About the Author
the well-reviewed author of several crime novels, including The Last Big Job, A Time for Justice, One Dead Witness and Nightmare City Backlash is his first novel for Severn House..
Read an Excerpt
Fighting for the Dead
A Detective Superintendent Henry Christie Novel
By Nick Oldham
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Nick Oldham
All rights reserved.
'Hope you're not the squeamish sort.' The white-coated, pasty-faced mortuary technician grinned crookedly at Detective Superintendent Henry Christie who, in turn, blinked, kept a stone face and said curtly, 'Just open the drawer, please.'
'Okey-doke,' the technician said brightly.
The two men were inside Lancaster Public Mortuary, the squat, single-storey detached building within the grounds of Royal Lancaster Infirmary. They were standing in front of the bank of brushed-steel doors that opened into the vast refrigerated unit in which the dead were stored at an optimum temperature so that they could be kept for as long as necessary.
There were two rows of square doors and behind each was a sliding metal tray on runners on which might, or might not, be a corpse. The little card slot on each door gave the game away. A card inserted with a name scribbled on it meant the space was occupied. No card meant a vacancy.
Each row consisted of ten doors and all but one had a card in the slot. Nineteen bodies: almost a full house.
From experience, Henry knew this was pretty usual. He had once been in this mortuary during a very severe winter when the place was overflowing with cadavers. Mainly bodies of old people, hit by the freezing weather, and many had been doubled up, laid on top of each other on the sliding trays. Gruesome, slightly weird, but necessary under the circumstances.
Most of the bodies that came through here were from the hospital wards, awaiting onward transportation to an undertaker. People who had died tragically, certainly, but the causes of the deaths already known and therefore, usually, no requirement for a post-mortem.
But this was also a public mortuary. A place where bodies of people who had met sudden, untimely, unexplained, violent or accidental deaths were brought, kept, then examined to determine the cause. If there were no further complications and the local coroner was satisfied, they would then be released back to their families.
It was also a place to which murder victims were brought.
Henry Christie knew that of the nineteen bodies in the mortuary at that moment, two had been murdered.
One held no interest for him. A female, the victim of a domestic murder, who had already been subjected to a post-mortem. The offender had been arrested, charged and remanded in custody and the dead woman was due to be collected by the family's undertaker later that day.
Henry knew this because he was a senior investigating officer – SIO – on Lancashire Constabulary's Force Major Investigation Team, or FMIT, and had overseen the investigation into the woman's murder. Now all that remained for him to do was steer the case through the courts and do his best to get a life sentence for the bastard of a boyfriend who'd stabbed her forty-eight times because she hadn't made his tea for him. Henry was finished with her body and she would soon be making space for the next one.
It was the second murder victim that was of interest to Henry.
'You sure about this?' the technician said.
Henry pursed his lips with irritation, decided to say nothing, just nodded.
'OK then, but masks and gloves first, please. Health and safety, you know,' he said patronizingly.
Henry fitted the surgical mask over his nose and mouth and eased his hands into the latex gloves with a 'snap'.
The body was behind the door on the lower far right of the unit. Henry guessed it had been moved over time. When bodies were brought into the mortuary, they were usually slotted into spaces near the double doors. If they stayed for any length of time, which was fairly unusual, they tended to get shuffled down the line, away from the door. Most bodies came and went quite quickly.
But this one had been here for over five months.
Henry glanced at the name card in the slot, which read: 'F/male. No ID. Murder Vic.'
The technician, mask and gloves fitted, gripped the handle of the door and swung it open, then pulled out the tray with the body on it to about two feet. It was at a level with Henry's thighs.
As is the case with all bodies stored post-mortem, it was wrapped in an off-white flimsy muslin shroud from head to toe, rather like an Egyptian mummy.
'I need to see the whole body, please. Unwrapped.' Henry sensed a certain hesitation from the mortuary technician. 'And yes, I'm certain I do. And I'm not squeamish.'
The technician wheeled a gurney from the side of the room, adjusted the height with a pneumatic foot pump that made little farting noises and slid it into place an inch underneath the tray. He then smoothly pulled out the tray on its hard rubber runners, onto the gurney in a well-practised move. He closed the fridge unit door, but not before Henry got a quick glance inside and saw the rest of the bodies lying on their respective trays, all the way down the unit. Eighteen people, all there for different reasons – but also the same one: they shared death in common.
The gurney was steered across the tiled floor and into the post-mortem examination room.
A steel slab occupied the centre of this room. On it lay the body of an old man, dissected from gullet to groin, his body prised open, ribcage missing, all organs removed, his body cavity like a hollow cave. The top of his skull had also been sawn off and the brain removed.
The pathologist and his assistant who were carrying out this examination, their backs to Henry, were working at a stainless-steel sink and draining board. Henry saw a sliced-up heart and a mass of body organs slopped gruesomely into a pile on the board, all having been dissected and examined. Blood ran into the sink.
