Atherton did a double take.
His wallet was open on the bedside table and his University ID photo stared up at him. Back when the picture was taken, he’d thought he looked old, fat and tired. Now, nine years later, it was quite the opposite. He thought he looked fresh-faced and optimistic.
He turned away from it and Louise stirred beside him. The phone rang once more and he floundered to retrieve it from his trouser pocket on the floor. Louise’s eyes flicked open and she moaned in protest.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“S’okay,” she mumbled and smiled sleepily.
“Jon Atherton,” he said, when he finally located the phone.
“Jonny?” It was Myers. He recognised the voice. “You up?”
“I am now. Kind of,” said Atherton. “What time is it?”
“Early. What’s your availability like this week?”
“Well, we’ve just broken up for Christmas. The little bastards are back home or away up Machu Picchu or some such shite. I’ve got stuff to mark, but other than that…”
“We’ve got… there’s something for you. If you were interested. If you were up for it.”
Atherton sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“I’m available,” he said and cringed at his own eagerness. “I mean, I can probably move a few things around.”
“Great. I want you to see the scene while it’s fresh.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” said Myers. Atherton could hear him dragging hard on a cigarette.
“Where is it?”
“Bottleburn,” he said. “I’m en route already. I’m texting you a map link. How soon can you get going?”
“Pretty quick,” said Atherton, sitting up and rubbing his scalp.
There was a pause.
“Do you want me to send a car?” said Myers.
“No, I’m good to drive,” said Atherton and clicked off the phone.
He stretched out his left arm and clenched his fist a couple of times. He could usually get an indication of how it was going to behave on any particular day by how it felt first thing in the morning. The leg was different; it could feel great at the start of the day, but by afternoon or early evening, it could feel leaden and unresponsive.
He dressed as quickly as he could, sniffing the armpits of a shirt before throwing it on. He opened the door quickly, knowing it creaked less that way. On his way out, he stopped at Hannah’s room, gently opening the door a fraction to peek in. She was sound asleep, her head just visible at the top of the pink duvet. He tiptoed silently in and placed a gentle kiss on her head.
Downstairs, he buttered some bread, put it on a plate and carried it out to the car. The air was cold and the sky the colour of bruised concrete. When he backed off the drive, he noticed Louise at the bedroom window, her dressing gown just visible through the venetian blinds. He raised his hand from the wheel and waved. She returned it, wiggling her fingers, and placed a hand to her head with the thumb and little finger extended: call me.
Balancing his phone on the steering wheel, he followed Myers’s map and directions. Forty-five minutes later, he turned onto a farmer’s lane and pulled in behind a large white van, which he recognised as SOCO. The rolling snow-capped Cheviot Hills loomed to the north. A plain-clothes officer approached the car and waved. Atherton wound down the window.
“Myers?” he said.
“At the riverside. There’s a path down to the bank.”
“Sorry. I’m just thinking, is this the closest the road gets to the scene?”
“I think so. Possibly,” he replied.
“Then it could also be where someone else parked up last night and we’ve got cars all over it. Can we get everything backed up at least twenty metres from here? Tape it off, too – it’s part of the crime scene,” said Atherton.
Atherton checked his camera had power and stepped out of the car. Another young uniformed officer looked up on his approach. He was used to his gait attracting attention; the way his left leg leaned in at the knee gave him a limp that was pronounced on some days. This was one of those days.
“Have you never seen a hungover cripple, son? You should have seen the state of me last night,” he said. The officer blocked his way.
“Just a second, sir,” he said.
“I’m here for Myers,” said Atherton.
“Do you have any ID?”
“I’m his psych expert from the Uni. He invited me to the picnic,” said Atherton. He fished out his laminated University ID and showed it to the officer, who stepped back from Atherton slightly as a quick exchange on his radio followed.
“Go right ahead, Doctor Atherton. Sorry for the inconvenience,” he said.
“That’s quite all right, my friend,” said Atherton and smiled. The officer returned it, uncertainly.
The young cop pointed down the lane, where Atherton saw Myers already emerging from the undergrowth, talking animatedly into his phone. Atherton picked up on the conversation when he walked within earshot.
“…guy walking his dog,” said Myers. “We’ve taken him in. A mess, understandably. There’s a car on the way to pick his wife up. Other than that, we don’t think anyone will have caught wind. We’ll probably have an hour or two before we have any media problems.”
He saw Atherton and nodded. “Sir, got to go now and I’ll call you back in half an hour.” He pocketed the phone. “Jonny,” he said. “This way.”
Atherton followed Myers down an overgrown path, which meandered through the trees toward the river. Already, he could see a large SOCO tent.
“Jesus, Paul, what is this? A wedding reception?” said Atherton.
“Sue told me it was the biggest bloody tent they have,” he replied. “It’s bad. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Myers took his time on the path. Leather soles were no good on this terrain. Atherton thought Myers’s suit seemed a little tighter on him, his hair now a little more salt than pepper.
“So, how are you doing, Jon?” said Myers, short of breath.
“Still doing it. How’s Louise?”
“Good, thanks. We’re good.”
They continued down, until Myers stopped suddenly, blocking the path.
“I’ve got to tell you, Jonny; it’s not a pretty picture in there.”
“I’m okay with it Paul, if that’s what you’re getting at,” said Atherton.
“I’m not getting at anything, I’m just telling you that it’s about as bad as it gets.”
“And I’m telling you I’m okay.”
“Fine. Knock yourself out.”
