Despite the darkness, there were many things here that begged to be acknowledged, sorted, reined in like an obedient horse, within his grasp, within his control.
It was better not to count.
Joe tucked the tips of his fingers under his thighs and tried not to think about how he could sense the fine wood grain under him (pine because Colbert wanted his victims to hope with the feel of the raw, unfinished wood around them) and if he gingerly ran his nails across the grain, he could feel the lines like hash-marks, slashing away one, two, three...
Immediately, he moved his hands to fold across his stomach instead, banging his elbows on the sides of his prison in the process.
As numb, chilled fingers interlaced to form a comforting weight on his stomach, Joe tried not to think about the pipe just shy of his right eye, its diameter of a 2p coin was barely large enough to see through or provide oxygen. It sent stale air from 1.8 meters, six feet or one fathom or...
Joe's breath hitched. He counted to ten soundlessly, airlessly from ten, nine, eight—No, he wasn't to count because counting meant time and then he would remember his time was limited.
The pipe. Yes, look at the pipe.
Joe tilted his head up, shifting his shoulders until he sidled up to align his right eye with the pipe opening.
There wasn't much to see. Not surprising given the length and diameter of the pipe. Nevertheless, staring up at the dark made his insides coil uncomfortably. No, the pipe led to somewhere, to the open, wide spaces, to fresh air, just like the others.
This, Joe allowed himself to think about. After all, he was a DI, and he'd hoped, was coming around to be a proper one; he'd chased after Colbert even before they knew he was Colbert.
Unfortunately, they didn't find Colbert.
Colbert found them.
Sort of. He'd found Joe.
God, he was such a fool. The fit Miles will throw once they found him.
There was still a throbbing ache on the side of his head where Colbert must have struck him. Miles swore left and right he and Kent should wait. Miles's "Wait for backup" was the last thing he'd said to them.
Joe swallowed hard. He hoped Kent was alright. He hoped Kent was not like he is right now, alone in the dark, breathing in damp air that tasted faintly of mud and grass. Kent had looked dead, prone on the ground, his mobile just a few inches from his slackened grip, screen cracked. . But there was no blood. That must mean something, yes?
His breathing stuttered again. His eyes flew to the pipe but there was no way to see if there was any blockage. But nothing had changed. Panic. Yes. That must be it. Caroline indicated the previous victims died of fright, not asphyxiation. If anything, Joe would succumb to thirst or hunger before—no, just thirst. The human body could only hold—No, don't think about it.
On principle, Joe should find something to align his inhales and exhales with. Perhaps go into a meditative state? No, that meant closing his eyes and presently, doing so felt a little too much like a self-fulfilling prophesy. His heartbeat? No. it was going too fast to be a good metronome and it could lead him to hyperventilate, which previous experience had shown was both unpleasant and sharply humiliating. Perhaps the throbbing on his head? Or the one on his wrist that had given a funny sound when he lashed out and struck a wall when he first came to. No, he was trying to ignore how much they hurt because allowing his brain to focus on that would remind his heart which would, in turn, shorten his breath and suddenly, he'd be very aware of how small everything seemed and how large he is and how there's hardly any room to move...
Joe's foot twitched and kicked out in the dark. The dull thud quieted his runaway thoughts.
Joe could feel his heartbeat picking up, hammering into the base of his throat. It was getting difficult to breathe as he automatically stretched his toes to ease the cramp in his legs and struck wall. Joe stared up through the pipe. It still offered nothing. Perhaps because Colbert returned and stuffed the pipe? No. They never saw any sign Colbert stopped the flow of oxygen. No, Colbert's victims didn't die for lack of air. They died for lack of food, water and hope. Specifically, their hearts beat too hard, too fast as they panicked before giving out.
That will not happen to me.
Joe's foot stilled. He settled a hand on the base of his diaphragm. He exhaled slowly. The darkness around him eased a fraction, expanding instead of contracting. He thought he could feel the walls recede.
He relaxed. There. He could...this was bearable. He could wait. Because his team would find him.
"...still miss you..."
"...single day...our boy…all grown up now...proud..."
"'ello?" Joe rasped, but like Colbert's other targets (he refused to categorize himself as one of his victims), whatever numbing substance Colbert had used still paralyzed his throat. Joe could taste the bitter tang of something medicinal at the back of his mouth. He smacked his lips together, grimacing at the gummy, dry sensation.
"Hello!" Joe screamed, as loud as he could. The strain pulled a wire tight across his chest. He coughed and coughed. For a brief moment, there was a glimmer of fear that he was filling the space with dead, spent carbon dioxide, robbing himself of precious air.
"...not fair. No one listened...pretend to care...but no one would..."
"Down here," rasped Joe. He was dizzy from trying to shout. His hoarse voice bounced weakly around him.
"...do you right, Torbin..."
"...make him pay...wish I could, Torbin..."
Oh God. It all made sense now. The pieces fell into place.
Six feet under, buried in a coffin, Joe knew exactly where he was.
But there was no one to tell.
Three days ago...
Sally Winters muttered to herself as she picked a careful path through the field. Mud sloshed under her trainers. She huddled deeper into her worn leather jacket, and tucked the carnations in as well so the strong breezes wouldn't snap more from her bouquet. Sally peeked within her jacket, counted the yellow and white blossoms, then impatiently blew a strand of blue-black hair off her freckled face.
"What a miserable day." She ran the tip of her tongue on the loop that pierced her lower lip.
"Shit," Sally yelped when her shoe sank lower into what was more water than mud. "Rotten..." Still, she pressed on, her blue eyes fixed on her goal just a hillock away.
The autumn rains had been relentless. She had wanted to come last week, but the rains kept her away and her boss at the cafe very unhappy. Rain had meant no one wanted to dine al fresco. His temper grew as short as the weather grew dark. Even if she had asked, he would have said no. Then assign her to wait on the area near the back. It was often empty, or occupied by scrooges who only want a coffee and a pinch of her bum.
Wankers. All of them. Leon would have knocked her bloody, blubbering boss off his feet and then stick it on YouTube.
A stone nearly sent her face first into a patch of dirt but when Sally straightened, she was smiling. One because yes, Leon would have done exactly that. Two, because she finally spotted Leon.
"Hey," she greeted breathlessly as she crouched down. She made a face when she pulled out her offering; the flowers' heads dipped almost in reverence.
"Sorry," she told Leon as she settled her gift in the holder by the stone. "Couldn't get off last week." She stuck her hands into her pockets, or rather, Leon's pockets. She'd found his jacket, draped over a chair in her flat, forgotten. She took it as her inheritance.
Sally stroked the name Leon Davis carved on the flat stone, the only grave marker she could afford. His mother had shouted at Sally how she never had no son and threw his pictures at her head. Sally had fled the bitch's caravan, photos of a chubby cheeked Leon clutched between her fingers.
"The police can't find him," Sally said. She sniffled. "I think they stopped looking though. Told me the bloke didn't show up on any CCTV." Sally rubbed over the surname on the stone. She chose Leon's dad, just to wind his mum up. Not that the woman bothered looking for his grave; Sally's carnations were the only flowers she ever saw.
"I think he's some rich son of Whitehall and the coppers can't be arsed to find him." Sally plucked a yellowing blade of grass and tossed it with a shaky hand. "What does it matter that some cashier from Tesco got run over off the A11?" She picked up a pebble and threw that as well.
Blinking, Sally wiped her eyes with a sleeve. She looked up, frowning when she realized the stone had struck a pipe end that was sticking up behind Leon's plaque.
"What..." Sally muttered. She straightened from her crouch and went over to it, brow furrowed. It stuck six centimeters out of the dirt.
"Oi," Sally seethed. What was the groundskeeper doing? Why was there a pipe by Leon? Why did mud sloshed everywhere and trickle over Leon? She stood up, glaring at the horizon but she didn't see the bow-backed twit anywhere. Most likely taking a kip in the office rather than do his job. She tugged at the pipe, cursing under her breath. Hadn't Leon been through enough? Wasn't it enough to leave him forgotten in this shit place of a cemetery, watched over only by some soused geezer?
The pipe wiggled in her grip, most likely loosened in the earth by the constant rain. Sally didn't care what it was for. She just didn't want it bothering Leon.
Sally pulled. She ignored the mud soaking through her jeans as she had dropped to her knees. She ignored how her shoulders ached. She ignored the frantically ringing alarm she had set on her mobile so she wouldn't be late for work. All she cared about was that the pipe was moving.
Like a parody of Excalibur, Sally pulled and pulled with both hands gripping the pipe. She dug her knees in, flinching as droplets of mud splattered her. It moved, sluggishly, then with a wet, gurgling pop, it came free.
Sally screeched as her arms flew up in the air, the pipe raised high above her head and she felt something drop on her cheek before falling into her lap.
Panting, Sally shook the pipe in her hands at the sky.
"Fuck you," she shrieked at the clouds. "I..." She sniffled again. Her eyes burned. She was suddenly very tired.
Sally dropped the pipe to the ground. Idly, she watched it roll away. Then she remembered something had dropped on her. Still kneeling in the mud, one hand cupped over Leon's name, Sally looked down at what fell out of the pipe. Her eyes widened, her breath quickened.
It was a finger.
"Not another one? Mansell muttered. He pressed a handkerchief to his nose. He coughed. " It smells like—"
"Shut up," Riley hissed. She looked tempted to whack his broad shoulders with her little purse, or would have done, if she was the kind of woman who carried one.
Ray shot them both a warning look as he went by before returning to concentrating on not breaking a leg traversing the damp, rain-soaked knolls of Kind Fields Cemetery. Up ahead, as if not noticing the uneven ground, DI Chandler was climbing the slope with broad, sure steps. Kent doggedly followed his DI with the tenacity of a billy goat: hopping and zig-zagging with an occasional arm flail to keep from falling.
Sanders came towards them looking ashen and walking downhill away from the crime scene. He ran a hand over his shaven head. He looked about ready to vomit, and maybe because of it SOCO had balked having him on site.
"It's bad," Sanders muttered once he was within earshot. "I'm gonna...witnesses. Going to talk to—pardon me..."
"Poor bastard," Mansell said under his breath, but the closer they got to the site and the canvas tent on the apex, the paler he got around the nostrils.
Ray spotted a girl a couple of gravestones away. She glared at the small bulldozer like it had offended her personally. She looked ghoulish, in her beige coat and dyed blue black spiky hair, her face a mix of too-pale makeup and mascara running down her cheeks like dark tears.
"Mansell, you and Riley question the girl," Ray murmured. He nodded towards the young woman, who looked fit to leap upon the newly arrived groundskeeper.
"You sure?" Riley whispered. She snagged Mansell's elbow before he could gladly agree and swan off to check her out.
Ray waved her off. "Go on. The boss and I got this."
"This is the third one." Riley glanced towards the top of the hill, at the solitary figure standing outside the yellow tent. He wasn't alone; SOCO milled about like scavenging ants, but Chandler stood apart from the activity. Riley's brows knitted. She flicked a look back to Ray.
"Go on," Ray urged. "I don't want Finlay contaminating the scene."
"Oi!" Mansell glowered but didn't stay to argue the point.
Ray watched them for a moment before finishing his trek. He was glad those two were no longer there to witness him huffing and puffing his way to the top.
The crime scene tent covered both the true grave and the makeshift one, partially to protect it from the light drizzle that never seemed to go away. But mainly to block prying eyes, like those of Tommy Sifts from the Daily Mail, taking another shocking picture of the 'Grave Robber's' latest victim. Sifts had snuck into the crime scene and managed to snap at least one photo of the previous victim, Frank Sage. The bastard couldn't even have been arsed to blur out the poor man's frozen, wide-eyed gray face. Riley had stayed with Sage's little sister all day in Chandler's office while she cried and cried, the article clutched to her breast.
Kent's body faced the tableau, but his eyes were elsewhere and the notebook he carried was slack in his hand. Ray could see the boy's throat working as parts of the body were carried out of the tent.
An old bloke in dirty coveralls gaped at the tent erected over the gravestone. The name on his tagtag—'Wilkens—was so worn it was barely legible. He looked like he needed to be carried out himself.
"Who's going to bloody fix that?" the splotched-cheek man complained. He staggered unsteadily towards Chandler, his bloodshot eyes having determined the man in the bespoke navy suit and brushed tan wool coat was the one in charge.
Kent leapt in front of his path. The move reminded Ray of their neighbor's tiny brown and white spotted spaniel, barking obliviously at the giant Dobermans and pitbulls who strode past its gate.
Biting back a smile, Ray let Kent steer the drunk away as he joined Chandler inside the tent.
"Sir," Ray greeted as he ducked in. Behind him, Kent and the drunk were buzzing like angry hornets
"Good morning, Miles," Chandler returned, distractedly. Ray doubted he noticed the ruckus outside. "SOCO found a wallet. Alexander Chambers. Thirty-one. Address is in Malmesbury."
"Chambers. Malmesbury," Ray jotted the information into his notebook. "Right. I'll call it in and have them send down any records on him."
"Thank you." Chandler's eyes never moved from the hole in the ground.
Ray peered in as well. It was a hole, alright. He turned his eyes to Chandler.
"Six feet," Chandler murmured. He pointed at the walls. "In the past, graves were dug down to six feet so the diseased bodies wouldn't infect the living." At Ray's incredulous stare, he offered a small deprecating smile. "Lots of courses."
"You took a course in grave digging?" Ray countered with a skeptical frown.
Chandler blinked, temporarily wrong-footed. "What? No. History of European Plagues."
Ray pursed his lips, thinking.
"You ever considered taking up knitting, Sir?" Ray bit back a smirk at Joe's baffled "Pardon?" He studied the hole in the ground. The coffin was already removed. It was just dirt now. Plain, wet brown dirt. And somehow, looking at it made Ray very angry.
"So you think our killer was trying to avoid infecting us?"
"Or infecting him." Chandler frowned. "But with what?" He spared a glance at the discolored limbs the lads from SOCO were struggling to tumble into a black body bag. There was no dignity in the way they tried to cram them in, like nothing more than a sack of blood and bones.
Ray's eyes watered. Christ, the smell. He leaned into Chandler's space; the DI obligingly mirrored him.
"You got any of that stuff with you?" Ray muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
A light eyebrow rose in silent response.
Ray exhaled sharply through his nose to expel the smell that seemed to fill the tent. He held up two fingers and gestured tiny circles on his temple.
Chandler stared at him, blank. His eyes widened a fraction then rolled upwards. He fumbled the tiny glass jar out of his coat pocket. He hesitated in handing it over until he heard one of the officers outside gagging.
Ray grunted as he snatched it off Chandler's palm.
"Left my stuff in my other coat," he muttered as he patted Joe's arm in thanks. "Judy's probably washed it by now." He unscrewed the cap and dabbed a small amount under his nose. Almost immediately his eyes began to water.
"What the hell—" Ray shot Chandler a glare even as he pulled out a clean handkerchief to wipe the ointment's surface smooth before replacing the cap and handing it back.
"You put this on you every day?" Ray pinched his nose repeatedly. Even his ears burned. "Feels like I sniffed a vat of acid."
"It's not really meant for that," Chandler told him as he secreted the jar into his coat with a magician's sly grace. He paused. "And I don't use it every day."
"Uh huh." Ray flicked a glance at Joe's temples. He'd ask Judy if there was a lotion she would recommend because bloody hell, this stuff couldn't be good for you. "Hey, why aren't you gagging?"
Chandler tapped his nose. "Can't smell anything today." He seemed pleased by the prospect.
Ray narrowed his eyes. Come to think of it, their DI was looking a bit rough. His eyes were red-rimmed and his shirt's white collar tips were curled up as if they hadn't been properly ironed. There was a distorted timbre to Chandler's syllables; congestion, punctuated by an occasional quiet sniffle he couldn't quite conceal.
"Thought you said you were going straight home," Ray accused. He remembered Chandler's preoccupied but amused, "I will, mother" when he'd warned Joe to go home. He'd left Joe, the squeak of the marker on the whiteboard, and the smell of cold, salty pork pies for the warm hearth of his home and Judy. The fool had said he was going straight home, damn it.
"Ed was telling me about a young man in Bolivia who was buried alive in retaliation for a crime," Chandler murmured as he walked around the border of the hole, toe touching heel, like a tightrope walker, counterclockwise then back the other way.
"Buchan," Ray muttered darkly. Someone ought to bury that twit under his files and notes and ruddy old newspaper clippings.
Chandler shot Ray a look, almost chiding, but didn't comment.
"It was relevant to the inquiry. Being buried alive is a common fear people have."
Ray wished Joe wouldn't say "people" like it didn't include him. "So what did Buchan say this time that got you running around in the rain?"
"I wasn't running," Chandler corrected him. "I was standing most of the time, at the previous sites. Ed's remark got me thinking our victims were punished." He paused and went around the plot again.
"Well, I didn't think they were being rewarded," Ray agreed. He scowled at the hole again. "The monster got them a cheap pine box, stuck them in the dirt with a pipe and waited for them to scare themselves to death."
"It's ironic," Chandler murmured as he squinted down the hole. "They were essentially in safety coffins, yet they died anyway." At Ray's frown, he shrugged. "During the cholera outbreaks, there was a widespread public fear of being prematurely buried, so coffins were manufactured with breathing apparatuses and hinges in case the occupant woke up." A quick smile and he added, "Death Rituals of Early 18th Century."
"Christ, your education was morbid," Ray groaned good-naturedly.
Chandler offered an unsure smile and went back to tracing the hole with his feet.
"What are you doing?"
Chandler pressed his lips together. "Judging by the loose dirt and how compact the sides were, we can figure out the size of the original hole that was dug out. The measurements are the same like the others, same distance apart."
Ray eyed the loose dirt that trickled down under Chandler's weight. "Should you be standing that close?"
"Probably not," Chandler said, but he continue to do it anyway. There were times Ray wanted to throttle the man. He leaned in to stare into the pit to see what was so bloody fascinating about a hole in the ground.
"What am I looking at?" Ray finally said, giving up.
Chandler stopped his circling and waved a hand a hand towards the pit, then the gravestone it was adjacent to.
"This cemetery is crowded, not like the others. There's barely room between rows, yet the killer dug holes with precisely the same dimensions; the same width, the same distance apart. There was no deviation."
"As if he knew ahead of time," Ray said. A tickle poked the back of his head. "The killer chose this spot. He researched it. He knew it would fit."
"These spots were not random as we initially thought." Chandler was pacing around the plot again, this time including Ray in his orbit. "The victims, where they were placed, they were all deliberate, Miles. The killer chose these spots specifically for each victim."
"But we found no connection between the plots and the victims. They didn't know each other," Ray reminded him as he tracked Chandler, staying within arm's length, to make sure he didn't break his neck.
"We need to check again." Chandler rhythmically patted his right coat pocket as he circled the hole. He paused then stuck his hand in his pocket. "We need to search harder now, knock on every door again. I'm missing somethin—"
"We're missing something," Ray interrupted.
Chandler paused, shot him a smile and looked like he wanted to give Ray a hug.
Ray took a step back before he was trapped into something emotionally embarrassing. "Stop doing that," he said gruffly. "It's making me dizzy. You're going to make yourself nauseous, with your cold, and lose your breakfast."
"I didn't have breakfast," mumbled Chandler but he did stop his measuring pacing. He blinked. He frowned mildly at Ray.
"I don't have a cold."
God's strength. Ray nodded jerkily towards the tent flaps.
"Come on, I need a coffee and you need a lozenge," Ray growled. "By the time we're back, Caroline may have something for us."
Chandler gave him an exasperated look but followed with the air of humoring him.
"But I don't have a cold," Chandler protested with a hoarse rasp.
Ray barely stopped himself from letting the tent flaps smack his DI in the face.
The snap of the surgical glove was loud and sharp as it struck flesh, despite being behind the partition glass.
Joe inwardly flinched. The sound was incongruous with Doctor Llewellyn's usual soft-spoken voice, which always sounded weary. Perhaps, Joe thought, it is the nature of her job. Or the odor of the morgue, deliberately sterilized of any smell. Maybe it muffled all those who spoke in such hollow rooms.
"Alexander Chambers drowned," Llewellyn announced.
"Come again?" Miles frowned.
"That's why the decomposition of the body was more advanced than the others; why the body deteriorated so rapidly. Even though the others were buried longer than this one was, water saturated the tissues, speeding up the breakdown. That's why we had so much difficulty keeping the body intact this morning."
The faint tingle of the Tiger Balm on his temples anchored his thoughts as they struggled to align themselves with what Llewellyn had said.
"You said the other two died of heart failure due to dehydration," Miles said, not bothering to wait for Joe to say the very same thing. "You saying this isn't one of his victims?" He glanced up to Joe, brow furrowed low over worried eyes. "A copycat, you think?" Miles darkened, "Bloody Sifts and his camera..."
"No." Even the intercom couldn't mask the puzzlement in Llewellyn's voice. "The pine box was like the others: same thickness, constructed by hand with the same mass production nails. And the toxicology report came back the same as the other victims: same toxin in the blood, injected in the neck. This man was drugged with the same chemical."
Joe's brow knitted together. That detail wasn't released to the press.
Joe glanced at the body; seeing it now after the dissection was done made it look…less human. He averted his eyes.
"You've identified what was used?" Miles appeared not to share the same compulsion. His eyes were glued to the body, intent, as if waiting for it to speak.
"Only that it seems to be similar to Saxitoxin, which is found in a lot of shellfish," Llewellyn said. "The response in the human body is almost anaphylactic in nature. Our lab couldn't sort it out."
Joe's brow knitted. "They had an allergic reaction?"
"Not everyone is allergic to shellfish though," Llewellyn reminded him.
"Judy is," Miles muttered out of the corner of his mouth. "She touches one of them clam things and she puffs up like a balloon."
Joe offered a smile, but it dropped quickly. He's never clear on what he's supposed to do in these social circumstances.
"I sent a sample to a commercial lab in Bury. Once our department approves the expense, they'll attempt a chemical breakdown, but God only knows how long that could take."
