A Handful of Dust
by Tony Forder
Mist hangs over the lake
like a heavy cloud of smoke. The amber sodium glow from nearby parkways
fails to penetrate the moist, swirling mass, which rolls gently forward,
consuming acres of land as it does so. The hiss of tyres on smooth,
damp tarmac disturbs the wildlife long before five pairs of headlights
snake their way around to the boating area. As the vehicles draw closer,
the sound of their approach on loose gravel begins to drown out the
sob of an elderly man.
There is a moment of silence,
almost a respectful pause, before doors are thrown open and men explode
from the vehicles as if propelled by an unseen force. The sound of beating
footsteps pierces the chill night air. The first uniformed officers
on the scene are swiftly joined by paramedics and CID detectives. Within
seconds it becomes obvious that there is little for the paramedics to
do, other than gently prise the elderly man's gnarled and trembling
fingers from his wife's lifeless body. Compassion replaces urgency in
their shocked, muted voices. And while the uniformed policemen begin
setting up an immediate perimeter with metal stakes and striped tape,
the most senior detective takes one final look at the woman's ruined
features, then makes a call.
Detective Chief Inspector
Frank Rogers was woken from a dream in which he has been observing disparate
scenes from his own childhood. The trill of a telephone ringing close
by sounded more like an alarm bell calling him back as he watched his
eleven-year-old self jump the school gates and head towards the local
high street. There, a café awaited him in which he would spend his entire
week's dinner money in a single morning on thick white mugs of hot tea
and selections from the juke-box.
Wrestling himself up and
out of the dream, if not fully awake, Frank snatched up the phone. For
him, sleep was often elusive, and he was beginning to feel the incremental
nature of fatigue in every pore.
"DCI Rogers," he barked, running a thumb and forefinger over
eyes that felt swollen and sticky. He listened for a moment, then snapped
on the bedside lamp and scrawled a few notes on a pale blue Post-It.
Glancing over at the alarm clock, he blew out his cheeks and said, "I'll
be there in an hour and a half." It took several seconds longer
to gather himself enough to move.
At times like this, trying
to avoid waking his family was as routine to Frank as filling out an
incident report. It went with the territory. Mostly he managed it, this
time he didn't. As he placed his foot on the ottoman to lace his boots,
it groaned beneath his weight, causing his wife to stir and raise her
head from the pillow.
She mumbled something, her voice muffled by the duvet, dull with sleep.
Frank looked over his shoulder at her, met her hostile stare and shook
his head. "Sorry, Jan. Go back to sleep."
"Just don't wake the kids."
Frank gave a thin smile and nodded his head. "Thanks, Jan. If
you hadn't warned me I might've made enough noise to raise the dead
before I left."
She pushed back the duvet and glared at him. "No need for sarcasm,
"No need to state the obvious, Janet."
His wife's response was lost to the bed cover once more, though he
doubted it was kind. He left the bedroom in darkness, splashed some
cold water on his face, smoothed down unruly tufts of hair on the crown
of his head, then stopped in the kitchen to make a flask of strong,
black coffee. A ninety-minute drive and a pint of caffeine should see
him arrive at the scene of crime with the majority of his wits about
him. Frank left no note, those days long behind him. If Janet awoke
in the morning and found only a cold sheet by her side, she would not
be in the least bit surprised.
He hit the M11 at eighty,
pushed it up to a ton and held it there until he reached the Peterborough
turn-off. One glance at the scrawled directions on the Post-It was all
he needed after leaving the A1(M). A few minutes later, Frank's Rover
joined the throng of official vehicles in a parking area by the man-made
lake at the leisure spot known as Ferry Meadows. As he killed the engine,
a figure wearing a bright yellow waterproof jacket appeared from out
of the gloom. Frank grinned, pleased to see a familiar face beneath
the peaked cap.
Frank retained the warm
grin as he climbed out of the car and retrieved his heavy woollen overcoat
from the back seat. Shrugging into it he reached out a hand. "How're
you doing, Lennie?"