The two continued silently to the riverside, where the trees thinned and frosty grass spanned to the tent. Myers stopped short of the boundary tape and pulled out the phone once more.
“I’ll be out here,” said Myers.
A man in a hooded white forensics suit held open the tent door for Atherton and he stepped inside.
It was as if someone had exploded. Red-brown blood covered virtually the entire internal floor area of the tent. His eyes were drawn immediately to the decapitated head.
Scattered around were other body parts, some identifiable, others not. There was an awful combination of smells in the air: blood, like that of a butchers shop, with a vague hint of human shit.
Atherton removed a menthol nasal inhaler from his pocket and took two sharp hits to each nostril.
“If you vomit on my crime scene, I’ll tear you apart,” said a nearby voice.
“Hi, Sue, where’s good to stand? Here?”
Sue Cresswell was recognisable only by her large rimmed spectacles. Several other people moved slowly and deliberately around the tent, all wearing identical white coveralls.
“Stick to the perimeter, you should be fine. There are some booties at the back of the door there,” she said.
“Ah-ha,” said Atherton and slipped blue shoe covers on. “I must say, I like what you’re wearing today. Is it new?”
“Aye, fresh out of the packet,” she said. “I just wish it had more of a lining. I’m bloody freezing.”
“What do you know?”
“Dismembered body of one female.” She pointed to various areas of the tent. “Eight pieces altogether. Head, you can see. We’ve got upper torso over there… left arm… right leg, liver… looks like lower intestine there.”
“Fucking hell,” whispered Atherton.
“Hell is right,” said Cresswell. “That pile over there?” She pointed to a pile of yellowing skin and glistening viscera. “That’s the rest.”
“And there?” Atherton pointed to an area close to one corner of the tent where several wired flags had been inserted.
“We’ll get to that,” she said. “We need to do some analysis, but this looks really fresh to me. Like eight or nine hours old.”
An awful thought occurred to Atherton. They were miles from anywhere. Screaming didn’t matter out here.
“Could she have been alive when he cut her?” he asked.
“Now you’re asking. We’re looking at a large volume of blood here, but I can’t see anything which tells me her heart was still beating. I’d expect to see more evidence of arterial sprays. From the amount of blood, I’d say the dismemberment happened here, but it could have been post-mortem. We can check her arms for defence wounds too, when we pull them out of the pile. There’s a sizable wound to her head, which we’ll need to take a good look at. He could have killed her elsewhere and carried her down.”
“Assuming it was a guy of course,” said Atherton.
“It is an assumption, but whoever was responsible was strong. The victim’s femur is a good size. I think this was a big girl. Maybe five-ten, five-eleven. Anyway, it’s always a guy.”
“I thought you people didn’t make assumptions?” he said.
“I thought you guys waited for reports?” she answered.
“Touché. So what about the flags over there? Pitch and putt, Sue?”
“Indentations,” she said. “Four in a square formation, which could have been a chair and three in front of that from something else.”
“Camera? You think he photographed it?”
“Maybe. Something on a tripod would be my guess. From the depth of the indentation and the soil’s water content, we might be able to make a stab at the weight of the equipment on top of it. Ditto the chair. We’d need to take the ground temp into consideration, too,” she said.
“You can tell us the weight of the killer?”
“Assuming he sat on it. Ballpark only, you understand. We’ll do casts to see if there’s anything else identifiable about the legs. Likely to be a pretty generic portable camping chair, but you never know.”
“What about the way he…”
“Chopped her up?”
“Fine-toothed saw, it looks like.”
“Okay. A proper bone saw or a workshop hacksaw?”
“I’ll get back to you on that. We’ll need a bit of lab at some point, or do you want me to put you in a taxi and take you to a suspect right now?” Her eyes smiled.
“If you could please, it would save a lot of time,” said Atherton. He looked across the tent again; the scene was surreal. “What about down by the river? Whoever did this would be covered in blood. You think he went down and washed himself?”
“Maybe. The water would have been like the Baltic, but that’s what I might have done, although right here there’s quite a drop down to the water,” she said, pointing to the tent wall hiding the river. “Which isn’t to say he didn’t use it, but there’s a better place to get in downstream. We’ve taped fifty metres in either direction, so we can check it out once we’ve finished here.”
“Thanks, Sue. Do you need anything else?” said Atherton.
“Just a wood fire, a latté and a nice maple syrup and pecan pastry, please.”
“If I find them, they’re yours.”
Atherton took a few photos of his own. It was a habit he had; to record how he’d seen it rather than anyone else. As he stepped outside, he felt a wave of dizziness suddenly strike and he took a moment until it passed. He walked to the riverbank. Alongside the crime scene, there was indeed a good four-foot drop. Not easy to climb in or out of, he thought.
He glanced downstream and could see the more accessible area of shale, which Cresswell had mentioned. He strolled down to it, following the natural curve of the river. At the shale, he dipped under the tape and put his hands on his knees so he could crouch and get a better view of the ground. He became aware of Myers at his side.
“We need to get more people out here, Paul,” said Atherton. “We should be covering all this ground. The river, all of this, right the way up to and including the farmer’s lane we have umpteen squad cars parked on.”
“It’s already happening. We’re bringing in another six guys from Newcastle,” he said. He watched Atherton as he scanned the pebbles. “What do you think?” he said, finally.
Atherton ignored him for almost a full minute, until his eyes fell onto a minute splash of dark red blood. He pointed at it and looked up at Myers, who nodded.
“I think we need to catch this fucker,” he said to himself and crouched down to take a photograph. “Here we go up the river again.”
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