Death's Doorby Jim Kelly
An idyllic island holds a dark secret . . . - On a hot August day in 1994, 76 holidaymakers travel to an island off the North Norfolk coast. Only 75 return alive – a young man is murdered, the case left unsolved. Twenty years later, using state-of-the-art forensics, the DNA results of a bloodsoaked towel prompts DI Peter Shaw to summon all 75 original suspects to a mass screening, but one of them, the beautiful Marianne Osbourne, is found dead in her bed. Is there a link to the 1994 murder? DI Shaw and DS Valentine become immersed in the dark secrets of an isolated community.
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By Jim Kelly
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Jim Kelly
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The dead woman's face was white, as bloodless as china. Only the veins, blue beneath the skin, provided any colour, a perfect match for the duvet under which she lay. She looked blankly out of the ground floor window of the bungalow's main bedroom, and DI Peter Shaw thought that was the saddest detail: that she died contemplating a field of sunflowers, rather than with her eyes turned to the wall. It implied, it seemed, so much: that she'd been able to make a decision, even in the last few seconds of her life, to take with her that gold and black shimmering image of mid-afternoon summer heat. She wouldn't have suffered. That's what they'd tell the relatives, at least today, while they waited for the coroner to finish the tests on the body, tests on the pills beside the bed, tests on the glass of water. She wouldn't have suffered. It was a form of words, a term of art which created a comforting image: the human body tucked up, snug, warm and at peace, which is why they wouldn't let the relatives see the body, at least not yet. The reality of death was always shockingly unambiguous: the victim's hand was not like any living hand, the fingers flexed up like the legs on a dead spider. And the bone structure of the woman's face was just that, bone structure, as if the skull was already beginning to emerge from the skin. But the deadest thing of all was her left eye, the one he could clearly see, turned to the window, catching the light like a cold mirror.
Shaw stood on the threshold of the room, reluctant to break the spell which seemed to hold everything still, like a scene inside a glass paperweight. His DS, George Valentine, had got him on the mobile at home. He had a half-day off, and he'd been out on the stoop facing the sea, treating the wood for the coming winter sea-spray. A fatality, said Valentine: No. 5, The Circle, Creake, five miles inland from Wells-next-the-Sea. It was a reluctant call – that was plain. Valentine had made the situation perfectly clear. Forensics at the scene had requested CID attend. Valentine had driven out from Lynn in his battered Mazda, delighted to be separated from a month's worth of case reports and the temptations of the public bar of the Artichoke. He'd found a lonely circle of post-war bungalows, a woman dead in bed, evidence at the scene pointing to the clear conclusion that she'd taken her own life, although there was no note.
But the head of CSI – Tom Hadden – was not satisfied. Hadden was ex-Home Office, studious, punctilious and, in Valentine's experience, a pain the arse. Could DI Shaw attend? Valentine didn't like being second-guessed. He didn't like being outranked. His call to Shaw had been perfunctory, and he was currently sat outside the dead woman's house in the Mazda, smoking his way through a packet of Silk Cut.
Shaw had met Hadden at the front gate. The CSI team had finished in the bedroom so Shaw was welcome to go in, but nowhere else for now – especially not the bathroom. Shaw had asked Hadden to keep his particular reservations about this lonely death to himself, because he wanted to see the deathbed with fresh, objective eyes.
He took his first step over the threshold. Young, fit, an athlete to anyone who saw him running on the morning sands, Shaw was able to control his body precisely. So he took the next step over the scene-of-crime tape slowly, lowering his left foot by the inch on to the bedroom carpet. The rest of his body followed, smoothly transferring his weight, like a martial arts enthusiast practising in the park.
Eventually he stood, his feet set wide to match his shoulders, listening. He could hear a clock ticking by the bed and had to suppress the illusion that it had only begun to work – to measure the time he was in – in recognition of that first moonwalk step. Despite the fact that he could see the victim's body, at least the head and naked shoulders above the edge of the duvet, the room was, nevertheless, entirely inanimate, because she had become simply another object in it. The shadow on the pillow, cast by the woman's head, was as solid, as permanent and as passive as the shadow which stretched from the bed to the wall, encompassing a pair of stylish black slippers and a magazine: Hello!, open at a picture of a celebrity wedding, so that the perfect dentistry of the bride smiled up at the dead spider hand, thrown over the edge of the bed.
Shaw felt the heat even here, the heat of the dead hour between two and three. All the windows were shut; only the front door stood open, where the community police constable stood guard. The air in the room was still, a cube of stale, spent, air which seemed to offer its own resistance to movement as Shaw approached the bed. He'd been offered a face mask by CSI but he'd turned it down, so that when he breathed – even through his mouth – he caught the sweet smell that didn't come from the bowl of fruit on the table in the hall.
He was good at registering scents and aromas, getting better with each passing year, as if the world was growing more pungent with the passage of time. It was one of the unexpected compensations of the loss of sight in his left eye just four years earlier in an accident. His other senses seemed to be rallying round. So the sweet smell was of pine sap, perhaps – furniture polish, or the woods behind the house? But there was something else, something aromatic and earthy that eluded classification. Later, he'd chide himself for not dwelling on that one detail.
