The opening of Kit Morrell’s debut novel, Death Scent, a psychological thriller.
Evan —November, 2012.
I have peanuts in my head.
Not ready salted or dry roasted but multifocal white matter lesions. These exactly peanut-shaped areas that have set up shop in my brain are the reason that I can smell things that no-one else can. As my head pulses, it creates a rhythmic tune that repeats as I stare at the carved letters of the wooden memorial plaque. A year has passed since their bodies were lowered into the cold earth. I can smell it, the repulsive scent of death as it creeps up on me from the depths like a dark stranger. It clings to me like a thick cloak, draped heavily all around me.
The musky odour of bones and tissues mingled with the sharp pickle-like scent of formaldehyde is unique and unmistakable. It demands my instant and undivided attention as it hangs in the air. Like a petulant child, it’s determined to get noticed. I’m doing my utmost to ignore it, to focus instead on the reason I’m here.
What’s left of them is slowly melting into the soil and earth, the fabric of this woodland burial park that is their resting place. She would have wanted them to be a part of nature, the circle of life. Far better than a morbid cemetery. I look at the vibrant colours of the flowers I have left knowing that they too will dissolve into the landscape soon enough. I think of their physical remains as the fleshy overcoats they wore in life. Nothing more. Their essence, their spirit, is always with me. They’re not gone.
Bitter wind whips my face with freezing drizzle as I carefully place a large white pebble at the feet of two hand-sculpted robins. It will remain next to all the others that I’ve left before. Reminders of the gaping hole the loss has left in my life, each stone is a symbol of loneliness and countless unanswered questions. Lined up like an army, each pale soldier silently keeps watch.
The police officer’s words are etched into me, gouged into my soul. So blunt, so brutal. No emotion, just the facts. The moment they left his mouth, my world stopped turning on its axis. Everything hung suspended in a surreal vacuum.
It’s a simple enough word, yet I had no knowledge then of the devastation it would bring. It was hard to take it in. I’m doing my best to face the life-altering truth. They’re not coming back. Nothing will ever be the same again.
When it first happened, I couldn’t accept that they were gone. My anger was savage, primal and all-consuming, it gnawed at my innards like a rat. I was angry that she was even there that day. Angry that she didn’t listen to me. Angry that she’d left me. Endless questions lapped, ebbing and flowing, always there. They’re still there. Why us? Why then?
I don’t believe she fell, that it was an accident. I have to know what happened. The few fragments that I’ve managed to piece together just don’t add up. I can’t move on until I’m satisfied, until I know it all.
I force myself to keep going, to face each day without them, knowing what our lives should’ve been. I see other couples with new-born babies and it rips at my guts. I try not to despise them for their happiness, the joy that we should’ve had. It’s not their fault. I either accept it or else lose myself in the darkness.
My phone rings in my pocket, ripping me away from my thoughts. Annoyed at myself for not switching it off, I tug it out.
‘Evan, where are you? I’m sure we arranged to meet at eight? Buddy must’ve peed his furry pants by now,’ a familiar voice says.
‘Christ. Sorry Kim…be there in ten.’ I slowly crouch down and brush away untidy twigs and soggy leaves with my hand. Bringing two fingers to my lips, I kiss them and place them on the carved letters. I love you. I miss you.
I walk away resisting the urge to look back. I know if I do, it only makes leaving them harder. Instead, I put my head down, jam my hands in my pockets and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
My car’s tucked at the edge of the forest, the only one here at this time in the morning. Opening the door, I’m hit by Buddy’s lamb and beefy chunks breath. More Bernese sofa dog than mountain dog, his huge hundred-pound frame fills every square centimetre of my ancient Fiat. Wearing the car like a metal gillet, he watches me as I swing the door back and forth on its hinges to dissipate the smell. Blackbirds are sitting on the telephone wire that sags between its tall wooden poles. Dark silhouettes in the morning mist, standing to attention, lined up in an orderly row, as if waiting for something.
I turn the key in the ignition and the radio comes to life. Our song. I couldn’t have timed it better if I’d choreographed it. What are the odds? I remember the two of us in my car waiting to glimpse the sunrise, singing along together. So young, so ignorant of what was to come.
I drive for only a few miles before turning left down a narrow lane. Finally, I squeeze my car between two narrow posts which form the entrance to Whellendale Woods. I slow the speed of the windscreen wipers and take in a long deep breath, in through my nose, out through my mouth, and try to relax my shoulders. Grabbing my muddy wellies from the boot, I clip Buddy’s lead to his collar and rush to where Kim’s waiting. We’re all frosted hurried breaths and apologies. Buddy circles Kim’s legs, his tongue hanging out like a pink flip-flop. He loves Kim, unashamedly flirts with her. The doggy biscuits she has hidden in her pocket for later, cements the attraction. Kim’s Alsatian, Belle, trails behind Buddy, sniffing, wagging her tail and bumping her nose against him.
