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‘A trivial example of observation and inference.'
A. C. DOYLE, THE BOSCOMBE VALLEY MYSTERY
Monday morning, 9 a.m., in A12 lecture theatre, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Small and slightly cramped, certainly not the best lecture theatre on the St Andrews Street campus, but Professor Nick Fennimore liked it, and always asked for it. The walls were clad in ochre-stained pine, and the seating, gently raked, ran six to a row either side of the aisle. There were several curious burn marks on the floor near the demo bench – relics of his famous ‘Petrol Makes a Good Fire Extinguisher' demo.
Today, fifty students were seated or slouched in the tiered seating, chatting, texting, sleeping off the weekend's hangovers. The fluorescent light reflecting off ochre walls added to the jaundiced pallor of the serious Union Street club-goers. The last few drifted in just before nine and began shedding jackets and hats and scarves. Aberdeen in winter was no place for dressing down.
Nick Fennimore was forty-two, though he could pass for thirty-five. Above average height, but not exceptionally tall, he was lean, with strong, broad hands that were more calloused than you would expect to see in a forensic scientist. He kept his dark brown hair short. Whether teaching, or visiting crime scenes – even working in ditches with the soupy remains of corpses – he wore suit and tie. Not because there was a dress code for staff – Fennimore was one of only two people in the building who regularly turned out in business wear – but after years of working with the police, that was how he felt most comfortable. He cleared his throat, the murmur of voices subsided and, after a last-minute scramble for seats, he had their attention.
‘What's the most powerful tool available to a forensic scientist?'
These were first-year undergrads, several months into the course, and some of the shine had been rubbed off them. He got a muttered, slightly pained, ‘DNA' in response.
‘Really?' he said. ‘The top 10 per cent of Hibernia's brightest young minds, and that's the best you can do?' This was Fennimore's preferred approach: flattery wrapped up in an insult.
Some of the more combative types sat up a bit straighter, but nobody offered an alternative.
‘I know, I know … it's Monday…' He plucked a test tube from the rack in front of him. ‘Okay, easy question: what's this?'
‘A straw-coloured liquid.' This from a dark-haired lad with a short goatie.
‘Interesting.' Fennimore frowned at his laptop which stood open on the long demonstration bench. Still frowning, he looked at the contents of the test tube. ‘It looks like wee. It's in a test tube that we use for testing wee. But you're not willing to hazard a guess that it is wee?'
‘Not a chance.'
A few people smiled.
‘Because. It wouldn't be very scientific.'
‘Scientists don't guess?'
‘Not unless they know all the facts.'
Fennimore smiled. ‘Sadly, we rarely know all the facts. What I think you mean is that you believe I'm not above staging a set-up to catch out some poor alcohol-fuddled first year, and you're not falling for it.'
The goatie smirked, enjoying the attention.
‘Fair enough.' Fennimore held the test tube up to the nasty white glare of the low-energy lights. ‘Okay – for the record – this is indeed urine. The problem with DNA and urine is you'd be lucky to get a few epithelial cells from the urethra. So DNA isn't likely to help you identify the urinator – even if this is an assault case and the assailant peed on the victim – and that particular perversion is not a discussion point in this lecture.' It wasn't meant to shock, it was merely a statement of fact.
‘So, coming back to my original question, our most powerful tool is…'
‘Observation.' Josh Brown – interesting on two counts: that he was here at all; and that Fennimore hadn't seen him. But Josh Brown had the knack of being in a room without being noticed – until he wanted to be noticed. Now, it seemed, he did.
The subject of this lecture was ‘Observation and Assessment'. The title was listed in their course schedule and it was projected from his laptop onto the screen behind him.
‘Correct,' Fennimore said, ‘but you don't get full brownie points on account of the BIG FAT CLUE.' He glanced over his shoulder at the lecture title, and a few of his audience groaned at their oversight. Fennimore slapped his head and in a fair impersonation of a generic student, said, ‘Mondays. Nightmare!'
