Last Light – Helen Phifer

Detective Inspector Lucy Harwin parked in the small car park on the opposite side of the road to the crime scene and got out of her car. She surveyed the area; there were no houses which faced directly onto what was left of the derelict St Cuthbert’s Church. A row of terraced houses that backed onto the fringe of the car park had upstairs windows which gave a view of the side of the church. But each house was in darkness; there wasn’t going to be much scope for any witnesses. They were too far away and the wrong angle. Her only hope was if they had external CCTV but judging by the peeling paint and graffiti on the walls it was unlikely. An ambulance was parked further down the street. She crossed towards the two officers standing by the entrance of the church; the older of the two had been in the job longer than she had, while his student, judging by their collar number, was fresh out of training. As she got closer she knew by the look on the student officer’s face it was going to be bad. The crime scene log was clutched in his shaking hands, and she felt sorry for him. Dead bodies were hard to cope with no matter how long you’d been in the job. The loud roar of her friend and colleague Detective Sergeant Mathew Jackson’s pick-up as it turned into the deserted street made her pause: she might as well wait for him before she started. He parked and jogged across the road to where she was standing. Much to her annoyance he never looked as if he’d been woken up in the middle of the night. His suits were always immaculate, his shirts never creased.

‘Lucy.’ ‘Mattie.’ She turned back to the officer and held out her hand to shake his. She’d never met him before and wanted to show him a little respect. ‘DI Harwin and DS Jackson, would you mind talking us through what happened?’ He shook his head. ‘Some teenagers decided to do a spot of ghost hunting and found a way in to the church. They got a lot more than they bargained for. I mean I got a lot more than I bargained for; I thought they were pissing around when they called it in.’ ‘Ghost hunting in a church? In this church? It’s falling to bits and a deathtrap.’ ‘I suppose it’s as good a place as any.

One of the kids is in the back of the ambulance under sedation. He wouldn’t stop screaming. His parents are on their way to collect him.’ ‘Where are the rest of them?’ ‘In the back of the van.’ ‘Are they suspects?’ ‘No, at least I don’t think so. They’re twelve and thirteen years old. She looks like she’s been here awhile.’ ‘So, we’re treating them as witnesses?’ ‘Yes, ma’am. Well sort of, I don’t think we can actually assume they saw anything apart from discovering the body. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

’ ‘You can say that again. Thanks, I suppose we better get suited and booted.’ She turned to walk back to her car where she kept a supply of protective clothing. Mattie followed. He was quiet for a change and Lucy wondered if he’d been busy. He didn’t look like he’d been rudely dragged out of bed. She opened the boot and passed him some packets. Ripping them open they dressed themselves in paper overalls, shoe and leg covers. Pulling on rubber gloves last; as they crossed the road Mattie whispered, ‘You can go in first, Lucy.’ ‘Thanks.

’ There was a small gap in the metal fencing which had been erected around the building to keep the kids and teenagers out. The church had been boarded-up for a couple of years, set on fire more times than she could count. Squeezing through the gap, she walked towards a small doorway with a wooden board that was hanging on by a thread and just big enough to get through. She noted the faded, dark red, upside-down cross that had been spray-painted onto it. Turning on her torch she stepped into the blackness and shone it onto an overgrown mess of weeds, litter, rubble and empty beer cans. The woodwork, or what was left of it, was a charcoal mess. She didn’t need an expert to tell her it was also unsafe. She waited for Mattie before she moved further in. He clambered through the gap. ‘Bloody hell, this place is a deathtrap.

I bet we’re not supposed to be in here. It looks like it might collapse at any moment.’ Lucy inhaled. The faint smell of decomposition filled her nostrils. They were lucky it was February and freezing cold, otherwise it would smell a whole lot worse. She moved forward, trying to keep to one side as best as she could, until finally the horror was clear to see. The dead body, hanging upside down on a crudely fashioned crucifix made from mismatched pieces of blackened timber, was bad, but it was nothing that she couldn’t cope with as she shivered and stamped her feet to keep the circulation flowing. She moved closer – it was the smell of the thick, congealed, sweet-smelling blood that had run down the body in rivulets, staining the white nightdress and turning it into a crimson, bloody, wet mess that made her gag. ‘What happened for you to end up this way?’ she whispered to the body. She knew that sometimes humans were not as innocent as they appeared; the dark secrets they kept locked away could sometimes be the reason for their murders.

Mattie stood behind her and whispered, ‘What the fuck?’ Lucy nodded in agreement. What else was there to say about it? This image was now ingrained in her memory. It would never be erased. She might well be able to store it away, but it would always be there, threatening to appear when she was doing her best to live a normal, happy life. Doing things that normal, happy, people did. She tried to remember exactly when the last time was she’d done anything remotely normal, but couldn’t, having devoted the last ten years of her life to serving her queen and country with every inch of her heart and soul. For some reason she’d lost her voice; it didn’t want to come out. It was caught in the back of her throat. CHAPTER TWO ‘I think we need to get the scene examined and the doctor here. There’s nothing we can do for her except find whoever did this.

’ Mattie nodded, and Lucy turned and walked out the way she’d come in. Outside in the car park there was not only an assortment of police vans, but also two fire engines. The whole circus was here. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Crowe had arrived and was talking to the fire officers. He waved her over, and she headed in his direction. ‘Lucy, you’re not to go back inside until the fire service has assessed the scene and made it safe.’ ‘Sir, that could take hours.’ ‘I know, but we need to put the safety of the officers and civilians working the scene first. There’s nothing we can do about it if you’re in there and the building collapses – it’s going to be a nightmare.’ He pulled out his phone, and she wandered back to Mattie.

