Deadly Secrets – Robert Bryndza

It was late on Christmas Eve when Marissa Lewis stepped off the train onto the platform at Brockley, moving with the drunken crowds to the footbridge. The first flakes of snow twirled lazily in the air, and the crowds were full of warmth and alcohol, eager to get home and start the festivities. Marissa was a beautiful woman with blue-black hair, violet-coloured eyes, and an hourglass figure. She took pride in being the kind of girl your mother warns you about. She was coming home from the club in London where she performed as a burlesque dancer, and wore a long black vintage coat with an elaborate fur trim, heavy pale makeup, false lashes and a slash of scarlet on her lips. As she reached the steps up to the footbridge, a couple of young men up ahead turned back, greedily checking her out. She followed their eyes down and saw that the bottom half of her long coat had come undone, revealing, as she climbed the steps, a flash of the stockings and suspenders she wore for her act. She stopped to fasten the large brass buttons, and the crowds surged around her. ‘I hope that’s fake fur,’ muttered a voice behind. Marissa glanced back to a bony young woman with her equally bony boyfriend. They both wore scruffy winter coats and the woman had long greasy hair. ‘Yes, it’s fake,’ Marissa insisted, a dazzling smile masking the lie. ‘Looks like real fur to me,’ said the young woman. Her boyfriend stood staring with his mouth slightly open at the flash of lace and suspender as Marissa finished arranging her coat. ‘Frank!’ she barked, dragging him away and off up the stairs.

The fur trim on Marissa’s coat was real. It had been a bargain from a second hand vintage shop in Soho. She’d bought it, along with the vanity case hooked over her arm. Marissa climbed the remaining stairs and crossed the footbridge. The train tracks below gleamed in the moonlight, and a thin dusting of snow was starting to lay on the rooftops. As she neared the end, she saw the two young men had dropped back, and were waiting at the top of the stairs. Her heart began to beat faster. ‘Can I help you?’ asked the tallest, offering his arm. He was handsome, with red hair, and a smooth ruddy face. He wore a three-piece suit, a long tan winter coat, and his tan leather shoes gleamed.

His friend was shorter, and dressed almost identically, but wasn’t quite as blessed in the looks department. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘It’s slippery,’ he insisted, thrusting his arm up under hers. They were now blocking one half of the stairs down. She eyed him for a moment, and decided it might be easier to accept help. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and took his arm. His shorter friend wanted to take her vanity case, but she shook her head and smiled. The salt crunched underfoot as they climbed down, keeping Marissa sandwiched between them. They reeked of beer and cigarettes. ‘Are you a model?’ asked the tall guy.

‘No.’ ‘What does M.L. stand for?’ asked his shorter friend, indicating the letters printed on the vanity case. ‘My initials.’ ‘And? What’s your name?’ ‘I’m Sid, this is Paul,’ said the taller guy. Paul grinned, showing large yellow teeth. They reached the bottom of the steps, and she thanked them, unhooking her arm. ‘You fancy a drink?’ ‘Thanks, but I’m due home,’ said Marissa. The guys were still blocking one half of the stairs, and a stream of people moved past beside them.

They stood for a moment, waiting, weighing things up. ‘Come on, it’s Christmas,’ said Sid. Marissa stepped away, putting the other commuters between them. ‘Or we can give you a lift?’ he added, pushing through them to join her. Paul followed, shoving a young lad out of the way. His beady eyes were both piercing and unfocused. ‘No. Really. I must get home, but thank you guys. Have a Merry Christmas.

’ ‘You sure?’ said Paul. ‘I am, thank you.’ ‘Can we have a picture with you?’ asked Sid. ‘What?’ ‘Just a selfie with us; we like a pretty girl and it gives us something to look at when we’re cold and lonely in our beds at night.’ The way they stared at her made Marissa think of wolves. Hungry wolves. They came either side of her and leaned in. She felt a hand on her backside as Sid held out his iPhone, and took a selfie, and then another. His fingers began to work their way between her buttocks. ‘Great,’ she said, pulling away.

They showed her the photo. She looked wide-eyed, but not as scared as she’d felt inside. ‘You are really fit,’ said Sid, ‘are you sure we can’t persuade you to come for a drink?’ ‘We’ve got vodka, Malibu, wine,’ said Paul. Marissa looked back at the bridge, and saw there were still a few passengers crossing. She looked back at them and forced another smile. ‘Sorry guys. Not tonight.’ She looked up at one of the CCTV cameras above them, encased in its plastic dome. They followed her gaze. Then finally seemed to take the hint, and moved off.

