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Authors: Emily Winslow

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BOOK: The Start of Everything
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“These from you, Chloe?” Keene asks. He means the flowers on his desk. The bouquet is tall and bright, tied with a straw bow and squeezed through the neck of a glass vase. Its too-sweet smell brings acid up my throat.

“Not me.” I have to avoid stereotypically feminine gestures at work if I don’t want to be taken for an admin or a Family Liaison Officer. “They’re from Claudia Cole.” Our Superintendent’s wife. She hand-addresses all of their Christmas cards. She runs marathons for charity. She is a feminine marvel.

Superintendent Cole promises to pass Keene’s compliments on to Claudia. Then he plucks Keene out from the middle of it all and barks at me to follow. In his office, he says, “You’ve got a first-day-back treat. Decomposing body caught in a fen sluice gate. A young woman, it looks like. Keep the press off it as long as you can. We need an identity fast.” The pathologist is already en route, north towards Peterborough.

Keene smiles at me. “Good to be a team again,” he says.

I curve my mouth back at him, my best effort at returning an expression I don’t feel. I keep my head down on the way out.

“I’ll drive,” says Keene, aiming his key. He clicks a button and headlamps flash.

“Posh,” I say. I get in and suppress a gag at the tangy “new car” smell inside.

“Not posh. Just new. I needed an automatic.” Still outside, he reaches in through the open driver’s door to insert and turn the key with his good left hand. Then he slides in under the steering wheel, belts himself in, and, foot on the brake, puts it in reverse. After all that, his good hand joins the other one on the wheel. His right palm rests on it while the thumb curves under to hold on. It’s only the fingers that are useless; the thumb works.

He turns a look on me that dares me to comment. I don’t take him up on it.

Once we’re on the road he says, “You’ll have to take all the notes.”

“My handwriting’s better, anyway.”

He laughs. My eyes crinkle in a real smile.
Wow, that’s been a while
.

“Everything all right while I’ve been gone?” he asks.

I say yes while my head shakes. I hate it when my body tells the truth without my permission.

Keene was watching the road. He believes my “yes.” The white, bumpy scar across his fingers stands out in the daylight. It wasn’t so obvious in the hospital. The wound to his abdomen had seemed so much worse.…

I get it over with. “Some people feel that I let you down. That you shouldn’t have been alone.”

He glances at me, indignant, then back at the road. “Who said that?”

“It doesn’t matter who said it. Everyone thinks it.”

“They think I can’t interview a witness on my own? Because that’s what I was doing, interviewing a witness.”

“I know, Keene, I—”

“I didn’t know, and you didn’t know, what was going to happen. I don’t need a nanny, for fuck’s sake.”

“You do realise that this misplaced concern isn’t aimed at you but at me? I should have been there. Two of us, and it wouldn’t have happened the way that it did.”

“You can’t …” He shakes his head, eases into a roundabout, and continues once on the other side: “You can’t control everything. So my physiotherapist tells me, between exercises. You can’t control everything, or always know what you’re going to need, until you need it. You didn’t know; I didn’t know. The only person who did something wrong was the one with the knife.”

My muscles unclench. Relief blurs my eyes. All this time I thought I’d been feeling outrage at the accusation; I’d actually been feeling guilt.

“It’s not so bad,” he notices. He turns the wheel expertly, having obviously practised the manoeuvre.

I know what’s being said. They’re wondering if they should trust
me to partner with Keene again. Not that any of them wants to partner with me now.
No, that’s not fair
. It’s not everyone. But the ones who aren’t doing the complaining are still doing the listening.

I breathe deeply and remind myself:
There’s nothing anyone can do with the Superintendent on my side
.

I know why Cole put me with Keene again. It isn’t because he trusts me, though he claims he does. He knows I’m an outsider right now, and the promotion widened the gulf that was already there. He knows I need to watch my step, and need his backing. He wants me to keep an eye on Keene and report back candidly about his capabilities. He wants me to spy on my partner.

The fens are reclaimed land. A massive drainage effort centuries ago turned marsh into land, but every winter the water creeps back. It has to go somewhere. Systems of ditches, sluices, embankments, and pumps divert the river overflows to their designated washes. Here, now, the river Nene is receding from its winter swell.

Spring warmth had bloated the body to the surface, and it was caught in a sluice gate where the lock keeper found her. There isn’t enough soft tissue on the skull for us to discern a face, and the skull itself is so damaged that a reconstruction doesn’t seem possible. Jensen guesses late teens to early twenties, with the caveat that he’ll be more sure after a proper exam in the lab. A person this age likely has local parents looking for her, for a generous definition of “local.” We’re close to the county border; if nothing obvious pops in the immediate area, we’ll have to look to Lincolnshire for their missing persons as well.

“Where do you think she went in?” Keene wonders.

I look around. The wash is thin and shallow now, but a couple of months ago its width reached far. The water here connected with the river Nene, with the B1040 road, with branching ditches. “How about
when
she went in?” I suggest. “Not recently, obviously. But … after this year’s flooding started? Did she fall in alive and drown? Or was her corpse dumped into the water—or dumped in a dry ditch, later dislodged by the flood?”

“In other words, wait for Jensen’s report.”

I nod. The body will narrow things down.

We look out over the wash. Even when it’s dry, it’s mainly unoccupied land, waiting for next year’s flood. Alongside it, farmers’ fields. The main road has been underwater since January. Not many people around. “Do you think we have any potential witnesses?”

