TWELVE DAYS (– First draft –)
Chapter 1 – 6:38pm, Monday 14th December
The long-awaited and well-predicted fall of snow had finally arrived, and Detective Chief Inspector Danny McGregor turned up the collar on his overcoat, and jammed his hands back into his pockets. He hated winter – he hated the cold, he hated the rain, and he especially hated the snow. And he hated being called out on a cold, rainy, snowy night.
Behind him, buses idled noisily at bus stops, steam rising lazily from their exhausts, and beyond that, cars on the dual carriageway created slooshing white noise as they dashed home, oblivious of the dramas being played out on the quiet back street.
Head down, he passed several other similarly-hunched pedestrians, walking away from the station, and presumably back to the warmth and comfort of their houses. It would be several hours before McGregor would be able to get home tonight, if at all. Christmas was a time of contrasts, but most of McGregor’s Christmases had been far from happy.
Up ahead, he could see the flashing blue lights bouncing off the tall buildings and reflecting off the settling snow in the quiet back street. He stepped into the road, and cold, wet slush rose over his shoes and soaked through his socks.
He hurried across the road, and in the limited light he made out the silhouette of Detective Sergeant Pauline Bennett.
“Bennett”, he called out.
The silhouette turned, and moved. “Glad you got here OK, guv. I was beginning to get worried.”
“Sometimes, I hate Christmas. What have we got?”
“Dead body.” She referred to a small, black notepad. “Student. Maria Stama. Nasty slit throat. Almost took her head off. She’s over here.”
Bennett led the way past uniformed officers, stamping their feet, awaiting further instructions, trying to keep warm as the evening turned into night. The two detectives ducked under striped blue-and-white tape, and they turned into an alleyway between a bar and an empty department store.
Maria Stama was lying face down amongst some cardboard boxes and litter. It almost looked like she was sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the enormous police activity going on around her. Her head rested against a cardboard box, a manufacturer’s name partially hidden by a growing dark shadow. She wore jeans and a thin top, totally unsuited to the weather. To one side, a handbag lay open, some of the contents spilling out.
“Maria …?” McGregor asked.
“Stama,” Bennett completed. “Italian. Been over here two years.”
“SOCO?” McGregor asked.
“You mean the Crime Scene Examiner? About ten minutes away, guv. Caught up in traffic.”
McGregor tutted at the continual redefinition of titles and roles within the police service. “How come
do they take so long?”
“You know these Scene of Crime people, boss. A case like this, the figure the deceased isn’t going anywhere, and it’s likely they’re going to spend most of the night here, anyway.”
“Get on the radio to them. See if you can’t get them to hurry up.”
“I’ve already done that. They say they’re doing the best they can. And then they asked if I realised it was Christmas.”
McGregor muttered something obscene under his breath, and moved back out of the alleyway, Bennett behind him, as always.
“Who found her, Pauline?”
“One of her friends.” She looked at her notebook. “Laura Chapin. There were a bunch of them, out celebrating in the pub just over there.” Bennett nodded across the road, and McGregor saw a brightly-lit, modern bar, where a number of people were standing around, beer bottles in hand, watching what was going on. Each of them was dressed just in trousers and shirts, no coats, and not for the first time in his life, McGregor wondered what it was about the younger generation that made them impervious to this freezing weather.
“Where’s Chapin now?”
“In one of the squad cars. I figured you’d want to speak to her as soon as you could.”
“Cheers. I’ll go and have a word.”
As he walked to the squad car Bennett had indicated, McGregor again looked at the small crowd of people outside the pub, being held back behind Scene of Crime tape by a couple of uniforms. One man, young, with an angular, clean-shaven face, lifted his bottle towards McGregor, and nudged the man standing next to them. The two watched McGregor with interest.
“What’s going on?” one of them shouted across.
McGregor ignored him, and also the larger piles of slush to get to the lime green striped Vauxhall, where he could see a young girl with her head down, and a female officer sitting next to her on the back seat, arm around the young girl’s shoulders. McGregor nodded to the officer stamping his feet by the car, and he got into the front passenger seat.
“Hi, Laura,” he said. “My name’s Detective Chief Inspector McGregor. I’m in charge of the investigation, for the moment. My associate tells me you found your poor friend?’
