The Way, The Truth and The Dead
Bert Hickson had seen many mutilated corpses, but few as bad as this. When he was young he would have felt sick, but not now; not after ten years on the streets of Belfast in the 1970s. As he looked down on the shattered limbs and shreds of skin and cloth caught up in barbed wire at the river’s edge, instinctively he did what they’d told him back then: deep breaths; head back; eyes closed; clear the brain. Relax. Thirty years ago it used to work. But now his brain wasn’t so easily fooled. He could sense the panic rising. He felt in his pocket: no pills. He’d left them at home. His shaking hands grabbed at his phone. Somehow he dialled 999 and spoke. Then oblivion. He never heard the reply.
It was Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lane’s first call-out since his transfer back to Cambridgeshire, and Fenland CID. That had been back at the start of the week, but it could have been years ago. All evening he’d been kicking his heels in his office in Ely, supposedly familiarising himself with his new GDMPs (Grievance and District Management Procedures), when the desk sergeant downstairs got the call. At the time, every uniformed officer had been called out to deal with an end-of-week booze-fuelled disturbance in the City Centre. They weren’t that common in this quiet Fenland City, so the police turned out in force to nip it in the bud. By four o’clock Lane had waded-through enough management jargon and his head was reeling. So he decided to go home: a bad case of migraine, or so he muttered as he returned his key at the desk. The Sergeant was putting the phone down and Lane could see the frustration on his face. He shot him a questioning glance.
‘That’s all we bloody need, Sir: an emergency call and everyone out…’ His voice tailed off. There was a new email on the screen below the desk.
‘What’s it about?’ Lane asked, despite himself.
‘Control said the caller reported he’d found a body by the river…’
Again he broke off, and was looking at the screen.
Anything, even a possible body in a river, was more interesting than GDMPs.
‘The caller didn’t say, Sir, but the phone co-ordinates put it near Fursby.’
‘That’s Littleport way, isn’t it?’ Lane broke in. The sergeant, who was still reading his screen, nodded. ‘Well, it’s on my way home. I might as well call in.’
‘I’ve got some more information here, Sir. They say the phone belongs to a Mr. Bert Hickson, He just said he’d found a body. Then silence.’
‘So it seems. But he didn’t hang-up and they’ve just sent through a better fix. It says here it’s lying just downstream of Smiley’s Mill in the Mill Cut, at Fursby.’
‘That’s off the Padnal Delph, isn’t it?’
‘Yes Sir, and I don’t need to remind you that the rivers are very swollen after all the recent rain. So do please be careful.’
‘I’ll be . I’ll let you know immediately, if I need help.’
Lane strode rapidly across the car park and as he put the magnetic flashing blue light on his car’s roof he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. He was smiling.
Richard Lane had had second thoughts about taking-on a new project in his old force. After five happy and generally, he thought, successful years in Leicestershire, his last case had stirred resentment: he had been forced to question some of his colleagues’ past motives, attitudes and loyalties – and it hadn’t gone down well everywhere. Of course everyone had been friendly on the surface, but after a few months he could sense that deep down things had changed. So he’d had ‘a quiet word’ with the Chief Constable, who then spoke to his old boss in Fenland. As it turned out, Lane was just the man they were looking for to manage a particularly delicate assignment. So now he was back in the Fens – where he immediately felt at home. His wife Mary had been slightly less keen: she had put down roots in Leicester, but now that both their children were away at university, she had agreed to move. Richard was only too aware that it hadn’t been easy for her, and he was determined to find them somewhere she would really like: preferably somewhere with a garden. She had close relatives living in Peterborough and they had long been contemplating moving nearer them. So wherever he now went he kept half an eye on the estate agents’ For Sale boards, as he drove along. You never know, he thought, but not around here: locals called it ‘the Cambridge effect’; house prices were rocketing as the university city economy continued to prosper.
The main rush hour out of Cambridge had yet to build-up as Lane approached Fursby, so he dropped his speed as he passed through the little Victorian country estate village. Smiley’s Mill lay just outside, to the north. He drew up in the Mill car park and crossed the Mill Cut by the little iron footbridge through the tall willows. Several elderly people were taking their dogs for their late afternoon walks. He headed rapidly along the Cut bank, beside the partially-flooded meadow until he came to a barbed wire fence and a small gate with a large, neatly lettered, and quite recently erected, sign: Fursby Estates: NO ADMITTANCE Except by Prior Appointment. Ignoring this, Lane passed through the gate and headed along the now thickly wooded path beside the Cut.
Around the first and only bend he came across a very distressed elderly man, covered in mud up one side, from head to toe, kneeling on the wet ground and feebly feeling around for his lost phone, or glasses, or both. Lane glanced down at the water, and there below him was the body, semi-floating and snagged on rusty barbed wire. Although part of the face was missing, Lane could see it was a man, possibly in his thirties, and of medium height and build. Although his skin had been bleached in the cold water, he could see from its colour on his forehead, neck and hands that he worked outside. But he was plainly very dead. Lane looked up: the living man was now his immediate concern.
