6 July 2008
She bucked and jerked wildly and he had to bear down all of his twelve stone onto her wiry yet well-toned young body as her limbs smacked against his… She was fighting for her life.
Then the air exploded from her chest in a heavy moan and she stopped thrashing.
Gasping for breath and drenched in sweat, he pushed himself up from her limp figure. He’d thought she was never going to die, amazed at the fight she had put up. He took several deep breaths and tried to slow his racing heartbeat, watching with fascination as dark viscous blood belched from her eye sockets, joining other rivulets which were already matting her dark bob of hair and forming a pool around her head.
Bending down, he scraped the mess from his knife into the dusty earth and then dropped it into his coat pocket and set to work.
He couldn’t leave her body here.
Dragging the bloodied corpse by the wrists along the flagstone floor, he soon found himself gasping for breath again, and he could feel fresh beads of sweat tickling his ribcage as he hauled her towards the barn entrance.
Then a distant unfamiliar noise caught his attention; a noise which didn’t belong to the surroundings. He paused and listened. It was coming nearer. He dropped the girl’s arms and dashed to a slit in the barn wall, threw himself against the damp stone and twisted sideways to peer through the gap without being seen. For a split-second the sunlight blurred his vision but as it cleared, he spotted a flat-back lorry bouncing along the uneven farm track, coming his way.
He closed his eyes and held his breath, gritting his teeth. He couldn’t believe his bad luck. He had sought out this place especially for its remoteness, visiting it at different times over the past few weeks to finalise his plan. In all that time no one had come near and now, today of all days, he had a visitor. For a few seconds he thought about killing the driver, but then realised he didn’t know this adversary.
He looked back along the lane. The truck was only a few hundred yards away and there was no sign of it stopping.
He took one last look at the lifeless form, realising he had no other choice but to make his escape, leaving behind this bloodied mess. He couldn’t afford to be caught. Not after all this time.
‘Damn,’ he cursed, realising he wouldn’t be able to finish off what he had set out to do. He slipped the playing card from his trouser pocket and, suit side up, placed it over the gaping wound in the middle of her chest. Now was the time to show them that this was his handiwork.
Dennis O’Brian swung the Bedford lorry through the broken entranceway that led to the tumbledown farm and braked sharply, throwing up a cloud of dust. Surveying the old Yorkshire stone buildings in a bad state of repair, he smiled to himself. Then, making a quick call on his mobile, he shut down the engine, flung open the driver’s door and leapt out of the cab. For a good few seconds he scanned the ramshackle buildings, weighing up which portions of stone would reap the most rewards.
Then he froze and his heart skipped a beat as he caught the sound of running feet. He was about to leap back into his truck when he realised the footfalls were growing fainter. Whoever had been here was legging–it, he thought. A grin snaked across his mouth and he chuckled to himself. Bet it was another stone thief who thought he was going to be caught.
As he stepped out of the sunlight into the dimness of the barn’s interior, he wasn’t prepared for what greeted him. Sprawled across the uneven dirt floor was a lifeless and bloody form. Only from the clothing could he tell it was a girl; the injuries inflicted upon her were like nothing he had ever seen before.
He began to retch as he fished in his jeans pocket for his mobile.
As he pushed the CID car door shut with his hip, Detective Sergeant Hunter Kerr paused for a moment and gathered his thoughts while casting his gaze out over the very active crime scene before him. He watched a line of uniformed officers, regular intervals apart, striding slowly through waist-high crops, their white short-sleeved shirts standing out against a backdrop of lush green trees.
Above him the Force helicopter hovered, the drumming noise of its rotor blades disturbing the peace of the surroundings.
He had raced here at breakneck speeds, listening to updates being broadcast over his radio. By the time he arrived, he had enough information to formulate a picture in his mind of what had happened.
Scanning the surroundings with his steel blue eyes, he knew that in one of the dilapidated and derelict farm buildings ahead a young girl’s battered body had been found, and that her killer had fled the area only about an hour beforehand. Right now, everything was being done as quickly and thoroughly as possible to track down her murderer and secure the site.