The young girl looked up. She was attractive, or at least had been before her mascara had run from her eyes and down her cheeks. Short blonde hair, and somewhat hollow-cheeked, she looked like a small waif, completely out of place in this crime scene.
“Maria was a friend of mine. She was going back to Italy for Christmas tomorrow. This was a celebratory drink. Just a few of us.” She looked down again. “Who the fuck would do something like that? There are some sick fuckers around this crappy city.”
McGregor nodded. “And you’re not from round here, are you?”
“Cheltenham. That’s where my parents live. I shared a flat up here with Maria and a couple of other mates. We all got on.”
“Can you tell me what happened? Was she with you in the pub?”
Chapin sniffed. “Yes. We’d been there since around six. Just drinking, you know?”
“Well, anyway, Maria got this text message. On her phone. When she read it, she looked confused. Said she needed to go outside for a few minutes. She gave me some money for the next round.”
“And you didn’t see her after that?”
“No. Well, not until …” She looked out of the side window, before turning to McGregor again. “After about five minutes, I bought the next round, but she hadn’t returned. I left my drink on the table, and went outside to see where she was.”
“Could you see her?”
“No. Not at first. I called out to her. She didn’t answer. I walked up the road a bit. And that’s when I found her.”
“I see. Listen.” MecGregor looked at his watch. Seven-forty, How’d it get to be that time? “I’m afraid we’re going to need to take a full statement from you. It’s probably not what you want to do tonight …”
“But I’m due to be going home tomorrow. To Cheltenham,” she added.
“If you want to do it tonight, then that’s okay. But you’ll need to come down to the police station. We need to write everything down. Do you feel up to that?”
“Okay, you just stay here for a moment. I’ll get someone to pick you up, take your statement, and then drop you wherever you need to go tonight. Is that okay?”
She nodded, again, more slowly this time.
McGregor looked at the female officer, who said: “I’ll stay with her for the moment.”
“Thanks. I’ll get a DC over as soon as I can.” He put his hand on Chapin’s arm, who flinched as if an electric shock had passed through her.
“Sorry,” McGregor muttered, and climbed out of the car, to find Bennett waiting for him.
“We need at least one DC here, female, to take her to the station for a statement.”
“Tonight?” Bennett asked.
“Yes. Tonight. Is that a problem?”
“No,” Bennett said. “If you like, I’ll do it now. Get it over with.”
“No. I need you with me. Get someone else over to do it.”
He walked off, leaving Bennett to make the arrangements. Once again, he had to pass the crowd of young people outside the bar.
“How long are we going to have to wait here? We’ve got some serious drinking to do.” There was a subdued cheer, and shouts of “dead right”.
McGregor stopped his march towards the crime scene, and slowly approached the group.
“You’d better watch it, Carl,” one of the group said. “He’ll arrest you if you’re not careful.” More cheers.
McGregor addressed the whole group. “I’m sorry you’re having to wait around on a night like this. As you may, or may not know, a young girl has been brutally murdered a few yards from here, and all of you are potential witnesses to what went on.”
There were groans, and the one who shouted before, Carl, spoke up. “So what, we have to wait here to give a statement or something? This is ridiculous.” There were more groans from the group.
“I’m sorry that you’re being inconvenienced,” McGregor went on. “You’ll be seen as soon as we can get someone here to take your statements.”
“Can’t we wait inside the pub? At least we’d be able to get a drink then. It was Carl’s round.” More cheers, answered by a “fuck off”.
“I’m afraid not,” said McGregor. He looked at the two uniformed officers keeping the group in check, but he didn’t need to say anything. They knew their job. McGregor carried on towards the crime scene, and was caught up by Bennett.
“Julia Trent will be here in about two minutes, guv. She was on her way anyway.”
“Good. Make sure you get the rest of Stama’s group identified and isolated from the rest of them.We’ll need to get them interviewed tonight as well. Drag in as many as you think you need. I don’t want to risk any potential witnesses leaving the scene.”
He looked around, and up at the sky, where snow was once again falling.
“Why would anyone want to murder a student just before Christmas?” He shook his head. “Sometimes, I hate my job.”