Inspector Leonard Kaplan
pumped the hand once and slapped Frank on the back. "Not so bad,
"Oh, can't complain.
Well, I can, but who would listen?" He regarded the other man more
closely. He and Kaplan had worked together once before, when both were
stationed in Dagenham, in Essex. Both men were sergeants in those days,
and had struck up an immediate friendship. Kaplan was the only man who
had ever called him Frankie.
"You grown a moustache,
Lennie?" Frank's eyes narrowed as he tried to work out the difference
in the man's appearance.
Kaplan laughed out loud.
"No, you prick. I've shaved off my beard."
Frank rolled his eyes and
laughed at his own foolishness. He pulled up his coat collar and breathed
warm air over his hands. "This mist's a bit nippy. Damp, too."
"You've gone soft, Frankie."
"Yeah, especially around
the middle." Behind Kaplan there were people milling around, floodlights
grouped in a circle - a strange glow in this two-dimensional light.
Frank nodded his head in that direction. "So, Lennie. What have
you got for me, pal?"
Kaplan shook his head, thin
lips pursed beneath the wild, greying moustache. "Not a nice one,
Frankie. Not a nice one at all, which is why I thought it best to involve
your mob." He turned and headed towards the bustling area of activity,
where men and women in white protective overalls hovered like inquisitive
"The forensic camera
team have finished with the body," Kaplan went on. "Pathologist
is on her way. The rest of the forensic people are waiting for you to
give the go-ahead before they do their stuff. Basic searches going on
around the crime scene, as you can see, and a fingertip search crew
have been ordered for first light."
The two men paused before
a white InciTent, erected over the body to protect it from the elements
and to preserve as much trace evidence as possible. Frank glanced across
at the lake, dim fragments of reflected light barely visible through
the gradually thinning mist. "We'll need a diving team."
Kaplan frowned. "You
think we'll find the murder weapon in there?"
"You never know. Murder
weapon, Nessie, Lord Lucan and Shergar, I shouldn't wonder."
Kaplan gave a tight smile
and tossed him a white bundle wrapped in cellophane. "I've seen
all I want to see tonight. I'm sure you're more familiar with what's
waiting for you in there."
Frank reluctantly took off
his overcoat and handed it to Kaplan. He climbed into the protective
garment, zipped it to the neck, then pulled up a snug hood around his
head. Another ghost. Without another word he stepped into the tent,
drew on a pair of latex gloves, and squatted down by the body.
The woman lay on her back,
arms and legs spread out as if she were forming a large X. The hood
of her beige parka was like a saucer for her spilled blood. In the unnatural
light it gleamed like a halo of slick crude oil. Other than the woman's
eyes, which had been sliced in two and left inside their sockets, her
face was untouched. Across the rest of her body there were too many
puncture wounds to count, but it looked as if there must be several
dozen. Her green tartan skirt had been yanked up to her waist, tights
shredded and her vagina brutalised, most likely with the same weapon
that had punctured the flesh so cruelly. The remainder of the wounds
caused by a sharp and heavy blade were random, though her breasts had
been left unscathed. The final, sickening debasement was that all ten
nails had been ripped from her fingers. They were nowhere to be seen.
Frank drew saliva into his
mouth. It tasted like dry dirt. He cast his eyes around the immediate
area, but saw little more of interest other than what appeared to be
scuff marks leading away beneath the InciTent. Back outside, he stripped
off the overall and gloves and took in the entire scene of crime. The
mist had all but dispersed, the glow from the city and a pale moonlight
affording him something of a view. A bank of hills on the far side of
the lake ran up to a handful of scattered buildings. To his left the
car park, some sort of wooden structure with a small boardwalk, to his
right a clutch of trees stood just yards away. Murdered in there and
then dragged out here where she would be easily found, was his guess.
Kaplan came alongside him,
smoke coiling from a cigarette held loosely between his fingers. He
handed Frank his overcoat.
"It's times like this I wish I hadn't quit," Frank muttered.
"I know what you mean."
Kaplan nodded, took a drag. "She's just one of many such victims
for you, I know, but I haven't seen anything like that in quite a while."
