A Promise to the Dead – Victoria Jenkins

Afterwards, they sat in silence at the edge of the bed, side by side, their hands resting on the mattress, their fingers not quite touching. His clothes lay on the carpet near the bedroom door, abandoned in haste and a flood of desire; neglected in the insistency of their mutual intent. The heat that had rushed like fire through his body not long before was already cooled; in its place, he felt an emptiness that chilled his skin. He glanced at his bare hand resting on the sheet; pale and smooth, untouched by time. It was the worst silence he had ever known, though in the hours and years that followed, he would become accustomed to far worse. Trying to distract himself from the photograph that sat on the bedside table, he turned his head to look around the room, taking in details that until now had gone unnoticed: the pictures that lined the far wall, the clothes that had been slung over the back of a chair in the corner; the stubbed-out cigarette butt in a glass ashtray on the dressing table. He wondered what had gone on in this room, in this bed, and the thought made him nauseous with a violence he had never experienced before. Earlier, not long ago, this had seemed like a good idea, something he had needed to do. He thought it would prove something, if only to himself. Yet now, trapped in the silence of the place and bound by a thousand thoughts he didn’t want his memory to linger on, he felt strangled by an air he couldn’t breathe. A hand met his, fingers interlocking with his own. He looked down, sickened by the shiver the touch sent racing through him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He had thought he would feel elated, euphoric – triumphant, perhaps, in some perverse kind of way – but instead he felt enclosed, trapped by an emotion for which he wasn’t ready and for which he didn’t have a name. ‘I love you.

’ He stood hurriedly, suddenly and awkwardly aware of his own nakedness, of how inferior and out of place he felt. He picked his jeans up from the floor and searched the pockets for his keys, trying to escape the gaze he felt resting upon him. ‘Don’t say that.’ A hand on his bare shoulder kept him back. He turned, allowing the trousers to fall to the floor. When soft lips met his own, he reciprocated, hating himself for it but wanting it at the same time, feeling the kiss breathe air back into him. His hands moved up, his fingers tracing bare arms, shoulders, throat. They moved towards one another, tightening as they closed their grip. And when the face before him altered – the expression contorted, eyes wide with a fear he recognised – they kept tightening and didn’t stop. ONE Matthew Lewis pushed his foot flatter to the accelerator, watching as the speedometer raced past fifty.

‘Slow down, will you?’ His girlfriend, Stacey, was sitting in the passenger seat beside him, her bare feet pressed up against the dashboard; her toenails painted a lurid pink that managed to glow in the darkness. He glanced with contempt at the high-heeled shoes that lay kicked off in the footwell beneath her. Everything she was wearing that day had been chosen with the intention of pissing him off, and she had got exactly what she’d been after. ‘You’re not going up the A470, are you?’ He didn’t respond. He was too angry to speak to her. After what he’d seen of her that day – after what half the city had seen of her that day – he didn’t know whether he ever wanted to speak to her again. He knew she was doing it to try to make him jealous. Well, congratulations to her, he thought: it was working. ‘There’s police everywhere tonight,’ she said, picking idly at a fingernail, the noise grating on the last of his nerves. ‘They’ll be looking for drink-drivers.

’ Matthew’s hands closed around the steering wheel. It was her fault they’d had to leave town in the first place; her fault that they now needed to avoid attracting any possible attention from passing police. If she hadn’t been acting the way she had, they would have still been out enjoying themselves; or trying to, at least. He hadn’t even drunk that much. He hadn’t been able to relax, not while she was flaunting herself in front of him, although the few pints he’d had now felt like so many more. He loosened the scarf that was wrapped around his neck. He had bought it from a pop-up stall on St Mary’s Street when they were on their way to the stadium. Countless of these stalls erupted throughout the city’s main streets on every match day, selling cheaply made merchandise for overinflated prices to parents relenting to nagging children, and adults who had enjoyed too many pints to know any better. There was something about match-day atmosphere that swept people along in its glorious optimism, even when the odds of a win were stacked against the home team. On this occasion, Wales had lost to Italy 13–12.