Shaw took another step forward, his heartbeat picking up, as it always did in the presence of death. He tried to separate this physical reaction from his ability to think, because this was the moment when he should be the cool observer. His father, Chief Detective Inspector Jack Shaw, had always told him that any decent copper should carry a perfect picture in his head of the scene of crime: digital quality, flat screen, Dolby sound, and that throughout the investigation it should be at hand, as retrievable as a family face on a snapshot in the wallet. And that was easier than Shaw had thought it would be because of the excitement he always felt – there was no other word for the electricity in his body, in the room. That was the greatest irony: that as this woman had died, becoming an object, she'd given to everything in the room a kind of vitality, as if each thing acquired a brief, fleeting brightness and clarity.
Everything was important. Everything was relevant. The room rang with tension, like a freshly struck bell. Objects: a chair loaded with clothes, a dress – antique print, a leather belt a hand-span wide and a pair of espadrilles. A dressing table in MDF with a mirror which reflected the only picture in the room: a garish image of the quayside at Wells-next-the-Sea in oils. On the dressing table a computer – an old iMac, a printer on the floor. Two identical bedside tables – on one a glass of water. And a packet of pills – Nurofen, the top open so that he could see the shucked plastic from which the pills had been pressed. But if this was a simple case of suicide then he wouldn't be here. Tom Hadden was possibly one of the sharpest CSI experts in the country. He'd seen something in this room. If this was just another statistic – a lonely death in a rural bungalow – then the SOC light and reflective umbrella wouldn't be stood in the corner. There wouldn't be fingerprint powder on the bedside table and the glass. So there must be doubt. Something was wrong; something in this room.
Shaw walked to the bedside table closest to the window – cheap, utility furniture, like the rest of the house. Three books: a Jilly Cooper novel, a biography of Kate Moss and one of those romances which always have the couple on the front, a Gothic house behind. The duvet looked right. It didn't always look right. They'd once found a body dumped in a bed, then a corner of the cover tucked in, as if you could do that from inside a bed. Or the hair. It was disconcerting, but oddly comforting, that most killers couldn't resist rearranging their victims; just a few hairs, perhaps, drawn away from the face, or splayed on the pillow. But this woman's hair was twisted slightly, back around her neck and over one shoulder, as if she'd got into bed to face the wall, then turned over before she died to look out of the window, to see the wave-like motion of the breeze over that field of sunflowers.
He stood back, looking at the whole bed, which gave him two impressions: first, that the duvet had indeed been tugged upwards, and that the hand had left a scrunched mark in the material, suggesting that it had been done with some force. And second, from this angle, he could see the woman's left foot, and could see that beneath it was a tear in the sheet, through which was thrust the heel. So that was an image that didn't fit: one hand gripping the duvet, the leg kicking out. If she'd taken sleeping pills, painkillers, she'd have slipped off into a coma then died in her sleep. This looked like a more violent reaction to whatever she'd swallowed. Or, just a violent reaction.
He walked around the bed to the head and knelt down. Up close he thought something else was wrong – the glass of water? It was nearly empty and the sides were patterned with concentric rings where each summer's day had evaporated a millimetre of liquid, as if it always sat there, for emergencies, but never got refilled. And the level of water was only a hair's breadth below the last ring. So she hadn't taken the pills then gulped the water. And now that he could see inside the packet of pills he could see that some were left, perhaps most of them. So that wasn't right either.
He looked at her face, edging his own to within six inches of the victim's. There wasn't a personal space to intrude upon any more, because with death that sense of a projected barrier is destroyed, thought Shaw, or dwindles, with each moment that passes after life has gone. So getting close, really close, didn't make his skin creep. And besides, this was his passion, his area of expertise: the human face. He was one of only three detectives in the country qualified as a forensic artist: he could build a human face in 2D on paper, from the bones outwards, laying the muscles out, the tendons, then the skin. He could take this face, any face, and run it backwards a lifetime to show you what it had been like; or forwards twenty years, to what it would become. He'd been taught to read a face like the opening paragraph of a book.
What did this one tell him? Age: mid or early thirties, the features combining two polar opposites in showing the first signs of wrinkles and an almost childlike openness, the lack of make-up suggesting innocence. The teeth were visible, the lips curled back in an ugly jagged line. The colour of the eyes was fading but had, perhaps, been a vivid green. Shaw had studied forensic art as part of a general degree in fine art so he often tried to classify faces, dead or alive, by painter. And if he had to put this woman's face on canvas he would have hung that canvas in the room reserved for the Pre-Raphaelites: Millais, perhaps, with the fine jawline, the almost unnaturally symmetrical features, but above all a look of almost innate tragedy, as if she'd been caught in some legend from which there was no escape. That was the one thing that irritated him about the Pre-Raphaelites: they always tried to tell you a story, to weigh down the vision with a narrative. He didn't know what story this woman would have told if she'd lived, but he knew she had one.
