If anyone had asked me, I’d have lied and said that being a detective was like any other job—a lot of routine and a bit of excitement now and then. The truth was, in fact, that it was like no other job in the world, except that there were good days and bad days. But the bad days were really, truly, epically bad. The bad days were spent standing too close to a decomposing body, trying not to gag. The bad days were random acts of violence on empty streets late at night with no witnesses. The bad days were domestic punch-ups that had got out of hand, dead drug addicts in dingy bedsits, elderly shut-ins whose neighbors only cared enough to call the police when the smell was too revolting to bear. I didn’t care to count up how many days were bad ones; I suspected I wouldn’t like the answer. But I could deal with it. I could cope.
I wasn’t sure, however, that I could cope with my new case. More specifically, I wasn’t sure that I could cope with my new boss. I wasn’t at all sure I could stand it if all the days were bad, if every minute was another minute closer to breaking my spirit. I stared out of the car window as I half-listened to the driver beside me and wished I were somewhere else, with someone else.
It wasn’t like me to be so unenthusiastic but nothing about my current situation was good. I was on my way to a crime scene I didn’t want to face, accompanied by Detective Inspector Josh Derwent, one of two new additions to the team at that level. He and the other new DI, Keith Bryce, had worked with Godley before. That was about all they seemed to have in common. Bryce was quietly melancholy, and his face was as rumpled as his suits. Derwent was younger and had a reputation for being obsessively hard-working and infinitely aggressive. As far as I could tell, he liked fast driving, soft rock, and the sound of his own voice. Rumor had it he didn’t like junior detectives to answer back. Handle with care was the advice circulating in the office, and I watched him covertly as he drove, heavy on the accelerator, heavy on the brake, swearing and spinning the wheel one-handed as if he were in a games arcade rather than pushing to make time on traffic-clogged London streets. Magic FM blared from the car radio, middle-of-the-road music at its most blandly inoffensive. Derwent sang along occasionally, unself-conscious even though he didn’t know me at all. Not that I was likely to make anyone feel on edge, least of all him. I was the most junior of detective constables and he was an inspector, fifteen years in the job.
I had been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I had suffered enough from misplaced gossip, from the assumptions made about me based on my looks, my height, my youth, my name. So when Superintendent Godley summoned me to his office and I found Derwent there already, leaning up against the glass wall that separated the boss from the rest of us, I didn’t expect trouble. I should have known better. Even someone as inexperienced as me knew that when the superintendent didn’t meet your eyes, it was time to get nervous.
“Maeve, you haven’t met Josh Derwent yet, have you? He’s taking the lead on a new job we’ve picked up in Brixton—a double murder, of sorts.”
Derwent acknowledged me with a fleeting look, no smile. He was of average height but thick through the neck and shoulders, muscled like a bulldog. He was too rugged to be called handsome but his close-cropped hair, strong jaw and broken nose, and the tan he’d earned while training for marathons, made him distinctive. You’d certainly think twice before getting into a fight with him. The marathon running was a hobby that had raised eyebrows among my colleagues, most of whom counted a short jog to the vending machine as exercise. According to them, long-distance running was public masochism and a further sign that Derwent wasn’t to be trusted. For my part, I couldn’t work out how he found the time to train, but otherwise I didn’t care. And he was certainly in great shape. It was really only the fact that he was standing in the same room with Superintendent Godley that made him look ordinary, but then there were comparatively few men who could measure up to the boss. Tall, with hair that had turned silver-white when he was still a young man, Godley was startlingly attractive. He must have been aware of the effect he had on people, but he seemed to be utterly without vanity. No one would dare to underestimate him because of his appearance; it was impossible to mistake what lay behind his brilliant blue eyes for anything but a sharp, focused intelligence.
But today, for some reason, the focus was off. Godley looked strained and sounded distracted, fumbling among his papers for the notes on the new case and not finding what he was looking for.
“I don’t have the details to hand, but we’ve got two men, both tortured to death, bodies found within a mile of each other in the last twenty-four hours. Josh, I know you want to get going, so tell DC Kerrigan what we know so far while you’re on the way.”
It wasn’t like Godley to be vague. One of the things that made him an outstanding boss was his command of each twist and turn in every case his team worked. I hesitated for a second before following Derwent out of the room. It wasn’t my place to ask the superintendent if he was okay. Besides, I had problems of my own. Derwent could have looked more thrilled at the prospect of working with me. Maybe he had heard something about me from someone else on the team. Maybe I had made a bad first impression. Maybe he was just in a bad mood. Sitting next to him in the squad car, it was difficult to tell.
