Authors: Harry Bingham
To N, as always
You who are so beautiful
Have called my soul to wakefulness
The moon stands still.
A singing rib in my aching side
You shall abide.
Bright, arterial, true.
Or not rain, not really. More like a fine mist, a net of moisture. Hair speckles with it. The flanks of the heifers in the lower fields glisten with it. On ash and willow trees, the new buds at the end of each twig gleam with light. Even the spiky hawthorn catches the mood, softening into something almost delicate.
I’m on Gwyn’s farm. I’ve been here three weeks. Iestyn, the labourer who does most of the heavier work around the place these days, is teaching me how to maintain a diesel engine.
‘See that hose? It’s getting knackered.’
He pokes at a bit of dirty tubing. The engine we’re repairing belongs to a 1988 Massey Ferguson. One of its side panels is falling off and is held up with baling twine. The driver’s door lies in the hedge behind us.
I agree with his verdict.
‘It’s a cooling hose, see? And because it’s a diesel, you need good cooling.’
I don’t say anything, but I expect my face somehow signifies the scope of my knowledge.
Iestyn – blue boiler suit, attractively curly brown hair and blue eyes – steps back. Rain beads on the rough cotton of his shoulders and sleeves.
‘You got no spark plugs with a diesel. Ignition doesn’t happen because you’re throwing a spark in. It happens because you compress your mixture, your fuel and air, compress it so hard that the temperature rises and – bang! ignition. It’s a good system, but it runs very hot. If you don’t cool it, you’ll wreck your engine.’
He’s a good teacher. Natural. Guides me back to the engine, shows where the cylinders are located. How the coolant reaches the parts it needs to reach. Gets me to remove the cooling hose and I see that it is, indeed, about to give way.
I replace the hose under his guidance. He explains the mysteries of the gasket, initiates me into the secrets of the oil filter. I’m clumsy to start with, but I realise I like this. Closing the wrench over a nut gummy with oil and grime. Getting it to loosen. Finding the gleam of clean metal amidst the filth. I change the oil filter and inspect the air filter.
We work for an hour and a half, then the rain starts to fall more insistently, the hills frown with cloud, and Gwyn shouts to us that lunch is ready. It’s only eleven, but we’ve been up since five.
I don’t know why I’m here.
Holiday, that’s the official reason. Holiday, plus a period of study leave: I’m taking my OSPRE Part 1 exam shortly – a necessary step for advancement to sergeant – and in theory I’m here poring over the 1,300 pages of the various Blackstone’s Policing Manuals, trying to figure out whether or not I need to be wearing uniform in order to prevent someone going to a rave and reminding myself of the precise age at which it becomes legal to supervise someone in the use of a crossbow. Somehow, though, I’m finding it hard to get concerned about rave-going archers. Not here, with ditches that need clearing and tractors that need fixing.
The truth is, things haven’t been going well for me since my last big case. I broke off my engagement to Dave ‘Buzz’ Brydon, who has seemed to me, since then, to be the handsomest, kindest, strongest and most patient man I have ever met or am ever likely to meet. I simultaneously think that I was crazy to end things, yet find it hard to regret that I did so.
I have had no relationship since, nor the tiniest sniff of one.
I haven’t had a single worthwhile case. One half-decent domestic assault. A kidnap which looked briefly interesting, then wilted. And that’s it. Paperwork for various cases pushing their way through to prosecution. An involvement in the clean-up for Operation Tinker, my last good case, but nothing to get stuck into. Because I’ve been annoying, a fruit fly in search of fruit, DCI Jackson, the leader of my team in Major Crime, dropped a whole lot of cold-case files on my desk and told me to look through them. It’s
the sort of assignment I normally relish – an excuse to poke around on my own – but I’m having a hard time getting enthused.
Indeed, that sentence gets more truthful, the shorter it gets. I’m having a hard time, full stop. Since last October, my head has teetered on the edge of its own private darkness, not quite tipping over, but never really feeling safe. It’s felt like my years at Cambridge. Death’s yellow teeth in every shadow.