The pathologist was holding up the dead man's brain in the palm of his left hand, reminiscent, Henry thought, of a gore-fest version of Hamlet. The pathologist was slicing the brain with a razor-sharp knife.
Henry looked away, focusing on his body of interest.
The technician carefully unwrapped the shroud, revealing the corpse. Henry watched, his features still set hard behind the face mask, thinking how difficult it was to do a catch-up on what was essentially a cold case. Much better to be in at the death, he thought humourlessly. Almost six months down the line was no time to be picking up a murder investigation.
The body was that of a teenage girl, estimated age seventeen to nineteen.
Henry cringed. It felt like he had only just wound up an investigation into the nasty murder of a teenage girl and now here he was, looking into another. It was this kind of thing that could tip an unstable SIO over the edge. Good job Henry was sound in mind and body ... 'I wish,' he thought, and concentrated on the task in hand.
Five months in the chiller had given the girl a frosty sheen, but in no way could it disguise what had happened to her.
Beaten, strangled ... horrifically. Henry knew the details, had them in the file, and looking at her simply confirmed what he'd already read. But he had to look, see the flesh, get a true feel for the murder. Looking at photos in a file told him nothing, gave him no sense or feeling of the crime.
The purple mark made by the ligature to half-strangle her was still deeply indented in her neck. It was believed a man's neck tie had done this. On her cheek there was also the pattern of the sole of one of the shoes that had stamped on her face, which could possibly be useful if a suspect was ever identified.
The injuries around her head and shoulders, chest and lower stomach, where she had been kicked, stamped on and punched, could still be seen in spite of the terrible scars left by the post-mortem itself.
Her head was an appalling, distorted mess, having been jumped on repeatedly by someone wearing heavy shoes. The dislodgement of her lower jaw, broken in many places and with terrific force, her facial features smashed beyond recognition, did not stop Henry from realizing this had once been a very pretty girl.
His eyes took in all these things. His imagination worked to recreate her last moments of life. He did not like what it saw.
Then he took hold of her left arm, cold like a twig in winter, and turned it gently outwards, to inspect the many needle marks on the inside of her elbow. An addict.
And probably a prostitute, the original investigation had concluded.
That meant an individual who took risks, put herself in possibly dangerous situations and maybe, Henry had heard whispered, got what was coming to her.
His nostrils dilated as he thought, 'Screw that.' No one deserves a death like this.
The technician stood back as Henry stepped around the gurney, taking in all aspects of the body. As he stood at her feet and looked up across the body, he saw that, with the jaw having been broken so badly, the girl's mouth was skewed wide open, and with her head tilted back, Henry could see the top set of her teeth, right to the back of the mouth.
He frowned and had to peer to confirm what he saw.
Then, taking his time to walk back alongside the body on the opposite side, he came back to the head.
There was a dirty laugh behind him – the pathologist and his assistant chuckling about something inappropriate, probably.
Henry angled his head slightly to try and pick up what they were saying. He grinned and bent forward to inspect the dead girl's mouth, carefully pushing back the frozen lips to expose the teeth with his fingertips.
They hadn't been a good set to start with. Misaligned, discoloured, possibly from a deprived upbringing and a poor diet, several missing from both upper and lower jaws. Henry's forehead furrowed as he racked his brain, thinking about the missing teeth, and what mention, if any, had been made of them on the file. He couldn't recall anything, but that wasn't to say it wasn't there.
The thought dissipated as he honed in on the reason why his attention had been grabbed by the girl's top set that he could see looking up from her feet. There it was.
He pushed her mouth further open, easy, but unpleasant. He heard broken bone scraping sickeningly against bone in her jaw.
He saw a gold filling in one of the molars right at the back of her mouth – juxtaposed against the poor condition of her other teeth.
Henry stood upright and pouted – though this could not be seen because of the face mask – then glanced thoughtfully across at the pathologist, who was still dissecting the old man's brain and giggling at some shared joke with his assistant, making his thin shoulders wobble.
Steve Flynn was already regretting his hastiness in saying yes to a friend in need. Not because of the task, or the reason he'd said yes, but simply because of the weather.
In the five or so years he had been resident in Gran Canaria, the most southerly of the Canary Islands, Flynn had become a diehard sun bum. Whilst respecting the ferocious power of that hot ball in the sky, he loved being in it. He loved everything about the consistently high temperature in which he lived, from the early morning stroll to buy fresh bread rolls, to the often steaming midday heat when even he wasn't silly enough to venture out unprotected, to the long languid evenings sitting outside, eating and drinking with friends or clients from the sport-fishing boat he skippered, when it wasn't even necessary to put a thin jumper on at midnight.
It had been a long time since he had woken up shivering – since his last visit to the UK, actually. He tugged the sleeping bag more tightly around himself, not wanting to get up.
He could even see his own breath. A rare phenomenon in Gran Canaria, all too common in Britain.
But finally he knew he had to move, this being the first day of the new job he'd agreed to do. Temporarily, that is.
