Read an Excerpt
By Lynda La Plante
Touchstone Copyright © 2005 Lynda La Plante
All right reserved.
Detective Chief Inspector Langton stared at the women's dead faces. All six of them appeared to have the same joyless, haunted expression. They were all of similar ages and worked in the same profession. The first victim on the file had been strangled twelve years ago.
It was six months ago that the last victim was found; she had been dead for at least eighteen months. Langton had been brought in to Queen's Park to oversee the case. Without a suspect or a witness, he had begun to cross-reference the way the victim had been murdered, and subsequently discovered five identical unsolved cases.
He was certain that they had all been killed by the same person, but to date he had no clues as to who that person might be. It was turning into the most frustrating, dead-end case he had ever worked on. The only thing he was sure about, and that he and the profilers agreed on, was that there would be another victim.
Due to the length of time between each gruesome discovery, there had been little media coverage. Langton wanted to keep it that way; hype and panic would do his investigation more harm than good, and police warnings usually had little effect on the prostitutes. Despite the Yorkshire Ripper being headline news for years, he was finally caught with a tart about to do the business in his car. Police warnings didn't mean much to the street girls when they needed money for drugs or rent, or their kids or their pimps.
Langton leafed through the latest batch of missing persons' files. A photograph caught his eye. "Melissa Stephens," he read. According to the report sheet, she was seventeen. The photo showed a stunningly pretty girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and the sweetest of smiles. Compared to the other women on file, this girl looked like an innocent angel. How had the photo ended up in this folder?
Langton put the girl's details to one side and went back to the files of missing prostitutes in their late thirties and early forties. He studied the photos of their beat-up-looking faces intently. He took note that many of the women in this file were European; some were Russian.
Langton's detective sergeant, Mike Lewis, interrupted his concentration. "She doesn't fit the profile." He leaned across the desk and picked up Melissa's photograph.
"Yeah, I know. That's why I put her to one side."
At first, the team had concentrated their search on the local area, but now the net had spread to include Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. They were monitoring missing persons for women with similar profiles to the victims. It was sick, but it was all Langton could do; a fresh victim might provide the vital clue that would lead them to the serial killer.
"Did you hear about Hudson?" asked Lewis.
"No. What about him?"
"He called in sick. He was taken to hospital. May be serious."
"Shit! The Boss is already checking us out. We'll lose half the team if we don't get a result soon."
"He might be out for a while."
Langton lit a cigarette. "Get someone in to cover him, and fast."
An hour later Lewis placed half a dozen folders on Langton's desk.
"Christ! Is this all you could come up with?" Langton complained.
"It's all they've got."
"Leave them with me. I'll get back to you."
Lewis shut the door and went back to his desk. Langton started to glance through possible replacements for Hudson. The first file belonged to an officer he had worked with before, and didn't get along with. He opened the next one.
Detective Sergeant Anna Travis's file was certainly impressive. After graduating from Oxford University in economics she had done the usual eighteen weeks' training at Hendon, then taken a uniform posting with a response team. Toward the end of her probationary period she had been attached to the local borough CID Robbery and Burglary Squad before switching to the Crime Squad. A memo from her superintendent underlined in red that Travis was a very "proactive" officer.
Langton flicked through the rest of her CV with less interest. Travis had moved quickly up to the Home Office's High Potential Scheme. The list of attachments she had covered made him smile: robbery, burglary, CID, Community Safety Unit. About the only thing she hadn't worked on yet was a murder team, though he noticed she had applied three times without success.
He was beginning to feel his age. Slightly depressed, he read on. The glowing recommendations from her superiors he took with a pinch of salt; he needed someone with street knowledge and initiative, not just an impressive CV. It was the last paragraph that seized his attention. He straightened up as he read the words: "Anna Travis is the daughter of the late Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Travis." Langton started tapping the file thoughtfully with his pen: Jack Travis had been his mentor.
In the outside office, Mike Lewis answered the phone promptly. Then put his head through the open door of Langton's room.
Langton looked up from his desk, distracted. "Who is it?"
"Wouldn't say. You want to take it or not?"
"Yeah, yeah," said Langton, reaching for the phone. "Stay."
Mike leafed through some paperwork while Langton spoke tersely: "How old? Who's on it? OK, thanks. Get back to me. I appreciate it."
Langton put the phone down. "Body just found on Clapham Common. I don't think it fits with any of ours -- she's young, apparently -- but they're only just on the callout." He rocked back in his chair thoughtfully.
"Mike, do you know DCI Hedges? Crew cut, square head, and full of himself?"
"Yeah. A right arsehole."
"It's his case, his area. I want you to stand by. If we get any more details I might want to crash in on it."
Lewis looked at the photos spread out on the desk: "Are you thinking maybe it's the missing angel?"
"Maybe." He held out a file and stood up. "Get this Anna Travis on the team."
"What, the rookie?"
"She's never been on a murder team."
Langton shrugged himself into his coat. "Her father was Jack Travis. Maybe taking on his penpusher of a daughter will be good karma."