The intercom also couldn't disguise the frustration that sharpened Llewellyn's words.
"But this man definitely died from drowning." Llewellyn hefted a purpled, bloated mass out of the scale with both hands.
Joe's right hand twitched towards his coat pocket.
"The lungs were saturated with water; fresh water, in fact. I've sent a sample to our labs to see if we can pinpoint it more accurately." Llewellyn waved towards the torso on the stretcher, chest peeled back like a—
Joe turned around to lean against the glass. He wished they'd thought to put chairs in here. His joints ached from the climb.
Miles stared hard through the divider and not at Joe, for which Joe was immensely grateful.
"He changing his methods, you think?" Miles muttered under his breath, but loud enough for Joe to hear.
Staring at the beige, almost colorless wall with its yellowing workplace safety flyers calmed Joe. He lined up the facts in his head and reviewed them, one by one.
Joe shook his head. "Even when killers escalate, their MOs don't evolve too far from their core aspects. They're methodical, precise and habitual in their killings." Very much like OCD, Joe thought with a bitter laugh inside.
Miles watched him intently for some reason Joe couldn't muster the energy to attempt to divine, then grunted.
"It's not the same," Miles nearly growled.
Huh? Baffled, Joe turned to Miles but he was already talking to Dr. Llewellyn again.
"Why was this one drowned then?"
"Don't know, but that is not for me to say, is it, Ray?"
"Now, Caroline, I'm not—"
Things tumbled in place, then clicked.
"The rain," Joe said abruptly. He turned back to the coroner. "It rained for weeks."
"My rain gutters are all clogged up," Miles agreed. His brow knitted. "The pipe, you think?"
Joe slotted the numbers easily in his head. "Considering the volume of the coffin, minus the victim's mass, the rate water came in through the pipe..." He trailed off at Miles's arched eyebrow. "I'm good with numbers." Joe chuckled awkwardly, almost to himself. "Must be all the counting."
Miles said nothing but shot him an exasperated look. Joe cleared his throat and turned back to Llewellyn.
"It's possible," Llewellyn thought out loud. "The coffin's construction would have let the rain water seep out, particularly if it was already coming apart from the amount of water in the ground from the continuous rain. Water reabsorbing into the ground after the rains eased off would explain why the coffin was soaked through but there was no water in it when we found him. Might also explain the finger in the pipe when the girl pulled the pipe out."
"Poor bastard probably stuck his finger in it to try to stop the water," Miles muttered. His expression darkened, and he looked like he wanted to punch the glass. "Only way for him to get air and he jammed a finger up it."
Screaming, sobbing, the rattle of feet kicking a box echoed in Joe's head, flashing like glimpses of a macabre movie. Joe thought about Joey Wester found contorted in his box. Joey had scratched out his dead wife's name before his heart gave out. He thought about Frank Sage; he had somehow scratched words, including his little sister's name, inside the box. He had broken almost every finger clawing the inside until his fingernails were embedded on the lid.
Shouting, pleading, kicking, Joe could see their last moments, immortalized in the dents, stains and scratches of their coffins.
Joe wished he had less of an imagination. He swallowed hard.
Miles stepped into his space, his head tipped up to peer at him. "Sir?"
"This is definitely a third victim," Joe said quickly. He nodded briskly. Miles retreated back. "I don't think the killer factored the rain. The first two died after four or five days underground." Four or five days trapped in the dark.
Joe's eyes slid half-mast in thought. "The coffin would have filled with water in a day. The third victim drowned accidentally. The killer hadn't meant for that to happen."
"Bloody hell," Miles muttered. "I don't know which is worse."
There was a churning in Joe's stomach, not from the porridge Miles harangued him into eating this morning. Miles had watched him like he would a suspect, tracking the movement of his spoon. At the time, Joe's stomach had cramped at taking in so much food after a day without. But the warm, mushy mixture did soothe his sore throat and seemed to return warmth to his long frame for the first time in what seemed like days. Joe didn't admit it though, because he didn't have a cold. He refused to suck the cherry lozenge Sanders had tossed him, keeping it in his pocket.
Joe rolled the aforementioned candy between his fingers, one turn, two turns, three turns, as he thought aloud.
"Why bury them alive? Why the prolonged death sentence?" Joe itched for the whiteboard and the steadying movements of writing in neat lines on a pure, clean surface. "Why does the killer want them to suffer?"
"It's personal," Miles snarled. "Sick bastard wanted to see them squirm."
"No evidence anyone monitored these sites during their interment," Joe countered. "No signs of cameras or microphones."
"Or hidden rooms," Miles mumbled but Joe heard him anyway.
"It's a shame," Llewellyn said sadly as she marked something on a clipboard. She rested a hand on the autopsy table, unbothered by the pink streaked water that drained around her fingers. "The size of the pipe, the length of it, one of them might have survived if we had found them sooner or their hearts hadn't given out." Llewellyn sighed. Her head tipped towards a bloated limb she was measuring. Joe couldn't tell if it was the left leg or right arm.
"Then perhaps you could tell us who's done this to you, hm?" Llewellyn sighed quietly; she was not immune to the tragedy. Carefully, she wrapped the limb up with the blue tarp; one fold, two folds, three folds.
Joe stared at Llewellyn, not seeing her gently binding up the limb and attaching the tag to it, but rather her words, floating above her like balloons inviting his reach.
"What is it?" Miles murmured. He leaned in after a look to Llewellyn. "You feeling all right? Should we fetch a medic?"
Joe blinked. A medic? Why did they need one? He shook his head. The morgue spun briefly. Oh. He won't do that again. The candy in his hand rolled round and round, its cellophane wrapping crinkling noisily in his pocket.
"The pipe," Joe murmured.
"Eh? What about it?"
"Why a pipe? Why give them the chance to survive? Why prolong their suffering if the killer couldn't watch? If—" Joe and Miles turned as Kent arrived. He panted, winded as if he had been running.
Wagging a finger in the air to wait a tick, Kent was flushed with exertion. He coughed into a fist before he straightened up.
"Well, what is it?" Miles asked impatiently as Kent's mouth gaped open and closed like one of Miles's fish.
"I think..." Kent wheezed. There, Kent sounded like he has a cold, "I think we have another one, sir."
"Damn," Miles swore under his breath.
The candy tumbled over and over in Joe's fingers; one, two, three. "Where's the body?"
"He's living in the Brusk Sanatorium."
The candy stilled in his grasp. "Sorry. Did you say living?"
"...cast off clothes was left behind..."
Tommy Carter was employed by UBS as a data entry worker. He reported at six in the morning every day after the Asian markets were closed, and clocked off halfway before the US markets rang their closing bells. He always made sure to take off his nose ring and slick back his ginger hair before showing up for his shift. He didn't smoke, took thirty minutes exactly for lunch, had dated Lauren Hanson from HR for fourteen weeks, and had five marks for tardiness on his record. He liked to grab an occasional pint with his mates before picking up Masala curry on Mondays and Thursdays, when Punhaj House offered their weekday specials.
Two months ago on a Thursday, Tommy bid his coworkers good night. He left work.
Tommy never ordered his curry.
"...Re-born from holy poverty..."
From behind the small window in the door, Ray watched Carter muttering under his breath as he paced his room, a padded cell that contained only a cot. No chair because Carter broke the last one trying to knock down a wall. When that didn't work, he tried demolishing it with his head. He had fourteen stitches and his left cheekbone was shattered. The injuries left him looking lopsided.
"...cast from...cast...no, no, no..."
Dr Bouman kept checking his smartphone as he talked. "The police found him wandering the A13, no ID, with bruising as your coroner had described in her report, babbling about how glamour and luxury hid some old crimes, or something."
"'Everything considered important and good was insignificant and repulsive, and that all this glamour and luxury hid the old well-known crimes.'" Chandler peeled his gaze away from the observation window to look at the doctor. "Was that what he said?"
Bouman consulted the stiff orange folder in his hands. Ray grimaced. They had misspelled Carter's name: Timmy Carter was hastily scribbled in blue marker on the folder.
"Yeah, yeah, something like that." Bouman finally glanced at his patient through the window with something like interest. "Is that important?"
"It's from Leo Tolstoy," Chandler explained, which didn't really explain anything. His light-colored eyes swept to Ray and the doctor. After appearing to consider but failing to make a connection between the dead Russian and live human burial, the light of excitement in his eyes dimmed and shoulders dropped briefly. They straightened when he turned to the doctor.
"I would like to talk to him."
"He's not making much sense," Bouman warned. "I only got his name after his landlady reported him to the police last week for owing her two months' rent."
Chandler smiled faintly but Ray could see that piece of information bothered him. "We would greatly appreciate your cooperation."
The interview room was almost as sparsely furnished as Tommy's. The walls were empty of pictures, nails, even color. The table and three chairs were plastic, light and equally colorless. Ray's eyes watered from the glare; he absently wondered how this was supposed to be soothing for the patients.
Tommy rocked in the chair across from them. He wore white slippers, white scrubs and no socks. Paired with a face that hadn't seen the sun in a while, Tommy looked like a ghost.
Chandler sat, hands folded on the table. He didn't take off his coat. He watched Tommy with a discomfort sitting across his shoulders Miles recognized: no one sat easy in a place like this.
"...x marks the spot but only he could see it..."
"Tommy?" Chandler said gently. "My name is Joseph Chandler. This is my friend Ray Miles." He didn't show his warrant card. "We would like to talk with you if that's all right."
Tommy's head bobbed up and down but it wasn't consent. His arms pressed against his sides, his feet together. He stared at his lap, mumbling about ashes and lenten lands.
"Do you like C.S. Lewis?" Chandler asked. He tried to disguise it as clearing his throat, but Ray caught the tiny cough he was trying to hide. Chandler pointedly did not look at Ray. "Tolstoy? Do you like to read, Tommy?"
It was doubtful. Ray recalled Tommy's records indicated he hadn't attend uni and Kent reported the boxes his landlady had been preparing to toss away contained magazines about cars and naked women. Chandler had stammered about that one, thanked Kent for his thorough work, and rang off.
Tommy didn't acknowledge Chandler; he hadn't even looked at Miles. He just kept repeating the words, under his breath, over and over until they slurred into an unintelligible mess.
"...no, no, that's not right..." Tommy whimpered. His head dropped low to his chest. He swayed back and forth. He sniffled.
"Like cast off clothes was left behind," Chandler offered softly.
"In ashes, yet with hopes that she,"
Tommy paused mid-mumble.
"Re-born from holy poverty,"
Tommy looked up.
"In lenten lands, hereafter may,"
Chandler smiled hesitantly. "Resume them on her Easter Day."
Tommy stared at Chandler. He stared and stared, his mouth gaped open like a fish. At last, his crooked face crumbled, and Tommy began to cry.
Wide eyes darted to Ray, but he could only shrug back at Joe. How was he to know what goes on with these nutters?
Chandler swallowed hard. He glanced over to Dr Bouman. The doctor leaned on a spot by the doorway, unconcerned, his eyes on his phone, Tommy's folder sagging under his arm.
"Um..." Chandler straightened in his chair. "Tommy. Tommy, I'm sorry. You seemed like you were trying to remember the words. They're by Lewis. I only wanted to help."
Tommy shuddered. And Ray thought that was that. But then Tommy's mouth moved, shaping soundless words before whispering "You know the words..."
Chandler exchanged a look with Miles. "Yes?" He ventured another smile. He lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. "I like to read a lot. Too much as I'm sure Ray here would agree."
Ray did, but he held his tongue as Tommy blinked up at Chandler.
"Then you can tell me," Tommy said in a small voice.
Puzzled, Chandler cocked his head. "Tell you?"
"The right ones. Before he comes back..." Tommy began to shake. "Oh God...before he comes back..."
Ray stiffened. "He? Who's he? Tommy, who did this to you?"
Tommy ignored Ray, his terrified eyes bright with unshed tears as they fixed on Chandler.
"He kept asking but my words were never right..." Tommy hiccupped. "I didn't know the right words. He kept asking and putting me back...I-I..."
"What do you remember?" Chandler leaned across the table. "Tommy. What did you see?"
With a howl, Tommy grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it. The table crashed with its legs sticking up. The folder under Bouman's arm fluttered to the floor.
Ray fell back in his chair, then sprang up, knees cracking, winded as he staggered to the struggling pair. Bouman was shouting for security. Chandler was telling Tommy to calm down, that it was all right, he was safe—Why the hell no one was helping them?
And Tommy, Tommy was screaming, screaming, as he curled bloodless fingers around Joe's throat, shrieking for Joe to tell him, tell him before he came back.
"I have to get out! Let me out! Oh God, don't put me back in! Let me out!"
"Tommy, it's all right. You're saf—"
"Tommy! It's Dr Bouman! Let go of—I need security here!"
Fear, terror fueled Tommy. His limbs, charged, his bony arms stiff like iron, straight and ridged as they throttled Chandler.
"Get off him!" Ray roared as he threw himself over Tommy and pulled. He slipped an arm around Tommy's middle and yanked. He dug his heels in when he heard Joe's words begin to garble.
Orderlies in white shirts and trousers, poured into the room just as Tommy tried to slam his head into Chandler's chest. He was still screaming "Tell me! Tell me!" as they dragged him out. Ray could hear Tommy howling and wailing all the way down the hall.
"Sir? Sir, you all right?"
A nurse's anxious call roused Ray. He dropped to a crouch, knees be damned, and settled a hand over Joe's bowed back.
Joe shakily held up a hand, the other pressed to his throat. He didn't speak. He couldn't; he coughed harshly over and over, chest heaving as he worked to draw air in.
"Easy," Ray coaxed. He rubbed the bowed back, wishing he were ten years younger and could have hauled Tommy off his DI sooner. "Catch your breath." He could feel Joe shuddering, could sense Joe needed a moment, perhaps a bit of that smelly ointment, but before he could ask the nurse to give them some privacy, Ray saw the blood streaked down Joe's neck.
"Don't just stand there gawping! Get a doctor!"
Somehow, during the melee, Joe lost the candy.
Joe discovered this when he stuck his hand in his pocket as he sat on the gurney. He fought not to fidget as he got patched up by one of the doctors under Miles's watchful eye. Miles stood, hip to stretcher, one eye narrowed as he squinted at everybody walking past. The sergeant was behaving as if everyone was Tommy Carter now.
All that remained of Sanders' red lozenge was its cellophane wrapping, which Joe pressed between his index and thumb, fruitlessly ironing out the wrinkles. He was sure it was loud enough to be heard by anyone near him, despite being in his pocket, but Miles only gave him a look before gruffly thanking the doctor.
Over and over on the ride back to the station, Joe smoothed out the paper. It left a sticky film on his fingers but he couldn't bring himself to stop. Tommy's contorted face was superimposed over what he saw through the windscreen. The paper in his pocket crunched under the pads of his fingers.
"You all right?" Miles thankfully kept his eyes on the road.
"I'm fine," Joe tried to sound definitive as he flipped the wrapper over and ran his thumb over the other side. Crinkle. Tommy's tears had dribbled over his face as he begged Joe to tell him the right words. One tear dropped into Joe's mouth but it didn't taste salty, it tasted faintly of blood.
Tommy had bitten his own tongue.
Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle.
"The scratches weren't deep," Joe said, not quite able to exclude the note of defensiveness from his voice. Tommy's nails, though, were filthy as if he'd been digging in the dirt. Joe swallowed. He resisted touching his throat.
"They didn't require stitches," Joe went on. His palm was damp and the stickiness on his fingers seemed to have spread up his wrist. "Superficial."
Miles grunted. "I wasn't asking about that."
"Oh," Joe uttered weakly. He watched the trees and their reflection in the windscreen as they drove past. The colder weather had left them withered and scarred.
Tommy's arms were riddled with scratches that never managed to heal before Tommy scratched at them again. Dr. Bouman said Tommy used to scream that he could feel them crawling into him. Tommy had cried that he needed to let the demons out. When Joe walked (stumbled) out of the room, Miles's tight grip on his elbow keeping his mind clear, Joe heard Tommy clawing the walls with his fingers before they could wrestle him into a strait jacket and drug him into the arms of Morpheus.
The wrapper balled into his fist.
Tommy was still trying to dig himself out.
The wrapper was suddenly stuck to his palm.
"Stop the car, please." Joe could hear himself ask calmly.
Miles said nothing as the car rolled up to the side of the dirt road.
Joe staggered out of the car, body taking over his actions. He found himself bent over the boot, head hung low. Nothing would come out though. But his throat burned as if something had.
The ground seemed to rock under his feet, like a boat moored in storm swollen seas. Joe set a palm flat on the boot. He stared at the sticky candy wrapper stuck on the other, a patch of alien skin.
Joe peeled it off, balled it up in a tissue and stuck it in his trouser pocket. His right hand drifted to his coat pocket and the small glass jar it held. But his fingers still felt sticky and the thought of contaminating the ointment with whatever coated them churned his stomach. Instead, he took a deep breath. Then another. He stared down the road. Miles had chosen a route that skirted the countryside. It was ten minutes longer this way, impractical really.
Tommy had no shoes when he was found. He'd walked on paths like these, out of his mind, blindly stumbling. His feet were scored with tiny rocks and cuts.
Joe continued to stare down the road. He took another breath, a deeper one that he held longer before he released it. He felt marginally better. He straightened from his awkward slouch, patted the dust off his coat, and returned to the car.
Through the open window, Miles wordlessly passed him a water bottle. It was cool, damp with condensation. When had Miles gotten it?
Joe carefully washed the water over his sticky palm and fingers. It felt almost like a benediction, the cool liquid rinsing off the tackiness of the candy's sugar. Joe waggled his fingers under the water, then dried his hands with his handkerchief. He climbed back into the car, finally feeling like he could sit without fidgeting. He blinked in surprise when Miles passed him yet another bottle.
"You should stay hydrated," Miles said, his eyes up front. "For the cold you do not have."
Joe rolled the bottle in his hands. He looked in the side mirror, at the road behind them.
"We need the original report. We need to find where Tommy was buried," Joe said abruptly.
Miles glanced over. "You think there's a connection?"
"I'm not sure." Joe caught himself rolling the bottle precisely three times. He dropped the bottle into the cup holder and ignored the frown tossed his way.
"He was found along the A13," Miles recalled. "Commercial, East India, Newham. Lots of cemeteries along that."
"Still. We need to find it." Joe wanted to see the last place Tommy Carter was before—no, it wasn't Tommy they'd met. Everything that was Tommy remained in the hole he'd escaped from. "It's important."
Miles nodded absently. He didn't argue. He did, however, shoot a meaningful look at the abandoned water bottle.
Joe huffed, rolled his eyes, but by the time Miles had the car moving, he was startled to realize he had drained it dry.
"Vampires!" Mansell said gleefully.
"Come off it," Riley groaned.
"No, no, listen."
"Do we have to?" Kent asked plaintively.
"Shut up. Listen. The pipe? Really a stake for his heart."
"That...that doesn't even make sense," Kent protested.
"It does. Listen, if th—Shit, Boss, what happened to you?"
Joe supposed he was a sight; his throat bandaged up like he was sporting a tightly wound white scarf. He waved off Mansell's concern and offered the team a small smile.
"Just scratches," he assured them. He fidgeted; their stares weighted heavy on his skin.
"What happened?" Kent asked hesitantly.
"Tommy Carter," Miles said succinctly. "Boy went mental on him."
"God." Riley lowered her hands from her mouth. "I suppose he couldn't tell you anything?"
"Actually," Joe murmured, staring at the whiteboards in the back—a new one stood waiting between Alexander Chambers and Joey Wester—"he told us plenty."
Joe slipped behind Miles, shrugging off his coat as he ducked into his office. He hung the coat on its hook, set down his warrant card, his mobile, aligned his pen next to them, then slipped off his watch to place it by his warrant card. Finally, he set the Tiger Balm by the watch, at ten o'clock.
Done, Joe no longer felt like his skin was ill-fitting around him, and Joe's chest no longer felt like it was clamping down on his breath. Tommy's cries receded to echoes. He picked up a marker and, while Miles sorted out the tasks they had discussed in the car, he went back into the incident room to write on the boards.
Tommy's profile and timeline looked remarkably similar to the others'. All of them had no family, no close connections. The section listing the victim's strong relationships was woefully short.
The victims' coworkers remembered their names but not always their faces. But they all said the same thing about the victims: seemed alright, quiet, no trouble at all. All the victims had left work to join acquaintances only to never show up. Yet no one reported them missing because no one had noticed.
Joe wondered if anyone would notice him missing.
The hand gripping his marker stuttered. Joe stood taller, squared his shoulders and continued writing.
"The unfortunate whose first attack should be of the extreme character which is occasionally seen, would almost inevitably be consigned alive to the tomb."
"Buchan," Miles growled. "What do you want?"
When he reached Joe's position by the boards, Buchan pivoted neatly towards the rest of the room. He waggled a finger in the air, made a show of putting on his small squarish spectacles, then cleared his throat before reading from a slip of paper produced from his pocket with the flourish of a showman.
"...they must sleep, or they will devour us—they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish..."
"Edgar Allen Poe," Joe murmured. He lowered the marker. "From the Premature Burial."
Buchan beamed and tapped his nose with a finger.
"Buchan," Sanders griped around a mouthful of sandwich. Joe averted his eyes to Kent's more proper looking desk.
Sanders noisily smacked his lips. "Are you here to tell us bedtime stories?"
"Edgar Allen Poe wrote this as a reflection of the times." Buchan coughed into a fist before he distributed the folders stacked in his arms. When Miles folded his arms across his chest, Ed hastily set his file on his desk instead.
"Being buried alive used to be a prevalent fear of the populace. It was especially rampant during the Victorian era, when there were many accidental burials." He adjusted his spectacles. "Many were found by funeral workers to wake up during their own processions. Fearing reprisals, the workers waited for their mayors to confirm but by then, tragically, the victims expired for real."
Mansell swore under his breath. Miles snorted.
"I don't think these were accidental burials, Buchan," Miles snapped.
