The Winter of Death – pt1

The Winter of Death

– Ah, when shall day dawn on the night of the grave,Or summer succeed to the winter of death?
Rest awhile, hapless victim! –

P.B Shelly (1792-1822)

*

He had been watching her ever since their first meeting. That Sunday afternoon, the quiet coffee shop overlooking the river, the wind howling outside, a dark leaden sky swirling overhead, soft music covering the room like a warm blanket.

Their conversation had flitted from one thing to the next, rapid, like gunfire. Families and friends, likes and dislikes, their joint love of cats and the music of The Rolling Stones. Her love of old black and white films, his of westerns and horror. It was easy, too easy, and that excited him.

He was drawn to her succulent red lips and the hint of cleavage that was on show beneath her smart red blouse. Her strawberry blonde hair tied up in a ponytail, revealing a slender neckline. Her fingers thin with immaculately manicured nails.

He hadn’t hesitated in asking her for a second date, knowing that she would oblige and say yes. It was just then a matter of time before the pieces fell into place.

It was the power of the internet that had brought them together. The dating website that promised ‘everlasting love, or your money back.’ her inner beauty standing out amongst a crowded marketplace of desperate sluts, all flaunting themselves to the highest bidder, so to speak, in the hope that somebody, anybody, would catch onto their hook.

The second date, a cosy pub with a roaring log fire, had continued from where the first had left off, amidst a fizz of chat and giggles. Most of the talk being initiated by her, she had admitted before they had met that she was a chatterbox, and he liked that, being a man of few words himself. He liked it when the woman could take the conversation on and let him dip in and out when he wanted. Not that he couldn’t hold his own, sure, he could talk when the time arose, but, chance be given, he’d rather listen, absorb and smile.

A woman loves a man who can listen; he’d learn t that from Samael. That it was an art form, and an underrated one at that. That if you wanted anything from the fairer sex, just lend them your ears and the rest will follow.

After two drinks he had excused himself so he could visit the toilet. After sending a quick text he had returned to the table with a smile and in his hands two more drinks, a white wine spritzer for her and a bottle of Becks for him. Placing them down, she thanked him with a smile of her own, he sat, and they carried on with their evening.

A little after last orders they had made their way out. The night air was filled with a chill and he had offered her his jacket, which she had politely refused with another smile, saying that it wasn’t far back to her car. She made the first move to state her enjoyment of the evening and that his company had, once again, been something she enjoyed, and, that if he wasn’t busy would he fancy doing it again soon. He knew then that he had her, knew then that the venture had been a success

With a kiss on the cheek and a goodnight, they both moved away, separately, into the night. From the cover darkness of a side alley he looked back, catching sight of her disappearing into the distance, mobile phone pressed to her ear. He’d swear that he heard her laugh, the recipient of the call most probably being fed details of a nice evening with her date. If only they knew, he thought to himself.

Taking his own mobile from his pocket he sent another text, Samael would be waiting and he didn’t like being disappointed. He waited a few seconds for it to clear before deleting the message, along with the one from earlier. Then, after slipping off the back cover he removed the sim card, wiped his prints from the casing and dropped it into the bin. This was just the beginning.

8th December – Riverside Country Park. Early Morning.

As seasons go, winter had to be his favourite. He knew that it was odd, preferring the dark, sullen mornings and the biting cold that reaches to the bone and sends chills throughout the body, to that of the warm summer days that summer brought, but he had always felt that way. There was something mysterious, a strange romanticism about those months of the year, something about its stark, almost decaying beauty that he had always connected with, and, as he jogged along the riverbank, the chilled air filtering through his body, the cold murky water of the river sitting motionless under the concrete grey sky, he felt that beauty strike him like it hadn’t done for many years.

He was into his second week, on doctor’s orders, blood pressure through the roof, of regular exercise. Consisting of a morning run and, if the mood took him and time allowed, an every other day trip to the local gym. He knew it was good for him and, after many months of feeling washed out and in a general state of melancholy, he finally heeded the advice of his councilor and took it upon himself to change not only his lifestyle but to hopefully go some way to mending some of the things that had seemingly set his life adrift.

The past twelve months of Elliot McCann’s life had been anything but joyous. Detective Inspector by day, lonely drunk by night, losing himself in a bottle or two of cheap wine, whether it be in front of the TV with a takeaway or sat alone in the corner of a pub, having alienated most of the people that cared, all of it just a sad attempt at blacking out his troubles, numbing his mind into forgetting everything that had happened, everything that he had lost.

