An art student on-the-make sets up a "suicide" plaque, and within hours Sarah Johnson has plunged to her death from the top of the multi-story carpark, right in front of his prying camera. Sarah turns out to have a history of mental illness, so to DI Susan Holden it looks like a straightforward case of suicide, but when Jake Arnold, the last person Sarah called, turns up dead in the River Isis, Holden's preconceptions are thrown into disorder. Now she and her collegues are plunged into a race against time. Firmly set in the side-streets of Oxford, from Cowley Road to the Kassam football stadium, from riverside pubs to a mental health day-center, Blood on the Cowley Road builds to a startling climax.
About the Author
Peter Tickler has lived and worked in Oxford for nearly 30 years, and before that he was a University student, reading classics at Keble College. A computer programmer by day, he has drawn on his intimate knowledge of the side streets of Oxford, on his experience of mental health care and his passion for Oxford United Football Club in writing this, his first full length work of crime fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Blood on the Cowley Road
By Peter Tickler
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2008 Peter Tickler
All rights reserved.
Edith Brownwood paused at the pedestrian crossing, and looked right. Years of experience, plus one very close shave, dictated this behaviour. But it was not the car drivers that scared her. It was the cyclists. The bike riders of Oxford – she and all the members of her Tuesday morning coffee group were agreed on this – were a lawless and discourteous subspecies. Their core belief seemed to be that the streets belonged to them, and that by definition all the rules of the road were therefore irrelevant to them. Edith's view of the cycling fraternity had been brusquely reinforced three years previously, when a middle-aged man clad in yellow lycra had clipped her as she was stepping out off the pavement and had sent her tumbling onto the tarmac. She had been lucky on that occasion: just a few bruises. But at the age of 81 she was only too aware of her mortality. One fall, one broken hip, and she'd be in hospital, and then a home, and then a coffin. She'd seen it happen to her friend Brenda, and she was damned if was going to happen to her.
There were no cyclists hastening carelessly towards her. A red Mini was approaching, but it was slowing obediently down. She nodded in approval, and advanced cautiously across the road. Once on the opposite pavement, she turned left towards the city centre. She had walked some fifteen paces when she suddenly stopped, and turned her head to the right.
She knew this end of the Cowley Road intimately – so she knew almost without looking that something was different. That something was a blue circle on the wall of the car park, and on that circle there was something that looked like writing. She screwed up her face as she tried to work out exactly what it was she was looking at, but it was no good. Not for the first time, she told herself that she really must go to the optician. Her sight was getting worse. She advanced towards the wall, squinting her eyes, until she was barely a foot from it. The object of her attention was higher than her head, and she stretched her left arm up to touch it. It looked, now she was close up, like one of those blue, round plaques that they put up on the buildings of the famous. There was one of Dorothy Sayers on the wall of Christchurch Cathedral School. Only this didn't feel like one. They are metal, and this most certainly wasn't.
Puzzled, she opened her bag to look for her glasses. Maybe plaques were plastic nowadays. Everything seemed to be plastic nowadays. But what on earth was a plaque doing here? Famous people didn't live in car parks. Unless, it suddenly occurred to her, someone famous had lived here before it was a car park.
She had just got her glasses on when she heard a sound. It came from high above her, and it lasted barely a second, and it sounded like nothing she had ever heard before. Unless maybe it was a seagull in pain.
And then there was another sound, much duller, but much louder because it was much closer. Something had landed at her feet, so close she felt a sudden gasp of wind as it struck the ground. Dead close.
It took a few moments for her eyes to readjust from the plaque to the large object at her feet, and a few more for her brain to assimilate the fact that the crumpled brown object with protruding black things was a body. A woman's body. A woman in a long fawn mackintosh, black high-heeled boots, and shoulder-length brown hair.
Edith Brownwood felt herself wobbling slightly. She tried to tell herself to keep calm, but then she noticed two rivulets of red liquid emerging from under the woman's head, and creeping slowly across the pavement toward her.
And then she fainted.
DS Fox paused at the door in surprise. For several seconds he stared at the sign on the door – 'Detective Inspector S. Holden'. It must have been put there while he was away. He had known about the promotion – she had told him herself the day before he had gone on leave – but nevertheless he still felt surprised. He wasn't sure why. He knocked, and opened the door. DI Susan Holden was on the phone. From the sound of it, it was her mother again. Holden looked up at him, shrugged a smile, and gestured with her free hand for a drink.
'Coffee?' he mouthed. She nodded.
'No!' she said sharply down the phone, as Fox began to retreat from the room. 'I cannot come now. Nor am I responsible for my mother's behaviour. But I will come over as soon as I can. I cannot see what difference half an hour will make.'
There was a babble of noise from the other end of the mobile, but Holden pressed a button and it went quiet. It was at times like this that she envied people who smoked. She leant back in her chair and imagined the relief to be gained by drawing smoke deep into her lungs and then exhaling. Breathe it down in one powerful intake, then slowly let it and all the anxieties of the moment out. In, then slowly out. In, and out.
