The Voyeur (chapter one)
DS Albie Edwards surveyed the scene from the edge of the woods. Chaos. At least that’s how an outsider would see it, but Albie knew better.
He stooped, knelt on his right knee in the gravel and winced as he rubbed his left ankle. It was only a tweak, but even so it pained him. Serves me right, he thought. After all, what did he expect to gain from jumping out of a moving vehicle?
Tanya would scold him when she caught up, and she’d be right. He should have been patient, waited while she found a parking space.
Albie elbowed a pathway through the gathering crowd. He’d come to associate those who gathered at crime scenes with hyenas, excited and alert for meagre pickings after an attack. He shielded his eyes from the sun and scanned the trees. Sure enough, perched in the branches were kids. They hustled for position and the best vantage point, each desperate for a glimpse of a corpse.
“Get those kids down from the trees,” Albie ordered a fresh-faced police officer standing behind the crime scene tape which she guarded like a German Shepherd does its master.
“Straight away, sir.“ The officer stood to attention as she eyed his ID card and spoke to his back as he trudged towards the area shaded by a canopy of branches. He picked his way through a tangle of brambles and tall swaying nettles, then stopped on the outskirts of the undergrowth and observed his colleagues scanning the area in sombre silence.
Lads sprang from the branches behind him, shouting abuse while the officer rounded them up and hurried them in the direction of the estate.
A rustle in the bushes to his right caught his attention. “Thanks for waiting.”
The dishevelled figure of his colleague moved closer. Chestnut brown curls covered her face as she felt her way through the undergrowth. She swiped prickles and stingers away from her face with balled hands stuffed in the sleeves of her jacket.”
“Sort yourself out, Watts. I thought you were in tip-top condition.” Albie covered his smile with his hand and strode towards the bright lights. “Follow me.”
PC Tanya Watts bent forward and grasped her knees. She waited for her short shallow breaths to slow.
“Yes, that’s right. I’ve been mucking about,” she mumbled. “It’s funny that because I feel like I’ve run 100 metres so as not to be left behind.” She sucked in a deep breath, forced her body upright, and followed at a distance.
The white tent stood erect and alive with shadows.
If he played the association game, tents for Albie would equate to childhood fun. Camping holidays by the sea, adventures in the back garden, secret meeting places, and long hot summers.
How easily childhood memories were shattered. He studied the area and knew once he entered that tent, another nail would be hammered into the heart of the boy he once was, the boy who’d suffered from a gradual death, a slow cruel death which began at the site of his first murder scene.
Now a white tent meant death.
“Ah, DS Edwards and the lovely Ms. Watts.” A gravel-edged voice came from the far corner of the tent, followed by an exaggerated cough. Both officers tried to identify the hunched figure as he straightened and stretched. A bright lamp contorted his appearance. “I wish I could say it’s a pleasure to have your company, but I think under these circumstances it would be a false sentiment.”
“Leo.” Albie outstretched his hand in greeting and waited for the forensic pathologist to place some fibres into an evidence bag before he responded.
“So how are you both?” Leo asked, his focus on Tanya.
Tanya nodded her head and averted her eyes. She fumbled in her jacket pocket and pulled out a notebook and pen.
“All good,” Albie answered for both of them. “So what can you tell us?”
Leo removed his gloves, placed a hand on Tanya’s shoulder, and leaned behind her to find a replacement pair. She angled away from his touch, but continued to jot in her notebook as all three focused on the victim.
From a distance, the large object nestled in a bed of nettles and weeds could easily be overlooked, camouflaged as it was with leaves in a shamble of autumnal shades. This place was known as a local dumping ground, a place for broken, worn, and unwanted objects to go to die.
A discarded carpet was not an unusual sight. The fringe of the carpet splayed across the soil and was entwined with dank clumps of dark brown hair while at the opposite end of the bundle, limp, pale toes with party-painted nails were barely visible. The carpet was frayed with bald patches and splashes of dirt-ridden flowers. Whatever the carpet’s original use, it had been transformed into distasteful packaging for a body, secured with an inch-thick olive rope.
“Cut the rope.” Albie’s attempt to control the tremor in his voice and the shaking in his forearm was a reaction from the anxiety and anticipation that battled inside him for the rights to the highest status in his body.
