An extract from Denise Bennett’s MA Novel.
A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls.
— William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1.1.25
London, October 12, 2029
Detective Chief Superintendent Tina Andrews picked up her gun. A body had been found in Red Zone 13 — more than a routine stabbing by the sound of it. She looked through the glass walls of her office into the Central Elite hub. A sullen, blue glow from the overhead lights illuminated thirty-four police officers hunched over computer consoles. They were barely moving, like weary ghosts who couldn’t be arsed to wave their arms and shout boo. Time to wake them up, she thought. She slid the GlockGen9 into her belt and grabbed her jacket.
The hub was too quiet. Soft murmurs replaced the usual buzz of voices, interrupted only by the half-hearted tapping of keyboards. Even the phones observed a mournful silence.
‘Alright, Central Elite, here’s a big, meaty one for you to chew on,’ she said. Screen-bleached faces lifted to hers. ‘City East have asked for our assistance in Red Zone 13.’
‘It’s Tommy’s funeral today.’
There was a collective sigh.
‘I’m aware,’ said Tina, her voice tight, ‘but until DS Ryan’s coffin arrives at the church at four o’clock you’ve got a fucking job to do.’
Rana shrank back into her seat.
Tina scanned the room and found who she wanted.
‘Marcus, I’m taking this one. Book out two ARVs for Brickfield Road E3, please. Set up an incident room, hot lines, Drone-Cam desk, the whole lot.’
‘Yes, boss. You know the Appeals Court meeting is at 2pm?’
‘Great. I’ve got five hours of freedom then, haven’t I?’
Marcus grinned and scurried away.
‘Luke, you’re with me,’ she said to the bear-like figure by the door who sat staring into his coffee cup.
He grimaced. ‘I could do it myself, I’m due a big one.’
‘Next time,’ she said. Her eyes flitted and settled on Mütter. His lips formed a thin, bent line as though he’d just regurgitated a nasty mouthful that he was trying not to spit. ‘DS Mütter, your luck’s in,’ she said. ‘And Rana, time you got your training wheels off. You’re both in the other ARV.’
Tina shivered in the cold, dank air of the Barbican’s underground car-park. Her armed response vehicle was ready, a German SUV with high level ballistic protection — standard procedure for all call-outs to the city’s red zones. She tossed the keys to Luke and settled herself into the passenger seat. The guards stood to attention, hands cradling their machine guns. One of them stepped into Silk Street to check the road was clear. Luke didn’t wait, pulling out past the army tank situated at the main entrance to Barbican House. Their ARV almost clipped the guard, and narrowly missed a squad car that was turning in.
‘Mmm. Like that is it?’ Tina said.
‘Fucking tank always stuck there on that blind bend. Outdated piece of junk. They should dump it.’
‘Deterrent, Luke. Reminds people of the bad old days.’
‘Not like the unwashed masses are allowed down Silk Street though, is it?’
‘True. But TV cameras are.’
‘So. The finders are two kids,’ said Tina. ‘They phoned an ambulance.’
‘What, for the corpse?’
‘No. One of them got sick, asthma attack I think. Paramedics called it in.’
‘What were they doing in a red zone?’
‘Probably the same as kids have always done. Smoking a spliff, hanging out. Getting away from adults.’
He nodded, then cursed. ‘Gonna hit the start of the march, chief.’
‘Shit. Can you go round?’
‘Not till we get to Finsbury Square.’
Two minutes later they were stuck behind a gaggle of early birds walking in the road, self-righteously oblivious to traffic. Their banners read: ‘No to Death Penalty’ and ‘End this savagery’ and ‘Support Amnesty NOW!’ Luke hammered the horn. Most of the marchers shuffled to the pavement. A young woman with long, blue dreadlocks turned to face them, mulish feet planted square in the way. Her sign pictured a severed head, blood dripping. Tina heard her unspoken accusation, whispered on the web, that the police rounded up randomers in the street and sent them for execution.
Luke bashed a button on the dashboard. The loudhailer crackled into life, then… phut… nothing. ‘Fancy foreign piece of shit,’ he muttered, sliding down his window. ‘Oi! You! Get out of the road before I arrest you for obstructing a police officer!’
Blue dreadlocks sauntered off and flipped the finger as they drove past.
‘Fucking Public Order committee,’ he said.
‘Fucking what about it?’ She’d been on the committee.
‘Letting people march like this again. Why?’
‘Safety valve. Better than flash riots.’
