Dying Breath – Helen Phifer

He watched and waited, playing his favourite guessing game. Who was going to die tonight? He was sitting in the car with the engine running to keep the windows from steaming up. Autumn was his favourite time of year; he liked the dark nights and the frosty mornings, although today had been dismal. He’d been parked up the street from The Ball and Chain for an hour already. The dirty grey rainclouds that had filled the sky when he arrived had now turned black. The whole time his knees had been twitching; he kept clenching and unclenching his knuckles. His tongue kept snaking from his mouth and licking his lips. The excitement and anticipation were almost too much to bear. There were no stars or moon to illuminate the streets tonight and he liked it that way – the darker the better. It matched his soul. The Ball and Chain was your typical working-class pub, full of contractors and locals who wanted cheap beer, cheap food and even cheaper women. Not that he knew the clientele particularly well; he’d only been inside once, a few weeks ago. There had been some old guys and a woman with bleached-blonde hair sitting by herself in the corner, nursing a large glass of wine. Tonight the same woman had been out three times for a cigarette, first on her own and then with a couple of older men. At a guess she was in her early fifties, and was wearing jeans which looked as if they’d been spray-painted on.

The top she was in wouldn’t have looked any better on a twenty-year-old because it was far too short to be flattering. He could see the pasty rolls of her stomach falling over the waistband of her jeans. Her two-inch, black roots were in dire need of a retouch, which made her the perfect victim: she was a very good match. Each time she came outside she stumbled that little bit more. He was wondering if she’d be there until closing time and hoped to God they didn’t have a lock-in. Finally his patience was rewarded when there was a commotion, and loud shouting came from the direction of the pub. He looked up from the book he was reading to see the barmaid pushing the woman out. She wasn’t going without a fight and she swung for the younger woman, who expertly dodged the fist that came her way. The woman stumbled backwards and the pub door was slammed shut. She stepped forward and began to pound on the door with her fists.

Nobody answered and he smiled as the rain, which had been threatening to fall all night, began to hammer against the car bonnet. The woman, after screaming at the closed door, turned and began to stumble towards the car. She had her phone out and was trying to press the buttons. He assumed she was trying to call a taxi, but all he could hear was her muttering. She walked past his car and he watched her bouncing off the pebble-dashed wall of the pub, wondering how much alcohol she’d consumed. He put the car in gear and followed her for a little while; then, as he pulled up next to her, he wound the window down. ‘Would you like a lift?’ She looked at his Volkswagen Golf and shook her head; if he’d been driving a Mercedes she would have said yes. He felt the anger rise in his chest: who was she to judge him? She looked back down at her phone, trying to dial, but she managed to drop it and she swore loudly. She swayed from side to side as the rain, which had begun to fall more heavily now, lashed against her, soaking through her clothes. He jumped out of the car, bent down to pick up the phone and handed it to her.

‘Thanks.’ ‘Are you sure you don’t want a lift? You’ll never get a taxi now.’ He got back into the car, about to drive off, but she was shaking her head. He slowly pulled away from the kerb and she shouted, ‘Stop! Yes, please.’ He braked, leant across and opened the passenger door for her to get in. She did, her silver-blonde, shoulder-length hair hanging limply around her face and her mascara running, leaving dark trails down her cheeks. ‘Where to?’ She gave her address, which wasn’t that far away. He would have to pass Strawberry Fields to get to her house, which was perfect. ‘Thank you, it’s very kind of you. What’s your name?’ He didn’t look at her; he didn’t want to make polite conversation.

She didn’t let that deter her, pulling down the sun visor as she winced at her reflection. ‘Bloody hell, I didn’t realise I looked like a sopping mess. It isn’t half raining – I’d have brought my umbrella if I’d known.’ He smiled at her. She didn’t strike him as the coat-wearing, umbrella-carrying type. ‘Do you live near the pub, then? I think I’ve seen you in there. It used to be all right in there until that snotty bitch took over.’ He looked at the clock on the dashboard and indicated to take the turning that led to the main entrance to Strawberry Fields. She screeched. ‘Wrong way, darling, straight on to the traffic lights, turn right then it’s your first left.

