Authors: Elizabeth Haynes
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Contemporary Women
I wished for someone to help me. I wished for someone I could trust who would make sure that it happened, that I wasn’t left half-dead… to make sure that I couldn’t change my mind.
There was nothing more miserable than starting a Monday in the dark with cold, wet feet.
By the time I got to work the bottom of my skirt and my suede boots were wet through. Days like this, the Park and Ride was no fun. Getting to the car park early, before it was even properly light, waiting inside the steamed-up car for the bus, then swaying in my seat, still half asleep, all the way into town. I still hadn’t worked out which bus stop dropped me off nearest to the police station. I opted for the war memorial stop today, but I’d forgotten about the blocked gully in Unity Street. There was no way past it, unless you crossed the road, of course, but that wasn’t easy. So I waited for a break in the traffic and took my chance, crossing that bit of pavement next to the vast puddle before another van came splashing through it and soaked me.
I was never quite quick enough. Not built for running, me.
I let myself in through the back gate, letting it swing with a heavy-duty clang behind me. The rain was easing off by now – typical. My access card bleeped through five different security points – count them: the back gate, the gate from the car park, the back door, the doorway to the Intelligence Unit and finally the door to the public protection office. I hung up my coat and my long scarf, both wet, felt the radiator – cold, of course; it was Monday after all – and filled the kettle with water from the two-litre bottle that we would carry back and forth from the kitchen, which was about half a mile away.
The fridge, needless to say, had been raided. There had been at least a pint of milk left in there on Friday but the plastic bottle had been emptied and placed neatly back on the shelf, as though that made it acceptable. My half-eaten tuna sandwich from Friday was still there, though. The smell brought back sudden memories of the house I’d been in on Friday night and everything that had happened afterwards.
Holding my breath, I took the sandwich out, carried it into the corridor, down to the patrol office, and dropped it into one of their bins. They would have been the ones who nicked the milk. They could have the sandwich as well.
I made myself a tea, black, and logged on to my computer. Everything was on a go-slow. I could hear the tannoy from the hallway; in a few hours I’d be able to tune it out, concentrate on other things, but for the time being it was insistent.
DC Hollis, if you’re on the station, please contact Custody. That’s DC Hollis, contact Custody thank you…
Penny Butler, Penny Butler, please ring 9151. That’s Penny Butler, 9151. Thank you…
Could the driver of a blue VW Golf parked in the rear car park please move it immediately.
I gave up trying to drive in about a month after I started working at Briarstone. There were only three spaces allocated for the Intel Unit, and in fairness I didn’t need my car during the day as some of the others did. It cost twelve quid a week for the Park and Ride, but at least I didn’t have to fart around moving my car every five minutes because I was blocking someone in.
I always got in at least an hour before everyone else. It gave me a chance to get settled, to do things quickly that needed to be done. A chance to brace myself for another week of it.
There was no telling what order they’d roll in – it depended on traffic, the sort of weekend they’d all had, the weather and, in the case of the uniforms, whether they’d been called out for any reason. But one thing was sure: Kate would always be last, pushing it as far as she could, and when she arrived she would say hello to everyone in the office except for me.
‘Morning, Trigger. Kettle on, is it? Morning, Carol – good weekend? Morning, Jo, Sarah. Where did you get to on Friday? I lost you after the pub! Did you go to Jaxx? What was it like in there?’
Eventually – a good twenty minutes after she’d taken her coat off and hung it on the back of the door – she’d turn the computer on and complain about how bloody slow the system was. And maybe twenty minutes after that, Jo or Amy or Sarah or someone from the office next door would call for her and they’d all go up to the canteen on the top floor for breakfast.
Today, it was Carol.
‘You coming?’ she said.
Kate was already on her feet, purse in hand. ‘Absolutely. I’m chuffing ravenous.’
‘Morning, Annabel,’ Carol said to me, sweetly. ‘Do you want anything bringing back?’