It had been a poor game, non-eventful from the start, but it wasn’t the loss that had dampened his spirits. Who turned up to watch a rugby match wearing a short dress and heels? He glanced at Stacey’s legs, her pale flesh pinched pink by the cold, her bare knees pimpled in a smattering of goose bumps. With her face concealed beneath a mask of heavy make-up, and the push-up bra she had denied she was wearing doing its best to assist her breasts in a breakout bid, he barely recognised her as the person he had met nearly eighteen months earlier. ‘Go over the mountain.’ ‘What?’ ‘The mountain,’ she repeated, slowing her voice as though speaking to a child. ‘You’re less likely to be stopped by anyone up there.’ When he didn’t reply, ignoring her as though silence was in some way a form of victory, she rolled her eyes and turned to the darkened window. ‘Do what you want,’ she drawled, leaning against the headrest. ‘Get pulled over for all I care … it’s not my problem.’ Following her instructions but not prepared to admit she might have a point, he took the next right turn.

It led them off the main road that headed north from Cardiff, through a small village lined with imposing detached houses that were a million miles away from the estate on which he lived. He took a good look at each in turn as they passed; in one, the curtains were pulled back behind a floor-to-ceiling window, exposing the comfort and luxury of the room and its inhabitants for the outside world to see. He felt a pang of envy for a wealth his family had never known. Maybe one day, he thought, when he did well for himself, he would be able to buy his parents a house like that. At his side, behind the handbrake where he had propped it, his mobile phone began to ring. Grabbing it before his girlfriend could get her hands on it, he looked down at the lit screen. Antony. Matthew had texted his cousin before they’d left town, making an excuse about not feeling well. He didn’t want to have to explain the real reason why they wouldn’t be staying at his house that evening as had been the plan. No one wanted to admit that their girlfriend was an embarrassment.

He shoved the phone into the pocket of the driver’s door, leaving it to ring through to answerphone. ‘I don’t see why we couldn’t have stayed over.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really.’ ‘I can trust you with him then, can I?’ ‘With Antony? Are you taking the piss?’ Matthew’s head snapped to the side, anger flashing from his eyes in the darkness of the car. He could feel his rage like a separate part of himself, a part that he hadn’t known belonged to him. He didn’t recognise it. No one had ever made him feel like this before. ‘I think you’re the one doing that, don’t you? Turning up half naked, flirting with anyone who’ll look at you.’ A smirk stretched across her face, lopsided and sarcastic. It managed to make her ugly.

‘Awww … are you jealous? Now you know how it feels.’ He gripped the steering wheel more tightly as he took a curve in the mountain road. They had left the lights of the village and been thrown into darkness by the high, overgrown hedges that ran either side of the lane. The sky lay blue-black and heavy over them, oppressive in its closeness and its expanse. She was never going to let him forget it. One kiss, that was all it was. He had told her about it not long after it had happened – even though she would probably never have found out if he’d kept his mouth shut – and ever since his admission she had been making him pay for it, throwing out snide comments at every opportunity and treating him as though she couldn’t let him out of her sight. He had always been taught that honesty was the best policy, but he realised now that he would have been better off saying nothing. ‘This is pathetic.’ ‘No.

You’re pathetic.’ She turned to the window, making it clear the conversation was over. He glared at the back of her blonde head, resentment festering inside him. He couldn’t live like this any more, with everything on her terms. Tomorrow, once the nag of alcohol that was gripping his brain had released him, he was going to tell her it was over. ‘What’s that?’ The car was shuddering, making a chugging noise, as though its exhaust was being dragged along the road. The hedges had become trees now, their thick necks reaching skywards and their long arms stretching across the night to shroud everything that passed beneath them, swallowing the car within the tunnel they formed. He looked at the dash. ‘Fuck.’ He had planned on filling up the tank the following day after leaving Antony’s house.

They hadn’t had time earlier that day; they had been running late and the traffic was notoriously bad on match days. He had forgotten the car was almost empty. ‘Fuck!’ He pulled to the side of the narrow lane and slammed the palm of his hand against the window as the car ground to a stuttering halt. ‘You’re joking.’ ‘Yeah, I’m joking,’ he snapped, unclipping his seat belt. ‘Hilarious, isn’t it?’ ‘Have you got any spare fuel in the boot?’ He looked at her, incredulous. ‘Oh yeah, I always carry a can of petrol around with me, just in case.’ Her painted mouth, smeared pink at the corners, twisted into a sneer at his response before it snapped back to a frown. ‘Can you phone someone?’ He took his mobile from the door and tapped in the passcode to unlock it. Its screen shot out a weak beam of light.