He stopped at the door. "Anyway, rate we're going, we might not even have a case. If the chief puts them all on file, we'll be stuck with a skeleton team until they've all been shelved and sent over to the dead file warehouse. G'night."
Lewis returned to his desk in the incident room and dialed Anna Travis's number.
By quarter to eight the next morning Anna Travis was sitting in a patrol car speeding to the murder site. Although all she had been told was that she was replacing an officer on sick leave, Anna was excited to be finally working in the field for which she had trained so hard.
With Anna in the patrol car were Lewis and another seasoned detective, DC Barolli. Mike Lewis had square shoulders, and a body running to fat. His round face and red cheeks gave him a look of perpetual good humor. Barolli was smaller, with dark, Italian looks but an East London accent.
As they drew up to the Clapham Common parking area, she noticed the presence of the forensic van, and numerous unmarked cars. Although police cordons allowed no one but officers entry, an exception was made for the catering van, which was already in place and serving pies and sandwiches to the teams setting up the base.
What surprised her was the lack of a sense of urgency. Lewis and Barolli went straight from the car to "Teapot One" to get some coffee. Unsure of the procedure, Anna just hovered nearby. When she looked further across the common toward the yellow ribbons cordoning off the car park, she could see white-suited forensic officers moving around.
"Is this the murder site?" she asked Lewis.
"Pretty obvious. Yeah."
"Shouldn't we go and sort of make our presence known to DCI Langton?" she said hesitantly.
"You had your breakfast, then?" Lewis asked.
"Yes, before I got the callout." Actually, she'd had just a cup of black coffee; she had been too nervous to eat. Anna waited while Lewis and Barolli queued up for their bacon sandwiches. They made short work of them, after which the three began to make their way to the murder site. Anna let them lead, deliberately falling behind. After eight hundred yards, they slithered down a sloping bank. She noticed both officers tense up. Lewis removed a handkerchief from his pocket and shook it out; Barolli unwrapped chewing gum.
They approached a group that stood by a clump of trees in a small hollow. There the forensic officers were kneeling or moving deliberately around the area. Anna stepped onto the duckboards placed strategically along the muddy incline. Though the two detectives nodded toward various people, no one spoke. The quiet was unsettling. Then it hit her. The smell was like dead flowers left too long to rot in water, when their stems become soggy and discolored. Soon it was overpowering.
"You took your time," DCI Langton barked at the two detectives. He turned to light a cigarette and she saw a tall rangy man in a forensic-issue white paper suit, five o'clock shadow already breaking the surface of his angular chin. Langton had a hawk nose and hard piercing eyes that made it difficult to meet his gaze. Neither detective answered him now, both turning to look instead toward the white tent that had just been erected. Langton inhaled deeply, then the smoke streamed from his nostrils.
"Is it a possible?" she overheard Lewis ask his superior quietly.
"Yeah. But you watch. The dickhead in charge is going to hang on to the case if we can't prove it -- and fast."
Now Langton's gaze fell on Anna. He stared unapologetically at her.
"You the new DS?"
"I knew your father. Good man."
"Thank you," she said softly.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Travis had retired two years ago, only to die from cancer six months later. Anna still missed him terribly. She had adored her generous, loving and supportive father, and it was a source of grief for her that he was gone before she made it in plain clothes. She felt that grief even more keenly now that she was on the Murder Squad, which had become such a prominent part of his adult life. His nickname had been "Jack the Knife," for his ability to cut through the dross. More than anything, Anna wanted to be as successful as Jack Travis.
The smoke trailed from Langton's cigarette as he pointed to the tent. "I think it might be our angel, the missing girl." He headed toward the open tent flap. "Want to take a look?" he asked Anna over his shoulder.
Lewis and Barolli were given white paper suits and overshoes so as not to contaminate the area. "They're short of masks," Langton explained as he delved into a cardboard box and handed Anna her suit packet. "Gown up, then keep to the duckboards." He squeezed the butt of his cigarette, placing it in his pocket.
Anna hastily opened the packet and removed her paper suit. She hauled it up over her skirt and jacket, then closed the Velcro, which stuck to her tweed jacket. As she balanced on one foot and then the other to fit the overshoes over her low-heeled court shoes, she kept taking deep breaths to ward off the strong stench, breathing through her mouth in short, sharp intakes, then hissing out the air.
Behind her, she was aware of one officer grumbling to another.
"What's he doing here; this isn't his turf, is it?"
"No, but he wanted to take a look. He's handling that dead-end case over at Queen's Park. Cheeky sod; I'd like to know how he got here so fucking fast. Plus he's got those two goons with him. Don't know who he thinks he is. DCI Hedges is going apeshit."
When Anna stepped into the tent, she remembered what she'd been told: no training ever prepares you. They can show you mortuary shots, you can discuss postmortems (she'd even been present at one), but not until you confront your first real corpse does the impact hit you. They always say it's the first one that stays with you for the rest of your career.
"You think it's her?" she heard Lewis whisper.
"Maybe," Langton said. "Right age, right coloring."
