Authors: Elizabeth Haynes
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Contemporary Women
I called the ambulance and while I was waiting for them to arrive I tried everything I could for him, pounding his chest, my warm mouth trying to breathe life into his cold one. I already knew it was no use. He’d gone. The light had gone from his eyes.
Three months passed after he left me but I have no recollection of them. The time after had no meaning, no purpose. I couldn’t play; I didn’t even try. I couldn’t listen to music, couldn’t look at the sky, couldn’t walk in the fresh air without him because there was no reason to do it. All I could do was wait.
I went with Kate to the tactical meeting on Wednesday, even though it was her turn to do it. She usually managed to find some way of getting out of it, but on this occasion she was surprisingly enthusiastic. She was setting up the presentation on the computer, her back to me, the set of her shoulders and the half-smile telling me in no uncertain terms that she thought I was about to make a colossal fool of myself, and she was going to enjoy the show.
DI Andrew Frost, two years away from retirement, one of my favourite people in the job, was last through the door. ‘Morning, Annabel. Morning, Kate. We get two analysts for the price of one today, do we?’
‘Sir,’ I said. I felt an instant wash of relief that it was Frosty chairing the meeting today. A couple of the other DIs had a tendency to ask questions, lots of them, even ones which didn’t make any sense. It felt as if they were trying to catch us out all the time, trying to make themselves look clever at our expense.
Around the table they all sat, uniforms on one side, civilians on the other. DI at the head of the table; DC Ellen Traynor, DC Amanda Spitz and DC Brian Jones, also known as ‘Shaggy’. I had once asked Trigger how he’d got that nickname since he didn’t have a chin-beard or a dog called Scooby, and it turned out that he had a habit of getting things wrong, and had once answered an accusation with the phrase, ‘It wasn’t me.’ The nickname had stuck for ten years. I wasn’t expecting much of a contribution from him. On our side of the table were Jo from the Intel Unit who was going to be taking the minutes, a woman from Social Services whose name I always managed to forget, this time with an older man wearing a cardigan, Carol, and us.
Kate did her bit first, and then began the endless discussion around the table about all the active jobs and how they were being handled, how much budget there was left to deal with them, whether the risk was being effectively managed.
I tried not to fidget, and started to worry about what I was going to say.
‘Right then, any new resourcing bids? No? Alright, then. Any other business, before we wrap this up?’
I got in first, before anyone could start asking for more overtime money. ‘Just one thing, sir.’
‘I’ve been doing some research on unexplained deaths where the deceased has remained undiscovered for some time. It seems that the number of these cases so far this year is unusually high. I’ve done a chart…’
Dutifully Kate toggled from the tactical presentation over to the chart I’d finished earlier, nicely designed to show a huge spike.
‘I should point out that the spike shows this year to date, whereas all the other years are complete. If things carry on at the average rate for this year, we can expect the figure to be over thirty. As you can see, we’ve never had more than eleven in a year before.’
I looked anxiously around the table. Everyone was sitting in stony silence looking at my chart.
At last, Mandy Spitz spoke. ‘Sorry, Annabel, I’m not clear – are these murders?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘They’re people who have died in their own homes and not been found for a long time.’
I thought I heard a noise like someone snorting, probably Carol. Someone else was whispering something. I felt my cheeks start to grow hot.
Frosty cleared his throat. ‘Do you have any theories as to why there are so many? Anything linking them?’
‘Well,’ I said, glancing at Kate and giving her a nod, ‘the next slide shows some interesting points of note…’
It was just a few bullet points to get their attention. ‘There is an unusually wide age range this year. The youngest was just twenty-one – that’s Rachelle Hudson, I’m sure you all remember her – and the eldest in her early nineties. But there are people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties as well. In all the previous years, we only ever had two people found like this who were under sixty. One of those was a likely drug overdose, and another one was believed to be a suicide. All but one of the people this year have no apparent cause of death.’
‘You mean they’re just so decomposed, we can’t tell the cause of death?’ the man in the cardigan said. His voice was deep, sonorous, as though it came from some vast cavern within him.