‘No signal. Perfect. You?’ Scrabbling through her handbag, Stacey seemed to take an age to retrieve her mobile. The longer she took to find it, the greater Matthew’s impatience grew. ‘No.’ ‘Brilliant.’ ‘It’s not my fault I’ve got no signal.’ ‘No,’ he said, opening the car door, ‘but it is your fault we’re stuck up here.’ She folded her arms across her chest, trying to stave off the bite of cold night air that had swept through the car when he’d opened the door. She glared at him through narrowed eyes.

‘If you hadn’t been stupid enough to let the car run out of petrol, we wouldn’t be here.’ ‘And if you hadn’t acted like such a little slapper today, we wouldn’t have had to leave town, would we?’ He got out and slammed the door behind him, its thud echoing between the trees that surrounded them. Beneath his rugby shirt, his heart hammered with adrenalin and frustration. He knew he shouldn’t have invited her, but it was too late for that now. He already regretted what he’d just said, but it was too late to change that as well. Glancing along the darkened strip of road that bent to the right ahead of him, he tried to estimate how long it might take him to find help. He had driven these lanes before, but he didn’t really know them that well. He thought there might be a house within a mile or so, somewhere set back from the road. It wouldn’t take him too long to reach it, not with the cold and the alcohol powering him. ‘Where are you going?’ Behind him, Stacey had got out of the car.

Her feet were bare and she had her arms wrapped around her skinny frame, unsuccessfully trying to keep the cold out. When she spoke, her voice was thrown to the breeze, barely reaching him though he was only metres away. ‘Get back inside,’ he called. ‘It’s freezing. I won’t be long.’ He waited for her to get back into the car, knowing she would do so with little argument. If nothing else, running out of petrol was giving him the opportunity to take some time away from her, and anyway, she would only slow him down. Among other things, she was lazy. If something involved walking further than the end of the street, she would find an excuse to get out of doing it. The more he thought about it, the more he wondered what he was doing with her.

Fuelled by frustration and by the chill that bit through his jacket, he quickened his pace along the mountain lane, the path ahead lit by a full moon. He’d been walking a while before he realised he’d left his mobile phone in the door of the car, though he was unlikely to have got any signal anyway. With his hands shoved into his jacket pockets, he pushed on, surer now that there must be a house somewhere further along this road. He heard a screech overhead, a bird of some kind flitting between the trees above him, and the weight of drink that had tugged at his temples not long earlier lifted, sobriety bringing with it a disconcerting sense of unease. He stopped at a hedgerow to tie his shoelace. Crouched to the ground, he felt himself enveloped by the darkness that surrounded him. An earlier sense of bravado had been replaced by an unsettling feeling of anxiety, and when he stood, he glanced around nervously, aware now of every shift in the leaves above him and every movement in the hedgerow at his side. There was a gap in the hedge ahead. As he neared it, he saw a metal gate pushed open; the kind of metal gate that usually led to farmland, to keep cattle or horses shut into the field beyond. He squinted, trying to focus on what lay on the other side of the gate.

As he stood there, something in the distance caught his eye. He stepped towards the gate, his shoes sinking into the soft ground below his feet. His eyes narrowed, and for a moment he thought he had imagined it. Waiting there, he eventually saw it again: a distant flash of brightness that momentarily illuminated a corner of the field. He felt a wave of relief pass through him. A light meant signs of life, and signs of life meant help. He didn’t need a lift far – the nearest twenty-four-hour petrol station was within a few miles – and if he couldn’t get a lift back then he would just have to use a phone there to call a taxi. He didn’t care any more how much it cost him; he just wanted to get home. He stopped at the edge of the wide field that lay before him and scanned the blackness, his eyes still struggling to become accustomed to the dark. Then he saw it again – the glow of a torch or the flash of headlights – and this time he was sure that his eyes hadn’t deceived him.

Being closer to someone was enough to fill him with a comforting reassurance, and he began to move towards the light. His eyes narrowed as he crossed the field, focusing on the near distance and the shapes that stood ahead of him: a van with its back doors flung open, and a man to the side of it, stooped low as though reaching to the ground for something. He hurried his pace. He was cold and he wanted to get back to Stacey. Though he was angry at her, he didn’t want her to start thinking he had abandoned her up here. He stopped as a sudden and unsettling uncertainty swept through him. There was something not right about this, not at this time of night. If he turned back now, would he be able to find help elsewhere? He stepped tentatively closer. He was going to speak, but as he neared the van, he saw something that kept the words held down, choking every syllable in the back of his throat. The blur of shapes began to sharpen, forming a clear picture that stood out against the darkened background.