Hunter knew this area well. As an amateur artist, he had visited the location on many occasions and painted the subjects in the vicinity. In fact, the old farm buildings had been captured many times in his oil sketches. It was disconcerting that such atmospheric surroundings, which featured in paintings back home, were now centre-stage in a gruesome discovery.
Hunter turned to see his partner DC Grace Marshall tramping towards him at a pace. In her smart, pale grey business suit, Grace looked more the confident professional businesswoman than a hard-working front-line murder detective.
She was corralling her dark hair into an elastic scrunchy. Her face was grim.
‘It’s bad in there, Hunter. You ought to see what he’s done to her.’
‘What have we got then, Grace?’
‘It looks like it’s Rebecca Morris, the fourteen-year-old who was reported missing only a few hours ago. She should have turned up for an exam at her school this morning but didn’t.’ Grace finished bunching her hair. ‘She’s in a real mess. Her face is barely recognisable. No one’s moved or touched the body. First uniform on site could see from the state of her that she was dead and immediately cordoned off the area. The three nines call came from a guy who had driven here in his lorry. He’s now back at the station being interviewed. His story is that he just happened to be driving up the track to the farm for a quick ten minutes rest, but he’s got form for theft and it’s my guess that he was going to nick some of the stone or slates from here. Anyway, he says he just got out of his cab, heard the sound of someone running from the back of one of the buildings, and then a car starting up and screeching away. When he goes round to look, he finds the girl dead in the barn.’
‘And do we believe him?’
Grace shrugged her shoulders. ‘No reason not to at the moment. As I say, he is known to us. He’s got previous for nicking stone and lead from church roofs. He’s also got a couple of convictions for drunk and disorderly, but those are over fifteen years ago, and he’s got nothing for violence. And to be fair, he did ring it in and stick around until uniform arrived, and they say he appeared to be genuinely shook up over it. I’ve had him lodged in a cell and he can stew there for a couple of hours ’til we’re clear from here. I’ll get a statement from him and then kick him out.’
‘Any description of the person he disturbed?’ Hunter asked.
‘No, unfortunately not. Well gone before he got to the barn. The guy says he heard a car or van driving off up the dirt track over there.’ Grace pointed to a small copse of trees several hundred yards away.
It was warmer than he’d anticipated and Hunter tugged at the crisp collar of his blue shirt. Before he had shot away from the station he had slung on a jacket. Now he wished he hadn’t and he undid the top button of his shirt and loosened his tie.
‘Where does that track go to, Grace?’ he asked, pointing at a line of bushes just beyond the old farm buildings.
‘It leads up to a B road half a mile away. It takes you past the Ings and eventually brings you out near the village of Harlington. I’ve got uniform to seal off that area as well.’
‘Okay, good job, Grace. Are Scenes of Crime here?’
‘Just arrived. The forensic pathologist and the senior investigating officer are also en route. Everything should be in place in the next hour.’
Hunter realised it was an ideal opportunity to slip off his jacket and make the most of the warm breeze drifting across the fields. Going to the rear of his CID car he sprang open the boot and dropped his coat into the back. Then, pulling the sides of his shirt from his sticky and clammy skin, he reached into one of the storage boxes and pulled out a white forensic suit and set of shoe covers. He handed these to Grace and then pulled out another set for himself.
‘Come on then, show me what we’ve got,’ he said as he stepped into one leg of the protective suit.
Having satisfied themselves that all the relevant evidence sites were secured, Hunter and Grace made their way back to the murder scene, carefully following the police cordon tape, past the ruined farmhouse building and into a tumbledown barn. Streams of light burst through gaps between the old roof timbers where slates had become dislodged or broken, but despite the sunlight the interior was cool.
The body lay unceremoniously on the dirty stone slab floor, a pool of thick, congealed blood around the head and shoulders. The battered and swollen face was caked in blood. Where the eyes should have been, only two dark sockets crusted in dried blood looked back. At first glance, because of the injuries, if Hunter hadn’t already been told he was looking at the face of a young girl, he would never have known. The arms were outstretched above the head and the hands had already been forensically bagged. The girl’s T-shirt and padded pink lace bra had been pulled up, exposing her small pale breasts. A huge gash exposed the breastbone, and other less deep cuts covered her abdomen. Her jeans were undone but still around her hips.