“The sex shop?” He points with his chin. It used to be a Little Chef. You still see those restaurants on the motorways, full of tired families stretching their legs and their bellies, but I haven’t eaten at one in years. This one must have been comical to convert, those wide windows fronting a place where, presumably, the current patrons value privacy. Those windows are now filled with display lingerie, both to entice and to block a look in. No shoppers are here, anyway. Only police vehicles occupy the vast, empty car park today, clustered under the pink sign.

Keene answers himself: “The trees block any hope of a view. Besides, she didn’t go in here.”

We don’t need Jensen to tell us that. If she had, she would have been found much sooner. She would still have a face on her. A sudden shout from near the body; I tense and ready to run, but it’s just Jensen shooing a crow off her.

“Keene?” I say. He’s gone pale.

“I’m thinking,” he snaps. “Bloody hell.” I follow his sudden tantrum, pushing through thin branches. The trees here seem to reach for one another, weaving into a net. He finally turns, and his turning releases a tense branch to spring back at my face.

“Sorry,” he says. His voice isn’t sorry.

His mobile rings. He reaches for it with his right hand, can’t grab it, then quickly switches to the left. I look away. He’s due his privacy while he adjusts.

He finishes the call and flicks his phone shut. “The Missing Persons Bureau will get us details for all the young women reported missing in the last six months, priority to Peterborough-area cases.” He gives me some statistics.

“That’s not bad,” I say.
No, not bad at all
. Three quarters of missing-persons reports resolve themselves within forty-eight hours; the number of cases left for us to deal with is manageable. Jensen’s analyses will further narrow things down. Some sorting, some interviews. “We’ll have an identity within the week,” I tell Keene.

We return to the sex-shop car park, where Jensen is supervising the transport of the remains. The body is rolled past colourful bras splayed against the windows. Handwritten posters promise “sale prices” next to smiley faces. I catch the eye of a mannequin; it’s stuck in a permanent wink.

CHAPTER 3

MATHILDE OLIVER

I
n the office, Lucy was talking with the new girl, who brought a newspaper in with her every day. Sometimes she spread it out on the table and it would overlap some of my envelopes. I don’t like to touch newsprint. On this one, the greasy ink made a generic picture of the river Nene in flood, near Peterborough. The words said a body had surfaced in the water there.

Lucy called the short girl Enid, which is how I learned her name. She said, “Enid, that’s disgusting!”

“That’s what water does. They have no idea who she was or how long she’s been there, really. Less than a year. More than a month. There were some hairs left to say she was fair.…”

I couldn’t see my notebook. The paper was opened wide, not even folded once. My notebook had to be under there. I looked for its outline, but the page about the dead person lay lightly. It curved. Anything could be under there. Or nothing. The other side, the rest of the news, lay thick and flat.

“Hi, Mathilde,” Enid said. “We’ll all have to be more careful. Someone doesn’t like girls with fair hair.”

I have fair hair. Enid’s hair is shit brown.

“She’s joking,” Lucy said. “Seriously, Enid. There’s nothing about any other victims.”

Enid shrugged. “Just haven’t found them yet.”

“Mattie, are you looking for this?” Lucy took my notebook off the seat next to her. She held it by its binding, which left the pages to flap.

I couldn’t speak. I willed her to put it down. Instead, she stood and walked around the table, holding it out. I didn’t move. “I’ll just put it in your bag,” she said. The bag had slid down to my elbow. It hung open there. The letter poked out the top.

I swung at her with the bag and took the notebook with my other hand. “Jesus Christ,” she said, jumping back. No one was in the way. I got out.

It took twenty-seven steps to get away from the office, out into the courtyard. I stuck to the edge of the building and slipped round the corner. In Senate House Passage, I kept to the cobbles that bubbled along the edge of the otherwise flagstone path.

Around the corner on King’s Parade, tourists aimed cameras at the chapel. I needed to cross the street to get behind them. But a car nosed out of Trinity Street, condensing pedestrians back onto the pavements, and me against a stone wall. There aren’t supposed to be cars here; bollards at the entrances to this part of town guard against all but taxis and ambulances and police cars. For those, they sink into the ground. But this wasn’t any of those. This one had no right to be here. I clenched my hands into balls at the ends of my arms.

Easter holiday is always a difficult time. Children are off school, and families glut the city centre. Tourists move about in herds.

After the car passed, I rode the pedestrian tide over the road.

I know the system here. The homeless man selling magazines and the fudge-shop barker always speak to me, but they don’t expect me to answer. They say the same things to everyone. I stiffened but kept walking. I forced myself. Ahead, a new crowd formed.

Six months ago, Corpus Christi College unveiled a new clock. Pedestrian traffic patterns were now permanently clotted by it. People
clumped and goggled in front of the glass. They don’t even keep to the pavement. They spill back into the street, leaning and stretching to see around the interfering reflection of King’s College’s famous façade.

I hate the crowds. There were things I needed to do.

The envelope had been addressed the same as before:
Katja, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
. Routing insufficiently addressed University mail is my job. Usually it’s enough to match initials or single names with a college or department list. But if it isn’t (and I found no student or Fellow called Katja at Corpus), I open them for additional information. We’re so good at getting mail to its intended recipient that some students test us with deliberately vague addresses.

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