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Authors: Adam Creed

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Pain of Death

BOOK: Pain of Death
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ADAM CREED

Pain of Death

 

FOR

 

Ada

Gertrude

Marie

Ruth

Stefanie

 

All wonderful mothers

 

PART ONE

 

 

One

Staffe sinks to his knees, the ground surprisingly warm, here beneath the City. The ponding water leaches into his trousers and he leans close to the face of the dying woman. In this false light, her skin is the palest blue, almost neon, and her broken lips are strangely bright, like burst plums. He searches for a glimmer of life but there seems to be none.

Then she moans.

He could swear she does, so he puts his ear to her mouth, but feels nothing, just his own drumming life, within.

Water drips. The deep vaults echo the constant murmur of the small generator. A camera clicks and the crime-scene lights buzz. On each of her wrists, he sees a ring of red pressed into the skin, like thick bracelets.

A paramedic asks Staffe to move away and another stands over the woman, drapes a red blanket over her. It covers her body, not the face.

‘No,’ says the photographer. ‘I need to see all of her.’

Beneath the blanket, the woman is as she was: naked from the waist down, a cotton dress hoisted up around her stomach and breasts. No underwear.

A scene-of-crime officer in plastic overalls removes the blanket and looks away as the photographer tries to capture the scene.

‘We have to move her,’ says the doctor, who wears patent purple, chunky heels. Her hair is done up in a swirling twist and her plastic suit rustles in the subterranean mêlée. The night she had dressed for was in a different, brighter world.

‘Then take her,’ says Staffe, snatching the blanket from the SOCO. As he replaces the blanket, he sees the smears and clusters of blood, some dried, some fresh. It is all over the down curve of her stomach, and her legs, and between. He beckons the paramedics.

‘We need more time,’ says the crime-scene photographer.

Staffe says to the doctor, ‘I’m sorry. Please take her away.’

The paramedics lift her onto a stretcher, as if she were a Fabergé egg. Written on all their faces is the doomed concentration of people who wish to save lives, who often as not tend the new dead.

The doctor places a hand on Staffe’s elbow, grips it lightly, saying softly, ‘She might be all right.’

They smile weakly at each other.

He watches everybody leave, taking their kit with them: the SOCOs and medics in separate groups.

The inspector remains in this tunnel the Victorians earmarked as an underground railway. But it never made it.

His chest tightens.

Far away, at the bottom of the shaft that delivered them here, the last light disappears and for a moment all Staffe can hear is his own heart. In the dark, distant, a light flickers. As it slowly grows larger and closer, Staffe sees it is a man
approaching
. He looks like something from a Hammer film, his eyes intent and narrowed. His bearded jaw juts and his thin lips are dark; there is blood on his hands and his shirt front, too.

This is Asquith, Secretary of the Underground Victorians and an amateur historian. He found the dying woman and called the police. Staffe knows he will have to question him, will have to search for a link between Asquith and the woman but killers don’t call; and if they do, they don’t stick around.

‘Strange,’ says Asquith. ‘All my days, I have peered into the past, but this is now. They will come here, to the scene of this murder.’

‘She’s not dead.’

‘This will become history.’

Staffe watches Asquith disappear down the tunnel, towards the streets and libraries, the hospitals and homes. A fat drop of water hits him on the forehead, runs down his face and a rat scuttles across his shoe. They say you are never more than twelve feet from a rat on the London streets. Beneath, God knows.

He tries to imagine what it would have been like for the woman down here. How long had she been below ground? Who had brought her and why had they done what they did: the blow to the head, the scratch marks on her arms and all the blood – down
there
, caked on the tops of her thighs and smeared on her stomach. Her lip was lacerated, too. The doctor reckoned the woman had probably bitten through it herself.

Staffe shivers, pulls his jacket tight as the tunnel becomes coffin-black once more, the light from Asquith’s torch fading completely. The iron door slams shut again and he turns on his torch, its batteries weak. The failing beam stutters as he casts around the scene, flickering on the dark stain of blood, where her legs had made their confluence.

