Peter is a policeman at a transition point in his life. He does something wrong, very wrong, but probably life improving for him. This is not a who dunnit. This is a how and why dunnit including did they get away with it. Only the crime methods have been changed to protect the greedy.
The style is possibly John Le Carre confronts Kafka with a side order of humour?
Human bloody moths thought Peter Bradshaw as he strolled towards the flashing lights. They were stronger than the chip shop lights, bluer than the insect killer inside the door. They should change the colour; it’s the blue that attracts them. Perhaps that’s why blue movies are popular?
Three pints of Old Peculiar had made Peter feel old but the peculiar was his own doing. Pub chips and telly. If they’d started calling him Saint Peter behind his back then he should honour the holy trinity on his day off. As he worked his way through the ring of concerned citizens it was professional interest that drew him. He wasn’t a moth. He should see uniform in action again if he was being drawn back.
“Come to see how it’s done or has the pub run out of beer?”
The voice came from a patrol car and when Peter squatted down by its window the face grinning back belonged to Sergeant Newham.
“Supervising the troops from your own snug I see. Can I stick my nose in? I promise to be good!”
A wave from the car gave consent. The good sergeant didn’t like to disturb the scene of a crime and hoped in return that it wouldn’t disturb him.
Walking into the walled yard was a step back into its Victorian heyday, workaday granite sets that knew horse drawn commerce, now a car park for commercial rent boys. The building had been a canal side warehouse but was now desirable loft style flats. A place where nobody would know anybody. The yard was partly roped off for building work. A ladder lay at an angle on the floor and a rusting skip partly blocked the exit to the canal side.
The main actress for this evening’s show was lying near the side of the skip. From nine feet away (three metres, I must learn to think metric) the injuries were not obvious but you could tell she was dead. She looked broken. I walked slowly nearer taking in the scene. Her clothing was unisex, trainers, loose jeans, two toned fleece with the sleeves partly rolled up, short hair. She had some sort of an apron, no a window cleaner’s, what would you call it? An apron with water proof pockets. Something to hold the tools of the trade. Standing now as close as I could without getting in the way I could see the face was resting in a small pool of congealed blood. The hair at the back of the head was swept up like a duck’s tail held there with a gory hair gel. She would not have approved. That’s how I knew she was a girl. Neat, precise, clean, mid twenties. The hair was wrong. Newham was not disturbed but I was.
I’d seen too much, or the wrong thing. I’d seen too much a long time ago. I’d stopped to see how uniform worked and instead had seen how a girl’s life didn’t. I knew the face from somewhere. I’m sure I know the face from somewhere. I wonder how many times I’ve thought that?
Newham had got out of his car as I wandered back, brushing biscuit crumbs off his uniform.
“What do you reckon then?”
Newham’s investigative methods still had style.
“Well, there’s a light weight ladder lying on the floor. It’s extended enough to reach the second floor windows. Three of those windows are freshly cleaned and a forth half cleaned. The victim is wearing a window cleaner’s apron, her sleeves are rolled up and she has head injuries. I think it’s arson.”
“The bucket of water we found then was probably to put the fire out.”
Newham was happy. He’d found his culprit: gravity. He could file this under ‘No further action required’. His favourite file.
“Did you take anything off the victim’s head? A hat perhaps?”
“Anything else found?”
“A squeegee on the floor near the skip and muddy footprints going towards the canal, but they could have been made anytime.”
“Definitely arson then. Do you know who she is … . was?”
“Easy, she had one of those laminated identity cards in a pocket. Emma Pearson, I.T. Consultant. She must have been moonlighting.”
“It’s nice to find such considerate clients. Enjoy the paperwork and take it easy.”
My feet were heading home. I did know her. In the last year of my computer course I’d seen her several times doing something to the machines. She always had headphones on listening to a walkman. The hair disturbed me still.
Anne was waiting up when Peter got home.
Anne took his coat and hung it on its hanger. She would brush it later. The life smells of chip shop and pub clung to the coat and Anne went to wash her hands. The smell of death eluded her.
“Tommy rang to say can you get in a half hour early.”
“He said he had a meeting and he needed to implement your security clearance and, more importantly, to initiate you into the coffee fund and lottery syndicate.”
Peter sank into the armchair, the least neat thing in the house. Anne had his uniform back from the cleaners and tomorrow she would have her old husband back: smart, disciplined and, in his new job, safe.
“I met Roger Newham on my way home.”
“Roger Newham, Sergeant Newham. You met him at the Christmas do last year. His wife told you that he was a messy slob and that she was going to leave him.”
“His shirt wasn’t ironed properly.”
Uniformed Peter walked through the foyer doors into the dream factory. Tommy was waiting by the main desk distracting the receptionist. He was the only person Peter recognized despite his years in the job. Headquarters was something real policemen tried to avoid, coming here only to seek promotion or when in trouble. Tommy beamed to see him, as he always did, and rushed him through the system introducing him loudly to everyone as he went. Soon they were keying a number into a side door and entering Peter’s new realm. Intelligence led policing systems appraisal and development unit. The name was bigger than the office. At least the side door meant he could avoid reception. A window would have been nice.