They shuffled and grinned, and one or two of the girls even laughed.
He nodded to the AV tech in the glass booth at the rear of the hall. A second screen lit up on the wall to his right, projecting an image of the rack of test tubes, magnified a metre high.
‘All right. Observations?'
A tawny-haired girl on the third row raised her hand. ‘They're different colours?' Only lately arrived from one of the smaller Hebridean Isles, she was good, but not convinced of her worth, yet.
‘Colours, or shades?'
Embarrassed, she said, ‘Well, you can see.'
‘We can all see, but can you observe?' he said, paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes.
She blushed, frowning, but he held her gaze, and finally she accepted the inevitable, took a breath and launched in. ‘You've shades of lemon and honey and pale amber and caramel.' Did she know that she'd described beautifully every shade of island malt from pale oak-matured Islay to sherry-casked Jura?
‘And this?' He selected a test tube from the end of the rack; it shone slightly pink in the artificial light.
‘That's altogether different,' she said. ‘It looks … Well, it looks like somebody's been knocking back too many Sea Breezes.' She got a laugh of recognition.
‘Excellent.' Fennimore looked around the room; now they were beginning to wake up, he could hit them with a few more facts. ‘Vodka, like all alcohol, dehydrates – which would concentrate the pretty pink dye from cranberry juice in a Sea Breeze. So maybe this person died of acute alcoholic poisoning. Or maybe not – but it's worth considering. Beetroot can turn urine an even more impressive shade of pink, and we might be interested in that – for instance, does this fit with accounts of what this person had for their last meal? Perhaps they're allergic to beetroot, and died of it.'
Some were showing an interest, some had even picked up their pens as if they intended to use them.
‘You might also note quantity, turbidity, the presence of casts. So – let's say we've observed what we can of appearance. Now what?'
‘Smell,' someone said.
‘Well, diabetic urine smells weird.'
‘I dunno, like nail polish remover.'
‘Which is mainly acetone, of course. In urine, it's ketones that cause the pear drops smell. It's caused by ketoacidosis – a sign that they're not taking their insulin as they should. And it's potentially fatal.' Pens hovered above notepads; he almost had them. Fennimore leaned forward, conspiratorially. ‘When you're looking for a possible cause of death, a fatal disease could be significant.'
Some of them actually did him the honour of committing ink to paper. Now they could see a point to squinting at glass tubes filled with someone else's bodily fluids.
‘You also get ketonuria in anorexia – if the body is starved, for whatever reason, it starts metabolizing fatty acids – eating itself to keep the cells alive.'
At the last count, 5 per cent of the UK population had diabetes – statistical probability said there would be two or three diabetics in this lecture hall alone – and he'd give good odds that every one of them knew someone who had an eating disorder.
‘I was going to save this till later, but since diabetes has come up…' Fennimore reached below the demonstration bench and fetched out a neat rack of ten test tubes. ‘Diabetic urine can smell sweet. Have you thought how it might taste?'
He heard a rumble of alarm. ‘It's perfectly safe,' he told them. ‘Fresh urine is sterile, and these samples have been tested bug-free – in fact all of this urine has been passed by the management.' He looked brightly around the room. ‘So, who wants to go first?'
They weren't falling for it. Many of them sat back, folded their arms, shook their heads, the rest avoided his gaze. ‘You don't trust me?' he said, trying to look crestfallen.
‘We'd want to see a demo first,' the goatie said. A slow roll of laughter followed: they knew Fennimore couldn't resist a challenge.
He took out the first tube in the rack and stared at it for a few moments. ‘If I do this, you have to do exactly the same.'
He waited until they nodded and muttered agreement, then shrugged, popped the lid off the tube, closed the mouth of it with his index finger, inverted it, dabbed his finger on his tongue and smacked his lips. ‘Sweet. So that one's diabetic.' He scanned the room.
‘Now it's your turn.'
A few declined, but the majority were game. Test tubes were passed along the rows; he watched closely, and identified Josh Brown as the one person who had done exactly as he had. When he was sure they had all finished, he said, ‘Josh. What does it taste like?'