"She's been here for a while." Barolli was sniffing with disgust. "In pretty good shape, though. No decomposition. It's the bad weather. She's been covered in snow, but yesterday was a freak day, almost seventy degrees."
While Langton chatted with his two detectives, Anna edged across the duckboards to move closer.
"We think she's maybe a student, reported missing six weeks ago," Langton broke off midconversation to explain to Anna, "but we won't know for sure until they've done the postmortem." He turned back to address his detectives. Langton became a blur; she could see his lips moving, hear him faintly, but as those in front parted ranks to give her a clear view of the corpse, Anna wanted to vomit. Now she was close up, the stench was thick and heavy, worsened by the confines of the tent.
The victim lay on her back, her long, blonde hair splayed around her head. Her face was swollen, her eyes sunken and crawling with maggots, which explored her nostrils and fed in her mouth, squirming and wriggling: a sickening, seething mass. Around the girl's neck was what looked like a black scarf. It had been knotted so tightly her neck was ballooning. The victim's skin tone was bluish and puffy. Her arms were behind her back, her body slightly arched. Her T-shirt had been drawn up over her breasts, her skirt pushed up around her belly. Both legs were spread-eagled, one shoe on, the other close to her side. The knees were scraped and the bloody scratches were covered in flies and maggots, which clustered all around the body. Rising above it was the buzzing sound of bluebottles. Bloated by their feeding frenzy, they clung to the detectives' white suits.
"This weather's got them out early," Langton said, swatting a fly off his suit.
Anna could feel her legs start to buckle. She breathed deeply, trying hard not to faint.
Langton watched Anna stumble ahead of him, desperate to get out of the tent. He knew exactly what was going to happen next. She made it as far as a tree and stood there retching. Her stomach heaved while her eyes streamed tears.
The other two detectives were stripping off their white suits and dumping them in a waste disposal bin provided.
"See you back at the car park," Langton called out, but Anna couldn't lift her head.
When she finally joined them, they were sitting on a picnic bench. Langton was eating a sandwich and the others were drinking coffee. Anna's face was almost as blue as the dead girl's as she perched on the edge of the bench.
Langton passed her a paper napkin.
"Sorry," she murmured, wiping her face.
"We'll get over to the station. Nothing much we can do here; right now, she doesn't belong to us."
"Sorry?" she said.
Langton gave a sigh. "The little girl isn't ours. The local police called in the murder team for this area, so by rights it's their case, not mine. We're not allowed to take it unless we prove a connection. Fucking red tape! The arsehole in charge is a right little prick."
"You still think it's the same bloke?" Lewis asked.
"Looks like it, but let's not jump to conclusions," Langton said. She noticed Langton could smoke and eat at the same time. He was chewing his sandwich while smoke drifted from his nose.
Lewis persisted. "Looks like the same bloke to me, way he tied her hands."
Barolli chipped in. "I agree." Anna noticed he was still chewing gum. "They only found her last night. How did you call us here so fast? You get a tip-off?"
"Heard the callout over the radio. Got here almost the same time as the SOCO lads."
Lewis knew his gov wasn't telling the truth, because he'd been with him at the station when he had received the tip-off. It was obvious he was protecting his source.
"I've already had a run-in with DCI Hedges."
Both detectives followed his gaze to the blond man getting coffee at Teapot One. Feeling their scrutiny, the man glanced their way before returning to his mug of coffee.
Anna wanted to say something, but felt too wretched even to attempt to string a sentence together. They drove toward the station. Queen's Park was a good distance from Clapham Common. The police station local to the murder site would automatically be setting up their own incident room.
Anna had never been to the Queen's Park station, so she had no idea where she was going when she followed Mike Lewis up one flight of stairs toward the incident room. The station itself was old and rundown; the walls of the stone corridors were painted in lavatorial green, as were the stone stairwells. The second floor had worn lino on the floors and paint peeling from the ceiling and walls. Numerous offices led off to glass-paneled doors, interview rooms, filing sections. There was a sense that things were up in the air, with filing cabinets left at various intervals down the corridor. It was all confusing and bore no resemblance to the training manual, nor to workshops she'd been in at the college.
Barolli had disappeared to the toilet; she had no idea where Langton had gone.
"You're replacing Danny, aren't you?" Lewis panted as he reached the top of the flight of stairs.
"I think so," she answered.
"He got some kind of stomach bug. One minute he was fine, next buckled up in agony. I thought it was appendicitis, but it's some intestinal bug. Did you know him?" Now Lewis was barging down the narrow corridor.
"No," she said, trying to keep up.
Lewis reached double doors at the end and banged them open. The doors swung back and Anna would have been clipped if he had not grabbed a door in time.
"Sorry," he said absentmindedly.
Anna had not anticipated the number of people she found working on a case where the body had only just been discovered. Eight desks were lined up, four to four on either side of the room. The desks were manned by male and female uniformed officers and two clerical workers. There were stacks of filing cabinets, overflowing files and masses of paperwork. Running along the length of one wall was a whiteboard covered in dates and names scribbled with felt-tip pen by various hands. Besides this was the unnerving display of numerous mortuary and life shots of the different women.
