Authors: Pekka Hiltunen
Translated by Owen F. Witesman
Panic spread through the street, rippling in a viral wave of contorted faces and anxious gestures.
In her morning daze, Lia gazed through the bus window at the unfolding scene. Suddenly it seemed that every pedestrian on the pavement wore the same expression of overwhelming nausea.
It was the beginning of April and Lia was on her way to work. Every morning she performed this ritual of submission, an hour surrendered to the flow of traffic coursing through a city that was too large and too full of people. For Lia, living in London was like living pressed between other bodies, constantly allowing others to invade her meagre personal space.
That morning on Holborn Circus, a short distance before the end of the route at Stonecutter Street, she saw something in the pedestrians she had never beheld before.
The moment before a catastrophe. This is what it looks like.
A car was parked on the pavement, with a crowd gathered around. That was the source of the fear, the ground zero from which the panic was spreading.
The car was a large, white Volvo left sideways across the pedestrian flow, as if someone had abandoned it there in an
. Lia couldn’t see anyone inside, but the boot gaped open. People were pointing at it, and more and more were stopping to look.
Whenever someone came sufficiently close to see into the boot, their expression changed. That contorted face.
Whatever was in the boot of that car, it made everyone who saw it freeze as though they had been slapped across the face. Many hurried away.
But more people kept coming.
Through the open window of the bus, Lia could hear the
’ exclamations. They were frantic, broken utterances, never enough to tell what had happened. One man was talking to the police on a mobile phone. An old woman had closed her eyes and was chanting, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’
Lia rose from her seat to try to see down onto the pavement, but at that moment the lights changed and the bus lurched forward. The driver hit the accelerator, beginning to round the Circus.
Suddenly the brakes locked. Lia flew against the seat in front of her and then back into her own. The driver had stopped the bus to avoid colliding with two cars that had cut in front of him, taking a shortcut the wrong way around the roundabout.
The first was a police car. Lia realised she had been hearing the manic siren in the background only once she saw the blue lights, which continued flashing after the car had stopped. The second vehicle was a van with ‘ITV Meridian News’ emblazoned on the side.
The bus accelerated again. From that distance, seeing into the boot of the Volvo was now impossible. In a second, the strange scene fell behind.
When Lia arrived at work, everyone already knew about the incident. Although
was a bi-weekly and not in the business of reporting news, the computer monitors and large TV screen in the editorial office were broadcasting all the latest updates.
In the boot of the white Volvo on Holborn Circus, police had found the remains of a badly mutilated corpse. It was so badly crushed that initial news reports indicated the police were not able to release any information whatsoever about the victim. Their best guess was that they were dealing with only one body and that it was a woman’s, although even that was not entirely certain.
‘That’s crazy. I was just there. I saw that car,’ Lia said to Sam, the writer who shared the desk next to her.
Sam nodded and continued reading the news feeds.
Am I an eyewitness to a crime?
No. I am an eyewitness to eyewitnesses, a person who saw other people’s horror at witnessing the aftermath of a crime. That isn’t really anything.
She watched the news broadcast on the television showing the white car stopped on the pavement with the boot open. The headline over the image read, ‘Brutal slaying in the heart of the City.’ Finally Lia felt the wave of nausea she had seen on the street wash over her as well and hurried to the toilet.
The murder dominated the Tuesday news cycle, making
on work difficult for Lia. A graphic designer for
, she was currently working on the visuals for two forthcoming articles. Fortunately they were both easy layout jobs: an investigative report on the state of metropolitan Great Britain and a short human interest story on politicians’ dogs. She was grateful there was no editorial meeting that day. When she realised she was fixating on any information about the Holborn Circus incident – news agency coverage, tweets, television bulletins – she gave in to her curiosity.
She subscribed to the RSS feeds for news articles about the case so she would receive a notification any time updates were posted. And updates trickled in throughout the day. Usually the new information was just an addition of one or two sentences, including the detail in many of the news articles that the model of the Volvo was an S40.
By the afternoon, the only facts the police could confirm were that the number of victims was one, that she was a woman with dark hair and that she had been mutilated in an exceptionally brutal manner. No information was made available about the killer.
This unsettled Lia, feeling somehow disrespectful to the dead woman.
The online editions of the tabloids used their largest headline font. Because the police had constructed a tent-like barrier around the car, the photographers were unable to get any close-up shots. But the reporters were interviewing eyewitnesses.
‘At first you couldn’t even tell it was a person. I thought it was… animal innards from a slaughterhouse,’ one upset man told the
This idea recurred in the other eyewitness interviews. Few of them grasped that the mass in the boot was made up of human remains until they noticed the hair mixed in and the few fragments only just recognizable as body parts.
Dear God. Whoever did this deserves to burn in hell.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, the
published a picture from the mobile phone of another witness. Visible in it were the edge of the Volvo’s boot and clear plastic surrounding a
mass of black and red.
Fortunately the picture was out of focus.
At half past four, Lia noticed that the
had, with its typical sense of style, dubbed the corpse ‘The Woman Without a Face’ in an attempt to make the story more memorable.
By the time Lia left work, she was torn. She could take the Tube home and avoid the whole issue. Instead, she chose the bus so she could see the area around Holborn Circus.