‘Sorry. You look frozen solid.’ I rub my hands together before pulling on my gloves. ‘Let’s get a wiggle on.’
‘I can’t believe it’s a year.’ She places her mittened hand on my arm, her dark hair curly in the damp morning air, her cheeks flushed. She’s one of the few people I can stand to be with today.
We walk in comfortable silence. Fluttering leaves on tall oaks rustle in the cold wind. A woodpecker is drumming the familiar sound of the countryside. Earthy moss, peaty soil and Kim’s perfume create an interesting mix and the scent does little to improve my banging head. Peck. Peck. Peck.
‘Did you know that woodpeckers have shock-absorbent tissue between the base of the bill and the skull to cushion the impact of drumming? Stops them getting a headache.’
‘Ev, you’re such an anorak!’ Kim’s shoulders gently rise and fall in her coat as she chuckles.
‘You can talk. Dazzling with your stories of ingrown toenails and anal fissures.’
We walk quite a way, what must be a few miles, when I sense an odour that worries the inside of my nostrils. What’s that stench? Buddy wanders off the path, his spongy nose sniffing the air. His shape, a steaming mass of black, white and tan fluff, grows smaller and smaller as he disappears from view.
‘Buddy… get back here or you’re in big trouble!’ Kim always finds it amusing that I talk to him like a human. ‘Little sod. He’s probably seen a squirrel. Can you smell that?’
‘No, I can’t smell anything. Belle…come!’
We head off the worn path and scramble over a barbed wire fence as the dogs run ahead of us. A pungent and familiar smell is getting stronger the further we walk. We’re in the grounds of the old Leavesdale Psychiatric Hospital that backs onto the woods. We used to play here when we were kids. I hated the place, was spooky as hell. I’m sure I read something about it being developed into a new community-friendly space. Ugly diggers are scattered around the place, idle and caked in mud. There are buildings from every era, none of which will be winning an outstanding architecture award. The exception is the mansion house. It stands erect like a Victorian gentlewoman, all straight lace and everything in its correct proportions.
We keep walking until we reach a low squat building with a no-nonsense sign that reads MORTUARY. The smell I sensed back on the path has grown eye-wateringly pungent. Sickly-sweet and putrid, it’s making me want to retch. Buddy, low to the ground, his ears pinned back, is growling as he scratches at the half-open door. The swollen wood is keeping it in place. Kim tries to calm him, puts both dogs on their leads and pulls them away as they push to get inside.
‘God, that smell is awful. Be careful Evan.’ Kim brings her hand up to pinch her nose, scrunching her face in disgust.
‘I’ll just take a peek…see where the stench is coming from.’ I peer into the darkness. ‘It’s probably a dead fox or something.’
Putting my weight behind the partially open door with my boot, I shove it far enough that I can glance further inside. I breathe in the foul air. There’s nothing but black and an all -pervasive fetid stench. My brain scrambles to decipher the rancid mix. Candle wax, a burnt match, salt, a hint of a drug I recognise, blood, urine, are all floating in the air like free spirits.
The world seems to pitch sideways as my vision blurs and I almost lose my footing. Pictures form in my mind, quick snapshots and then they’re gone. A child in the back of a car looking through the window, small hands pressed to the glass. The mansion house slowly fading from view. The images form wispy clouds in my subconscious mind like broken fragments of a dream but in the here and now.
‘Christ, it’s dark,’ I begin before my eyes adjust. I recoil. ‘Kim, we need to call the police. It’s a body.’
‘What? Oh my God.’ I hear her gasp.
I can just make out the outline of a man, his arms spread out to each side, his legs together. I fumble my phone from my pocket and use the torch. Slowly scanning the tiny light across the room, I try to take in as much detail as possible. The man’s mouth gapes open, a white crystalline substance just visible inside. His eyes look odd, inhuman, with a fixed and emotionless stare. There are livid marks around his neck, something tied tightly digging into his boggy flesh. His fingers are sticking out at odd angles like a country road sign showing the way.
‘Tell them it looks like he’s been murdered.’
I see a pool of wax with a black stump of wick in the middle on the concrete floor. I catch my breath. Discarded next to the body is a black pen. I can just make out a familiar white star logo. I remember buying the same slimline design with gold trim for Ashna. I suck in short sharp breaths. It can’t be. No way. I must be imagining things.
The man’s face is deeply wrinkled. His urine-soaked trousers are stretched over a doughy belly, his grey hair sparse and combed over, liver spots dappling his hands. I don’t venture further into the room, but back away carefully trying not to disturb the door on my exit.