“Earth to DC Kerrigan. Come in, DC Kerrigan.”
I jumped. “Sorry. I was miles away.”
Derwent had interrupted his monologue about other motorists’ shortcomings to ask me a question, and I’d missed it. He was looking at me impatiently, tapping his fingers on the edge of the steering wheel as the lights in front of us stubbornly stayed red.
“I asked you what you made of Godley’s briefing. I thought you might have some insight to share.” The sarcasm was biting and I managed not to wince. Just.
“The boss didn’t say much. Only that there were two similar deaths in the same area.”
“And that didn’t make you think? Didn’t make you wonder what’s going on?”
“I don’t know enough about either case yet to make any assumptions,” I said levelly. “I don’t want to jump to conclusions without knowing the facts.” The facts you were supposed to share with me. . .
“That’s fair.” Derwent was nodding as if I’d passed a test I didn’t know I was taking. “Let’s talk through the facts. Yesterday evening, Mrs. Claudia Tremlett called her local police station to report her husband missing. Ivan Tremlett was a self-employed software designer who lived in Clapham, just off the Common. He rented office space down the road in Brixton because he had three small children and they made too much noise for him to be able to work from home. He had two rooms above a laundrette and it was his habit to lock himself in. He was extremely security conscious, not least because he had quite a lot of expensive computer equipment. He didn’t see clients at his office so he wasn’t set up to receive visitors. Mrs. Tremlett became concerned when he failed to return home by six o’clock, because he always followed the same routine—out in the morning by half past eight, back by half past five. She had tried to raise him by phone, but got no reply from the mobile or landline. Mrs. Tremlett was extremely distressed on the phone and worried about her husband’s safety. She convinced the sergeant to dispatch a unit to check that all was well.”
“And it wasn’t,” I said knowing the answer.
“It was not. Mr. Tremlett was in the office, all right, with his computers, but neither they nor he were in what you might call a viable condition. Mr. Tremlett’s injuries were not compatible with life.”
It was typical police understatement: the phrase generally meant someone who was so very dead it was hard to recognize them as having been human in the first place. “Who took the case? Lambeth CID?”
“They did the initial work. Didn’t take it too far—they just took statements from the people working in the laundrette, and Mrs. Tremlett, and secured the scene. In fairness, they didn’t have much of a chance to get stuck in, because this came in at lunchtime.”
“This” was the crime scene that was our eventual destination, if the traffic ever released us. But Derwent hadn’t finished with the software designer yet.
“The last time anyone heard from Tremlett was around two yesterday afternoon when he spoke to his wife. The computers had been smashed to bits, but we might be able to raise something off a hard disk to tell us when he last used them—that could give us a better idea of when he was attacked, but let’s say it was between two and five yesterday afternoon.”
“Not so far. No one in the laundrette heard or saw anything. It’s a noisy place, apparently—machines on the go all the time, people in and out. Besides, no one really knew Ivan Tremlett was there. He kept to himself, and his office had a separate entrance, so they wouldn’t have seen him or anyone else coming and going.” The car in front of us braked and Derwent’s face lit up with a demonic glow. He grinned at me. “Here’s where it gets interesting.”
I smiled politely in response. Interesting was never good, in my limited experience.
“Around one o’clock this afternoon, the control room received a nine-nine-nine call from the address of a forty-three-year-old male, an unemployed gentleman by the name of Barry Palmer. He lived alone in a two-bedroom house. His sister had become concerned about him, not having heard from him for a couple of days, and had gone around to see if he was all right. She had a key to his front door, so she let herself in. The house had been ransacked. She found her brother in the front room.”
“And he was dead.”
“Very much so.”
“Did he die before Ivan Tremlett or after?”
“Good question. I don’t know the answer, as it happens, but Dr. Hanshaw is meeting us there. He’ll be able to tell us more.”
“Why are you linking the two murders?”
“There were similarities between the two crime scenes—obvious similarities, as you’ll see when you have a look yourself. I take your point about not making assumptions, but take it from me, we’re looking for the same killer or killers.”
“So what do Ivan Tremlett and Barry Palmer have in common? Who would want to kill them? Did they know each other?”
“Gold star to DC Kerrigan. Those are exactly the right questions to ask.”
