|Publisher:||Hale, Robert Limited|
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The One A Month Man
By Michael Litchfield
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 Michael Litchfield
All rights reserved.
Cold cases give me the creeps, like ghosts. By definition, they belong to the past, often rooted in another generation, another lifetime, before the wheel was invented and someone came along with a weird notion that the world was round. Certainly long before DNA profiling revolutionized crime-solving. They're off my radar. Please excuse my little indulgence in flippancy, but they leave me cold. Digging up old bones doesn't excite me. If it has to be done, it's a job for burned-out cops; for plodders teetering on the threshold of retirement, anxious not to catch a bullet before reaching that exclusive old boys' club of long sleep-ins and unhurried walks, morning and evening, with a plodding, arthritic dog.
But I wasn't burned out. Neither was I looking for a sleepy sinecure. I was being assigned to reviewing old, unsolved cases because I'd trodden on toes. Not big toes. I hadn't slept with the commissioner's wife, not even his mistress, which probably would have been a more unwise indiscretion than tampering with his spouse. Neither had I planted evidence to secure a wrongful conviction or taken a bribe to derail an investigation. I'd simply crawled up the nose of one of my superiors; a nasty, anti-social habit of mine. My punishment was to be shunted to the sin bin – my derogatory name for cold-case duties. Not even in London, although I'd been with the Met since the day, like a Boy Scout, I took some kind of mumbo-jumbo oath.
Exiling me to Oxford seemed like enforced deportation, tantamount to Napoleon's Elba. Not that I had anything personal against Oxford, but I'm a Londoner and in spirit I shall always be; from womb to tomb, plus that rather critical bit in the middle. London is my comfort zone. I understand its crime, its villains, its humour, its rhythms and tempo, plus its dark and light sides. London is the lung that pumps my oxygen and spurs my pulse. I breathe it. I hate the place, love it, and couldn't live without its rotten, smelly, polluted and pulsating beauty and ugliness.
My ambivalence towards London was shared by almost everyone I grew up with. Whenever an investigation took me away from the capital, I was always as excited as a boy going on holiday, but within a couple of days I would be pining for the chaos, the gridlock, my old haunts and the racing heartbeat. There was so much majesty in all the madness that was London. I itched for my pubs, my betting shops, my casinos, my restaurants, my whores, and my gangsters.
Of course, Oxford is a stunning city architecturally. It has its own personality. Some of my peers at Scotland Yard even completed their education there, among the dreaming spires and elite students. Me? My education was more basic. Truncated, you might say. I learned on the job. As a teenager, I ran with an East End gang. When I crossed over from poacher to gamekeeper, I became a cop on the beat – beating all the college-educated boys and girls through the ranks to detective inspector.
Unfortunately, my clashes with authority were as legendary as my innate flair for flushing out human parasites in the urban, labyrinthine sewer that would always be my Garden of Eden. So many rotten apples. So much succulent fruit that never failed to tempt. So much that I would never be able to resist. London had everything. Grief, it even had me!
Detective Superintendent Bill Sharkey had a florid face and a figure that reminded me of a jolly farmer who over-indulged on his own dairy products. His paunch made him appear deceptively shorter than he really was. As we shook hands in Oxford's Central Police Station our eyes were level, so I knew that he must be a six-footer.
'So you've come to show us provincials how the job should be done, eh?' he said, mirthlessly, resentment flaring in his porcine eyes.
I wasn't the least surprised by this bigotry. There had always been hostility in the provinces towards the perceived elitism bred at Scotland Yard and throughout the Met. Sharkey's stereotype stance wasn't new to me by any means.
'It's my understanding that you asked for help,' I said, neutrally; a tone of boredom coming easily to my nicotine-tuned voice.
'I didn't ask for anything.' Sharkey's gravelly voice resembled a growl. 'The request came from my chief constable. No input from me.'
'Well, if I'm surplus to requirements, I'll happily hotfoot it back to my homeland, without wasting another minute of your precious time,' I said, cornering him. In a nutshell, I was saying, put up or shut up, and he knew it.
'Sit down, Lorenzo,' he said, all steam evaporated. As soon as I was sitting opposite him, across his desk, he asked gruffly, 'I suppose you know why you're here?'
'To work cold cases,' I said, not attempting to mask my lack of enthusiasm.
He leaned backwards, crossed his legs, and massaged his puffy lips with fingers almost as nicotine stained as mine. 'Not exactly,' he said. 'You're here to work a cold case – singular.'
It is with some shame that I have to admit I was suddenly vaguely intrigued as it filtered through that I wasn't there merely for an academic, box-ticking exercise, simply to meet government targets.
There was a buff folder on Sharkey's desk, which he now flicked open. 'Thirty years ago, three women were murdered in Oxford. Another woman was attacked, but managed to escape. We know that the same man was responsible for the four crimes.'