In another white forensic suit, bending over the cadaver, he recognised Professor Lizzie McCormack. Slim and petite, in her early sixties, with features not dissimilar to the actress Geraldine McEwan, she had dutifully earned herself the nickname ‘Miss Marple’. She was one of the small number of British forensic experts who had been invited to work with American scientists at the Tennessee body farm, studying detection experiments on decomposing murder victims, and had gained national recognition in the location of human remains and the linking of offenders to the scene.
He was pleased Professor McCormack had been called out. Hunter had first seen her at work a year ago when the remains of a young mother had been found in a muddy ditch just outside town. She was one of a handful of forensic botanists in the country and had been able to establish that the pollen found on the shoes of the girl’s partner exactly matched the type found in the ditch. Not only had this evidence broken the man’s story but also, such was her presence in the witness box, the jury had no difficulty in reaching a guilty verdict and he’d been sentenced to 22 years in jail. It had been a good result.
Her light-grey eyes looked up from the dead girl and, from behind a pair of thin gold-framed spectacles, fixed his. ‘Detective Sergeant Kerr, long time no see,’ she greeted him in her soft Scottish lilt.
Her welcome surprised him. ‘You’ve remembered me after all this time,’ he said.
‘With a fine Scottish name like that, how could I forget you?’
‘And there’s me thinking it was because of my good looks.’
She smiled, tut-tutted, and gave him a quick dismissive shake of her head. ‘By the way, before I start my examination, I think you need this.’ She handed him a clear plastic exhibit bag. Inside was a playing card, its reverse side facing him.
He turned it over. The seven of hearts. He gave a quizzical frown.
‘My sentiments exactly,’ the pathologist responded. ‘That card was partially covering the gaping wound you can see in the centre of her chest.’ She turned her attention back to the cadaver.
Hunter watched her move painstakingly around the body, her every move captured on video. The samples she pointed to were quickly photographed and bagged by the Scenes of Crime officers and forensic team who followed in her wake. Pausing, she lifted her head towards Hunter and Grace. Glancing over her spectacles, which had fallen down her nose, she enquired, ‘Has anyone moved the body?’
Hunter gave Grace a questioning look.
She responded with a shrug and shake of head. ‘Not that we know of. The man who found the body couldn’t get away quick enough before he phoned in. Though he said he heard someone running away from the scene.’
‘Well, the body has definitely been moved. There are scuffmarks in the matted blood on the floor; clearly where she has been dragged. And also, we have the arms outstretched above her head which tend to reinforce that theory.’ The pathologist rolled the corpse towards her and exposed an ugly pattern of purple beneath the surface of the back’s flesh, the result of the muscles and organs no longer pumping blood around the body, and gravity taking over.
‘The lividity is just starting to blanch. Hypostasis is in the early stages and body temperature readings would indicate she has been here for only a few hours. By the drag marks through the blood I would say that someone has attempted to move this body after death.’
‘We believe it’s a fourteen-year-old girl who was reported missing only a few hours ago. Her name’s Rebecca Morris,’ said Grace.
‘Well, my initial findings would suggest she was most probably murdered less than two hours ago. She has multiple stab and incised wounds to her head and as you can see a sharp instrument has penetrated both eyes. There is also the deep wound to the upper chest. Despite the considerable amount of congealed blood, I can’t say for sure yet if she was dead before or after the wounds were inflicted because I have also found this.’ Professor McCormack pulled down the neckline of the dead girl’s T-shirt a few inches below the throat. With a latex gloved hand, she pointed out several red weals around the front of the neck.
‘There is petechial haemorrhaging on the skin which is consistent with some type of ligature being placed tightly around the anterior neck. In other words, she has been strangled with something approximately five centimetres wide. And looking at the nip and graze marks on the side of her upper neck my first thoughts are a belt of some type. The post mortem will give us a better indication.’ She snapped off her gloves. ‘I’ve finished now if you’d like to bag up this once dear creature and remove her to the mortuary for me.’ She eased herself up gently, her hands clasped around her knee joints. ‘The arthritis is playing me up today.’