He makes his way, piecing together a critical path to follow, but catches his boot on a paving slab and falls, into the harsh darkness. The wet stone floor rips his hand. He turns the torch on a flap of skin, loose on the soft pad of flesh by his wrist. It stings and he wonders what might get into the blood. He pushes himself up and walks gingerly towards the iron door but his torch fails. Staffe gropes for the latch, grazing his fingers and knuckles, eventually heaving open the door. Daylight falls through the shaft, like weak water, and for a moment, it blinds him, then he remembers a promise he had made for today.

*

Above ground, it is a fine spring day, a pleasant surprise after the long winter; the city folk are out in shirt-sleeves, bare legs. Staffe carries his jacket slung over a shoulder, past the Earl Marshall, stolen away between the Old Street roundabout and the Limekiln estate. The daytime drinkers are at it, leaning against the pub wall and drawing on their fags, flicking ash and looking the girls up and down. He pats down the loose skin on his hand, grimaces.

Jasmine Cash clocks Staffe as soon as he walks into the Limekiln’s dirty cloister. Some kids are kicking a ball against a wall. Others skulk on the steps up to the low-rise tenements in the shadow of the Limekiln Tower. Jasmine holds her baby on her hip and waves to him. The infant Millie copies.

When Staffe gets to Jasmine’s flat, mother and daughter have gone inside. He lets himself in and sees Millie jabbing her fingers into the stereo. She stands with her legs wide apart, still in nappies. She chunters to herself in a private language and her mum joins in, as if she understands.

‘Tea?’ says Jasmine.

‘How do you keep this place so fine?’ says Staffe.

‘This is Millie’s world. It doesn’t have to be S-H-I-T in here.’ Jasmine smiles, winking at Millie. ‘We’ll get out of here, soon, but until we do, I can make it fine.’

Staffe bends down and picks up the child, lifts her right up to the ceiling and Millie chortles, ‘Ma sconce pantalililly,’ down at him.

‘Not now, Mill,’ says Jasmine. ‘Jadus will sort us out. He will get it, won’t he?’

‘You’ve got to prepare for the worst.’ Staffe lowers Millie down, holds her close. She smells of oatmeal.

‘No way. I prepare for the best. It’s how it’s going to be.’ She holds out Staffe’s tea and he places Millie on the floor. ‘For sure, and all thanks to you.’

Staffe considers his role in the trial of Jadus Golding – those years ago – and the tribulations since. He must shoulder some blame for the mess that is Jadus’s life. ‘You’ve put him on your rent book?’

Jasmine produces the book, beaming all over her face. ‘He’s coming home, I tell you, and we’re going to be a family.’

Staffe takes the book, together with the offer of employment from Jasmine’s cousin who runs an eel and pie shop in Bethnal Green.

She says, ‘He wrote to that post office man just like you said. And he got a letter back. That man’s so bitter, still. He’s got no idea how my Jadus has changed. No idea.’

Staffe can’t think what to say to Jasmine, without bursting this bubble. Jadus was in the gang that pulled a gun on that post office manager, ruining his life and his business. Two years on and the man still can’t sleep nights. He can’t ever be a father or a husband the way he was. No surprise that Jadus’s letter from the blue left him cold. But that isn’t to say the world can’t be a better place; Jadus reforming himself. The crime is in the past, the victim with it. Staffe knows the world has to be made better, whatever way we can.

‘You remember what you said, Jasmine?’

She nods. ‘If he steps one foot out, you’ll know. I promise. But he won’t.’

Staffe places the documents in the plastic wallet that Jasmine has given him. ‘I’ll call you when we’re through,’ He slides in the latest photographs of Millie, too. ‘It might be bad news. It really might, you know.’

‘He’s learned his lesson. He’s ready to be a father and a husband. He’s ready to work,’ says Jasmine, totally unprepared for the parole of her loved one to be denied. How could the board disappoint her?

 

Two

‘How did Golding’s parole hearing go?’ asks DS Pulford, late in the day.

‘What are her chances?’ says Staffe, looking past his sergeant to the woman in bed. Against the brilliant white starch of ward linen, the woman seems in a far worse state – as if you can now hear the sub-audio screams of her bruises and cuts in this harsh and clean environment. In the tunnel, it had seemed she might be saved by something like apothecary or faith.

‘Touch and go. More go than touch.’

‘Has she said anything?’

Pulford shakes his head. Both men angle towards the woman. ‘We have had the ID confirmed, sir – from her prints.’

‘She’s got a record?’