‘What a stuck-up bitch,’ she heard Paul say. She hung back, relieved, watching as they went to a car by the kerb, but averting her eyes as they glanced back. She heard laughter, doors slamming, and then the engine starting up. Marissa only realised she had been holding her breath when their car pulled away and left the station approach. She exhaled, and saw the last few passengers were coming down the stairs. At the top was a tall, handsome man in his early fifties, with his wife, who was very pale. ‘Shit,’ she said under her breath. She hurried over to the row of self-service ticket machines and busied herself looking at one of the screens. ‘Marissa! I see you!’ said the woman’s voice, thick with booze. ‘I see you, whore!’ There was a clatter on the stairs as the woman hurried towards her.

‘Jeanette!’ shouted the man. ‘You leave us alone,’ shouted the woman, reaching Marissa, but stopping short of making contact. She brandished a long finger, an inch from Marissa’s face. ‘You stay away from him!’ Her eyes were bloodshot and her face was red and puffy, and her scarlet lipstick had bled out into the smoker’s lines around her mouth. ‘Jeanette!’ hissed the man, catching up and pulling her away. Although the couple were about the same age, he had a rugged, handsome face. It was a reminder to Marissa that time can be kinder to men. ‘I do my best to keep out of your way, but we live on the same street. Our paths are bound to cross,’ said Marissa, smiling sweetly. ‘You’re a bitch!’ ‘Been to the pub, Jeanette?’ ‘Yes!’ she snarled.

‘With my husband.’ ‘You look sober, Don. I would have thought you’re the one who needs the beer goggles.’ Jeanette raised a hand to slap Marissa around the face, but Don grabbed it. ‘That’s enough. Why can’t you keep your mouth shut, Marissa? You can see she’s not well,’ he said. ‘Don’t you fucking talk as if I’m not here,’ slurred Jeanette. ‘Come on, we’re going,’ he said. He led her away, almost like an invalid. ‘Fucking prostitute,’ muttered Jeanette.

‘No one’s ever paid me for sex!’ shouted Marissa. ‘Ask Don!’ He turned back with a look of sadness. She wasn’t sure if he was sad for his alcoholic wife, or himself. He helped Jeanette to a car by the kerb, easing her into the passenger seat. As they drove away, Marissa closed her eyes at the memory of him. The times when he knocked on her door late at night, when her mother was asleep, and they stole up to her bedroom. The feel of his warm body against her skin as they made love… When she opened her eyes again, she saw the last of the passengers had dispersed into the surrounding streets, and she was alone. Snow was falling heavily, and it caught in the arcs of the bright lights around the station concourse. Marissa emerged onto the station approach, and took a right down Foxberry Road. Christmas trees glowed in the windows of the houses, and the crunch of her feet on snow broke the thick silence.

The end of the road turned sharply to the right, and became Howson Road. She hesitated. It stretched away in darkness. Several of the streetlights were out, leaving just two to illuminate a five-hundred-yard stretch lined on each side with terraced houses. She had wanted to walk this with the other commuters from the last train; there were always at least a couple of people who took the same route, and it made the walk feel safer. However, Jeanette and the two creeps at the station had put paid to that. Marissa hurried past shadowy alleyways and dark empty windows, speeding up to each pool of light. She was relieved when the Coniston Road came out of the darkness, it was brightly lit thanks to the school at the end. She turned left, and walked past the playground, before crossing the road to her front gate. It creaked as she opened it.

The windows were all dark, and the tiny front garden was bathed in shadows. She had her keys ready, and was about to put them in the lock, when she heard a soft thud behind her. ‘Jeez! You scared me, Beaker,’ she said, seeing the sleek, dark body of the cat sitting on top of the wheelie bin beside the gate. She went over and scooped him up. ‘Come on. It’s too cold for us both to be out roaming.’ Beaker purred and looked up at her with intense green eyes. She put her face against his warm fur. The cat seemed to give her a moment’s grace, then squirmed in her arms. ‘Alright, you little crap bag.

’ He jumped down and darted off through the hedge to the next garden. Marissa reached up to put her key in the lock, but the gate creaked behind her. She froze. There was a faint scrape, and then a crunch of feet on the snow. She slowly turned. A figure in a long black trench coat stood behind her. Its face covered in a gas mask, with a hood made of shiny black leather, tightly enveloping the skull. Two large round glass eyeholes stared blankly, and the drum, or breathing apparatus, elongated the face down to where it hung just above the chest. The figure wore black gloves, and in its left hand was a long, thin knife. Marissa scrabbled to get the key in the lock, but the figure rushed at her, grabbing her shoulder, and slamming her back against the front door.

