Paula can’t afford to fail. She has too much riding on this.
She’s starting back at her old job as a homicide detective with way more to prove than she’s comfortable with. She does not need her first case to be the pursuit of the worst serial killer the UK has seen in decades.
But that’s what she’s gotten.
And so, with her reputation resting on a knife-edge and dead bodies stacking up, she’s against the clock and has no choice but to enlist outside help. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
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Bodies, categorized by age, sex and race filled a vast warehouse floor in the East End of London. We’re in the part of East London that isn’t fashionable. One that’s known for its derelict, urban storage not yet snatched up for apartment conversion. The building is tucked away down an un-kept private road with neither lighting nor CCTV security footage to assist us in tracking down how these wretched souls came to be lying naked in this dank abyss.
I’ve seen some sights in my time, but nothing like this, and don’t my nostrils know it. No amount of toilet roll can block that stench, and before you ask, no, I won’t be touching vapor rub. I learned early on in my career how successful that is at clearing blocked airways. Not great when you’re going for the opposite effect.
“What do you see?” Mo, my good friend and partner on the murder squad asks.
I rub my chin. Is it OK to say, ‘I have no freaking clue’ on my first official week back on the squad I mistakenly left to pursue pastures new? I decide Mo and I have enough history for me to admit how dumbfounded I am. “No idea. You?”
I shift my weight back and forth as I stare down at the silent morgue, hoping for inspiration. If I’m honest, I don’t see it happening soon. So, I set off on a slow stroll down the concrete strip, searching for a clue in the faces of the flesh at varying degrees of bloating, or worse still, rotting. I grit my teeth to form an enamel wall, blocking the putrid particles of death from invading my body as I struggle to breathe. Blocking all notions of how these bodies looked as living, breathing, people with lives and stresses, I wonder what happened. What did they do to end up like this?
“No obvious cause,” I mumble, not really to Mo, but he hears me and nods.
“Perhaps they were suffocated,” he guesses.
“It could be anything at this stage. The forensics will appreciate this one.”
“At least the scene of crime officers have a ready-made place to hold the bodies. I don’t suppose we’ll be moving this lot with ease.”
“Has the team located the owners of the premises yet?” I ask.
“No, but I’m keeping everything crossed that by the time we return to the station we’ll have at least a small nugget to work with. The team is on it.”
We fall silent again. There’s a flurry of activity as the teams bring in their equipment and attempt to figure out what happened and where. Despite the commotion, the place eerily echoes as though its empty.
Jim, an old time copper on my team walks past pushing his thinning gray hair from his face while chatting to Christine, the most vibrant of blond bombshells. His voice hushed in subconscious respect to the rows of victims.
“Jim, before you take off, can you please categorize how many people fall into each segment and their specifics. That must be meaningful to whoever laid them out, so it should be to us. Break down the physical divisions as the killer had them, but also if you spot other dimensions then pass that on too.”
Jim salutes and walks off, having no further questions. Or maybe he had too many questions for one alone to surface.
“Have you noticed? Every single one is laid out perfectly; it’s so clinical. Each body is spread out the same as the next. They’ve been positioned with such care,” Mo says.
“Hmm, respect even?”
“I wonder…” Mo says, without having a precise direction about what he’s speculating.
“He expected to move more bodies in. The corpses are organized. Look! Those to the left of each block are in the worst state of decay. Those to the right are not as decomposed.” I point my finger toward the lines of lifeless bodies.
“So, he left a gap between them. He prepared them, knowing he was bringing more.”
“Yes.” I chew a slim strip of flesh on the inside of my bottom lip and stop walking.
“But where did they come from?” Mo is talking to himself again now and I don’t need to answer. Instead, I observe the sound of the crumbling building, and of how people whisper on instinct when confronted with such catastrophic death. And how the clang of metal outside as car doors slam, rings around the void in the rafters.
“We should ascertain who would be familiar with this place. What was it used for in the past and who would even have the foggiest idea that this property even exists?”
“Hmm…” Mo’s lost in his own thoughts.
“What’s bothering you?” I keep my voice soft, not wanting to disturb his thoughts, only to be allowed access.
“Let’s take a trip upstairs,” is all he says.
We head off in the direction of the dilapidated staircase located near the entrance and almost bounce up, two at a time, a renewed vigor driving our steps.
“What are we looking for?” I ask.
“These places are often used by the homeless. Fingers crossed we’ll find some signs of life up here. Then we’ll have ourselves a witness.”
“You’ve been around enough rough sleepers Mo; you know what they’re like. They’ll lock down in a heartbeat. The homeless community is way more brutal than us. We’ll struggle to compete.”
“I know, but we need to check every avenue. Sometimes you get lucky.”
We search along the ground, scouring for any sign of a hasty exit. We bag up a few discarded cigarettes. Any ace investigation duo would be remiss to leave them behind, but I’m not confident they’ll lead us anywhere.
I wave my three measly bags at Mo. “Well, at least we found some sign of life here. And we’ve discovered not a hint of a fire to keep the vagrants warm, so perhaps, these may be a lead.”
I curl the corner of one side of my mouth up. I’m trying to be positive and Mo knows it.
“Yeah, let’s send them to the lab. We have nothing else to work with for now.”
We turn around and pass a bricked-up door.
“I wonder what that is?” Mo says, his speech slow as though his brain is processing whether this is anything that will help us crack the case.
“It could be an old fire escape,” I suggest.
We tread down the shaky steps and return outside into the fresh air. Fresh is a tad on the optimistic side as we’re right in the middle of a grimy industrialized area, but when you consider what we were inhaling within the concrete confines of the warehouse, we feel like we’re in the glorious Lake District. I pull the tissue from my nose and take a lungful of air.
Mo does the same. “Welcome back, Paula.” He taps me on the shoulder and I cover his large, brown hand with my own.
“It’s good to be here, Mo.”
“No, I mean it,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to run this case with anyone else. This will turn messy.”