught her eye. They'd be advertising professional services, mostly law firms, given the proximity of the courts and the coroner's office.
âWell, there's you stressing about the state of your interior while me, I'm sweating the hard stuff. The case? The victim?' He released the belt as she cut the engine. âHow we're going to crack it.'
âGreat.' Opening the door. âDon't let me stop you.' She was reaching into the boot by the time he joined her. âThose great thoughts, then? Are you sharing, or what?' Handing him a sealed plastic bag.
âSure am. Numero uno: if someone's bumped off Ram it'd do us all a bloody favour.'
âTwo: we'd be swimming in suspects.'
She managed a nod. Even with one hand on the car for support, she was struggling to get into the bunny suit. She was pretty sure Harries was on the money though. Who had better motive to see Ram dead than the girls' families? What if a father, say, had taken a pound of the proverbial? He'd get sent down for life and a family already suffering would be ripped further apart.
Nothing like getting ahead of yourself, Sarah.
As they headed in step to the action, her keen gaze raked the surroundings. âAny more in that crystal ball of yours, Dave?' The query was casual, she was concentrating on possible exit and entry routes, clocking hidden cameras.
âI see you andâ' he was hamming it up, fingers massaging temples â âa tall dark guy who's dead fit and going places. Initials are DH.'
She twitched a lip
. Yeah right.
That's definitely what she called wishful thinking.
t was far too good to be true. A cursory glance, even from a distance, had told Sarah the victim wasn't Jas Ram. The body was too short, too fat, and what little flesh was exposed, too white. Besides, knowing Ram, he wouldn't be seen dead in cheap shoes and an ill-fitting shiny black suit.
After liaising briefly with the crime scene manager and the first attending officers, the DI now hunkered down by the body; the pathologist Richard Patten squatted across from her. Space was limited and cross-contamination the last thing they needed. Harries was down the road picking the duty inspector's brain.
Sarah cast a curious glance over her shoulder. âHow come you thought he was Asian, Phil?'
The ruined face could've been any ethnicity, but a trouser leg had ridden up and the few inches of skin on show was definitely pale. The black shirt had a Nehru collar but sartorial preference hardly counted as a pointer to race.
âMy mistake, ma'am.' Helmet under arm, PC Ryan stood the other side of the tape studying a pair of hastily borrowed Doc Martens. His own boots, bagged and tagged, were with forensics. Not many cops come across a body by chance. Phil Ryan had been on foot patrol and virtually tripped over the bloody thing. His partner, Linda Fellows had been tasked with keeping the attendance log and was currently working the street, recording anything with a pulse.
Not something troubling Mr Shiny Suit.
âI'm sorry, like.' Beads of sweat glistened over Ryan's top lip. Surely, he wasn't hot? Every time anyone opened their mouth, Sarah thought a new pope had been elected. âIt was a lot darker then, ma'am, couldn't really see much of anything.'
So, why speculate?
She let it go. The guy might as well have ânewbie' tattooed on his forehead. At least he was upfront about the slip and probably still freaked out from the shock. Once he got over it, he'd likely dine out on the story. From what she'd gleaned so far, everything else had been done by the book. Which the experienced uniformed inspector who'd turned out could have written: an outer perimeter had been established, the inner forensic corridor laid and the crime scene secured. The actions were built into a cop's DNA: if it was too late to save a life, top priority was preserving the evidence.
That the victim was a goner was as plain as the nose . . . Sarah sniffed. It wasn't the best analogy, given the state of his face. Death had been formally pronounced by the divisional surgeon before Sarah arrived. A doctor had to declare life extinct even when a body had no head, let alone heartbeat. At least the medico hadn't hung around, the fewer live bodies trampling the scene the better.
Uniformed officers posted at both ends of the street were keeping out any passing punters. Chambers Row was neither rat run, nor pedestrian cut through, but police activity was like a magnet. Sarah had encountered grandstanders at previous crime scenes totally convinced a cop show was being shot. Mind, these days, savvy types hefted their own cameras with an eye to flogging the footage. That's if the media weren't already out in force. Which, a quick scout round confirmed, they still weren't.
She had to shield her eyes for a few seconds when the auxiliary lighting kicked in. They'd been making do with torches and strategically-directed full beams from a cop car. Enough light had been cast to see the victim was Caucasian, middle-aged and, as far as Sarah could tell, had no distinguishing features. Swallowing, she tasted bile. Now it was more like no distinguishable features. And where had all the blood come from? The jacket and shirt were slick with the stuff.
She glanced up at the pathologist. âOK if I leave you to it, Rich?' He didn't need an audience and she'd seen enough. Actually, not. The body had no ID.
Patten raised his head, dark irises visible between mask and hood. âNo worries. I'll find you when I'm done.'
She gave a fleeting smile. He was probably the best pathologist she worked with. His willingness to voice an opinion at the scene was worth its weight. Doctors generally kept their cards so close to their chest she was surprised it didn't stop circulation.
