Authors: David George Clarke
Saturday 31 May
iacomo Riley squeezed on the brakes of his gleaming new tandem, gently bringing it to a halt by one of the many paths that led into Harlow Wood.
“This is the place, Nore,” he called over his shoulder. “Off you get.”
“But the barrier’s down, Jackie.”
“It’s only a wooden pole. We’ll just duck under it and head along the path. There’ll be no one around, not at nine o’clock on a Saturday night. They’ll all be in the pub or watching the telly.”
Noreen clambered from the tandem’s rear saddle and nudged him with her elbow, her eyes roaming his sleek Lycra-encased body. “As long as they’re not hiding behind the trees watching us.”
Two hundred yards into the wood, Giacomo propped the tandem against a tree and turned expectantly to his girlfriend. Catching the fire in his eyes, she let her face register a look of mock horror.
“Not here, Jackie, it’s much too open. Let’s get a bit further into the woods.”
She turned around and pointed over her shoulder at her backpack. “And get that bedroll out of me bag. I haven’t carried it all this way to leave it rolled up. I don’t want this lovely kit you bought me all snagged and covered in mud and leaves.”
“That kit’s coming straight off, Noreen Smart. I can hardly wait.”
“Well all the more reason to spread out the bedroll. I don’t want no twigs sticking in me bum. And anyway, before you get your hands on me super stretchy shorts, you’ll have to catch me.”
She giggled and ran off, leaving Giacomo holding the bedroll.
“Wahey!” he whooped and sprinted after her, grinning in anticipation as he dodged from the path around a thick stand of trees before jumping out in front of her.
“Jackie!” she squealed.
“Got you!” he cried, grabbing her arms.
As she wriggled playfully from his grasp, Noreen’s eyes were busy scanning the area around them. “That looks like a good spot,” she said, pointing through the trees to a relatively flat patch of grass in a small clearing.
They bent under some low branches to enter the clearing and Giacomo laid out the bedroll. He had hardly flattened the ends before Noreen was lying on it, looking up at him with an attempted air of mystery.
“Come on then, my Latin lover boy, what are you waiting for? You’re half Italian, aren’t you? Surely all the biking hasn’t worn you out.”
She stretched out her body and wiggled her bottom, reaching her arms behind her to grab hold of a branch from a bush near her head.
Giacomo gulped as he knelt down and reached for the waistband of her shorts, his eyes exploring her body. Noreen pulled on the branch. “P’raps you should tie my wrists to this, like they do in them movies. Put a mask on me.” She looked out provocatively from under her eyelids. “Enslave me!” she panted, dragging her tongue over the words.
Giacomo tugged on her shorts and she giggled again as he tickled the bare skin he’d exposed. Bending over, he ran his tongue over her belly button and the small gold star dangling from her navel ring.
“Ooo, that’s more like it, my Jackimo,” moaned Noreen thickly as she arched her back and reached farther into the bush, searching for a stronger branch to grasp.
Giacomo suddenly ducked his head in alarm as a piercing scream pounded his eardrums.
“Christ, Nore, what’s the matter? I hardly touched you; I can’t possibly have hurt you.”
He looked up to see Noreen’s arms thrashing wildly as her whole body became a shuddering, quivering jelly.
“Jackie!” she screamed again.
From nowhere, she was on her feet, tugging at her shorts. She hopped away from the bedroll. “Th … there!” she jabbered, pointing a shaking finger. “In the bushes. It felt like … There’s a foot in the bushes!”
“Don’t be daft, Nore, it—”
“There is!” she insisted. “I felt the toes. They were all cold and clammy.”
Giacomo laughed nervously. “It’ll be nothing, Nore, just some branch. Probably got moss or lichen all over it.”
He leaned forward from where he was still kneeling and reached out to pull the nearest branch aside. He peered into the space behind and froze.
“It’s not just a foot, it’s a body. A dead body, Nore. Hidden in the bushes.”
He turned his head to his girlfriend to see her desperately wiping her hands down her shorts, trying to remove all traces of the feel of cold, lifeless flesh.
Suddenly her knees buckled. She clamped her arms around her shuddering body, her jaw trembling. “What are we going to do, Jackie?”
Giacomo pulled her to him. “We’ll have to call the police. We can’t just leave her there.”
“It’s a woman. At least, I think so. She’s wearing a short skirt.”