On one desk was a missing persons file. Anna opened it and found herself staring at a photograph of a stunning-looking young woman, Melissa Stephens -- age seventeen, last seen in early February. There was a list including her eye color, clothes she was last seen wearing and other details.
"Has the victim from this morning been identified?" she asked Mike Lewis. He was sitting on the edge of a desk, talking to one of the female officers.
"Not yet," he replied over his shoulder, then went back to his conversation.
Anna moved along to the board to look at the other photographs. Side by side were six photographs of victims. Beneath them were descriptions, locations and ongoing inquiries. These women's faces were hard and old compared to Melissa Stephens, with tough-eyed stares.
"Are these all ongoing cases?" she asked Lewis.
He did not hear her, as he was talking to Barolli, who had just arrived.
Anna continued reading. Each of the victims had been raped and strangled and their bodies dumped in various local beauty spots: Richmond Park, Epping Forest, Hampstead Heath. All of them had their hands tied behind their backs and they had all been strangled with their own tights.
"The victim this morning and all these victims -- are these ongoing cases? I mean, are they connected?"
Barolli came over to join her. "Hasn't anyone filled you in on why the governor got us out of bed so early this morning?"
"No. I was just called at seven to say I'd be joining Langton's team. Nobody's told me anything about the inquiry."
"You're replacing Danny, aren't you?"
"Mike mentioned he was in hospital."
Barolli indicated the victims' photos. "This investigation has been going on for months; six months to be precise. Five of the cases are years old. Their cases were left on file, until the gov dug them up."
"Six months?" she said, shocked.
"Yeah." He jabbed the board. "This was our most recent victim and by the time she was found, she'd been dead over a year. We started grouping them together a few months back: they've got the same MO, as you can see."
"You mean it's the same killer?"
"We think so, though so far we've come up with fuck-all. But if the stiff found this morning is connected, we might get some leads. Then again, we might not and we won't get the case. The gov is really wanting it, as we'll be bound to get more evidence with it being fresh."
Then the swing doors banged open and all eyes turned toward Langton.
"It's Melissa. The dental records match." Langton moved farther into the room, which fell silent. He looked haggard, his eyes sunken, and his five o'clock shadow was now even darker. "They moved fast for us, but we'll have to wait for any further results. I'm going over to the lab now. Until we get those details, I won't know if I need to set up a strategy meeting with ACPO. Mike, you want to come with me?"
Feeling a bit like a schoolgirl, Anna raised her hand. "Could I come too, sir?"
Langton gave her a slow, studied stare. "You been to a postmortem before?"
"You keel over on me and I'll send you packing, understand?" He pointed at Barolli. "You handle things for me here. Anything they get in, we need to know immediately. Start up a board."
Barolli's black stencil pen was in his hand as he looked at Melissa's photograph. He made a note of the dental records on the board as identification, then he wrote Melissa Stephens in large letters, Victim 7, with a question mark.
Langton sat in the front seat of the car, head leaning on the headrest, his eyes closed. Anna wondered if he was asleep. She leaned back, intent on keeping her mouth shut. Finally, he spoke. "This will be a big media show. She's young and she was beautiful. I've got to convince the commander in charge of Pan London Homicide to award me the case. What we've been working on isn't exactly high profile -- six old tarts, or old drippers as your dad used to call them, don't warrant Crime Night specials or reconstructions -- but if they give it to me, I'll get the team I need and with the Holmes database to help, I'll get a result."
Anna nodded, still a little confused. "Thank you."
Anna and Langton walked across the car park to the hospital. He knew exactly where he was going and walked fast, pushing doors vigorously without looking behind him, expecting her to make it through after him. Finally, they reached the mortuary, where Langton pointed to a door marked "Ladies."
"Gown up in there and then come straight through," he said.
Anna tied a mask around her head, slipped her feet into overshoes and then tied the green ribbons of her protective gown. She entered the morgue, shivering. It was freezing cold.
Though recently modernized, the morgue had retained its Victorian tiles, though the swill area and the steel tables and equipment were up to date. At one table a group of assistants cut away the filthy, torn clothes from the corpse of a junkie found that morning. The floor was white tiled and slippery. A second table was empty, being swilled down with a high-powered water jet. On the third table, or "slab," lay their victim, covered by a green plastic sheet.
While his assistant listed the victim's clothes, the pathologist, Dr. Vernon Henson, spoke quietly to Langton. Anna watched as a black
T-shirt and pink skirt were placed in an evidence bag for the forensic lab.
"No underwear?" Langton said quietly.
"No panties," said Henson. "But there's a bra. You probably want to have a look at the way it was tied."
Langton gestured for Anna to move beside him as Henson was removing the plastic sheet from the body. It was at this moment that a gowned-up DCI Hedges walked in, snapping on rubber gloves. He glared at Langton. "You still breathing down my neck, Jimmy? Or are you just here for the thrill?"
"I'm here, Brian, because if this girl is mine, you'll have to give her up."
