Death in the Lakes – Graham Smith

The bride screamed. Not a scream of delight, but of utter terror. Her big day had been going so well. The wedding ceremony at Arthuret Hall, five miles from Longtown, near the border with Scotland, was everything she’d ever dreamed it would be. Yes, the building may be little more than external walls now, but she’d always been fascinated by her grandad’s tales of the days when the country house had been a casino, an officer’s mess and a hotel after starting life as a country manor house. The surrounding area was rich and fertile farmland with gentle rolling hills and the occasional wood. Now it was hauntingly sinister; there was a brooding romance in the remains of its former grandeur highlighted by the elaborate dormer windows that still stood jagged against the sky. She felt her groom tug at her arm with a tenderness that showed his wonderful heart. Jason Welton was a good man. Not the best-looking man she’d ever dated, but certainly the kindest. At forty-nine, he was fifteen years her senior, yet age was just a number so far as Emily was concerned. What mattered more to her was that he loved and understood her, that he was a provider and would take care of her. Emily let Jason and her maid of honour pull her away from the window, their concern at her distress showing on their faces. As neither was as tall as Emily in her wedding heels, they couldn’t look in through the window let alone see down to the ground, to where she could see the corpse in the remnants of the house’s cellar below. Heavy footsteps accompanied the guests who’d come running to see what the commotion was about.

She turned away from everybody and looked down at the stream, whose melodic tinkling now seemed disrespectful to the dead man, and gathered her emotions into a single focus. Today was the culmination of her dreams; a fairy-tale wedding to a rich man with a kind heart. She wasn’t going to let it be spoiled by an uninvited guest, even if he was dead. Her cousin was a copper. He’d be the one to keep people away and make sure the police were summoned. Concerned faces gathered round her, but she painted her smile back into place and dismissed her scream as the result of a practical joke made in poor taste. It was a lie though; she knew the body was real. Knew that she’d seen a decomposing corpse on her wedding day. Emily sought out her cousin’s face in the crowd and called him forward. He’d know what to do.

She leaned into her cousin and told him what she had seen. He gave a terse nod and pulled his mobile from his pocket, as he moved over to the window. After a quick look he marched off. Whether he was going to try and get to the man to check for signs of life or not, Emily had no idea. There would be a protocol for such things, but she didn’t know what it was. No matter how she tried to remove the image from her thoughts, the corpse was etched onto her mind’s eye. It was lifeless, still, with discoloured limbs that had been feasted on by the local wildlife. The head bald and immobile. The face looking down. More than anything else, the body’s limp, hanging position was the most disturbing feature.

It was secured to a post and the arms were supported outwards by a cross member which ended at the elbows leaving the forearms to point at the ground. There was no doubt in Emily’s mind that she’d found a murder victim. The man hadn’t died by his own hand or misadventure, he’d been killed. She pulled her mouth back into a smile though and walked after the photographer. Her cousin could deal with the body. This was her big day, and it wasn’t as if getting upset could bring back the dead man. And besides, while she was the centre of attention, she wanted everyone’s eyes on her. Though once the photographer had done his bit, she knew she’d need to have a much-needed cigarette before heading to the reception venue. TWO Beth tried not to let her irritation show at DS Thompson’s attempts to belittle her. The man appeared to be under the mistaken impression he was God’s gift, not just to women, but the world.

If he thought putting her surname first and calling her Young Beth, instead of Beth or DC Young, would endear her to him, he couldn’t have been more wrong. She may well be the youngest in the FMIT team, by age, and length of service, as she’d only joined them at the start of the week, but that didn’t give him carte blanche to rip the mickey. She’d met his type too many times before to be bothered by his offhand ways. Their first meeting had given her the measure of him. He’d looked her up and down and let his eyes wallow on the front of her blouse for that second too long. But it was when he’d seen her face that she’d really met the man she’d be working with. She’d watched the pupils of his eyes contract, and the visible effort he made in not reacting. Those were normal responses she encountered when meeting new people. Since that initial meeting, she’d worked hard to make her integration into the Force Major Investigation Team as seamless as possible. She’d known it wouldn’t be easy to join a tight-knit group and that she’d have to prove herself to each member of the team.

