The excitement of the afternoon, arresting a suspected murderer on a plane seconds before take- off, had left me charged with energy, so as soon as I had wrapped it up, I went home, got changed, and took my bike out for an hour. The bitter wind whipped into my face, burning as I pounded the pedals, sweating hard, fighting the gusts on the final incline before coasting breathlessly down into the village I called home in the outer London suburbs. My lungs hurt from the exertion and from past damage but I felt pleasantly exhausted. Maybe I’d sleep tonight for a change.
My refurbished terraced house felt warm when I entered, carrying my bike through and out to the conservatory. Missy, my ridiculously named cat, set up a plaintive mewling for her supper, weaving around my feet, nearly causing an accident.
“Wait your turn, madam”, I warned her as I tried to stay on my feet.
I got the bike safely stowed and came back inside, unzipping my quilted bodywarmer and tossing it onto an armchair as I set about measuring out Missy’s meal ration. The cat was fond of eating and didn’t have a “stop” switch, so her food had to be carefully measured, and treats apportioned so as not to spike her blood sugar.
After that I treated myself to a long, hot shower, dressed in old sweats and defrosted some chunky vegetable and bean soup along with two stale slices of multigrain grilled with the last of the gruyère. Time for a supermarket run, obviously.
Suddenly I found myself with a whole evening to get through without work commitments and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It had been at least a couple of weeks since I had experienced a gaping hole like this, and the stirrings of an old anxiety began to grip my entrails. In an attempt to relax, I poured myself a glass of Pinot Noir and tried to find something on the iPlayer that could hold my attention. I ended up with Phoebe Waller-Bridge going full Fleabag on a number of unsuspecting people, and it made me laugh until her air of vulnerability began to get to me, and my empathy kicked in, which kind of killed the humour. As I was debating switching to another programme, my phone rang. The number came up as Hillingdon Central, so I knew it was work.
“Good evening, Jill, sorry to disturb you at home.” The voice was that of Chief Superintendent Julie Dodson, the regional head honcho.
“What can I do for you, Ma’am?”
“A new case has fallen into our lap but it involves two different forces in West BCU -Hillingdon and Ealing. The vic is a thirty-five year old female who worked at RAF Northolt, but lived in Ealing. She was found just outside the Northolt perimeter and it was called in by a dogwalker. When we got the ID, Ealing took it and are following up with the family.”
“Then I should be there”, I said, shoving Missy off my lap and reaching for the remote to blank the TV.
“Well, it’s awkward”, Dodson actually sounded embarrassed, something I would never have thought possible.
“Awkward how? This is our case, if she was found at Northolt.”
“Right, but we have a hotshot DI in Ealing who picked it up from the night duty crew and is working that end with the family.”
“What about the body?” I asked, stunned to have been bypassed.
“DC Quinn got there and has been with the paramedics, and CSIs, he’ll have full notes. I know you completed the Sue Marshall murder case this afternoon so I thought we could pick up the loose ends in the morning. I doubt he missed anything, he’s sharp.”
“That he is,” I agreed. “But who’s this hotshot DI in Ealing I’ll have to work with?”
“DI Rachel Bailey”, she said, almost apologetically. “She joined us after a long stint with the MIT in Manchester, and various jaunts with Vice down here.”
I trod cautiously, remembering that Dodson’s background was Manchester.
“So you know her quite well? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, pretty much. I worked with her quite a bit back up north, but there’s been a gap and we lost touch. My recollection is that she’s gung-ho in the extreme, so I want you to make sure you hold your own. Go to the mortuary in the morning for the PM- 9.00 am sharp. Dr. Surinder Kaur. Rachel will l have been up all night I expect, so you’ll have more of an advantage. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” was all I could reply as, perplexed, I put down the phone. Rachel? Seemed a bit overfamiliar for a senior police officer to use instead of her rank. Perhaps Dodson knew her better than she was letting on.
The Chief Super and I had a rather odd relationship based on the fact that I had once bumped into her in a gay bar. There was a pub in Hampstead that had lesbian nights and it was a popular place for both couples and singles to go. At the beginning of my grieving phase, when I was still in denial, I did go once or twice, trying to drown my sorrows. I didn’t really want to pick someone up, I just wanted to get that feeling when someone looks at you in appreciation and there’s a bit of flirting. I wasn’t exactly sober when I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to face my Chief Super. I’d had a feeling for a long time that she might be gay- the power suits, the stride etc. – and I never made any secret of my own orientation, so I guess it was just a matter of time. She was with her partner, a well-known black QC, who had been making waves defending victims of domestic violence. She introduced me, then, obviously seeing I was the worse for wear, asked me how I was getting home. I reassured her I’d be Ubering and wouldn’t be late for work the following morning. I cringed now every time I thought about it. Recently bereaved and getting drunk in a gay bar! I worried for a while that it might affect how she perceived my work, but she was never anything but professional and respectful. I detected no pity in her gaze but I sensed her antenna out, ready to pick up distress signals. I didn’t give any.
At 8.45 the following morning I was pulling into the car park at the mortuary, two steaming cups from the Caffe Nero down the road sitting in the tray on my dash. DC Quinn was standing outside, holding a cup of his own. He looked tired and his eyes were bloodshot. I got out and carried the cups over to him.
“You won’t be needing this, then?”
“No thanks, boss. I’m so fuelled by caffeine that I can barely stand still,” he said, glumly, managing a small smile.
“Long night was it?” I asked, putting one cup down on the window sill and taking a cautious sip from the other.
