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Tracey stepped in front. ‘It’s at the back,’ she said, and led him away from reception and through a long room filled with high-backed chairs and a large stone fireplace.
They turned into a long corridor lined by doors. There were plates outside some, remnants of room service. Neither said anything. All he could hear was the rustle of their paper suits. His eyes scanned the walls for any blood smears that might have been missed, but it looked clean. At the end of the corridor, by an open fire door, he saw the bright glare of arc lights coming from one of the rooms and the bustle of more white forensic suits.
The crime scene investigators stepped aside as he got near. One was dusting the glass on the fire door, hoping for a print. Another was swabbing the doorframe for DNA, in case someone grabbed the door on the way out.
‘Anything yet?’ Sheldon said.
The dusting stopped for a moment and the tired eyes of a middle-aged man turned to him. ‘Nothing much, sir. All the blood is on the bed. No footprints in the room. There were handprints, but they were smears, and so no good for getting any prints.’
‘I’ll need to speak to everyone who was using rooms along this corridor, and the night manager,’ Sheldon said.
‘He’s been trying to get in the way since we got here, worried about his business,’ Tracey said.
‘He’ll have to keep worrying,’ Sheldon said, and then went into the room. He shielded his eyes as they became used to the glare of the lights, and once he was able to take in the scene, sweat prickled across his forehead and his mouth filled with acid. He looked away for a moment and took a deep breath. Once he knew that he was able to look again, he slowly raised his head.
There was a man in front of them, lying spread-eagled on a bed, his arms and legs pulled to the corners and tied to the bed legs.
‘That’s some extreme sex game,’ Tracey said, and she pointed to a ball gag that was discarded in the corner of the room, a leather strap with a plastic ball in the centre. Sheldon thought he could see teeth marks in it.
Sheldon let out a long breath. ‘I don’t think he was enjoying it,’ he said, and took a step closer, leaving Tracey nearer the door.
The man was naked. He didn’t look old, the Maori tattoos that swirled down from his shoulders giving that away, but it was what was above his shoulders that made Sheldon wonder if he’d sleep again that night.
There was a shock of black hair on the pillow, slick with blood, because where the face had once been there was just the bright white of cheek and jawbones, streaked red by blood and remnants of torn flesh and muscle. The eyes were still in place, and teeth seemed set in some final grimace. The face had been cut away in a neat shield, as if a stencil had been used.
‘Why would someone do that?’ Tracey said.
‘It makes him harder to identify, but that can’t be the reason,’ Sheldon said, his voice quieter than before. ‘Is the face still here somewhere?’
Tracey shook her head. ‘Not in this room.’
Sheldon closed his eyes.
‘There is a bit more to this,’ he heard Tracey say.
Sheldon opened his eyes and looked at her. ‘In what way?’
‘I spoke to the police doctor when he left,’ she said, and then raised her eyebrows. ‘He thought that the victim had been alive when it started.’
Sheldon looked back to the body on the bed and shook his head. The constable outside was right. This was going to be a bad one.
The noise started in his dream. There was a bird on a branch, bright red and blue feathers, chirruping at him, but then the bird faded and the room came into view.
He was in bed and the chirrups were still there, except that they were now electronic. He groaned and put his head under the pillow. It was the telephone. He could ignore it, just wait for the answer machine, but then he realised that he couldn’t let it do that. He might need the call.
He threw the pillow to one side and stumbled out of bed. The floor swayed under his feet. He tasted the booze as he exhaled, stale and unpleasant, and then he pulled the discarded T-shirt from the front of the clock radio. Eight o’clock. Later than he thought.
The phone was still ringing.
‘All right, all right,’ he shouted, and made his way through his apartment, wiping his eyes. The answer machine beat him to it.
‘Charlie. It’s Julie. I can’t make it this afternoon. There’s been a murder. It was supposed to be my day off, but they’ve cancelled my leave to cover for those drafted in to help. We’ll do it another time, but we need to sort it out. And Charlie, you called again Saturday night. Don’t do it again, I told you. Andrew is getting sick of it.’
Then it clicked off.
Charlie sat down. This afternoon? Then he remembered. They were supposed to be sorting out their things, the breakup routine.
He put his head back and closed his eyes. He was glad he had avoided it. The apartment would need cleaning, and he didn’t need to look to know that there were the remains of a late night Sunday film session on the floor: a pizza box and a line of empty beer bottles. He would get a life-lecture from Julie if she saw it, and he didn’t need it. They’d been together for just a year, and he hadn’t changed. He was almost forty and was drinking too much when they got together. He was just the same a year on. He guessed she was supposed to change him. Was it his problem she hadn’t succeeded?
It was his own fault for getting involved with police officers, he knew that, but Julie hadn’t been the first. He was a defence lawyer, and the police had an expectation that he would be some successful go-getter, all about sports cars and the best restaurants. It had never taken them long to find out that it wasn’t like that, because some lawyers are just courtroom shouters and part-time ambulance chasers.