The reality, though, was wildly different; the only success being that he drove himself deeper into the hole in the process. It was a no brainer really; drink never helped any situation appear better. It was always nothing more than desperation, but then desperate times called for desperate measures. And last night was one of those times. The evening spent slouched on the sofa, Citizen Cane and two bottles of Merlot doing more than enough to sate his appetite.

And now, stopping to catch his breath at a set of railings, his black, long sleeved t-shirt and jogging bottoms doused in cold sweat, trying desperately to fight back the nausea, his gaze wandering out over the landscape and at the countryside that sprawled beyond the river. The Isle of Grain with it looming power station, a cloud of dark smoke pumping from the chimney at its epicentre. Steel cranes and machinery jutting into the sky.Up into the hills and off into the distance, the Lego set of houses and apartments of Frinsbury and Chatham, its inhabitants just waking up to another freezing December morning, the cold juxtaposition of industry and urban sprawl standing next to each other in a strange harmony.

His thoughts then wandered to his kids, Jack, ten, into anything football, an Arsenal fan, much to his dad’s disgust. Following the Gills for the last thirty years and hoping that his only son would follow in his footsteps, but, one Sunday afternoon, Sky TV had thrust the Gunners into his life and that was that. He also had a soft spot for The Saturday’s, but Daddy was sworn not to tell anyone, ever.

Then there was Beth, fifteen, his little princess. Well, some of the time anyway. At the age when everything was a chore, everything was an argument. She was the Image of her mum, unfortunately. Always a reminder of what he threw away. But as proud Dad’s go, he couldn’t imagine anyone prouder of his kids than he was.

The feelings of the last ten months were something that, not for the want of trying, he couldn’t shake, the anger, the guilt, the unbearable sadness at coming home and finding all of their things gone. Knowing that there was no way back. Knowing that someone else would now be getting the best of Karen, the woman he had, for eighteen years, called his wife, his lover, his soul mate and companion. Wanting her, and Tom, the personal trainer that she now called her boyfriend, to know how much it hurt and how much he wanted things to go back to how they used to be, but knowing that the chance of that ever happening were as likely as his beloved football team winning the Champions League.

He needed to sort himself out, to stop all this, to stop the rot. The never-ending cycle that life was all work, work, work, and cases piling up. Kids every other weekend, work, work, work, cases piling up. Kids every other weekend.

He hadn’t any intention of going on any further, a good twenty minutes was more than enough to him, more than enough time to get the blood flowing and the endorphins pumping through his system, and he had to admit, reluctantly, that it was making him feel slightly better.

Walking back to his car, the narrow path lined with bare trees, a slight frost under foot, the early risers starting to appear with their dogs, a nod and a good morning to an older couple with a Great Dane.

Climbing into his car, he started the engine and flicked on the heaters. The warmth a welcome break from the biting cold of outside. Sitting back in the seat he felt the life slowly returning to his extremities, his feet beginning to warm as his jigged them about inside his training shoes. Then his mobile phone rang.

Fishing it out of the glove compartment he looked at the flashing display, instantly recognising the name, also noticing that he had four missed calls and a voicemail. He hit the answer button.

“This had better be good James, you’re interrupting my exercise.”

The voice that came back was tense and clouded by traffic noise and voices. DS James Conrad. “Sorry sir, been trying to get you for the last half hour or so.”

McCann wiped a bead of sweat away from his forehead. “Yes, I noticed, what’s up?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line followed by a rustling and muffled talk, McCann let out a breath and waited, a pair of blackbirds passing across his vision, perching themselves onto a twisted branch just above the car. A few moments passed before the voice came back.

“Sorry sir, its mad here, listen, we need you down here as soon as,” another pause, a siren in the background, “We’ve got a bad one.”

McCann licked around his top teeth. “Bad enough to disturb me before nine o’clock?”

“Well, put it this way, think of the worst you’ve ever seen and double it, possibly treble it, and I don’t think you’d even be close.”

McCann let it wash over him for a second. “Any chance it could be her?”

By ‘her’ he meant missing teenager Gemma Dawson. The nineteen year old had vanished three weeks previous after a Saturday night out on the town with two friends. After a frantic Sunday of calling every hospital, police station, drop in centre and anyone else they could possibly think of, her parents had reported her missing. Initially the thoughts were that she, like so many teens, had simply run away. And, after talking with her parents, and finding that her home life was anything but plain sailing, it had been put down to exactly that, and with little to nothing to go on, there wasn’t much that anyone could do, except wait.

Statistics showed that most runaways either get in touch within a few days or return home of their own accord after realising that life on the streets is anything but plain sailing, especially for a young girl. But, on this occasion, despite public pleas, re-constructions and a very emotional televised plea from her parents, she still hadn’t appeared. That night out in mid November, when all thoughts were beginning to turn to the festive season, had turned out to be the last time that anyone had seen her.

