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The Mermaids Singing
By Val McDermid
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Val McDermid
All rights reserved.
Gentlemen, I have had the honour to be appointed by your committee to the trying task of reading the Williams' Lecture on Murder, considered as one of the Fine Arts; a task which might be easy enough three or four centuries ago, when the art was little understood, and few great models had been exhibited; but in this age, when masterpieces of excellence have been executed by professional men, it must be evident, that in the style of criticism applied to them, the public will look for something of a corresponding improvement.
Tony Hill tucked his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. There was a fine web of cracks around the elaborate plaster rose which surrounded the light fitting, but he was oblivious to it. The faint light of dawn tinged with the orange of sodium streetlamps filtered in through a triangular gap at the top of his curtains, but he had no interest in that either. Subconsciously, he registered the central-heating boiler kicking in, readying itself to take the edge off the damp winter chill that seeped in round door and window frames. His nose was cold, his eyes gritty. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a straight night's sleep. His concerns about what he had to get through that day was part of the reason for the night's interrupted dreams, but there was more than that. Much more.
As if today wasn't more than enough to worry about. He knew what was expected of him, but delivering it was another story. Other people managed these things with nothing more than a short-lived flutter in the stomach, but not Tony. It required all his resources to maintain the façade he'd need to get through the day. In circumstances like these, he understood how much it took out of method actors to produce the fraught, driven performances that captivated their audiences. By tonight, he'd be good for nothing except another vain attempt at eight hours' sleep.
He shifted in bed, pulling one hand out and running it through his short dark hair. He scratched the stubble on his chin and sighed. He knew what he wanted to do today, but equally, he was well aware it would be professional suicide if he did. It didn't matter that he knew there was a serial killer loose in Bradfield. He couldn't afford to be the one to say it first. His stomach clenched on emptiness and he winced. With a sigh, he pushed the duvet back and got out of bed, shaking his legs to unfurl the concertina folds of his baggy pyjamas.
Tony trudged off to the bathroom and snapped on the light. As he emptied his bladder, he reached out with his free hand and switched on the radio. Bradfield Sound's traffic announcer was revealing the morning's projected bottlenecks with a cheerfulness that no motorist could have equalled without large doses of Prozac. Thankful that he wouldn't be driving that morning, Tony turned to the sink.
He gazed into his deep-set blue eyes, still bleary with sleep. Whoever said the eyes were mirrors of the soul was a true bullshit merchant, he thought ironically. Probably just as well, or he wouldn't have an intact mirror in the house. He undid the top button of his pyjama jacket and opened the bathroom cabinet, reaching out for the shaving foam. The tremor he spotted in his hand stopped him short. Angrily, he slid the door shut with a loud crack and reached up for his electric razor. He hated the shave it produced, never leaving him with the fresh, clean feeling that came from a wet shave. But better to feel vaguely scruffy than to turn up looking like a walking illustration of the death of a thousand cuts.
The other disadvantage of the electric razor was that he didn't have to concentrate so hard on what he was doing, leaving his mind free to range over the day ahead. Sometimes it was tempting to imagine that everybody was like him, getting up each morning and selecting a persona for the day. But he had learned over years of exploring other people's minds that it wasn't so. For most people, the available selection was severely limited. Some people would doubtless be grateful for the choices that knowledge, skill and necessity had brought Tony. He wasn't one of them.
As he switched off the razor, he heard the frantic chords that preceded every news summary on Bradfield Sound. With a sense of foreboding, he turned to face the radio, tense and alert as a middle-distance runner waiting for the starting pistol. At the end of the five-minute bulletin, he sighed with relief and pushed open the shower curtain. He'd expected a revelation that would have been impossible for him to ignore. But so far, the body count was still three.
On the other side of the city, John Brandon, Bradfield Metropolitan Police's Assistant Chief Constable (Crime) stooped over the washbasin and stared glumly into the bathroom mirror. Not even the shaving soap covering his face like a Santa Claus beard could give him an air of benevolence. If he hadn't chosen the police, he'd have been an ideal candidate for a career as a funeral director. He was two inches over six feet, slim to the point of skinny, with deep-set dark eyes and prematurely steel-grey hair. Even when he smiled, his long face managed to sustain an air of melancholy. Today, he thought, he looked like a bloodhound with a head cold. At least there was good reason for his misery. He was about to pursue a course of action that would be as popular with his Chief Constable as a priest in an Orange Lodge.