Leo slipped a flick knife with a mother of pearl style shell and a razor-sharp edge between the carpet and the rope. The officers watched the precise sawing motion, small smooth movements. This was the first of four pieces they observed Leo sever. Breathing heavily, Albie knelt by the pale feet, too clean to have touched the moist soil.
“Have you got another knife in your bag of tricks?” Albie asked as he rummaged.
Leo stopped, gave Albie his own knife, and grabbed his bag from Albie’s grasp. Within seconds he’d found a smaller knife in a hidden zip pocket and continued the slow process of freeing the body.
He shook his head and grinned, “Some things never change, do they mate? As impatient as ever. Just take it easy. Remember she’s dead. There’s nothing we can do to help her except make sure we keep all of the evidence intact.” Leo continued sawing his piece of rope once he was happy with Albie’s slowing motion. Monotonous and time consuming, Albie could only watch as Leo initiated a cut in the final length of rope. Redundant, Albie had no choice but to sit and wait.
Finished with the notebook and pen, Tanya put them away as Leo drew the knife through the final tether, and the rope broke free.
All three took up positions beside the body. Each took a deep breath, fingered the edge of the carpet, and moved backwards on their haunches. They peeled it back, careful not to disturb the contents. The taste of rotten flesh hit the back of their throats as they gulped shallow breaths. Albie’s eyes watered against the violent intrusion of death he knew would cling to his body for days. The trio moved in silence to the opposite side of the bundle to repeat the process.
Hands in pockets, Albie tensed against his racing pulse. He shuffled from foot to foot and made a conscious effort not to bite the raw hangnail on his thumb. He reminded himself they’d just unwrapped a corpse.
“Okay, she’s ready for you.” Leo said as he unravelled the parts of the carpet that had proved harder to remove.
Tanya stepped behind her sergeant, notebook open and pencil poised, ready to scribble notes. It took time to build trust in a working relationship. As far as Albie was concerned, he had complete trust in Tanya Watts.They were only five substantial cases into their partnership, but for some reason it just worked. Albie encouraged Tanya, a true believer in gut instinct. He knew she paid attention to her initial reactions and trusted her sixth sense. It was routine for her to record every detail. At a later date, she’d find those buried clues, the game winners.
At first glance, the bulk of the victim’s body was disguised, hidden under a throw of orange, red, and brown mulched leaves, mildew damp, crude clothing nature offered as a cover for her nakedness. Under the leaves, her skin bore a translucent sheen mottled with dark patches and open wounds where parasites laid eggs and feasted on the flesh of their host.
Leo peeled pulp from her face and neck with patient precision and distributed samples into small plastic sealed bottles.
Albie edged forwards and knelt on the sheet beside the body. Entwined around her neck was soiled material, a thin piece of metal poked upwards. The end dug into her chin. “Is that a bra?”
Tanya took a step nearer and Leo picked at the lace edge with his tweezers. “Move that light, will you?”
Albie leaned on one knee and groaned at the clicks as he eased himself to his feet. He stood behind the light and struggled with the frame. He manoeuvred it until the intensity of the beam lit the woman’s torso. He lowered his head, unsure whether it was out of respect or repulsion. He glanced at Tanya as she stared at the damage left by this woman’s abuser. He filled his lungs with tainted air and followed her gaze.
“Do you notice the marks carved into her chest? These were made post-mortem.” Leo swept his gloved fingers between the slashes. “She needs cleaning up to know if they’re of any significance.”
“I’ve seen enough. Need fresh air.” Albie noted the puce tone of Tanya’s skin and watched in silence as she navigated the tent flap and slipped out on his nod.
“She alright?” Leo didn’t look up, but the concern was clear in his voice.
“Sure. We’ve been here a while. Probably seen too much. Notice her arm?” Leo turned his attention to the bruised tracks on the fragile skin of her inner arm.
“Not surprising. Vulnerable addict, easy prey. Look, this is going to take time. Why don’t you check on PC Watts? I’ll be in touch when I have more to tell you.”
The victim stared, her head angled towards him. Her eyes that once sparkled with life showed the true terror of her ordeal. Not for the first time, Albie wished the dead could talk.