Authors: Michael Robotham
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Psychological Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Suicide, #Psychology Teachers, #O'Loughlin; Joe (Fictitious Character), #Bath (England)
Mid morning I cal Bristol Police Headquarters and ask for Sergeant Abernathy. The rain has final y stopped. I can see a patch of blue above the tree-line and the faint traces of a rainbow.
Gravel and phlegm down the phone: ‘What do you want, Professor?’
‘I apologise for yesterday— leaving so suddenly. I wasn’t feeling wel .’
‘Must be catching.’
Abernathy doesn’t like me. He thinks I’m unprofessional or inept. I’ve met coppers like him before— warrior types who think they’re separate from normal society, above it.
‘We need a statement,’ he says. ‘There’l be an inquest.’
‘You’ve identified her?’
There’s a pause. My silence irritates him.
‘In case it escaped your attention, Professor, she wasn’t wearing any clothes, which means she wasn’t carrying any identification.’
‘Of course. I understand. It’s just—.’
‘I thought somebody would have reported her missing by now. She was so wel groomed: her hair, her eyebrows, her bikini-line; her fingernails were manicured. She spent time and money on herself. She’s likely to have friends, a job, people who care about her.’
Abernathy must be taking notes. I can hear him scribbling. ‘What else can you tel me?’
‘She had a Caesarean scar, which means children. Given her age, they’re probably school age by now. Primary or secondary.’
‘Did she say anything to you?’
‘She was talking to someone on a mobile phone— pleading with them.’
‘Pleading for what?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘And that’s al she said?’
‘She said I wouldn’t understand.’
‘Wel , she got that much right.’
This case annoys Abernathy because it isn’t straightforward. Until he has a name, he can’t gather the required statements and hand it over to the coroner.
‘When do you want me to come in?’
‘Can’t it wait?’
‘If I’m working Saturday, so can you.’
Avon and Somerset Police Headquarters is in Portishead on the Severn Estuary, nine miles west of Bristol. The architects and planners were perhaps labouring under the misapprehension that if they built a police headquarters a long way from the crime-ridden pockets of inner-city Bristol, the perpetrators might relocate and join them. If we build it— they wil come.
The skies have cleared, but the fields are stil flooded and fence posts stick out of the brackish water like the masts of sunken ships. On the outskirts of Saltford, on the Bath Road, I see a dozen cows huddling on an island of grass surrounded by water. A broken bale of hay is scattered beneath their hooves.
Elsewhere waves of water, mud and debris are trapped against fences, trees and bridges. Thousands of farm animals have drowned and machinery lies abandoned on low ground, caked in mud like tarnished bronze sculptures.
Abernathy has a civilian secretary, a smal grey woman whose clothes are more colourful than her personality. She rises grudgingly from her chair and ushers me into his office.
The sergeant, a large, freckled man, is seated at a desk. His sleeves are buttoned down and starched resolutely with a sharp crease running from his wrists to his shoulders.
He speaks in a low rumble. ‘I take it you can write your own statement.’ A foolscap pad is pushed towards me.
I glance down at his desk and notice a dozen manila folders and bundles of photographs. It’s remarkable how much paperwork has been generated in such a short space of time. One of the files is marked ‘Post Mortem’.
‘Do you mind if I take a look?’
Abernathy glances at me like I’m a nosebleed and slides it over.
AVON & SOMERSET CORONER
Post-Mortem Report No: DX-56 312
Date and time of death: 28/09/2007. 1707 hours.
The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished Caucasian female. The irises are brown. The corneas are clear. The pupils are fixed and dilated.
The body is cool to the touch and there is posterior lividity and partial rigidity. There are no tattoos, deformities or amputations. The victim has a linear 5” surgical scar on
her abdomen at the bikini line, indicating a prior Caesarean section.
Her right and left earlobes are pierced. Her hair is approximately sixteen inches in length, brown, with a wave. Her teeth are natural and in good condition. Her fingernails
are short, neatly rounded with polish present. Pink polish is also present on her toenails.