‘Yes, partly,’ I said, warming to my subject now, ‘but also the majority of these people were found in normal places in their homes: lying on their beds, or sitting in their armchairs. In previous years we’ve had bodies found decomposed under a makeshift noose, for example, or in the bath, as though they might have drowned. Some of the incident logs aren’t specific about the location of the body, but, even so, there don’t seem to be many that we could put down to anything other than that they – well, that they just died.’
‘Sir, I did some work with Hampshire on the Rachelle Hudson case,’ Ellen Traynor said to Frosty. ‘It was quite strange at the time. It wasn’t just that she’d apparently chosen to withdraw from society; she seemed to have chosen to die.’
‘Chosen to die?’ DI Frost said. The whole room was silent.
‘Yes. There was no food at all in the house. Not a crumb. She was lying on the bed in the flat, very badly decomposed. The coroner couldn’t establish a cause of death but his theory was that she’d starved.’
‘Nicer ways to end it all than that,’ Mandy said.
‘Quite.’ Andrew Frost fell silent and studied the slide. I began to feel uncomfortable again.
‘I’m not sure if this is the right forum for this, really,’ he said at last. ‘If there was anything to suggest foul play…’
‘Only the unusual ages,’ I said. ‘And the fact that they all appear to have gone totally unmissed. You do get that sometimes with elderly people who are so afraid of being shipped off to a home that they actively avoid contact with the outside world, but not with younger people.’
‘Is this just our borough?’ Ellen asked then. ‘What about other parts of the county?’
I’d forgotten all about my last slide; I could have kicked myself. ‘That’s interesting too. I’ve got it on the next slide…’
Kate took her cue and pressed the button.
‘It’s a simple enough graph. As you can see, all the other areas are following similar patterns to previous years. Whatever it is that’s causing this spike, it’s only happening in Briarstone.’
They all stared at the slide. The woman from Social Services even had her mouth open. Frosty ran one hand through his short grey hair. ‘I’ll bring it up at the Force Tactical,’ he said at last. ‘See if anyone from Major Crime has any ideas. Can you email me your slides, Annabel?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
‘I’ll do it now while I’ve got them open, if you like,’ said Kate helpfully.
‘You coming?’ Trigger said to Kate, standing in the doorway with his coat on.
It was half-past three. Trigger had his own parking space owing to a slightly dodgy hip (which curiously didn’t stop him fell-walking, his favourite weekend and holiday pastime), and Kate usually cadged a lift with him back up to the Park and Ride.
‘I’ve got stuff to do, Trig,’ she said. ‘Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow.’
I looked at her in surprise. Normally, once the tactical presentation was over for another fortnight, she was so worn out with the effort that she’d leave extra early.
‘Frosty emailed you yet?’ she asked, when Trigger had gone. The station had fallen quiet; even the tannoy hadn’t had anything to say for the last hour or so.
‘Yes,’ I said. He’d emailed me about an hour before, but I’d been too upset and frustrated to say anything.
‘He said they won’t even look at it. Apparently they said they’ve got enough to do with all the actual crimes they’re investigating.’
Her response wasn’t exactly helpful, but at least she was showing an interest in it, even if it was just so she could be smug.
‘This force is too obsessed with meeting Home Office targets,’ I said. ‘Everything’s about disposals and
rates. If they can’t clear something up, they’re finding a way to pretend it didn’t happen or wasn’t a crime after all. They just completely ignore the fact that they’re dealing with actual people, real people. Everything’s been distilled down to crime figures and taking the easy way out. Drives me mad.’
Half an hour later, we were walking together up the hill towards the bus stop. She’d never walked anywhere with me before, even if we were going in the same direction at the same time. At four, I’d turned off the workstation and gone to wash up my mug. By the time I was back, Kate had her coat on and we ended up walking out of the station together, as if this was normal.
‘I mean,’ I said, puffing a bit as we went up the hill, ‘it’s not even as though we had a heatwave, or a particularly cold winter, or anything like that.’
‘Or floods,’ Kate said. Her long legs took one stride for every two of mine, effortless.