Shaw inched his head back to the point where he could see her whole face. Beautiful in life, there was no doubt. But beauty, he thought, is the composite of the features held together by the life within, and that had gone now: death reduced every face to a photofit.
What was odd, he thought, was that this woman's sexual aura – the fact that she was a woman – had outlived her life. How much more striking had that sexuality been just a few hours earlier? Was she naked beneath the duvet? There was nothing to stop him pulling back the edge of the duvet, if he wanted to pull back the edge. He didn't need to – the pathologist would examine the body in situ; nor did he want to – but he understood, for a brief moment, why someone would: a strange emotion, not longing or lust, but a kind of thrilling curiosity. The stronger urge, than pulling back the edge, was to pull it up and over the face. But that wasn't his job either. It wasn't even his job to close the eyes, although it would have been a decent thing to do.
He knelt on one knee and forced himself to look into her eyes. He thought that this woman hadn't died in sadness, or desperation, or release. The only human emotion Shaw could confidently attach to her was fear. The sclera, the whites of the eye, were visible, completely circling the iris. So fear, perhaps, of death, but her eyes turned for that lingering last look at life.
He stood and noticed for the first time a single pine needle on the floor, and looking back towards the door saw two others, together. A lungful of air confirmed his first analysis: pine, natural pine. Through the window he could see the edge of the woods beyond the sunflowers, a dark curtain of shadow offering a cool haven from the heat of the day.
Outside he heard a noise, a dull percussion, and he thought it must be a shotgun. In the garden Tom Hadden was taking pictures of the house. He saw Shaw standing beyond his own reflection in the bedroom window and walked towards him. The white SOC suit Hadden was wearing emphasized his colouring: red hair fading to strawberry blond with age, freckles and almost colourless eyes – an insipid green.
They met at the window, one inside, one outside. On the window ledge was a series of miniature pottery houses. Up close Shaw could see the lesion on Hadden's forehead. The CSI man had already had one small cancer removed, but the blemish had returned. And it was because he was focusing on the wound that he didn't see what was between them on the glass.
Hadden's eyes narrowed. Shaw saw it now, and the shock of recognition made his heart freeze for just one beat. This was the dangerous moment, and he recognized it as such: the moment when the thrill of other people's deaths began to outshine the everyday joys of being alive.
It was a kiss on the windowpane: quite clear, the patterned upper lip meeting the lower in a perfect bow. The rest of the window was spotless – inside and out, freshly cleaned. 'It's on the outside,' said Hadden, and Shaw heard his voice as if from far away.CHAPTER 2
DS George Valentine sat on a bench in the middle of the green at the centre of The Circle. The dead woman's house was silent in the heat. It was difficult to avoid the word lifeless. The village of Creake, two hundred yards distant, was a cluster of thatch, Norfolk stone and woodwork painted that precise shade of blue beloved of the Chelsea-on-Sea weekend-cottage set. A round Norfolk church tower was just visible between the acorn-brown foliage of a great oak tree. Somewhere in the far distance he could hear tennis balls being hit in rhythmic succession.
There was nothing Chelsea-on-Sea about The Circle. West Ham-on-Sea, perhaps. A deflated football lay on the parched, kicked earth of the 'green', while a union flag hung from the open bedroom of No. 2. A few cars were parked in the cul-de-sac – but none of them were new except the two CSI vehicles, and none of them were 4x4s. The green, kicked dry and grassless, was dotted with unwanted possessions: a bicycle without a saddle, a water pistol, and a dog's plastic bone.
Valentine yawned, the effort making his jaw crack. He leant back and his neck clicked in sympathy. The green, he'd noticed, wasn't just empty ground. A two-storey medieval ruin stood to one side: roofless, with narrow arrow-slit windows, a massive chimney stack, and some elegant herringbone stonework over an arched doorway. A small area outside the walls was enclosed by a rusted set of railings which ended with a 'kissing-gate' just opposite the Norman doorway. Valentine had seen an English Heritage information board, but not what it said. The most remarkable feature of the ruin was the cedar tree which had grown up within it, thirty-five foot high, spreading its dark green-layered branches out over the curtain walls. The Circle and the modern access road had clearly been constructed to avoid encroaching on this ancient monument. It was an odd place, but it didn't excite the DS's curiosity, because he wasn't a curious man.
He checked his watch, a Rolex he'd bought at Lynn's Saturday market for a fiver. The gold lettering of the word Rolex had faded with suspicious speed. He'd watched Shaw walk into the dead woman's house twenty-one minutes ago. Fed up with waiting in the Mazda, he'd dragged himself to the bench. Imagination wasn't Valentine's strong point but he was pretty much astonished his DI could spend that long deciding he was looking at a case of suicide.
Excerpted from Death's Door by Jim Kelly. Copyright © 2012 Jim Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Meet the Author
A previous Dagger in the Library winner, Jim Kelly is the author of four Peter Shaw crime novels and six previous novels in the Philip Dryden series. He lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire.
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