“I don’t know anything much at the moment,” he stopped, only his breathing on the line. “Listen, just get yourself over here, you can see for yourself.”

McCann sighed and ran a hand over his tired face. “Ok, where?”

“Foxborough Woods, over in Parkwood. The DCI is on his way, told me to call you.”

Shuffling in his seat. “Fifteen minutes, and James, don’t let anyone touch anything.”

Ending the call he threw the mobile onto the passenger seat and flopped his head back against the headrest, pushing a big breath from his lungs in the process. The phone call lingered like a bad smell, another life taken. The question being, and it was the same as always, who would do such a thing, and more importantly, why?

He’d seen death so many times in his job, more times than he cared to remember. From road traffic accidents to old ladies battered in their homes for a no reason other than to nick a few quid to fund a dirty habit.

He remembered back to his first body. 1995. A teenager attacked and stabbed by a gang of skinheads in a Tesco’s car park. If he closed his eyes he could still picture the scene, still vividly taste the dank, stale air as it had been on that cold rainy winter night seventeen years ago. Looking down at the wiry frame of the young boy, denim jacket and white t-shirt stained with the dark red mess of his blood. Skin as pale as porcelain, eyes fixed into a nightmarish stare to the heavens. He was told that it would become easier, ‘you’ll desensitize to it eventually lad’ said his chief officer at the time. But he honestly couldn’t say that he had. It didn’t matter how many times you saw it, how many times you were a witness to death, it didn’t get any easier, it was still another life ripped away unnecessarily, another son or daughter, another family torn of their father or mother. His thoughts then turned to Jack and Beth, his own kids, and if they were taken from him. It didn’t bear thinking about.

The drive from the riverside and along the winding country lanes had been uneventful. Traffic at that time of day being sparse and just how he liked it, no one to aggravate or push him over the limit, no one to swear at or threaten.

With the sun just starting to peek around the clouds the landscape had taken on a whole new look, the barren and grey appearance of an hour previous now transforming into life with dapples of light and colour.

Now matter how much he tried to forget, though, he knew that his next stop was going to be filled with anything but the joys of life.

 

8th December – Foxborough Woods. Early Morning.
 

Turning left at the roundabout and descending down the hill towards the scene, it didn’t take long before the general pandemonium that had ensued became evident.

The twinkling lights of the emergency vehicles, parked on both sides of the road. Officers decked out in fluorescent jackets diverting traffic and pedestrians away from the scene. People standing agog, pointing and gesturing, whispering behind hands at what may be going on, concocting their own stories, creating their own personal mayhem. The TV camera crews hadn’t wasted any time either. Word travelling fast, reporters with their camera crews setting up for the best shot possible.

Pulling up around one hundred yards from the scene he cut the engine and grabbed his jacket from the passenger seat. Slipping it over his exercise gear he sat for a moment or two, staring ahead, the flashing lights dancing on the windscreen, the horror that would be waiting for him filtering through his mind, the lonely body, and the hunt about to begin.

Climbing from the vehicle he was immediately descended upon. A female reporter, her curly blonde, shoulder length, hair, bobbing up and down as she jogged towards him, a black, knee length jacket, billowing like a cape in the breeze. Behind her, a rather overweight and flustered looking man with a camera resting on his shoulder, desperately tried to catch up.

“Detective McCann, can I have a moment?”

Jamming his hands into his pockets he regarded the reporter from head to toe. The over made-up face, the white blouse open to show a thick black ball necklace, dark blue fitted trousers and, to finish off the ensemble, a pair of fuck me stilettos.

He recognised her, had seen her face on the TV and her picture in the local newspaper. Knew that she had been involved in reporting cases that the unit had dealt with over the last year or so.

“If a moment is all it is, then, of course.”

Waiting for the now panting cameraman to set himself she jabbed her microphone under his nose. “It’s understood that a body was found in the woods earlier on this morning, would you care to shed any light on this?”

Taking a moment he brushed away a bead of sweat that had formed on his forehead.
“A body? Really? Is that what all this is for?”

The trace of sarcasm in his reply seemed to catch the reporter off guard, the words sticking in her throat. McCann continued. “Listen,” he paused. “Sorry I didn’t catch your name?”

“Penny, Penny Wilson, from South East Today.”

“Ok, Penny from South East Today, look, I’ve just arrived myself, as you can probably tell by my attire, so am I able to shed any light on anything? No, is the answer. In fact, you will possibly know more that I do.” Taking a glance at his watch, “And that, I believe, is the moment that you asked for, so, if you’ll excuse me.”