‘If you say so.’
‘What do you know? You weren’t in the force during The Emergency.’ She was wasting her breath, but she couldn’t help herself. ‘Thousands were killed, including coppers.’ My father among them.
‘Yeah, well, I should’ve stayed in the army. Coppers are dying now, and what do we do? Bugger all.’
She glanced at him. He gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled. A big man, yes, but he’d become bloated, his skin sallow and unshaven. Probably battling the liquid demon again. Recruited into the police force from the army after The Emergency, he’d remained under her command ever since. They’d fought the good war against crime, comrades-in-arms. Nights in surveillance together sharing greasy burgers and tepid coffee. Chasing down armed suspects, covering the other’s back. Sessions in the pub after a bad day or a win. His divorce; her husband’s death. Once, they’d known each other better than they knew their own families. But not anymore.
‘How come you’re slumming it with me anyway?’ he said, his tone slightly less bitter. ‘Thought you were a desk general now. A politico.’
‘Got Central Elite’s appraisals to do. Can’t do them properly from behind a desk.’
‘You mean you’re bored and want some action?’
‘No. Maybe.’ She leaned forward to engage the drone monitor on the dashboard. Two minutes of in-car screen time before motion sickness would hit. A grainy picture appeared. A white square — the forensics tent. Ten or eleven police cars, and six vans. Was that an ambulance leaving? White suits and yellow jackets crawled around like ants on a honey pot, forty, maybe fifty… Aah, the green face of nausea leered at her, and she tapped the screen off.
‘See anything useful in that five seconds before you throw up your porridge oats?’ said Luke with a sly grin.
‘Scene’s rammed. Parking this beast’ll be a bitch. You scrape another ARV and bye-bye Luke’s bonus.’
‘The commander says your team’s unruly.’
‘Because I trashed a couple of squad cars?’ A mangy looking dog ran out and he swerved. ‘Bugger. Missed.’
‘No. We’re talking complaints. From members of the public.’
‘I’ve backed you but…’
‘Lay off the heavy-handed routine. I don’t want a rep for police brutality.’
‘And go easy on Rana. Don’t want to scare off a new DC.’
‘She’s like a fucking puppy, weeing in every corner. She needs house-training.’
‘She’s weeing in every corner, as you put it, because you’re shouting at her all day.’
‘She complained too?’
‘No. But I’m not deaf.’
‘So that’s the real reason you’re here is it?’
‘To keep me on a leash? Or because you don’t trust me to bring this one in?’
Tina frowned. ‘Don’t be so thin-skinned,’ she said. She supposed he was defensive because of Tommy. Losing a fellow officer was like losing a brother, and their failure to find the killer had clearly unsettled him. It had unsettled all of them.
The bright red ‘KEEP OUT’ signs at Brickfield Road Red Zone wouldn’t deter a paraplegic in a wheelchair, Tina thought. Although barbed wire spirals topped the steel palisades, there were awkward gaps between the fencing panels which had been filled with what looked like chicken mesh. And everyone knew that the city’s ‘world-class’ Drone-Cam surveillance system regularly failed to deliver on its expensive promise.
A guard in army fatigues emerged from the checkpoint, and made a big show of checking the car registration number against his hand-held scanner. He approached the driver’s side. Luke lowered the window.
‘Cut the engine,’ said the guard.
Luke drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘You mean cut the engine please, sir?’ he said.
A seagull landed hard on a fat pigeon on the road, shook it in its beak, and dropped it only to peck at the flesh.
‘Cut the engine, sir.’
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Luke cut the engine. ‘You need to introduce yourself, sonny,’ he said.
‘Lance Corporal Eva—’
‘This is DCS Andrews and I’m DI Luke Sanderson. You know why we’re here, so shift your arse and let us in.’
The guard’s grip on his Arma-Lite semi-automatic tightened visibly. ‘Gotta follow procedure, Inspector.’
Thunder again. Getting closer, Tina thought.
‘Right. You boys didn’t follow procedure when you let in the victim and the perp, did you?’ said Luke.
‘So happens I didn’t join the army to bail out the police service, Sir Detective.’
Tina leaned across, giving Luke a swift poke in the ribs with her elbow, and caught the guard’s eye. ‘When you’re ready, Lance Corporal.’ She nodded towards the entrance.
After one final dirty look, the guard returned to the checkpoint and activated the gate’s opening mechanism.
Luke started the engine and jammed his foot on the accelerator.
