A Handful of Dust

by Tony Forder

Chapter One

Email: tforder@robertsmyth.leics.sch.uk

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, Frank."

"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, Frankie. Yourself?"

"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 spectres.

"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?"

"Ten-fifteen, ten-twenty. 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 body."

"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 read it."

"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 of all."

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 light.

"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 you, Lennie?"

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."

"Cheers, Lennie." 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 a question.

"No." Frank shook his head and met his friend's eyes. "He'll do it again if we don't get him."

"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?"


©2002 Tony Forder

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