Kim knew that her left leg was broken. She pulled herself along the path on her hands as the stone bit into her palms, shards of gravel embedding beneath her fingernails. A cry escaped her lips as her ankle turned and pain shot around her body. Sweat beads were forming on her forehead as the agony intensified. Finally, she saw the light from the building as three familiar shapes hurtled out of the doorway. All three of them headed towards the bell tower. ‘Nooo…’ she cried, as loudly as she could. No one turned. Don’t go up there, she willed silently, trying to pull herself towards them. ‘Stop,’ she shouted out as they entered the metal doorway at the base of the tower. Kim tried to still the panic as they disappeared from view. ‘Damn it,’ she screamed with frustration, unable to reach them in time. She gathered all her strength and pushed herself up to a standing position, trying to drag her broken leg behind her as though it didn’t exist. Two steps forward and the pain radiated through her body like a tidal wave and brought her back down to the ground. She gagged as the nausea rose from her stomach and her head began to swim.
She shouted again but the figures had disappeared from view and were now in the belly of the tower, behind solid brick, mounting the stone steps to the top. ‘Please, someone help,’ she screamed, but there was no one to hear. She was a good eighty metres away from the school, and she had never felt so helpless in her life. She glanced at her wrist and saw that it was three minutes to eight. The bell was due to be rung bang on the hour. The fear started in the pit of her stomach and grew like a cloud to fill her entire body. She struggled forward another agonising step, dragging her useless leg behind her. Torchlight illuminated the top of the tower. Damn it, they were already there. ‘Stop,’ she cried again, praying that one of them would hear her even though she knew her voice wouldn’t carry that distance.
The shafts of light moved furtively around the tower balcony ninety feet up in the air. She saw a fourth figure amongst the three that were familiar to her. The watch on her wrist vibrated the top of the hour. The bell didn’t ring. Please God, let them get down. Her prayer was cut off as she heard a loud scream. Two people were hanging from the bell rope, swinging back and forth, in and out of the torchlight that darted around the small space. Kim squinted, trying to identify the two silhouettes, but they were too far away. She tried to regulate her breathing in order to shout again, even though she knew no kind of warning would help them now. Her worst fears had been realised.
‘Please, please…’ Kim whispered as she saw the bell rope swing back and forth once more. One figure was snatched from the bell rope as the second continued to swing. ‘No,’ Kim screamed, trying to carry herself forward towards them. The fear inside had turned ice cold, freezing her solid. For a few seconds time stood still. The saliva in her mouth had gone leaving her unable to speak or shout. Kim felt the ache that started in her heart when the remaining figure and the swinging bell rope disappeared from view. Her ears suddenly filled with a blood-curdling, tortured scream. But no one else was around. The scream came from her.
One Six days earlier Sadie Winters ducked around the side of the kitchen entrance, dropped her backpack to the ground and took the single cigarette from her jacket pocket. Once used as the servants’ entrance it was a spot on the campus that she’d discovered two months ago. Not one school classroom faced the west side of the catering wing. Just a minute, she thought, as she tried to straighten the slight curve of the cigarette that had bent in her pocket. A few moments of peace were all she wanted before she hurtled towards her next lesson apologising for her lateness. Just a rest from the chaos in her head. She shielded the lighter from the late March wind and vowed it would be the last cigarette she smoked. She’d overheard one of the older girls in the dinner line saying she couldn’t face the thought of maths class until she’d had a smoke. Said it relaxed her. So, a few days ago Sadie had pinched one from the girl’s school bag and tried it for herself.
She knew it didn’t really relax her. She knew that she was inhaling carbon monoxide which decreased the amount of blood being delivered to her muscles. But for a brief time it felt like relaxation. She drew heavily on the cigarette allowing the smoke to fill her thirteen-year-old lungs, remembering her first attempt and the coughing fit that had followed. She pictured it swirling around like fog in a clean jar. She didn’t want to smoke. She didn’t want to be dependent on cigarettes or anything, but the tablets were no longer having any effect. At first, they had numbed her, deadened her and quietened the destructive thoughts. The shards of anger had been softened as though covered in bubble wrap. Still there but less harmful.
But not any more. The sharp edges were piercing the fog and the blackness had returned worse than ever. And now being forced to sit in a room and talk to a bloody counsellor about her ‘problems’ because her parents thought that would be a good idea. They wanted to hope she didn’t suddenly unburden herself to someone outside the family. She’d listened to his soft, sympathetic voice assuring her of his discretion. His repeated instruction that she could tell him anything. Like that was ever going to happen. Especially once he’d produced the piece of paper that had shown her she could trust no one. Damn it, she thought, throwing the cigarette to the ground. She would not let them do this to her.