The overcast sky, bruised with purple, lay like a funeral shroud over the road ahead. Steel grills or wooden boards fronted retail premises and buildings of indeterminate origin. Further on, teeth of broken glass bit into the yawning window spaces of disused industrial units. The old Beehive pub on the corner was burnt out; a blackened effigy of a more convivial era.
Blue lights flashed through the gloom, announcing the crime scene. Her pulse quickened. A uniformed PC directed them down a narrow turning, and marched on ahead into a makeshift car park which was crammed with City East vehicles; fifteen or so, Tina guessed. The PC used elaborate hand signals to guide the ARV into a tight spot.
‘Don’t need your effing help, mate,’ Luke mumbled.
A scruffy kid, aged about ten, sat between the open back doors of a police van. His trousers were too short and his sweatshirt too big. A female officer perched beside him, her arm around his thin body, holding him close.
‘Looks like the finder,’ Tina said.
‘You see Mütter and Rana?’
Luke jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Right behind us.’
Tina was waiting for them as they pulled up. ‘See what you two can get out of the finder. Log in first, clear it with the SOCO.’
Rana nodded. ‘Got it, ma’am.’
Satisfied, Tina scanned the area. City East had been busy. The site hummed with uniformed police and white-suited forensics officers. The pathology tent and login desk were up and running. Inner and outer cordons secured the scene, although no one on this side of sanity would wander here. The plot stretched between the derelict Abbey Chocolate warehouse and Jimi’s Car Renovations. Thirty or more old cars lay behind broken wire fencing, some blackened and burned. The properties’ owners would be long gone, bankrupted by the decade’s cascade of financial crashes. A reddish-brown bird hovered lazily above; a kestrel, perhaps. It looked like a smear of dried blood against the dark sky.
‘This’ll be a bitch to search, what with all this junk.’ Luke’s voice broke in.
‘Yeah. What’s down there?’ She looked south. ‘Beyond those shrubs?’
‘Don’t think so. The canal, isn’t it? Limehouse Cut?’
‘Might need to call in a dredging team,’ she said.
A white suited figure waved, beckoning them.
Tina raised her hand; waved back. ‘Check-in time,’ she said to Luke. ‘And…’
He was gazing at the ground, shoulders hunched.
‘Look at me,’ she said.
Blood-shot eyes met hers.
‘I want no more willy-waving contests between you and the team here. Got it?’
He nodded, grunting something vaguely apologetic.
She headed towards the login desk, picking her way over the uneven ground. Weeds pushed their way through cracks in the concrete. A sapling had tried its luck but it was leafless, strangled by ivy.
She flipped out her warrant card. ‘Detective Chief Superintendent Tina Andrews, Central Elite Police; this is DI Luke Sanderson.’
‘Morning, ma’am. DI Sharon Watts, City East. Scene of Crime Officer. Hope you’ve had your breakfast.’ She smiled, her lips tight.
‘Mmm. Like that is it?’
Tina glanced at Luke, who hung back. ‘You want a look? No? Not like you, Inspector. Too many beers last night?’
He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and shook his head. ‘Want me to co-ordinate the search? Before it pisses down?’
He had a point, she thought. Rain destroyed most forensic evidence. ‘OK, yes. Fingertips to seventy-five metres both ways for starters. Have a scout down by the canal. Talk nicely to checkpoint security and get a duty roster. And liaise with DI Watts here.’
DI Watts pointed to the metal plates laid on the ground which led to the forensics tent. ‘Please stay on the common approach path when you go up, ma’am.’ She shrugged apologetically. ‘Got to say it.’
Tina made her way to the tent, stepping plate-to-plate. The rotund, white-suited shape of Felix Roberts stood just outside, stretching and rolling out his shoulders.
‘Hello, Dr Roberts.’
He pulled down his mask. ‘Chief Superintendent. Congratulations on your promotion.’
‘Strange times indeed when the Chief Super’s the same age as my own daughter.’ He fixed her with doom-laden eyes.
‘Mmm.’ She wasn’t in the mood for Felix’s existential despair and pointed at the forensics tent. ‘Moving on?’
‘Whitish male, early twenties. Dismembered.’
‘Anything on him? ID? Phone?’
‘DNA through yet?’
‘Should be. I put a sample in the machine myself twenty minutes ago. Jones!’ he called, turning towards the forensics van, ‘What’s come up on the RapidCode for DCS Andrews?’