For a moment he couldn’t move, stuck fast to the ground, his fear rendering him immobile. He needed to get away from this place. He needed help. He turned to run. Through the feeling of terror that swelled in his chest like the onset of a heart attack, his legs pushed hard, his feet pounding the ground as he raced back to the lane. A rush of blood filled his head, so that all he could hear was his own pulse throbbing in his ears. Reaching the gate, he turned back on to the lane, fighting to hear the sound of footsteps following him once he hit tarmac. There was nothing. He sprinted as fast as he could, trying to work out how far away the car was. Then he remembered.

There was no petrol. Panic gripped him, pushing frightened tears behind his eyes. Sprinting so hard for so long was making him feel sick, but he knew he couldn’t stop. He started to recognise shapes in the darkness, the silhouettes of hedgerows he had passed on his way up. Not far now, he told himself. Don’t slow down. Straining his eyes against the flood of night that swallowed the lane ahead, he waited for the sight of his car to emerge. And then he heard it: a low rumble of engine noise in the distance that was soon behind him, stalking him. He was thrown into the glare of the van’s headlights as they lit the road ahead of him. He spotted his car, so near now yet still too far away.

The rev of an engine. The screech of brakes. Then his body was thrown into the air as though he was weightless. TWO Detective Inspector Alex King and Detective Constable Chloe Lane stood at the side of the car and watched the white-suited scene-of-crime officer who was dusting the passenger-side door for fingerprints. The glare of the spotlights projected on to the man and his surroundings illuminated them like a studio set, as though the scene was set up with props and the people who moved within it were merely actors. The mountain road had been cordoned off for half a mile in each direction, though it was not much in use at that hour anyway. It was past 2.30 in the morning and the area was disconcertingly quiet despite the flurry of activity that had ensued upon the arrival of the emergency services. A team of officers was performing zone searches in the woodland surrounding them, their torch beams igniting life in the darkness. ‘So much for a night off,’ Alex said, giving Chloe a sympathetic smile.

The younger woman had spent that afternoon planning her evening: an Indian takeaway for one and a film on the sofa. Having exhausted the subject of the limited vegetarian options available at Chloe’s local Indian restaurant, conversation at the station had drifted to debate about whether a box set on Netflix was preferable to a film; the disagreement interrupting the monotony of a relatively quiet day. Both detectives realised they should have basked in the rare air of calm while it lasted. ‘Remind me not to take meal recommendations from Dan again.’ ‘Not good?’ Chloe pulled a face and shoved her hands into her pockets. The air was bitingly cold and they stood with their coats zipped to their chins and arms folded across their chests. When the call had come in, Alex had been asleep, and she had pulled on yesterday’s clothes, left abandoned on the chest of drawers in the corner. Somehow, even at this hour of the morning, Chloe managed to look pristine, her newly darkened hair swept back into a neat bun at the back of her head. The 999 call had come in at around 1.30, after a passing motorist had noticed the damage to the windscreen of the car, which was seemingly abandoned at the roadside.

Unprepared to face the cold, the darkness or whatever else might have been lurking beyond the safety of his own vehicle, the driver had stayed in his car at the junction with the main road a further mile down the lane, where he had been able to get a signal to make the call. He’d had the right idea, Alex thought; instead, it had been left to the first attending officer to confront the scene that awaited them. Alex looked through the window at the girl inside the car, who lay slumped face down between the front seats, her blonde hair matted with her own dark blood. She was wearing a dress that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the kind of reality television programme Alex could never understand the popularity of, and which seemed inappropriate for an early-March night – short, strappy and a size too small. Despite her heavy make-up, her skin managed to look almost translucent in death. A single bullet wound to the back of the head had ended her life. It had been fired through the front windscreen. The first attending officer had given Alex the handbag that had been retrieved from the floor of the car: a small silver clutch with a long metal chain handle. Inside, there was a candyfloss-pink lipstick, a tube of mascara, a mobile phone, a set of house keys, two ten-pound notes and a small collection of coins. Zipped into an inside pocket at the back of the bag was a bank card and a driver’s licence.

The photograph was unmistakably that of the girl slumped between the seats of the car. Stacey Cooper. Twenty years old. A barrage of questions presented themselves, jostling for priority. What had the girl been doing on the mountain road at this time of night? Where had she been going? Had she been alone? And if not, why was no one with her now? Chloe leaned towards the car and took a closer look through the driver’s-side window. She had her own set of questions. ‘If she was trying to escape from someone, why didn’t she just drive away? Unless she was trying to escape from someone she was with.’ Alex didn’t reply, for the moment lost in her own thoughts. Despite nearly two decades spent in the police force, she knew she would never get used to sights such as this. She didn’t want to become desensitised to it, as she’d seen happen to other detectives.