'How do you know?' I cut in.
'I'll explain if you shut up until I've finished,' he berated me.
No finesse with this fella. I was almost warming to him. My kind of animal. I reckoned he could bite as well as bark.
'The youngest of the victims was aged twenty; the oldest twenty-three. All four were students. Two of them were reading law.'
'And the other two?' I could never do as I was told, something that had consistently got me into trouble since my earliest schooldays, but Sharkey didn't snap this time. I think he appreciated the fact that I seemed hooked.
'Modern history and politics. The survivor was the twenty-year-old. She was the political student and the last of the four to be assaulted. All the crimes were compressed into a four-month period. The press dubbed the perpetrator "The One-A-Month Man". Catchy, albeit tabloidy.'
'Except you didn't catch him.' My mouth had a mind of its own. Restraining it was beyond my control; the cross I'd borne all my thirty-eight years.
'I was a raw rookie at the time,' Sharkey countered defensively. 'In uniform. Directing traffic. Between ourselves, the detectives' work on this one was shoddy – at best. We – the force, not me personally, you understand – took a lot of flak from the media and political snakes. Locally, the hunt for "The One-A-Month Man" was front-page news every day. The national press kept it running, too. The nation seemed fixated by it and Oxford was a city in fear. The general feeling was that there was a madman, a psychotic, running loose. Residents, the press and politicians couldn't understand why he hadn't been caught after the first murder. Women – especially female students – were warned not to go out alone after dark, which was like asking dogs not to pee on trees. The suspense went on for weeks, months.'
'But he didn't strike again?' I said.
'Stopped just like that,' said Sharkey, snapping his podgy fingers.
'Probably because he'd come close to being collared,' I suggested.
'Almost certainly. Now let me give you an overview.'
It was story time. My sort of story. A mystery. A tantalizing whodunit. The fact that it was dated didn't matter any more. These crimes transcended datelines, the way Jack the Ripper had survived like a gnarled and twisted evergreen, growing bigger and more shadowy by the year. Murder by gaslight, for example, had a morbid, timeless fascination. Serial killers were never obsolete currency.
'The first murder was in September,' Sharkey began, ponderously, knowing he had a captive audience. 'The weather was still summery. Most of the university's students had just returned from their long summer break. But there was also a substantial new intake of freshers.' In the pedestrian manner of a tour guide with his pendulous features making me think he was more suited to the role of undertaker than crime-buster, he continued, 'Oxford is a very compact city.
'Now to the murders. In each case, the women had been drinking with friends. They were merrily drunk, but not legless, a fact garnered not just from those friends who had been with them, but also from blood analysis. Each victim had just ended a relationship. Bluntly, they'd just dumped boyfriends.'
'And were out celebrating their freedom?' I speculated.
'Sort of. None of the relationships appeared to have been serious, though. Just university romances, dating a few times, riverside picnics, pubbing....'
'And fucking,' I said, lowering the tone; my forte.
'Well, a bit of that, too, no doubt,' said Sharkey, not the least censorious. 'I'm not going to blitz you now with too much detail because it's all in there.' He poked the folder, which remained open in front of him, like a crib-sheet or TV autocue. 'The victims had been drinking most of the evening with a crowd of students, most from their own particular college.'
'An equal gender mix?' I wondered aloud.
'Roughly, as far as I can recall, but only a few were attached, as coupled.' Hastily, he added, 'By coupled, I mean emotionally, not necessarily physically, you understand.'
I understood, I assured him. 'I assume the ex-boyfriends were interviewed?'
'Of course. Although I said the detective work was shoddy, it wasn't that bad.'
'And I take it they all had unshakable alibis?'
'Correct, as you'll see for yourself when you read the file. Even if they didn't have an alibi, it defied logic to imagine that any of them could be implicated.'
'Because none of the ex-boyfriends had ever dated more than one of the victims?' I said. Mischievously, I added, 'There was no cross-pollination?'
'What about the crime locations and MO?' I asked.
'I was coming to those; in my own way and own time,' he said, irritably. 'Four different locations, but same MO. Let's focus first on number one, Louise Redman, because this is the template. As I've said, she was pubbing in a crowd. Suddenly, she had only a few minutes to get back to her college before lock-up. So, like Cinderella, she made a run for it, barefooted, clutching her shoes, and waving goodbye to her friends, blowing kisses to all and sundry. The Turf Tavern, up an alley, is only a ten-minute bike dash from Lady Margaret Hall College.'
'But she didn't make it?' I said, needlessly.
'Her body was found next morning beside the River Cherwell, to the north of the city centre. Lady Margaret Hall is situated alongside the river.'
'Found by whom?'
'An early-morning dog walker, from the nearby Banbury Road, one of north Oxford's main drags. She was looking for some pancake-sized wild mushrooms in the dew, but came across more than she'd bargained for.'
