DEATH TOLL (Chapter 1)
Sunday, 12 December 2010
DI Peter Shaw stood amongst the gravestones of Flensing Meadow Cemetery, his walking boots invisible in a ground mist that had slipped off the river with the tide and trickled over the grass, filling the reopened graves. High tide: and on that high tide an Icelandic trawler was coming up the river in the night, a house of lights and rasping chains, and bouncing across the moonlit water the voices of men speaking a savage language. Stars turned above Shaw's head like a planetarium. The mist was damp and it made the meadow smell of rotting earth. Frost was in the air. Winter was hardening by the day, and snow was forecast before New Year. But Shaw had told his daughter not to get her hopes up, because it never snowed on Christmas Day.
The clock of All Saints Church, lost amongst the ugly egg-boxes of the old council flats, chimed ten o'clock. Shaw shifted his feet, aware of what lay beneath the damp cemetery grass. Fifty yards away stood a forensic scene-of-crime lamp, a splash of grass illuminated St-Patrick's-Day green. The light left the gravestones in stark contrast, casting ink-black shadows.
'Come on, George,' he said, turning on the spot, searching the darkness for the advancing silhouette of his sergeant. Shaw's nervous system was crying out for action, exercise, the release of physical energy. He wanted to run, to feel the endorphins surging through his bloodstream, and the oiled, rhythmic, beat of his heart. When he'd received the call he'd been on the beach with Lena near the house, their winter wetsuits laid out on the verandah. He'd been a moment away from the icy crush of the surf, the bitter-sweet trickle of freezing seawater into the suit. That was life. Not this: waiting amongst the dead.
What information the control room at St James's had passed to Shaw was characteristically elliptical. Several graves were being relocated as part of flood-prevention work along the riverside. During the opening of one of them that afternoon, 'irregularities' had been unearthed. The contractors had called the West Norfolk Constabulary, who had dispatched a forensic team and paged Shaw. By then it had been dark. Shaw was keen to get down to the graveside to see for himself what the fuss was about. But he couldn't take another step without a scene-of-crime suit, and that's what DS George Valentine was supposed to be fetching.
Midstream, the trawler dropped anchor. Beyond it, across the tidal river, he could see the Clockcase Cannery - a dismal landmark, a night-watchman's torch at a window, then the next, then the next. Upriver a necklace of traffic crossed the New Bridge. Shaw thought of the families within the cars, ferrying presents to family and friends, or driving home after the late-night Christmas shopping in the crowds packed into the Vancouver Centre. The thought made his shoulders jerk with a shiver.
Shaw stood alone. Six feet two, his blond hair cut short; slim, neat and self-contained. His jacket, oilskin, with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution motif on the chest, was zipped up to his chin. The face was broad, with wide cheekbones, the left eye the blue of falling tap water, the other blind, a pale moon of white. It was the kind of face that sought open horizons; a face suited to scanning the steppe, perhaps, searching for wild horses, or a distant wisp of smoke from a camp fire. A young face, yet one untroubled by the uncertainties of youth.
He heard DS George Valentine before he saw him, the laboured breathing, the squelch of his shoes in the damp grass. And then he was there: picking his way through the gravestones, carrying two sets of forensic trousers, gloves and overshoes. 'Tom's down by the lights,' he said, working a cigarette along the thin line of his lips. The smoke drifted into his eyes, making them water. On the fresh night breeze Shaw smelt alcohol. He slipped the trousers on by balancing on one leg. Valentine leant against a tombstone.
'It's all a bit macabre,' said Shaw, nodding towards the serried lines of open graves - some of the stones set back against the cemetery railings down by the riverside path. Did you know this was happening?' His voice was light, and held a musical, playful, quality that he often suppressed.
Valentine shook his head. 'News to me. There's a pen-pusher from the council up at the chapel when you've a sec - he's got the details. They're getting 'em all up - reburying the bones, shifting the stones, 'cos the place floods. Spring tides go over the top - every time.' He stuck his vulture-like head forward on its narrow neck. 'Global warming.' He spat into the grass. 'Environmental health people reckon it's a risk to the public.' Another shrug, touching a gravestone. 'Last ones down were in the eighties - it's not like they're fresh. So, what have they found?'