I felt patronized rather than encouraged, but at least the inspector seemed pleased. I was beginning to feel a mild, fragile sense of optimism. Maybe the new DI wasn’t so bad. He would have to be something special to be worse than his predecessor, the rat-faced Tom Judd, a charmless manipulator who had taken a totally undeserved promotion and was now leading a robbery team in the East End. The team had held a massive leaving party to celebrate. We hadn’t made the mistake of inviting Judd himself.
“I don’t know if they knew one another, but I can tell you one thing Tremlett and Palmer share. They both have criminal records. And there’s no shortage of people who might want to see them dead.” Derwent paused to let that sink in. I waited patiently for the explanation. “Tremlett pleaded guilty to downloading child pornography three years ago. He was working for a small company in Kent and they found it on his computer. He did nine months. Lost his job, not surprisingly, so he set up on his own once the dust had settled. It explains why he kept himself to himself.”
“And the security he had on his office.” I frowned. “So they’ve got kids, and he’s a convicted sex offender, but Mrs. Tremlett was happy to have him in the family home?”
“Apparently so. We can ask her about that. Wouldn’t be the first wife to be in denial about what she’d married.”
“If this all happened in Kent, did anyone in the local area know about his conviction?”
“Something else to ask her about, but Lambeth CID say not. He was on the register. No record of anyone making inquiries about him, though.”
The sex-offenders’ register wasn’t open to general access, though a recent law made it possible for members of the public to check whether individuals were listed on it, and for what. But they had to be suspicious to begin with. The ordinary punter in the street didn’t seem to realize that, for the most part, the sex offenders who were really dangerous were the ones you would never, ever suspect.
“What about Mr. Palmer?”
“Mr. Palmer is different. He was a known pedophile. Last October he was released from prison after serving a seven-year stretch for raping two little girls. Against the advice of his probation officer, he went back to Brixton, to the house where he had lived when the abuse took place. Not unexpectedly, the local community didn’t put out a welcome mat for him. He reported a campaign of harassment ranging from name-calling to a paper bag full of dog shit that was dropped through his letterbox. They’d set fire to it first, so when he went to put out the flames by stamping on it, he got it all over himself.”
“That old trick.”
“He should have known better,” Derwent agreed. “He had trouble with graffiti—scum out, kiddyfiddler lives here, that kind of thing—and the locals wouldn’t speak to him or serve him in shops.”
“Why did he want to come back?”
“I spoke to his probation officer just before we left the nick. The house was his mother’s. She died while he was inside, so it was vacant when he got out. He needed somewhere to stay and a rent-free home was appealing. His sister wouldn’t have him living with her. She’s got kids herself. Palmer swore he was innocent and the sister says she believed him, but you wouldn’t take the chance, would you?”
“Not if there was any alternative.” Nothing that I’d heard so far sounded like good news. “So there are a million suspects and when we ask around, no one is going to have seen or heard anything.”
“That’s about right.”
“Brilliant.” I looked at him, curious. “This is shaping up to be a nightmare case. You don’t seem too worried.”
“It’s win-win, isn’t it? If I solve it, I get the credit for clearing up a double-murder. If I don’t…” He shrugged. “No one much cares about the victims, do they? No one is going to be demanding pedophiles should be better protected.”
“Realistic. Anyway, don’t worry about it, sweetheart. We’ll work it out together. I’ll make sure you’re not left out at the prize-giving.”
I restrained myself from rolling my eyes. Fantastic. Another copper who was going to talk down to me just because I was female. Sweetheart, my arse.
Derwent was still talking, oblivious. “According to the boss, this is an important case and needs sensitive handling. That’s why he assigned you to work on it with me, which makes some sort of sense. The last thing I need is one of those hairy-arsed DCs from the team clumping around offending the families by saying the wrong thing.”
“I’ll do my best to avoid that,” I said stiffly.
“That’s the thing. You don’t have to say anything at all. Just stand back, look pretty, and let me do all the work.” Derwent squinted out through the windscreen and I was glad that he didn’t look in my direction, because the expression on my face was nothing short of murderous. “This should be an easy gig for you. Just stay out of my way so you can watch and learn.”
Just like that my enthusiasm for the new case, and my new colleague, slipped all the way down to zero.
And things were only going to get worse.