Recent thoughts of her imminent departure from the force returned to the forefront of her mind. More so than ever, she knew she was doing the right thing. She had hoped to leave at a quiet time, though she realised those times were few and far between. Now, she thought, as she looked at the poor girl whose life had been brought to an end so violently, she wouldn’t be going anywhere. She pulled a pair of disposable latex gloves from her pocket and slipped them on before opening the driver’s door. The key to the 2004 silver Citroën C4 was still in the ignition. She turned it, expecting to hear the sound of the engine kicking into life. Instead, a low, dull spluttering sound emerged. She glanced at the dashboard. Empty.

‘She’d run out of petrol.’ Scanning the inside of the car, she spotted a pair of high-heeled shoes lying in the passenger footwell. The angle of the girl’s body – her right knee twisted awkwardly against the handbrake and her left leg stretched out towards the pedals – suggested she had tried to get into the back seat from the passenger side of the vehicle rather than the driver’s side. ‘Actually,’ she amended, ‘someone else had run out of petrol. I don’t think anyone would attempt to drive in those shoes, do you?’ She reached into the pocket of the driverside door and retrieved a mobile phone. When she pressed a button at the side of the handset, the screen came to life with a photograph of a young man smiling for the camera, gripping what looked like a sports trophy. He was handsome in a way Alex imagined young women might find attractive, with a fashionable haircut and eyes that seemed to look beyond what they saw. ‘Boyfriend?’ suggested Chloe, taking the phone from her. ‘Looks like. The car’s probably his then.

’ Alex studied the windscreen from the inside. They would need ballistics to analyse the hole that had been made in the glass, but the size of it and the damage that had been incurred as a result suggested that the weapon used had been fired close to the vehicle. An expert would be able to tell them more; hopefully they’d also be able to identify the make and model of weapon used. Placing a gloved hand on the back of the driver’s seat and leaning over the girl’s body, Alex stretched to study the sole of the victim’s left foot. ‘What are you thinking?’ Chloe asked, watching her. ‘I’m thinking she’d been outside the car at some point. Look.’ Alex got out and Chloe took her place on the driver’s seat. She leaned over and dipped her head to look at the girl’s bare feet. The pale soles were speckled with gravel and dirt, a few tiny stones still embedded in her skin.

‘Why would she get out of the car?’ ‘To help with something, possibly.’ Alex stepped aside as the SOCO who had been scrutinising the other side of the car moved towards them. His brush worked the length of the window frame, his wrist deft in his task. ‘But what?’ she added, thinking aloud. ‘They run out of petrol,’ Chloe said slowly, backing out of the vehicle, ‘and he gets out of the car.’ ‘The boyfriend?’ Chloe nodded. ‘She then gets out too, following him perhaps, and they argue. Maybe she was annoyed with him for forgetting to fill up. Things get out of hand, he turns on her, she tries to escape and then …’ ‘Why does he get out of the car?’ Alex challenged. ‘If he can see from the dash that they’ve run out of petrol, he doesn’t need to get out and look at anything.

I don’t know,’ she said, her top lip curling. ‘Shooting someone over an argument about an empty petrol tank seems a bit extreme to me.’ There were so many questions they needed to find answers to before they could draw any conclusions about the chain of events that had led to the young woman’s death. Where had the couple been? Where were they heading? Did the man own a firearm, and if so, why had he been carrying it? ‘He doesn’t look the type to carry a gun.’ Chloe gave voice to the same thought Alex had been harbouring. Although she knew that killers came in every shape and size, and that assumptions based on appearance could prove dangerously misleading, the young man who had smiled at her from the lit screen of the mobile phone looked an unlikely suspect for a gun owner. ‘DI King.’ Turning, Alex saw a uniformed officer approaching. ‘There are tyre marks just up the lane. Can’t tell if they’re old ones or not.

’ ‘I’ll be there in a second.’ She turned back to the car, studying the hole the bullet had made in the windscreen. If the gun hadn’t belonged to Stacey’s boyfriend, then that meant someone else had been there with them, either someone known to the couple or someone who was a stranger. For the moment, they had to assume that this girl and her boyfriend were the only people who knew what had happened up there. In which case, one question seemed more pressing than any other. Where was the boyfriend now?

.

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