She had smoked her imaginary cigarette down to the smallest of stubs by the time Fox reappeared, a polystyrene cup in each hand. She beckoned him to the chair.
He was a big man: around six feet four inches tall, broad across the shoulders, and with a square face. When he stood or walked, he did so with a slight stoop, like many a tall man. He had long arms that swung untidily from his shoulders, and his curly hair was a mixture of dark brown and patches of grey.
His surname had been a source of canteen banter from the very first day he took up the post of Detective Sergeant at the Cowley Office of the Thames Valley Police. This was no surprise, for anyone less like a fox was hard to imagine. A bear was the animal that came most obviously to mind for most people. A big cuddly bear. At first, that is. Later, people usually revised their comparison, for when push came to shove, he was more than capable of using his formidable bulk to great effect, and then comparison with a grizzly bear was more appropriate.
Detective Inspector Susan Holden, typically, saw him differently. He was for her a much smaller and more companionable creature – a dog in fact. Or, to be precise, a terrier: rough haired and showing signs of wear and tear maybe, but with a knack for doggedly (DI Holden smiled at her own pun) tracking down a quarry and never letting go once it was in his grasp.
They had worked together for nearly four years, and not once in that time had she had serious cause to regret their partnership. Once, she had had to suggest that his long dark coat might benefit from a clean, and she had long ago trained herself not to worry about the unruly nature of his hair, but for her those were mere bagatelles. What mattered was that, like any good dog, he was trustworthy, faithful and patient.
'Have a good holiday?' she asked once he was settled.
'Only so, so?' she said.
He frowned slightly. 'I stayed with my sister for a few days. In Weymouth. Did some decorating.'
'Decorating! That was kind of you. But you are meant to relax on holiday, you know.' Her tone of voice was gentle, slightly teasing, designed to draw him out, but Fox wasn't prepared to prolong discussion of his leisure time. He slurped noisily from his plastic cup of coffee and returned them to the present. 'What's been happening here? Anything interesting?'
His superior smiled resignedly to herself. The one distinctly un-doglike characteristic of the sergeant was a dourness that could easily and unexpectedly mutate into sulkiness, but that was something she could live with. 'Well, I could give you a blow-by-blow account of Mrs Holden senior's one-woman crusade against the world,' she continued cheerily, 'but seeing as it's Monday morning, and you have just returned from a decorating holiday, I'll spare you that.' She leant forward, elbows on the desk, hands pressed together as if in prayer. 'I've got a death for you to investigate.'
'A suspicious death, you mean,' he said, suddenly interested.
For a moment, Holden could almost see him wagging his tail, head cocked slightly to the side, a terrier begging to be let off his leash. 'Not really,' she said apologetically. 'Self-inflicted probably. A jumper.' She saw the eagerness in his eyes begin to fade, and tried to rekindle it. 'Actually, not so run-of-the-mill. It made the front page of the Mail on Saturday, thanks to the antics of some art student. Anyway, DC Wilson has got the details. He can provide support, but I want you to handle it. We can't afford any slips with the press so interested.' She got to her feet as she finished. 'Keep me informed. I've got to go and apply an emotional poultice to my mother's warden. Otherwise, we'll have another dead body for you to investigate before the day is out.'
'What time did you get to the car park?'
Ed Bicknell frowned, and pulled distractedly at the wisp of beard on his chin. He was a little over six feet, Fox estimated, but probably not more than eleven stones in weight. All skin and bone. The blond hair was obviously dyed, while the facial hair, which he had managed to grow, was tinged (naturally) with ginger. He wore the ubiquitous student uniform of jeans and a T-shirt; in his case the shirt was decorated with the faded but unmistakeable face beloved by chic revolutionaries – Che Guevara. When he spoke, his voice was local Oxford. 'About seven-thirty, or maybe quarter to eight. I overslept. Meant to get there earlier.'
Oversleeping was obviously something Bicknell was good at, Fox decided. When he and Wilson had rung the bell of his flat at 11.00 that morning, there had been some delay before the door had been opened by a befuddled-looking Bicknell dressed only in boxer shorts.
DS Fox had a pad in front of him, and he scribbled a note on it, though he did this more for effect than anything else. It was Detective Constable Wilson's job to take notes, while he put the questions. 'So what did you do then?' he asked.
'I put my plaque up on the wall of the car park. There are some steps that lead up to the first floor of the car park. I went and stood there and pretended to read a paper.'
'Why?' Fox said suddenly.
'Because!' Bicknell snapped. That was the question his father had asked only a month ago when he had gone "home" for the weekend. But, of course, his father, being his father, hadn't even pretended to listen to his son's answer. Instead, he had suddenly got up, poured himself a large whisky, and turned on the 24-hour news for the third time that evening. At least Fox appeared to be interested. He had leant forward, and his eyes were looking straight into Bicknell's face. Bicknell sighed, and then continued in a tone which suggested he was humouring a rather irritating small nephew. 'Because that was the point of the project. To see if people stopped. To see how many just walked past. To observe those that stopped. To photograph them. Unobtrusively. Isn't that what you police do? Watch people, take photos without them knowing, then use it all as evidence against them?'