"Who found her?"
"The husband. Poor bastard.
She took their dog for a walk around nine-fifteen. They live close by
and every night it's once around the lake, a little short cut back home,
followed by a hot toddy on evenings like this. He didn't get bothered
about her absence right away. His wife often stopped to chat with neighbours,
so walks could last from anywhere between thirty and sixty minutes."
"What's the victim's
name?" Frank's voice was soft, thoughtful.
"Annie. Annie Lakeham.
Her husband is Joe."
"So what time did he
start to think something was wrong?"
They're not the sort of people who like to bother others, so he came
out looking for her. He travelled their usual route, but in reverse,
thinking he'd meet her on the way back. If he'd come the other way he
might have missed her. As it was, he all but stumbled right over her
"And the dog?"
Kaplan inclined his head.
"In amongst the trees. Throat cut, left to die. Looks as though
the killer made an attempt to bury it, but stopped for whatever reason."
"Bury the dog?"
It made little sense to Frank, but there was always something about
a murder scene that didn't seem to fit.
Frank stared out across the
darkness at an area where the lights of many vehicles gathered, and
a series of small flames flickered in hastily prepared braziers. The
media were being held back until forensic and search teams were through.
"They'll eat this up," he said, with no small measure of disgust.
"Granny-butcher, and all that crap."
"It's the nature of
the beast, Frankie. They wouldn't write it if people didn't want to
"I know." Frank
Rogers was appalled by human nature's capacity to dwell on all that
was evil and base. He turned his head to look back at the InciTent once
more, still seeing Annie Lakeham's body though it was hidden from view
by the zippered flap. "I often think that's what bothers me most
He shook off the morbidity.
It had no place here. "Where's Joe Lakeham now?" he asked.
"Paramedics took him
to the district hospital. Shock. I sent an officer over with them."
One of the floating spectres
loomed up out of the darkness, pausing by the tent. "Are you finished
here, sir?" A woman's voice, her question directed at either of
the two men.
Frank nodded and Kaplan gave
the head of the forensic science department the okay to move in on the
immediate scene of crime. He took hold of Frank's arm and led them away,
brushing through the trees and back out onto open land. He indicated
a landscape of bulky structures, metal glinting yet vague in the meagre
"A kids' play area," Kaplan said. "Beyond that another
part of the lake. Just a nice, picturesque recreation area. I dread
to think who might have discovered the body if the old man hadn't."
Frank said nothing for a
moment, his mind processing too many scattered thoughts. When eventually
he spoke, his voice was low and even. "He's got a taste for it
now, Lennie. This is one sick fucker we're dealing with here."
"I know. In a way I'm
happy to be handing it over to you and your team." He thrust his
hands deep into the pockets of his jacket, the damp air finally settling
into his flesh. At least he hoped that was what had caused the sudden,
inadvertent shudder that ripped through his body. “DCI Church will be
handling things from this end.”
Frank nodded. "I'll
liaise with Church then. I'll head home now, catch a few hours’ shuteye,
and give him a bell when I get to HQ in the morning. Let him know, will
Kaplan held out his hand.
"Of course. You'll be back, will you?"
Frank shrugged. "See
how it goes. I don't want to be spreading myself too thin. It makes
sense to run as much as possible from HQ."
"I'll make sure you
get everything sent down at least twice a day."
Back at his car, Frank took off his overcoat once more before sliding
into his seat. "Good to see you again, pal."
Kaplan gave a weak grin.
"Just a shame about the circumstances." He closed the door
and moved back a pace, but as the engine was gunned he stepped forward
and tapped on the window. Frank powered it open, eyebrows raised.
"She won't be the last, will she, Frank?" It was not really
"No." Frank shook
his head and met his friend's eyes. "He'll do it again if we don't
"What a twisted, sadistic
freak he is. The man's a monster, Frank."
His voice weary with fatigue
and experience, Frank sighed and said, "No, you're wrong there,
Lennie. He's a man. Just a man, I'm afraid." He gave a weak smile
and added: "Bloody terrifying thought, isn't it?"