He kicked the sleeping bag off and sat up on the – supposedly – double bed and looked down the full length of the canal barge on which he had spent his first night back in England, following his early-hours arrival by air from Las Palmas.
He shivered and rubbed the goosebumps covering his arms, making his hairs stand on end.
It was a superbly appointed boat, however. Lovingly restored by his friend from just a bare shell. A friend now in hospital, ready to undergo surgery that day in relation to bowel cancer.
Flynn cringed at the thought. Poor guy, but at least it seemed the disease had been caught in time and a full recovery, minus a third of a bowel, was forecast.
Still feeling grimy from the travel, ducking his head he stepped into the tiny tiled wet room and showered until the hot water ran cold, then shaved and got dressed before making down to the galley where, as promised, there were bacon, eggs, bread and filter coffee.
At home, as he now thought of Gran Canaria, his usual breakfast was a croissant and strong coffee, but the bacon and eggs enticed him, so a fry-up it was. He worked hard at perfection at the gas rings: crispy bacon, fried eggs with just-right runny yolks, a nice filter coffee and two slices of buttered toast. Proud of his achievement he took the plate out to the seating area on the rear deck. Though it was very chilly, he wanted to eat al fresco, the hot food contrasting wonderfully with the weather. It went down well.
The canal boat was tethered about two hundred metres east from the actual start of the Lancaster Canal, which began at Glasson Dock. From where Flynn sat, sipping his second coffee, he could see all the way down that straight stretch of water to where the canal merged with the yacht marina at Glasson, beyond which was the sea lock. This lowered or raised vessels down to, or up from, the dock itself. From there the dock opened out into the estuary of the River Lune and beyond to the Irish Sea.
Flynn knew the area well. He was a Lancashire lad and had been a cop in the county until circumstances forced him to leave. He knew Glasson Dock from being a youngster, on day trips with his parents, and when he was a cop. In uniform, very early in his service, he'd been here during the 1984 miners' strike, when Glasson came back to life as a working port, bringing in coal supplies from abroad. This had attracted striking miners and there had been a few confrontations that Flynn had been part of policing.
Then, as a detective in the drugs branch, he had once arrested a high-level drug-runner who had been using Glasson as a landing point for his imported contraband.
Now he was back to help a sick friend.
Henry Christie slouched against the outer wall of the mortuary building, sipping from a cup of coffee bought at the hospital cafe.
He was ruminating about the dead girl and what he would have to do to reinvigorate the investigation into her murder which, in more ways than one, had gone stone cold.
Obviously he had known about the murder, but at the time his mind had been on much more pressing matters – such as the fast-approaching death of his wife, Kate, from a particularly aggressive strain of breast cancer. Although he had ostensibly been at work throughout the fight for life, he might as well not have been as his head was firmly up his arse. The girl's murder, although it had occurred in the geographical area Henry was responsible for covering, was taken on by one of the other SIOs in FMIT – Detective Superintendent Joe Speakman. But Speakman had suddenly retired not long after the girl's body had been discovered, taking everyone by surprise, and the investigation had seemed to dwindle off to nothing.
Henry had also been considering 'putting in his ticket' – retiring – but Speakman had beaten him to it. This meant that the SIO team was now down to three detective superintendents. In terms of proposed budgetary cuts this was a 'good thing' and had been on the cards for a while. It also meant that the possibility of Henry quitting was now much more distant because whilst the force was happy to run FMIT with just three supers, and therefore increase their already crippling workload, they couldn't manage with two because if Henry went there was no one in line to replace him.
Henry was amazed to have been approached by the chief constable, begging him to stay on – 'Another year at least, eh, mate?' – and, 'Oh, by the way, you've just inherited all of Joe's ongoing cases and his other responsibilities.'
Henry had said yes, even though he'd made the chief squirm just a little bit. He could have refused and retired. No one could stop him doing that, and whatever the chief said, the force would have to manage. It always did because it had to, and Henry had never overestimated his position within it, just another disposable cog in the machinery. All that his staying on did was give a bit of breathing space for the force to train up the next few SIOs.
Also, he wasn't sure what he would have done if he had retired.
He could have drawn his lump sum and his pension and life would have been OK, but he hadn't made any plans as to how he would occupy his time. He knew he couldn't be one of those who sat and did nothing all day, every day. Some of the time was fine. But mostly he wanted to be doing something, just hadn't quite worked out what.
Maybe another year was about right. Time to get his head around some planning ... and see how his new 'relationship' would pan out. That had quite a bearing on everything.
He smiled at the thought of the woman who at that moment was making him very happy indeed. Nice thoughts ...
He sipped his coffee and shivered. It was a cold morning.
A voice behind him said, 'I believe you want to talk to me about dead people and teeth?'
Midweek and Glasson Dock was quiet.
Excerpted from Fighting for the Dead by Nick Oldham. Copyright © 2012 Nick Oldham. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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.