Shaw shook his head. 'Something they didn't expect to find, I imagine.'
Valentine pinched out his cigarette, put the dog-end in his pocket and followed Shaw towards the lights. The DS was wrapped in a raincoat with a grease mark where his hand held the lapels together. On the left lapel was a charity sticker: wood green animal shelter. Valentine loathed pets, but he couldn't resist a collecting tin. He rolled his narrow shoulders and let his head droop, his face as sharp and two-dimensional as an axe. He was fifty-three years old, sallow skin hung from tired bones. When the call had come he'd been in the Artichoke, on a settle by the coke fire, cradling a pint. He was profoundly irritated to find himself at work.
'No trouble seeing the fucker,' he said as they moved into the glare of the harsh white lights. He enjoyed swearing, chiefly because he knew it annoyed Peter Shaw.
Artificial turf had been laid round the letterbox of the open grave beneath the halogen floodlight. Figures, too brightly lit to be seen clearly, worked at the edges of the hole. One of them wasn't moving and Shaw realized with a shock that it was a statue of an angel, the hands cupped for water, one heel raised so that it seemed to be caught in the act of stepping forward.
As they arrived they heard the unmistakable sound of rotten wood shearing, two linen bands taking the weight of an unseen coffin as the men tried to edge it towards the surface.
Valentine looked away, aware that all too soon his own thin bones might be describing a similar journey, but in the opposite direction. When he did bring himself to look, the splintered, mud-caked casket was already set on a pair of wooden trestles, water draining away, gushing out through the fractured wood.
But it wasn't the thought of what was inside the coffin that made his heart race - it was what the lights illuminated so perfectly lying on top of the coffin.
A human figure. A corpse - more like a skeleton - the narrow noseless skull turned to one side, looking at them, eyes plugged with yellow clay.
Shaw thought instantly of a stone effigy, like the one on the Crusader's tomb in St Margaret's in the town centre: a carved version in life of what lay in death beneath. The narrow legs in chain mail, the breast plate, the hands together in prayer, the ankles crossed. But this was no marble image, rather an all too human one, the bones poking out of the rich layer of wet clay that coated them, filling the ribcage, the shallow bowl of the pelvis. And this body was the personification of pain, not repose - the skull to the right side, the torso twisted to the left, one arm thrown out, the other buckled underneath, the whole image giving the sense of a body that had been spun before death - a corkscrew in bone.
'Shit,' said Valentine, unable to stop himself from taking a step backwards.
Shaw knelt to look at the skull, now at the height of a hospital patient lying in bed. Shaw's whiz-kid reputation was partly based on being a fast-track graduate, but mostly on the fact that his degree was in art - a course which had included a year out at the FBI college at Quantico, Virginia, where he'd specialized in forensic art. He was one of only three serving police officers in the country with the ability to recreate an accurate hand-drawn image of a face from a set of skull bones, or produce a fifty-year-old face from a nine-year-old's snapshot, or draw the image of a suspect from an interview with a witness.
The human face had become Shaw's obsession, his area of expertise, his touchstone as a detective. He could read this skull as if it was a book: he could see, in his mind, what it had been, and what it might have become. And almost instantly he knew that this was a set of bones that would be defined by its exotic DNA. Even encased in clay the skull was dominated by the broad nasal aperture, in which nestled a fat orange slug, the prominent chin and jaws, with several large teeth still in situ, contrasting with the shallow sloping forehead.
'What's your story?' he said in a whisper, lowering his own face to within a few inches of the skull. Close up, the disadvantage of having sight in only one eye was at its most pronounced, so that he had to move his head constantly an inch to the left, an inch to the right, to allow his brain to construct a 3D image. He could smell death: the rich scent of decay - a human compost. Earwigs, beetles and spiders dropped from the coffin top to the turf below, their descent caught by the searing light.
Tom Hadden, head of St James's forensics unit, stood back, letting Shaw do his job, his own face aged by the horizontal light. He was a pale man, with strawberry blond hair thinning above a freckled face, his forehead marked by the lesions of skin cancer. A small scar indicated that at least one had been removed surgically.