It had been bottled up inside her for far too long. She knew she wasn’t supposed to know what had happened. She wasn’t supposed to know anything. They thought they’d hidden it, but they hadn’t. Another mile added to the distance that separated her from her family. Something else they all knew that she didn’t. Another exhibit in the catalogue of proof that she didn’t belong with the rest of them. She had always felt it, known it. She was nothing like her sister; bright, adorable, pretty Saffie whose light shone into rooms like an angelic glow. She did not have her effortless grace or winning smile.
And of course Saffie would always be perfect, always be the favourite, no matter what she did wrong. Sadie swiped at the angry tears that had formed in her eyes. She would not cry. She would not give them the satisfaction. She would do what she always did. Retract her head into her hardened outer shell and pretend she didn’t care. They hadn’t come to her aid. She had begged and pleaded with them to remove her from Heathcrest and allow her to attend a school closer to home. She hated the stuffy elitism and tradition that frowned upon individuality, stifled creativity and personal expression and promoted conformity. The place was a prison.
But no, they had refused her request. No child of theirs would attend the local comprehensive. Heathcrest would build her character. She would form connections that would serve her for the rest of her life. Allies on whom she would be able to rely. But she didn’t want connections and allies. She wanted friends. Normal friends. The injustice of them both jumping to the aid of Saffie bit deeply into her soul. Her parents always managed to find new ways to make her feel inferior and oftentimes they didn’t even know it.
Well, no more, she thought with determination. Tonight she would phone them, and she would make sure she was heard. And she had just the right weapon to use in her favour. Knowledge was power. She stepped around the brick wall as a familiar shape appeared before her. She frowned. ‘What are you doing—?’ The words were cut off as a fist crashed into her left temple. Her vision blurred as she felt herself falling to the ground. What was happening? What had she done? There was no reason. A second blow landed to the back of her head but this came from a foot.
More blows continued to land along the left side of her body as she tried to shield herself. Her stunned brain tried to connect dots in her head as a blow to her kidney sent explosions of pain surging around her body. She tried to defend herself as her mind tried to hang on to a question. There had to be some kind of mistake, her brain screamed, as the blows continued to land. She tried to turn on the ground but another kick to her left side brought a metallic taste into her mouth. She spat out the liquid that threatened to slide back down her throat. A small pool of red landed an inch away. Her vision was beginning to fade on the left side. Fear coursed through her as fists and feet continued to pummel at her flesh and the agony spread so that her entire body was on fire. All confusion had disappeared leaving only the terror and pain.
She cried out as the agony in her stomach turned into knives, hacking and slicing at her organs, white hot bolts of pain that took away her breath. The vision in her left eye had completely gone and darkness was coming at her from the right. ‘Pl-please…’ she begged, trying to hang on to the light. A final blow to the head and the world disappeared from her view. Two ‘Bryant, are you having a giraffe?’ Kim asked, incredulously, as she turned to him in the driver’s seat. They had just finished interviewing a woman who had changed her mind about testifying in court against her abusive husband. To Kim’s dismay, no amount of cajoling could persuade her to change her mind back again. They’d spent weeks reassuring her that she was doing the right thing; that her evidence would put the bastard away, but one visit from his mother had undone all their hard work. Her husband would be returned to her within a few hours, and Kim was betting Mrs Worley would be counting new bruises before the night was out. Thankfully there were no children involved or Kim wouldn’t have hesitated in contacting Child Services.
As it was she could do nothing more than register as urgent any future calls of disturbances to the address. She knew she had done everything within her power and yet still she wanted to drive back to the end terrace and try again. Damn, the ones that got away. ‘I’m assuming you mean laugh, and no, I’m not.’ ‘We may be the closest but I’m not sure we’re—’ ‘Look, guv, there’s a thirteen-year-old girl on top of the school building threatening to jump. Pretty sure they just want someone on the scene as quickly as possible.’ ‘Yeah, but have they met me?’ she asked, increasing her speed towards Hagley. Heathcrest Academy was a co-ed private school responsible for shaping the hearts and minds of the wealthy, privileged kids from the Black Country and surrounding areas from the age of five right through to university. Lodged between the dormitory village of West Hagley and the Clent Hills the school was placed at the picturesque edge of the urban conurbation of Stourbridge. Kim had never met anyone schooled at the boarding facility.