There was a flash of silver, and blood sprayed across the glass eyeholes of the mask. Her vanity case fell to the ground, and she reached up to her neck, only then feeling the terrible pain of the deep slash across her throat. Marissa tried to scream but there was only a gurgling sound and her mouth filled with blood. She put her hands up as the figure staggered and swung the knife, slicing through two of her fingers and the material of her coat into her forearms. She was unable to breathe and gasped for air, gurgling and spraying blood. The figure grabbed the back of her head and dragged her along the path, slamming her face first into the brick gate post. Pain exploded in her face, and she heard a crack of bone. Marissa heaved and retched, no longer able to breathe air into her flooded lungs. She watched, almost detached, as this strange figure struggled to drag her across the ground, away from the gate post to the middle of the tiny garden. The figure tottered, and looked as if it was about to fall, but kept balance.

With both hands, it brought the knife back down, slicing and stabbing at her throat and neck. As her blood pumped out over the blanket of snow, and the life left her body, Marissa thought she recognised the face through the large glass eye holes of the gas mask. TWO Detective Chief Inspector Erika Foster’s alarm went off at 7 a.m., and from the depths of her bedcovers and blankets, a thin pale arm emerged and switched it off. Her bedroom was dark and chilly, and the streetlights shone through the paper-thin blinds that she’d been meaning to change for three years, but had never got around to asking her landlord about. She rolled over and pulled the covers off, then padded through to the bathroom, where she took a shower and brushed her teeth. It was only when she had pulled on her clothes, pocketed her phone, wallet and warrant card that she remembered it was Christmas Day, and she was invited for Christmas lunch at Commander Paul Marsh’s house. ‘Shit,’ she said, sitting down on the bed. She ran a hand through her short blonde hair.

‘Shit.’ Most police officers would have seen this as a coup, an invite to spend Christmas lunch with the borough commander and his family, but for Erika, her relationship with Marsh was… complicated. Erika had just completed work on a harrowing case, involving a young couple who had committed a string of murders. As part of their sick game, they had abducted Commander Marsh’s two small girls, and Marsh’s wife, Marcie had been attacked during the abduction. It had led to a fully-fledged man-hunt. Erika had been responsible for rescuing the girls, and she understood that Marsh and Marcie had invited her to say thank you, but she just wanted to move on. Erika got up and opened her wardrobe, staring at the sparse rack of clothes, of which almost all were for work. Rooting through the neatly hung black trousers, sweaters and white blouses, she dug out a blue sleeveless dress. Turning to the mirror above her dressing table, she held the hanger up under her chin. Erika stood six-feet tall in bare feet.

She had strong, high cheekbones, large brown eyes, and short blond hair which stuck up in wet tufts. ‘Jeez, I’m scrawny,’ she said, moulding the dress to her body, where once she’d had curves. She looked at the photo of her late husband, Mark, on the dresser. ‘Who needs Lean Cuisine, eh? Being a widow does wonders for your waistline…’ The bleakness of her humour shocked her. ‘Sorry,’ she added. Mark had also been a police officer. Erika, Marsh and Mark had all trained together, but Mark had been killed four years previously, during a drugs raid. The photo of Mark was taken in the living room of the house that he and Erika had shared for fifteen years in Manchester. The sun streamed through the window, catching in his close-cropped blond hair to create a halo of gold. His face was handsome, his smile warm and infectious.

‘I don’t know what to say to Marsh and Marcie… I just want to turn the page and move on, without any fuss.’ Mark grinned back. ‘Bah, humbug, eh? Is it too late to think up an excuse?’ Yes, his grin seemed to say. Come on Erika, play nice. ‘You’re right, I can’t cancel… Happy Christmas.’ She put a finger to her lips and pressed it against the glass. Erika went through to the small kitchen/living room, sparsely furnished with a little sofa, a television, and a half-empty bookshelf. Perched on top of the microwave was a tiny plastic Christmas tree. It sat on top of the telly in years gone by, but since the advent of the flat screen, the top of the microwave was the only place it could go without looking ridiculous. She switched on the coffee machine, and opened the curtains.