‘Strange, isn’t it, sir?’ Pulford’s young face looks puzzled, almost cherubic. ‘When they’re naked and beaten up, put between those sheets and fed on a drip, their history counts for nothing. Could be hooked on the crack pipe or pulling in a million a year in the City.’

‘What kind of record does she have?’

‘Benefit fraud. And ABH.’

‘ABH?’

‘Against the dad.’

‘The dad? There’s kids?’

‘Oh, yes. But the kids are in care. And the doctors reckon there’s another one. They reckon she’s had a baby, just.’

‘What!’ Staffe looks at her, remembers the smeared blood and what he thought were wounds. ‘She had a baby down in the tunnel?’

‘Forensics say there was no sign at the scene.’

‘Christ! We’ve got to speak to her.’

‘The doctors can’t say when that might be.’

‘What’s she called?’

‘Kerry. Kerry Degg.’

Staffe sits beside the woman, takes her hand in his, careful not to disturb the tubes that tunnel their way into her veins. Life dripping into her, dripping away. ‘What kind of animal would take her down there?’

‘Perhaps she went in herself. Forensics say she could have been down there a couple of days. But no more. There’s no, you know …’

‘Excrement,’ Staffe sighs. ‘And when did the baby happen? Can they say?’

‘They say they need to keep her stable. They can’t go into that. Not yet. Not until she’s better; or …’

Staffe tries to imagine what might make a woman go to such a place to have a baby. ‘And the husband?’

‘Sean. They’ve been married six years, since she was seventeen. He’s thirty-six and clean as a whistle.’

‘We’ll see about that.’ Staffe reaches out, squeezes her hand, as firmly as he dare, to see if her eyes will flicker or her pulse change. But she is dead to his attentions, for now.

He studies her, and something stirs inside him. Stripped bare of all make-up and her jet-black hair combed, he thinks he might know her.

‘How did the parole go, sir? The Jadus Golding thing. Is he coming out?’

Staffe looks at Kerry Degg, clinging onto life, having issued life; having had cause to attack Sean Degg, her husband of six years; having been deemed unfit to hold onto her own children. He turns his gaze to his young sergeant. ‘Do you ever doubt what we do is for the best?’

*

Sean Degg hunches by Kerry’s hospital bed, whispering constantly into his wife’s ear under the watchful gaze of a uniformed police officer, a nurse and DI Will Wagstaffe.

He keeps his hand flat and gentle on her stomach. Tears pop from his eyes and run freely down his cheeks. He doesn’t sob, or wail, but when he is done, he says to the nurse, ‘I came here thinking she would be gone, but she’s not. You think she’ll be all right, don’t you?’

The nurse is young with golden hair and a constantly cheerful face. She looks at Staffe, then at the uniformed officer, making her smile as thin as she can.

Sean says to the nurse, ‘Am I wrong?’

‘She’s been through a lot.’

Staffe says, ‘And what about the baby, Sean?’

The nurse says, ‘You come with me, Mr Degg. You look all done in. We’ll have someone take a look at you.’

‘I’ll need a word, first,’ says Staffe.

Sean says, ‘I don’t know about a baby. Is there a baby?’ He looks confused. Or is he afraid? ‘I haven’t seen Kerry for months.’

‘You deserted her?’ says Staffe.

‘The other way round. With Kerry, it’s always the other way round.’

‘I am taking him to see a doctor,’ says the nurse, raising her eyebrows and crossing her arms under her breasts. ‘He needs attention.’

Staffe looks at Kerry Degg, splayed on the bed with only tubes drawing the line between her and a fast, certain death. He rues her silence, says to the nurse, ‘No. He’s coming with me. I’ll bring him back to you as soon as I am done. He’ll survive.’

*

‘Did you want another baby, Sean? I don’t suppose you did. Already got two in care,’ says Staffe in the interview room at Leadengate station, just a stone’s throw from the City Royal Hospital, and in the company of duty solicitor, Stan Buchanan.

Buchanan says, quite mechanically, ‘You have already been advised that Mrs Degg left my client months ago when she was still pregnant and he hasn’t seen her since. He can account for his actions and his whereabouts ever since she departed the marital home on …’ Buchanan leafs wearily through his notes.

‘It was the sixth of January. I was taking the Christmas decorations down and she had someone to see.’