Brandon sighed deeply, spattering the mirror with foam. Derek Armthwaite, his Chief, had the burning blue eyes of a visionary, but there was nothing revolutionary in what they saw. He was a man who thought the Old Testament a more appropriate handbook for police officers than the Police And Criminal Evidence Act. He believed most modern police methods were not only ineffective but also heretical. In Derek Armthwaite's frequently aired opinion, bringing back the birch and the cat-o'-nine-tails would be far more effective in reducing crime figures than any number of social workers, sociologists and psychologists. If he'd had any idea of what Brandon had planned for that morning, he'd have had him transferred to Traffic, the present-day equivalent of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.
Before his depression could overwhelm his resolve, Brandon was startled by a banging on the bathroom door. "Dad?" his elder daughter shouted. "You going to be much longer?"
Brandon snatched up his razor, dunked it in the basin and scraped it down one cheek before replying. "Five minutes, Karen," he called. "Sorry, love." In a house with three teenagers and only one bathroom, there was seldom much opportunity for brooding.
Carol Jordan dumped her half-drunk coffee on the side of the washbasin and stumbled into the shower, nearly tripping headlong over the black cat that wound himself round her ankles. "In a minute, Nelson," she muttered as she closed the door on his interrogative miaow. "And don't waken Michael."
Carol had imagined that promotion to detective inspector and the concomitant departure from the shift rota would have granted her the regular eight hours' sleep a night that had been her constant craving since the first week she joined the force. Just her luck that the promotion had coincided with what her team were privately calling the Queer Killings. However much Superintendent Tom Cross might bluster to the press and in the squad room that there were no forensic connections between the killings, and nothing to suggest the presence of a serial killer in Bradfield, the murder teams thought differently.
As the hot water cascaded over Carol, turning her blonde hair mouse, she thought, not for the first time, that Cross's attitude, like that of the Chief Constable, served his prejudices rather than the community. The longer he denied that there was a serial killer attacking men whose respectable façade hid a secret gay life, the more gay men would die. If you couldn't get them off the streets any longer by arresting them, let a killer remove them. It didn't much matter whether he did it by murder or by fear.
It was a policy that made a nonsense of all the hours she and her colleagues were putting in on the investigation. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money that these enquiries were costing, particularly since Cross insisted each killing be treated as an entirely separate entity. Every time one of the three teams came up with some detail that seemed to link the killings, Tom Cross dismissed it with five points of dissimilarity. It didn't matter that each time the links were different and the dissimilarities the same tired quintet. Cross was the boss. And the DCI had opted out of the strife completely, taking sick leave with his opportunistic bad back.
Carol rubbed the shampoo to a rich lather and felt herself gradually wake under the warm spray. Well, her corner of the investigation wasn't going to run aground on the rock of Popeye Cross's bigoted prejudice. Even if some of her junior officers were inclined to grasp at the boss's tunnel vision as an excuse for their own uninspired investigations, she wasn't going to stand for anything less than one hundred per cent committed action, and in the right direction. She'd worked her socks off for the best part of nine years, first to get a good degree and then to justify her place on the promotion fast track. She didn't intend her career to hit the buffers just because she'd made the mistake of opting for a force run by Neanderthals.
Her mind made up, Carol stepped out of the shower, shoulders straight, a defiant glint in her green eyes. "Come on, Nelson," she said, shrugging into her dressing gown and scooping up the muscular bundle of black fur. "Let's hit the red meat, boy."
* * *
Tony studied the overhead projection on the screen behind him for a final five seconds. Since the majority of his audience had expressed their lack of commitment to his lecture by pointedly not taking notes, he wanted at least to give their subconscious minds the maximum opportunity to absorb his flow chart of the criminal profile generating process.
He turned back to his audience. "I don't have to tell you what you already know. Profilers don't catch criminals. It's bobbies that do that." He smiled at his audience of senior police officers and Home Office officials, inviting them to share his self-deprecation. A few did, though most remained stony faced, heads on one side.
However he dressed it up, Tony knew he couldn't convince the bulk of the senior police officers that he wasn't some out-of-touch university boffin there to tell them how to do their jobs. Stifling a sigh, he glanced at his notes and continued, aiming for as much eye contact as he could achieve, copying the casual body language of the successful stand-up comics he'd studied working the northern clubs. "But sometimes we profilers see things differently," he said. "And that fresh perspective can make all the difference. Dead men do tell tales, and the ones they tell profilers are not the same as the ones they tell police officers.