Two white-clad figures were busy at a bank of machines inside the van’s open doors. The smaller one looked up, shook her head and made a thumbs down gesture.
‘There’s your answer,’ he said.
‘Result’s not through or he’s not on the register?’
‘Not on the register.’
‘Happens. Last Public Control audit of the database showed only eighty-four percent population coverage, and that’s a massaged figure in my opinion. Place is run by teenagers with the attention spans of fleas.’
‘Last time we met you said eighty-nine percent,’ Tina said.
‘You want to debate population statistics now, detective?’
‘You started it,’ she said. She changed the subject. ‘So, doc, time—’
‘You’ll have to wait till I get him on the chopping board.’
She grinned. ‘Days? Weeks? Months?’
He sighed theatrically. ‘Within the last twenty-four hours, I’d say. Rigor’s gone, so more than twelve hours, probably not much longer. No sign of gnawing from rats or dogs. A few blow fly eggs in the wounds, but they can appear in minutes. And there’s not enough blood.’
‘Meaning, perhaps this isn’t the primary scene. Or the damn rain’s washed it clean. Or the amputations occurred postmortem. You want some gloves?’
She shook her head. She wasn’t planning to touch.
‘Come into my lair.’ He held aside the door flap.
Tina stepped inside. Her eyes slid over the thing which lay on the ground, flat on its back. She felt disorientated and her breathing quickened. She knew the drill, counted her breaths in and out until she was sure of control. Most bodies still looked like people, but this… this defenceless grotesquerie defied all reason. Her gaze slipped away. She found herself watching the photographer while he fiddled with his camera. Someone retched loudly outside the tent, to be yelled at by DI Watts for contaminating the scene. Dogs barked excitedly in the distance.
She tried again — got close, crouched down. There was an odd chemical smell. She’d expected the metallic odour of blood, the reek of urine or faeces.
‘Can I smell fuel?’ She glanced up at Felix.
He hunkered down beside her. ‘An accelerant, yes. Look at his clothes. You can see it in those lighter patches, in the blood-soaked areas with the darker lines around them: here, and here.’
‘Doesn’t look burned though.’
‘No. Maybe the perpetrator got disturbed. Perhaps by the finders. Maybe he decided to burn the body; it started raining and he couldn’t, or he changed his mind.’
‘But the rain didn’t wash the fuel off his clothes?’
‘Some usually lingers. Accelerants and water don’t mix.’
She nodded and turned her attention back to the body, forcing herself to look at the injuries. If you could call them injuries. The limbs were missing in surprising symmetry; both arms gone from just above the elbow; the legs taken from mid-thigh. The clean cuts had left stumps of dark, raw meat which were laced with strings of silver and spotted with black. Her throat burned at the sight of the exposed bone, and she swallowed hard. A woodlouse tracked a busy path across the brown-stained tatters of trousers that clung to his lower body. His jeans were now a parody of summer shorts — as if this limbless body could once have housed a carefree human spirit.
Tina had seen many bodies; occasionally bodies as mutilated as this. She always viewed the face last, because the face made the victim a human being. Not a thing. And she couldn’t look at the injuries after that. She held herself very still and finally studied his face, trying to picture the man that he had been. Young, not much older than her own son and daughter. His split upper lip hung away and revealed two or three missing teeth. His nose was mashed. But there was something about him… the high cheekbones, the angle of his jaw… She leaned in closer, held her breath, and looked into his partly open eyes. Green, with a patch of amber in the left. Unusual. Had she seen this before somewhere? Come on, Tina, focus. Focus. A draft of air between the tent flaps lifted a strand of his hair, and she felt a sudden impulse to stroke it. He was some poor woman’s son. But the rising surge of pity was a useless sentiment, and she fought it.
Raised voices. She thanked Felix and stepped outside. The commotion involved Rana, Mütter and the finder kid. Rana, her fists clenched, glared at Mütter, who’d got the boy spreadeagled against a police van and was patting him down. Tina hurried back along the common approach pathway as Mütter extracted something from the kid’s pocket with a triumphant flourish. Fuck’s sake, like she needed this. The man never used a light touch when a heavy one would do.
‘—arresting you on suspicion of carrying an offensive weapon—’
Good God! Too late for Tina to intervene.
‘Bullshit! You think I cut his legs off with this? You’re insane!’ The boy’s voice finished on a high-pitched wobble. Bony ankles protruded from tattered jeans and his bare feet were crusted with black.