DS Thompson was her immediate boss and he’d been in FMIT for several years. He was pernickety and had a way about him that made it hard for Beth to like or respect him. The head of the team was Zoe O’Dowd, an experienced DI with decades of policing behind her and a no-nonsense manner. Beth had already been on the receiving end of her ire and it was not a pleasant experience. Beth’s transfer to FMIT from a regular CID team had become possible because she’d developed a knack for seeing beyond the obvious. She knew that she didn’t always think in the same ways other people did. It was her greatest asset and also one of her biggest flaws. In her early police career, there were a few times her lateral thinking had brought her to the wrong conclusion as she overestimated a criminal’s intelligence. It was a trait she’d learned to manage and since she’d wrestled control of her wilder ideas, or at least built a solid case to support her theories before sharing them, she’d earned herself a move to CID and then to FMIT. For Beth, FMIT was the holy grail of police work as the team were handed all the best cases.

A stabbing or a straightforward clubbed-to-death-with-an-iron would go to CID. Weird cases like this one were the realm of FMIT along with serious fraud, malicious murder, kidnapping and a whole host of other major crimes. The people they were apprehending weren’t the impulse killers lashing out in anger, they were the career criminals who planned their crimes in detail. They were forensically aware and knew about investigative techniques. They knew to establish alibis, leave no trace and, most of all, they knew how the game was played. They’d clam up in the interview room or spout ready-made answers. This meant the police had to be smarter than the criminals, had to be one step ahead and to always back up their theories with the kind of damning evidence that couldn’t be refuted by even the slipperiest of lawyers. Beth couldn’t explain it if she was asked, but her mind didn’t run on straight lines, it sought out the oddball explanations and the weird connections that evidence could sometimes present but not always reveal. It was a trait that she knew made her a better copper, and she thought laterally whenever possible. She even went so far as to challenge her mind on her time off with puzzle books, working out logic problems, solving riddles and other brain teasers where the answers were not straightforward.

From time to time, she’d get strange looks from colleagues or members of the public for blurting out her thoughts as random words without organising them into a coherent sentence. Whenever she did this, she’d hurry to present her thoughts in a more rational way. FMIT had always been her goal; it got the most interesting cases with the toughest puzzles. Now she was on the team, she was determined to succeed, to earn the respect of her colleagues and to solve the crimes. ‘Listen up, folks.’ Beth and Thompson both turned to face DI O’Dowd as she addressed the room. ‘DCI Phinn has given us a case and, from what I’ve heard so far, it’s going to be an interesting one. There’s a body been found up at Arthuret Hall, near Longtown, and it’s quite clear the dead man was murdered.’ ‘Is that because of the injuries, ma’am?’ Beth cast a quick glance at DC Paul Unthank. Of the two men in FMIT she liked him best, not just because he was possessed with a rakish handsomeness, but because he was madly in love with his fiancée and didn’t care who knew it.

In a world full of guys either being metrosexual or overly macho, it was refreshing to find someone who trod the middle ground. Unthank was a decent, sensitive person who could still stand up for himself when the need arose. He was also intense about his privacy; other than knowing he had a girlfriend he loved, she knew nothing about his life outside of work. ‘You could say that.’ O’Dowd pursed her lips. ‘Normally, I’d be telling you all about the injuries and giving you tasks. However…’ she paused momentarily, ‘this time I’d rather gauge your reactions when you see the body. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been investigating murders for more than twenty years and I’ve never seen or heard of anything quite like this before.’ ‘In what way, boss?’ ‘Forget it, Frank.’ O’Dowd wagged a finger at Thompson.