Graduates of Heathcrest didn’t seem to filter into the police force. If she took the dual carriageway along Manor Way and turned off Hagley Wood Lane she guessed that she could make it in just a few minutes. What exactly she’d say when she got there was another matter entirely. Not renowned for her tact, diplomacy or sensitivity she realised that dispatch really must be desperate. On a scale of suitability for the task trained negotiators sat right at the top. Then there were people training to be negotiators. Below that were kids who aspired to the role. There were counsellors, there were normal people and somewhere way below that line was her. ‘I’ll hold your handbag while you go and talk to her,’ she said, crossing the black and white sign into freedom of speed. She crunched the gears into submission as she bullied the car up to sixty in three seconds.
‘She’ll probably be down by the time we get there,’ Bryant observed. ‘I’m sure that place has qualified people on site.’ Oh yeah, Kim thought, as she slowed for a bend followed by a small traffic island. She’d read an article a few months ago about a planned multimillion pound extension for a medical wing. It had sounded like the school had better facilities than most of the local town centres. ‘Next left,’ Bryant said, just as she hit the indicator stick. The road turned into a single-track tarmac path that wound its way beneath arching willow trees with leafless branches that reached across the distance to intertwine. At the end, the tarmac tapered into a gravel driveway that straightened. Kim ignored the sound of bricks hitting the side of Bryant’s car as she sped along the track towards the Tudor-cum-Jacobean-style house. ‘Time?’ Kim asked.
‘Four minutes,’ he said, having timed from call to arrival. An imposing bell tower stood to the right of the building. ‘Bryant…’ Kim said, as they neared the building. ‘I can’t see anyone up there, either,’ he said, as she brought the car to a screeching halt, just yards away from a crowd of people, all looking down at the ground. ‘Looks like you were right, Bryant,’ she said, approaching the sea of horrified faces. The girl had made it down after all. Three ‘Police officer, move aside,’ Kim commanded as she pushed her way through the circle of people formed of both adults and students. Horrified gasps had been muted into silence, but the open mouths told Kim it hadn’t been long. Damn, if she’d just broken the speed limit she might have been here in time. ‘There’s an ambulance on the way,’ said a shaky female voice somewhere behind her.
Kim ignored it. An ambulance was no good to them now. ‘Get everyone away from here,’ she growled to a smartly dressed man leaning down towards the figure on the ground. He hesitated for a second before springing into action. She could hear Bryant’s booming voice already moving students away. Too late, probably, as they would never un-see the sight before them. It would play over and over in their minds and revisit them in their dreams. It never ceased to amaze Kim that people were so eager to give their minds something traumatic to grab and hold for ever. ‘Damn it,’ she said to herself, taking a closer look at the diminutive figure on the ground. The girl was dressed in the school colours.
Her yellow shirt was crumpled and falling out of the brown skirt that had curled over and exposed her bottom. Despite the dark tights covering her skin, Kim leaned down and gently folded it back. She lay face down, her left cheek against the gravel, a pool of blood staining the white stones from the impact wound of her head hitting the ground. Her right eye stared along the path. Her left arm was flailed out as though reaching while her right lay close to her side. Both legs were straight and pointed to the metal grating that bordered a single row of daffodils close to the building. Her feet were encased in flat, black shoes. A grey smudge was visible on the sole of the right pump. Kim guessed her to be early teens. ‘What’s her name?’ she asked as the smartly dressed male reappeared beside her.
‘Sadie Winters,’ he replied, quietly. ‘She’s thirteen years old,’ he added. Jesus Christ, Kim thought. He offered his hand across the body. ‘Brendan Thorpe, Principal of Heathcrest.’ Kim ignored the hand and simply nodded. ‘You saw her on the roof?’ she asked. He shook his head. ‘I heard someone shouting in the corridor that a student was on the roof threatening to jump. I immediately called the police but by the time I got out here…’ ‘She’d already jumped?’ Kim asked.
He nodded and swallowed. Kim had to wonder what could have caused a thirteen-year-old to take her own life. How bad could her life have been? ‘Just a child,’ Brendan Thorpe whispered. A child’s problems were no less important or intense than the worries of an adult, she reasoned. It was all relative. A break-up with a boyfriend could mean the end of the world. Feelings of despair were not the sole property of adults. The sound of tyres on gravel prompted her to turn towards the road. Two squad cars followed by an ambulance pulled to a stop behind Bryant’s Astra. She recognised Inspector Plant, a pleasant, permanently tanned officer with white hair and beard that contrasted with his skin tone.