The winter has been long, cold and unfriendly.
Various personal investigative projects of mine have made little progress.
The crime statistics are awful.
And I don’t want to become a detective sergeant.
Gwyn serves last night’s lamb with baked potatoes and a mountain of buttered kale. We eat as though famished.
Gwyn is my mother’s older sister. Inherited the farm when their parents, my grandparents, both died, within nine months of each other. Agricultural accident in his case, a stroke in hers. Gwyn had been a veterinary nurse in Abergavenny, married to the manager of a local timber yard, but when she moved up the hill to take care of her mother and the farm, he stayed down in the valley with his two-by-fours and his pressure-treated fenceposts. The pair divorced, formally, four years later.
Gwyn is over sixty now. White-haired, blue-eyed, thin as a stick of hazel, and still as lithe as the whippets who used to crowd her kitchen floor. If I offered to move up here, learn how to run the farm, then, in due course, take over, I think she’d say yes.
To live up here, far from the city, in the blue light of these hills, watching them turn from green to gold, from gold back to green. And the years passing like falling leaves.
It might be better for me. It really might.
After lunch, I’m about to go out again with Iestyn, but Gwyn’s natural toughness extends to me too. ‘You’re here to revise,’ she tells me, ‘not mend my gates.’ She orders me up to my room.
From my upstairs window, I watch Gwyn and Iestyn set off for the upper fields. Two dark figures and a collie, joyful, in the bracken.
I don’t revise.
With me from the office, I brought my cold-case files.
Most of them are dull. Boring when they were warm, more so now they’re cold.
Only two cases strike me as having any real interest.
First, an accidental death, where the coroner’s notes suggest just a scintilla of doubt. One rainy night eighteen months ago, a security guard, a couple of pints of beer inside him, fell off a clifftop on Gower. Probably just one of those things: cliffs and beer don’t mix. But he knew that path well and a note on the autopsy report reads,
Injury to lower right parietal bone presumably inflicted by rock on descent. Impact site not conclusively located
It’s not much to get excited about. The report confirms that, yes, the security guard had fallen. Yes, the majority of his injuries – broken bones, gashes, bruises and the rest – were consistent with that fall. Nor was there any doubt about the injury that finished him: a blow to the back of his head which split his skull open and caused his brains to leak into the cloudy waters of Swansea Bay. But that one wound –
Injury to lower right parietal bone
– puzzled the pathologist enough that he saw fit to draw attention to it, no matter how quietly.
I look at the photos of the dead man’s head.
Mostly, I’m just looking at a mashed skull. A skull which looks much as you’d expect it to when attached to a fourteen stone security guard who has toppled, tipsily, off a not-quite-vertical cliff. But there, on the upper right side of the skull, is a dent – possibly lethal, certainly dangerous – which suggests a blow from a heavy object with a roughly square cross-section. The line of the blow is quite straight. The angle of indentation just a few degrees off a perfect right angle.
It looks like the sort of mark you’d leave if you struck someone hard with a crowbar.
Suspicious? Or not suspicious?
It’s hard to say. The entire wound is only about three-quarters of an inch long before it bleeds into other injuries altogether. And the cliff was thirty-five metres high – a hundred feet and more. Easily high enough for any number of interesting injuries to have accumulated on the way down.
What’s more, the victim, Derek Moon, had a regular job, no money problems, was married, played football, had a young daughter. No record. Not quarrelsome, even when drunk.
I’m thinking not suspicious, but I like the skull photos and use one of them as my screensaver. Just that one injury, in extreme close-up. I find myself putting my finger out, as though laying it into the crevice of the head wound.
The case I like the most, however, doesn’t even boast a corpse.