“We can’t do that!”
“Me dad! He’ll kill me if he finds out what we’ve been up to. He’ll kill you too.”
“We’ll tell him we were going for a walk and I saw the foot sticking out of the bushes. Nothing wrong with that, Nore. Anyway, we didn’t do anything.”
He wrinkled his nose dolefully. “Didn’t get a chance.”
ennifer Cotton felt a pulse of excitement as she stopped her car behind the untidy group of vehicles blocking the narrow track on the south side of Harlow Wood — an ambulance, patrol cars with their lights flashing and several unmarked cars.
Her passenger Detective Sergeant Neil Bottomley looked up and grunted.
“Looks like the guv beat us to it, Cotton. That’s his Sierra. He won’t be chuffed to be here on a Saturday night.”
He looked around. “No sign of Justin’s little red devil, of course.”
Jennifer laughed. “He’s bound to be along in a mo, sarge. Got to live up to his name.”
Like Jennifer, Derek ‘Justin’ Thyme was a bright young detective constable with the newly created Nottingham City and County Serious Crime Formation, but unlike Jennifer, his personal organisation was chaotic and he was famous for arriving everywhere at the last moment in his scarlet Mini Cooper.
Bottomley released his door and swung his substantial bulk onto his left leg as he hauled himself out of the car. “Better be, or the guv’ll be kicking his arse. Come on, Cotton, let’s see what’s what.”
He waved at a young uniformed constable who was keeping a log of the vehicles. The constable pointed to a path disappearing into the trees. “Everyone’s down there, sir.”
They made their way towards a floodlit area about fifty yards along the path. Even though it was now approaching eleven p.m., the late May evening was still not completely dark. Nevertheless, Jennifer shone a torch onto the path ahead of the sergeant. She didn’t fancy having to help him up if he tripped.
As they neared the small clearing, Jennifer could see a number of people dressed in white disposable coveralls moving quietly about their business, making notes and taking photographs. These were the SOCOs, the scene-of-crime officers whose job it was to protect the scene from any further contamination after the point of discovery, and then to make a painstaking search of the area. Having already established the likely limits of the overall scene and protected any obvious evidential material, they were now working outwards from the body, recording, collecting and bagging anything that was likely to be of significance.
The entire clearing was cordoned off with blue and white crime scene tape, so those not occupied with protecting and preserving the evidence were crammed onto two of three narrow paths leading into it. The third path was part of the crime scene, the tape disappearing along both sides into the woods.
Detective Inspector Rob McPherson turned his head from where he was standing watching the SOCOs’ every move, his hands thrust deep in his pockets, his face grim.
“Ah, Neil, and DC Cotton.”
“Guv,” nodded Jennifer, her eyes roaming the scene and taking in as much as she could. McPherson could see the enthusiasm written on her face.
“First murder, Cotton?”
“Yes, guv. Or at least the first one I can get close to. I attended a couple in Newark when I was in uniform, but I was only really taking particulars of attending personnel. A bit like the lad by the cars. What do you want me to do?”
The DI looked around. “Where’s Thyme? Why is he always the last one to arrive anywhere?”
On cue, there was a rustling from the path and a breathless DC Thyme emerged from the trees, ducking his powerful six-foot-two West Indian frame to avoid banging his head on any low branches.
“Sorry, guv,” he panted.
“Maintaining your reputation, Justin?”
“No, guv. I mean—”
McPherson held up a hand to silence him and turned to address his team.
“Right, let’s get you up to speed. We have the body of a young woman lying in those bushes over there. She’s around twenty, fully clothed and there’s a wound to the back of her head, but not much in the way of blood.
However, it looks as if we might be in luck. The SOCOs have found what is most likely the route the killer used to bring the girl here.”
He pointed to the crime scene tape across the clearing.
“That path there goes to one of several tracks that lead into these woods. Our vehicles are on another. The track is for forestry vehicles and barred at both ends, although there was no sign of a padlock.
“The SOCOs found a fresh tyre mark in some soft ground at the end of the path. They reckon it’s from a largish vehicle, a four-by-four or something like that, but the tyre isn’t the rugged deep-profile-tread sort used by the forestry people. So we’re thinking that was the spot where the killer drove to with the girl and the tyre mark could be from the killer’s vehicle.”
Jennifer had taken out her notebook and was scribbling furiously. “Presumably that wasn’t the path used by the couple who found the body, guv?”