The sun was setting and the first few drops of the first night time shower were falling, as two paramedics helped Mr Hickson back to the ambulance in the Mill car park. By now Lane had been joined by a Sergeant and Constable and all three policemen were wearing the hi-viz waterproof overalls that were now standard issue on such assignments. Although it was only early October, Lane was grateful for the extra warmth, as the water was cold and the dead body, if anything, was colder. Before they tried to remove the corpse from the wire the constable removed any loose clothing, which included one rigger boot. It was steel toe-capped. This man probably worked in construction. They didn’t want anything important to be lost during the body’s removal from the water, so Lane began to search it. He handed a couple of coins from a trouser pocket to the Sergeant who bagged them. One of the outside pockets of his waterproof Gor-Tex jacket produced a 6H pencil and a draftsman’s eraser, plus the lid of an insulated plastic mug. The Sergeant took them. Then he gently rolled the body to one side and put his hand within the jacket. There were two inside pockets. One was empty, but he could feel the other was full of something. Carefully he unzipped it, then he cupped his right hand over the object and drew it out very slowly. It was what he had hoped to find: the dead man’s wallet. Even better, the zipped pocket had remained waterproof. Quickly they bagged it up, against the now persistent rain.
Lane stood aside as two wet-suited assistants arrived to help remove the body from the barbed wire. He walked back along the Cut to the mill car park, but as he stepped off the footbridge he was dazzled by the headlights of a car which had just drawn up. The lights went out and the driver got out. Lane was still wearing the waterproof police overalls. The man came across to him.
‘Hello, I’m Derek Smiley, Mill Manager here. Your people phoned me about ten minutes ago. Said there had been a body found in the Cut and that you were using our Car Park.’
‘Yes,’ Lane replied, ‘I was the first officer here. Chief Inspector Lane.’
They shook hands.
‘Is there anything else I – we – can do?’
‘There are a couple of things you might be able to help me with.’
‘First of all, have you spotted anything unusual as you drove here? Anything at all?’
‘What, on the drive; in the car park…?’
‘Yes, anything unusual at all.’
There was a pause while Smiley thought. Lane looked at him hard. No, he wasn’t acting a part. This was real. That came as a relief. He exhaled heavily, before slowly replying:
‘Not off hand, no. But it might help if we turned on the Car Park lights.’
They walked across to a small side entrance in the Victorian brick and timber-clad mill building, which was quickly unlocked. Once inside, Smiley punched a code into a touch-pad. Suddenly the whole area was bathed in light.
Back outside they looked back at the car park, which was now occupied by three other police vehicles. After a minute Lane asked:
‘Anything strike you?’
‘Hm, there’s nothing obvious…’ He was hesitating.
‘There rarely is. Such things are usually quite subtle. Apart from our two cars and those three vans is there anything else?’
There was a another, shorter pause. Slowly Smiley replied.
‘Possibly,’ he was pointing towards the footbridge, ‘The bike over there. Did one of your people come on that?’
‘If only.’ Lane sounded rueful, ‘No,’ he continued, ‘We closed the Fursby station in ’98, shortly after I joined Fenland. So all our people are now based in Ely; the paramedics from Cambridge. Could it belong to a dog walker?’
‘Perhaps, but they usually use the sheltered racks over there by the toilets. We installed them about five years ago, when the Parish Council approached us. Seemed like good local PR. And there’s a tea and coffee stall there on summer weekends, where we promote our baking side. To be honest it actually makes us a little money. That’s why it’s unusual to see a bike left against the bridge…’ He paused, thoughtfully, ‘And one other thing.’
It’s not chained up. It’s a smart bike and that’s very unusual…’
‘Why,’ Lane broke in, ‘Are they usually a bit old and battered?’
‘You know what it’s like, some of the older dog-walkers can’t be bothered with padlocks, keys or new bikes. But that one over there’s a smart bit of kit. You can see it from here. It stands out a mile. If it’s not an actual racing bike, it’s a very good sports machine. It could even be a Klansmann; I’ve got a cheap copy of something similar myself, which I take out on weekends and I wouldn’t even leave that unchained, especially round here, so close to Cambridge.’
Lane smiled. For decades Cambridge had been notorious for cycle crime.
They walked back to the footbridge. As they approached the bike, Smiley couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm.
‘Oh yes,’ he was lost in admiration, ‘ A Klansmann Fell Flyer. You don’t get any better than this...’
As Lane had anticipated, in his enthusiasm Smiley was about to take hold of the handlebars. Quickly the policeman placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
‘I think that would be unwise, sir. We may need finger-prints.’
Even under the sodium lights’ glare it was clear that the manager was blushing deeply. His hand went up to his face in embarrassment.
‘Oh my God,’ he almost whispered, ‘I hadn’t thought. That’s terrible. You don’t think it’s a…’ He couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘murder’: ‘A crime, do you?’
‘Anything’s possible at this early stage, sir. Which is why we have to be so careful.’
Lane turned to walk back to his car. Smiley had opened the side door and was about to turn the lights off. Lane called across:
‘Would you mind leaving the lights on, Mr. Smiley?’