"Well, of course, these appeared to be more purposeful. I merely wanted to offer possible insights into the killer's motive—"
"We got plenty of insight from the surviving victim, Tommy Carter," Miles interrupted, his head nodding jerkily towards Joe.
There was a stunned silence when Ed took a good look at Joe.
"Oh. Oh m-my," Ed stammered. "Are you hurt badly, Joe?"
"Scratches," Joe reassured him.
Ed shifted from foot to foot. He was an academic; Joe supposed live evidence of the violence he researched was very different from dusty files.
"So…you found a survivor?" Ed brightened. "How remarkable. What was he able to tell us?"
"He told us," Miles pointed to Joe and himself, "nothing. He yelled a lot then attacked him."
"He didn't just attack me," Joe protested, turning back to the whiteboard. He paused his marker below Tommy's employment picture. How different he looked now. Involuntarily, Joe's hand gingerly touched his bandage. It felt scratchy against his throat; it didn't belong. "I somehow provoked him."
"It is fortunate Tommy Carter was able to escape, although apparently not unscathed..." Ed cleared his throat. "There were other cases where victims tried to escape their interments. Most famous is philosopher Duns Scotus in the 14th Century, buried then later found outside his coffin with torn and bloody hands, but there are also several modern incidents. In 2011, a victim—"
"Is there anything historical? Anything similar to our 'Grave Robber'?" Joe cut in, turning back to the room. Crimes of old fitted better in Joe's mind, sat better in his chest. Superstition, mass hysteria, disease, greed, they explained what happened. They explained why.
But murder today...it made no sense. The killers, under Joe's pursuit, took their motives to their graves.
Buchan took no offense at the interruption. In fact, he seemed to relish it. "Nothing was ever reported because there was never proof. Interestingly enough, the American serial killer, H.H. Holmes—"
"Why is it always him?" Mansell complained. He flinched when Riley kicked him. Hard.
"Ahem, yes, Holmes was rumored to have buried some of his victims alive after..."
Joe turned back to the boards. As Buchan told the team about Holmes, Joe continued writing out Tommy's life in neat, orderly print.
"...or in Roman times, swept up by the fear of the spread of Christianity, vestral virgin Daria was said to have been buried alive with her Christian converted lover under—"
"Christ, you are joking—"
"I never find murder humorous—="
Joe pinned up another one of Tommy's photos, the one the sanatorium took when he was first admitted as a 'John Smith'. He focused on the eyes, pupils shrunk to pinpricks ringed in green. His hair was in disarray and patches. Tufts of ginger hair had had to be pried out of Tommy's fists.
The screaming rang in his ears like tinnitus, but Joe didn't permit himself to flinch. He paused, mentally reviewed what Tommy had said, then moved to the suspects board. He wrote down 'Well-educated' then, after a beat, he added 'Well-read?' underneath it. Joe considered the list, and resisted a sigh. The list was very short.
"Sanders reviewed all the CCTV footage," Miles said as he joined him. He scowled at the board in agreement. "No one was parked or lurking around the cemeteries before the victims were brought in."
"The typical people were coming and going," Sanders piped up from the back, talking with his mouth full. "Contractors, people with flowers, groundskeepers. I reviewed all the visitors' cars from each site and compared them. No matches."
"I don't understand." Kent sounded frustrated. "How can a big pine box come in without anyone noticing?"
"The victims were just suddenly there," Sanders added as he stuffed the last of his sandwich in his mouth. Shredded lettuce dribbled down his front and onto his desk. "Right creepy, if you ask me."
"No one asked you," Riley shot back. "And don't share your lunch with the rest of us, you sloppy git."
"Didn't you order us any?" Mansell complained. "Kent and I spent all morning rummaging through Carter's things."
Joe turned but he had to stop as his feet seemed to trip over each other. He accidentally struck one of the boards with an elbow. The plaque that listed the last moments of Frank Sage's life fell over with a loud clatter. The room fell silent. Sanders stopped chewing, a piece of luncheon meat hanging out of his mouth.
Ears burning, Joe cleared his throat, then bent down to pick up the board, intending to wipe it clean and do it over.
Kent jumped up.
"I got it," Kent righted the board on its legs. "I would like to do that, sir. If you don't mind." A quick smile flitted across his narrow face before he ducked his head, hiding his eyes under a flop of dark curls. "It helps me think."
"Of course, Kent." Relieved, Joe rested a hip against a desk, trying to regain his balance. He blinked but the room remained crooked.
"Right," Miles said suddenly, "Kent, you do up Sage's board. Meg, could you get the initial police report from when Carter was found?"
"Sure. You want lunch?"
"What about me?" Mansell yelped, outraged.
Joe didn't stay to hear Riley's reply. He wearily nodded to Ed and left Miles to delegate. Slipping into his office, he sat down and felt an overwhelming urge to lay his head down. He stared at the warrant card, watch and pen on his desk. They wavered before him.
Perhaps some lunch was in order.
The thought of food, however, along with the memory of the lettuce spotting Sanders' desk, twisted his stomach. Joe's throat worked. He unscrewed the glass jar and dabbed on his temples. He closed his eyes as he pressed circles, always clockwise, until warmth seeped into his skin.
The walls around him retracted. Joe breathed out and switched to counterclockwise circles.
Alexander Chambers drowned, but the other two deceased victims perished from heart failure, induced by dehydration. Joey Wester and Frank Sage woke up in a dark box, unable to scream, unable to move. They waited, life ticking away in the dark, until...
"Put me back," Joe murmured. He opened his eyes. The room still swayed nauseatingly but he cast the discomfort aside. He drummed his desk, one-two, one-two.
Tommy was put back after he was asked. Asked what? To recite a verse? No, a question, but Tommy's answers hadn't placated the killer and he was put back in. Alive. Who knows how long? But he was put back in his dark torture chamber alive.
The killer hadn't wanted to kill? Could it be possible?
Joe closed his eyes, tapping a finger on top of the tiny glass jar. Carter, Chambers, Wester, Sage. A clerk for UBS, a night manager for Sainsbury's, an unemployed contractor, a man who fixed window panes. Questions. What kind of questions would anyone want to ask them? They were unremarkable; lived off their wages, no criminal record, a few public order offenc—
Joe's eyes flew open. He stood up.
Then he had to sit down.
Joe pinched the bridge of his nose. He stared at a spot on his desk until he no longer felt like he was on top of the London Eye. He pressed the heels of his hands into his burning eyes. Joe coughed, then looked up to try rising again. He started.
Miles stood across from his desk, mouth pursed. He seemed displeased about something, but then his sergeant always seemed unhappy about one thing or another, particularly where Joe was concerned.
Joe blinked. "What?"
Miles cast his eyes skyward. "Meg brought us all lunch. You didn't say what you wanted so she got you soup." His jaw worked as if he was chewing on the words he wanted to say next.
"We'll be all right if you clock off early." Miles waved towards the incident room. "We got this, sir."
Joe shook his head, then gulped, wishing he hadn't. "I'm fine."
"Uh huh," Miles said. He inhaled sharply, worked his mouth then shook his head like a dog. "Sanders is down with Buchan to see if his files have anything useful. Kent's writing up the boards. Riley's pulling up Carter's police report. Riley and Mansell are going to interview Carter's mates—"
"We need to pull all the victims' offence records as well," Joe cut in. "ASBOs, fines they paid, everything."
"Okay," Miles agreed easily. "I'll get Sanders to do that."
"And what will you be doing?" Joe joked lightly, as Miles appeared content to just stand there.
"I," Miles announced in a cheerful voice that set off Joe's warning bells, "am going to bring you soup."
Joe gaped as Miles stepped out to do just that.
Ray glowered over his bacon butty at the boss's office. Chandler drank his soup as gingerly as he would tea but didn't finish it. He was either distracted by the stacks of files Sanders brought up or not hungry due to his not-cold.
It wasn't clear what his DI was looking for, but he recognized the "eureka" moment, as he and the others have taken to calling it. There was a brightness in Chandler's eyes not due to the fever that did not exist. For it to exist would mean there was, in fact, a cold, and the idiot was blind to his own sniffling and raspy voice.
"Ray." Meg wheeled her chair closer to him, her eyes fixed on the office, too.
"I know, I know," Ray murmured. He watched Chandler sort the paperwork into three piles, then four, then one. Oh well, he supposed it was better than colored pins. He was getting tired of pretending not to see the plaster on Chandler's fingers where he accidentally pricked himself while counting those blasted things.
"What is he looking for?"
"Hell I know." Ray gnawed a chunk out of his sandwich. He barely tasted the saltiness of the bacon. His Judy makes a better one. When she lets him have one, that is.
"He's been reading those things the past thirty minutes." Not that Ray was keeping track.
"Maybe he's found a connection between the victims?"
"They don't work in the same job, they live miles apart, their ages are decades apart. The only thing they have in common is how they died." Appetite gone, Ray dropped the remainder of his sandwich in its wax wrapper. "None of the plots they were placed next to shared anything in common. Different jobs. Different neighborhoods. They didn't even die the same year." He watched Kent finished up Tommy's timeline, ruler straight. Christ, they were spaced perfectly apart too.
Meg pointed to her computer screen. "I don't know how this will help, but this is Tommy Carter's original police report." She tucked a graying lock of blond hair behind her ear.
"Tommy was found by a motorist wandering along the A13, just before the junction with the 406. The motorist rang 999 and told them Tommy was barefoot and crying about a box. Met couldn't get a name. The doctors found him to be severely dehydrated and malnourished. No head trauma, no signs of sexual assault. Just..." Meg shrugged helplessly. "After a week at Bart's, he was taken as John Smith to Brusk's for long term recovery." Her mouth turned down. "He's just a boy, Ray. He's only twenty-two."
Ray thought about Judy and the little sprog growing inside of her. In less than two months, their baby would be introduced to this world. His mouth went dry, and his gut squirmed helplessly.
What kind of world were they bringing this child into? How do they shore their defenses against the bloodthirsty wolves? How did he catch each monster before it darkened their door?
"He'll recover," Ray decided because any other option was unbearable to think about. "He survived before, he'll survive the after."
Meg patted his shoulder.
Chandler's door cracked open. Eyes most definitely bright with fever shone as Chandler leaned on his doorway.
"I need," he said breathlessly. "I need a map."
The room wavered up and down, but Joe found that so long as he sat on the edge of a desk, he was steady enough to continue. And by the time Kent and Sanders pinned up the map—Kent was arguing which way they should position it—Joe found he could look at everyone without flinching at the bright lights.
The map was tacked over the suspects' board, concealing how blank it was, how little they'd managed to place on it. Joe dotted the map with spots made with different-colored markers. It looked a mess. Joe chaffed at leaving it up in that state, but knowing they were finally one step closer to the killer helped the queasiness he felt looking at it.
Joe cautiously stood up from his perch. He clapped for everyone's attention.
"Joey Wester, our second victim, was charged with a drunk and disorderly Public Order offence on July 27, 2004, for an incident that occurred by the London Road." Joe tapped at the red circle on the A308. "Then another two months after that, for incidents here and... here." Joe's temporary pointer tapped out two other red spots further up on the road.
Joe's pointer moved to the blue marks now. "Frank Sage was given as ASBO for, um," Joe cleared his throat, "...urinating in a water fountain in March, 2003, two more for disturbing the peace several months after."
Joe looked expectantly at his team. Miles was studying the map with his mouth pursed, his hands shoved in his pockets. Kent was scribbling diligently into his notebook. Riley tapped a pen on her lower lip, deep in thought. Sanders had lowered his lunch (how long was he going to continue eating?). Mansell was squinting at the map, his head cocked and arms folded, even though he was only one row away.
"Don't you see it?" Joe asked, but while his team looked interested, their expressions were questioning. It was a far cry from when he first came on—scorn and skepticism for the fast track DI. It was still disheartening.
"Alexander Chambers. Picked up on one of the lanes in Bressenden Place for drunken behavior on May 8, 2008, then twice more months later. And Tommy Carter..." Joe held up Tommy's record in his hands. "He was given an ASBO for indecent exposure in High Street on August 3, 2009, and twice later on in the year." Joe gave them a dismayed look. "Don't you see the pattern?"
Mansell snapped his fingers. "They were all arrested three times."
Riley leaned over her desk and smacked the back of his head.
"They were all male?" Sanders piped up behind the massive napkin he used to wipe clean his mouth.
"They were all drunk," Miles spoke up. His eyes flicked over to Joe's office before zipping back to the map. "They were picked up for being drunk."
Joe shot Miles a grateful look; for the answer and for other things they'd never mentioned again.
"So the killer..." Kent said slowly, "hates drunks?"
"Funny way of showing it," Mansell muttered. "Stick them in a box, throw dirt on top of them, and wait 'til they die."
"But Tommy Carter is still alive," Riley pointed out. She indicated towards the map with her pen. "Unless he doesn't fit the pattern?"
"I believe Tommy was the killer's first try," Joe said. He shook his head—oh, not a good idea—and made his way to Tommy's board. He avoided looking at Tommy's ID photo from his employment's HR. Tommy, while he didn't smile, looked back at the camera calmly, eyes bright with reasoning. "The killer tried with Tommy over and over before Tommy was let go."
"Or escaped," Miles interjected. "Doubt the bastard let Tommy go out of the goodness of his heart."
"That probably pissed him off," Mansell commented. "Probably why he started grabbing more." He leaned back into his chair. It squeaked as he rocked. "So the sick bastard hates drunks, picks them up and put them in their very own drunk tank."
"The victims got drunk, frequently it looks like," Miles thought out loud. "They be easy pickings for the killer. He could just wait for them to stagger out and pluck them off the street without a fuss."
"But where?" Riley asked. She shot Mansell a narrowed look as his chair began to squeek like a demented squirrel. "The victims, they're from all over."
"All these roads Met picked them up from," Joe swept a palm over the dots, across the map before stopping. "Cross here, here and here. All residential, but one." He tapped on a spot. "Just on the edge of Whitechapel."
"Bassell street?" Kent read.
Joe nodded. "I think the victims met their killer there. Perhaps the killer even shared a drink with them. He may have lulled his victims into a false sense of safety as he watched and waited for the perfect opportunity."
"So we go to Bassell street, show their photos around and we got him!" Mansell punched a fist into his other palm.
Joe ticked off a smile. "I doubt it will ever be that easy, Mansell."
Mansell scoffed as he shrugged into his coat, his face flushed with the call of the hunt. "It's just one street. How many bars could there be?"
There were twelve.
Bassell was a noisy, dark yet crowded winding street saturated with people staggering out of pubs and spilling into the cobblestone road. No one paid mind to the three official cars with their sirens twirling blue on top.
Ray felt the others turn to glare at Mansell.
Finlay raised his hands. "I didn't know! Honest!"
Ray spied Chandler slipping a hand in his coat pocket where he knew the glass jar was kept.
"Alright," Chandler said at last. "We split into pairs and take four each. No one goes into any of the bars alone. Is that clear?" After the collective mumbling, he sighed.
"I know this is a lot and we're all frustrated. We're close though. The closest we ever been. Keep hold of the victims' photos. We're sure to find some witnesses." He paused as one lady in a glittery gold tube top tittered by like a wobbly giraffe. She wiggled her fingers at Sanders and hiccupped "Buy me a drink, boys?"
"Hopefully sober ones," Chandler added weakly. Kent begrudgingly followed Mansell, who made a show of dropping his wedding ring in his pocket. He rolled up his sleeves and stalked towards the first pub almost bow-legged, Kent trailing behind him with slouched shoulders, all the enthusiasm of a condemned man.
Riley appeared torn between heading off with Sanders and trying to save Mansell from himself. Finally, she rolled her eyes and shot Ray a rueful look before trotting after Sanders.
Ray glanced over to Chandler. The almost nostril burning scent of Tiger Balm wafted over as Chandler used the cover of shadows to massage circles on his temples.
Ray's eyes moved to their section. Cross Tavern looked nothing like its namesake suggested: all glass and concrete. The sound emanating included fiddles and... rock music? Next to it, Crow's Nest was nearly silent and looked old-fashioned in comparison. The wood and stone structure had faint strains of canned music coming from it, which was almost drowned out by the heavy metal of Bar and Maiden across the street and the blaring Elton John from Pub Shock at the corner.
"Ready?" Ray asked. He winced at the idea of venturing into them, shouting to be heard, maneuvering through masses of kids who didn't appreciate a good head on a stout.
Chandler, smudges under his eyes, coughed into the back of a hand and wearily nodded.
"Let's try Crow's Nest first," Ray suggested. "I don't want to lose my hearing right away."
Chandler studied the subdued pub with a furrowed brow. He dragged his scrutiny over to Ray and the furrows carved deeper. Bugger, he shouldn't have been so quick to suggest something.
Jaw set, Chandler steered for Cross Tavern.
Swearing under his breath, Ray followed. He squashed down the temptation to pelt the idiot with the cherry red lozenges Sanders had slipped him.
Cross Tavern threw them out, the burly tattooed bartender shouting "Get out! We don't serve yer kind!" Joe thought it best to leave it to the uniforms before Miles started a row on principle.
"Excuse me," Joe shouted inside the Bar and Maiden at a bald man bobbing his head to the live band. "Excuse me. Sir!"
Turning around, the woman frowned. The disco lights gleamed off the ring piercing her left nostril. She had shaven off her eyebrows, too.
"Eh? You trying to be funny?"
People... weren't too cooperative after that.
"I don't think I've seen you here before."
Joe turned from the unhelpful bartender. Miles was still showing his photos to a small group of women behind him. Joe smiled faintly at the petite blonde leaning on the bar. She wore little make up, kept her hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail and, unlike others, wore her lingerie under her blue, graphic-less t-shirt.
"Actually, I'm here on official business. DI Chandler," he told her, showing her his warrant card before handing over the four photographs. "Have you seen any of these men before?"
An elegant brow arched as she accepted them. Blue eyes scanned each photo. She looked at Chandler, her brow creased.
"Are they trouble? Like rapists or something?"
"No," Chandler assured her. "Just wondering if you ever seen them before?"
The woman shook her head. "Maybe, but these bars, you meet so many people... No, sorry." She handed them back. "Sorry I couldn't be more help."
"It's alright." Chandler noted when she returned the photos, her nails were neatly trimmed short and modestly tinted with a light pink varnish.
"DI Chandler?" the woman said thoughtfully. "So that means you're a police officer? Do you carry handcuffs?"
Joe paused. "Well, yes, but I'm not here to arrest anyone."
The woman smiled at him. Puzzled, Joe smiled back.
"Pity," she suddenly purred before pressing her breasts onto his right arm. "Because I've been a naughty girl."
After Miles stopped sniggering, they went into Crow's Nest.
Joe watched Miles go around, picking out those who looked like potential witnesses. The others hadn't fared well and the euphoria he'd felt when he first clapped his eyes on the map was on its last embers.
A frothy pint was set down before him. Joe blinked at the golden glass, contents still fizzing, its sudsy top swelling to spill over the edge.
"You looked like you needed it." The bartender wiped the counter around the sweaty glass with broad sweeps of his rag. He grinned at Chandler, white teeth startlingly bright in the dark, nautical themed interior.
"First one's on the house but after the fourth one…" The bartender flexed his thick arms, "I may have to throw you out, mate."
Chuckling, Joe shook his head slightly and pushed the draft away with two fingers. "Thank you but no, I don't need a drink."
"You sure?" The bartender shrugged as he accepted the glass. He tipped its contents into the sink under the counter. "You look like a man who needs to drown his sorrows." He proceeded to clean the glass. Gray eyes examined it after he was done, inspecting for spots. "People usually only go to places like these to drink their troubles away."
"I'm not most people," Joe told him.
The bartender leaned closer, propped up by an elbow. It was impressive how he could manage to appear less towering with such a simple move.
"It's alright," the bartender coaxed. "I can keep a secret. I won't tell anyone."
Bemused, Joe arched an eyebrow. "I hope that's not true." He showed his warrant card.
The bartender raised his hands. "I check all IDs, honest," he protested, but his gray eyes were laughing.
Joe smiled in return. "I'm not here for that."
"Thank God, because I lied." The bartender winked. He sobered. "What can I do for you then?"
"Have you seen any of these men in your bar?"
The bartender picked up Joey Wester's picture, then Tommy Carter's. He paused over Alexander Chambers but shook his head over Frank Sage.
"I can't be sure. I think I might have tossed this bloke out before." The bartender tapped a finger on Joey Wester's photo. "Uh… Maybe last month? Two months ago?"
One month ago, Wester was being unearthed from Green Hills Cemetery.
Joe kept his smile on his face even as his stomach dropped. Disappointment soured in his throat.
The bartender looked at him. He brandished the cleaned glass.
"Now you really do look like you need a drink." The bartender's mouth crooked. "Guess I wasn't much help?" He looked at the photos again. He furrowed his brow and concentrated. He shook his head regretfully.
"No, nothing. Sorry. Look, I'll ask the staff around when they come in to cover me. Maybe they'll recognize them?"
This time, the smile was more genuine. Joe pulled out a business card. "Anything would help," he told the bartender. "You may call this number any time."
Gray eyes scanned the stiff white card. The bartender nodded.
"Right, I'll do that. If I find out anything, I'll let you know."
"Thank you," Joe said earnestly. "You would be a great help, Mister..."
The bartender flashed him a broad grin, pleased.
"Colbert. Alan Colbert. It would be an honor to help you, DI Joseph Chandler."
Ray wondered who gave Finlay the black eye.
Mansell leaned against one of their cars, rolling a handkerchief stuffed with ice under his eye. He glowered at Kent, who was describing the row to Sanders with a grin, waving arms and mimicking ducking. A couple of uniforms next to them chuckled.
If it weren't for the uniforms, the weight of time sitting heavy on their chests, Ray would have sworn they looked like they were just here for a pub crawl.