Sometimes they asked me this. They never asked me if I’d like to go with them, of course, because they were afraid I’d say yes and then they’d have to make conversation with me.
They’d already turned away from the door and the office was blissfully quiet again. If any of them had asked about my weekend, I would have told them. If they’d bothered, they could have heard all about how I found the body next door. I could picture their faces, rapt, over their platefuls of bacon sandwich, toast and cheese scones. For once, they would listen and not interrupt. For once, my news would trump anything they could offer.
But they didn’t ask, and so I kept it to myself.
I’d forgotten to ask Kate to get a pint of milk in the canteen, and there was no way she would think of it herself, so after ten minutes of enjoying the peace in the office I got up, found my purse in my bag, and took the lift up to the top floor.
They were all gathered around a table near the till, heads together. I could hear snatches of the conversation as I found a pint of semi-skimmed in the fridge and checked the sell-by date.
‘You see, I told you, didn’t I?’
‘He’s only just moved out, Kate, he’s not even taken all of his stuff with him yet…’
So, Carol had chucked poor old Rick out of the flat, then. I waited behind two PCs in their full patrol kit: stab vests, Airwave radios bleeping. Behind the counter Lynn was adding a generous glug of vinegar from an industrial-sized plastic bottle to the poached-egg pan. It already had an ugly brownish scum of vinegar and egg-white froth floating on the surface. I looked away.
‘You started talking to the walls yet, then?’ Sarah was asking Carol.
‘Don’t laugh. It is horribly quiet without Sky Sports on every bleeding second of the day though.’
‘You’ll be getting a cat next…’
‘Hey, don’t knock it,’ Kate said. ‘It’s only her cat that stops Annabel from going completely batty, you know.’
‘Don’t be mean,’ Amy said. ‘She’s not batty.’
‘She’s heading that way, if you ask me.’
I stared at them, wondering if they really hadn’t noticed I was standing right there or if they were being deliberately rude.
‘Is that all you want, Annabel?’ asked Lynn. She’d plopped eggs into the pan and was spooning brown water over them to hurry the cooking process along. I turned towards the till, opening my purse.
‘Yes,’ I said. My cheeks were burning.
‘Oh, shit,’ I heard someone say from the table behind me.
They were all silent, then. I handed over a pound coin and took the milk and hurried away, not looking at the table, not looking at Lynn even though I heard her say, ‘Wait – your change!’
The Chief’s Summary arrived by email at half-past nine, just as Kate came back into the office. In the twenty minutes or so since the scene upstairs in the canteen, I’d had a few private tears, washed my face in the Ladies’ and decided to put it behind me. I knew they talked about me, after all. They talked about whoever wasn’t currently in the room, so I couldn’t consider myself special.
Kate put the kettle on behind me and cleared her throat. ‘You want a tea?’
‘Yes, please. I’d love one.’
She’d obviously been hoping I’d say no, but it gave me a perverse pleasure to take her up on the offer. When it was plonked on to the desk, it was very milky. I was thirsty enough for it not to matter. She was making some sort of an effort, after all.
‘Thanks, Kate. Looks smashing, just how I like it.’
The summary normally contained about five or six items of note: crimes and incidents that had taken place on the previous day. Anything classed as a critical incident was included – armed robberies, sudden and suspicious deaths, suicides. Rapes and murders were the ones that were of particular interest to me, in case any of the offenders I was supposed to monitor had crossed the line. Although I could search through the overnight crimes on the system, the summary was a handy shortcut, since the most serious offences would always be included.
And there it was.
At approximately 2032hrs on Friday patrols attended an address in Newmarket Street, Briarstone. The neighbour had noticed a strong smell coming from the address and had entered the property and discovered the decomposed remains of a female in the living room. The deceased is believed to be a 43-year-old who lived at the address. Next of kin have been informed. Major Crime Department attended the scene and, although investigations are ongoing, the opinion was that there are no suspicious circumstances.
That was all. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting – some sort of fanfare maybe – but it was bland description, deliberately designed to inform those who needed to know and to obscure things from those who didn’t.