The abdomen and back show evidence of significant soft tissue abrasions and heavy bruising caused by blunt force trauma. These markings are consistent with an impact
such as a fall.
The external and internal genitalia show no evidence of sexual assault or penetration.
The facts have a stark cruelty about them. A human being with a lifetime of experiences is label ed like a piece of furniture in a catalogue. The pathologist has weighed her organs, examined her stomach contents, taken tissue samples and tested her blood. There is no privacy in death.
‘What about the toxicology report?’ I ask.
‘It won’t be ready until Monday,’ he says. ‘You thinking drugs?’
Abernathy is on the way to saying something and changes his mind. He takes a satel ite map from a cardboard tube and unrol s it across his desk. Clifton Suspension Bridge is at the centre, flattened of its perspective until it appears to be lying on top of the water instead of seventy-five metres above it.
‘This is Leigh Woods,’ he says, pointing to an expanse of dark green on the western side of Avon Gorge. ‘At 13.40 on Friday afternoon a man walking his dog on the Ashton Nature Reserve saw a near-naked woman in a yel ow raincoat. When he approached her, the woman ran away. She was talking on a mobile and he thought it might be some sort of TV stunt.
‘A second sighting was made at 15.45. A delivery driver for a dry cleaning firm saw a ful y naked woman walking along Rownham Hil Road near St Mary’s Road.
‘A CCTV camera on the western approach of the bridge picked her up at 16.02. She must have walked along Bridge Road from Leigh Woods.’
The details are like markers on a timeline, dividing the afternoon into gaps that can’t be accounted for. Two hours and half a mile separated the first and second sightings.
The sergeant flicks through the CCTV images so quickly it appears as if the woman is moving in juddering slow motion. Raindrops have smeared the lens, blurring the edges of each print, but her nakedness couldn’t be sharper.
The final photographs show her body lying on the deck of a flat bottomed boat. Albino white. Tinged with lividity around her buttocks and her flattened breasts. The only discernible colour is the red of her lipstick and the smeared letters on her stomach.
‘Did you recover her mobile?’
‘Lost in the river.’
‘What about her shoes?’
‘Jimmy Choos. Expensive but re-heeled.’
The photographs are tossed aside. The sergeant shows little sympathy for the woman. She is a problem to be solved and he wants an explanation— not for peace of mind or out of professional curiosity— but because something about the case disturbs him.
‘The thing I don’t understand,’ he says, without looking up at me, ‘is why did she go walking in the woods? If she wanted to kil herself, why not go straight to the bridge and jump off?’
‘She could have been making up her mind?’
He’s right. It does seem bizarre. The same is true of the body art. Suicide is the ultimate act of self loathing, but it’s not usual y characterised by public self abuse and humiliation.
My eyes are stil scanning the photographs. They come to rest on one of them. I see myself standing on the bridge. The perspective makes it look as though I’m close enough to touch her, to reach out and grab her before she fal s.
Abernathy notices the same photograph. Rising from his desk, he walks to the door, opening it before I get to my feet.
‘It was a bad day at the coal face, Professor. We al have them. Make your statement and you can go home.’
The phone on his desk is ringing. I’m stil in the doorway as he answers it. I can hear only one side of the conversation.
‘You’re sure? When did she last see her?… OK… And she hasn’t heard from her since? Right… Is she at home now?…
‘Send someone to the house. Pick her up. Make sure they get a photograph. I don’t want a sixteen-year-old identifying a body unless we’re bloody certain it’s her mother.’
My stomach drops. A daughter. Sixteen. Suicide is not a matter of self determination or free wil . Someone is always left behind.
It takes me ten minutes to walk from the Boat House in Eastville Park to Stapleton Road. Avoiding the industrial estates and the slime-covered canal, I follow the concrete brutality
of the M32 flyover.
The plastic shopping bags are cutting into my fingers. I put them down on the footpath and rest. I’m not far from home now. I have my supplies: meals in plastic trays, a six pack of
beer, a slice of cheesecake in a plastic triangle— my treats for a Saturday night, purchased from a Paki grocer who keeps a shotgun under his counter, next to the porn magazines
in their plastic wrappers.