‘You didn't taste it?'
‘We agreed to do the same as you.'
‘Would you demonstrate?'
Josh stood up and turned side-on, so the majority of the room could see him. He repeated the action exactly as Fennimore had performed it. A half-dozen students exclaimed in dismay, but the rest looked perplexed.
‘Again, more slowly, please.'
Josh closed the top of the tube with his index finger, inverted the tube, righted it, then raised his middle finger like he was flipping them the bird, and touched that to his tongue.
Now they understood. There were exclamations of disgust; someone even retched. ‘Before you all stampede for the toilets…' Fennimore raised his test tube and tipped the liquid down his throat to further exclamations and outraged laughter. ‘Lucozade,' he explained.
* * *
Fennimore wrapped up a few minutes before the hour and the lecture ended with the muted applause of flip-up seats, as his students gathered their belongings and made way for the next group, already gathering outside. In the final half-hour, they had begun to look at toxicology and metabolism, and Fennimore had handed out more samples for them to identify, among other things, signs of infection (musty odour); medication for infection (the slightly sulphurous whiff of penicillin); drug habits, including ephedrine (cat pee); amphetamine (brut wine); and amytriptyline (Chanel No.5).
He turned his phone on as the last few stragglers shuffled out, and it rang immediately. He answered the call, shutting down his laptop and gathering his notes with his free hand, making way for the next lecturer.
‘Nick? It's Kate.'
The sound of her voice blew through him like a blast of air off the North Sea. His heart thudded and he felt the tug of the past like a dangerous undercurrent.
‘Simms,' she added, as if he didn't know her voice as well as he knew his own. ‘Can we talk?'
You got the wrong number, he wanted to tell her. You made a mistake. Instead, he heard himself say, ‘It's been a while.'
‘Four years.' The inevitable pause, awkward, painful to them both.
He cleared his throat. ‘Are you still in London?'
‘Greater Manchester Police. The Met was a bit of a dead end for me, after the Crime Faculty.'
‘My fault,' he said. ‘I'm sorry for that.'
‘I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.'
He felt something shift in his chest. A burden he'd been carrying around for five years.
She started to speak, but he talked over her.
‘Look, Kate, I'm in a lecture room, and I'm kind of in the way. Can I call you back?'
‘No. Nick, listen to me, don't hang up.'
He heard a sharp edge of desperation in her voice, and couldn't harden himself enough to close the phone. So he bundled his belongings together and stood in the corridor with his laptop at his feet among the surge of incoming students, while Kate Simms explained.
The police authority's six-monthly crime review had turned up an excess of overdoses, and she had been assigned to look into it as part of their public protection remit.
‘As jobs go, it was routine, low level, something simple and undemanding for my first try-out.'
First try-out? When he worked with Kate Simms at the National Crime Faculty, she was a young Detective Sergeant with a career path carved out of pure gold. Her placement there should have put her on accelerated promotion from Detective Sergeant to Detective Chief Inspector within a couple of years.
‘Kate,' he said, ‘it's been five years since the Crime Faculty.'
‘You don't need to tell me – they kept me on the naughty step for four of them.'
He imagined her, a half-smile on her face, reaching for cynical from the top shelf of cop attitude. He felt a thud of guilt.
‘It was a straightforward paper review,' Simms said. ‘A box-ticking exercise. I was expected to read through the coroner's verdicts, report that it was just a bit of a spike in the numbers of deaths, nothing to worry about – it happens occasionally.'
‘I hardly had time to divvy up the paperwork before we had another death. Except this one's got media potential and suddenly the top brass are asking for updates and demanding to be kept in the loop.'
‘Define "media potential",' Fennimore said.
‘You've heard of Stacey?'
‘Not Stacey – StayC, with a capital C.'
‘Not ringing any bells,' he said.