If you’ve got nowhere else to go you can come in for a coffee.’ She began to giggle and he felt his stomach lurch at the very thought of sitting on her sofa drinking coffee. He ignored her and carried on turning. ‘Where you going? I told you it’s not the right way.’ He shrugged. ‘I’ve just got to pick something up.’ He noticed that she was sitting upright now, sensing that something was wrong. How perceptive of her – even though she smelt like a distillery, her natural survival instinct had kicked in. As he pulled into the small car park in front of the huge expanse of grass, which was used for rugby training, she seemed to sober up a little. He snapped on a pair of blue latex gloves.

‘What you doing?’ ‘I thought we could get to know each other a little bit better.’ He reached out to stroke her hair and she drew away from him. ‘Not in a car park while you’re wearing those. Fuck off, you freak.’ She opened the car door and he tried to grab her soaking wet top. She tugged herself away from him and he laughed. Picking up the hammer he had tucked out of sight in the driver’s side pocket, he got out of the car and followed her. Her phone began to ring and she fumbled to answer it, her fingers too wet to slide across the screen and unlock it. The loud crack as the hammer smashed against the top of her skull startled him; he hadn’t expected it to sound so loud and he flinched. She dropped the phone and fell to her knees.

He stamped on the phone before she could scream for help. He needed time to finish it. The woman was kneeling in the rain, dazed and unaware of what had just happened. A river of blood was running down her face and she looked as if she were in some awkward prayer position. It had been so long he’d almost forgotten how good the rush of adrenaline felt as his blood pumped faster around his body, the excitement filling his veins. Taking a mental snapshot of the scene in front of him he stepped towards her, swinging the hammer as hard as he could. CHAPTER TWO The roads to Strawberry Fields were busy; the school run was in full flow. It didn’t help that the streets along the way were littered with what must have been every temporary traffic light that Brooklyn Bay council owned. Detective Inspector Lucy Harwin finally reached the turn-off, which was blocked by a police van with flashing lights. Flapping blue-and-white police tape stretched from one side of the road to the other.

She let out a huge sigh. It had stopped raining a couple of hours ago, but there were large puddles everywhere. Judging by the swollen, dark clouds that were still hovering in the sky, it was very likely to start raining again, soon. This wasn’t good; it meant they had to work against the clock. It had rained heavily overnight and the victim had lain here out in the open, exposed to all the elements. There was a very good chance that any potential DNA evidence had already been washed away. As she got out of the car Lucy looked down at her pumps and wished she had a pair of wellingtons in the boot. She really hated soggy feet. She had parked outside the cordon of police tape. An ambulance was also parked up there, with two paramedics inside, heads bent as they filled out reports.

The duty sergeant headed towards her, shaking his head. ‘It didn’t take an expert to pronounce death. This is bad. Woman, late forties – she’s been here a few hours. I’ll let you see for yourself. The two schoolboys who found her are in the back of the unmarked car over there; bit of a shock for them. There’s a teacher on their way to collect them. We’ll talk to them and get first accounts back at the school.’ ‘Thanks, that’s great.’ Lucy began the process of putting on her protective clothing.

Her heart was heavy for whoever had been murdered, left vulnerable and exposed at their most intimate moment for a stranger to find. Zipping up the white paper suit, she bent down to secure the shoe covers around her calves. Double-gloving, she walked towards the patch of long grass where she could see two bare feet sticking out, and inhaled. Lucy took in the scene before her, looking at the woman’s pale, waxy face stained bright red on one side. She stared at the crusted, bloodied mess that had once been the right-hand side of her skull. Her milky-coloured, partially open eyes stared into the distance. She was naked from the waist down. Her jeans and pink lace knickers were bunched around her knees. The bloodstained blouse was lifted up to her neck, along with a matching pink bra, exposing her breasts. Who did this to you and why have they left you like this? Was it someone you knew? Lucy looked around the area.