The narrow streets cut in four directions, flanked by terraces and flat-fronted shops. An off-licence. A bookmakers. The Salvation Army selling second hand clothes. Posters warn
against kerb crawling and urinating in public and, I love this one, putting up posters. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice. This is Bristol— city of lies, greed and corrupt politicians. The
right hand always knows what the left is doing: robbing it blind. That’s something my dad would say. He’s always accusing people of ripping him off.
The wind and rain have stripped leaves from the trees along Fishponds Road, filling the gutters. A street sweeping machine, squat with spinning wheels, weaves between the parked
cars. Shame it can’t pick up the human garbage— strung-out slum kids who want me to fuck them or buy crack from them.
One of the whores is standing on the corner. A car pulls up. She negotiates, throwing her head back and laughing like a horse. A doped horse. Don’t ride her, mate, you don’t know
where she’s been.
At a café on the corner of Glen Park and Fishponds, I hang my waterproof on a hook beside the door and my hat next to it, along with my orange scarf. The place is warm and smells
of boiled milk and toast. I choose a table by the window and take a moment to comb my hair, pressing the metal teeth hard against my scalp as I pull it backward from my crown to
the nape of my neck.
The waitress is big-boned and almost pretty, a few years shy of being fat. Her ruffled skirt brushes against my thigh as she passes between the tables. She’s wearing a plaster on her
I take out my notebook and a pencil that is sharp enough to maim. I begin writing. The date comes first. Then a list of things to do.
There is a customer at a table in the corner. A woman. She’s sending text messages on her mobile. If she looks at me I’ll smile back.
She won’t look, I think. Yes, she will. I’ll give her ten seconds. Nine… eight… seven… six… five…
Why am I bothering? Uppity bitch. I could wipe the sneer off her face. I could stain her cheeks with mascara. I could make her question her own name.
I don’t expect every woman to acknowledge me. But if I say hello to them or smile or pass the time of day, they should at least be polite enough to respond in kind.
The woman at the library, the Indian one, with hennaed hands and disappointed eyes, she always smiles. The other librarians are old and tired and treat everyone like book thieves.
The Indian woman has slender legs. She should wear short skirts and make the most of them instead of covering them up. I can only see her ankles when she crosses her legs at
her desk. She does it often. I think she knows I’m watching her.
My coffee has arrived. The milk should be hotter. I will not send it back. The waitress with the almost-pretty face would be disappointed. I will tell her next time.
The list is almost finished. There are names down the left-hand column. Contacts. People of interest. I will cross each of them off as I find them.
Leaving coins on the table, I dress in my coat, my hat and my scarf. The waitress doesn’t see me leave. I should have handed her the money. She would have had to look at me
I can’t walk quickly with the shopping bags. Rain leaks into my eyes and gurgles in the downpipes. I am here now, at the end of Bourne Lane, outside a gated forecourt, fenced off
and topped with barbed wire. It was once a panel-beaters or some sort of workshop with a house attached.
The door has three deadlocks— a Chubb Detector, a five pin Weiser and a Lips 8362C. I start at the bottom, listening to the steel pins retracting in their cylinders.
I step over the morning mail. There are no lights in the hallway. I removed the bulbs. Two floors of the house are empty. Closed off. The radiators are cold. When I signed the lease,
the landlord Mr Swingler asked if I had a big family.
‘Why do you need such a big house?’
‘I have big dreams,’ I said.
Mr Swingler is Jewish but looks like a skinhead. He also owns a boarding house in Truro and a block of flats in St Pauls, not far from here. He asked me for references. I didn’t have
‘Do you have a job?’
‘No drugs. No parties. No orgies.’
He might have said ‘corgis’, I couldn’t understand his accent, but I paid three months rent in advance, which shut him up.
Taking a torch from on top of the fridge, I return to the hall and collect the mail: a gas bill, a pizza menu, and a large white envelope with a school crest in the top left corner.
I take the envelope to the kitchen and leave it sitting on the table while I pack away the shopping and open a can of beer. Then I sit and slide my finger beneath the flap, tearing a