Hedges shrugged. "You'll have to prove it first. Right now, this is my case. So, if you don't mind, butt out of my way."
Langton stepped to one side. Hedges moved closer to the table as the two pathologist's assistants turned the body over gently to face down. The hands were held together with a white cotton sports bra. The bra had been wrapped tightly around the wrists, then tied with some considerable force. Henson stepped aside to allow photographs to be taken from every possible angle before attempting to undo the knot. It resisted his efforts.
"I'm going to have to cut it free," he said, almost apologetically.
"Go ahead," Hedges instructed.
Trying to cause as little damage as possible, the pathologist snipped the material from the corpse's wrists. The hands stayed in tight fists. The weals around the wrists were a dark plum red. When the girl was carefully laid face upward again, her arms were drawn out to her sides, but her fists remained clenched.
"We have what I think are her tights; again, they've been pulled exceptionally tight round her throat, cutting into the skin, so I doubt I'll be able to undo them by hand."
More photographs were taken of the way the tights had been knotted. Langton and Hedges virtually nudged against each other to get a clearer view.
The tights were pulled so taut that it was almost impossible to remove them. Eventually Henson clipped the knot away from her neck. The swelling had made the girl's neck almost twice its normal size. The marks around it were deep, breaking through the skin; the tights had been pulled so roughly around her throat that the bruises were black, vermilion red and a deep purple shade. It was hard to recognize the girl on the slab as the same one in the photograph.
"We've sent a lot of the larvae from her eyes and mouth over to the lab; they will give us an indication of how long her body has been in the woods. The insect infestation is more like we would experience in summer, due to the extraordinary weather conditions. I've got roses blooming in my garden and a few days ago, they were snowbound." Henson had a low, deep voice. His tone seemed more conversational than deferential to the work at hand.
"Can you clean her up? Just so her family doesn't see her like this," Hedges suggested.
Langton's eyes widened. Henson, offended by the suggestion that, as chief pathologist, he would allow any relative to see their loved one's corpse without "cleaning it up," changed the subject quickly. "Stand back, please. Once I cut her up, the swelling will be released. We'll be drawing her eyelids down, so the relatives won't see her empty eye sockets. You'll see the little buggers have invaded her gums and the tip of her tongue is missing; could have been bitten by a fox."
He turned to Langton and took a spatula to indicate the chewed tongue. "Unless she bit it off herself. If she did we'll find it in her stomach."
"Took quite a blow here to her right temple, just above the ear."
The camera continued to flash, taking the close-ups as required: face, neck, eyes, mouth and nose.
Henson waited till it was done, then drew back the long blonde hair to reveal a dark circular bruise congealed with dry blood.
"I'd say it was a blunt, round-edged object, size of a ten-pence piece. Once again, we have maggot infestation around the perimeter and there are eggs, so they'll give us more to go on as to the time she's been dead." Henson pulled at his mask.
Langton nodded. "Off the cuff, how long would you say?"
"Bloody hard to tell. Decomposition is not that bad, but if she was left during the past month, well, we've had freezing weather, snow and ice, et cetera, et cetera. She has very dark areas over the entire underside of her body, which indicate she's been in this position for a considerable time. Could be a few months, or a few weeks, definitely not days."
Henson began to pry open her fingers.
"Nails are in good condition. Looks like I won't get much from underneath, but we'll check, obviously."
Henson stood back to observe the length of the body in more detail from the pink-painted toenails to the top of the head.
"There are no scratches, or other signs she tried to fight back. Hopefully, the crack on her temple rendered her unconscious. I'd say by looking there was vaginal and anal penetration."
Henson indicated the girl's vagina, his fingers brushing her skin softly. "You see these bruises? That indicates it was pretty brutal. We'll take swabs, obviously, but the anus is split on two sides. Basically that's it until we cut her open and find out more, so let's get started, shall we? She's been weighed: just seven stone ten, little thing. The X-rays will be coming back to us shortly. I didn't find anything broken, but we will get them to you anyway. There's a small birthmark on her right shoulder, but apart from that, she is blemishless. A very pretty creature at one time."
Langton nodded. He had not glanced in Anna's direction once and she was thankful, as she knew her face above the white mask was about the same color. But so was DCI Hedges's face and she was surprised when he turned to Henson.
"Keep me updated, I want to see if forensics gets anything from her clothes."
Hedges walked out and Anna heard Langton give a soft, derisive laugh. Henson caught it and his eyes crinkled above his mask.
"She's already been washed down, so we'll get started. I just need the stabilizing block under her head."
Henson picked up the scalpel. Leaning in closely to make the Y-incision, he cut shoulder to shoulder, meeting at the sternum and then slicing down to the abdomen and into the pelvis. When the internal organs were exposed, the stench of rotting flower stalks was overpowering. As the hiss of body fluids and gases permeated the room, Anna took fast intakes of breath, fighting to stay upright. Her head felt fuzzy. No wonder Hedges had made his exit quickly.