Where were her shoes? There were drag marks in the grass; she’d been placed here and posed. She turned around to see where she’d been dragged from and walked towards the gravelly area where the marks began. She stared at the puddles of bloody water, which were now a washed-out pink because of the heavy rain. The remains of a smashed iPhone lay on the ground, the screen in pieces. It was doubtful that they would get anything from it – the rain would have penetrated inside it – but you never knew. It would still be bagged up and sent to the Hi-Tech Unit back at headquarters. She heard Detective Sergeant Matthew Jackson’s voice as he greeted the officer with the scene guard booklet. He wasn’t just a colleague; he was her best friend and she was relieved to have him with her now. His feet crunched along the gravel and she waited for him to join her. ‘She was killed here and dragged over there.

Why here, out in the open? These are public playing fields – everyone knows the local kids use it as a cut-through to get to the schools on Rating Lane.’ She watched Mattie as he flinched at the sight of the body and turned away. It didn’t matter how many bodies they’d dealt with; it never got any easier. Neither of them had heard the DCI approach. Tom Crowe joined them, running his hand over his shaved head. ‘Holy Christ.’ ‘Yes, that’s one way to put it.’ Lucy gave the men time to absorb the horror of the body that was lying in a bloodied heap on the wet grass. It was the fact that her clothes had been arranged to expose her genitals that really bothered her. Whoever had done this had certainly been angry – the smashed skull and phone were proof of that.

Was she arguing with her killer and tried to phone the police? Were they lovers? She didn’t think they were. She had never come across a domestic where the partner had gone to so much effort to cover their tracks and make it look like a random attack. If that was the case, she’d have more than likely been murdered at home and her body dumped here. Why go to the trouble of leaving her seminaked? Lucy’s mind was frantically processing the crime scene. She was leaning towards the idea of a stranger-killing. Someone had wanted to strip away every last shred of dignity from the victim and she needed to figure out why. The CSI van arrived with a harried-looking Amanda Forbes sitting behind the wheel. She jumped out, looked up at the sky, shook her head and muttered something under her breath. She began to dress in the paper overalls even faster than Lucy had; within minutes she was suited up and dragging a large green holdall out of the back of the van, which she passed to the nearest officer. She grabbed her camera and began snapping the scene; there was not a moment to waste.

Lucy, Mattie and Tom all stepped out of her way. A drop of rain fell onto Lucy’s forehead and she said a silent prayer for it not to turn into a downpour. Amanda needed to document the scene as fast as she could; then they could erect the plastic tent over the body to preserve it and stop any further evidence being washed away. As she passed Lucy, she shook her head. ‘Poor woman. What a horrible, cold place to die.’ Lucy nodded, unable to take her eyes away from the body. CHAPTER THREE March 1988 He clenched his mum’s hand as they walked through the security gates into the huge, red-brick building that looked like a hospital, but wasn’t. She gazed down at him and smiled. ‘Remember: if anyone asks, we’re visiting your uncle.

’ He tried to smile back, only his mouth didn’t want to move. He didn’t have an uncle and he didn’t like the way it smelt in here – like stale sweat. He wished that she wouldn’t make him come. The air was so full of anger that he expected it to actually crackle and hiss around them. Once a month they got the train from Brooklyn Bay for the two-hour trip to visit the strange man whom she made him call John. He’d asked if John was his dad, even though he knew that he couldn’t be. A proper dad would be home to take him to school and the park to play games. Jake’s dad played football on the green with them a couple of times a week. This man his mum liked to drag him to visit wasn’t really dad material; his shaved head showed an alarming number of scars on his scalp. He had thick, dark stubble on his chin and scary black eyes, which made him think of a monster.