Located on Fetter Lane in the City, the grandiose environment surrounding the offices of
was bound to make anyone feel small. Each day thousands of commuters crammed into the City, the well-dressed, high-powered financial and legal acolytes of the temple of commerce that is the Square Mile. Amid the crowds Lia always found herself trying to convey the impression that she belonged there – focused, striding from one important business appointment to another.
For the staff of
, the location so close to Fleet Street was a point of pride.
Today Lia saw this familiar environment with fresh eyes. Even in the City, some of the most carefully guarded streets of London, brutal crimes could happen.
The large, white police tent was visible from a distance as the bus approached Holborn Circus. Around it was an area cordoned off with white and blue striped tape, behind which people stood staring.
At home in Hampstead, Lia decided to avoid turning on her computer or the television. Her mood was restless, and she didn’t know whether she wanted to think about the incident at all any more.
During the night she woke up twice. She had to force herself to calm down.
On Wednesday the story was on the front page of every newspaper and still the first item on the TV news.
One of the police officers had given an anonymous statement to the effect that the victim in the car had been crushed by a large steamroller or something similar driving over her several times.
MOST BARBARIC MURDER OF THE CENTURY? BRUTAL GANGLAND EXECUTION, brayed the newspaper headlines.
Despite her conscience reproaching her, Lia purchased each of the newspapers with a large story on the killing. Placing them
on her desk, she read them while she worked.
The gangland-style execution story hinged on the brutal way the corpse had been mutilated and the fact that the car was stolen. ‘Using a car of this type is standard procedure for organised crime,’ the reporter wrote.
I’m sure it is. But that isn’t sufficient evidence,
Lia thought irritably.
She was relieved to read online that the cause of death was
. The crushing could easily have taken place after she was killed.
Calling the victim the ‘Woman Without a Face’ had also spread to several other newspapers and television channels. Lia hated the name and, as she was shutting down her computer and leaving for the day, she thanked her lucky stars she worked for an honourable publication. Yes, sometimes it went fishing for readers with
gossip but it never forced its editorial staff to make up crass nicknames for victims of horrible crimes.
At home that night, she continued investigating the incident online. Her violent surge of emotions had begun to subside.
What had upset her wasn’t the actual sight of the crime scene from her bus. What stopped her dead was the realisation that someone had done that to a woman.
I am naive. I am twenty-seven, almost twenty-eight, and I’ve never really thought that things like this could happen to anyone.
Thinking of the woman’s death was horrible. Just the thought produced a nearly physical pain, but Lia couldn’t prevent herself from brooding over the details of the crime. Someone had to have driven the steamroller. And then collected what remained.
Only when she noticed the tears falling on her hands did Lia realise she was crying. She felt an oppressive dislocation, a
that paralyzed her entire being.
What kind of a person could do that?
Where does the pure evil in that kind of person come from? Did he grow into it or somehow get… pushed into it?
Once, years ago, Lia had feared for her own safety. But that was nothing compared to this.
I have never grieved over something like this before. Am I such a cold person that it takes a brutal murder to make me feel anything?
She looked out of the only window in her flat at the small church next door and the statues in the park, barely visible in the
No one could help this woman any more. But Lia understood herself in a new way. Herself, and her old fear.
That night she slept a little better.
By Thursday, the story had disappeared from the news. No new information was being reported, and the speculation had shifted to the inside pages.
published an opinion piece by a criminologist who speculated that the Holborn Circus corpse was part and parcel of a process of ‘spectacularisation’ of murder in which real life and crime on television and in the cinema were drawing closer together. Making a grand spectacle was the murderer’s objective.
‘Leaving the body in the middle of the City was pure theatre. In the theatre of brutality, set and staging matter,’ the scholar said.
God, he must be right, but do that woman’s loved ones really need to be tormented by him saying so?
Then Lia remembered that the police had not yet announced that they had even identified the body, let alone informed the next of kin.
I doubt anyone even knows that they should be crying for her.
That day was the weekly editorial meeting at
during which they went through all the topics for the next edition. To Lia’s surprise, at the end of the meeting, Matt Thomas, the editor-
brought up Holborn Circus.
‘So, about the “Woman Without a Face”. Any thoughts?’
Lia stared at Thomas. Of course it would just so happen the only person in the office she disliked was the editor-in-chief. The feeling was mutual, and she knew it.
For a long time she had explained her reserve towards Thomas by telling herself that he had to be a bit of a bastard just because of his position. Editors-in-chief laboured under a mountain of pressure to produce results, so they had to have a little leeway to vent frustrations at subordinates. But in fact Thomas had always been unfriendly and routinely collected the praise for the
of the entire staff. And although he enjoyed talking about ‘journalistic ethics’, all he ever did was move the magazine closer to the tabloid market.
No one took up Thomas’ question.
‘This next issue still needs something more hard-hitting,’ he reminded them.
‘I have a difficult time imagining any reason for us to write about it,’ the political reporter, Timothy Phelps, said. ‘Gruesome crimes happen. People recoil, and then we all move on.’
‘Right you are,’ Thomas said, and with that wrapped up the meeting.
I have not moved on.