"An example. A body is found in bushes ten feet away from the road. A police officer will note that fact. He'll check the ground all around for clues. Are there footprints? Has anything been discarded by the killer? Have any fibres been snagged on the bushes? But for me, that single fact is only the starting point for speculations that, taken in conjunction with all the other information at my disposal, may well lead me to useful conclusions about the killer. I'll ask myself, was the body deliberately placed there? Or was the killer too knackered to carry it further? Was he hiding it or dumping it? Did he want it to be found? How long did he expect or want it to stay hidden? What is the significance of this site for him?" Tony lifted his shoulders and held out his hands in an open, questioning gesture. The audience looked on, unmoved. God, how many tricks of the trade was he going to have to pull out of the hat before he got a response? The prickle of sweat along the back of his neck was becoming a trickle, sliding down between his skin and his shirt collar. It was an uncomfortable sensation that reminded him of who he really was behind the mask he'd assumed for his public appearance.
Tony cleared his throat, focused on what he was projecting rather than what he was feeling, and continued. "Profiling is just another tool that can help investigating officers to narrow the focus of their investigation. Our job is to make sense of the bizarre. We can't give you an offender's name, address and phone number. But what we can do is point you in the direction of the kind of person who has committed a crime with particular characteristics. Sometimes we can indicate the area where he might live, the kind of work we'd expect him to do.
"I know that some of you have questioned the necessity for setting up a National Criminal Profiling Task Force. You're not alone. The civil libertarians are screaming about it too." At last, Tony thought with profound relief. Smiles and nods from the audience. It had taken him forty minutes to get there, but he'd finally cracked their composure. It didn't mean he could relax, but it eased his discomfort. "After all," he went on, "we're not like the Americans. We don't have serial killers lurking round every corner. We still have a society where more than ninety per cent of murders are committed by family members or people known to the victims." He was really taking them with him now. Several pairs of legs and arms uncrossed, neat as a practised drill-hall routine.
"But profiling isn't just about nailing the next Hannibal the Cannibal. It can be used in a wide variety of crimes. We've already had notable success in airport anti-hijacking measures, in catching drug couriers, poison-pen writers, blackmailers, serial rapists and arsonists. And just as importantly, profiling has been used very effectively to advise police officers on interview techniques for dealing with suspects in major crime enquiries. It's not that your officers lack interviewing skills; it's just that our clinical background means we have developed different approaches that can often be more productive than familiar techniques."
Tony took a deep breath and leaned forward, gripping the edge of the lectern. His final paragraph had sounded good in front of the bathroom mirror. He prayed it would hit the right spot rather than stamp on people's corns. "My team and I are now one year into a two-year feasibility study on setting up the National Criminal Profiling Task Force. I've already delivered an interim report to the Home Office, who confirmed to me yesterday that they are committed to forming this task force as soon as my final report is delivered. Ladies and gentlemen, this revolution in crime fighting is going to happen. You've got a year to make sure it happens in a form that you feel comfortable with. My team and I have all got open minds. We're all on the same side. We want to know what you think, because we want it to work. We want violent, serial offenders behind bars, just like you do. I believe you could use our help. I know we can use yours."
Tony took a step backwards and savoured the applause, not because it was particularly enthusiastic, but because it signalled the end of the forty-five minutes he'd been dreading for weeks. Public speaking had always been firmly outside the boundaries of his comfort zone, so much so that he'd turned his back on an academic career after achieving his doctorate because he couldn't face the constant spectre of the lecture theatre. The ability to perform was not a reason in itself for doing so. Somehow, spending his days poking around in the distorted recesses of the minds of the criminally insane was far less threatening.
As the short-lived clapping died away, Tony's Home Office minder bounced to his feet from his front-row chair. While Tony provoked a wary distrust in the police section of his audience, George Rasmussen generated more universal irritation than a flea bite. His eager smile revealed too many teeth and a disturbing resemblance to George Formby that was at odds with the seniority of his Civil Service post, the elegant cut of his grey pinstripe suit and the yammering bray of a public-school accent so exaggerated that Tony was convinced Rasmussen had really been educated in some inner-city comprehensive. Tony half listened as he shuffled his notes together and replaced his acetates in their folder. Grateful for fascinating insight, blah, blah ... coffee and those absolutely delicious biscuits, blah, blah ... opportunity for informal questions, blah, blah ... remind you all submissions to Dr. Hill due by ...
The sound of shuffling feet drowned out the rest of Rasmussen's spiel. When it came to a choice between a civil servant's vote of thanks and a cup of coffee, it was no contest. Not even for the civil servants. Tony took a deep breath. Time to abandon the lecturer. Now he had to be the charming, well-informed colleague, eager to listen, to assimilate and to make his new contacts feel he was really on their side.
Excerpted from The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid. Copyright © 1995 Val McDermid. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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