‘And, as I said in the presentation, they’re not all old, either. The one this morning was forty-three. Then there was that Hampshire woman, remember? The one they found in Baysbury? She was only twenty-one. And another one I just saw was thirty-nine.’
‘How old are you again?’ Kate asked.
She smirked a little, the smirk of someone who was still – just – in her twenties, and for whom forty seemed an impossibly long way off.
‘I just can’t think of anything more awful than dying in your own home and being left there to rot,’ I said quietly, walking past the automatic doors of the chemist and enjoying the brief blast of warm air.
‘Well, you wouldn’t know anything about it, you’d be dead,’ Kate said.
I bit my lip. Imagine if it wasn’t the end, though, I wanted to say. Imagine watching your body decomposing and knowing there was nobody around who cared enough to wonder why they hadn’t seen you for a while.
‘Don’t you think,’ I persisted, sniffing longingly at the smell coming from the pasty shop on the corner, ‘that someone would notice? I mean the younger ones in particular. They’d have families, work colleagues, friends. Even if they weren’t working, surely they’d be signing on or something like that? It’s got to be pretty hard to just disappear.’
‘I guess so. I think if I didn’t appear on Facebook for a couple of days there’d be some kind of inquiry.’
We sat on the wall waiting for the Park and Ride buses. That was, Kate sat on the wall and smoked; I leaned against the wall upwind of her.
‘Although there wouldn’t be really, not if you’d withdrawn from it gradually,’ she said a few minutes later.
‘Withdrawn from what?’ I asked.
‘From Facebook. I mean, if you were intentionally withdrawing from society, then you’d gradually stop posting on Facebook, wouldn’t you? And after a while nobody would even notice you’d gone. Or they might, and they could leave you a message, send you an email, but if you didn’t reply… I mean, most of them aren’t real friends, are they? Close friends, I mean. And the ones that are – well, what if you told them you were moving abroad? Or that your computer was broken, or something? How many months would it be before anyone seriously wondered where you were?’
‘I’m not on Facebook,’ I said.
She wasn’t listening. ‘I still think there’s no point pursuing it, though. Twenty-four bodies or fifty-four, you’re still talking about people who have just – died. People die every single day, hundreds of them. None of your decomposed ones were murdered, according to the logs, were they?’
I shook my head. ‘There was one I saw where the coroner had failed to determine a cause of death, but most of them seem to be seen as natural causes.’
‘Anything obvious linking them all?’
‘Other than that they’ve all been left to decompose, and they all lived in Briarstone… not that I’ve seen so far.’
‘Well, then. Unfortunately we’re crime analysts. We’re not here to look at social issues, that’s what they’re going to tell you. And what’s worse,’ she said, jumping off the wall and stubbing her cigarette out on the rubbish bin, ‘if they think you’re busying yourself looking into something like that, they’ll find some other work for you to do.’
‘Great,’ I said.
Just for a change, my bus came round the corner bang on time. Kate, who parked in the other car park on the Baysbury side of town, was going to have to wait here a little longer.
When I got home there were no parking spaces anywhere near my house. I had to leave the car on the main road where all the chavs and druggies lived and walk back, double-and triple-checking that I’d locked the car and not left anything interesting or valuable in view. My car was a ten-year-old Peugeot, not new or worth nicking, but unfortunately the basic spec also made it rather easy to steal. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if it got nicked, just bloody inconvenient.
Lucy met me at the top of the road, jumping down from a low garden wall and trying to trip me up all the way back to the front door, acting as though she’d not been fed for three weeks. I tried to find the keyhole in the darkness – must get that light fixed – and when I finally pushed the door open the phone was ringing.
‘Hello?’ It was my mother. ‘Yes, Mum, I’ve just got in. Can I ring you back?’
‘Well, I did wait all day, since I thought you’d be too busy to speak to me at work, but if you can’t talk to me now…’
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m just tired.’
‘I’ll only be a moment, anyway. Have you got a pen?’
I sat on the sofa with my coat on and a notepad balanced on my knee making a list of shopping she needed tomorrow, while the cat wound herself round my ankles, clawing at my skirt and my tights, and I swiped her away over and over again until I gave up, tucked the phone under my ear and went to the kitchen to find some cat food.