If Bicknell's response irritated the Detective Sergeant, it wasn't apparent. Fox scribbled a few more notes in his pad, and continued in the same unemotional tone as he had started with. 'And one of the people you photographed was Sarah Johnson?'
'I'll need a copy of it.'
'I took three,' Bicknell said flatly.
'Three?' echoed Fox, his voice rising a semitone.
'The paper only printed one, but she was there quite a time, staring at the plaque.'
Bicknell pulled at his chin again. 'Maybe four or five minutes.'
'Did you talk to her?' Fox asked.
'What do you think? I was up the stairs, trying not to be noticed. Like the proverbial fly on the wall. I was observing people, not chatting to them to see if any of them were feeling fucking suicidal.'
'So, what happened after she moved on?'
'Not much. I took one or two more photos. It went very quiet. Most people just walked past without noticing. That's what happens. Either there's a group, and other people stop to see what is going on, or there's no one and everyone walks past without noticing. I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn't do something ... you know, intervene in some way to generate some interest when ... Christ, she just fell right out of the sky.'
Bicknell fell silent. Outside, a car backfired. Fox flinched momentarily, then asked a question. 'Did she make a sound – before ... when she fell?'
Bicknell considered this, raking back in his memory. 'There was a shout – a couple of seconds before she hit the ground.'
'What sort of shout?'
'Christ, what sort of question is that? A loud cry. Maybe terror, or maybe it was a war cry, giving herself courage to jump. How the hell should I know?'
Again Fox scribbled, but his eyes and attention remained focused on Bicknell's face. 'What did you do then?'
Bicknell gave an exaggerated sigh. 'I rang you lot, didn't I? On my mobile.'
'Then you took some more photos. Of Sarah Johnson, lying there dead on the pavement.'
'It seemed like an opportunity.'
'Did it now?' said Fox. This time his voice was louder, and harsh, and he was half on his feet. 'An opportunity for what? To make some money out of a wretched woman's death? A few sensational photos for the press.'
Bicknell leaned back, his eyes fixed unblinking on Fox's face. He smiled. 'Carpe diem, detective.'
'Carpe what?' Fox said, momentarily thrown off balance.
'It's Latin. Seize the moment. Carpe diem. Otherwise, detective, in this life you just get left behind.'
Fox stood up, straightened his back – it had ached since he had woken that morning – and walked over to the window. He looked down at the featureless strip of grass that masqueraded as garden and wished he was somewhere else, anywhere else. He wasn't fussy. Just not here. Not investigating the death of a woman whose answer to the problems of life had been to jump off the top of a six-storey car park.
'Can I see the plaque?' he said at last.
'It was in the papers,' Bicknell said. 'Didn't you see it?'
Fox ignored the question. 'I need the plaque, as evidence, and copies of all the photos you took that morning. You don't have a problem with that, do you?'
Bicknell got up and went over to the large desk sited under the window. He leafed through a pile of paper sheets until he found one he was happy with.
'This is a copy,' he said, placing it on the coffee table in front of Fox. 'I'll have to burn all the photos onto a CD.'
Fox looked at the plaque. It was a strong blue colour, with white writing. Paper card it might have been, but the first impression was strikingly realistic, even this close. It was no surprise that it attracted attention when it was up on the wall. No surprise that Sarah Johnson chose to stare at it for so long.
'When you put your plaque up, did you know that two people had jumped to their deaths from that car park in the last six months?'
'It was hardly a state secret, now was it?'
Fox's eyes were still on the plaque, as if scanning it might somehow bring him a blinding revelation. When that didn't work, he read it out loud: '26 April. Jo Smith stood here while contemplating suicide.' When he looked up, Bicknell had moved back to the desk and was turning on his computer.
'Who was Jo Smith?' he asked quietly.
'Jo Smith?' Bicknell snorted. 'Jo Smith was a figment of my bloody imagination. All right?'
Fox spun round with a sudden spurt of anger. Who the hell did Bicknell think he was? For a second he imagined the pleasure to be gained from punching the cockiness out of him. Fuelled by the thought, he strode over to the desk and leant with all the physical threat he could muster across Bicknell's personal space.
'Don't you regret what you did at all? Hasn't it occurred to you that it might have been your smart-arsed project that tipped her over the edge? That if you had bloody well stayed in bed that day, she might still be walking around Oxford today?'
If Bicknell was taken aback by Fox's burst of anger, he wasn't going to show it. 'If I did tip her over the edge,' he snarled back, 'so fucking what? Who are you to pass judgement, detective? How the hell do you know that she isn't better off dead than alive? Maybe life was, for her, just too bloody shitty to be worth carrying on.'
'And maybe she was just having a bad day,' Fox responded. 'Maybe if she had made it to the next day, she would have felt better.'
'Maybe you missed your vocation as social worker, detective.'
Excerpted from Blood on the Cowley Road by Peter Tickler. Copyright © 2008 Peter Tickler. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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