‘You do not have to say anything but anything—’
‘It’s because I’m black! You said I done good—’ He turned wounded eyes on Rana. ‘You said I’s right to call—’
‘Shut it,’ Mütter snapped. ‘Anything you do say—’
‘I w-want my mum.’ He began to cry.
‘Where is she?’ Rana interjected.
‘Gone!’ he wailed. Snot dripped and landed on Mütter’s shoe.
‘Jesus. C’mon you.’ He grabbed the kid’s sleeve.
‘Lemme go!’ The boy squirmed and wriggled, then sank his teeth into Mütter’s hand.
‘You little sod.’ He forced the boy’s arms behind his back, cuffed him and bundled him towards a squad car, beckoning a PC as he went.
‘Dick,’ said Rana, not bothering to lower her voice.
‘Cut it out,’ said Tina, ‘So. The kid?’
Rana’s cheeks flamed crimson. ‘Tyler. He and his mate, Jaden, bunked off school, came up here to hang out, the two of them. Anyways, they were smoking some shit, and Jaden saw something over there, see?’ She pointed to the forensics tent.
‘They went to look. Tyler wanted to run but Jaden collapsed – he’s got asthma. So Tyler helped him with his inhaler, phoned an ambulance. Paramedics called it in on their way. DI Watts says they’ve taken him to St. Winifred’s.’
‘Rewind. Kid’s got a phone?’
‘Looks like a burner, ma’am. I bagged it.’
‘Good. Got Tyler’s address? Parents?’
‘Gave me an address but it sounds fake. Think he sleeps rough, I mean, the state of him.’
Rana still bristled. ‘Ma’am, he’s only eleven, he could’ve just legged it. Don’t suppose he even knew that carrying a flick was an offence—’
‘Probably did know. Just forgot to dump it.’
‘But all kids carry, ma’am, and Mütter just—’
‘Enough. Go over to St. Winifred’s; see the other boy.’
Rana hesitated. ‘Ma’am?’
‘There’s something else.’ She glanced sideways; dropped her voice.
‘Well, spit it out.’
‘Tyler was here last night.’
‘Yeah, about nine thirty. I don’t think Mütter heard that, I mean, he’ll only charge him for breaking curfew as well, and—’
‘I get it. Go on.’
‘He was supposed to meet someone.’
‘A “friend” he said. A dealer maybe, I guess he planned to score some dope, y’know—’
‘The friend didn’t show but someone else did.’
Tina’s pulse quickened. ‘Did he give a description?’
‘No, ma’am,’ she said bitterly. ‘That’s when Mütter came over playing bad cop.’
What a prick the man was. He resented Tina for all the predictable reasons — fast-tracked, too educated, too well-connected. Too young at thirty-eight to his fifty plus. She’d overheard him in the pub one night calling her ‘an over-promoted bitch — shaggable, zilch else.’ His interference today had jeopardised the success of the investigation.
Tina watched him direct a squad car out of the parking area. Tyler’s woebegone face stared out of the rear passenger window.
‘DS Mütter!’ she called.
He pointed at his own chest in a pantomime version of ‘Who, me?’
She nodded and crooked her index finger, summoning him.
He walked towards her slowly. Tina began counting to ten. She got there, started again and reached seven, before Mütter had settled himself beside her, leaning back against the van, legs crossed at the ankle. He unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it into his mouth.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she said.
A look of sly innocence slid across his face. ‘The gum? Quitting smoking. You want some?’ He proffered her the packet. Tina resisted the urge to drive her fist into his flabby gut, but it wasn’t easy.
‘The kid. The arrest. You shut down a potential witness mid-flow.’
‘Zero tolerance for knife crime, Chief Superintendent, just following the rules.’
‘Is that right, Sergeant Mütter? And do you know the rule that says you do not, repeat, do not, make an arrest at a crime scene without the say-so of your senior investigating officer?’
‘Sorry, ma’am. Assumed you were here as an observer. For reports and stuff. Thought Luke was the SIO, and I knew he’d be fine with it.’ He smiled, a glint of yellow teeth.
She stepped up close until they almost touched and eyeballed him. Tina was five feet nine, plus a boot heel, and they were level. His breath smelled of mint with an undertow of decay. He tried to take a small step away, but he was backed against the van, and there was nowhere for him to go.
‘Mmm. About reports and stuff. Your appraisal is on my desk. My office. Six o’clock.’
Mütter said nothing. The smirk had gone but his weasel eyes said, ‘Bring it on.’