* * *
Barry Palmer had lived and died in a two-up, two-down redbrick cottage at the end of a long terrace of similar houses, the last survivors from rows of Victorian workers’ cottages that had been obliterated during the Blitz. Derwent found a parking space a little bit further up the street and I got out before he’d switched the engine off, desperate for even a few seconds of respite from the new DI’s company. On the pretext of checking out the area, I wandered away from him, scanning the surroundings. Industrial units and high-rise council flats flanked the houses on the streets on both sides, looming over the rooftops. Palmer’s house was on the corner and shared a wall with a large, noisy pub of surpassing grimness named the Seven Bells. I risked poking my head in and found an old Victorian pub that had lost all of its character in a series of refits, none recent. It now had too-bright lighting, filthy carpets and faux-leather seats. The music was played at headache-inducing volume and banks of games machines churned out electronic beeps and pings as the customers fed them pound coins. The pub fronted on to a busy road that thundered with buses and lorries. It was the worst sort of location for finding witnesses to a murder, even without considering whether anyone would want to help us find Palmer’s killer. No one would have heard anything strange, I was willing to bet. Even if he had screamed.
The house itself was cordoned off with blue-and-white-striped police tape looped around a pair of lampposts to create a rectangle where no one but those on official police business could go. On the other pavement, a group of neighbors were standing, watching. None of them even looked particularly shocked by what had happened. Certainly no one looked as if they were in mourning.
A uniformed PC, square in his luminous jacket, stood by the front door of Palmer’s house. He looked more bored than I would have thought possible. They had already put up a blue plastic tent around the door to limit how much the onlookers saw. The windows hadn’t yet been covered. They were gray with dirt, but I could make out brownish net curtains that had a floral pattern woven into the lace and looked like they had hung there, unwashed, for decades. Behind them, movement, and the occasional flare of a camera flash told me the SOCOs were already working.
A black van stencilled with the word AMBULANCE was parked right outside the house, ready to take the body away once Dr. Hanshaw had finished his preliminary examination at the scene and Derwent had given permission for it to be removed to the mortuary. The mortuary vans always gave me the creeps. I went past quickly, holding my breath in case I caught a whiff of decay. I knew that they were kept scrupulously clean but I couldn’t forget what they routinely carried, or what was waiting for us inside the house. I shouldn’t really have been so squeamish; I was just as much a part of the death business as any undertaker. But at least I didn’t have to be hands-on.
I took one last look around, then headed toward Derwent who was waiting for me, a sardonic expression on his face. He was holding the police tape over his shoulder so I could duck underneath, a simple courtesy that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t need his help, but turning it down would have seemed churlish. Then again, telling him to back off might have put a stop to the sweethearts and darlings.
“Ready to join me in the house? Or do you want to have another look round first?”
“Just getting a feel for the place,” I said, not allowing myself to sound ruffled.
“I’d have thought you’d be keen to get in there. See the body.” He sniffed. “Probably won’t be stinking yet even though the weather’s been warm. But the house looks pretty filthy from here. I bet it’s ripe in there.”
I sent up a small silent prayer of gratitude that I had grown up with an older brother who liked to torment me. Presumably I was supposed to respond with girlish horror. Derwent could try all day and he’d never manage to get a reaction like that from me. I smiled instead, as if the DI had made a witty, brilliant joke, and followed him to the blue tent. It was more than my life was worth to kick up a fuss about putting on a paper boiler suit over my clothes and paper booties on my feet, but I was aware that I looked ridiculous and it was no consolation that everyone else did too.
Someone had pushed the front door so that it was almost shut and I looked at it closely, imagining it as it would have looked to a passerby on an ordinary day. The paint on the door was dark brown and peeling away. Just above the letterbox, someone had scraped the word “Nonce” into the door, getting right down to the wood. The letters were thick and straggling, but easy to read. It must have taken them a while to do it. I wondered what it would have been like to stand in the hallway of the house and listen to someone carve the five jagged letters that spelled out what he was. He would have been afraid to stop them. He would have been afraid all the time.
With good reason, it seemed, because stepping into the hallway was like stepping into a nightmare. The overhead light was on, a harsh incandescent bulb in a dusty lace shade that was incongruously delicate, and the glare picked up the detail of what had taken place there. The walls were papered with a stylized pattern of flowers in tones of pale brown and cream, décor that had to date from the 1970s. The bottom foot or so was gray with rising damp. Here and there the paper bubbled away from the wall, puffed out with moisture. Apart from that, and a scuffmark or two, it had survived reasonably well. At least it had until someone had dragged something bloodstained the length of the hallway, a reddish-brown smear halfway up the wall that was feathered around the edges. Hair produced that effect when it was soaked in blood, I happened to know. The bloodstains told a sorry story to anyone who could read them. He had answered the door—God knows why—and the first thing they had done was to beat him until he bled. And that was just for starters.