‘We’re going there now and I will take each of you to see the body in turn. I’m looking for your first thoughts, your instinctive ideas and your feel for not just the crime that has been committed but the location where our killer has chosen to display his victim. Whether he was killed there as well is yet to be ascertained. For the moment we’ll work on the theory he was, but that theory needs to be proven.’ As she filed after the others along the corridors of Carleton Hall, Penrith, where the Cumbria FMIT were based, Beth couldn’t help but fixate upon the critical word in O’Dowd’s briefing: ‘Display’: it could have meant a lot of things, but when a killer displayed a body, the number of possible meanings narrowed. The vast majority of murders in the UK were committed by people known to the victim. They took place in heated arguments, fights that got out of hand, and the odd time a beaten spouse would strike back at their tormentor. Then there were gang-related murders. Not to mention the times robbery would go wrong. But on the whole, murderers did everything they could to make sure their crime was kept secret.

When a victim was displayed in a particular way or posed in a certain position, then the killer had more on their mind than covering their tracks. Beth could feel her pulse race as she contemplated the fact that her first murder case in FMIT could, just maybe, see her part of a team pursuing a deranged killer. By the time she climbed into the back of one of the pool cars and arranged her long legs so they weren’t pressed into the back of the seat in front, she’d calmed herself down and was trying to remember all her training with regards to visiting a crime scene. The last thing she wanted to do on her first real case with FMIT was to contaminate a crime scene or destroy evidence with a careless act. On the other hand, she also wanted to impress her new DI. Zoe O’Dowd had to be one of the most respected officers in the north-west as she’d been chosen above others to head up the FMIT. And that selection could have only come through earning a reputation for diligence, professionalism and an eye for detail. Another worry for Beth was that she’d be betrayed by her own body. She knew only too well that while blood and gore didn’t affect her, noxious smells would always cause her to gag. Top of the list was decomposing bodies, and there was no way she wanted to vomit in front of her new boss, let alone empty her belly all over a crime scene.

As a native of Penrith, which stood on the north-eastern edge of the Lake District, she’d grown up with the smell of rotten flesh blowing across the town from the protein factory, but that didn’t mean she was immune to the stench of decomposition. Most of all though, she didn’t want to give the odious DS Thompson an excuse to make her life miserable. Beth couldn’t pinpoint why she believed Thompson had it in for her. She just felt as if he was watching and waiting for her to make a mistake. One slip, and he would attack. Her thoughts rumbled back and forth during the half hour drive until they pulled off the road. Arthuret Hall stood in the countryside between Longtown and Brampton. The area was lowland, with gentle rolling hills surrounded by the Southern Uplands to the north, the Lakeland Fells to the east and the Northern Pennines forming the southern edge. All of these higher areas were several miles away, but they could each be seen under the sun’s fierce glare. The lush landscape supported many farms, and the fields were a verdant kaleidoscope of colour as farmers grew oilseed rape and maize as well as more traditional crops such as silage and barley.

Cows and sheep populated grassy meadows as well as fields that were so regimented they appeared to have been marked out by a cubist. Beth knew that Longtown’s cattle and sheep market was used by the farmers drawn from many miles around. Despite the proliferation of police and crime scene vehicles, Beth couldn’t help but feel a chill enter her body as she looked at the hall’s towering gables, the exposed stone surrounds of the dormer windows standing above the wallheads, and the multiple empty spaces that timber and glass had once filled. Along the top of the walls, grass, weeds and small shrubs provided a green fringe that framed the dormer windows’ eyes with botanical eyebrows. She’d grown up in a semi-detached house on a former council estate. There had always been people around: neighbours, family members and childhood friends. Yet this overblown house had been built to be a home to a single family. Derelict now, it was missing the sense of life that inhabited any family home. It had been abandoned, though a new owner might one day try to breathe life into its soul. But the killer had chosen Arthuret Hall to display and possibly murder the victim, and that told her that someone had a connection to the old building.

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