They went through the door into the room where his mum had to empty her handbag onto a table and let a guard in a uniform search it. They would pat her down, then do the same to him as he cowered behind her. He didn’t know why they did it – all he ever had in his coat pocket was a stick of liquorice and his favourite dented, yellow Matchbox car, which he carried everywhere with him. They would have to go and sit in the large room with tables and chairs. It reminded him of the school dining room; at least it didn’t smell as bad as the soggy cabbage the dinner ladies served. Only they never brought food out here – instead, a line of men were let in, each of them wearing the same clothes as the others, faded blue shirts and denim trousers. John was always the last man to be marched in, flanked either side by two of the biggest men he’d ever seen. He was always handcuffed and the men never left his side, only stepping back enough that they could still reach out and put their hands on his shoulders should they need to. It was John’s eyes he didn’t like. They stared right through him and he always felt as if they were probing into the depths of his soul.

He would sit and stare at his toy car or at the other kids in the room, anywhere but at the man in front of him. Some of the kids would be sitting on the other men’s knees, laughing and smiling. John didn’t laugh or joke; he always looked angry. His mum would take the dark red reporter’s notebook from her handbag, along with the silver Parker pen that he was never allowed to draw with, and began to ask him questions. Sometimes he’d answer her and sometimes he wouldn’t. There had been a few times when John had just sat and stared at her, for the whole hour they were there. Not talking or moving, he’d just stared at his mum, those unblinking eyes watching her every move. He wanted to beg her not to come here, to this bad place. He’d asked her last time why they had to come and she’d cried for hours. She told him that she had to know the truth and the only way to find out was to keep on coming, even though she didn’t want to.

He didn’t understand, but he didn’t ask her again because he didn’t like to see her cry. Today was a lot different from the last time they’d visited. John was smiling and talking as if his mum were his long-lost friend. She kept her head down and wrote everything he said in the notepad. He did the same, keeping his head bowed; he didn’t look at John unless he had to. He knew the man behind the table was staring at him with those eyes so dark that if anyone asked he’d tell them they were black. It felt as if they were burning into the back of his brain. He looked down at the car in his hand, turning it over and over. ‘Is the kid a mute?’ ‘No, he is not!’ ‘Why doesn’t he speak?’ ‘You scare him.’ This made John laugh.

The sound was so alien to him, and what must have been every other person in the room, that a hush fell over it. All eyes turned to look in their direction. John was laughing so loud that he lifted his head to look at him. Then he stopped as abruptly as he’d started and winked at him. ‘You don’t need to be scared of me, kid. If I’d wanted to hurt you I’d have done it a long time ago, same with her. I could have killed her with one hand, squeezed her neck until it snapped in two and carried on eating my bacon sandwich with the other. That’s how easy it is.’ The two guards stepped forward; one of them drew the truncheon from his belt and poked John in the back with it. ‘Watch your mouth.

’ He held his hands up and the heavy chains securing them rattled. ‘Sorry.’ His mum looked John straight in the eye. ‘Then why didn’t you?’ ‘Because I liked you, I always did. You were much prettier than your sister; she had a mouth on her, that one. It didn’t do her any good in the end though, did it? She had a smart mouth and look where that got her.’ He looked at his mum, waiting for her to speak and tell John to shut up. He knew exactly where it had got his Aunty Linda. She was dead – her body had been found on the playing fields near to the house they lived in now. He’d heard the kids at school talk about the naked woman who had been found stiff and cold near the swings.

It had upset him at first to hear people talking about his Aunty Linda like she was nothing, and he’d got into a few fights over it which had made it worse. One day he’d gone into school and found a yellowed piece of newspaper inside the desk he always sat at. Someone had written the word ‘prostitute’ in black felt tip across his aunt Linda’s smiling face staring up at him. He knew that a prostitute was a bad woman and he’d crumpled the paper up and thrown it into the bin. There had been sniggers from Mitchell and his gang of mates, who sat behind him on the back row. Now he never talked to them. He didn’t talk to anyone except his mum and his friend Jake. It was easier that way.

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