I followed the trail past a malodorous sheepskin coat hanging on the end of the stairs, down to a doorway on the left side of the hall. It led into the front room, a small space made smaller by the clutter stacked on all sides and the number of people standing in it. The white suits made everyone anonymous but I picked out Dr. Hanshaw immediately. He was taller and thinner than anyone else in the room, for starters. He was also leaning at a perilous angle to get a better view of what lay on the floor. I couldn’t bring myself to look down—not yet, anyway. The room stank of blood, of human waste, of full ashtrays and dirty clothes and damp. It was hot and the windows were tightly closed. There was no air in the room, and no escape from the smell.
Palmer had lived in something approaching squalor and it was hard to tell what had been moved by the intruders and what was part of his normal surroundings, but his sister had said the place had been ransacked. It looked as if he had moved none of his mother’s belongings after she died, just overlaid them with his own detritus. Small, ugly ornaments and arrangements of dried flowers fought for space with empty beer cans and mugs stained brown from tannin. The gas fire dated from the same period as the wallpaper, which was probably the last time it had been serviced. Out-of-date TV listings magazines, a brimming ashtray and dirty plates were stacked on either side of a red armchair that occupied prime position in the room. The rubbed, greasy patches on the back and the arms of the chair suggested it was his favorite place to sit. He had a large collection of videos—not even DVDs—and the boxes were thrown everywhere, the cassettes fractured, the tape spilling out in shiny brown-black coils. DI Derwent pushed past me and started turning over the boxes with gloved hands. I turned away, searching for something to distract me from what lay on the floor.
And found it in the signs of violence that jumped out at me once I started looking. Fractured glass was starry in the picture frames that still hung on the wall, lighter patches on the paper showing where others had hung. Blood spatter had dried dark on the biscuit-colored tiles surrounding the fire. The drawers were pulled out of the sideboard, their contents scattered on the floor. Broken glass was mixed in with the tangle of cutlery and napkins and the stopper from a cheap decanter lay in the middle of it all. The carpet was violently patterned with brown, cream and red swirls and it was only when I looked closely that I could see where the blood had soaked into it, spreading out from the body, the meager pile drying in tufts. Unwillingly, I followed the blood back to its source.
The body lay in front of the armchair, as if he had been sitting in it and pitched forward at the moment of his death. He was naked from the waist down, the skin blanched. Blood obeys gravity when it is no longer pumped around the body by a beating heart; the front of Palmer’s body would be patched with livid purple when Dr. Hanshaw turned him over. His only clothing was an undershirt, yellowing with age, pulled up above his waist. His sparse hair was rusty-red from the blood that had soaked into it; it was impossible to tell what color it should have been. One hand lay beside his head, his arm curved around as if he had been trying to shield himself from something or someone. I looked at the hand for too long, trying to work out what was odd about it. The shape was wrong, somehow.
“They took three.”
I jumped, startled. Derwent was standing beside me, watching Dr. Hanshaw’s careful examination of the corpse. The pathologist had just taken the internal temperature, a procedure that always made me feel embarrassed for the dead person. The public indignity of death was profound. Personally, I hoped for a quiet passing, no post-mortem required. “Sorry?”
“Three fingers. Two from the right hand. One from the left.” He pointed and I realized that there was a stump where the forefinger should be on each hand, and the middle finger was missing on the right side, dried blood crusted around the wound. “They weren’t messing around.”
“I’m going to turn him,” Dr. Hanshaw said, looking up. “Give me a hand.”
To give Derwent his credit, he bent immediately and took a firm hold of the corpse’s legs, something that I wouldn’t have wanted to do even with gloves on. On the pathologist’s command, they rolled Palmer on to his back. A hiss of shock went through the room.
“Significant damage to the genitals.” Dr. Hanshaw bent for a closer look. “He was castrated. After a fashion.”
Even Derwent was looking pale. He rallied enough to ask, “What did they use?”
“Possibly the same thing they used on his hands. Heavy cutting equipment—garden shears, secateurs, that kind of tool.”