‘Why did she beat you up, Sean?’

Buchanan nods at Sean, who says, ‘It wasn’t the first time. Sometimes, she’s not herself.’

‘Why didn’t you keep the children, Sean?’

‘I chose Kerry. I love her. I always have. Nobody else can look after her.’

‘And the children can look after themselves?’

‘I could only do so much.’

‘Not so much, if you left her.’

‘She left me.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry. And what exactly did she leave you for?’

Sean shrugs.

‘If you love her as much as you say, you’d have bloody well found out where she went. She didn’t stray far, by the look of things.’

Sean Degg looks Staffe straight in the eye, says nothing. His lip quivers.

Staffe can tell one kind of fear from another and he senses that this is a man who does not fear for his liberty. Sean Degg looks like a man who knows something but can’t be harmed any more. ‘I’ll get to the bottom of you. Believe me. In the meantime, can you confirm that you are still living on Flower and Dean?’

He nods.

Staffe immediately registers who, living in that vicinity, is in his debt, says, ‘And you’ll remain there and co-operate fully with our enquiries, and fill out this log of your whereabouts, morning, afternoon and night since the sixth of January?’

Sean nods, utterly resigned.

‘You can return to the hospital. I have to advise you to seek medical treatment when you get there. Your wife’s nurse will arrange it for you.’

‘Thank you, Inspector,’ says Sean Degg, standing.

‘The children, Sean – are they yours?’

‘I raised them as my own – as far as I could. But no, they’re not.’

‘You are registered as the father. Are you saying that Kerry has been having an affair throughout your marriage?’

‘Not an affair, and it doesn’t mean I can’t love her.’

‘And this latest baby – was it yours?’

Sean Degg looks away.

*

Staffe puts down the phone and scribbles ‘The Earl’ on his blotter, then looks at the pile of papers that his accountant is screaming for: management figures for his property portfolio. A part of him wishes he had sold up when his City friend of old, Finbar Hare, had urged him to do so – but what would he do with the money?

‘Have you got a minute, sir?’ Josie Chancellor helps herself to the chair opposite Staffe and begins to read the preliminary forensic findings from the tunnel. As she reads, she winds strands of her shoulder-length, smooth brown hair around her fingers. ‘Only one blood type. Kerry Degg’s.’

‘And no signs of a placenta?’ says Staffe.

‘… Not a sausage. There’s no sign of a birth down there. The scene was cleaned up, spick and span. We’re checking all the hospitals. But what Sean said is true, sir. Kerry Degg is on our missing-persons list. From the tenth of January.’

‘That doesn’t make what he said true. I assume he was the one who reported her missing.’

‘He did.’ She pushes the papers across the desk and leans back, brushing her hair from her face. ‘Why’ve you got it in for Sean Degg?’

‘I’ve got it in for whoever put that woman down there. For whoever knocked her up and abandoned her. I’ve seen nothing to tell me he didn’t do those things. Unless you know who else might have.’

‘She’s the promiscuous one – by the sound of it. She’s the mother who let her kids go into care and got herself knocked up again.’

‘If there’s two sides to this story, let’s hope she gets to tell hers.’

‘She’s a victim. It doesn’t mean he can’t be, too.’

Staffe smiles, stands up. ‘Where d’you get all that wisdom from, Chancellor? Let me buy you a drink.’

‘Have you forgotten?’

‘What?’

‘It’s Pulford’s party tonight. His new place.’ Josie shakes her head slowly, smiling. ‘You should know, you used to be his landlord. Surely you’re coming.’

‘Of course I’m coming,’ says Staffe, lying. ‘Doesn’t mean we can’t have a quick sharpener, though.’

‘Where are you suggesting we go?’

‘You’ll see,’ said Staffe, dialling reception. ‘Jom, have you got that search warrant for the Deggs’s place? Good.’

‘You said a drink.’

‘And I meant it.’

‘But Sean won’t be there. He’s gone back to the hospital.’

On the way out, Staffe picks up the pile of paper for his properties, tugs out the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet with the toe of his Chelsea boot, dropping in all the accounts and leases and variations. It makes a metallic thud and he kicks the drawer shut, fast. As he leaves, he feels life flutter in his chest. The prospect of the ordeal ahead makes him glow, like a chance meeting with someone you secretly adore. This reaction is not something he admires in himself.