But they weren't. Others were, and they were being hunted; bright young things oblivious to the sick bastard that was sizing them up for a box in the ground. But Ray understood the team's laughter. He recognized the strain underlying their words, how Kent's movements were jerky as reluctant limbs were forced to move where they didn't want to, how Sanders watched each staggering youth with a worried father's eye. It was like his fish; they all needed a piece of something else to think about. Just for a moment.
Still, Ray wanted to be doing something.
"Some recognized Wester, but not Chambers." Ray directed his summary into the blue car, into the open passenger window. Chandler sat, head tilted back, eyes open though because he wasn't resting because of a cold that didn't exist. "The bartender at Steele Pub told Riley he thought he saw Sage get into a row with Carter once but they left separately with their friends." The vein above Ray's left eye throbbed. He was tempted to ask Chandler for more of that smelly stuff and see if it actually helped or if it burned his skin like it had his nostrils before.
Ray nodded towards Kent and Mansell. Kent was now re-telling the story to Riley, who laughed behind the back of one hand and patted Mansell with the other.
"One girl told those two she remembered Sage, Carter and Chambers."
Chandler sat up straighter in his seat. Ray felt a twinge in his gut when he had no choice but continue.
"...but she also swore she saw Wester in a pink shirt last night."
Chandler's shoulders dipped.
"The crimes were too long ago and everyone at the time was busy getting drunk." Chandler pinched the bridge of his nose. He exhaled long and low.
"It was a stretch," Ray agreed, "but we had to try." He tilted his head towards Bassell street. "You were the one that found the common thread." Ray grunted. ASBOs? Minor offences? Only Joe thought they would be related.
"Perhaps," Chandler murmured. As always, he easily dismissed the compliments, but took the criticism to heart. It was infuriating at times but, Ray begrudgingly conceded, kept the man an ambitious yet honest detective. Too honest at time, if anyone asked Ray. But no one ever did and Ray wasn't inclined to offer his opinion.
"No," Ray pressed before Chandler could think of anything self-disparaging to say—because he would, just to wind Ray up, he was sure. "It was a good try."
"We should wait an hour, see if the next wave of customers might contain witnesses. Kent and Mansell should take our section this time and we—"
"The uniforms can handle the rest of the night." Ray wondered if someone had boxed Chandler in the eyes when he wasn't looking. Were they that bruised looking before?
Chandler shook his head. The spot between his eyes wrinkled and he swallowed hard.
"No," Chandler said a little unsteady now, "we should stay. Keep looking."
"We have a dozen men waiting to do the canvas. The team is tired. It's late." Ray didn't feel guilty reminding Chandler of this; not when their DI's pale face looked almost luminescent in the dark.
Chandler, indeed, winced at the reminder. Staring out at them through his window, he murmured "You're right. You should all go home." He tipped his head up to Ray. "You should be with your wife right now."
"What about you?" Although Ray knew the answer.
"I'll help Met with the canvas."
"We already have twelve, sir."
"Well, now they'll have thirteen." Chandler moved to step out of the car.
Ray rested a hip against the door, barring exit and sighed. "Out with it." He could sense Chandler tilting his head towards him.
"What?" Chandler's face was deliberately blank.
"You've been obsessing over this case from the start. You practically started living in your office after we found the second body." Ray scratched a spot on his jaw. "I'll admit, once we realized we had a serial killer in our hands, the case got more interesting."
Chandler stared out the windscreen. Ray could imagine he was seeing the whiteboard, the lines of facts on them. He wondered what his DI saw once he totted them up.
"All the interesting cases," murmured Chandler.
Ray furrowed his brow. "Say what?" He shrugged when Chandler didn't repeat it. "It is an interesting one," Ray admitted. He darkened. "Bet the killer finds it more interesting."
A flash of... something flitted across Chandler's face. "I asked for all the interesting cases."
"We have been getting some interesting ones," Ray went along. He doubted headquarters would have allotted them per Chandler's request though.
"I asked for this." Chandler's eyes slid shut. He rested his head on his seat but didn't slouch into it. He looked like one of those mechanical dolls, stiff limbed, eyes shut, ready to spring into action the moment its key was turned.
"I asked for this case. I should be able to solve this case."
Ray suspected the fever that slashed pink across his otherwise ashen cheeks was the cause of the sharp edge of frustration Chandler couldn't manage to suppress from his voice.
"I thought you were done trying to be Nipper Read," Ray remarked. "Trying to be Slipper of the Yard now?"
Sure enough, Chandler's eyes shot open to glare at him. "I'm not trying to be Nipper Read or Jack Slipper."
"Then stop trying to solve everything by yourself," Ray barked back. He kept it low though because the team's laughter, though strained, was a pleasant white noise. "Way I remember it, the team was given this case." Ray huffed. "It's cliché but there is no 'I' in team."
"You can formulate 'me' from it though which is a similar pronoun to—" Chandler chuckled wearily at Ray's look. "Fine. Alright, Miles. I understand."
Ray grunted. Joe always assured him he understood, yet here they were not having this conversation again.
A tiny cough from Chandler made Ray's scowl deepen but he held his tongue when it was followed by the snap-click of a water bottle cap being twisted off.
"We should head back to the station anyway," Ray tried again because he didn't know when to quit. Judy complained he'd corrupted their kids; his eldest boy was ruthless in football. "The uniforms can continue the canvas."
"The killer could be out there," Chandler murmured. "He could be out there right now, selecting his next victim. Someone in the street tonight could be our fifth victim."
Ray swallowed a sigh; Chandler didn't play fair. "Fine," he growled half-heartedly. "One hour. Then you clock off."
Chandler smiled faintly. "Very well, mother."
Ray grumbled under his breath. He was not really protesting though, because Ray knew full well everybody wouldn't need much convincing to stay anyway.
"Everyone thinks Tommy Carter was lucky to have survived," Chandler spoke up all of the sudden.
Ray nodded. "He's alive. No one else is."
The question was a quiet one, under Chandler's breath, as if it weren't meant for anyone's ears.
Ray heard it all the same. "You don't think so?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Ray caught his DI grimacing. A hand loosely curled around his still bandaged throat, Chandler's eyes lowered.
Guilt flashed across Chandler's face. "It is good he lived but…" His throat worked. He coughed and it appeared to have shake him out of his fog. "Anyway, we need to keep looking."
Ray pursed his lips and blew out sharply. "Just too bad we couldn't find witnesses who saw all the victims alive together or at the same time."
"Hopefully, we'll find a witness." Chandler rested his head back. He closed his eyes, and gingerly tapped a fist to his forehead.
"It's fine, Miles. Really."
Ray resisted snapping back that it really wasn't. He wanted to tell Joe it wasn't fine that their DI looked like he wanted to vomit even when he'd not had a drop of beer. He wanted to tell Joe it wasn't fine that he stayed late to stare at the whiteboards, so fixated, he hadn't noticed Ray come back to fetch a forgotten set of keys.
But it also wasn't fine for someone to stumble out of a bar and into a killer's trap. Someone's son, brother, husband won't come home because he made the decision to grab a pint after work.
It wasn't fine. None of this was.
"If we find a witness," Ray grumbled instead.
"We found some." Chandler reminded Ray but his weary tone betrayed him.
Ray scoffed. "They were so drunk, most got the facts all flipped. If—what?"
Chandler had sat up. If he were an Irish setter, he would point. Instead, his eyes widened a fraction.
"Flipped," Chandler murmured.
"Eh?" Maybe he should try to convince Chandler to kip in the backseat when they drove back.
Chandler turned in his seat, he looked up at Ray and oh, God, there was that look again. It was a dangerous gleam that seem to blind their DI to practical sense; he was a greyhound then, tearing after its prize with no thought for anything else.
It was obvious to everyone else as well. Kent noticed and stopped his manic storytelling. Mansell shook the melting ice out of his handkerchief and shoved it back in his pocket. Even Sanders groaned because the last time Joe had such a moment, he was two pushes from being dropped into the Thames in the dead of winter. Cor, that was a horrible case.
"You're right. We should go back to the station, let the uniforms complete the canvas," Chandler said.
Ray's eyebrow lifted. "Okay," he said warily. "We can go back to the station right now."
"We need all the records pulled up," Chandler went on. "Not the victims'. The ones for those in the original plots."
"We couldn't make a connection between them and the victims. Didn't find one between the plots themselves, either."
The gleam in Chandler's eye was worrying. "We've been looking at the victims when they were alive. And people in the plots when they were dead. Maybe we should flip this around and look at the people in plots when they were alive."
Ray nodded to the others, who looked poised, ready to do some running. "We're heading back," he mouthed. The team didn't look completely relieved.
"Guess you're not clocking off early then," Ray grumbled as he went around to the car.
"I'm having an eureka moment," Chandler told him with renewed cheer as he buckled his safety belt.
"Lovely," Ray muttered as he started the car.
At least they were heading back to the station.
The marker dotted the line with a final squeak.
"Joey Wester," Joe read as he faced the others. The situation room smelled of lukewarm curry that was ignored as soon as Joe turned around. "He was found buried alongside George Hamm, who died May 21, 2004. Hamm was struck by a speeding vehicle that night. The driver was never caught."
"In the months that followed," Kent, from his desk, pointed at the boards with a pen, tracing the line Joe made connecting the Samm death to Wester, "Wester was picked up on three separate occasions for drunk and disorderly behavior."
"Frank Sage," Riley read out loud from her screen, "buried next to Henrietta Salon's plot. Salon's car was struck from the back by an unknown driver February 3, 2003. Case was never solved."
"And Sage was arrested several times shortly after," Joe finished for her. He felt a something bloom warm in his chest as he saw everyone was following. It was a thrill that always felt new to him, everyone following his thinking, standing on equal footing with everyone else for once.
"Alexander Chambers, buried near Leon Davis," Miles pointed to the third whiteboard. "Davis was walking home from his late shift when a car struck him and sped away. Davis died a few days later in Royal. And Chambers here..." Miles didn't finish. The smug look he shot Joe was clear; no explanation was necessary.
"You think our victims were the ones who killed the people in the plots?" Riley concluded. She hadn't realized she had stood up. She glanced down at herself and sat again. "The victims themselves were perpetrators of a crime?"
"All of the Grave Robber's victims drove, but they stopped soon after the people in the plots they were buried next to were killed. Sage had even sold his van. A contractor without a van?" Joe took a step back to consider the boards, the aches in his joints and the throbbing itch in his throat forgotten. "Tommy Carter stopped driving around the time he'd been charged."
"Guilt, perhaps?" Kent piped up.
"Or their cars were evidence," Mansell muttered.
"Must have been heavy drinkers, got lashed one too many times behind the wheel and the worst finally happened." Mansell pounded his desk for effect but when Riley spun around in her seat, he threw up his hands and wheeled away from his desk.
"We need to find out where Tommy was buried," Joe murmured. His gaze drifted to Carter's board. "We'll know for certain then."
"We have uniforms going up and down the road where Tommy was found," Miles said. "We'll find it."
Mansell stretched his arms high in the air above his head. He yawned. Loudly. Too loudly, in fact. Joe caught Riley rolling her eyes.
Joe's stomach clenched. They all have been here a while. They have lives they should go home to.
"There's nothing left to do but wait," Joe said. "Go home. See you tomorrow, nine sharp."
The metallic whine of chairs being pushed back drowned out many of their "Good nights". Joe nodded, hopefully not too quickly, when Miles grunted the same. He had his mobile to his ear, most likely for Judy, as he left.
Joe stood there in the empty room, the boards to his back, the desks vacant in front of him. He turned his back to the desks; facing the boards felt like the less painful option.
Joe's eyes scanned each line, one by one, space by space. When he found an error on Sage's board, he wiped the lines above and below it and redid the entire section. Task complete, his eyes drifted back to Carter's board and the timeline he'd written.
Tommy Carter's board bothered him. It was sparse. It was ironic; they knew less about Tommy than they did the victims who were dead.
Joe touched briefly the gauze that still banded his neck. The scratches no longer burned but he could still feel each desperate gouge. He went straight for his office. He put on his watch, slid his warrant card and notebook into his pocket. Finally, his Tiger Balm went into his pocket as well. His hand moved to tentatively explore the bandage. He frowned when he felt the curling edge of a piece of tape. His hand dropped immediately. But, after a moment, Joe's jaw set. He reached up and peeled the entire thing off.
Now he was ready.
The desks were fairly in good shape; Kent's was practically spotless. Nevertheless, despite the vibration in his bones demanding he move, Joe couldn't leave until all the trash was binned, the wastebasket properly set by the door and all the desk lamps turned off.
Once done, the itch thrumming under his skin subsided. It didn't go away completely and, Joe thought resignedly, it probably never would. But the urge his fingers fought to respond to was weaker. He could ignore it.
Joe nodded absently as officers greeted him with a jerk of their chins or a brief touch to their brims. Some, however, still wouldn't meet his eyes; the Krays and their follies still haunted these walls.
It was just as well. He didn't stop to chat—not that he would know what to say anyway—and striding down the stairs purposefully meant most left him alone rather than bewilder him with social niceties.
The air was brisk and a bit of a shock against his face when Joe stepped out. It startled a cough out of him, which rattled in his chest and sounded disgustingly wet. Joe was tempted to turn on his heels and lock himself in the loo to brush his teeth.
He didn't. The thought made Joe smile wearily.
The station's car park was around the corner. For a second, Joe wished he had succumbed to Andersen's tempting offer. Then he could have parked his car closer.
Joe blew on his fingers briefly. He longed for his gloves, folded neatly and tucked inside the center compartment between the GPS and the atlas riddled with thin yellow post-it flags.
Frost had collected in the late hour, from the rapidly lowering temperature and constant anemic rainfall. He crossed the station to his car, sheltered under one of the building's many archways. He had moved his car there because he couldn't afford to lose another side mirror. Miles had complained about how there was no more respect in th—
He was being watched.
Joe could feel eyes on the back of his neck, the heat of the gaze almost palpable, as if his watcher stood a hair's breadth away. The hair on the back of his neck rose, goosebumps prickling. Right there, right behind him, someone watched.
Joe spun around quickly, but there was no one.
"Hello?" Joe ventured. Right away, he felt foolish. Clearly, no one was there. He glanced up the steps that lead back to the station. He could see shadows pass by the windows. People, left and right, flitting from spot to spot, too busy to stop—
There it was again.
Joe's neck warmed under scrutiny. His eyes slid to his left, then right. Still no one. He started walking again to his car, his steps calm and precise.
There was an echo, footsteps crunching the frost in time with him.
By the time Joe neared his car, he was puffing. He tensed as a shadow broke free from the darkness under the archway.
"Took you long enough." Miles stepped out into the moonlight. He frowned, taking in Joe's face. "Where's your bandage?"
Joe grimaced. "It was coming loose. I took it off."
Miles pursed his lips. "Alright," he said after a moment. He caught Joe looking over his shoulder. "What?"
"Nothing." Joe shook his head. "My imaginat—Uh, what are you still doing here?"
Miles stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. He looked smug. "We figured you would try to sneak off to conduct your own search for Carter's crime scene."
Joe blinked. "We?"
"Christ." Mansell's voice floated out from the archway. "Can we get into our cars now? I'm freezing my arse off!"
"Good," Riley shot back from the same direction. "It might improve things."
Joe stared as he made out his team, huddled under the archway by the boot of his car. Mansell had his hands shoved under his arms, Sanders was sipping from a cardboard cup, Kent was hopping from foot to foot.
Not sure what to say, Joe turned back to Miles.
Miles smirked and announced "I'm driving."
This was a terrible idea.
Ray puffed as he stepped into another patch of dirt of a questionably squishy nature. He didn't bother to pull his foot completely out of this one. The last time he did, he spattered Meg by mistake. The dark look she gave him promised he was picking up his own takeaways for the foreseeable future. And Judy was going to be in bits when she saw the state of his shoes.
"Slow down!" Ray called out sharply as Chandler made his way through the undergrowth, Kent once again dogging his heels. They vanished every so often in the waist-tall weeds that lined the A13. Ray could hear, if not see the river Lea rippling by in the distance. He tensed each time Chandler, despite his height, dropped out of his sight. He didn't think it was funny when Sanders jokingly told him to watch out for crocodiles. Finlay thought it was hilarious though, and soon the two were chatting back and forth about missing geese and large lizards lurking in the Lea.
Chandler would pop back into view after a good long moment (always long enough for Ray to start craning his neck for him). He looked a bit ridiculous: the vivid yellow safety vest over his fancy wool coat so the 173 buses could see him, his light colored hair a beacon under the torches' beams, his back ramrod straight as he quickly cut across the fields, forgetting as usual that not everybody had his long stride. He plowed through the brush like he was Attenborough himself stalking one of nature's beasts with his camera.
Behind Ray and Meg, the uniforms were scouring the sides of the road grid by grid. It was eerie to watch a dozen men, garbed in similar reflective vests, walking slowly through the dark with their heads bent towards the ground. They glowed under the moonlight; a swarm of silent ghosts wandering the roadside, their torches like long tailed fireflies buzzing lazily around them.
"Does...does he even know where he's going?" panted Mansell as he jogged alongside Meg, catching up. "Where is he—ah, shit!" Mansell began hopping on one foot, the other dangling and dripping...stuff from ankle to shoe.
"Stop it," hissed Riley. She backed away from him because one mess on her was enough. She appeared to be debating giving Finlay a push.
"Disgusting." Mansell made a face. He scrubbed the side of his shoe and ankle against the peeling bark of a tree. The poor thing stood only as high as Ray, and it sagged under Mansell's assault.
Ray squinted into the dark, trying to pinpoint where Chandler and Kent were, then. Chandler was helpful enough to give him a clue by having a coughing jag.
Huffing under his breath, Ray cut through the underbrush towards the figure bent forward, hands on his knees, Kent orbiting around him with an anxious look on his face.
"...really think we should call a medic over," Kent fretted as Ray drew near.
Chandler waved off his concern. When he saw Ray's approach, he straightened with one last cough.
"Don't say it," Chandler warned the moment Ray's mouth opened.
Ray glowered. "I wasn't going to say anything," he grumbled. "I've already said it before. I haven't gone senile yet."
Chandler smiled faintly. He sobered when the others caught up. "Anything?"
"We started from the spot Met found Carter, then up the road. Nothing even close to a cemetery," Meg reported. "Uniforms went the other direction. Nothing yet."
"Maybe Carter hitched a ride and they left him here," Sanders thought out loud.
"Carter was found shoeless and babbling," Meg reminded him. "Who would pick him up?"
"He could have been more coherent when he caught the ride," Mansell argued.
"But why drop him off here? The tunnel or Commercial road would have been better to find help," Kent argued. "Or why not his home? Or the police? Or A&E?"
"He's right," Ray agreed. "I don't think anyone picked Carter up. We would have heard something at the time."
"But he couldn't have just come out of nowhere," Mansell agreed. He twisted around to wave towards the road further up North. "Only cemeteries along this road don't start for another ten miles. There's no wa—Oi, where he go?"
Ray's head whipped around to where Mansell was pointing. Sure enough, there was a Chandler-sized gap where their DI should be.
"Sir?" Kent called out tentatively.
"Boss?" Ray hailed, sharper and louder.
Mansell was going to make himself dizzy, the way he swiveled his head left and right. "He was just here!"
"Sir?" Sanders slapped away the tall weeds.
"What are you doing?" Riley said, exasperated.
"Maybe he fell down," Sanders suggested and now, Mansell jumped in.
"Or a sinkhole opened up. I heard one swallowed a house in America."
Ray, Meg and Kent took a step back and eyed the ground warily.
Mansell was parting weeds with his torch, knee deep in high grass and sounding like an idiot as he shouted, "Boss? You down there?"
"I'm over here," Chandler replied, puzzled. He held a hand up over his eyes when five torches zipped to his face at once. He stood next to a copse of trees, shining his own light back at them.
"What are you looking at?"
"Tommy Carter was upset, distraught," Joe explained as he guided them through the small footpath he had spied. "He could have been disoriented and instinctively steered for the A13 because it was the biggest and loudest thing he could see from afar. It doesn't mean he was buried near the A13."
"Too much traffic," Miles agreed, once again easily catching his thoughts. He grumbled as he hobbled over a dead tree root.
Joe waved his torch towards the direction he'd gone. "It's possible he was buried elsewhere and escaped. I went deeper and found some possibilities."
"I don't see any cemeteries in this direction though." Kent squinted at the map he unfurled under Sanders' light perched. "Some homes, farmhouses."
Joe nodded. "From what I saw most were no longer occupied except for this one." He stopped short. He grimaced when he realized it was too short; Miles and Riley swore under their breath as they halted just shy of knocking heads.
Miles drew up by Joe and considered the one story structure on the lonely hill. It looked well-kept unlike the other shambles he had come across.
"You think the killer lives there?" It wasn't clear who said it.
Joe shook his head. "I think there might be a family plot around here. A house this far off the road, this isolated, there may be a chance their loved ones were buried here instead."
The others split off the moment Joe finished, already focusing on the search before Joe even uttered a word. He watched the darting lights as the team scattered until he realized he was smiling lopsidedly after them like a fool.
"Next time, have your eureka moments standing still," Ray grumbled out of the corner of his mouth. He seemed determined to stay where he was.
Joe paused. It hadn't occurred to him. He offered Miles a murmured "Sorry" but he was already thinking of something else.
Miles grunted. He drew his collar up to his ears.
"Bloody rain," he grumbled.
Joe blinked. That's right. The water trickling into his own collar finally registered. To his dismay, he sneezed, once, then again.
A handkerchief was wordlessly thrust in his face.
"Thank you," Joe muttered as he wiped his face dry. He started to wipe down his hands until he realized they weren't really dirty after all. They only felt like it. He tried to return the cloth but Miles shook his head.
"Keep it. Judy bought boxes of them. Keeps stuffing them everywhere I stick my hands." Miles glanced over to Joe's hands, then his eyes slid away. "I got plenty if you want another one."
"No, that's...that's quite alright." Joe clenched his teeth and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. He worried at the handkerchief within the confines of his pocket, his fingers finding each tiny stitch. It took effort not to count them, every machined stitch along the border.