Julie had been one of the longer relationships, but that was only because of his reluctance to let her leave. She was attractive, tall and elegant and blonde, like a tick-list on a dating site, and they had got together during one of those long chats at the custody desk. He hadn’t fought as hard that day, and spent most of the interview watching her. They went out for a meal, and she moved in two months later. She moved out ten months after that, when she realised that they had nothing in common, and that Charlie wasn’t interested in finding anything they might share.
And then he remembered she mentioned a call. He sighed. He had done it before when drunk, just a call to see if she wanted to give it another try. It wasn’t that he even thought that way when sober, but bad ideas are sometimes crafted on the long weave home from a pub. Julie was with someone else now. Perhaps that was what rankled.
Charlie opened his eyes and stumbled to his feet, groaning at his reflection in the mirror. His dark hair was now streaked with grey and too long for his age, gathered in greasy curls around his collar. His beard was unkempt, more like he’d forgotten how to shave rather than he’d decided to grow one.
It wasn’t a good start to the week. His mother had always said that he would amount to nothing, and he thought he had won the argument by qualifying as a lawyer. Except that he had spent the next fifteen years slowly proving her right.
He looked away and went to the window instead.
His flat was on the top floor of a four-storey apartment block overlooking Oulton, blocking the view to the open moorland, the bricks clad in fake stone to make it blend in with the growing town. He got the sun as it set in the evening, and the views gave him something to look at when he was on his own, even the grey sprawl of Manchester, although the city buzz never got as far as the town.
The phone rang again, and he thought about not answering, but he didn’t think it would be Julie again. It could be a client, or the police.
It was one of the drawbacks of being a defence lawyer, that he had to be available when the clients needed him, but most calls meant nothing. Like relatives letting him know that their cousin or brother had been arrested, only to find out that the prisoner had chosen a different lawyer. But there is always the prospect that the next call will be the big one, the case that keeps the practice ticking over for another year. The large frauds are the best, where the volume of paperwork creates plenty of billable hours, but not many came in like that. Anyway, he wasn’t the sort who liked to spend his time scouring through paperwork. He knew what he was: a tub-thumper, defending on emotion, shouting for his clients in a small northern town. He had the guile and legal brain for trading blows with barristers in the Crown Court, and he had thought about going down that route, but he didn’t have the temperament. He might enjoy the arguments, but sometimes he fought too hard when finesse would be better, and he struggled to control his hackles when he heard the sniggers of the country-set.
And he’d have to shave more often.
He clicked the answer button, and it took him a few seconds to recognise the greeting as Amelia’s, his business partner.
‘Amelia? This is early.’
‘You’ve got a change of schedule today, Charlie,’ she said, her voice curt. ‘We’ve been burgled.’
The day was getting worse. ‘Anything taken?’
‘Not as far as I can tell, but there’s a broken window and they’ve been through the files.’
Charlie didn’t like the sound of that. Some of the town’s worst secrets were in those files, the real stories behind the crimes, not the excuses the defendants spill to their friends. ‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
‘No, I need you to go to court and deal with my cases. I’ll sort things out here. And there’s been a murder.’
‘Yes, I know. People are rushing to tell me.’
‘From the whispers I’m getting, it’s a bad one. You need to get to the police station.’
‘We’ve got the suspect?’
There was a pause, and then, ‘I don’t know if there is one, but I want you to find out what you can, in case they bring him in and he hasn’t got a lawyer. Your name might just tumble out of the custody sergeant’s mouth. You know how it works.’
‘I think I’m right out of all charm,’ he said.
‘My cases are quick, and I’ve checked your diary,’ Amelia said, not listening. ‘You haven’t got much on. Just try and get the gossip.’
Charlie wiped his eyes. He did know how it worked, but he wasn’t in the mood for a Monday morning schmooze at the custody desk. It wasn’t the sergeant who was important, but Amelia had never learnt that. She thought that a flick of her hair with a sergeant brought her work. Unlikely. Custody sergeants are immune to charm. No, the people who pass your name to the prisoners are the civilian jailers. Make friends with those people, and it is your name that gets mentioned through the hatch of the cell door.
‘How will I get access?’ he said.
‘I’m sure you’ll find a way,’ she said, and then there was a click.
Charlie stared at the phone as Amelia hung up. That was her way. No unnecessary politeness. Just get the job done. He was tired and feeling rough, but he had learnt not to question her methods. His name might be higher on the brass plaque outside the office, but she ran the practice because she had saved it.
He struggled to the bathroom, and was about to wipe the condensation from the mirror, but decided against it. He knew that he wouldn’t like what he saw. The beginnings of broken veins and purple skin under his eyes. He was thirty-nine years old, and looked already like the milestone birthday was a long way behind him.
When he came out of the shower, his eyes caught the empty side of the bed again. He still slept to one side, not used to the fact that Julie was no longer there, her tangle of blonde hair almost lost in the soft white pillow. A year-long habit was hard to break.
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