With that he moved away, leaving the reporter red faced and empty handed.

Nearing the scene, his jacket pulled up around his shoulders from the cold, the atmosphere seemed to change. The air becoming thick, hung with something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. His surroundings began to infiltrate his every sense. The chatter and noise of the officers, the hum of engines, the smell, the same smell that hit you every time, that same stale offensive odour that seemed to lace the air at every murder scene, the smell of death.

Approaching the white Police cordon tape, he ducked underneath.

A voice from his left.

“Blimey, didn’t realise that Steve Cram was going to be joining us.”

Turning, he saw a figure descending upon him, donned in the regulation blue coveralls and looking McCann up and down, a smirk on his face upon noticing the jogging trousers and trainers. DS James Conrad.

Shaking his head, McCann’s face carried a smirk of its own.

“Yes, thank you James, very funny, now what we got?”

James Conrad was your typical tall, confident, good looking, got everything in abundance type of guy. High cheekbones, a good jaw line and a rugged looking five o’clock shadow, mixed in with a thick mop of black hair slicked back on his head gave him the look of a cover model. But on this day the usual confidant look was replaced by one of, well, McCann didn’t quite know, but it was far from normal.

Staring straight through him Conrad shook his head. “I wont lie sir, it’s fucking awful.” he paused, still shaking his head, “From what’s left of her, we’re…”

McCann jumped in, a deep frown crinkling his forehead. “From what’s left of her? What do you mean, from what’s left of her? What the fuck are we dealing with here?”

Conrad ran a hand through his thick hair. “Where do you want me to start, its like a butcher has had her on his slab.”

McCann took a long breath, filling his lungs before releasing the air slowly. “Brilliant. Who found her?”

“Guy out walking his dog, shook him up a bit I can tell you, barely got two words out of him.”

McCann lowered his gaze. “Fucks sake.”

“Yep, and that’s not the best bit.” He paused, reaching into his jacket pocket, pulling out a plastic evidence bag, and handed it over to McCann.

“This was prized from her fingers. Came with a nice little note too.”

Taking it, McCann held it up in front of him, eyes widening as the clear bag revealed its contents. A laminated colour photograph, a head and shoulders shot of a girl, mouth gagged, cheeks tear-stained and dirty, dark brickwork behind her. His shoulders sank.

Averting his gaze back to Conrad. “This isn’t Dawson, either.”

Shaking his head slowly. “I know.” He paused. “So the question is, who is it?”

McCann looked off to one side and ran a hand across his forehead, a flash catching the corner of his eye, a white car crawling slowly towards the scene. Stopping, the drivers side window came down, a uniformed officer pacing over and leaning down to speak to the driver, a driver whose identity McCann was more than familiar with, someone that conjured up more than a few mixed emotions.

“You ok, sir?”

Startled, McCann focused back. “Yes, yes I’m fine. You said something about a note?”

“Yes, the note on the back, turn it over.”

McCann looked back at the bag and flipped it over. Casting his eyes over the tidy, black-inked handwritten note on the back of the photo.

gsph   asvpw   wleoi   jvsq   xli   sev

xli   wtmvmx   sj   fpegoriww   mw   mr   yw   mx   mw   mr   xli   jmwliw

e   wrek   mw   pmjxmrk   e   zepihmgxsvc   tepi   lerh 

Running his tongue around his front teeth McCann frowned. “Any ideas?”

Conrad shook his head. “Gibberish is what it looks like to me sir.”

Casting a cursory glance back the writing. “Ok, get someone onto it, find out what we are dealing with. Sooner we find out what it says the better. Get onto missing persons as well; see if we can get anything out of them about putting a name to that face. Failing that, well, we’ll deal with that if we have too.” Nodding in agreement, Conrad went to move away. “Oh, and James, let me know how you get on, I think I’m going to be here for a while.”

After slipping on the regulatory plastic oversuit, something that always made him feel more than a little stupid, he pushed open the rickety wooden gate and entered the crime scene.

The area inside, under the canopy of trees, was awash with a dozen or so figures going about the business of fingerprinting and photographing the scene, making sure that no stone was left unturned and every inch of the site was covered.

The first few hours in any investigation were always the most crucial, and with a crime scene being open to the elements, such as this one was, everything from fingerprints, footprints and DNA would need to be collected as swiftly as possible before mother nature intervened and proceeded to wipe away any trace forever. The job of apprehending the culprit then becoming a nigh on impossible task.

To the left of the rabble of officers, dressed in a grey trouser suit covered with a surgical coat and black Wellington boots that in no way spoilt her beauty, he caught sight of Dr Jennifer Campbell. Now out of her white Audi TT and striding through the mud, mobile phone clamped to her ear, her long red hair hanging down over her shoulders.