Joe bit the inside of his cheek. He stared intently at the beams of distant light, slashing the darkness like swords.
"They'll find it," Miles said all of the sudden. "It's a good theory."
"A theory," Joe murmured. "Unproven, it's just a theory."
"The three other victims had this pattern. Odds are good Carter is the same."
Joe thought so too. He really did. But he needed to see it. He needed it up there on the board among the cold, detached facts. He needed to see it lined up with the others.
His fingers prickled under his skin. He curled his hands into fists and dug his nails into his palms until the feeling left his mind clear again.
In the distance, someone shouted.
A beam of light that had flailed up and down abruptly vanished.
The other lights rotated sharply to that direction.
"There," Miles barked, already jogging towards the missing light.
Joe followed, his mind racing. Who was over there? Was it Riley? No, it didn't sound like her. Kent? Were they right? Did the killer live here after all, and he led them into a—
Miles's hand shot out, snatching Joe by the elbow, halting him in his tracks.
Joe stared down into a rectangular pit, his toes hanging over the edge. Mansell stood inside the center of it. He looked like he was going to be sick.
"Don't just stand there!" Mansell babbled to Kent. "Get me out of here!" The younger detective stood at the edge, fingers tapping his chin in thought. Joe suspected he was really trying to cover the smirk he could see from this angle.
"I think," Riley said, a chuckle thrumming under her tone, "Mansell found it, sir."
"I see gravestones," Kent called out as he looked behind a line of trees. "Most of them are worn down. Next one is from 2009. Stacey...Stacey Gideon."
"Wonderful," Mansell shouted from below. "Get me out of here!"
"You found it, man!" Sanders cheered.
Miles stooped, his hands on bent knees, eyes twinkling. "Good job, Finlay!"
Mansell said something rather impolite. Joe felt his eyebrow rise.
"Alright," Joe said as evenly as he could, but it mustn't have worked because Mansell cast betrayed, hound dog eyes on him. "Someone pull him out."
Sanders and Kent pretended to groan but they obligingly stretched out their hands. It was hard not to laugh at how eagerly Mansell reached up for them from down in his—
"Wait," Joe said abruptly.
"Sir," Mansell whined.
"What is it?" Miles asked, his eyes shrewd as he redirected them to Joe.
Joe shook his head. He needed a minute. Everyone fell silent, even Mansell, as Joe walked the boundary of the hole. One step. Two steps. Three steps. Joe paused.
Then he jumped in.
The landing wasn't perfect; it has been a long time since prep school gymnastics. Joe managed not to fall on his dignity though. He brushed himself off. Above, his team was speechless, clearly not expecting him to land on his feet.
Joe gave Mansell a brief smile.
"You here to give me a boost, Boss?" Mansell asked hopefully.
Joe stared blankly at him. What? Oh. Joe recovered with another smile and a cheerful "Of course". Hopefully, the shadows concealed the flush he could feel on his cheeks. He crouched down to one knee and inwardly grimaced at the unpleasant damp feeling on his trousers.
A handkerchief floated down and landed on Mansell's head.
"Better use that," Miles told Joe gruffly from above. "God knows what Mansell stepped in before."
"I didn't step in anything," Mansell grumbled but Joe caught him staring at his shoes apprehensively.
Mansell stepped on Joe's handkerchief covered hand and hefted himself up. Sanders and Kent each grabbed an arm and pulled him up the rest of the way.
"Wait, now how's he getting out?" Riley pointed out.
"Aw," Mansell muttered as he checked the bottoms of his shoes, "Boss is freakishly tall, he can probably just hop out."
Joe furrowed his brow. He glanced down at his chest, baffled.
"If he's freakishly tall," Riley teased. "What does that make you, Skip?"
"Irritated," Miles grumbled.
Joe smiled in the safety of the shadows.
"What are you thinking?" Miles called out. He sounded tired. In fact, Joe thought with a pang, they all did.
"This hole," Joe said aloud. "It's the exact dimensions the other coffins were and..." Joe peered over the edge of the hole, though he needed to stand on his toes to do it. "And very deep."
"No way Carter could have dug himself out of that much dirt," Miles noted.
Joe stared at the ground he stood on. There was no coffin here but he could imagine it: a yellow grained box, the lid unlatched, pressed shut from six feet of dirt tossed on top of it, Tommy screaming, banging the lid as he heard the dirt landing on top of his prison. Was that what Wester and the others died from? Did their hearts give out due to the rhythmic sound of dirt slowly covering them, a horrible parody of water torture?
"Sir?" Kent was on his knees, precariously balanced at the edge, both pale hands stretched out.
"Need a hand, sir?" Kent offered.
Joe stared at the hands but didn't take them. His eyes dropped to the ground.
"He let him go," murmured Joe.
"Say what?" It wasn't clear who had spoken.
"The killer," Joe said louder. "Tommy said he was put back in over and over. There was no way he could have dug himself out. It's too deep."
"He might have fought the killer off when the man brought him out of it," Sanders suggested.
"No." The more Joe turned it over in his head, the more he was sure. "The killer let him go."
"Why?" Kent blurt out.
Joe set his mouth. "We'll find out."
"Wonderful," Miles muttered. "Now someone get him out of there, please?"
"Stacey Gideon," Kent read from the board once Chandler was done. "Killed while crossing the road, March 11, 2009."
"And weeks later, Tommy's is picked up, arrested and fined for drunken behavior." Chandler stared at Carter's photo on the board. "He felt so guilty about Gideon's death, he..." Chandler shook his head. "We now know what the killer looks for, who he targets."
Ray noted Chandler didn't look thrilled about having been proven right. "But why let Tommy go?" he voiced Chandler's question out loud.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ray caught Kent stifling a yawn. Ray cleared his throat and Chandler glanced over. His shoulders dipped briefly.
"We will have to figure it out tomorrow. It's late." Ray caught the eyebrow Chandler made when he looked at his watch. "Very late. I'll see you in the morning."
Ray looked around but no one was moving and he was sure if pressed, they would stay. But Ray could also see the shadows growing deeper under Meg's eyes, Kent's head bobbing and jerking as he shook himself out of sleep, and Sanders talking in hushed tones over his mobile to his kids. Mansell was looking cross-eyed, and even Chandler was failing more and more to hide his cough.
And Ray? He wanted to go home, to Judy, to his house, to his fish. He wanted to crack open the doors and watch his kids sleep; he hadn't done that in years. He wanted to do that now.
"See you tomorrow, sir," Ray said loudly. He stood up and sure enough, the rest hesitantly followed. Everyone moved like they had old bones but one by one, they trickled out of the office for home.
"Night, Miles," Chandler said absently as he turned back towards the boards.
Oh no, you don't. Ray swiveled around and snagged Joe by the elbow.
"I am too knackered to see straight," Ray announced. "Come on, your turn to drive. You owe me a ride home."
"Oh, of course." Joe looked startled at the request, but nodded nevertheless.
"Come on," Ray insisted. "Or you're going to have to carry me up to the house."
Chandler hesitated, putting the marker he held first on a nearby desk, then on the board's easel. He looked a little lost.
Ray dropped his grip.
Joe waved helplessly at the desks but words apparently wouldn't come out. Joe sighed and his shoulders slumped further.
"Sorry," Joe fumbled. "I just... I need to do something first."
Ray thought about his desk each morning, suspiciously cleared of the clutter he'd left behind. Sanders once had complained that half a mincemeat pie he'd been saving for breakfast was gone and, for the rest of the day, Chandler had worn a restless, guilty look on his face.
"Alright," Ray said low and not unkindly. He nodded towards the door. "I'll wait for you by the car."
Joe flashed him a tight smile and nodded jerkily. He didn't look up when Ray left the room.
The station was a mix of half awake and irritated officers who barely acknowledged Ray as he descended the stairs. The late hour was usually reserved for the nuts and hooligans who took advantage of the time to produce some mischief, but barely enough to warrant anything more than an ASBO. So Ray was able to head straight for the car park uninterrupted.
Ray noted everyone's cars even Buchan's boxy little yellow sedan were gone. All that was left were Chandler's fancy silver saloon car and Ray's secondhand blue import. He leaned against Chandler's motor and waited.
It couldn't have been more than a few minutes, but Chandler hurried into the car park as if he'd kept Ray waiting hours, so Ray dismissed his apologies with a wide yawn that could crack his jaw open. Chandler looked both appalled and apologetic at the same time. It would have been funny if Ray hadn't been so damn tired.
Ray waited until they were stopped in front of his house before he twisted around in his seat.
"Judy said the kids are sleeping over at their classmates' houses. Why don't you kip in their room for tonight?"
"That's very kind of you. It's alright though. I..." Joe seemed startled at the offer and it twisted something in Ray's gut to see Joe wrong-footed by it.
"It's nothing fancy like your flat," Ray joked. "But the kids' beds should accommodate your freakishly tall form." At the weak flicker of a smile, Ray flashed to his memory of Joe's apartment after Cazenove's suicide. He remembered blinking at the ruler-straight stacks of books and the tea towels hung with precise spacing in the kitchen.
Ray shrugged quickly. "Up to you. I can have Judy drop me off in her car when she goes to work then."
It was difficult not to react to the immense relief that swept over Joe's expression. Ray couldn't help imagining a neatly combed, golden-haired boy, all awkward elbows and knees, sitting in a perfectly made bed while his mates went out on sleepovers, kipping on other people's beds and floors.
"You'll be okay driving back?" Ray was taken aback at the sudden roughness in his voice. He cleared his throat.
"I'll be fine." Chandler seemed to have recovered from his lapse into uncertainty. "I'll ring you when I'm home and I'll remember to brush my teeth, mother."
There was a warmth bubbling up Ray's chest. He harrumphed and levered out of the car before he succumbed to something mortifying to them both like patting his DI on the head.
"Yeah, well, don't bother," grumped Ray. "I'll be asleep already. And take something for that cold," he finished, punctuating it with a thump of Chandler's door.
"It's not a cold," Chandler said with a sudden burst of cheek before he made his escape in his fancy car.
Ray shook a fist at the departing car but as he went in, greeted Judy with an embrace and a relieved sigh, and he found he was grinning.
It didn't occur to Joe until he reached his building that he'd forgotten to set the rubbish bin back by the door.
Joe sat in his car, feeling both mortified and thrilled at the lapse. When he found himself reaching for the key in the ignition to drive back and set it right, he jerked his hand back and sat on it.
The car hummed, its heater losing its battle against the chill outside. The rain that had hung over Whitechapel for days was now a fine mist. The chill plus the weak drizzle left a fog on the windscreen the heater couldn't overcome.
Joe sat there, his fingers tucked under his thighs, his mind writhing as he tried to convince himself it was okay to leave the bin on top of Kent's desk, Kent wouldn't be upset, the maintenance worker will still find it, but it always had been by the door, every night since he became their DI, right by the door, next to the coat rack, at ten-thirty, no later because at ten-fifty-three, William in his dark blue coveralls limped by with his trolley, stooped down and picked—
Joe uttered a frustrated sound. He slapped the steering wheel once, twice, three times. He was not going back to the station. He was not moving the bin. He was not going to spend another night staring at the boards, unable to solve a case he should be able to solve because he was arrogant enough to demand all the interesting cases be turned over to him, a fiat fueled by—
"Excuse me. Excuse me. Sir? Everything alright in there?"
Startled by the knock on his driver's window, Joe stared at the figure distorted by the frost on his car. When the person knocked again, clearly concerned, Joe turned on his car and let the windows glide down, then blinked in surprise.
Alan Colbert blinked back before he bloomed into a delighted grin. "DI Chandler! What are you doing here?" His brow knitted. "Did you have more questions?"
"What? No, there weren't any more questions." Joe reviewed the conversation. "Sorry—you live here?"
Colbert pointed to what Chandler had always assumed were just warehouses. "Just down there." Colbert smiled ruefully. "Expensive, but luckily sharing with five flatmates help." The bartender canted his head. "Wait...if you're not looking for me..." His eyes widened. "Get out! You live here too?"
Chandler pointed to the building behind Colbert. "Moved here a little more than a year ago."
Colbert barely glanced to where Joe pointed, his eyes glued to Joe as he grinned. "You are putting me on? What are the odds?" He stepped back as Joe got out of the car.
"I walk by here every night to do the groceries shopping." Colbert lifted up the crinkling plastic bag in his hand. "I can't believe we're neighbors! Never seen you here."
Joe chuckled tiredly. "I have strange work hours."
"No stranger than a bartender's," Colbert cheerfully replied. It was exhausting to listen to someone like Colbert at two in the morning.
"No, I suppose you're right." Joe pulled out his building keys. They weighed a ton in his grasp. "It was nic—"
Colbert thumbed a pub behind him. "Say, they're still open. Fancy a pint?"
The thought of sitting in yet another noisy space, things strewn about, lights, smells, spilled beer, made Joe swallow hard. He shook his head.
"You sure?" Colbert's eyes went up and down. "I hate to be blunt, mate, but you look like shit."
"I have a cold," Joe rasped and oh, irony of ironies, Colbert shot him a disbelieving look.
"A cold?" Colbert repeated skeptically. "You sure you don't want to grab a pint? Share what ails you?" The bartender shifted a foot back towards the bar. "I'm a good listener, Joseph."
Joe shook his head again but he added a weary smile to soften the refusal. "Perhaps next time? Thank you though. That's very kind of you."
Colbert shrugged. "Just wanted to help." He bid Joe good night and trotted across the street, barely missing a cabbie who honked angrily after him.
Joe blinked red-rimmed after him. He shook his heavy head before heading in.
By the time he reached his flat, Joe's head was buzzing. His nose felt clogged and the floor appeared determined to trip him. It was a relief to reach his door. Joe rested his head on the cool surface as he fumbled with his keys. He kept missing the lock but he must have finally slotted his key in because the door flew open with only a nudge and he nearly fell into his foyer.
Joe roused further after he stumbled over the umbrella stand. He leaned on the wall by his door, panting at the near miss. He stared at the item, baffled. Wasn't it supposed to be over—he shook his head then propped it back against the wall as the room spun. The way he felt, it was no surprise he had regressed to the grace of an unsure, knobby-kneed adolescent. He feebly toed the stand back by the door. Paused, then prodded it again with his toe to adjust it.
Shoes off. Then coat. Then clothes. Shower. Dinn—maybe tomorrow. Bed. Yes, bed.
Joe blindly sought his bed, eyes shut, throat aching, when he'd kneeled down to take off his shoes, he'd nearly fell over from his coughing fit. He undressed piece by piece with his eyes closed. He wanted to lie down immediately but he couldn't. Not until the shirt was in the hamper, the trousers hung ready for the cleaners, his socks balled up into the hamper as well.
The shower was turned on as hot as he could bear. He stood, or, rather, he leaned on the glass walls and let the water spray around him, down his back, and the steam gathered warm in his chest. He rested his head on the glass but after he caught himself nodding off, he shut the shower with clumsy hands.
Bed, yes, be—
Joe choked and in the privacy of his home, allowed a sound of misery to escape. Not yet. Not yet.
The rest of his evening preparations were performed with half-mast eyes, his hands automatically putting watch, warrant card, phone and mobile on his nightstand. Even though his arms felt like floppy sandbags, he still managed to set aside his clothing for the morning, briefcase by the door, toothbrush at the ready by the sink.
The light switches around his flat were all turned on, then off. The locks on the door were checked once, twice, three times.
When he came to his next task, Joe rested his forehead on his window. Blearily, he stared down at the street and watched the pub crawlers stumble under his window, laughing, arm around someone.
They sounded happy.
Let them get home, Joe thought rather desperately. He swallowed hard. He was becoming stressed; he could feel that damning itch underneath the skin of his fingers, demanding to check something. Maybe the box of flat-headed nails in the hallway closet.
Joe shook his head, rocking against the window. The mind thought he was able, but his body was no longer willing. Not now.
Exhaustion had pulled down a haze over his vision. Joe fuzzily watched the streets below, at the people walking by, safe, in no danger. Eventually, his fingers relaxed, loose and—
Someone stopped, looked up right at him and waved.
Joe started. He blinked. Blinked again. When his sight focused, he looked, there was no one. Or at least no one was stopping in the middle of the night to bother waving at him.
The blackout curtains snapped shut, flew open then zipped shut again.
Almost done. He just needed to finish, then he could sleep. Yes, sleep.
The thick coverlet felt cool against his bare back when he finally stumbled into his bed. Joe whimpered and gladly sank into the mattress pad. On his stomach, Joe blearily looked over to his nightstand.
Watch. Warrant card. Mobile. Phone. Watch alarm. Set.
Checklist complete, Joe drifted into sleep, his achy joints finally numbing. He twitched once; Tommy Carter's echoes pricked the edges of his consciousness. Tommy's stark fearful face taunted him.
Joe raised his head with difficulty. His left arm shook as he reached up and turn on the lamp. He squinted at his watch, reset his alarm for an hour earlier, shut his lamp off, turn it back on, shut it off again and went back to sleep.
If he had dreamed, Joe was glad he didn't remember when morning came too soon.
The sleep didn't appear to help.
Ray pursed his lips as he checked, for th—bloody hell, he'd lost count—Chandler's office. The door had been opening and closing, letting uniforms in and out, Buchan in and—thank God—out, and finally, the doctor in charge of Tommy Carter's care. With each door swing, their DI was looking more and more haggard, his face nearly as white as the fresh gauze around his throat.
Behind Ray, their own door was opening and closing as well; Riley and Sanders were interviewing witnesses, this time not of the Grave Robber, but of what Ray'd been thinking of as the 'original victims'.
Between calling the witnesses mined from Bassell street, Kent gave Mansell dirty looks. He had found the rubbish bin on his desk when they arrived this morning. Mansell gave up trying to convince Kent he hadn't done it and was busy ignoring their youngest detective with phone calls of his own to the officers who'd arrested the Grave Robber's victims.
Ray's task, tracking the last few days of the victims' lives (again), was steadily filling his desk with notes he'd been scribbling with the phone balanced on his shoulder. Between that, and watching Chandler's office, there was a crick in his neck Ray knew he would feel for days.
"...really can't think of anything else," Sage's girlfriend Sally mumbled around the gum she was perpetually chewing. "Frank was already stressed about his job and that nut, he didn't really have time to even go to the bars. That's good, I told him, innit? No bars meant no drinking and he can quit wasting our money. But then he said—"
"Sorry," Ray interrupted. He sat up in his seat. "What nut?"
"Hello? Hey, let me out!" Pounding at the surface, he heard it outside his prison. Plop. Plop. Something fell against the wall he faced. It sounded wet. It smelled wet.
"Oi! What's going on out there?" Screaming didn't deter whoever it was. The odd, almost squishy sound of something falling against the walls began to speed up.
Something trickled out of the wall and sprinkled onto his face. He reached up a hand, touched it. With trembling fingers, he brought it to his lips and tasted dirt.
Joe jerked, startled out of the odd vision that felt more like a memory than a dream. He checked his files and made a face. Joey Wester's autopsy report lay perfectly centered on his desk. Ah. His imagination was the culprit again.
Remembering what woke him, Joe lifted his eyes to Miles, who held a fist of paper in his hand. Joe blinked several times until he only saw one DS Ray Miles again.
"What?" Joe mumbled. At Miles's narrowing gaze, Joe squared his shoulders and met his eyes unflinchingly.
Miles pressed his lips together, clearly unhappy about something.
"I think they were stalked."
Joe blinked. They weren't what he expected to be the next words out of his sergeant's mouth, but he wasn't disappointed either. The tacky yet tight feeling at his temples—even the ointment didn't help—ebbed away the moment Joe clapped his eyes on what was in Miles's fist.
"You found something." Even his throat didn't hurt as much when Miles gave a modest shrug.
"Maybe. Nothing was officially reported. Frank Sage never mentioned it to anyone but an old girlfriend of his. They broke up weeks before his time of death so we didn't interview her until now. She said a few weeks before they broke it off, Sage complained about a man following him around." At Joe's look, Miles smirked. "I'm having Riley ask the other victims' mates about that."
Joe examined Miles's neat scrawl on the margins of Sage's file.
"No one's mentioned it before?" Joe murmured. Why didn't they hear about this sooner?
Miles slid his hands in his pockets. He nodded towards the notes. "Sage thought the guy was just too friendly. Said it turned out they were neighbors and the guy suddenly wanted to be his best friend. Sage didn't file a report with the police because he didn't feel threatened."
"Did he ever give a description to anyone?" Joe leaned forward in his chair. His stomach sank at Miles's head shake.
"Just that he was a yappy sort." Miles sorted. "Sage's ex thought maybe the guy wasn't a loony, just gay." Miles's face twisted. "So she didn't press and Sage never told anyone else."
"He probably didn't tell his family because he didn't want to bother them about it." Joe turned his attention back to the report. He understood exactly how Sage must have felt about bothering others with his trivial problems and quirks.
"Or maybe because he didn't really have any family to begin with."
Oh. Joe could feel Miles's stare boring a hole in top of his head.
"Did the witness recall if Sage ever talked about a traffic accident?"
"No, but she did mention he drank a lot more after that month."
Joe felt that spark in him again, when things clicked into place, facts falling into their proper order, lined up and pointing to...to...
"What?" Miles saw something on Joe's expression that made his frown furrow deeper.
"We're taking half steps," Joe sighed, sitting back in his chair. Ever mindful of the windows of his office, Joe didn't dare slump into his seat.
"We're finding out more and more about the killer's motives, but not about the killer." Joe's eyes wandered to his desk sorter, at the compartments of pins and clips and—His gaze dragged forward to Miles instead.
"But we're finding out things," Miles pointed out. "You can't be expected to do more than that."
"And catch the killer," Joe reminded him wearily.
Miles's weary sigh said he didn't disagree.
Joe stared down at the paperwork. He felt like he'd aged decades. He thought about how he woke up this morning, Joey Wester's screams still ringing in his ears, even though he'd never heard Wester speak. He saw Sage's face in the mirror while he shaved, the victim's face was twisted in horror, even though Joe'd never met Sage while he was alive.