*

The Earl Marshall sits as proud as it can in the shadow of the mid-rise, late-Victorian Limekiln tenements. The Limekiln Tower looms above. The pub hasn’t been knocked about with any vigour in over a hundred years. The rooms are separated by etched-glass panels and the spring sun floods in through smeared, ceiling-high windows. The swagged, heavy drapes look like they haven’t been cleaned since they buried Queen Victoria, and the red-topped, veneered tables are sticky with glass rings and weeks of spilled beer. There is a smell of dog and the punters are sitting down, rather than standing at the bar. They sit on their own and look into their pints and chasers, or at their shoes, or into the racing pages.

Sean Degg, however, is talking animatedly to a tall,
sharp-dressed
man ten years his junior, Ross Denness. Sean Degg doesn’t know that in a recent phone call, Ross fingered the Earl as Degg’s local. And to preserve this deceit, Denness takes his leave, edging away from Degg, towards the door. He will wait for Staffe in a car down on Jellicoe, the other way from Degg’s place on Flower and Dean.

Josie says, ‘How did you know he’d be here?’

Staffe nods towards the man leaving the pub by the side door.

‘Aah. Ross Denness. You’ve still got your paw on his tail?’

Staffe takes a step towards the bar and everyone looks up. The side door slams shut. Sean Degg clocks Staffe, who takes the warrant from his pocket and waves it at Degg. ‘Thought you were desperate to get to the hospital, Sean? Finish your drink and take me to your place.’

‘You’re harassing me.’

‘I’m protecting the public, and that involves going through your home. If your wife doesn’t recover, it’ll be murder, according to our legal department. Whoever took her down there left her to die and we won’t be settling for anything less. There’s a baby’s life here, too.’

‘I haven’t seen her for three months.’

‘Eighty-eight days, by my reckoning.’ Staffe puts his hand heavily upon Sean Degg’s shoulder and Kerry’s husband tenses up, blinking. Staffe knows everybody in the pub has him down as a copper, so he leans right up against Degg, whispers in his ear, ‘I’ll see you back at yours in ten minutes. Get the kettle on, eh?’ And he pushes a folded twenty-pound note into Sean Degg’s shirt pocket – for everyone to see.

*

Denness is in the driver’s seat of his Audi A4, dragging on a Benson’s and listening to some high-revving dance music.

‘Nice motor, Ross. Things must be rosy for you just now,’ says Staffe, sliding into the passenger seat, turning down the music.

Denness turns the music back up, says, ‘That’s my business. We had an understanding.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that. What can you tell me about our friend Sean?’

‘He’s a fucking loser, man. He loves that slag and if you ask me, he wouldn’t harm a hair. But he did say something.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Are we even?’

‘I guess so – if it puts him on the hook.’

‘What if it gets him off the hook?’

‘Let’s have it, Ross.’

Denness powers up the engine and toys with the accelerator. The throaty surges of power clash with the dance beats. ‘He was desperate for her to have that baby. Reckoned it was his. You know the other two aren’t.’

‘How’d he know it was his?’

‘She beat him up. Proper mashed him. Used a wheel-nut spanner on him when she found out she was knocked up. Said it was his fault. She must have given herself a coupla months off from sleeping around, or stuck to giving head, or …’

‘All right, all right. I get the picture.’

‘Muppet reckoned the social would let them keep this one on account it was botha theirs. He’s in pieces, man. I kinda feel sorry for him, you know. And he loves her. You’d better believe that. Sad fucker.’

*

Sean’s house on Flower and Dean is a modern, urban-infill house from the eighties. Inside, Kerry Degg is everywhere: framed and posed, black and white portfolio photographs, colour shots of her on stage with jet-black hair and showing silk and flesh.

Staffe walks across to the laminated kitchen pier and lifts his mug of tea, delves into Sean’s shirt pocket for the
twenty-pound
note.

‘They all think I’m in your pay now,’ says Sean.

‘You’re going to have to tell the truth, then. Don’t want both sides of the law holding it against you.’ Staffe picks up one of the many framed photographs of Kerry. She pouts into camera with her face tilted up and a hand gripping her head; one foot up on a piano stool, showing her legs off. She wears a tight-bodiced, slit dress. The look is unmistakably burlesque.

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