He came towards her as Bryant reappeared. ‘Apparent suicide,’ she advised, beginning the handover. Although first on the scene they would not take the case. CID had no remit in a suicide, except to agree that was the cause of death with the pathologist, which they would do following the post-mortem. In the meantime there were parents to inform, witnesses to be questioned, statements to be taken – but that would not be done by either herself or her team. ‘Her name is Sadie Winters, thirteen-years-old,’ she advised Plant. A quiet shake of the head demonstrated his regret. ‘Brendan Thorpe over there is the principal, who made the call to us, but she’d jumped by the time we got here.’ Inspector Plant nodded. ‘Thanks, guys, we’ll take it—’ His words were cut short by a female voice emanating towards them.
‘Is it her?’ cried the voice. They all turned as a blonde girl dressed in the school uniform dodged the principal and barrelled towards them. ‘Let me through,’ she cried. ‘I have to see if it’s her.’ Kim lined herself up in front of the victim and tensed her body ready for the impact. This kid was hurtling towards her like a rugby player; stopping for no one. ‘Got ya,’ Kim said, planting her feet firmly and holding her so she couldn’t pass. The girl, only an inch shorter than Kim, strained to look beyond, but Bryant and Plant had moved into position and blocked her view. ‘Please, let me past,’ she shouted right into Kim’s ear. ‘I’m sorry,’ Kim said, trying to hold her.
‘I just want to make sure,’ she cried. ‘Who are—’ ‘Please, just let me past. My name is Saffron, and Sadie Winters is my sister.’ Four ‘Bloody hell, that was intense,’ Bryant said as they headed back towards the car. Oh yeah, her ribs were still smarting from the girl barging her to get past. Luckily the school counsellor had appeared and with the help of the principal had managed to drag the girl towards the bell tower. They reached the car and turned. Inspector Plant and his team were scattered among the melee of students and adults as well as guarding the body for the arrival of Keats. Sadie Winters’s sister sat against the bell tower with her head down. The counsellor, a thin, wiry man with ginger hair and bushy beard sat beside her, while Principal Thorpe paced and talked to someone on his mobile phone.
And at the centre of it all was the body of a thirteen-year-old child. Despite her limitations in the sympathy department Kim found herself wishing she’d at least had a chance to speak to the girl, understand what had been going through her head, reassure her that it wasn’t all as bad as she thought. Emotional connection with other people did not lie at the top of her skill set but she couldn’t have done any worse than this. ‘Jesus, Bryant, maybe if we’d just…’ ‘Four minutes, guv,’ he said, reminding her of how long it had taken them to get there. ‘But she’s so bloody young,’ Kim said, opening the car door. She was sure that many teenagers had contemplated ending it all but that was a long way from actually doing it. How bad must things have been for her to actually jump to certain death? She paused and turned, taking a good look at the building. ‘What’s up?’ Bryant asked. ‘Dunno,’ she answered honestly, as her gaze travelled up from the location of the body to the roof. Her brain was already sorting through the cases on her desk and the explanation to both Woody and the CPS about the collapsed case of Mrs Worley.
Her mind had left this place and was already heading back to the office. It was only her gut that remained. And something didn’t feel right to her. ‘Troubled, I heard the counsellor say to Inspector Plant,’ Bryant prompted. ‘Jeez, weren’t we all at thirteen?’ she said. At that age she had just lost Keith and Erica, the only two adults that had ever loved her. ‘Guv, you’ve got that Ghostbuster look on your face.’ ‘That what?’ she asked as her eyes reached the top of the building. ‘The expression that says you’re looking for something that’s just not there.’ ‘Hmm…’ she said, absently.
Her eyes travelled over the grand three-storey building, taking in the high windows, the rounded arcade at the centre, the flat roof with stone balustrade that linked the two arched roofs that topped the ivy-covered wings standing proud of the recessed centre. ‘Guv, time to go,’ Bryant prompted. ‘We’ve got plenty of our own cases back at the station.’ He was right, as usual. The major cases that landed on her desk did nothing to stem the flow of lesser cases. It wasn’t a card game where a murder cancelled out sexual assault, robbery and gang-related violence. They were still playing catch-up from the incidents that had mounted up during the recent murder of night workers on Tavistock Road. And yet just because something looked like a duck and sounded like a duck. Didn’t mean it really was a duck. She slammed the car door shut.