"I need a coffee," Miles said abruptly. "Come on."
Joe blinked at him. He shook his head, a tired smile on his lips.
"It's alright, Miles. I'm just tired." Joe massaged his temples. He could still feel the slick remains of the ointment there. It was the only reason, he didn't reach for more.
"Did you take something for that? Or are we still pretending you don't have a cold?" Miles was never fond of mincing words.
Joe huffed out a chuckle, then grimaced. "You're right. I may be... coming down with something," he admitted finally.
"Goody. I'll alert the Daily Mail," Miles grumbled. Somehow, he didn't sound pleased about being proven right. He exhaled.
"I know you said you asked for this case and maybe you did, but it means you owe it to stay your best as well."
Joe allowed himself to lean back and rested his head on his chair.
Miles studied him. "This case bothers you."
"Doesn't it bother you?" Joe countered.
"Fair point. I'll give you that," Miles relented. "But this case bothers you more." He hesitated before plowing on.
"Is it Tommy?"
Joe glanced up at Miles, his mouth working. He averted his gaze. He fidgeted.
"Tommy Carter bothered me, too," Miles offered. "I felt bad for him."
"That wasn't Tommy Carter." Joe's mouth pressed together. "What came out alive was…that." Guilt flashed across his face. "It is good he lived. It is, but…" His throat worked. "The thought of ever being like…" Joe swallowed convulsively.
"I just...I need to see this through, Miles." Joe glanced up and met Miles's gaze. "I need to finish this case."
Miles heaved a sigh. "I know." He scratched his jaw.
"Just don't spread your germs to us."
Aghast, Joe stared at Miles.
"I would never—"
Miles threw up his hands. "Never mind, you. Come on, I still need a coffee and you need one of those fancy teas with honey in it."
Bemused, Joe got up on his feet and followed Miles out.
Ray didn't get his coffee but he did get a pork pie and Chandler a stew so he supposed that was alright.
"...and then in 1665, one of the Duke's..."
But he also got Buchan. That wasn't alright.
Resigned, Ray watched Buchan, who had attached himself to them like a chatty leech when they returned with their lunches. Since then, it had been non-stop "And then there was this case..."
Ray caught Chandler eying his sack of food, then his office. And the idea of being stuck in the office with Buchan didn't appeal to Ray. In the end, he commandeered an empty desk and they all sat down—
Buchan still talking—to eat. And it seemed everybody thought having lunch in the incident room was a brilliant idea.
"What I don't get is, why bury them?" Mansell said around a mouthful of fried noodles. It was his sixth day in a row getting takeaway at the Dragon Inn. So many times, it prompted Riley to tease, asking if the cashier was pretty.
Buchan drew up as if he was giving one of his blasted Ripper tours again. "Since Roman times, burial was regarded..."
Chandler's stew had congealed, sticking his spoon to the bowl. Its goopy brown liquid was thick and smelled of too much potatoes and salt. Chandler was listening intently, body turned away from his food and Ray's glare.
"Of course, in many instances, it was thought the fear of maggots swarming over them frightened them more than the burial itself..."
Ray eyed the remains of the rice that came with the pork pie. He lowered his fork and directed his glower at Buchan instead.
"But that doesn't tell me much." Chandler appeared to be running out of patience. His voice rose a bit. Even Ray winced on Buchan's behalf.
Buchan paused, Chandler's tone sinking in at last. He pulled down his spectacles and cleaned them with a handkerchief.
"Yes, I know. Sorry. Much of these weren't recorded. With the exception of religious purposes and accidental events, there isn't much on actual crimes." Buchan slipped his glasses on. Ray wanted to box the composed, lecturing look off his face. "These are more personal."
"He wanted his victims to suffer, am I right?" Kent jumped in as he picked crumbs off the napkin bib he'd made for himself for his prawn and mayo sandwich and crisps. "He wanted to punish them."
Buchan nodded sagely as he drank his coffee, then set it down hastily. It dribbled on the table.
Chandler stared at the mess before pointedly looking away.
"But he would have to have had a personal connection with the victims or those in the graves then," Kent thought out loud, his food completely forgotten now.
"I mean, he wants them to pay for what they've done, right?" Sanders asked. His mouth was surprisingly free of food. He was done with his lunch and was peering into his desk, searching for more.
Riley tossed over Mansell's fortune cookie.
"Oi! I wanted that!"
"You have two."
"Maybe I wanted both!"
Ray caught Chandler watching the two harping at each other with a wistful smile, but he didn't join in as Sanders made a show of peeling the wrapper off.
"What's my fortune say?" Mansell demanded.
"It's his fortune now," Kent pointed out.
"No. Lucy gave them to me, so they're both mine."
Ray grinned. "So her name is Lucy, eh?"
"Jesus, Finlay. You're married." Riley swatted the back of his head.
"Ouch! Lucy's not—forget it, shut up." Mansell folded his arms across his chest. "I want my fortune."
Riley rolled her eyes and snatched the slip of paper from Sanders' desk. "All your secrets will soon be revealed."
Mansell blanched. "Bollocks."
"Sir," Buchan rumbled indignantly but still sounded squeaky, "there's a lady present."
Sanders snorted. "Where?" He grinned when Riley elbowed him.
"Don't worry, I've heard far worse," Riley assured Buchan.
"All my secrets?" Mansell moaned. "I'm doomed."
"Oh, come on! That's, like, what every fortune cookie says," Kent laughed.
"I could have told you that without her even telling me," Sanders agreed as he crunched loudly over his stolen ware. "Oi. This cookie's stale. I think Lucy's trying to tell you something, Finlay."
Riley laughed. Mansell growled. Kent failed to politely cover his smirk.
Ray folded his arms and cocked his head. He scratched his jaw, thinking.
"What?" Chandler leaned in.
"How did the killer know?" Ray murmured.
Chandler's eyes narrowed in thought, then almost immediately widened as he caught on. "How did the killer know what his victims had done?"
Ray nodded. "Not something you tell someone in passing."
Buchan leaned in, his voice dropping exaggeratedly low. "What have you thought of?"
"Buchan," growled Ray as he jerked back. When he realized everyone was watching now, he redirected the question to them.
"But none of the victims knew each other," Kent mulled. "They didn't share the same doctor or friends or were arrested by the same officer."
"They killed someone, possibly due to their drinking," Chandler got up and went back to the boards. He stopped at each one like he was looking at fancy old paintings in a museum. "It's a secret they wouldn't normally tell anyone." Chandler stopped at Tommy Carter's board. "They have no family, no real connections. None of their friends even noticed they were missing until days later. There's no one they could have told."
"All they had was their drink," Buchan summarized sadly.
"That's it," Ray said suddenly. "Their drinking. It was bad enough to get someone killed."
"It might have gotten worse after," Riley added.
"That lashed, they could have said anything to anyone," Mansell spoke up. "Once I was so drunk, I proposed to three that night."
"All women?" Sanders asked. A pen lobbed off his shaved head. "Just wondering!"
"All four confessing to the same person? Pity they didn't write down their killer's name." Buchan mourned.
Kent made a face. "The killer's name?"
"Last dying breath," Mansell jumped in as he ate his fortune cookie. "What would you write?"
Riley slapped his shoulder with a handful of notes. "Your loved one's name, you idiot."
"Oh." Mansell shrugged and popped the last shard of cookie in his mouth. "That too. But maybe they didn't know him?"
"They knew the killer well enough to feel comfortable telling him their secrets," Chandler pointed out. He finally remembered his stew, giving it a tentative stir before looking away with a shudder.
"Someone they trust yet not know the name?" Riley turned the theory in her head. She didn't look convinced.
Ray looked at the boards, at the list. "What are the odds?" He pursed his lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Chandler doing the same.
Familiar yet nameless, a bloke—or a mad bird—they drank with, drank with long enough to loosen secrets from their lips.
"The bartenders," Ray and Chandler said at the same time.
Chandler shot Ray a tentative smirk. "If their shifts are consistent, they're the one constant face the victims saw when they were alive."
Ray felt a chill settle in his bones as it sank in. "But that means the killer didn't come to them."
"They came to the killer," Chandler finished grimly.
"Why Crow's Nest?"
Joe glanced over to Miles, who had been silent throughout most of the drive. But as they neared Bassell Street, three ARV cars trailing theirs, Miles interrupted the silence that hung between them. The anticipation had grown thicker by then, more palpable the closer they got.
"We pulled up all the bartenders' profiles," Miles went on as if he wasn't expecting an answer. "Nothing stood out, no criminal record, but right away you said we needed to check out Crow's Nest. Why?"
Joe debated what he should say then decided subterfuge was never one of his skills.
Miles said nothing, but his head cocked, inviting Joe to continue.
"He told me he lived close by but his registered address is clear across town."
"Alan Colbert." There was a growing feeling in Joe that he should cover his ears. Quick.
"He told you," Miles repeated. Calmly. Too calmly, actually. Joe considered jumping out of the car, but it would likely damage his suit, and the paperwork to follow would be tiresome.
"He told you this when we were at Bassell Street?"
Warning bells rang incessantly in his head, but still Joe truthfully replied, "No, when I went home."
"I see," Miles said evenly. "When you went home."
Joe nodded, relieved Miles was taking the news so well, "After I dropped you off, I went home." Strange, Miles didn't look happy to hear that part. "Colbert was there. Said he lived close by. Asked if I wanted to go out for a drink. But," Joe said, satisfaction filling his chest with warmth, "we just looked up his registered address and it's nowhere near min—What are you doing?"
Miles held up the radio in his left hand.
"I am calling Riley to take lead," Miles said almost casually. "As we're heading back to the station."
Joe gaped at Miles. His sergeant didn't meet his gaze. "What? What on earth for? Why do we need to head back to the station?"
"Because it's easier to keep stalking killers away from DIs if we prevent you from running after them!"
Miles was shouting now, which strangely felt better, but not by much.
"I..." Joe sputtered, "I'm not being stalked."
"He shows up where you live, tries to chat you up—"
"He wasn't trying to chat me up—"
"All four victims mentioned in passing a friendly bloke always showing up where they were," Miles went on right over Joe as if he hadn't heard him.
"I don't fit the profile," Joe argued. He kept his voice even, as reasonable as he could, but Miles always seem to rile him. "I'm not his next victim."
"No, you're running around with a target on your back begging to become one! You're trying to be bait!" Miles snapped.
The steering wheel squeaked in Miles's grip. "You know what happens to bait? I sometimes feed my carp live feeder fish, as a treat. You know what happens to those guppies? They get torn apart, devoured alive! Wiggling as my fish rips them apart!"
Joe gaped at him. "And you say the fish calm you?"
"Oi! That's not the point! Point is—"
"The point is: I'm not his target."
Miles's flinty eyes darted to him before going back to the road. "So he just showed up at your front step?"
"Maybe he wanted to see the competition? See who is hunting him? Taunt us?" Joe studied Miles's stiff-jawed profile and knew he was remembering the tiny, bloody package in his kitchen. "It's happened before."
Miles unclenched his jaw.
"Miles. I don't fit the profile of the other victims," Joe repeated.
Miles lowered the radio in his hand.
Joe laughed self-deprecatingly. "You saw me. I'm not a very good drunk."
"No," Miles said, almost reluctantly. "You're boring really. Mansell sings into a spoon when he's drunk. Sanders tries to speak in a Scottish brogue whenever he's sloshed. Kent thinks everything people say is the funniest thing he's heard and then nods right off to sleep. Riley tends to flirt, then punch you when she's deep in her cups."
Joe blinked. "Oh. Good to know. I suppose." He sat on his hands as the tips of his fingers began to itch again.
The silence in the car lasted a beat before Miles blew out sharply.
"You still should have said something."
"In my defense," Joe told him "I didn't think he was a suspect until a few hours ago."
Miles slotted the radio back onto the dash. He no longer looked like he was carved out of stone.
"Alright," Miles grumbled. "I may have overreacted."
"Really?" Joe said easily enough, "I hadn't noticed."
The glower cast his way was impressive.
Joe exhaled. "I know what you're thinking..."
Ignoring it, Joe continued "You think I'm trying to be bait because I'm desperate to solve this. Or I'm trying to goad the killer into a boxing ring." He caught Miles shaking his head at that. "I thought it over logically, looked over everything and I can tell you for certain: I don't fit his profile."
Mile's mouth worked. His eyes tracked the windscreen wipers that started up, smearing a fresh drizzle into white streaks across the glass.
"All right," Miles grumbled finally. "Guess you do know what I was thinking." He fell silent as he stared at the sign announcing the turn into Bassell Street. He cleared his throat.
"If you let yourself go missing," Miles said gruffly. "I'm not going to go looking for you."
"Fair enough," Joe murmured, smiling faintly.
Maybe he should handcuff him to the car.
Ray watched Chandler out of the corner of his eye as he explained to the rest of the team who and why they were looking for Alan Colbert.
Meg's hiss whipped his eyes to her.
"No," he hissed back under his breath. "He told me in the car."
"Ray, should he even be her—"
"He says it's fine."
Riley gave him a disbelieving look. "I'll go with Mansell and Sanders to watch the south end. You should stick with him and Kent. Those two running off would only spell doom for the rest of us."
Ray gave her a peck on the cheek. "If my Judy weren't perfect..."
"I would still be too good for you." Riley pushed him towards their DI. "Go on, you."
Ray jogged over to Chandler and Kent.
"You again?" Mansell grumbled behind him when Riley joined them.
"Ready?" Ray asked as he watched the uniforms scatter off two by two to block the streets.
Chandler's brow knitted. "Weren't you going with Riley?"
"She thought she'd better tag along Mansell and Sanders—"
"I told you!" yelped Mansell, "I didn't know she was a he!"
Next to them, Kent snickered.
"Just in case," Ray finished brightly.
Chandler, his eyebrow arched, nodded wordlessly.
"Hold on," Kent said all of a sudden. "Isn't that..." He squinted at a stumbling man across the street.
Joe tensed but when he looked, it wasn't Colbert. But he did look familiar.
"The groundskeeper Wilkens," Miles recognized him. "From where we found Alex Chambers."
"W'at you want?" Wilkens hiccupped as they approached. He clung to the lamppost, still dressed in his coveralls. "Oh, I know you. Looking for more bodies, are ye?" He laughed at his own joke.
Joe delicately leaned back from the sour breath.
Miles didn't bother. "How much did you have to drink?" He scowled at him. "You're not planning on driving home like that, are you?"
The question jolted the groundskeeper to his wobbly feet. "I can't! T'at bastard 'ook my car again." He scowled, his whiskered cheeks red.
"Again?" Joe dared to step forward. Kent held up the man by the elbows, but his head craned back when the old man belched. Miles grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his nose. "Who took your car?"
Joe was nearly smacked on the chin when the groundskeeper waved an arm towards Crow's Nest.
"Keep confi'astin'...keep ta'ing my keys...say too dr'nk to d'ive." Wilkens swayed on his feet.
"Who said you were too drunk to drive?" Kent asked. It was an odd sort of dance, considering he was simultaneously trying to hold Wilkens up while avoid being within breathing distance of the man. .
The groundskeeper waved towards Crow's Nest again and muttered something that didn't bear repeating.
"The bartender?" Joe must have guessed right because Wilkens's arm gesticulations went into a frenzy.
"Must be how he's getting in and out of the cemeteries," Ray muttered. "No one think it strange if you look like you belong there."
Joe straightened. "Miles, get a uniform to stay with him. Kent, come with me."
"Wait for backup," Miles warned as he eyed the groundskeeper. The old man slid to the ground and leaned on the lamp post.
"Have both ends of the street of the bar blocked." Joe shot Miles a look. "I'm just going to talk to him."
Miles looked tempted to leave the drunk on the street.
"He's a witness," Joe added.
Miles growled under his breath. He looked over to Kent, who nodded at whatever he saw.
"I will," Kent said out of the blue.
Puzzled, Joe thought better than to ask. He trotted towards Crow's Nest, Kent on his heels, Miles's gaze boring down his back.
They found Kent in the alley, bleeding.
They found a shattered piece of wood spotted with blood.
They found his warrant card.
They found blood, trailing to a side alley, to a blank spot next to Colbert's registered car.
What they didn't find was Joe.
"I'm sorry," Kent mumbled as his gurney was hoisted into the ambulance. "I thought I saw him. He ran after him. I followed. I didn't hear him behind me. I tried to... "
"All right, Emerson," Ray said."It's going to be fine." Still, he stuck his hand in his pocket when he discovered it shaking as he had reached over to pat Kent on his good shoulder, the one Colbert hadn't stab through with a knife from the bar.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." Kent's voice faded as he was tucked inside the ambulance and taken away in a wail of sirens.
"Christ," Sanders said unsteadily. "What a cock up."
"I'm having all the CCTV footage on this street brought over," Meg said shakily. She took a deep breath and steadied her voice. "The bar owners have another home address for Colbert. He lives with his mother. She retired fourteen months ago. I alerted SCO19. They'll meet us there. We can be there in fifteen minutes."
"Shit. What do we do now?" Mansell said, his eyes on the departing ambulance. "What the hell we do now?" He tore his eyes away when it was too far away to see.
"We track down Colbert," Ray said, his eyes narrowing to slits, "and we find our boss."
"It's all right. It's all going to be all right now..."
Joe controlled his breathing as he listened to Cazenove's widow talk to her husband.
"...lose the house now. Pension is still on hold as the Yard investigates. God, Torbin, what have you done? No one would talk to me..."
There was a vague recollection of turning, hearing a footfall, Kent yelling. He remembered seeing Colbert staring speculatively at him even as he whacked Joe on the side of his head with the piece of plywood. He heard Kent cry out. Or was it him? No, definitely Kent. Kent...Joe heard him cry out, he saw Kent crumple to the ground. Joe remembered swinging a fist, Colbert looking hurt when Joe did that, and...
"I only want to help you, Joseph."
Joe blinked and reviewed his groggy memory. Yes, that's what Colbert said before he jammed a needle hard into his neck. He suddenly couldn't breathe properly. And he was falling, knees on pavement, his palms ripping open when he tried to catch himself and then...darkness.
Joe experimentally cleared his throat. He could feel the muscles sluggishly flex, could feel the vague burning of his still healing scratches but nothing more. He couldn't utter a sound loud enough to compete with the resonances from above. His head was sore with a vague throbbing where Colbert had struck. But he didn't feel dizzy or nauseous; no concussion then.
His limbs felt heavy, like they were weighted down. An after effect of the injection, perhaps? Nothing felt broken.
Next, he tentatively felt around his pockets as best he could. No coat, but still in his suit and waistcoat. Everything felt intact even if his pockets had been emptied. Nothing torn, nothing removed, nothing…unbuttoned. Good. Good.
His mobile was missing. Then again, Joe doubted he could have called anyone this dee—don't think about it. And he didn't think shining the mobile's light on his surroundings would have solidified his resolve to stay calm.
"...Jamie won't speak with anyone. I don't know what to do with our boy..."
Cazenove's widow was still talking.
"...Chandler...new darling of the department now...walked over your bones to do it...ruined us...ruined everything…"
Joe's breath caught in his throat. Cazenove's gun rang incessantly in his head. Joe forced himself to relax, his aching chest to ease, unclench and let go of the breath that .
"…moving in with my mother…can't stand to be in our house any longer…"
His right foot spasmed and kicked the wall next to him once, twice, three times. It rattled up to his knee. The wood thumped dully, sound muffled by six feet of dirt.
No, no, no.
Joe closed his eyes. Ignore the walls, he told himself. They weren't there, not pressing this close, squeezing, crushing.
Joe's eyes snapped open, not that he would have noticed the difference. There were no more snatches of conversation above him. Cazenove's wife had left.
He was alone again.
Sanders attacked the door before Ray finished counting to three.
The small battering ram Sanders held bowed the door. It left a circular imprint of paint and cracked wood as the door flew open with a strong kick. Locks shattered, splinters flew, people shouted.
"Armed police! Do not move!"
SCO19 was imposing in their body armor, assault rifles and helmets. As soon as Sanders smashed the door, he was jerked back so the armed response team could swarm into Alan Colbert's flat. Mansell called out something, almost like a battle cry, before rushing in, Sanders bolting in behind him. Ray threw himself into the fray as well. The uniforms, who stood by uncertain for a moment, ran in after them.
They were supposed to wait until it was cleared.
The cold was a shock, like a physical presence that slammed into Ray. His ears throbbed with the angry buzzing of fans that littered the flat. His skin tingled tight against the sudden chill.
"Armed police! Police!" The harsh calls quickly turned to curt "Clear!" as room after room were checked.
One of the SCO19 gave Ray a dirty look as he elbowed past him, but the officer didn't stop him.
"Mansell! Sanders, did—" Ray choked mid-word as the smell reached him.
"You smell that?" Mansell gagged behind the hands cupped over his nose.
Ray's eyes watered. "Something's dead here." His heart hammered. No. Something died here all right but a while ago. They weren't too late. They weren't.
Coughing, Ray yanked out a handkerchief—he wasn't kidding Joe that Judy tucked them everywhere—and covered his nose and mouth. One of the uniforms staggered past him to vomit outside by the destroyed door.
"I found the smell." Sanders popped out of one of the rooms. His face was pale, even the shaven skin of his skull was bleached, but he stood his ground as he nodded.
Ray took one look before he twisted away. But it was enough to remember the flies and fat beetles thick and swarming on the body set rigid in the armchair, the wisps of hair clinging to the yellowed, exposed skull, the gnarled skeletal fingers clasped, palms together.
It was enough to know Mrs. Colbert couldn't have been the person cashing her pension checks this past year.
It was also enough of a glimpse for Finlay to stumble away to vomit outside with the young constable.
Ray pressed his handkerchief harder over his nose. He glared at the flat and its walls streaked with dirt and paint that was once a lemon yellow. Judy had wanted to paint the new nursery that color, but looking at it dull and neglected and discolored to look like piss, Ray wanted to ring Judy up directly and tell her to forget it.