“Might have been something they brought with them.” Sean Cottrell was the senior SOCO who was managing the crime scene. “We haven’t found anything like that, and there’s no garden as such—just a concrete yard behind the house. Nothing to cut with garden shears.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if they came equipped,” Derwent said. “Whoever did this knew what they wanted to do here. They were straight into him as soon as he opened the door.”
“But what did they want?” I was pleased to hear how matter-of-fact I sounded. No one would have guessed I was struggling to keep my composure. “It doesn’t look as if he had anything worth stealing. And he served a reasonably long sentence for the child abuse. It’s not as if he was out after a few months and someone felt justice hadn’t been done.”
“Vigilantes?” Derwent suggested. “Maybe they thought prison wasn’t enough punishment. Or they wanted to get rid of him and discourage anyone with a similar background from moving in.”
“Why now? He’d been living here for almost a year. Plenty of harassment—the neighbors certainly didn’t want him here—but nothing like this.” I made myself look again at the body, confirming what I had already thought. “I’m not saying they didn’t enjoy doing it, but this looks like it had a purpose. They tortured him for a reason.”
Derwent raised his eyebrows. “You’d certainly hope it wasn’t for fun.”
Dr. Hanshaw had been ignoring our back-and-forth, concentrating on what he was doing. “His face is badly swollen—some of that is post-mortem, but it’s fairly clear he was beaten severely. Whoever attacked him took their time over it.” He probed the skull and gave a little grunt. “There was a significant blow to the head that caused a massive skull fracture. I’ll have a better idea when I look at his brain during the PM, but I’m fairly sure I’ll find this was the fatal injury.”
The victim’s face was a gargoyle mask, his tongue protruding from his mouth, one cloudy eye staring at the ceiling while the other was swollen shut. I made myself stare at it without flinching. Whatever they had wanted from him, they had made sure he suffered. And they had made sure he died once they were finished with him. I wondered if he had told them what they wanted to hear, in the end. I wondered if they had cared. The level of violence was extreme—it was overkill. And they had enjoyed it.
Judging that I’d spent long enough staring at the body to prove to anyone who cared that I was tougher than I looked, I turned to Derwent. “Mind if I have a look around the rest of the place?”
“Good idea. Check it out.” He sounded distracted, still focused on the body. I had found it hard to warm to the new DI, but that didn’t mean he was bad at his job. I might yet come to respect him, even if liking him seemed a long way off.
Threading a careful path through the forensic team, I made it to the kitchen and wished I hadn’t. Every surface was thick with months’ old grease and the windowsill was sprinkled with dead insects. The kitchen units were old, a white laminate that had peeled badly here and there, and the doors hung off the cupboards. Again, it was hard to tell what was recent damage and what state the room had been in before Palmer’s nightmarish visitors had arrived, but the drawers upended on the floor and the tins rolling everywhere suggested that the intruders had been in the kitchen too. An officer was painstakingly examining the tiles for footprints. Someone had opened the back door and I edged toward it on the pretext of looking at the yard outside, but really so I could get some air. The tiny concrete space smelled of wholesome exhaust fumes and stale beer from the pub, better than an alpine meadow as far as I was concerned after the ungodly stench in the house. I inhaled deeply and enthusiastically, staring up at a sky that was a cloudless clear blue stitched with vapor trails.
There was a limit to how long anyone could stare at a six-foot-by-eight yard, and I forced myself to go back through the kitchen, spilled sugar crunching under my feet, and into the hall, where I bumped into Sean Cottrell.
“Mind if I go upstairs?”
“Nope. Just watch where you walk—stay on the areas we’ve marked. And don’t run any water in the bathroom. We think they cleaned up in there before they left.”
“I won’t touch anything.” I headed up the narrow stairs. They were covered in thin brown carpet that was worn on the treads and I took it slowly, wary of slipping, careful not to brush against the handrail though it was already black with fingerprint dust.
Cottrell’s advice was unnecessary; I wouldn’t have been tempted to touch anything in the bathroom. It looked as if it had last been cleaned around the same time as the kitchen—in other words, months ago, if not years. The seat was up on the loo and I pulled a face at the brown streaks running down the sides of the bowl, the stagnant water a murky gray-brown that hinted at unspeakable things lurking below the surface. It would be some poor bastard’s job to sieve out anything that had been left in the bowl in case it helped to identify the killers, but not mine, thank God, not mine. The bath was grimy but suspiciously unused compared to the sink, which once had been white but was now dark gray. A reddish-brown tidemark around the plug hole looked like dried blood and I could see why Sean was keen to preserve the room for examination. There was no soap or shower gel in the bathroom, as far as I could see. An ancient toothbrush lay on the sink, the bristles discolored and warped, but there was no toothpaste. Personal hygiene did not appear to have been one of Barry Palmer’s priorities, any more than housekeeping.