'Was she clothed? Not the old dame, but Louise?'
'No sexual assault? No rape?'
'Nope. Well, certainly no rape. Strangled with a nylon stocking. Not her own. Well, not one that she had been wearing. Forensics established that fibres embedded in her neck had come from a woman's nylon stocking.'
'Was the stocking ever traced?'
'No. But listen to this ...' He leaned across his desk like someone about to impart a never-to-be-repeated secret. 'A condom had been stuffed into her mouth. Not in its wrapping. Just one rubber.'
'A used condom?' I said, disgusted.
'No, that's the point, the strangest thing: a virgin condom, straight from the pack, it would seem.'
'Some calling card!' I remarked, carelessly.
'If it had been used, the semen would have been a great lead, even in those primitive DNA days. The same MO was repeated in the next two murders; a virgin condom forced into the victim's mouth.'
'What about her bike? You said something about the pub being a ten-minute bike dash to the college. I guess that meant she had a bike outside the pub.'
'Her bike had been tossed into the river. It was fished out by frogmen searching for clues.'
'Any witnesses of worth?'
'Certainly not to the crime itself.'
'Any suggestion that she was followed from the pub?' I asked, mechanically.
'No evidence of that. If she was followed, the perp would have needed transport. Someone pedalling like fury on a bike behind her would have been a trifle obvious. Anyone in a car or motorbike would also have had difficulty remaining inconspicuous. More likely she came upon her killer near the college.'
'Someone waiting for her?'
'I doubt that he was waiting for her specifically. It was simply her unlucky night. If not her, it would have been some other unfortunate. Law of the lottery.'
'Random selection by an opportunist,' I said, for something to say.
'Someone out hunting,' said Sharkey. 'Someone who had gone out determined to make a kill. Just like Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, Ted Bundy and a host of others. Urban big-game hunters. Only one stipulation: the quarry had to be female and ripe.'
'But not for fucking, in this case,' I said, pensively; no disrespect intended for the dead.
'Don't be so sure.'
Now I was confused.
'Let's fast-forward the narrative to Number Four, Tina Marlowe, the survivor. Beginning of December. A cold, Friday night. Roads already icy by mid-evening. Starry, moonlit night. No cloud cover. Lots of student social activities. End of term approaching. Parties all over town. Sober concerts and boisterous knees-ups. By eight o'clock most of the students out on the town were already pissed.'
'And Tina Marlowe was one of the pissed?' I said, hoping to give the story a kick up the bum.
'She'd had a few, certainly.'
'The White Horse, between Blackwell's bookshop and Trinity College.'
'Was she a student of Trinity?'
'No, St Hilda's – another college on the bank of the Cherwell.'
'Any significance with the two colleges being beside the Cherwell?'
'No, Lady Margaret Hall is north of the city, whereas St Hilda's is south and on the opposite side of the river.'
'Could be someone with a motor-launch or houseboat, trawling the river fishing for females,' I said.
He pulled a face that revealed to me that this theory was one that hadn't been considered, but he didn't debate it – the reason for which I was soon to discover.
'Did any of the victims know one another?' I continued.
'One can't be a hundred per cent certain about that but apparently not. The only known links between the four is that they were all students on carefree nights out and separated themselves from the safety of numbers to become snapped up by a self-appointed, lurking Reaper. Tina was with two female friends and four male students. The lads, all from Trinity, knew about a party and were planning to gatecrash. They were chatting up the girls and trying to cajole them into tagging along. Tina's two friends agreed to go, but she had a headache developing and took a raincheck. She'd suffered from severe classic migraine since childhood. Her vision was beginning to break up and she was seeing flashing lights. So she gave the party a miss. Said she'd better hit the sack as quickly as possible. One of the lads, who had wheels, offered to give her a lift to St Hilda's, but she declined, saying a walk in the cool air might blow away the woodpecker in her head.'
'Such trivial decisions so often choreograph destiny,' I observed, abstractly.
'If you say so,' he said, clearly not the philosophical type. 'Where was I?'
I'd irked him again by stemming his flow.
'Tina decided against partying,' I said, easing him back on track.
'That's right. She set out on foot from the pub. By this time there was a dusting of snow. She was wearing a duffel coat, scarf, woollen hat, sheepskin gloves, jeans and fur-lined boots. With her head buried inside the hood of her coat, she walked briskly, cutting through to the High from Broad Street, via Turl Street, which won't mean anything to you until you've studied a city-centre map or, better still, retraced the route she took, which was direct. Despite the weather, the pavements were heaving with pedestrian traffic, mostly students. All revellers, getting into the Christmas spirit, which tends to last year-round here. When Oxford swings, it's usually good-natured. Not like from where you hail.'
Excerpted from The One A Month Man by Michael Litchfield. Copyright © 2012 Michael Litchfield. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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