‘She reached the quarter-finals of Stars! Got kicked out when she was caught in one of the toilet cubicles at the venue snorting cocaine. A week later, she's found dead in her mother's back bedroom, a hypodermic stuck in her arm. Heroin. She was written up as a suspected overdose, but the pathologist wasn't convinced – she wasn't a regular user. I'd already been in touch about the excess cases so he knew I'd be interested. He expedited the toxicology, suspended the post-mortem, and called me.'
‘And?' The question was out before he could bite it back.
‘The tox results show lowish levels of heroin, and some methylecgonine, as well.'
‘The methylecgonine just indicates she's a cocaine user, which you knew already – it's not necessarily suspicious.'
‘That's exactly what the NPIA Forensic Specialist Advisor said.' When Fennimore worked with the police, the National Crime Faculty had advised police on forensic matters, but since 2007, technology and support services had come under the National Policing Improvement Agency.
‘You should listen to your FSA,' he said.
‘I would, but the numbers are weird, Nick. We've got a sudden surge in ODs in the last six to eight months, most of them female. Why?'
Mostly female – now that is interesting. He almost allowed himself to be drawn into speculating why that might be, but he pushed away the questions that began to crowd in, the possible threads of hypotheses he could see spinning into the distance, and said, ‘Let it go, Kate; addicts die all the time. Follow the FSA's advice, do the review, write up your report and move on.' It was brutal, but he'd made himself a promise, and he wasn't about to go back on that, even for Simms.
‘I can't believe I'm hearing you say that. I don't think you even believe it yourself.'
‘Police business isn't my business any more, Kate. I've been there, and we both have the scars to prove it.' He sounded bitter, and that made him angry. ‘I work defence now. That way, the only place I have anything to do with cops is in the courtroom.'
The anger hardened his voice more than he'd intended, and she said quietly, ‘Does that include me, Nick? Is that why you changed your mobile number and moved to Aberdeen, for God's sake – so you didn't have to have anything to do with cops – like me?'
‘Kate, you know I didn't mean—'
‘Hey, you're the one who says the facts don't lie.'
He said nothing.
‘You work defence now? Very noble. Except it isn't, is it? It's just a way to get even with the police. I was given this case because it doesn't matter if I screw up – how about that – two hundred miles and five whole years away from the Met, and they still don't trust me. But if I screw this one up, who cares – because "addicts die all the time". Right, Nick?'
The silence that followed felt like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.
‘Sorry…' Her voice sounded a little shaky. ‘I've been bottling that up for a long time.'
He took a breath, but she spoke before he could find the right words.
‘I don't regret what I did. But it cost me, Nick. In ways you could never imagine.'
She was right, he couldn't imagine. His career had burgeoned, while hers had withered. And how had he thanked her? By shutting her out, dropping out of her life, burying his guilt at what he'd done. But guilt had a way of sneaking around his defences, finding an unbolted door, an open window.
‘Okay,' he said. ‘Who's the NPIA Forensic Specialist? Maybe I could give them a call, talk through a few ideas.'
‘Just look at the reports, give me an opinion. You don't even have to come down here – I'll send them to you.'
‘Why so cagey?' He wished he could see her face.
‘Look,' she insisted, ‘I'm just asking you to read through the evidence, give me an opinion – that's what you do, isn't it? I mean as a forensic consultant?'
‘Ye-es, but I don't usually work behind the backs of fellow professionals.'
She didn't reply, and for a moment the line seemed to hum with silence. ‘Oh,' he said. ‘I get it. You think my reputation will taint your investigation.'
She laughed. ‘Why the hell d'you think I'm in Manchester? I had to distance myself from the Faculty, and Bramshill – and you.'
He couldn't argue with that; it was his actions – his single-minded obsession that he had to be right – that had wrecked her chances. And that didn't exactly make him feel like a hero.
‘Let's say I did your review,' he said, still reluctant. ‘You know I would want all the scene details, and if these were handled as routine ODs, there wouldn't be very much. I bet nobody would have thought it worth the effort of taking scene photos – and who knows what tox was done—'
‘Stop,' she said. ‘I will get you everything we have. In fact, anything anyone has. I know what you need to work, Nick – we did the job together for long enough.'