The smell of death was something Hunter Kerr could never get used to. Despite the air conditioning in the white tiled mortuary, the stench was a nauseating mixture of decaying flesh and stale blood, which enveloped him and which he knew would be clinging to every article of clothing he wore for the remainder of the day. He popped an extra strong mint into his mouth in an effort to cover the smell. The mortuary also brought back the memories of when he had dealt with his first cot-death. The baby had been roughly the same age as his own first-born and all he had seen throughout the procedure was the face of Jonathan superimposed on the dead child. For days after, he had lain awake at night watching the movement of the Moses basket at the side of the bed and listening to Jonathan’s breathing pattern.
The girl on the metal slab had been cleaned up and he could now clearly see the horrendous wounds inflicted on her head. The dark mushy sockets, devoid of eyes, gave the face an almost surreal appearance. He had never been squeamish when it came to looking at dead bodies, whatever state they were in, though as a young cop he had never liked having to physically handle the cold flesh. That was a job he’d faced with trepidation and, whenever possible, avoided.
Now in her green pathologist’s scrubs, Professor McCormack moved gracefully around the body, her dexterous hands measuring and moving limbs, picking up and setting down the many shiny precision instruments, each having its own function to perform, whether it be cracking and cutting bone or slicing through flesh. She probed orifices with swabs and scraped under fingernails, meticulously noting and labelling each sample, all the while speaking with her soft Scottish brogue into a metal microphone hanging from the ceiling, poised above the cadaver.
‘The body is that of a normally developed pubescent white female, and appears generally consistent with the stated age of fourteen years,’ she began. Moving to the head, she scrutinised, probed and measured the numerous wounds. ‘There is evidence of multiple sharp-force injury,’ she continued in a steady voice.
After spending some considerable time counting and detailing each of the head wounds, she moved to the neck. She pointed out several marks to the Scenes of Crime officer and stepped back while close-up photographs were taken. Then, taking a small surgical scalpel, she began the process of incising the yellowing flesh at the base of the neck and peeling the scalp and face completely over the head to reveal a glistening white skull.
Inside fifteen minutes the professor had removed the brain, measured and weighed it, and sliced off small samples of the grey tissue for further analysis. She then began moving down the body, examining the many cuts and gashes inflicted on the upper torso. Within a minute she gave out an elongated ‘Mmmm’, paused, and caught Hunter’s gaze. ‘You’re going to find this very interesting, very interesting indeed.’
Hunter furrowed his brow.
‘That’s grabbed your attention, hasn’t it?’ She grinned, and began circling an index finger above the cadaver’s abdomen. ‘I thought at first these were minor stab wounds,’ she continued, pointing to several regular marks gouged into the flesh. ‘These cuts are nowhere near as deep as the others. The blade has only penetrated the first subcutaneous layer.’
Hunter moved in closer, bending over Rebecca’s body, focusing on the area Professor McCormick indicated. He stared at the series of consistent slashes above the navel, unable at first to make head-nor-tail of them; that was until he followed the slow deliberate movement of the pathologist’s finger, then he did. He could quite clearly make out the letters ‘I I V’ and a number three lined across the stomach. He glanced at the professor. She looked preoccupied.
‘This is a first for me,’ she said. ‘Well, in the flesh anyway, so to speak, but I have seen photographs of similar markings of corpses and read about this some time ago.’ She paused again before continuing. ‘What you have here, Detective Sergeant, is the killer’s signature. What you make of it is the same as me at the moment, a series of letters or Roman numerals, and what appears to be the number three.’ She took a step back while the Scenes of Crime officer moved in with his camera and rattled off a sequence of photographs, its flash highlighting the red marks carved into the marble-like flesh.
‘Add to this the playing card, which was found lying across her chest, and I can say with some confidence that this is definitely the killer letting you know it’s his or her handiwork. Though, given the viciousness of the attack, I am more inclined to favour that a man’s hand is responsible.’ The pathologist caught Hunter’s startled look. ‘I would start by contacting other forces, because it’s my guess that this young girl is not his first victim.’