‘Guv…’ her colleague warned. ‘Yeah, in a minute, Bryant,’ she said, walking back towards the building. Five ‘Is this the only way up to the roof?’ Kim asked, as they mounted stone steps from the third floor via a corridor that ran behind a row of bedrooms. Brendan Thorpe shook his head. ‘There’s a fire escape in the West wing but that’s been closed off to the roof for more than a year now,’ he said, taking a set of keys from his pocket that hung lower than it would have done if his trouser belt had been working more effectively rather than sitting beneath the middle-aged paunch. He tried the door first to find it locked. ‘Could Sadie have got a spare key from anywhere?’ Thorpe looked puzzled. ‘I don’t see how,’ he said, frowning. ‘Well, she got up here somehow,’ Kim observed, in case he’d forgotten there was a dead teenager on the ground. The girl’s purloining of the key was about to be the least of his problems.
‘I’m sorry, Inspector, you’ll have to bear with me, I’m still in a little bit of shock,’ he said, trying the wrong key. ‘I understand that, Mr Thorpe, but it would be useful to know how many roof keys are in existence.’ ‘Of, course,’ he said, as they stepped outside. ‘There is one on my master set, the deputy principal has an identical set to mine. The janitor, the maintenance crew, each housemistress or master has a reduced set of keys, which includes a roof key.’ ‘So, that makes?’ Kim prodded. ‘A total of fourteen roof keys,’ he answered. Kim glanced at Bryant who took out his notebook. She stepped outside onto the flat roof and looked around assessing the scale of the buildings joined together by walkways and ladders. From where she stood Kim could make out four clear wings, each the size of a couple of football pitches.
Navigating the area from up here would be challenging enough, but downstairs, spread over three floors, she’d need a decent satnav to get her around the school. She stepped over a roof light and around an air conditioning unit to head towards the area she thought was the side of the building. Thorpe’s phone began to ring. ‘Please, excuse me,’ he said, edging back towards the stairwell. Bryant joined her on a patch of recently repaired bitumen. ‘My apologies, Inspector. I have to go,’ Thorpe said, gravely. ‘Sadie’s parents are at the police cordon.’ ‘Do they know?’ Bryant asked. He shook his head.
‘Only that there’s been an incident.’ Kim understood. Delivering such news over the phone was only done as a last resort. She did not envy him his next job. ‘We’ll let you know when we’re done,’ she advised as he re-entered the building. Bryant shoved his hands into his trouser pockets as he stood beside her. She narrowed her eyes at him when he started humming the Ghostbusters theme. ‘Just look down there,’ she said. ‘Must I?’ he asked, taking a tentative step forward. Three storeys below lay the body of Sadie Winters, guarded by uniform officers while others worked to take details and clear the area.
Keats had arrived, accompanied by his team of crime scene techs, who were changing into white protective suits. ‘You think she jumped from here?’ Kim asked, lining herself up with the body on the ground. Bryant nodded and stepped back. ‘Yeah, seems about right.’ ‘Hmm…’ she said, taking five steps to the left. ‘Was that the wrong answer?’ he asked. ‘How about here?’ she asked, ignoring his question. Again, he took a cautious step forward and shook his head. ‘Too far away.’ She walked past him and headed to the right.
‘How about here?’ she asked. ‘Guv, are you trying to make me throw up?’ ‘I haven’t cooked for you in ages, now just look,’ she urged. He looked down and shook his head. ‘Much too far away from where she landed,’ he said. She returned to her first position which was directly in line with the body. She frowned as she looked down. ‘Who you gonna c— aah, I think I see what you’re looking at,’ he said. ‘The railings,’ she clarified. A row of black wrought-iron spikes, about four feet high, surrounded a narrow-planted area she’d noticed on the ground. Four steps either way and there were no railings.
‘It’s obstructive,’ Kim said. ‘You look down and picture your body landing on those spikes.’ ‘Ugh,’ Bryant said, looking away. ‘Exactly,’ Kim said. ‘And you’re a fully grown adult… allegedly.’ ‘But if I’m killing myself anyway I’m expecting a broken neck or a fractured skull?’ he argued. ‘But do you really want to picture yourself impaled on those spikes?’ she asked. ‘Not really but I’m not a troubled thirteen-year-old girl,’ he offered. ‘Yeah, but I was, and I can tell you that I would have noticed those spikes.’ People wanted to die painlessly and that was no different for suicides.
Fast and painless. Logically, it didn’t make sense to her. She recalled the grey mark on the bottom of Sadie’s shoe as she took another look around the surface of the roof. ‘Hmmm…’ she said, not finding what she sought. ‘What now?’ he asked, wearily. ‘The cigarette,’ she answered. ‘Sadie had recently ground out a smoke with her shoe but there’s no cigarette butt here,’ she observed. ‘Guv, what exactly are you thinking?’ he asked, with a note of fear in his voice. ‘I’m thinking we might just have a chat with our good friend Keats before we leave.