The house next door had been full of people for much of Saturday. The forensics van parked outside my house, and, although I’d spoken to the first patrol that turned up, I waited around all day to be interviewed properly.
My emotional state had been fragile, spinning from nausea and shock at what I’d seen and done, to annoyance that they were taking so long about it all, and guilt that I hadn’t rung them straight away, instead of breaking in like some lumbering real-life Jessica Fletcher.
After I’d found the body, I’d gone back home and shut the door. Then I’d opened the door again and thrown the cat out and shut the door behind her. In putting my hand under her belly I had felt, instead of soft fur, cold, wet, slimy muck all over her.
The smell of it, on my hands, on my tights, my skirt. Black and green and brown, the colours you get when you mix together all the colours in the paintbox, combined with the odour of putrefaction. I took my clothes off, right there in the kitchen, and put them in the washing machine. I turned the temperature up to sixty degrees and was about to turn it on when I suddenly realised that I shouldn’t. Maybe it was evidence.
I washed my hands with antibacterial handwash that had a strong perfume, but even when I rinsed it off my hands still smelt bad. I got some kitchen roll and dampened it, then squirted some of the blue soap on it and rubbed at my legs, in case the substance had come through my tights on to my skin.
And all the time, I was struggling not to vomit. Every so often I’d catch the smell at the back of my throat and cough, and gag.
When I finally felt clean, I called the police.
‘Kent Police, how can I help?’
‘I just found a body in the house next door. It’s badly decomposed.’
‘Right,’ said the female voice on the other end. I could hear her rattling away at her keyboard already, entering the opening code 240B for ‘suspected body’. ‘Can I take your name?’
I went through all the responses – address, phone number, all the details of what I’d seen (the light on) and heard (nothing) and smelt (putrescence) and seen (a body in the armchair) – until I’d convinced myself in my head that I’d imagined the whole thing.
‘We’re very busy tonight,’ she said, ‘but a patrol will come out to you as soon as one is free.’
I went upstairs, had a shower and washed my hair, and dressed in clean clothes, yet I could still smell it, fainter now but nevertheless there. I looked outside but there was still no sign of the patrol.
The cat cried to be let in, and I shut the kitchen door and ran her a makeshift bath in the kitchen sink. I’d tried to bathe cats before and this was every bit as traumatic as all my previous experiences. She scratched my arms to shreds as I sponged her back and undersides down with my best organic pH-neutral additive-free shampoo and warm water. I got most of it off. She’d been licking herself too, her fur sticking up in spikes. The thought of it, and the smell of her, even when she’d been washed and rinsed and dried off with a teatowel, was enough to make me heave. As soon as she struggled free of the towel she started hurtling about the kitchen in a panic, knocking things flying. Fearing for my crockery, I opened the back door and she shot straight out.
The patrol had arrived by then, and, having gone next door, and called in that there was indeed a body and could they please have someone else to deal with it, they had agreed that I could go off to bed.
In the cold light of day on Saturday morning, everything had looked very different. The cat was sitting on the back step, looking exceptionally pissed off. She came in when I opened the door and immediately turned her back on me, sitting in the corner of the kitchen and only moving when I filled her bowl with cat biscuits. The fur on her back and belly stood out in sticky spikes, but at least the smell had faded.
I’d never met the Major Crime DC who eventually interviewed me, and, although he showed me his warrant card when I let him in, I instantly forgot his name. He told me he’d worked at Briarstone police station for the past year, and, when he said that, I recognised him from the canteen.
‘How are you?’ he asked me at last, coming into the living room. ‘Must have been quite a shock.’
It was late afternoon, and I’d not eaten all day. Every time I thought about it, I remembered the horrible inflated shape of the body, the colour of the skin and the puddle under the chair.
‘I guess so,’ I said. ‘I think I was kind of expecting it, given the smell.’
‘Yes, it’s quite bad in there.’
‘You want a tea? Coffee?’