'Peter,' he said, beckoning Shaw to his position behind the skull. He closed his eyes before he spoke, a mannerism that indicated he was deep in thought and was about to deliver a statement of fact. 'Now that,' he said, when Shaw arrived, 'is a lethal blow.'
There was a single puncture hole in the left parietal bone, close to the sagittal suture - the line that marks the division between the two halves of the skull. The impact had left a small, neat, triangular hole, but had shattered the lower cranium like crazy-paving.
'What did that?' asked Valentine, who'd joined them, his slip-ons damp in the long wet grass.
'Weapons aren't my territory,' said Hadden. 'As you well know, George. Justina's on her way. Till then, chummy stays put.' Dr Justina Kazimierz, St James's regular consultant pathologist, had begun her career working with Shaw's father - Detective Chief Inspector Jack Shaw - back in the 1980s. She demanded respect, and got it.
'So - a male, then?' asked Valentine, pleased he'd spotted Hadden's implicit judgement of the sex of their victim. He was standing at Hadden's shoulder now, and unless asked he'd be keeping a good distance between himself and the bones. Despite over thirty years on the force, George Valentine was never happier than when he was walking away from a corpse. The absence of life made his mouth dry with fear: an irresistible vacuum that seemed to tug at his raincoat.
'Who's in the box?' he asked, coughing with a sound like coal being shot from a scuttle. Valentine told himself he smoked twenty cigarettes a day, ignoring the fact that he seemed to always need to buy an extra packet before bedtime. He knew it was killing him, but he couldn't stop, and he was angry, in a listless way, with this constant reminder that he was a weak man.
Hadden checked a clipboard. 'Gravestones are either up against the railings or along the chapel wall up the hill - but the council officer's got a plan, and if it's telling the truth ...' he double-checked the clipboard, '... then this should be the grave of Nora Elizabeth Tilden. Born eighth of February 1928. Died first of June 1982,' he said. He held up crossed fingers. 'Let's hope. It's certainly not her on top. And she's not the only occupant of the plot, according to the records. There's an earlier burial - February 1948. A child. Mary Tilden. Aged six weeks.'
Hadden nodded at the open grave. 'She'll be three feet deeper - that's the law.' They heard earth slipping into the grave, splashing into water.
'We'll need to see her, too,' said Shaw.
Hadden nodded, unhappy with the thought. 'I'll need daylight for that, and a pump.'
Three men in white suits began to construct a lightweight SOC tent out of aluminium poles and nylon. Hadden stood back from the coffin. 'Notice what's under the skeleton?' he asked.
Shaw looked, circling the bones. 'A few inches of soil?'
'Exactly. Given the downward weight and the settlement of the grave, that few inches was probably more like a foot, maybe more, when he went in. So he's been buried in the grave - but not directly on the coffin top.'
Hadden cast a torch beam down into the misty hole. 'There's a soil profile - soon as we've got it dry tomorrow I'll get down there and get some photos.'
Valentine shivered - a big, awkward, jolt of his thin shoulders.
'With luck I'll be able to tell you the answer to the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question,' added Hadden.
He smiled at Valentine, but the DS had no idea what he was talking about.
Shaw nodded. 'Was our man buried at the same time as Nora Tilden?'
'Exactly,' said Hadden. 'Or did someone dig down, chuck him in, and then refill the grave?'
'What was the date of the original burial?' asked Shaw. Valentine noticed that Shaw often did that - asked a question, of no one in particular, but expected an answer. It really pissed him off.
'First of November 1982,' said Hadden. 'According to the cemetery records.'
Shaw looked up at the stars. 'That's odd. A five-month gap after death. Why would that be?'
Hadden started taking flash pictures of the open grave. 'Well,' he said, straightening his back, 'it's not that rare these days. Relatives have to travel - who knows, Australia, New Zealand - that takes time. Or there's a dispute over the will - that can sometimes hold it up. Or it was a job for a coroner and he didn't release the body until the court had sat. Which would make it a violent, sudden or unnatural death. Take your pick.'