She returned to her examination of the body, and just over an hour later she snapped off her latex gloves and turned to Hunter.
‘Many of the wounds to the face and head are regular and suggest a knife of at least ten centimetres in length with an angled blade at its point. Many are stab type wounds, which have penetrated both the facial and muscle tissue of the head, and in places the bone beneath has actually been chipped. The most serious of those are to the eye sockets. Here, the knife has actually sliced through into the brain and penetrated to the extent of ten centimetres. The downward slant of these wounds indicate a continued jabbing action. A real frenzied hacking at the face.’ The professor emphasised her words by thrusting her arm up and down several times. ‘My other findings are death by asphyxia due to ligature strangulation. The hyoid bone and the thyroid and cricoid cartilages are fractured, which would indicate tremendous pressure around the throat. The marks suggest a belt of some type and I reinforce this by a buckle-mark where it’s nipped the upper neck. The mark is so clear that if you find the right belt, I will be able to confirm a match.
‘This is a particularly vicious and sustained attack. From the lack of defence injuries, I would suggest she was strangled first and then, as she lay dead or dying, she was stabbed numerous times to the face and head. There is no evidence of any sexual interference, though swabs have been taken for more detailed analysis. It never ceases to amaze me just how cruel the human race is,’ she finished as she turned towards the shower room.
‘Earlier today, the body of a teenage girl was found in old farm buildings close to the town of Barnwell. Police have identified her as fourteen-year-old Rebecca Morris and confirm that she had been brutally murdered.’
The hairs at the back of the man’s head bristled and he could feel his face flush. The rest of the news report became a jumble of words as he stared at the TV, which flicked between scenes showing the regional newsroom and a reporter who was broadcasting in front of the derelict buildings — the farm from earlier.
That was the closest yet to being caught.
He screwed up his face and shuddered, feeling a little light-headed. He had held his breath for far too long as he concentrated on the news report. He exhaled sharply and took in a gulp of air.
In the depths of his mind he recalled the events of the past two days. In the early hours of the night before last, and for most of yesterday morning, he could barely contain his excitement. It had increased ten-fold when he had caught sight of her waiting by the bus stop where he had arranged they should meet. As she climbed into his car, he could feel himself getting an erection. He had to pull the hem of his T-shirt over his lap to hide the bulge.
He could recall the conversation as though it had just happened.
‘Didn’t think you were going to come.’
‘I promised I’d be here, didn’t I?’ she’d smiled back at him. ‘Though I don’t know what I’m going to say when Mum and Dad find out I’ve skipped an exam.’
‘That’s not going to matter once we get this portfolio done. A modelling agency will soon snap you up and the money you’re going to earn will take care of any exam marks,’ he’d lied.
In the barn he’d watched her change out of her school clothes, blushing with embarrassment, and managed to shoot several frames of her undressing before she stopped him. She’d put a hand over his lens, with the other arm across her chest, covering the pretty pink cotton bra that hid her small, firm breasts.
He’d laughed and tried to pull her arm away but she’d resisted and got angry.
‘I want to go home,’ she’d said. ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough.’ And she’d put her blouse back on.
That’s when he’d slapped her across the face. He couldn’t believe it when she’d slapped him back. The surprise made him drop his camera.
He’d snatched off his belt without thinking and wound it so quickly round her neck that she barely registered what was happening. He pulled it so tight that the veins at the sides of her temples had swollen and he feared they would burst.
The rest was a blur and over as quickly as it had started. All he could remember was standing over her body, staring at the bloodied mess he had created.
As he had surveyed his work, a surge of power shot through him, tightening every sinew in his body.
He tried to recall if the rush was the same as before and decided this time it had felt better. His erection remained, even when she had breathed her last.
The noise in the background brought him back to the present, and as the vision in his mind blurred, he felt his chest fill with a sense of urgency and excitement again. There was movement in his groin. He was getting erect just thinking about what he’d done.
From the kitchen, he could hear the domestic sounds of his mother getting their evening meal ready. He pointed the remote at the TV and switched over to the other local news channel to see if the story was being aired there, too.