A moment passed and she finished her call. Slipping the mobile phone into her bag, she turned and locked eyes with McCann. It wasn’t her usual warm smile that he was met with, a smile that couldn’t fail to light up even the barest of souls, but more of a cold grimace, and one that sent a shudder right through him.

Watching her disappear through the flap and into the SOCO tent, McCann ran a hand over his tired face, scratching stubble bristling beneath his fingers. He was sure it was her, maybe he was seeing things, what with the previous nights’ alcohol consumption enough to drown a small horse and all.

After pulling on a pair of latex gloves, he turned back to the tent, pulling open the entrance flap. Inside, the air was stale and dank, a handful of flies taking flight and settling on the plastic walls.

Now crouched in front of the body, Dr Campbell lay a gloved hand onto the corpses pale skin. Glancing up her looked changed on a sixpence. McCann went to speak, her reaction making him think twice. Then came the sight that threw everything else from his mind. The sight of the victims ruined body.

McCann had seen some truly grisly images in his time, but nothing came anywhere near being close to that of what was on display in front of him at that moment.

The slender, naked, figure of the dead girl had been posed stood up against the thick trunk of a tree, her arms raised straight above her head, a large blood spattered metal stake driven through her crossed wrists as support.

Conrad’s comment of ‘it being like a butcher had had her on his slab’ was a gross understatement, the skin on her torso and abdomen hacked and mutilated beyond any recognition, now nothing more than a dark mess of blood and tissue. Her large breasts sliced away and left hanging limp by cartilage and sinew, looking more like fleshy wings as they hung at her sides.

McCann took a step closer, grimacing, his nostrils filling fast with the pungent stench. He bucked, the alcohol swilling in his system making a beeline for the air, but, breathing steadily, he avoided the embarrassment and kept it down.

The bottom half of the body was much the same, flesh torn away from the bone, the vaginal area seemingly taking most of the abuse, deep cuts making it almost unrecognisable.

Stopping a few feet short he held a hand to his face, almost afraid to breathe. He didn’t think it could get any worse, didn’t think that the poor creature deserved any more punishment. But someone did.

Looking through the strands of dark hair that were slicked and trailing across her, oddly, untouched, face, like tiny fingers, McCann spotted the ruined sockets which once housed her eyes, now black and vacant except for two small gold coins.

Silence had descended into the tight space and McCann had become oblivious to the presence of someone else. Everything he had being fixed on the corpse of young girl before him. His mind was spinning, taking it all in, the brutality. But something rang in his mind, something wasn’t right.

He looked harder, the eyes, the savage mutilation, and the bloodied coins, it was something akin to a Hollywood horror. Maybe it was that, he’d seen enough of them over the years, he and Karen had watched nothing else in the early years of their relationship. From classic black and white’s such as Nosferatu and The Bride of Frankenstein to the Hammer films and early slashers Halloween and Friday the 13th. All contained enough gore and atrocities to stick in the mind for a long time after. He frowned, pushing the thought from his mind, bringing himself back into the moment.

The figure of Dr Campbell was now stood, looking in his direction, arms by her side, the same look fixed on her face as shortly before.

“Morning Jenny.”

A touch of a bite laced her reply as she turned, reaching into her medical bag. “Cut the pleasantries Elliott, I’m in no mood for it.”

Frowning, McCann narrowed his eyes. The response being far from what he had expected.

“I seem to have missed something, what’s up?”

She turned back, a dangerous looking implement grasped in her hand. “You seem to miss a lot these days. And you call yourself a detective.”

He ran a hand over his face, everything just a little bit too much to fathom at that moment.
“Listen, you going to tell me what’s wrong, or am I going to have to make a guess, because I really have no idea.”

Dropping the implement down onto her bag, she stepped closer to McCann, her eyes giving away her anger, the usual calm blue ocean, now a raging torrent.

“I can’t deal with you Elliott, ok? I just cant. Being ignored when you don’t feel like talking. Being made to apologise to people, people that are important to me, when you cant be bothered to make the effort. I won’t be made to feel like shit by anyone any more, and I mean anyone. I thought that you of all people, after all I’ve told you, would be a little more considerate. But hey, what the hell do I know.”

He felt as though she was looking into his soul, as she stood, eyes fixed on his, seemingly willing him to realise what he had done. And then, after a moment, he did.

“Fuck. Your birthday.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Halle-fucking-lujah, he remembers.”