‘Whatever happened here, it certainly wasn’t an accident.’ I open and close my hands, then interlace my fingers as I do my best to stop them shaking.
‘Come and sit over here…take a few deep breaths.’ Kim ushers me to some nearby steps. ‘I’ll check if there’s any vital signs, see if there’s anything I can do.’ She’s moved into doctor mode and hurries to the door. I catch her arm, pulling her away.
‘Trust me. He’s dead. We need to preserve the scene. If you go in, it could compromise any forensics.’ I’ve spent enough late nights talking over Will’s cases to know we must stay back.
‘I won’t disturb anything. I have to see with my own eyes.’ Kim peers in through the door, standing completely motionless, fixed to the spot, trance-like. Stepping away, she pulls her arms tight against her body as she tries to avoid snagging her coat. I wanted to spare her the brutality.
We perch ourselves under a corrugated metal roof that hangs over the steps of a small brick building, dogs on their leads at our side. Big rain drops begin to bounce loudly overhead, deafening us as we wait.
‘I’ll phone work, tell them I’ll be late. God, what a bloody nightmare,’ I say.
‘I’ll do the same. There’s no telling how long this’ll take. Poor man. What a way to go.’ Kim takes off her scarf and wraps it round my neck.
We wait for the police to arrive, watching the rain fall, the roof above us creaking as the wind catches its edge. We try to speak to one another, but our words are whipped from our mouths as they blow away in the wind. After about fifteen minutes, I see a white car with distinct blue and yellow markings approach along the unmade road that crosses in front of the mortuary. It pulls up sharp and a solidly built young officer in uniform hurries over to us trying to side-step the puddles. The other passenger, a short officer with spiked ginger hair, saunters towards the mortuary.
‘Morning. You two the ones who called 999?’ he says as rain drips on his police vest. ‘The dispatcher said something about a body?’
‘Yes, it was us who made the call. We were out walking our dogs…followed them here…they’d picked up a scent. We haven’t touched anything…called you the moment we realised there was a body. It’s over there, just inside the building.’ I point in the direction of his colleague.
‘OK, right…well…if you wouldn’t mind waiting here, we’ll take a look.’ Buddy lets out a low growl, shows his teeth, sensing something is very wrong. We watch the officer tip-toe through the mud before he and his colleague peer round the edge of the door. Their reaction is swift. As the ginger officer talks into his police radio, his partner hurries to the car, opens the boot and pulls out a reel of police tape.
Struggling with the wind and rain whipping the blue and white strip into their faces, the two officers hurriedly secure the mortuary’s perimeter, then Kim and I are motioned to come over.
‘Can you take a seat in the back of the car please? We’ll need to take some details,’ the ginger officer says as rain drips off the end of a nose that looks as though it’s taken a few punches in its time.
Kim and I shuffle across the back seat, the dogs squeezed next to us. We’re all a steamy mess. The car reeks of greasy burgers, sweet drinks and old sweat. There’s a lingering acidic smell of vomit mixed with alcohol and a hint of bleach that must have been used in an attempt to cover it up. Kim’s nose wrinkles at the edges. I’m comforted that for once it isn’t only me that can detect the uninviting aroma. I dread to think of the characters who’ve been in here.
The chunkier of the two officers slides into the driver’s seat.
‘Can you state your name, occupation, contact details and what transpired this morning?’ he says from the front of the vehicle. His breath tells me he’s had coffee and a bacon butty for breakfast. There’s something else. Infection. I can only assume it’s from a dental abscess, or perhaps tonsilitis, who knows? Either way, it’s not nice and his cheap aftershave does little to disguise it. I rub my finger on the glass, making it squeak and look out of the clear circle I’ve created in the steamy window. I try to distract myself as Kim patiently answers his questions.
Twenty minutes pass, then I hear police sirens in the distance as unmarked vehicles with blue lights flashing start to arrive. Plain-clothes officers are talking to the soaked-through ginger constable whose once meticulously spiked hair is now plastered flat to his head. Out of the back of a van, a man in a white paper suit, mask, blue gloves and shoe covers, appears with a camera dangling from one shoulder. He moves quickly, doing his best to get out of the rain. There are vehicles and people everywhere.
A silver Mercedes AMG GT pebble-dashes the mortuary as it comes to an abrupt stop. A perky blonde woman jumps out of the driver’s side. I can smell the rose, geranium and musk of her perfume as it wafts through the vents in the dashboard. It smells expensive. French, I suspect. A well-practiced routine unfolds as she quickly wrestles into her crime scene regalia and hurries towards the flapping tape, a silver medical bag in one hand. On her heels are more white-suited personnel carrying lamps, foot plates and bags of equipment, an advancing platoon of white smurfs.