“No, Cotton, it wasn’t. They entered the woods from the main road on a different path.”
Bottomley frowned. “Where’s their car?”
“They weren’t in a car, Neil, they arrived on a tandem.”
“A tandem. You know, a two-person bicycle.”
“I know what it is,” snapped the sergeant, not even attempting to hide his indignation, “but I don’t think I’ve seen one since I was a lad.”
“Well, they must be making a comeback,” said McPherson. “You should see theirs; very hi-tech.”
Jennifer looked up from her notebook. “So this couple were cycling past here and just happened to notice a body?”
McPherson’s eyes registered his amusement. “I think, DC Cotton, they had finished their cycling for the day, or at least they were taking a break. They were involved in other activities.”
Jennifer flushed, feeling stupid. “Ah,” she said, looking down at her notes. “Do we know anything about the dead girl?”
“Nothing at the moment, except that she’s dressed like a hooker. Fred White, the head of the SOCO unit, is searching through her clothing right now.
“Meanwhile, we want to learn all we can from the couple that found her. The stories they told the WPC who spoke to them earlier are rather garbled, particularly the one from the lass, who was very upset. We need to be clear on exactly what happened. No need for a statement at the moment, just a chat.”
He looked past Jennifer to where Derek was standing behind her. “Thyme, for some reason I can’t fathom, you seem to appeal to young women of the lass’s age. Talk to her while Sergeant Bottomley takes the lad into another car. Nice and gentle — they’ve done nothing wrong — but we do need to know how much they disturbed the scene.”
He shifted his attention to Jennifer. “Cotton, get me some coveralls and a set for yourself. I want you to watch what the SOCOs are doing, and get a look at the dead girl.”
The pulse of excitement she had felt earlier buzzed again in Jennifer’s head. The guv was giving her an opportunity.
As Bottomley and Thyme were about to make their way back to the patrol cars and the young couple, Fred White emerged from the bushes by the dead woman and called out to McPherson.
“Got the contents of the girl’s purse from the inside pocket of her jacket here, Rob.”
He walked over to where they were all standing.
“It doesn’t look as if it’s been disturbed, but we won’t know for sure until we’ve examined it thoroughly in the lab. All the contents have now been sealed separately. Of interest right now are this medical card and there’s a letter from an employer, although judging from the card and the girl’s clothing, I doubt she was employed as a nanny like the letter says.”
“Go on, Fred,” said McPherson.
The SOCO read from the medical card. “According to this, the girl’s name is Miruna Peptanariu. She’s Romanian. The medical card is from an STD clinic.”
“Anything else?” grunted McPherson.
“Well, we’re still waiting for the pathologist, but it doesn’t look as if her clothing has been disturbed — there’s a small amount of blood in the hair on the back of her head and some marks on the neck, but not really what you’d expect from strangulation. So no, nothing positive. There are no drag marks anywhere, so I’d guess the girl was carried, possibly all the way from the car. We will, of course, be searching along the path for any signs that her clothing or the clothing of the killer snagged on anything as she was brought here, but that’ll be best done in daylight.”
“How long do you think she’s been here?” asked McPherson.
White shrugged. “It’s not really my call, but there’s still some rigor, not much in the way of flies, no animal bites, so at a guess, I’d say probably no more than twenty-four hours. Don’t tell the pathologist I said so though, will you?”
McPherson nodded. “Last night then, possibly the early hours of this morning. Makes sense. Anything on the tyre mark?”
“It’s been photographed, measured and cast. I can get someone to run it against the tyre print collection on the computer first thing, so we should able to narrow it down a little.”
“Good,” said McPherson, looking up as he heard someone coming along the path. “I think I recognise that heavy breathing; here comes Horace. We should have some more answers about the girl soon. Meanwhile, off you go, you two, and see what you can get from the couple.”
Bottomley and Thyme stood back to make room for Dr Horace Lawson, pathologist-on-call, to pass them.
“Evening, Doc.” Rob McPherson was suddenly all smiles.
“I suppose it is,” said Lawson ambiguously.
“OK if we gown up and follow you in?” said McPherson.
“It’s your party,” grunted the pathologist. “Just don’t get in my way.”
Derek caught Jennifer’s eye and winked at her. She grinned at him, motioning with her hand that he should hurry after the sergeant.