McCann looked at the floor, shaking his head. “Shit, I’m sorry, fuck. I had a few drinks after work and…”

She held up a hand. “Save it, ok. Just save it. I’ve heard it before.” Taking a deep breath. “Listen, we’ve both got things to do, so lets get on with it, ok?”

McCann and Dr Jennifer Campbell had had an on and off, will they wont they relationship for the past five months, although, for the best part, things had been more off than on. But, over the coursethe past few weeks things had seemingly, according to McCann anyway, been getting on track. She had stayed over a few times and they had been enjoying each other’s company, with good food and wine and the occasional evening out to a quiet pub, when they could find the time.

McCann had enjoyed the feel of another woman’s company after what had seemed like an eternity stewing on his own after Karen had left, but there was still that occasional pang that drove him to the bottle, that ever so slight feeling of guilt that he couldn’t shake. That feeling that he couldn’t understand no matter how hard he tried, that he had let his family down and that there was always going to be that part of him that wanted, desperately, to rectify that. So then, the previous night, he had been invited to her birthday celebration, just a small gathering of her family and friends, but important nonetheless. And there the problems started. One drink had turned into two, and then three until two bottles had gone.

He stared at her, not knowing what to say. He wasn’t used to this side of her, sweat starting to pool under his arms and form on his forehead.

“What we got then?” he stumbled, trying to keep his voice level.

She turned back towards the body, picking back up the implement from her bag.

“I think it’s pretty obvious isn’t.” McCann went to interject, say something to ease the tension, but she continued, cutting him off. “Female, mid twenties. I’d hazard a guess at time of death being at around midnight last night, but that is only a guess. As you can appreciate the body is in quite a state so determining anything else at the moment is going to be hard. The cold weather conditions don’t help matters either.”

“No chance of cause of death then?”

She turned to look at him, narrowing her eyes, a thought flickering across them. Then, turning back she raised the implement, using it as a pointer.

“She’s been hacked up, any one of these injuries could have been the fatal one. There’s bruising on the neck, which could mean strangulation, but as for it being the primary cause I wont know yet. There are a couple of things, well three things actually, that I can be certain of. The first being that she would have been tied up at some point.” Indicating to the relevant areas. “There are rope burns on both the wrists and ankles.”

McCann looked at the deep red burn marks that had scraped the skin away.

“It’s not the missing girl, though, that I can be certain of. Despite the injuries, the tattoo’s you can see on the tops of her feet are old enough to discount that. What I can say, and I’m pretty confident, is that she was killed elsewhere. The area around the body, apart from the natural moisture, is completely dry. If her life was taken here, she would, considering the amount she would have lost, be standing in a pool of her own blood.”

McCann looked again at the body, the inevitable question poised on his lips. Anticipating it,

Dr Campbell continued. “Yes, the eyes, they’re something else, aren’t they?” McCann nodded, not knowing what else to say, “This is one thing that I can be quite sure about. They would have been removed,” she paused, the words, for a second, stuck in her throat, “while she was still alive.”

McCann almost gasped, but held it back. “How can you be so sure?”

“Well, simply, because dead people don’t bruise, and, if you look here,” She stepped closer to the body, again using the implement held in her hand as a pointer, “the skin around the eye sockets is just that.” She circled her finger at the area, “you can clearly see that this was definitely done while she was still breathing.”

She let the information set in, saw McCann processing it, his eyes roving all over. They both already knew, knew the moment they first clapped eyes on the young girl, that this wasn’t going to be your everyday, run of the mill case. This was something more terrifying. This was a cold, calculated case of total brutality.

“Great,” he said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Anything else?”

Dr Campbell nodded. “Actually, yes.” She crouched down and lifted one of the girl’s hands. “Her fingernails are missing, not all, but most of them, and the ones that remain are broken down to nothing. Now, I’m just hazarding a guess, but it would seem likely that this was caused by her trying to dig out of somewhere, maybe scratching at a wall.”

Given the choice, he would rather have been anywhere than in that cramp little tent right at that moment, with the smell of death and Dr Campbell, and with her more than obvious annoyance at him. He tried to keep his stomach down where it belonged, but with the stench and the heat, coupled with a rather heavy head and a gut swilling with booze and cheap take-away food, he was starting to feel more than a little nauseous. He forced a smile.

“Thank you.” he paused, like a nervous schoolboy standing in front of the school hottie. “I’ll speak to you soon, call you maybe?”

Dr Campbell looked at him and then nodded. “Of course you can call me, about the case, but not about anything else. I need time to think, and you do too.”

She finished on that and turned back to her work. Lingering for a moment or two he stood, thinking he should say something, but decided against it and stepped out into the cold air.
He thought about what he had seen, a young life, promise and potential. Probably loving parents and a nice home. All ripped away in a single heartbeat by a brutal hand.