A man in a long navy raincoat who introduces himself as Detective Inspector Fox, struggles into the passenger seat. I recognise him. He’s one of Will’s team. I met him once at the pub when Will and I were out having a pint. He remembers me and we exchange a brief greeting, his manner courteous and professional. He impresses upon us the need to get our more detailed statements as soon as possible, whilst it’s still fresh in our minds. We agree to attend the police station in an hour so we can drop the dogs off on our way and dry ourselves off. Better to get it over with.
We trudge back to the path with Buddy and Belle on their leads. We’re bouncing ideas around about what has happened, a verbal ping-pong, asking questions, back and forth. Who was the poor soul lying on the floor of the mortuary? Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
‘Why don’t you follow me back to my place? We can grab a coffee…leave Belle at the cottage until later…head to the station together if you like?’
‘Sounds fine. Is it wrong to feel like I need something stronger? Do you have any brandy? I feel like an old lady who needs a dose of smelling salts.’
My head is pounding, making me feel nauseous. The sooner I can get home and take some pills the better. Arriving back at my car, Buddy senses my darkening mood and squeezing into the back seat, slumps himself down with a grunt. Like me, he wants to get back to the safety of our little cottage, curl up in his bed and try and lock the evil out.
Smoky bacon crisps, cheese and onion sandwiches, stale sweat and industrial floor cleaner create an olfactory fog. The pungent institutional mix transports me back to my school days. Lines of jostling boys, pushing and shoving in the lunch queue. As Kim and I walk down the otherwise vacant main corridor of the police station, the double doors ahead of us swing open revealing Will. All white teeth, fashionably neat five-o-clock shadow and expensive suit, he stops and looks at us, incredulous.
‘Mate…what the fuck? Hiya, Kim…I just heard. You OK, you look like crap?’
‘Thanks a bunch. Don’t look so hot yourself…you look knackered.’
‘Christ, Ev…can’t leave you alone for five minutes without some drama happening.’ He seems different, distracted and says he’ll try and join us when we give our statements if he can. His usual vitality, his get up and go, seems to have got up and gone.
Kim and I eventually find where we’re supposed to be and are escorted to separate interview rooms. I’m asked to recount every minute detail of what happened this morning. How often do I walk near the hospital? Who else did I see? Exactly when did I come upon the victim? Did I touch anything? How was the body positioned? Every vital snippet of information is teased out, filling in the blanks, like doing a puzzle without a picture on the box to guide you.
I’ve tried to explain the weird sensations and feelings I experienced in the mortuary. Will, who has eventually joined us, struggles to process my unusual interpretations. So do I. He’s such a black and white thinker at the best of times. My new affliction, for want of a better word, has been pressing all of his buttons. My enhanced senses are difficult to explain in words, even to myself, let alone someone else. It’s only been this bad for the past couple of months and I’m struggling to make sense of it. Will is used to dealing in cold hard facts. I’ve tried to explain what I could smell, the strange snapshots I saw in my mind. The moment Will’s colleague leaves us to answer his phone, he makes the most of the opportunity to inform me I’ve lost my grasp on reality. He refers to my explanations as woo-woo bullshit. Twat.
I’ve consumed too many cups of unpleasant brown liquid masquerading as coffee and my nerves are jangling and buzzing. I step out of the interview room and remember I’m supposed to be operating this afternoon. A Maine Coon’s hip replacement and a spinal fusion on a Poodle have had to be delayed and they can’t wait forever. I just hope they’ve managed to re-schedule the operating theatre or there’s going to be some stroppy phone calls later. I locate my mobile and jab my finger on the tiny blue plane as Kim appears from the adjacent room.
‘I’ll quickly call the office. We can get back to the cottage so you can pick up Belle.’ She looks as bored and frustrated as I feel.
‘Thanks. I have a full list of patients this afternoon so I need to get back to the practice.’ Everyday life and commitments don’t just stop because a life has been lost. Kim looks pale and strung out, should she be heading home rather than to work? I understand though, people rely on us.
‘You OK? All of this has been a bit full-on. Couldn’t one of your colleagues cover your list? It’s not like this sort of thing happens every day.’ I know I’m wasting my breath.
‘No, I’m fine. To be honest the thought of going home and remembering this morning freaks me out. I’m better to stay busy, take my mind off things.’ Told you so.
‘If you’re sure? At least let’s grab a decent cup of coffee first.’ I shrug on my damp jacket and pull up the zip.
‘Deal.’ For the first time since finding the body, a glimpse of a smile forms. We walk together towards the exit at the end of the corridor. Biting cold air hits us in the face as we swing through the double doors. The drizzly weather suits my mood as we retrieve my Fiat from the crammed-full car park. I slump into the driver’s seat and turn the key.