Next, Henson cut through the ribs and collarbone before lifting the rib cage up and away from the girl's internal organs. Henson removed the organs individually to weigh them. After he had taken samples of fluids in the organs, he opened the stomach and intestines to begin an examination of the contents.
Despite her fuzzy head, Anna observed that Henson's assistants worked as a tight unit. He never had to give an order and while they were doing the weighing and blood tests, he could concentrate on the corpse's head.
As Henson probed Melissa's eyes, Anna's view was obliterated. Without looking back, Henson addressed the room. "Well, she'd had severe hemorrhaging, which is usual for strangulation, and we still have a veritable feeding frenzy in her eye sockets. Nasty little sods."
Anna focused her mind on trying to assimilate what he was saying, rather than looking down at the sliced-open body. Though the stomach contents had almost brought her to her knees, somehow she was still standing. Henson began the incision to lift the scalp. He sliced from behind the head, then peeled the scalp forward over the face to expose the skull. At that point an assistant handed him a high-powered, high-speed, oscillating saw to open the skull. Next he was handed a chisel to pry off the skullcap.
So far Anna had managed to stay upright. It had seemingly become easier; the stench had mingled with antiseptic, which helped. The sound of the chisel finished her off. Unable to control her retching, she only just made it to the ladies' toilet in time. Banging past the cubicle door, she gasped for breath. She knelt over the toilet bowl and heaved. After several minutes, when she attempted to stand, her whole body was still shaking.
At the basin she ran cold water and kept splashing and dabbing her face with a paper towel, but every time she stood straight, she felt her stomach heave. The stench seemed to cling to her clothes, her hair and her hands, even though she washed and rewashed them using soap from the dispenser.
Still feeling dizzy, Anna leaned against the corridor wall and waited.
Langton eventually strode out of the morgue. "Dead approximately four weeks," he muttered to Anna, and pulled off his green tunic. "She'd been lying there all that time." His mask hung by its thread. "It's bloody unbelievable."
Not waiting for her response, he continued toward the gents and disappeared inside. A moment later he emerged and gestured for her to follow him along the corridor.
"You ever done synchronized swimming?" he asked, still zipping up his trousers.
Anna was unsure if she had heard him correctly. "Sorry?"
"They have these nose clips so they can stay underwater. They're very useful. You clip one on and it forces you to breathe in and out with your mouth.
"You can also suck Mint Imperials." Langton turned round toward Anna once they were in the patrol car. "Those little round mints." He rested his arm along the back of the seat. "You get used to it; when you know what to expect, it's easier." He returned his gaze to the front again.
"Thank you," she murmured, embarrassed. She was at a loss for what to say next, or whether there were questions she should have been asking.
The smell of the soap dispenser's liquid, an odor like pinewood forests, was making her feel carsick. As if she didn't have enough to contend with already. She closed her eyes, praying that she wouldn't start retching again.
"Sorry," Langton murmured as she opened a window. She noticed he had a lit cigarette in his hand. "Can't smoke in the station. Well, not supposed to, anyway. Can't smoke in most places now, so..." He shrugged, then, inhaling deeply, leaned back on the headrest. A few moments later, somewhat out of the blue, he asked her, "Your mother still alive?"
"No, she died two years before my father."
"Right. I remember now. What was her name?"
"Isabelle," she said, bemused.
"Isabelle? Yes. She was very beautiful, I remember."
She watched him flick the cigarette butt out of the window. The cool air from the open window was making her feel less nauseous. To her surprise, she found herself saying, "I take after my father."
He chuckled. "I guess you do."
Her father had been a heavy-set man: square-shouldered, with thick red curls. Her mother on the other hand had had olive skin and deep-black hair. She had been a stunning woman, tall and slender and very artistic; a designer. Anna had her dad's hair, which sprouted all over rather than growing in a specific direction. She wore hers cropped short. For a redhead, she was unusually dark-skinned, unlike her pale freckly dad, and had inherited her mother's dark eyes. She was short, also rather square, but she carried no fat; it was all muscle.
Anna had ridden horses since she was a toddler. She had won so many rosettes that she could cover herself from top to toe in red and blue ribbons. Once her dad had pinned them all over her and taken a photograph; she had only been eleven years old.
Anna's thoughts turned toward Melissa. What had her young life been like, before she was reduced to her present state? She thought of herself at that age, then younger. She realized Langton was talking to her and she leaned forward. "Sorry, sir, I missed that."
"The reason I force myself to go through the postmortem, to see that little soul cut to shreds, disemboweled, dehumanized, is because, somehow, it makes it easier. It steadies the anger. That prick Hedges couldn't take it, of course. Wimp!"
He closed his eyes; conversation seemed at an end for now.
Anna followed Langton to the incident room, where he threw off his coat, took a marker and headed toward the board. He began listing the information he'd received from Henson. Without turning, he called out, "Jean, can you get me a chicken and bacon sandwich, no tomatoes, and a coffee."
Jean, a thin-faced constable in uniform, was working at one of the computers. She stood up as soon as he called her name: "You want a Kit-Kat, or anything else?" She didn't look as if she suffered fools gladly.