‘Okay,' he said. It wasn't that he underestimated her, he just needed all the details. ‘I'd probably make a few suggestions: tests, tox, cytology…' He realized with a shock that he was seriously considering this as a project.
‘Uh—' She seemed to struggle for the right words. ‘The thing is, I'd be going against FSA's advice on this. I was hoping you could give me your assessment and even do some of the tests under the radar.'
‘What are you not telling me, Kate?'
‘I told you, StayC's death has fired imaginations – the ACC is taking a personal interest.'
‘So tell him you're using your initiative – he might even be impressed.'
‘I doubt it.' She almost spat the words.
The Kate Simms he knew never carried that kind of resentment around with her. Budgets were tight – even at his self-imposed distance from the police, he knew that – but what kind of ACC would want to stamp on thorough investigative work? His mind flew back to the Crime Faculty and, suddenly, he thought he knew.
‘Kate, who is the ACC?'
She took a breath, let it go, took another. ‘Stuart Gifford.'
For a moment, the steady tug of the past became a tidal wave: anger, terror, grief, so strong that he almost lost his footing.
‘Nick? Are you okay?'
He couldn't answer that, so he said, ‘What the hell possessed you? Didn't you know he'd moved to Greater Manchester Police?'
‘He followed me here – he was still climbing the greasy pole at the Met until a month ago. And, just so you know, Gifford is also the current chair of ACPO's Homicide Working Group.' The Association of Chief Police Officers coordinated and developed policing strategy. ‘He could argue it's his duty to take a close look at the investigation.'
He rubbed his forehead, trying to ease a throbbing pain that was building behind his eyes. ‘Ever feel cursed, Kate?'
‘You're asking me?'
One of his students greeted him as she passed, but Fennimore barely noticed.
Simms exhaled into the phone. ‘I shouldn't have said that.'
He cleared his throat and loosened his tie, tried hard to keep the tremor out of his voice. ‘If anyone's earned the right, it's you.'
‘I didn't call you to argue, Nick,' she said. ‘And I swear, if I had any other option…' Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat before she went on: ‘But my low-profile easy-start investigation is turning into something much more complicated, and Gifford is sitting on the sidelines, just aching for me to mess this up.'
‘What happened was my fault, not yours.'
‘I'm nobody's puppet, Nick. I made choices – of my own free will.'
‘But I'm not police; Gifford can't touch me, so he hounds you instead, is that it?'
‘Honestly?' She sighed. ‘Gifford thinks I should have been kicked out for what I did.'
‘I told you, I don't regret it,' she interrupted. ‘But I had to go back into uniform to make Inspector, Nick, and I've had my fill of neighbourhood policing: D&Ds and TWOCs and ASBOs, and endless bloody partnership meetings. I'm a detective. I want to make it as a detective. I'm asking for your help.'
In five years, she hadn't asked for anything from him. He knew how hard it must be for her to ask now. He would not make her ask again.
‘Okay,' he said. ‘What've you got?'
‘Names, dates, the Crime Pattern Analysis Unit's report, a few of the tox results. They're spread over several coroners, so I'm waiting on some.'
‘The pathologist who's dealing with StayC's death sounds friendly,' he said. ‘See if you can get any more detail from him. He can send attachments by email, or if he only has hard copy, I can take faxes – I'll text you my office fax number.'
‘Okay, you'll have everything I've got within the hour. When will you—?'
‘Tonight. It'll be late though.'
‘Fine. No problem. You can reach me on my mobile anytime. Anytime.' After an awkward silence, she said, ‘Well, I'd better…'
‘Kate, don't hang up.' If he didn't say it now, he never would: ‘How's the family?' The family, like he couldn't remember their names. Like it had slipped his mind that Becky, Simms's daughter, and his had been inseparable. Well done, Fennimore. No, really – nice touch.
Copyright © 2013 by A. D. Garrett