"Anything with Colbert's handwriting," Ray grated out. "I want it all: maps, photos, notes. Toss this place."
No one questioned. No one complained about the smell. Ray caught Finlay wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, take a deep breath and going back in. Sanders lowered his hands from his nose and picked a room to search as well.
Ray tucked the handkerchief back in his pockets and steered towards Colbert's bedroom.
Mansell summarized it best.
Ray silently agreed.
Sanders had found the walk-in closet, the walls knocked down to expand into Colbert's bedroom, which was sealed from the inside. The bedroom windows and door were boarded up and covered in handwritten notes. It reminded Ray of the Ripper's room; full of maps and photos, even on the ceiling. It was a comparison though, that did not sit well with Ray.
"Oi, these names are new," Mansell said tersely. There were several, in fact, scrawled among the streets of Whitechapel. Mansell pulled out his notebook to check. As much as an ass as Finlay could be at times, he also took brilliant notes. Not that anyone could tell. Only Finlay could read Finlay's penmanship.
"Any we know of?" Ray asked as he counted. Including their known victims, there were fourteen names on the map.
"Barker, Lee, no. No, didn't interview any of them."
"Bastard marked our victims," Sanders growled, jabbing a gloved finger at the smiley faces. They were lopsided, drawn in haste; a sneering onion head.
"Wester, Sage..." Ray read.
"There," Mansell's sharp eyes picked out the other two. "Chambers over here and Carter over...there."
Ray squinted. "What were their addresses?" He nodded as Mansell read them off. "He's marked them by their addresses. Probably got them off their licenses or credit cards." Ray scowled. "And if he was so concerned about them driving drunk like that groundskeeper, he could have confiscated their keys and searched their vehicles for information."
"What about the other names?" Sanders' chin jerked towards the map.
"Potential new victims?" Mansell questioned darkly.
"Or old ones," Ray frowned. "Call Riley. Tell her to come back from the hospital straight away and look up these names. Call them, make sure they're alright. Ask them to come in in the morning."
Photos of Wester, Sage, Chambers and Carter was plastered all over as well, all caught in candid shots. Some of them were laughing, some were arguing, but they were all taken surreptitiously.
And then there was Joe.
His address was circled on the map in a red marker pen and like the others, given the dubious honor of a smiley face branded next to it. There were scant notes on him, a photocopy or two of newspaper articles. There was a photo of him standing in the police car park. One by the A13 in his silly fluorescent vest. One of him leaning against a window. And Jesus, there was even one from this morning, coming out of his building looking pale and bleary eyed.
Mansell snarled as he pointed to the car park photo. "He'd only met the boss that night. Sick bastard had him in his sights right away."
Ray stared at the photo.
"I'm not going to go looking for you."
His eyes burned. He thought of how Tommy Carter was afraid of the windows locking him in. He thought about the look on Tommy's face when he'd walked past with Joe; Tommy had clawed and clawed the floor to try to tunnel out, his nails snapping off before the orderlies managed to get the strait jacket on the poor soul.
Ray looked red-rimmed at Mansell and Sanders, their faces expectant.
That's right. He was in charge now.
"Let's bring this all back to the station," Ray croaked. "We've got work to do."
"I'm not going to go looking for you."
It was the smell of morning dew and the weak beam of sunlight on his brow that woke Joe.
Joe squinted at the light streaming from the pipe. His body ached miserably, his muscles sore, as if he had been running, and he was cold. Very cold. Hypothermia, he thought. This deep underground with no coat, it was a legitimate dange—no, don't think about it. He was surprised he'd slept at all but perhaps the cold he'd been denying had some uses after all.
A droplet of water splashed over his right eye.
Squinting, Joe peered up. Water clung to the pipe end like gleaming, translucent grapes.
Joe stared up at it, an idea forming in his foggy head. He carefully shifted until his mouth was directly underneath the pipe. It was awkward: his head was canted to the far right. His ear nearly touched his shoulder. But he was rewarded when the water trickled into his mouth. It tasted faintly metallic from the pipe, but the pipe proved to be a good collector of morning dew. If he got water regularly this way, he could survive perhaps an estimated—
Don't think about it. Don't count.
Joe smacked his lips after it appeared there would be no more water. He swallowed, throat flexing, and tried again but all that came out was a wheeze. He sounded asthmatic, like a smoker if he had ever been one, but the idea of the ashes, the smell of foul smoke, spent tar...They outweighed whatever promises of reprieve the nicotine offered.
He'd stick to clean, clear vodka, thank you.
A laugh bubbled free from his sore throat, emerging more like a muffled hiccup. And it hurt to do that. Joe absently wondered if it was the cold or whatever Colbert had injected him with.
At the mention of Colbert, Joe paused. What was his plan now? He was neither drunk nor guilty of killing someone because of it. Why bring him here, to Cazenove's plot? Why let him hear the widow curse his name and weep for her lost husband? What did Colbert think Joe was guilty of?.
The thought of Cazenove's name sent a pang into his chest. The DI's words still rankled, even now. It was like Cazenove had stuck a hand in his head and given it a rummage, pulling out what Joe often feared but never dared give full thought to.
"Think it through."
"Where did you come from? 1960?"
"You're an anachronism, Chandler."
The words stung, but they weren't enough to wish Cazenove dead. No, he wanted to arrest Cazenove, mete out justice, but never—
He could still feel Cazenove's brains coating him.
The corner of his eye twitched.
Don't be ridiculous, Joe thought, there's nothing on you. No brai—there's nothing. It all washed away. He had sat in his shower, jets blasting, water flowing long enough that it had turned cool by the time Miles came. And after Miles left, Joe had shed his suit, binned the entire outfit and scrubbed every spot Cazenove's destroyed life had splattered on him. He scrubbed until he bled in some places, then sat on his bed and realized he did not want to give up. Miles had been right: he would never be Nipper Read, but detective Joseph Chandler might one day be adequate. So he got up.
But there were days when he could still feel Cazenove on him, like a cancer insidiously seeping into his skin. Blood, brain, bits of bone crawling over his body to form a miasma no number of showers could wash away.
Joe's right leg spasmed again. The traitorous limb kicked out against the wall. Suddenly, Joe was acutely aware of how close the walls were.
Relax the knee. Take a breath. Hold it. Slowly on the count of—no, just slowly.
As Joe exhaled, his leg relaxed, and the tight thrumming under his knee smoothed out until it felt like nothing more than a vague feeling that a bruise had once been there.
You're in control. Your body is your own. It's fine. You're fine.
Joe relaxed further, and if he kept his eyes closed, he could almost think he was home, in his flat where he knew where everything was, where everything had its place. He wished he was home, with his familiar things, bed yielding to the burning muscles of his lower back.
He would be home soon.
Eyes closed, breath deliberately shallow, Joe thought of his flat, his memory picking out where each item would be.
How does he do it?
Ray stood in front of the whiteboards, trying to decipher their secrets. He thought if he came in early enough he might receive an epiphany, but no, now he was just gagging for a coffee.
Maybe if he crossed his eyes…No.
Wearily, Ray rubbed his jaw; it was bristly with stubble because he hadn't wanted to lose time shaving. He should have brought a razor here like Jo—
"What have we got?" Ray asked abruptly. He swiveled sharply away from the boards and the tacked-on maps.
"That was the last of the names," Meg declared as she wearily hung up her phone. "Very much alive and like the others, very pissed about the hour."
"Consider it a wake up call," Finlay retorted as he tilted up his third cup of coffee, "that a serial killer had them in his sights."
Ray shot Finlay a look. Thankfully, he shut up.
But not for long.
"Why did Colbert grab the boss in the first place?" Finlay burst out. "He's not a drunk...is he?" He looked around but, seeing only glowers, hastily looked away. "Anyway, I think Colbert grabbed the wrong bloke."
"No shit," Meg shot back. She frowned. "Finlay has a point, Ray. Why did Colbert grab him?" She gestured towards the boards where the map and Joe's photos were tacked up. "It clearly wasn't opportunity alone. He had him in his sights from the very day he met him."
Finlay snorted and muttered under his breath.
Ray shook his head. "I don't know. From what he told me, they barely exchanged words, but whatever it was, it was enough to grab the bastard's interest." But damned if Ray knew why.
"Do you think Buchan and Sanders found anything?" Meg looked hopeful.
Ray shrugged. He had snapped at Buchan last night when they returned. Perhaps unfairly but cor, he didn't want to hear the man babble about saints and the Roman Empire again. Buchan's mouth had shut and he looked almost diminutive when Ray told him none of that was going to help them find Joe. Buchan needed to stop wasting precious time telling them bedtime stories.
Perhaps he had been a bit...harsh.
Sanders was sent down to assist Buchan. Maybe one of his dusty clippings would prove useful after all.
"Metro's still in Colbert's flat." Meg didn't look like she believed the bastard would return there. "All of the names on Colbert's list are coming here under escort."
"Right." Ray cast about and totted up the heads. It wasn't enough. Bloody hell, the entire department weren't going to be enough.
"Meg, you and Finlay handle the interviews. I'm checking with Caroline on the autopsy on Mrs. Colbert."
"I think we need to speak with Tommy again," Finlay said. "Shake him until he starts making some sense."
"I'll do that," Ray said immediately.
"Autopsy," Meg reminded him.
Ray bit back a frustrated sigh. "Get Sand—Aye, what are you doing out?"
Meg and Finlay whipped their heads around to behold Kent, standing (or leaning) on the doorway, looking bedraggled in his bloodied charcoal suit jacket and black sling.
"You idiot," Meg said with a careful arm hug around his narrow shoulders. "What are you doing out of hospital?"
Ray folded his arms in front of him. A pang twisted his insides; he hadn't accompanied Kent to hospital, assured by Meg his wound wasn't deep. But while seeing Emerson upright (sort of) lightened his heart, the sling reminded him there was a unnecessary hole in their youngest DC.
"Kent!" Finlay pretended to punch him on the bad arm then immediately clasped his good hand instead. "The nurses weren't pretty enough?"
Emerson scarcely noticed the teasing, and looked directly at Ray. "I wanted to help."
Brown eyes pleaded with him. "Please. I can help. I'm fine. The wound wasn't even very deep. I only needed some stitches." Christ, he looked like he might cry and he wasn't even near the car park. "This was...if I hadn't...Skip, please."
Ray pursed his lips.
"Kent and I can do the interviews," Finlay suggested. "Clean him up and set him on them with that face, they'll tell him everything." He raised his hands at the glare Kent sent his way. "Just saying, mate."
"You'll be able to talk to Tommy Carter," Meg added. "I can talk to Caroline and pass whatever she says to you."
Ray looked at Meg, then Finlay and Emerson.
"All right," Ray said finally. "Let me know if you find anything."
Emerson smiled crookedly—pained as Finlay forgot his injury and pounded his back—and whispered his thanks. He looked as if Ray had just solved all his problems.
Ray wished it were that easy.
"Take a good look at him, Tommy," Ray coaxed. He slid the glossy print towards Carter, but the boy only looked past his ear.
"Tommy," Ray tried to get his attention. "Listen, please?"
"Look at it. Was this the man? Was he the one who took you?" Ray kept his voice low, soft as he remembered Joe doing. He swallowed when Tommy dropped his eyes and glanced at the picture.
"Detective," Dr. Bouman began. He watched the interview from the doorway, his smartphone staying in his pocket today.
Ray nodded and pulled the picture away. His stomach soured as Tommy kept whimpering like a whipped pup.
"Sorry, Tommy," Ray murmured. "Look, I've put it away? See?"
Head bent, Tommy stared at the table as if he could still see it.
"Won't you talk to me?" Ray said, low. Only he alone—and perhaps Tommy—heard the crack in his voice. "Remember Joe? Joseph? He was here before, with me? He wanted to help you, Tommy. He wants to help you find the man who did this to you. But now this man has taken Joe, too."
Tommy's eyes stayed on the table. His face was pale, his freckles stark dots under the unruly and uneven ginger hair. His hands were crossed in front of him, bound by the strait jacket.
Remembering what Joe tried to tell Tommy, Ray cautiously leaned across the table. He stopped when Dr. Bouman warningly cleared his throat.
"You're safe now," Ray murmured. "You're out. No one can put you back. Do you hear me? You're safe. He can't take you anymore."
Tommy didn't even blink.
Dejected, Ray slumped into his seat.
"He took my friend, Tommy," Ray said softly. "Joe's out there somewhere and he needs our help."
Not a sound.
"Alright," Ray murmured. His shoulders slumped. "If you remember anything you want to tell me, Dr. Bouman knows how to find me." He rose to his feet slowly. He was glad Tommy wouldn't meet his eyes. The emptiness in them twisted up his guts. He looked at Tommy's eyes and feared seeing someone else's. No, Ray didn't want to look at Tommy. Not anymore.
Dr. Bouman gave him a shrug and a sympathetic look that Ray immediately despised. Ray held his temper and said only, "If there's any chance…"
"He always put me back—"
Tommy's reed-thin voice halted Ray's footsteps. He turned to Tommy. The boy was still hunched, head down, eyes to the table.
"I can never get out," whispered Tommy. He looked up with unshed tears in his eyes.
"And neither will he."
Ray stared at Tommy for a long moment, then abruptly turned away. He walked down the hallway quickly, and told himself he was not running away.
Ray wanted to stay in case Tommy roused from his state. But he knew he needed to be back at the station. He needed to be—there were too many places he needed to be.
Tommy's blank and terrified eyes had filled Ray with a desperation to reach him. Surely, the boy was not a lost cause? Tommy was out of the box; it should be over for him. He wanted to do what Finlay said: grab Tommy by the shoulders and rattle sanity and sense back into him. It was over, he was free, this couldn't be his reward for surviving. How was he supposed to live out the rest of his life like this? Joe was too young to—
The brakes screeched when Ray stomped on them. He came to a stop crookedly on the dirt road Joe had asked Ray to pull over on before.
"Damn it," Ray grated out, resting his forehead on the steering wheel. He took a few breaths but that got him thinking about Joe in that coffin, crammed in because he was too bloody tall, trying to breathe.
Ray punched his dash. Then, because it did make him feel better, he did it again. And again.
He had to stop because his right hand had started throbbing.
And because his mobile was ringing.
"Yeah," Ray rasped as soon as he picked up the call. He cleared his throat and firmed his voice. "DS Miles speaking."
"Ray, it's Meg. I've got Caroline's report."
"What she say?"
"Fingerprints matched her license. Shelly Colbert, mother of Alan Colbert, aged fifty-two. Caroline is positive Shelly Colbert died of natural causes: heart failure."
Ray's brow shot up. "Heart failure? At fifty-two?"
"Caroline said her liver was riddled with cirrhosis. It was only a question of what would get her first: her heart or her liver."
"So Mrs. Colbert was a heavy drinker."
"Very. Caroline estimates she died four or five months ago."
"About the time the killings started."
There was a rustle of paper. "Wester...yeah, about that time." Meg paused. "So the mother's death was the trigger."
Ray massaged his brow. Maybe he needed to get one of those smelly glass jars of his own after all. "Looks like it. Find out what you can about her. See if she owned or leased property under her maiden name, too."
"Anything from Tommy?"
Ray looked at his disheveled reflection in the wing mirror.
"No," he said shortly and hung up.
It was quiet in the dark.
This deep down, of course it was quiet.
Yet Joe tilted his ear towards the pipe to listen. He strained to hear…anything. Anything at all to drown out the harshness of his breath struggling to stay steady. The pipe made an odd whistling sound, almost melodic, but no voices, no words of grief, no one telling Cazenove how much he was missed.
No one else visited Torbin Cazenove.
No one would ever visit Joe.
Joe flinched. He fidgeted away from the pipe. He didn't want to listen anymore.
"Shelly Colbert," Meg read off, "had Alan when she was fourteen. Father wasn't listed on the certificate. Alan was cared for by her parents while she tried to finish school. When she turned eighteen, parents kicked them both out. Worked in the Belforte factories as a cleaner until they went bankrupt three years ago."
Ray stood behind her to follow along her reading on the computer. He stared hard at the woman with brown eyes and brown hair. He wondered how a plain-looking but smiling woman could give birth to a gray-eyed monster.
"Looks like the council has a file on her as well," Meg noted. She pointed to the screen. "Several times, neighbors reported a child crying but when they came, the boy looked and appeared fine so no action was taken; the social workers said Alan acted like a 'perfect child'"
"Perfect child," Finlay muttered darkly behind Ray.
"Anything from your interviews?"
"No one noticed they were being stalked," Emerson said. He rested, slumped in his chair. "Some of them recognized Colbert as a bartender in a bar they frequented but they couldn't remember correctly what bar he worked in."
"Those who did remember him," Finlay picked up the narrative, "were pissed at him. Only reason they remembered him was because he was the bloke who took their cars keys. For their own good."
Ray grunted. "Let me guess? They were too drunk to drive?"
"Told them he only wanted to help," Finlay snorted.
"Right," Ray muttered. He stared at the boards.
"Should we..." Emerson sounded hesitant. "Should we start checking the cemeteries?"
"We have three here in Whitechapel," Finlay told Emerson. "Most of our victims weren't buried in those cemeteries. Just Chambers. The rest were all over."
"We could try searching the ones here," Emerson insisted.
"Where would we start?" Finlay was raising his voice again.
Ray shot the two a glare and they settled down. He checked with Meg. "Anything under his mother's name? A house? A flat?"
"Colbert was her maiden name but she was married four times." Meg shot Finlay a look.
Meg shook her head. "There are a few names to cross reference. I'm still looking."
And that, Ray thought bleakly, neatly summed up their case.
It was odd.
Joe could barely move yet he ached as if he had been exercising heavily. His limbs locked stiff against his body. The joints creaked when he shifted.
Cramps, he thought. Immobility can render circulation stagnant and lock joints into a form of cramp. This was normal. This was to be expected.
His fingers itched. Maybe there was such a thing as muscle memory. His fingers remembered it was almost time to go to each desk, one by one.
The first desk he cleared would be Mansell's. Joe would sweep off the snips of paper Mansell seemed to gather throughout the day, like he was trying to build a nest: torn off or cut off, bits of autumn leaves with color from glossy magazines, shreds of red and white from the takeaway menus, smudged inky bits of newspaper. Mansell seemed indiscriminate in his destruction. Sometimes, there would even be a photo ripped to pieces, torn bits of a pretty face and a smiling Mansell. When Joe finds those, he withholds comment when Mansell reports to work next morning red-rimmed, tie crooked.
Sanders... Joe wrinkled his nose at the memory: crumbs and coffee stains and candy wrappers everywhere. Joe found he often needed to wash his hands after. And he learned never, ever to throw out any food he may find there after the Mincemeat Pie Incident.
Riley's desk was usually clean, but she always left random pens lying about. Where she gets them, Joe isn't sure. There would be pens with business names stamped on them, the white ones with black caps the station provides, and ones with drug adverts on them, pilfered off physicians' desks. She has a cup she to keep them in, but it was always empty. Joe gathers them up and returns them to the mug: station's pens first then the ones with names, in alphabetical order.
Kent's desk never required any tidying up, although some nights there was an occasional wadded-up ball of paper that would sit dead center on his desk blotter. Sometimes, there would be two, as if they had multiplied while patiently waiting for their turn to be binned.
Miles's desk usually took the longest. By no means the messiest, there was so much stuff on his desk. There was always a stack of files to be reviewed in the morning before his paper. There were framed photographs of his wife and kids cluttered around like a personal Stonehenge. Sometimes, there were snipped coupons for food from the various shops around the station, offering "Buy One, Get One" meals and free coffees with purchase. There were Post-its with notes scribbled on them, sometimes about a case, sometimes not. Once, by accident, Joe saw a note where Miles had quickly scribbled "Buy the right cheese" with the word "cheese" underlined several times.
Joe rarely found anything he could throw out. They all seemed important. Joe usually ended up just straightening the stacks, tucking notes into neat piles, maybe tossing out an old coffee cup or two.
The fingers on his right hand trembled, up and down, inadvertently tapping on the wood.
Joe tucked his hands underneath him again.
He wondered if Sanders had left another meat pie on his desk for later.
Finlay tore the calendar off the wall.
Someone had marked it with two red Xs. When Finlay came in this morning, he saw it and said nothing as he grabbed it from the top with a fist. He tore with such force, the cork board came down with it, nails popping out of the walls.
Ray hadn't the heart to say anything. He hadn't noticed anything but the whiteboards when he came in two hours earlier. The whiteboards though, still kept their secrets.
"The place on Richards was rubbish!" Finlay announced needlessly. He tugged off the stab-proof vest he had worn when they raided the next place on the list. "Colbert wasn't in. He's taunting us, I tell you. Ten flats all over Whitechapel? You are putting me on!"
Ray sat on the edge of his desk. "Empty?"
"It didn't even look like the roaches had moved in." Finlay glanced over to the other desks.
"No luck," Ray told him.
Finlay punched his desk, then squinted at Ray.
"Oi, didn't you just go home?"
"Didn't you?" Ray countered. "Went home, kipped on the couch..." He checked in on Judy and the kids, watching them with a tight throat through bedroom doors, opened just a crack. He kept dreaming about standing on an unblemished grassy field, hearing screaming—Joe? Tommy?—under his feet.
Bile in his throat, Ray shrugged. "You?"
"Lounge," Finlay grunted. "Rung up Eva. Wasn't worth driving home. I hate traffic."
Ray turned back to the whiteboard to cross one more location off the list.
"Not with the red marker," Finlay growled.
Ray smoothly switched to the blue. If it looked strange, red slashes and then a blue, no one mentioned it.
The coughing jerked him out of a restless sleep.
Joe grimaced as the cough clawed its way out of his raw throat. He touched his throat briefly, gulped, then winced and dropped his hand. There was no point worrying about that. He inhaled through his nose, exhaled slowly through his mouth. He reviewed what he knew of Colbert, even what he knew before they knew it was Colbert.
Colbert proved he was methodical, planned meticulously each plot for each victim. He knew how to connect the inebriated confessions to the actual crime. Then he became prosecutor, judge, and jury.