"No, thank you. Bacon and chicken sandwich, no tomatoes."
Mike Lewis walked in as Langton continued to mark the board: "Mike, it looks like our tip-off was right."
"OK! We got a time of death?"
"Not yet, but she's been dead four weeks at least. Strangled and sexually abused. Get onto the super, tell him we have a critical incident. We'll need a Gold Group set up; we're in danger of losing the public's confidence. Contact the murder review team, let them know that we are now handling the inquiry. Is Barolli back yet?"
"Nope, but he shouldn't be long. He went over to forensics."
"Gather the team together, we'll have an update at..." Langton glanced at his watch, then checked on the wall clock. "It's already three o'clock. Fuck. Say half four?"
Everyone in the incident room, apart from Anna herself, was getting ready for the meeting. None of her training had prepared her to join an up-and-running team like this one.
"Excuse me, sir. Is there anything you want me to concentrate on?"
Langton sighed. "Familiarize yourself with the case histories. Find a desk, Travis, and get started."
He pointed to the notice boards, then waved his hand toward a section of filing cabinets that lined one wall.
She tried her best to look as if she knew what she was doing, but she was at a loss as to where to start and she could not figure out the filing system. Many of the cabinets had stacks of loose files balanced on top of them.
A uniformed PC passed, carrying a tray of teacups.
"Excuse me, which is the first case file?"
"One nearest the wall," answered the PC, without looking back.
When Anna opened the top drawer, she found it fully stacked with rows of files. Removing an armful, she turned to survey the room. The same PC passed by with the empty tray.
"Erm...is there a desk I could use?"
The desk in the rear of the room was cluttered with cartons of takeaway food. The wastepaper bin beside it was overflowing with empty hamburger cartons and cold chips. Anna tidied a space for herself.
Suddenly there was a bellow. Langton was holding up his sandwich, waving it around.
"I said it not once but twice: no fucking tomatoes, Jean!"
"I asked them for no tomatoes." Jean was red-faced.
"Well, it's full of them! You know I hate tomatoes!"
"Would you like me to take them out?" Jean retorted, but Langton was already chucking them into the bin.
Anna lowered her head; she hadn't eaten since breakfast. No one here had offered her so much as a cup of tea or coffee. Her presence seemed to go unnoticed. She located her briefcase and had just taken out new pencils and a notebook when she realized it was almost four o'clock.
Teresa Booth was forty-four when her body was found on waste-ground near the Kingston bypass. She had been a prostitute, though not from that area. Teresa worked the red-light district of Leeds for many years.
With the busy road so close, not many pedestrians used the area and the victim had been found by a boy whose scooter had broken down. Wheeling it off the busy road onto the narrow pavement, he had glimpsed a foot through the undergrowth. After scrambling up the ridge, the boy found the body. The corpse's hands had been tied behind her back with a bra; she had been strangled with a pair of black tights. The body had remained undetected behind bushes for three to four weeks. It had taken longer -- four months -- to identify her. This discovery was in 1992.
The mortuary photographs were attached, with pictures of the murder site. Teresa's face in death had a terrible, haunting ugliness. Her skin was pockmarked and she had a deep scar on one cheek. Her bleached blonde hair had black roots showing. The initials "TB" on her arm appeared to have been scratched or cut and she had a faded pink heart tattooed on her right thigh. She had severe bruises to her genital area.
"TB" had been traced to Terence Booth, her first husband. Teresa had subsequently been married three times. Though she had three children, none of them appeared to be by any of her husbands. Two were sent to foster care at a very early age, while the youngest, a boy, had been living with her mother.
Teresa looked a lot older than her forty-four years. Hers was a sad, murky history. She was an alcoholic who had spent time in prison for persistent prostitution offenses and for "kiting," which meant she was caught with using stolen credit cards and passing dud checks. She was identified by her fingerprints and from her photographs.
"Travis!" Anna looked up. Mike Lewis was gesturing at the door for her to get a move on. She had been so engrossed, she hadn't noticed the gradual emptying of the incident room. "Briefing room," Lewis explained before disappearing.
Anna was hurrying after him when Jean called out: "Don't leave the files out, please; return them to the cabinet."
Anna zigzagged back to the desk, where she collected the half-read file and replaced it. When she asked where the briefing room was, Jean said sharply, "Second door on the left, one flight down." As Anna exited rapidly, she could hear Jean moaning to another woman. "I'm sick to death of him having a go at me. It's not my job, anyway, to go schlepping out for his lunch. They're all bloody foreign in there, don't understand a word you say to them; 'no tomatoes' and he gets layers of them!"
Anna flew down the narrow stone steps and along a murky corridor. The hubbub of noise drew her easily to the briefing room. Rows of chairs had been placed in haphazard lines and a desk and two chairs faced them. The large dingy room smelled of stale tobacco, even though there were stained yellow notices demanding "No Smoking."
Anna skirted her way along to a vacant chair at the back, where she sat clutching her notebook. Up front, Lewis and Barolli were joined by eight detectives and six uniformed officers. The two female detectives were a large blonde woman who looked to be of retirement age and a tall thin-faced woman in her mid-thirties with badly capped teeth.