‘I’m sorry Inspector, force of habit. You know what electric bills are like. But of course, you still have people down here, don’t you?.’
‘Yes, and here comes the body, so we won’t be detaining you here for long.’ As he spoke, Lane could see a small group of people, led by an officer with a powerful flashlight, who was followed by two men carrying a stretcher, with two others behind them, both with bright lights. They were making their way slowly along the Cut. They’d be at least ten minutes. Time to ask that other question.
‘There was one other thing I meant to ask you. The body was in a very poor state.’
‘What, decayed; that sort of thing?’ Despite his better nature, Smiley was intrigued by what had been found.
‘No, far from it. In fact I don’t think it had been in the water for long at all. Maybe a day, but not much longer, although the post-mortem will be more precise. No, it looked like it had been chopped-up or bashed. A foot was missing, as was most of the face and lower jaw. The clothes were torn and shredded. Frankly it looked like it had passed through a huge mincer. D’you have any thoughts on how this might have happened?’
There was a long pause. Eventually he replied.
‘Oh dear, I feared something of the sort. The day before yesterday, during those terrible thunderstorms in the afternoon, one of the large willows that surround the mill pool was struck by lightning. It split from stem to stern and the trunk crashed down onto the millwheel protective cage. You might have seen it on the local TV News. Anyhow, it’s just over here.’
They started walking along the front face of the mill towards the sound of cascading water. Lane asked:
‘I remember seeing that. Wasn’t one of your people hurt?’
‘Yes, Sam Hibbs. It broke his collar bone and hurt his back. He spent last night in hospital. I collected him this morning and he’s back at home now.’
‘Will he be OK?’
‘Yes, thank goodness. They’re a tough lot the Hibbses.’
‘That’s good. But what about the protective cage?’
‘It got completely smashed, so we rigged up something out of the bits and pieces we salvaged, which we lashed together. It’s not perfect, but you’ve got to understand we can’t do anything permanent, especially anything involving welding, until water levels drop – and that won’t be for a few days, as things stand. Still, we managed to measure everything up and the estate blacksmith’s shop are fabricating new panels and grills for us. In fact Mr. Sebastian himself came down when he saw the piece on TV…’
‘Mr. Sebastian Cripps, who owns the Fursby Estate and all the land hereabouts. We’ve always worked very closely with them. In fact they still own some of the land and buildings around the mill itself, which my grand-father bought off the estate in 1950. In fact I’ve got a lot of time for both the brothers.
Sebastian’s name rang a bell with Lane.
‘Sebastian Cripps’s on the District Council, isn’t he?’
‘Yes, Tory, of course.’
‘I wasn’t aware he had a brother.’
‘Name’s John. Younger brother by a couple of years. Their dad, the Third Baronet lives over at Home Farm along with John and Candice, who run the Abbey Farm and Shop on the Littleport Road, as you head out of the village.’
Lane nodded. It was well-known in the area. But as much as he’d like to learn more about the local land-owners, he still had a job to do:
‘So you reckon the body passed through the millwheel?’
‘Yes, it’s perfectly possible. I just hope the poor bloke was dead when he went through.’
By now they were looking down at the mill race. Lane had to agree, they’d made the best of a bad job: there was blue rope everywhere and any living person could certainly have grabbed hold of it and pulled themselves round to a steel access ladder by the main chute. The mesh of rope would probably have caught a dead sheep or cow; a human could just have passed through. But only just.
‘It looks to me you did the best you could, under difficult circumstances. Having seen this, I’m sure the body was either dead or unconscious when it passed through the millwheel.’
‘Thanks Inspector, it’s a relief to hear you say that. ’
They could hear voices over by the footbridge. The party had returned with their gruesome cargo.
Back in his car, Lane put on rubber gloves and took the wallet from its police plastic bag. The Driving Licence identified the owner as a Mr. Stanley Beaton, born July 18, 1972. Current residence: 21 Priory Lane, Peterborough. Lane knew the road and the area well: to the west of the railway station, in the Longthorpe direction. Very nice middle class residential district. Not what he would have expected of someone whose clothes and weather-beaten features suggested site work. Slowly and very carefully he looked through the various cards, searching for clues. He left the usual ones in place: Visa, MasterCard, National Trust, English Heritage, but two caught his eye in passing: the dead man had been a member of the Council for British Archaeology and of the Institute for Archaeologists. Suddenly the clothes, and the few other items found in his pockets, began to make sense.
In the last fold of the wallet were the cards he was looking for; these were from people, not corporations. In amongst them, was a name he immediately recognised: Alan Cadbury. Lane smiled, that was more like it. This time he carefully pulled the card from the wallet. It was a corporate-style, quite well-designed and issued by Paul Flynn Consulting Ltd, to a Mr. Alan Cadbury, ‘Fieldwork Director’. Gingerly he turned it over. There were traces of a smeared muddy finger-mark, not a print, and a scrawled message: “Great visit, Stan. Many thanks, Alan.” This was followed by a clearly written mobile number. Just to be sure, Lane pulled out his own mobile and checked it against what he had. They were identical.
The next step was easy: he pressed the Call button.