He watched the comings and goings for a long moment, the scene growing busier by the second, before turning to leave. Within a few yards a gruff voice from his right disturbed his thoughts.

“McCann.”

Turning, he spotted the tall, hulking frame, of DCI Frank Stone, heading in his direction. His black hair mottled with grey at the sides and flapping in the morning breeze. Stone was in his mid fifties and, despite having been down south for nearly twenty years, hadn’t lost any of his Mancunian twang.

“Morning sir. Nice day for it.”

“Ai lad, fucking lovely. Always nice to see sun shining on’t fresh corpse.” He’d also lost none of his dry wit. His face then darkened. “You’ve seen it I take it?”

McCann nodded. “Unfortunately, yes.”
S

tone shook his head, a hand running through his hair. “Tell you what lad, twenty five years I’ve been in this game and I’ve never once seen anything that fucked up.”
A silence fell between the two, a crackle of a police radio breaking the tension, startling a flock of blackbirds from the treetops and ascending up and off into the distance. Both officers watched them go. Stone continued.

“Take whatever you need, ok? Get this bastard, and get him quick. We don’t any more shit hitting the fan, especially after last year with those poofs over in Rochester.”

It was almost a year since, as DCI Stone so eloquently put it, ‘the shit hit the fan with those poofs.’ Three young gay teenage boys beaten to death in the space of a week, their bodies dumped on the riverbank near the castle wall. The gay community up in arms and terrified, demanding round the clock police protection and every possible resource expended to find the culprit.

To cut a long story short, William Barnes, a twenty four year old unemployed loner, who had grown up in care from the age of nine, after his adoptive father had been imprisoned for child abuse, had been pulled in for questioning after the discovery of the first body. With no evidence against him, other than him being seen in a pub near the scene on the night of the murder, he was, subsequently released.

Unfortunately, the oversight of Barnes’ background, a known member of a local Neo-Nazi group since his late teens, and an avid reader of fascist and anti-gay literature, allowed Barnes to kill twice more before stumbling, high on narcotics, into a local restaurant, covered in blood, ranting his views against gay men. He was promptly arrested and the subsequent weeks and months were anything but plain sailing for the establishment.
McCann cast his mind back to the agro that followed. The outcry in the media that this could have been let to happen. The bigger outcry that heads didn’t roll, mainly his. He was given a warning and dealt with the backlash in his own way, with a good bottle, or two, of whiskey.

“I’ll make sure of it, sir. If we get a good team behind it then we’ll get there.”

“Good, good. Any initial thoughts?”

McCann shrugged. “One or two things, nothing concrete. She’s in such a state it’s hard to determine anything at the moment, so we’ll just have to wait until they get her out of here to get any answers. Hopefully that’ll be sooner rather than later. I’m sure they realise the importance of things. What we do know, just to make things a little more difficult, is that she wasn’t killed here, so, whoever is responsible would more than likely have somewhere private where they did this. She would have lost a shit load of blood, so, I don’t know, a cellar maybe. I could be wrong, but it makes sense. You can’t just do this kind of thing in your back garden.”

Stone took it all in, McCann could see the anxiety on his otherwise unmovable face.

“Ok. What about the photo? The writing? I ran into DS Conrad.”

“Well, it’s not our missing girl, and, whoever is in that photo inst either, so, I really don’t want to think about that. As for the writing, I honestly have no idea, I’ve got Conrad onto it, he’s also checking missing persons to see if anything comes back. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to be a waiting game.”

Stone nodded and scratched his head, “Ok,” he paused, “listen,” taking a deep breath. “I need to know that you’re up for this, that certain issues are not going to affect your judgement. This is going to be fuckin’ huge and I can’t afford to have you off your game.”

Stone was aware of McCann’s home-life problems and having his leading detective’s mind clouded at a time like this was something that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, tolerate.

“Everything’s fine, sir. Never better.”

Stone folded his arms in front of him. “Bullshit lad, I can smell the booze on your breath from here. I’m not fuckin’ around, I’ll give the case to someone else if I think for one second that you aren’t up for it. How are the kids?”

You mean seeing them every other weekend, a phone call once in a while. Them growing up without their father. What could be possibly be wrong. “Fine, thank you. Both growing up fast, you know how it is.”

Stone narrowed his eyes and chewed on the side of his mouth. “And there’s nothing else? Believe it or not, I’m here to help, I know that you don’t think so, but I am.”

“Everything is fine sir, really, its fine.” Who was he trying to kid?