“Very long. That DI from Ealing, she just never stops. Relentless.”
“And where is she now?”
“Went home at 7.30 to freshen up, she said. Should be here soon.”
“Right, Quinn, I suggest you brief me now, hand me your notes and leave me to deal with DI Bailey. You go and get some rest. Come back in this afternoon.”
At precisely 8.57, a silver Lexus coupé roared into the yard and screeched to a halt. The occupant climbed out, gathering briefcase and handbag and straightening her jacket. I had the impression of quick energy and singularity of purpose. Quinn had just departed. We were alone.
I stood very still, conscious of my appearance, the black waistcoat with the silver buttons over a crisply ironed blue shirt. DI Bailey on the other hand looked to have thrown her long leather coat on over a dark green gabardine trouser suit and cream v- neck top in a mad hurry. Her shoulder-length brunette hair was mussed and still damp from the shower. As she approached me her eyes flickered up to mine and she smiled. Her eyes were deep brown with flecks of amber and I noted ridiculously long lashes and perfect white teeth. She may have thrown her clothes on, but the lipstick was immaculate.
“Good morning, you must be DI Raymond. I’m DI Rachel Bailey. Is that for me?” indicating the coffee cup beside me on the windowsill.
“If you’d like. I always bring a spare,” I said. “And it’s Jill”.
“Rachel”, releasing waves of a light floral perfume as she offered her hand to shake.
‘So Rachel, bring me up to speed.”
“The body was found at 22.15 by a dogwalker who called it in immediately. We got the CSIs* and DS Quinn here within half an hour, fenced off the crime scene, and he took the dogwalker’s details and arranged for a statement to be taken this morning at your station. We identified the vic from the driving licence and Northolt ID in her bag. Andrea Crawford, age 35, civilian clerk. Cause of death appears to be strangulation, ligature marks on the neck, time of death yet to be determined. After the post-mortem we’re going to visit the husband and parents.”.
She paused while I took in this information. I raised my eyebrows. “Did you inform them last night?”
“Yes, I talked to the husband. He said he wanted to be the one to tell the parents. They’ll be with him this morning.”
I frowned. Spouses were often the first suspects that needed to be eliminated.
“Don’t worry,” Rachel added, “I saw him alone last night and I think it would be good to observe him with the in-laws today. I’ll give you my impression of him on the way.”
I refrained from commenting and we made our way into the mortuary where Dr. Kaur, the pathologist, was setting up.
“Good morning ladies”, she intoned, a stout Indian lady in her 50’s, an absolute stickler for detail, as I had often learned to my cost.
“DI Raymond, a familiar face around my table. And you must be DI Bailey, Ealing is it?”
“Yes, that’s right, pleased to meet you”, Rachel smiled briefly. Dr. Kaur peered over the top of her spectacles, which were perched strategically on her nose and sniffed. "Two DI's on the job. My, this must be an important case!" Then she got down to work. I suppressed a smirk at her sarcasm, but a quick glance at Rachel showed she thought it anything but funny.
“The victim is a well-nourished female in her mid-30’s, tattoo on left ankle, and another on the right forearm. No signs of abuse, no old bruising or fractures and, since I can see you’re about to ask, DI Bailey, no signs of sexual assault, at least externally. We’ll take a closer look later…..”
Forty-five minutes later, we stumbled out of the mortuary gulping in the cold, clean air. Rachel was green.
“Got to you, did it?” I enquired not unkindly, having a cast-iron stomach myself for these things.
“Sleepless night, no breakfast”, was her answer. Then, seeing my quirked eyebrow, she explained “I have a four year old son. When I got home I only had time to shower and get him up and dressed and breakfasted ready for kindergarten.”
“OK let’s grab a coffee and a breather”, I suggested, “there’s a Costa down the road, you can brief me there.”
I got into my well-worn Nissan Qashqai indicating for her to follow. Once there we ordered coffees- hers a tall latte, mine an americano, and toasted teacakes.
“So, the husband?” I ventured, once the colour had returned to her cheeks.
“Right, Philip Crawford, 38, manages a small indie record company. Thinks he’s the bees’ knees. Very cut up when I broke the news but I sensed it was a bit of an act.”
“I dunno. Something about him just didn’t sit right. Might be something there, can’t tell at this stage. That’s why I want to see how he gets on with the in-laws.” Her Mancunian accent was suddenly more pronounced. She shoved half a teacake into her mouth and chased it with a swig of coffee.
“That’s better. Ryan, my son, is a picky eater, so it can take quite a while to get him fed in the morning. That’s why I often miss breakfast. Bloody hell, kids, if anyone had warned me I wouldn't have bothered.”
“Do you have a partner, or live- in childcare?” I asked, then, realising this might seem intrusive, I added “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound nosy”.
She waved her hand “No, no problem. His dad and I are not a couple, but he’s been living with us for about a year, helping with Ryan. Trouble is, he’s soon going to remarry so we have to decide on the best solution. He wants joint custody and I kind of agree. But it depends on Ryan totally. If he’s not happy I have to find a way to keep him with me.”
“Divorce can be a bitch,” I commented.
She looked startled. “Oh we were never married. We had an affair when he was married to someone else. So the remarrying is about that…” she broke off, seeing my expression. “Jeez, you don’t want to hear all this crap”, getting up and downing the last of her coffee. “Come on, let’s get cracking”.
And Rachel Bailey slung her coat over her arm and headed for the door like a heat-seeking missile. I followed, somewhat bemused.