‘What’s happening?’ ‘We have to wait for the all-clear to go back in.’ He shook his head. ‘Christ, we’re going to be stuck here all night.’ She shrugged. ‘Did you have something better to do?’ ‘Well, yes. Sort of and it’s bloody freezing.’ ‘Come on, we’ll go and talk to our expert eye witnesses. At least it’s warm in the van.’ Two hours later the fire service had agreed the safest point of entry, which, surprisingly enough, was the same one that Lucy and Mattie had already used. Tom was shouting into his phone, and Lucy got the gist as she heard the words: ‘Crime Scene Manager, patrols to secure a cordon and the area locking down’.

He was a bit slow tonight. She’d requested everything on arrival, and the crime scene investigators had gone in to document the scene. ‘So, how did we find her?’ ‘Well, sir, some kids scaled the fencing to come into the church and do a spot of ghost hunting. She looks like she’s been here at least twenty-four hours, but the doc will tell you more than I can on that score.’ ‘Where are the kids?’ ‘I’ve spoken to them and got first accounts, and they’ve all been taken home. I’ll send officers to get statements tomorrow. I think they’ve had enough excitement for one night.’ ‘You can say that again. I bet it’s quite some time before they decide to go ghost hunting again. Do we have any ID on the vic?’ Lucy shook her head.

‘We have nothing, although the body hasn’t been searched yet. It’s highly unlikely, because she’s wearing a nightgown, but you never know. Do you want to take a look?’ She could tell by the pained expression on his face that he most definitely didn’t want to take a look, but it was his job. He had to. ‘Should I lead the way, or do you want to go in alone?’ ‘I’ll follow you.’ She led him to the metal plates that had been put down by the on-duty CSI, Amanda. Walking single file, he looked at the upside-down cross on the board which was now propped against the side of the church. She smelt the Home Office pathologist before she saw her, swathed in a mist of Chanel. Catherine Maxwell caught all of the bad jobs she did – they were an unlikely pair of crusaders in the fight against evil. Lucy turned to her and smiled.

‘Catherine, thanks for coming.’ ‘There’s nothing I’d rather be doing, except maybe sleeping. At my age I need my beauty sleep you know.’ Lucy smiled at her; Catherine Maxwell was the most attractive, glamorous woman she’d ever laid eyes on. She most definitely didn’t look her age, which Lucy guessed to be somewhere in her late forties. Tom paused, lifting his arm for the doctor to go first. ‘We’ll let you take a look and be in shortly.’ ‘That’s very kind of you.’ She walked in, carrying her heavy case. Lucy whispered in Tom’s ear, ‘Anyone would think you didn’t want to go in, boss.

’ He whispered back, ‘I don’t. My stomach feels a bit off to be honest and I have the headache from hell. The last thing I need is to stand in close proximity to a decomposing body.’ ‘Bless you, if it’s any consolation she doesn’t smell that bad. At least if you don’t get too close she doesn’t.’ ‘Thanks.’ He inhaled deeply then stepped inside, walking as near to the corpse as he dared yet not getting too close. Catherine was taking samples from the body. She nodded at them both. ‘Do you know how long she’s been here, Catherine?’ ‘Hard to be exact, Tom, but you know that.

Judging by the fact that she’s in full rigor I’d say at least twelve hours. Her body temp is the same as the ambient surroundings, so she’s been dead awhile.’ He stared at the deep wound on the victim’s throat. ‘Cause of death is pretty obvious even to me.’ ‘It might look obvious, but you never can be one hundred per cent sure until the postmortem. For all we know she could have died several ways. It doesn’t look as if there’s enough arterial spray for blood loss to have been the cause. I’m tempted to say her throat was cut after death, but that would be speculation and we all know what that can lead to.’ Tom took a step closer, crouching down. He looked up at the body that was tied to the roughly fashioned cross, studying the open, blood-crusted wound on her neck.

‘Did you notice the inverted cross on the board outside? It looks to me like someone decided to take up devil worship. Have we got any devil worshippers on our books, Lucy?’ ‘Sir, are you being serious? Devil worship? In Brooklyn Bay? I’ve never heard of it, and as far as I’m aware no, we haven’t got anyone who is a self-confessed devil worshipper on the system. Apart from the body and a faded piece of graffiti outside there’s nothing to suggest it. I’d have expected candles, pentagrams, some kind of altar.’ Just to be sure she slowly moved her torch beam over the darkest corners of the building. ‘Yeah, well neither have I but what else have we got to go on? It’s a definite line of investigation and I want it looked into. We can’t rule anything out, just because it seems ridiculous.’ Catherine arched an eyebrow at Lucy. ‘I think I’d prefer to go off the hard evidence and work it out. We can’t go around saying there’s a bunch of satanists in town.

’ ‘I didn’t say we could, it’s just a suggestion.’ He stood up and walked back outside. Catherine whispered, ‘I think he watches too much television.’ ‘You and me both.’ ‘This is going to be an interesting case, Lucy, aren’t you glad you were on-call for your first official murder investigation?’ She shook her head. ‘For once, I wish I wasn’t. My stomach almost fell out when I took the call; it’s not a straightforward sudden death, is it? There’s a lot to be said for rest days and working upstairs in the Intel unit.’ Catherine placed her samples in the heavy, metal case. Taking out brown paper bags, she secured them around both hands of the corpse to preserve any evidence. ‘You can let the undertakers move her when you’re ready.

I’ve taken my preliminary samples. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Lucy watched the doctor leave then turned to look at her nameless victim. ‘I don’t know who you are or why you were killed, but I promise I will find out, and catch whoever did this to you.’ Taking one last look, she left; there was so much that needed to be done. She glanced down at her watch – it was almost two. She was going to the station for a large mug of strong coffee and to get the investigation going. Her bed wouldn’t be getting slept in tonight.



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