Stone unfolded his arms. “Ok, ok, I get the message McCann. But just remember this. I’ve seen many a good officer in my time bollocks up their career due to booze or drugs or gambling or sometimes all three with a woman chucked in and a bit more.” He raised a finger and pointed it at McCann. “I don’t want to see you do the same thing, you got me? You’re a fucking good officer and I know that you’ve been through the ringer what with your lass walking out, but you’ve still got a job to do. Ok? So, if the offer is there, take all the help you can get”

McCann stood silent. It wasn’t very often that Stone revealed a side to him that was anything other than brash and obnoxious. “I said Ok, Detective McCann?”

Nodding. “Yes sir. Thank you.”

“Ok, but I’m warning you, one of the good ones or not, I will kick your arse if I have too.” He paused, then with a slight shake of the head, he continued. “Right, lets get on with this shall we? I’ve asked for the post mortem to be set up for as soon as possible, as you said, hopefully we should have some more answers then, but I guess that Dr Campbell has been through this already with you. So as soon as we can start getting some info on this girl the better.”

“Ill get some officers on a door to door.” said McCann. ”

“Already done. I’ve got a couple of officers on it right now in the roads opposite the main entrance, see if anyone was out last night. There’s an Indian restaurant just up the road so if time of death was around midnight then maybe a local saw something on their way home. This place must be a big spot for dog walkers too, going by all the shit in here so hopefully something will crop up.”

Stone stopped as his mobile phone started bleeping from inside his jacket. Reaching in he fished it out and turned his back to McCann and answered. He stood for a few moments as his boss reeled off a set of curt yeses and no’s whilst running his hand through his think hair. McCann then reached into his pocket for his own mobile and pulled it out. He had two messages, three missed calls and a voice message, all from his daughter Bethany.
Cursing to himself that he had missed her, what with relations between the pair of them being at an all time low and not wanting anything else to raise more issues, he scrolled through the phone’s menu, clicked onto his answer phone and listened to the message.

‘Dad, it’s me, your daughter. I guess you’re too busy to answer, but I’m sitting on your doorstep, so when you can be bothered can you come and let me in.”

The line went dead and he stood and looked at the blank screen. The first thing that entered his mind was what was his fifteen-year-old daughter playing at sitting on his doorstep in the middle of the morning when she should be at school?

Finding her number in his contacts, he pressed to connect. It rang twice before she answered with her usual snap. “About time Dad.”

“What are you playing at Beth?”

She sighed. “Well right now, as I said, I’m sitting on…”

McCann interrupted. “Yeah I got that bit, I mean why are you sitting on my doorstep? Why aren’t you at school?”

“Cant a daughter come and see her Dad when she wants?”

“Well, yes, of course. But all the way from Dartford, on a Tuesday, when she should be at school? Beth, what’s going on?” There was a pause on the other end. “Beth, answer me.”

“Just come and let me in will you, I’m cold and my battery is about to die.”

“I cant at the moment, I’m a bit tied up at work and…”

It was her turn to interrupt. “Typical, always too busy aren’t you Dad. Well forget it, Ill find somewhere else to go.”

The line went dead again.

“Fuck it.”

“Everything alright lad.” Looking up, he saw DCI Stone had finished his call and was making his way back towards him. “Yes, sir, everything’s fine.”

“She playing up again?” he said. “Couldn’t help but over hear.”

McCann looked down at his phone and then back at his boss. “No more than usual. Listen, I need to make a quick call, five minutes?”

Stone nodded. “Sure lad, take your time. Nothing is going to change here. I’ll get everyone together for a briefing after lunch, we may have a few more things to go on.”

After he was out of earshot, McCann dialed his daughter back. This time, like he thought it would, it rang off and went to voice mail. He cursed again and re-dialed with the same result. This time he left a message:

“Bethany, I’m not playing these games with you. You know that I have a job that means I cant be somewhere when you demand it; I need you to understand that ok? Now, if you wont talk to me then go next door to Mrs. Morrison and ask her for my spare key. If she isn’t in, then please call me back and Ill sort something out. If you get in, there’s food in the fridge and, well, you know where everything is. Ill be home as soon as I can.”

He thought about saying more but decided to leave it at that. The chances of Mrs. Morrison being out were slim seeing as she was in her seventies and her arthritis meant she couldn’t walk far and the only day she ventured out was on a Thursday when her son took her to the supermarket. He was about to tuck his phone back in his pocket when it bleeped with a message. It was Beth.

Thanku dad, got key, c u later.x

The moods of a teenager, he thought, swinging and changing like the breeze. He couldn’t help but smile to himself. Knowing that she was safe he could now concentrate on the job at hand, even though he would have happily walked away right there and then.

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