'We need to find some family, George,' said Shaw. 'Get some answers.'
'I've got Paul Twine standing by,' said Valentine. Twine was a relatively new member of the squad, graduate entry, smart and keen, direct from the Met's training school at Hendon. Valentine reckoned he didn't have a social life so he'd rung him earlier as soon as he knew he might need some back-up in the office. At work Twine was professional, clean-cut, almost antiseptic, and Valentine had been astonished when a woman answered the phone.
Shaw looked around. It was one of his father's maxims - passed on during one of those rare moments when he'd talked about the job to his son - that any decent detective should have a picture of the scene of the crime imprinted on his memory bank, as tangible and to hand as the coins in his pocket.
The mist was thickening, rising slightly, so that thin strands seemed to claw listlessly at their belts. Shaw stood, partly disembodied, surrounded by the empty graves of the dead. Beside the stone angel there was a box tomb lit by the halogen lamp: it was in granite, with engraved cherubs, and had a flat top on which was etched:
Et in arcadia ego
Shaw stepped up onto it effortlessly. The lid rocked slightly, like a boulder in a stream. He let his single eye tour the horizon. The loss of his right eye two years earlier in an accident might have destroyed his ability to see in 3D at close range, but over twenty-five feet his eyesight was as good as anyone with two eyes: better, because he'd had to train himself in other ways to judge distance and perspective - such as using the way colours merge towards blue as they approach the horizon to judge distance. But that was no good at night: the view from the tomb, above the mist, was of a piebald world, just black and white. The night-watchman's light at the cannery was gone. To the north, half a mile away, he could see a light on a building - a pitched roof, gables and beams; a building that seemed to crouch beyond the cemetery gates, like a mourner returning to grieve after dark.
'What's that?' he asked.
'The Flask,' said Valentine, looking at his shoes. 'Boozer - bit rough now. Used to be all right.'
Shaw's knowledge of Lynn's pubs was restricted to the Red House, the CID's haunt off St James's. Hadden unplucked the forensic glove from his right hand. 'It was named after a ship,' he said. Hadden was a Londoner who'd come north to escape an ugly divorce and find peace spotting birds on the north Norfolk sands. Like most incomers, he knew more about local history than the natives. And he spent some of his time here, on the tidal path, looking for oystercatchers. 'A whaler back in the 1880s. This was where they used to take the flesh off the carcasses - the flensing grounds. Between us and the pub is a narrow inlet - pretty much silted up now. Blubber Creek.'
Shaw looked around, trying to imagine the whaling fleet in the river after its nine-month voyage back from the Arctic, the fires on the bank heating the cauldrons in which the meat was reduced to oil. Flesh pots.
They heard footsteps through the drier grass up the bank, and for the first time the slight crunch of frost. Walking towards them, hauling a leather bag, was Justina Kazimierz. She didn't say hello to anyone, simply put the bag down and opened it up, retrieving a set of forensic gloves and a mask. When Shaw had first met her he'd attributed her taciturn manner to the language barrier - she'd just arrived from Poland, via the Home Office. He'd been too kind. The pathologist didn't do pleasantries, and didn't suffer fools. Only once had Shaw seen her with her guard down in public, dancing with her diminutive husband at the Polish Club, drinking lighter-fuel vodka from a half-pint tumbler. But last summer she and her husband had moved out of town to a house on the coast near Shaw's, and she often came past now, on long walks, circled by a Labrador. Always alone, and always with an ice-cream for his daughter. A friendship had begun, if you could build a friendship on so few words. She took less than a minute to scan the body. 'I need him inside - quickly. Can we use the chapel?'
She hadn't looked at Hadden when she asked the question but he nodded.
She tapped the coffin. 'Wood's in good condition - under water most of the time? Maybe.' Even when she did talk to others she seemed to limit the conversation to a question-and-answer session with herself.
'Unscrew the coffin lid, then slide the lid and the corpse into a body-bag,' she said. 'Then we'll look inside.' She stood back, waiting for her instructions to be carried out.