The car park and the road beyond were under a deep carpet of snow, glowing orange under the street lights. There were no people or cars, and she felt like the only person in the world. A gust of wind blew across the ground, skimming a dusting of snow across the surface to join the banked-up drift by the car park wall. The landline rang as she poured her coffee, and she hurried through to the hallway and answered, hoping for a miracle and that lunch was cancelled. It was Mark’s father, Edward. ‘Did I wake you up, love?’ he said, in his warm Yorkshire accent. ‘No, I’m up. Merry Christmas.’ ‘Merry Christmas to you, too. Is it cold down there in London?’ ‘We’ve got snow,’ she said.

‘It’s ankle deep, admittedly, but it’ll be enough to make news headlines.’ ‘We’ve got four feet here. And over in Beverley, it’s even deeper.’ His voice sounded frail and strained. ‘Are you keeping warm?’ ‘Yes, love. I’ve got the fire on, and I’m feeling a bit rakish, so I’ll keep it on all day… It’s a pity I won’t be seeing you.’ Erika felt a twinge of guilt. ‘I’ll come up in the New Year. I’ve got holiday saved up.’ ‘Have they got you working today?’ ‘Not today.

I’m invited for lunch at Paul Marsh’s place with his family… After everything that happened to them, I felt I couldn’t say no.’ ‘Who’s that, love?’ ‘Paul; Paul Marsh…’ There was a pause on the line. ‘Yes, of course. Young Paul. Has he had any luck selling that Ford Cortina?’ ‘What?’ ‘I doubt he’ll get much for it. It’s such a rust bucket. You can poke your finger through the body work.’ ‘Edward, what are you talking about?’ said Erika. Marsh had owned a red Ford Cortina, but that was years ago, back in the early nineties. ‘Oh, course.

I’m being daft… I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep. How are things with them, after what happened?’ Erika didn’t know what to say. She twisted the phone wire in her fingers. Edward was almost eighty, but always so sharp and on the ball. ‘It’s early days. I haven’t seen them since…’ She heard the kettle whistle in the background. ‘You give them my best, will you?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I’ll be off, love. I just need my morning cuppa, and to wake up. And open my presents.

You take care, and happy Christmas.’ ‘Edward, are you sure everything’s okay?’ she started, but he’d hung up. She stared at the phone for a moment, then went to the window. The Victorian manor house opposite was large and ornate, and like the rest of the houses on the street had been converted into flats. Several lights were now on, and she could see in one of the windows a couple with two small children opening their presents around a large Christmas tree. A woman in a thick coat struggled past on the pavement, her head down against the driving snow, pulling along a small black dog behind her. Erika went back to the phone and picked it up, then put it down again. Erika got ready, and left the flat just before eleven. The snow was coming down thick, and there was a sleepy quality to the day, with all the shops closed, and she saw a few children playing outside, having a snowball fight. As she drove past the row of shops by Crofton Park train station, the traffic began to thicken and slow, and then things ground to a halt.

The windscreen wipers squealed as they cleared the dry snow. Up ahead she could see the flash of blue police lights. This cheered her a little; it made her think of work. The traffic crept forward, and just past Crofton Park School, one of the roads on the left was blocked by two squad cars and a line of police tape. Detective Constable John McGorry was talking to two officers by the fluttering tape. As Erika drew level, she honked her horn and they looked over. ‘What’s going on?’ shouted Erika, winding down her window. A flurry of snow poured in, but she took no notice. McGorry pulled up the lapels of his long black coat and hurried over. He was a handsome young man in his mid-twenties, with dark hair which fell over his face with a floppy fringe.

His skin was smooth and pale, and his cheeks flushed from the cold. When he reached her window, he swept back his hair with a gloved hand. ‘Merry Christmas, Boss. Going somewhere nice?’ he asked, noting that she was wearing make-up and earrings. ‘Lunch… What’s going on?’ ‘A young woman, found stabbed to death on her doorstep. Whoever did it went crazy on her, blood everywhere,’ he said, shaking his head. The traffic in front started moving, and he stepped back onto the pavement, expecting Erika to drive off. ‘Have a nice lunch; I was hoping to be off duty by now. You on tomorrow?’ ‘Who’s the DCI on call today?’ ‘Peter Farley, but he’s out at a triple stabbing in Catford. People don’t seem to stop killing each other just because it’s Christmas.

’ The car in front pulled away, and a van behind sounded its horn. Erika thought how much more appealing a brutal murder scene was than Christmas lunch with Marsh. The van behind honked again. She put the car in gear and pulled up onto the pavement, causing McGorry to jump back. She grabbed her warrant card and coat and got out. ‘Show me the crime scene,’ she said.

.

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