Standing now, she snapped off the latex gloves while making eye contact with Ryan. âYou're sure you didn't touch anything?' Not likely but the young PC had already put his foot in it, literally.
âNo ma'am. I could see he was dead. I'd no reason to check. That's exactly how I found him.' Stuffing the gloves in a pocket, she followed his gaze. The body was slumped against a red-brick wall in the cobbled passageway between two buildings, a law firm and offices of the probation service. When Ryan came across it, it had been wedged between a brace of wheelie bins. âI shouted Linda to keep away, had a quick shufti, then kept a watching brief with her out here until Inspector Wilding and the others arrived. One of the forensic people said it'd be OK to move the bins to gain access but that's it.'
She frowned. Couldn't be doing with manual speak. Why not just say, get closer? Was Ryan one of those people who adopted formal language to distance ugly reality? She hoped not for his sake.
Hearing rustling, Sarah turned to see two FSI photographers return for more shots. They'd already reeled off a load of stills and video but the more the better. The inquiry needed pictures of every inch, every angle and, as Baker invariably put it, every orifice. A full accurate record showing the location both with and without the body was vital. Not just for evidence but every squad member needed a feel for the scene even though most would never set foot in it.
The cameramen were clearly ready for their close-ups. Holding the tape for them, she nodded a greeting. Given the stink of blood and piss and whatever was rotting in the bins, thank God it wasn't smelly-vision.
Ducking under the tape herself, she signalled Ryan to follow. Right now he was both police officer and prime witness and, in her experience, neither was infallible. No one recalled facts immediately, fully or accurately. More intelligence invariably emerged during retelling or under questioning. Halting under a street light, she asked him to talk her through it again. Studying his face closely she was also on aural alert for any discrepancy, deviation. Ryan had no difficulty holding her gaze and his second account was virtually verbatim. He and PC Fellows had been nearing the end of their beat. She was on police radio so stayed out front while he went to check the rear of the premises, primarily because there'd been an attempted break-in at the chambers the week before. He didn't make it that far because the victim's legs were protruding and Ryan almost went arse over tit.
âSorry, ma'am, I meant I nearlyâ'
âI've heard worse, Phil.' She scratched her cheek. âAnd it was nine fifteen, nine thirty when you realised what you were dealing with?' Establishing a timeline early on was vital. The real question was how long had the body been there. She and Harries had arrived at 10.54. It was getting on for half-eleven now. Ryan fumbled in a tunic pocket. Did he really need a notebook?
No. He wiped a tissue round his mouth. âI put the call in to control at 21.45, ma'am.'
âAnd there was no one else around? You didn't see or hear anything? Before, during, after?'
âNo, ma'am, not here, anyway.' Noise, he told her, had filtered through from surrounding streets, traffic passing, people laughing, footsteps. It was Friday night in the city, go figure. So why didn't he look too convinced. Was it possible he'd been so fazed he was scared something or someone had slipped the net?
âOK, Phil. If anything comes back . . .' It didn't need spelling out and he'd give a formal statement later. Thank God for CCTV though, they'd chase the footage soon as. There was half decent coverage round these parts. In theory, there should be something on tape. But what had they got on their hands? Random attack, premeditated murder, booze-fuelled fight or another mugging gone belly-up? The injuries here weren't dissimilar to the previous incidents but that meant little without corroborating evidence.
She watched Ryan join the end of a slow-moving line of officers in dark overalls. Seven or eight men and women head down, shoulder-to-shoulder, heavy duty torches trained on the ground. It put Sarah in mind of a Spielberg movie. All they needed was an alien or two, maybe a bit of dry ice. She shivered again. If it got much colder, they'd soon have the real thing. She suspected the current search grid was too wide. The street was full of the usual crap: butt ends, bus tickets, chewing gum, chips. There'd be a fingertip search at first light and they'd need to get a move on, the road couldn't stay closed indefinitely. Once the body was removed and the FSI guys moved in, hopefully the chances of turning up something more significant would increase. She blew her cheeks out on a sigh. Wouldn't say no to the murder weapon.
âBlimey. That was from the depths, DI Quinn.' Richard Patten was walking towards her, medical case in hand, glint in eye. âI thought you were happy in your work. Freezing your butt off all hours of the day and night. Keeping our streets safe.'
âHappy? I'm delirious.'
âI could probably give you something for that?' Deadpan.
Her wide smile was the first for a while. She found Patten attractive and sensitive, a rare combination in her cop circle. Tall and lean with dark hair that fell into a floppy fringe, he invariably dressed casually, usually wore T-shirts you could read. She respected him and was pretty sure the feeling was mutual.
âI'll tell you what you can give me, Rich.' Mental cringe. God, that came out wrong.
âYou'll be after an early steer?'
Was his lip curved?
She walked him to his beat-up old Land Rover where a grizzled black Labrador stared mournfully through the back window. Opening the driver's door, Patten said he'd try and schedule the post-mortem for mid-morning.
He knew she'd have to attend and any earlier would be a pain.