The two bedrooms were bleak, small and cold. One had a stripped single bed in it and very little else. The stains on the mattress made my stomach heave, which surprised me given that I had seen worse—much worse—in that very house. Maybe it was just that I had reached my daily limit on disgusting things. I gave the other bedroom a cursory glance, taking in the rumpled sheets and blankets, the curtains hanging off their rail at the window, the clothes piled up on a chair in the corner. The room smelled of unwashed flesh and stale air. The mattress hung off the bed, as if someone had lifted it to check what lay underneath, and I had a sudden vision of the killers hurrying through the house after cleaning themselves up, searching it damp-handed for God knows what while Palmer breathed his last in the miserable sitting room below.
I retraced my steps and came down the stairs to find Derwent deep in conversation with Dr. Hanshaw. Judging that he wouldn’t want to be interrupted, I slipped out of the front door and took off my paper suit with some relief. The smell of the house clung to my hair and skin and I was conscious of it as I went across the street to the small knot of neighbors who still stood there, arms folded. They were a fairly representative sample of the area’s diverse population; Brixton was a proper melting pot and this street was no different. The group seemed, as one, to regard me with suspicion as I walked up to them, but I gave them a smile anyway and introduced myself.
“As you may know, we’re investigating a suspicious death at the address behind me. Did any of you see anything strange in the last couple of days? Anyone who didn’t belong in this area hanging around? Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
A plump black woman shook her head. “Sorry. I don’t think we’re going to be much help. None of us saw anything, did we, Brian?”
Brian was small and thin with a leathery complexion. He had a foul-smelling cigarette hidden in his fist, held between his forefinger and thumb, and took a long drag on it before answering. “Don’t believe we did, no.”
I looked around the small circle, seven of them, seeing the same expression repeated on every face. No one was going to break ranks—not in front of their neighbors, anyway. “Right. Names and addresses.”
It was like switching on a light in a cellar and seeing rats scurry for cover. The little group broke apart, Brian murmuring something about needing to get to work. I raised my voice.
“It’s not a request, ladies and gentlemen. Names and addresses. Now.”
There’s a certain tone of voice that you learn to use during your years of street policing. Authoritative without being hectoring, it’s strangely effective on even the most recalcitrant members of the public. Meekly, the neighbors returned and dictated their details to me. We would be knocking on doors up and down the street anyway, but the ones who were particularly curious—the ones who would stand on the street for hours watching nothing in particular going on—they were the ones I wanted to talk to. They were the ones who would notice anything out of the ordinary. And behind closed doors, they might just not be able to resist telling us what they’d seen.
Once I had finished with the possible witnesses, I turned to find DI Derwent behind me. He did not look pleased.
“Decided you’d had enough, did you?”
“Just collecting some details.”
“Is that what I asked you to do?”
“No.” He leaned in, a flush of color in his cheeks, his voice hard. “Let’s get one thing straight, okay? I don’t like initiative. I don’t like people thinking for themselves. I don’t like having to search for a junior officer who’s taken it upon herself to wander off.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation with Dr. Hanshaw.”
“Right. And you couldn’t wait for me to be finished at the crime scene.”
“I didn’t think there was any harm in it.”
“Well, your first mistake was thinking. You’re not here to think.”
I opened my mouth to argue and closed it again. What was the point? Derwent gave a short, sharp nod, as if he was satisfied at having put me in my place. I wondered if he had really been annoyed, or if he had engineered the little scene deliberately.
“Fine. Let’s get out of here, then.” He checked his watch. “We’ve got another crime scene to visit but I want to see the sister first. She’s expecting us. She doesn’t want us there too late because we might disturb her precious kids.”
“Where does she live?”
“Chislehurst.” It was a long way east of Brixton and Derwent said what I was thinking. “It’ll take us a while to get there with the traffic like this.”
I trailed after him to the car, feeling dismal. Stand back and look pretty, he’d said.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
Copyright © 2012 by Jane Casey