The canteen was like all other canteens, perhaps a little smarter than some. Asking the receptionist if he could join her, he sat down stiffly, still not quite used to the uniform again. He chose to sit there because she was the only person in the place that he had been introduced to and he knew who it paid to become friendly with.
“Tommy says you’ve come back to uniform to show us how to do the job properly.”
“No. I came back because my wife thinks I’m too old to be on the streets on my own. I need a quiet backwater. She doesn’t like dogs; I don’t like children, so computers won.”
“I thought all the I.T. staff were civilians?”
“True. That’s why their toys aren’t used properly, or can’t be used properly. Policemen want systems designed by policemen. They couldn’t get an I.T. expert to become a copper so they let me go on a course, in my own time naturally. The uniform’s so they can see me for what I am, or possibly so the bosses can see my rank and know how much they can ignore me.”
“They won’t see much of you stuck in that office.”
“Oh I intend to get out a lot, follow real cases, stick my nose in where it’s not wanted.”
“That’ll make you popular.”
“If I get it right they’re foresighted for letting me in. If I get it wrong I’m an idiot from the dream factory. Who’s going to follow me to my lair?”
“We do have phones.”
“I’ll let you know when I’m not in.”
Emma Pearson’s case was already on the system. I’d seen the start so it would be a good one to follow through.
The routine checks I can do without thinking. Do the basic facts fit naturally into the front page form? Yes. Case status; awaiting post mortem and coroner’s court. Clear pointers to the other files. The machine uses the front page when looking for similar cases, compiling statistics. It records facts. No room for doubts. Policemen are full of doubts. The machine needs room for doubt, a space for speculation.
I have doubts about the hair, yet no mention of it. The photographs show it without drawing attention.
The post mortem is today. I might go and see how the information transfers.
The details weren’t filled in by Sergeant Newham. He’d delegated and remained as untroubled as this machine.
The pathologist was a dour soul. I’m glad I missed watching him perform. In the office he dressed like a thirties bank manager and was as keen on speculation. The fall had certainly killed Emma but he had noticed that both eardrums were perforated. Freshly so. It would appear that to have one eardrum perforated in a fall was not uncommon but two made him raise an eyebrow. How do I record the full drama of a raised eyebrow?
A slightly erudite question raised in an internet forum will attract a couple of erudite answers and a platoon of cranks. The most erudite came from an American naval doctor. Not the first person I would have thought of for a police enquiry. His explanation of why two burst eardrums from a fall were unlikely left me looking for a medical dictionary but his experiences of what could cause it involved overpressure; divers rising too quickly; ejecting airmen, explosions. I decided to E-Mail an enquiry to an acquaintance in the British air force medical establishment together with photos of the eardrums.
The answer came back quickly. Explosions or very loud noise.
The morning found me out of uniform and by the canal. The underwater search team were too expensive for a wild thought and who would I ask for the money? If I was wrong I wanted to be wrong in private. One extending pole from my ceiling paint roller and the head off the lawn rake made a more discreet search team. Canals are surprisingly shallow and the stretch behind the old warehouse wasn’t too much of a rubbish tip, though the path did smell like a public toilet. If asked I was going to be a research biologist studying invasive species of plants but the canal was completely deserted. After about an hour I found it. A Walkman with the headphones still plugged in. I carefully bagged it and phoned in. I wanted a witness to the location now I knew I wasn’t a fool. The copper they sent was just surprised to see me working on my day off.
I had planned some routine work for the morning but the phone rang before I’d even logged on. Laura, the receptionist, sounded very formal. The assistant chief constable wanted to see me and I was to go to his office straight away. Called to the headmaster’s office. I must put a book down my trousers.
The A.C.C. had a guest with him when I entered. Not a policeman and he was treating him as an equal. Hand stitched lapels on his suit.
“Have you read the forensic report on your find from yesterday?”
“No sir. I wasn’t expecting a result this quickly.”
“It seems your private enterprise was an inspiration to many, a bringer of kudos to the headquarters staff and an irritation to everybody.”
The visitor passed a folder to me, presumably the forensic report, and then removed the necessity for me to read it.
“The walkman had been expertly modified to give a short intense burst of noise when triggered by a radio signal. It should have caused intense pain but they overdid the power and it was enough to damage the eardrums. We suppose it was triggered when she leant out from the ladder to clean a window and gravity did the rest. Blood on the headphones matched the girl’s and the walkman has been identified as belonging to her.”
“A specific target, killed remotely and looking like an accident.”
“What made you suspicious?”
“I’d seen her before with a walkman glued to her head and the state of her hair.”
The A.C.C. looked at the stranger as if gaining permission to reveal a confidence. The stranger spoke instead.
“Emma was known to us. She was on the edge of a group interested in computers. Other people’s computers. They are a group that we would like to break up.”
“And the other members of the group?”
“We know that there are quite a few in the group but we know only the pen name, or is it a computer name, of one other. In contacting Emma he, or she, used the name Gollum and talked of finding its precious. Emma was to be the way in but someone shut the door.”