'But from the general position of the body we'd conclude ... ?' asked Shaw.
She sighed, circumnavigating the bones. 'I'd guess - and that's what it is, Shaw: a guess - that he was dead when he was thrown in the grave. The body twisted as it fell - hence the posture. That'll have to do you for now, although I could say more about the wound.'
She'd called him Shaw, although in private it was Peter now. She plucked the forensic glove from her right hand as they gathered behind the head.
'The weapon was curved - you see?' she said. 'The blade is triangular in its cross-section. As it's gone through the bone it's exerted more pressure on the lower edge of the puncture wound - that's why the cracks radiate from that point. So the weapon's gone in, and then turned downwards through the brain, during the blow, so that there's virtually no pressure on the two upward sides of the triangle. Very unusual - very distinctive.'
'What are we looking for?' asked Valentine.
Dr Kazimierz straightened. 'No idea. Don't push me. A scythe would show the same pressures - but it's not triangular, and it's not this narrow. I need to get him back to the Ark. Ask me then.'
The Ark was West Norfolk's pathology and forensic laboratory, set in an abandoned nonconformist chapel on the ring road, close to police headquarters at St James's. It was Tom Hadden's kingdom, and housed the force's own mortuary. Kazimierz was a consultant, working on contract, but she used an office at the Ark too, and West Norfolk provided most of her caseload. It was a haven for the pathologist, Shaw sensed, wherein logic and reason reigned.
She pulled off the other forensic glove. 'The lid?'
Two of Hadden's team arrived with a stretcher and a body-bag and set up another wooden trestle to take the lid and the skeleton when it was lifted clear. One of the forensics officers, a woman entirely encased in a white SOC suit, worked steadily round the coffin, unscrewing screws, easing them out of the wood.
Shaw walked away, breathing in the freezing air. He thought about his father's funeral, out at Gayton, and the family in a line like a firing squad by the grave. Beyond them, uniformed officers at attention, and under a cypress tree the whole of the CID from St James's, most of them looking at their feet as the first spadefuls of earth were thrown in to thud on the coffin top. And with them, but a few yards apart, George Valentine, smoke drifting from a cigarette cupped in one hand.
'One, two, and three ...' said Hadden. Shaw turned as they lifted the coffin lid. Valentine looked at his shoes. As the lid was being slipped into the body-bag Shaw glimpsed the pathologist tracing a hurried sign of the cross.
Hadden pulled a spotlight over the now-open coffin. Long grey hair still clung to the skull revealed. Shaw noted the toothless jaws. 'Well - an elderly woman?' he asked.
Kazimierz pulled her gloves back on, making them tight at the base of each finger. Shaw was shocked by the realization that the movement was a feint, a cover, to allow the pathologist to gather herself, and for the first time he noticed how much she'd aged in this last year - the year in which they'd become friends. Her face had always been heavy, flesh obscuring what had once perhaps been a precarious beauty. But now the skin looked wasted, hanging from the bones of her face.
She took a piece of mouldered cloth from around the neck bone and a spider crept out from the shadow beneath the jaw, then scuttled back. Most of the bones were hidden beneath a velvet drape which had been folded over the body like a pair of rotting scarlet wings. On one fold of the drape, near the neck, was a silver brooch, two simple curved lines intersecting to form a fish. One hand, each finger intact, had been laid across the heart.
The pathologist began to work at the edge of the drape with a gloved hand, trying to reveal the bones beneath.
Shaw walked away and stood by the empty grave to look down. It was dark down there, an almost magnetic black. He hoped the victim had been dead when the killers had tossed him into the grave, but knew the real crime was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they probably didn't care.
'God.' The word had come from the pathologist and as Shaw turned he saw the rapid supplication again, the hand moving swiftly in front of her face. She held her hands high, elbows down, like a surgeon. She'd parted the velvet drape and most of the bones beneath were broken, the left upper thigh, several of the ribs, the lower left arm - not just broken, but shattered, so that each was a jigsaw of fractures.
'Jesus,' said Valentine. 'She's in bits.'
DEATH TOLL Copyright © 2011 by Jim Kelly.