The superintendent who had overall charge of the inquiry, DCS Eric Thompson, entered, closely followed by Langton. Thompson had an athletic look about him: his face fresh, his shoulders upright; he stood as if poised on the balls of his feet. His thinning hair was combed back from a high forehead. Langton by comparison looked tired and crumpled and in need of a shave. Barolli was loosening his tie in a seat nearby.
"Quiet down!" Langton barked. He perched on the edge of a desk and leaned forward to address the room.
"The victim was formally identified today by her father. She is, or was, Melissa Stephens, aged seventeen. We suspect she is a 'possible.' Her boyfriend's statement on the night she went missing is all we have to go on so far, but it is my belief that Melissa strayed into our killer's target area. To date all his victims have been hardened prostitutes, all in their late thirties or early forties. Melissa may be our biggest breakthrough yet. It's imperative we move like the clappers."
Anna made copious notes, but not being privy to any of the previous case files, she had no idea what Langton was talking about most of the time. What she picked up was the following: on the night Melissa disappeared, she had an argument with her boyfriend. This had occurred at a late-night café close to Covent Garden. She was last seen walking in the direction of Soho. The boyfriend assumed she was heading toward Oxford Circus tube station. He finished his drink and headed after her. But Melissa, it seemed, had found a shortcut, perhaps down Greek Street. Inadvertently, she went through the red-light district.
Though Melissa's boyfriend, Mark Rawlins, called her mobile phone incessantly from the tube station, it was useless. The phone had been turned off. Frightened for her, he retraced his footsteps, hoping he'd bump into her. After returning to The Bistro, around 2.30 A.M., he went back to Oxford Circus tube station, then on to Melissa's flat, but she had not arrived home. Neither Mark nor her three flatmates ever saw Melissa again.
The following day, after calling her parents in Guildford and everyone else he could think of, Mark finally contacted the police. Forty-eight hours later, a missing person's file was lodged and circulated, along with photographs and requests for information.
No one came forward, even after a television reconstruction shown four weeks after her disappearance. They had not one eyewitness who could give a clue to her disappearance, with the possible exception of a waiter who had been smoking a cigarette outside a renowned gay club and who saw a blonde girl talking to the driver of a pale-colored, or maybe white, car. At the time, he assumed she was a prostitute, he said. Though he didn't get a good look at her face, he did notice her black T-shirt, which had diamanté studs that sparkled in the neon lights outside the massage parlor opposite.
Langton suggested that their killer, who haunted red-light districts, could have mistaken Melissa for a call girl: outside a strip joint very late at night, a blonde in a sexy outfit, short skirt and strappy sandals -- could their killer have been the one to pick her up?
Though the briefing continued for another hour, the super finally insisted they did not yet have enough information for him to take to the commander and request this murder inquiry be handed over to Langton's team. Hearing this, Langton jumped to his feet, holding the photos of the six dead women like a pack of cards.
"Their hands tied with their bra, strangled with their own tights. If forensic can verify that the knots around the neck and wrists were tied in a similar way, then Melissa Stephens becomes the latest victim of a serial killing. If we get this case then we've some hope of catching the bastard, but we've got to move! Any time lost in farting around begging for the inquiry is a fucking waste of time!"
With that, the team broke up; they would simply have to wait until the following morning.
After the team had left the briefing room, Langton sat moodily in a hard-backed chair. He looked up when he heard Anna crossing the floor toward him. He held in his hand the photos of the dead women.
"They were all alive, once. Albeit in one wretched condition or another, but nevertheless they were alive, with families, husbands, sometimes kids. Now they're dead and whether or not they were junkies, whores, drunks, or just fucked-up human beings, they have a right to have us hunt down who killed them with as much press as Melissa Stephens."
He sighed, pinching his nose. " 'Course, on the other hand, I could be wrong. We won't know one hundred percent until we get the forensic evidence back."
"But you really do think it's the same man." Anna felt more at ease with him now.
"Thinking isn't good enough, Travis. It's evidence that counts. If they tell me that Melissa's bra or the tights that throttled the life out of her weren't tied in the same way as these poor bitches, then no, it's not the same killer."
"Was there any DNA?"
Now he turned that laser stare on her. "Read the case files; don't waste my time."
"Would it be possible to take a couple home to read? Or I can stay late and do it here, so I'm up to speed with everyone else?"
"Sign for anything you take out." Langton banged through the doors.
Anna shook her head; these guys certainly liked to make an exit. She collected her notebook and pencils. As she walked toward the open door she gave a backward glance to the still-smoky room. The chairs were now even more jumbled, the cups and saucers used as ashtrays overflowed and screwed-up paper and old newspapers littered the floor.
She closed the door behind her quietly. She felt a strange sense of elation to be part of her father's world.
Copyright © 2001 by Lynda La Plante
Excerpted from Above Suspicion by Lynda La Plante Copyright © 2005 by Lynda La Plante. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.