The file, a burglary, from 2009, only landed on my desk because, as Jackson put it, ‘It’s a bit quirky.’ On the one hand, the burglary looks completely straightforward. A four-million-pound house – Plas Du – loses six lithographs (two Picassos, two Matisses, one each by Léger and Braque) plus a pair of silver Georgian candlesticks. Total value of the haul: about four hundred thousand pounds. You don’t get ordinary burglars with that level of discrimination, so the thieves were almost certainly professional art-thieves, quite likely stealing on commission, and more than likely based in London or some place where poorly guarded Picassos are rather thicker on the ground than they are in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Not much to arouse the interest, then, except that Plas Du also boasted an oil painting by Robert Rauschenberg, a sculpture by Giacometti, a silk dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe, and various other bits and pieces. Total value: more than six million pounds. Those items were all on the ground or first floor and were left untouched. The stolen items disappeared from the topmost floor – the second storey – which was the only one unprotected by the security alarm system. The system was as high-spec as you’d expect, given the value of art in the house, and independent experts employed by the insurance company verified that the system had been switched on and operational at the time of attack.
Or rather: the
time of attack. There was no sign of forced entry to the property, save one. A second-floor window had been broken at the catch. The catch wasn’t locked and entry would have been easy. Except that the window stood twenty-five feet or more above ground. The wall in which it was set was blank. The ground beneath was in the process of being reseeded and the bare earth was a fine tilth which would have taken any impression, had a ladder or some such been used. A large enough cherry-picker could have gained access, but it would need to have been an eight-wheeler, the engine would have needed to be in operation through the entire procedure, and there was a staff cottage within twenty-five yards of the site. The staff in question – two middle-aged, loyal-retainer types – swore blind they’d heard nothing.
The investigating officers at the time formed three broad theories about the burglary. Option one: Peter Pan and Tinker Bell flew twenty-five feet into the air, smashed a window and stole some artwork. Option Two: Plas Du staff stole the objects and broke the window as the clumsiest of all possible blinds. Option Three: the same as option two, except that in this version, the owner of the house, one Marianna Lockwood, stole the pictures for the insurance money.
Option one was ruled out as improbable. Option three was ruled out, as Lockwood was able to show liquid assets – cash and marketable securities – in excess of three million pounds and no one could quite figure out why someone that wealthy would want to commit serious fraud for such a small relative gain. So that left option two and, sure enough, staff at the house were investigated in minute depth, without yield.
So far, so
. Most inside jobs aren’t well organised. But some are. Sometimes thieves get away. That’s just the way it is.
There are, however, two aspects of the case which intrigue me.
First, Marianna Lockwood is the ex-wife of a man named Galton Evans, who has been a personal investigative project of mine for some time. Any case that allows me to lift the carpet on his life, even if just a little, is one that I welcome.
And there is, second, a photo in the files which intrigues me. A photo of the broken window. Glass lying on the inside window sill and carpet. Evidence of a hammer blow from
I call the forensics officer listed. He tells me, as though talking to a simpleton, ‘Crime scene analysis has to take context into account. If you see evidence of a blow struck from an impossible location, you have to interpret the evidence accordingly. And in any case, if a window is struck by a hard object, you often see two impacts. One when the glass is initially struck. Two, if the object is withdrawn so as to hit the remaining glass on exit.’
‘In which case,’ I say, ‘you’d see two piles of glass. One inside, one outside.’
there any glass outside?’
‘No, but when we came the site was no longer forensically intact.’ He blathers on, about how forensic conditions were imperfect, as they always are.
I hang up before I get too annoyed.
A text comes in from Rhiannon Watkins, a fierce DI whom I happen to like. She wants to know how my revision is going. I text back,
GOING THROUGH THE MANUALS AGAIN NOW
Go outside to find Gwyn.
She’s got a disintegrating shed at the end of her cow house, the place where sheep dip and glyphosate and fertiliser used to be kept. When Gwyn modernised her barns, those things were all rehoused and the shed is slowly collapsing back to the soil.
But it has windows. I say to Gwyn, ‘Can I smash the windows, please?’
She says, ‘Yes.’
I smash the windows.
Eight of them, with care. Using a hammer. A crowbar. A gloved fist. Photograph my work after each blow. Sweep away the glass before repeating my action. The hole made in the original window wasn’t that huge, so with care I manage fourteen experiments.
On none of them do I get an exit scatter that looks like the photo in the case file.