Joe smirked wearily to himself.
Colbert would, ironically, make a good detective.
But taking Joe broke the pattern. Joe didn't confess to any sort of crime, drunk or sober, yet Colbert appeared to have planned for Joe as if he had. In a short time, Colbert made a connection between Joe and Cazenove. If guilt of a crime was the commonality, then did Colbert assumed Joe had been guilty of pushing Cazenove to suicide?
He wouldn't be wrong, Joe thought with a lump in his throat. Despite the tight confines, Joe wiped at his face. The sliminess still clung there, he could still smell the brains—
Joe curled his hands. No. This could possibly be what Colbert wanted: to drive his victims mad with guilt, trapped underground, reduce them to clawing and screaming—
Joe flinched. He took a steadying breath. The sudden vise around his chest eased.
It's fine. They'll find you. You just have to wait. Wait a bit longer. It's all there. They'll figure it out.
Unless they were wrong to begin with.
Joe's breathing hitched. He mulled over the facts he could remember, compared them with his connection with Cazenove.
Joe's eyes widened.
Oh. Not good at all.
One, two, three, fo—ah, fu—
Ray pushed away from his desk and glowered at the modest pile of paperclips on it. He had been unconsciously counting them from the moment he stumbled in this morning. He had picked them out from a little cup he didn't remember getting for them.
"Great, what next?" Ray muttered as he levered off his seat to look at the whiteboards up close. He folded his arms in front of his chest and scowled. The list was getting shorter as the days stretched, only five places left—
Meg and Emerson stomped in.
Ray silently crossed out the next two. Three left.
The phone rang.
"Sanders said the one in Harrow is no good." Finlay slammed the phone down so hard, Ray was astonished it hadn't cracked. "Neighbors never saw anyone come in or out of the place."
Without comment, Ray crossed out one more.
"Just two left?" Meg breathed out. "Is Colbert even in those two?"
"Colbert's running," Ray stared hard at the last two addresses, "He's running out of places to hide. We're forcing him to a corner."
"You think the boss is with him?" Finlay asked hopefully.
Ray didn't reply but he suspected Finlay got his answer anyway.
Finlay was determined to make his own good news. "Maybe Colbert's bottled it and left London."
"And took our boss with him?" Meg challenged, half-heartedly, as she studied the map of the remaining properties.
"He, uh…" Finlay grasped for anything. "He let him go?" It was a poor attempt. Finlay slumped in his chair.
"It doesn't make sense." Emerson said in a half-whisper; he'd sounded permanently fatigued since he left hospital against medical advice. Ray received a report chastening Kent for that. He left it on Joe's desk for him to deal with, perfectly centered on his blotter.
"We checked but there is definitely no record or charges for any sort of driving infraction." Emerson sounded torn between admiration and despair. "There's nothing."
"His academic record from uni is longer than his profile," Finlay complained. "Nothing that would have caught Colbert's eye."
Ray's stomach churned. What would Joe say about having his life parsed and dissected on paper like this? It felt like they were snooping and yet the indignity had borne so little fruit for their trouble. Unless... He stared at the boards, at the faces. His stomach sank.
"Unless we have the motive wrong," Ray said out loud. In his ears, it sounded like betrayal. "We could have been wrong. About Colbert and the drunks."
Behind him, the room was stunned stupid for a moment.
Meg audibly sucked in a breath. "Ray, we don't know that."
His finger vaguely hurt when he jabbed it on each photo. "Wester, Chambers, Sage, Carter and now..." No one had wanted to put Joe's photo up. Someone instead drew a box with the word 'Boss' scrawled in it. "We all agree Colbert had planned on snatching him up, maybe not that soon. But he had his eye on him. So why? He's not a drinker, he never drove drunk. We're all sure of that, right?"
"He chided me for parking crookedly once," Finlay volunteered. "And for not signaling a turn when we went after Steward last month."
Ray's mouth twisted. It was why Joe never rode in Finlay's car again. That, and having found a stray nylon in the backseat. "Right, so Joe Chandler is a safe driver."
"But that means he doesn't fit the pattern," Meg said softly. "If—Christ, Skip, are you sure?"
"If you let yourself go missing, I'm not going to go looking for you."
Ray's throat worked. "Yeah," he rasped. "I think we need to consider we've been going at this all wrong."
Finlay swore. "We would have to start over then. He's already been with Colbert for over forty hours. The bastard may already have stuck him in the—"
"Shut up!" Meg hissed at the same time Emerson's chair suddenly scraped across the floor.
"Exc-cuse me," Emerson mumbled. He didn't wait for a reply; he fled the room, sling and all.
"Shit," Finlay breathed, subdued. "I didn't mean to..."
Ray held up a hand when Meg rose from her chair. "Pull up the victims' records again and...and Joe's. See what they have in common. Anything at all."
"Kent..." Meg appeared indecisive.
"I'll get him," Ray told her but when he stepped out of the room, he didn't feel as sure as he had sounded.
The walls shook.
Joe opened gummy eyes to darkness. No water dripped down the pipe so it couldn't be morning again yet.
The walls shivered.
Someone was above him?
"Hello?" Joe rasped but even if the vise unwound from his throat, the lack of water and beginnings of fever had tapped him dry. He pressed paper-dry palms to the wood and felt vibrations. The dirt above him was being disturbed.
Joe banged on the wall as hard as he could. The vibrations outside paused. Joe peered through the pipe, but like before, it was too small to see anything. He banged on the wall again but after two strikes, his leaden arms dropped weakly to his sides.
Joe tried to lift a hand up to the wall again. He...he just couldn't. His arm collapsed with a thump. His ears were ringing. But then the walls shivered again as more dirt was lifted off him. Soon, Joe heard clearly and he went rigid.
"It's all right, Joseph. I'll help you soon enough..."
The car park was surprisingly empty. Nor was Emerson in the loo. Ray knew he wouldn't have gone home: his scooter was still in the car park and this was Emerson, for God's sake. He would sleep on the Incident Room floor if Meg hadn't kick him out, ever mindful of his sling.
When he didn't find Emerson in the usual places, Ray reluctantly went down the dusty steps to Buchan's archives. The basement was a good a place as any.
Buchan had claimed a good part of the basement for his archives. Ray had seen the state of the basement before Buchan had moved in. Even though he had been organizing, categorizing and rearranging two hundred years' worth of criminal records and files for some weeks, there didn't appear to be much improvement. If anything, the place looked worse.
There were boxes upon boxes stacked along the long corridor. Some blocked doors, some Ray needed to step over. He pursed his lips. He couldn't understand how Joe could come down here, given looking at a stale cookie on Sanders's desk nearly sent him into his office for a broom.
"...and then there was the Duke of York and his beloved valet. He thought his loyal valet died in his sleep and had him buried..."
Ray groaned. Wonderful, Buchan was at it again. He had been scarce in the incident room these past two days but he still somehow found himself an audience.
"...found buried but alive. The first thing he asked for was a very good ale to wet his lips..." Papers rustled. "Oh, and then there was the great and magical Harry Houdini, he buried himself alive as a trick and survived. Twice, in fact."
Emerson's halting voice seeped out of the walls like a ghost.
"So...they all survived. They were all right?"
"Yes. Very much so. Why, we even had saints who offered to be buried alive as sacrifices. St. Oran, a druid converted to Christianity offered himself to ensure the building of a chapel."
"And he survived?"
"…Y-yes...ah, yes, yes. Legend has it he was unburied several times and discovered alive. The chapel was built and I think it still remains." More paper rustling. "Here. The chapel."
"That's...that's good." Emerson sounded steadier now.
"So you see, Kent, there is really nothing to worry about. Our intrepid leader will fare well. Why, he might mark his spot in history when he asks for a pint the moment he is found."
Emerson laughed rather wetly. "He's not much of a drinker." He paused. "He drinks tea though. A lot of it. Herbal mostly."
"Well, perhaps a nice brew of chamomile tea should be made ready for him, hm? I'm sure it would soothe his quite parched throat when we find him."
Ray leaned on a clear patch of wall. He shoved his fists into his pockets. Maybe with some honey, he thought, for that cold would surely be a bother right now.
"Oh. I was..." Emerson fumbled when he came out of the room and found Ray standing there.
"Meg's going to need help going over everything," Ray said before Emerson stumbled more. "Where's your sling?"
"It's in my pocket."
"Well put it back on before they see you or you'll never hear the end of it," Ray advised. He smiled wanly at Emerson's expression. "What? We need all the manpower we can get. Go on."
Emerson nodded, his face contorted as if he were holding back an emotion. To his credit, Emerson put on a brave face and headed back upstairs.
Ray was going to follow but heard the quiet shuffling and rustling inside. He heaved a sigh and entered the cluttered office.
"Oh, is there anything I can help you with, detective?" Buchan was smudged with dust from head down to his gray sweater vest and loafers. He looked like he had been attacked by a sack of flour.
"Nothing." Ray shifted from foot to foot. "Was looking for Kent."
"Ah, you just missed him, I'm afraid." Buchan paused to take off his glasses. "But I suppose you already knew that."
"Thought you couldn't find much," Ray said, almost accusing. "Didn't sound that way before."
Buchan shrugged but didn't meet his eyes. "No, I still couldn't find much. Not many records on crimes involving premature burials."
"So all that stuff before..."
"I lied. I told falsehoods." Buchan was clearly discomfited by his confession. He fidgeted in his seat. "I know Joe doesn't like being told a lie especially when it involves an investigation, but given the circumstances, I thought a little obfuscation would be forgivable."
"Ah." Ray had suspected. Still, his insides lumped into ice. "All of them were lies, then?"
Buchan smiled weakly. "Not all of it. Harry Houdini did bury himself twice. He nearly died in the first attempt though." His careful words picked up speed as he fell easily into the role of lecturer. "And St. Oran did offer himself to be buried alive and survived several times."
Ray grunted. "That's something."
"Alas, some legends indicated they repeatedly unburied him to ask what he saw but when he said he saw nothing, they buried him again until finally he was believed to have perished, his soul saved for heaven, and the chapel was built on top of him. But I thought it best to leave that detail out for—"
"Wait," Ray said slowly. "Back up. This was Saint Od..."
"Saint Oran," Buchan corrected in a tone that reminded Ray of his second form teacher. Ray squashed down the glare he wanted to give.
"You good with books?"
"I'm sorry?" Buchan actually looked offended.
Ray waved it off. "Literature. Fancy fiction. Like, like..." He racked his memory. "Like C.S Lewis. Tolstoy."
Buchan scratched his chin, then chuckled awkwardly. "Oh. Well, I...I mostly read true crime, reports, you know, mostly non-fiction..."
Of course he does. Ray snatched a dusty sheaf he spied on Buchan's desk. He ignored the indignant squawk as he scribbled on the back the quotes as best as he could remember. He tossed it across Buchan's desk.
"See if you can find out what those mean, where they're from," Ray instructed.
"They're not even complete," protested Buchan.
"They were quoted to our only surviving victim," Ray told him. "I need to know what they mean."
Buchan straightened in his chair. "I'm sure I can look them up with keywords and..." He held the paper with both hands. "I'll call you when I find something."
Ray paused. He grimaced inwardly; he knew he was going to regret it the moment he said it. "Just bring it up."
Buchan's eyes looked huge. "Pardon?"
Ray shrugged. "When you find something, come upstairs. Let us know."
Buchan's lower lip trembled and his eyes shone. "Certainly. Yes, I will. Do not worry. I will search far and—"
Ray didn't wait for him to finish. He was already of out the office, tripping over those damn boxes, jaw set as he headed back upstairs, his mind reeling.
Guess he was having one of those eureka moments.
God help them all.
The water felt cool against his lips.
Joe sputtered but dutifully opened his mouth when he felt the water bottle tapping his lips. He drank, slowly because somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice reminded him too much would make him sick. Lukewarm—perhaps sitting too long in a bottle—the water soothed the sandy grittiness in his throat.
A hand was curled around the back of his neck, supporting him in sitting up, but when Joe tried to open his eyes, the hand tightened. Message understood, Joe kept his eyes closed.
"It's rushed, but we'll make do…"
Joe flinched at the voice, hot by his face. He flexed his fingers, testing their strength. They trembled. He curled his fists but they loosened too quickly. Whatever Colbert injected him with was slow to leave his system.
"I know what you need. I know what will help you…"
He could feel the sun on his face, air cooling the perspiration on his cheeks. It must be morning now. The surface he was on was hard and warm from body heat. He was still in the coffin then, but now with the lid opened. This was what Tommy Carter had lamented. Joe felt like he was filling the role of Tantalus. He took another sip of water before the bottle was taken away. Joe shifted, discomfited as he felt Colbert's larger frame against him.
Joe fought not to flinch when he felt the hand on his neck wrap tighter.
"You're warm," Colbert observed. He sounded curious. "The others were cold." His breath smelled like rotten apples and salt as he drew close. "Did you repent? Is that why? What did you see?"
Joe worked his jaw. When the hand on him didn't react, he dared to respond "I have a cold." He almost wanted to laugh at Colbert's disbelieving snort.
"Then you're not sorry." Colbert sounded regretful.
"Sorry for what?" Joe asked hoarsely. Something stirred in his mind. Sorry? See what? He tensed when he felt Colbert ease him down. Joe tried to sit up again and gasped when Colbert shoved him harder into the coff—no, box.
"I can't help you if you don't say it," Colbert growled, hot on his face. His tone bellied the force of his actions. The back of Joe's head throbbed and he thought he could smell the coppery tang of blood; the scab behind his ear—Colbert's gift in the alley—must have ripped open.
"Say what?" Joe managed but the lid slammed before Colbert replied, if he ever did.
The grind of metal against wood heralded the return of the pipe. Joe felt the ground tremble again and heard the rushing sound of dirt falling against him.
In the darkness of his prison, Joe allowed himself a flinch. He opened his eyes. Only more darkness, but without the red tint sunlight made against his eyelids.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
Was this what they all heard, Joe thought as he tucked his hands underneath him again. Was this what they heard over and over? Or was it only Tommy who managed to live through several incidents of this?
The walls around him stilled and Joe knew no more dirt would fall. Strange how no one noticed a hole being filled again and again. It would take hours: from night to daybreak. He remembered about the groundskeeper; how easy it would be to hide in a pair of green coveralls and a pickup truck marked 'Cemetery'. It was doubtful anyone would notice the truck wasn't for the right cemetery.
Joe took careful breaths. He ran his tongue across his lower lip to capture the last of the moisture. It would have to be enough until morning.
The darkness around him pulsed. No, that just his imagination. Joe stared into the darkness and the walls retreated. His right knee relaxed. His hands pinned under him no longer itched to tap out the time.
"Well, well," Joe whispered, "What is it you want me to say, Alan Colbert?"
"Ray, I don't think—"
"It's worth a try," Ray cut Meg off as he turned into Brusk's driveway. "If we were wrong about Colbert's motives, maybe we were wrong about Tommy. Colbert could have let him go, expecting to take him back. Tommy kept babbling he would. Maybe he's right."
Or maybe Ray was hoping Tommy made more sense than everybody thought.
"Skip." Ray cringed at Meg's knowing voice. "He knows what to expect. I'm sure he knows we're still looking. He'll be fine."
Ray couldn't even pretend to not know what she was talking about. He heaved a sigh. She didn't press, just murmured "Good luck" and rang off.
The road to Brusk had been a lonely path. He never saw traffic in front or behind him. No one came. No one left.
His hands curled around the steering wheel.
This is the last time, Ray thought vehemently. This would be the last time he would ever need to visit such a place. Colbert was not sending another.
Brusk stood in the horizon as he climbed out of his car, its wide yet short structure bleak in comparison to the graying skies, clouds so thick, the morning sun could barely crack through.
Last time, he thought. Last time.
Shouting drew his eyes towards Brusk. Ray's head swiveled as he tried to find the source of the commotion.
When Ray found it, he started to run, his car door left wide open behind him.
The small hill was little challenge for Ray as he ran up the slight slope. He panted. His knees ached. There was a burning in the back of his legs. But Ray never noticed. His eyes were elsewhere; his eyes were on the little figure hanging halfway out the second story window.
Ray was too far away, but he knew who it was.
"Tommy!" Ray half gasped when that tiny figure in white jumped. The slight figure seemed to hang impossibly in mid-air for a moment, the longest moment Ray thought possible, before it dropped.
The thud Ray heard was actually in his chest, not from Tommy hitting the ground.
"He somehow got away during morning check… Dr. Serk's office window…" Dr. Bouman was babbling, his face white despite the sweat streaming down his face from running. He gasped as he dropped to the grass next to Tommy.
Tommy lay at his feet like a broken marionette.
"He was shouting, telling them... He wouldn't listen to the orderlies. I was on the other side of the building. I ran…I ran as fast as I could but…" Bouman ran his hands around the boy's shoulders and neck. His shoulders slumped. Ray didn't ask; he already knew.
"What…" Ray said in a voice he barely recognized was his. "What did Tommy say?"
Bouman turned Tommy around even though his posture telegraphed that he knew it was pointless. "He said he remembered the words. He said he did it. That he was wrong and he was sorry." Bouman shook his head. "Then I heard him said he was free and…and he jumped."
Tommy was turned onto his back. Ray staggered back a step but it wasn't enough. He abruptly twisted away and took another step to get away from Tommy's smiling dead face.
Light. Morning. Pipe. Water.
Joe feebly shifted to lie under the pipe again. He tilted his head back, his stiff neck protesting as he stayed as still as possible so he wouldn't miss a single drop of the collected dew. It wasn't enough, not really, barely enough to fill a shotglass but it would have to do for now, until his team find him or Colbert returns.
His legs were trembling. The strain of moving even so insignificantly taxed him. His left leg spasmed, violently kicking the wall. Joe missed the last few drops of moisture. They landed under his eye and trailed down his face like tears.
There was a flutter at the base of his throat. No, to panic now would be counterproductive way to cope. Joe stared at the wall in front of him, the door that couldn't open. He feel its unblemished surface. Sage and Wester's lids were marred with bits of skin and nails. Their knuckles were scraped raw, down to the bone. Their nails were all but gone.
Did it happen gradually, Joe wondered, or was it a sudden burst of fear that sent them into a frenzy?
Joe tucked his hands beneath him again. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, carefully, imagining it leaving his limbs, his throat, his mouth, taking all the vibrations that hummed under his skin.
One more. In. Then, out. Slowly. Careful.
Tommy's scream in his ear jolted Joe out of the trance he was trying to put himself in. Joe grimaced. The blanket of peace shattered and abandoned him. He panted, his ears ringing. He was only imagining Tommy's screams filling his coff—prison.
They'll find him. They'll find him before he was reduced to—
Joe swallowed. His throat flexed uncomfortably around what felt like broken glass. Joe tucked his hands further under him.
Joe closed his eyes because he didn't want even imagine looking at the blank lid in front of him, taunting him.
When Colbert returned, he asked again. Joe said nothing. He couldn't. His throat felt like it had gummed together.
"Did you not learn from before?" Colbert asked sadly. "Did you not repent? Are you not sorry?"
Sorry? Joe's brow furrowed. He tried to put the words together but their meaning slipped through his grasp.
A bottle was pressed to his mouth again. Joe drank. He coughed, but he drank.
"You burn. The others did not. They cry, they beg, but you don't," Colbert observed. "Did your demons not frighten you?
I lived with my demons. All my life, Joe thought fuzzily. He let his head bob as if he was teetering on the edge of consciousness. He needed to preserve his strength.
"Perhaps one more time," Colbert decided. "Longer. So you'll see 'all this glamour and luxury hid the old well-known crimes, which not only remained unpunished but were adorned with all the splendor men can devise.'" Colbert rested a hand on Joe's face. Joe fought not to flinch.
"But that's okay," Colbert whispered. "It is. Stay in the box, boy. You'll be a good boy when I let you out."
Joe tilted his ear and listened. Colbert's voice dropped to a faraway tone, pitched higher. It wasn't Alan talking anymore. Good boy? A parent, perhaps? When Alan was a child?
Colbert switched to Lewis, his words harsher now, deeper. Another person. Of authority, older. Parent? No, but definitely someone he feared.
Joe knew the verses Colbert recited. Colbert said them without pause, barely an inflection in the words. Like he was reading them to him. Like he'd heard them read to him time and time again.
It couldn't be these words Colbert sought from his victims then. Tommy Carter had thought wrong. He tried to remember the words. It had eroded his mind.
There are no right words for Alan Colbert to hear.
"Do you understand now?" whispered Colbert when he finished.
Joe lifted his head. He opened his eyes. "Perfectly."
With a swing that seemed to tear his arm out of its socket, Joe punched him.
Colbert fell like a great beast. Joe scrambled up, legs unsteady as he fought to walk to the ladder Colbert had leaned against the side of the hole. The pine box was slippery. Wet mud trickled from the sides.
Joe got up to the top rung when Colbert roared. He lurched up to his feet and grabbed Joe by the ankle. He yanked. Joe fell, his chin scrapping the rungs. He tasted blood.
With a grunt, Joe fell back into the coffin. Colbert stood over him, his face red, spittle flying. He looked like a different person now.
"Why? Why?" Colbert half screamed, half sobbed. The cords on his neck strained as he raised the half-full bottle in his hand high above his head. "I'm doing this for you! I'm doing this for all of you!"
Fists grazed across cheeks, struck bone. Joe brought up his arms, blocked the best he could. Defensive wounds, Joe thought randomly as he gasped at one glancing blow, Caroline will find defensive wounds on my body.
Joe lashed out again, his best left hook that rocked Jimmy Kray's head back.
Colbert's head snapped forward, eyes blazing. He rose higher on his knees over Joe.
"I thought you were different! I thought you saw!"
The bottle sailed down in a vicious arc Joe knew he wouldn't survive, even if it was just a bottle. Quickly, he threw up his arms to his face, and shouted as best he could.
"If you kill me, you'll never know what I saw!"
The bottle halted just shy of his temples.
Colbert stared at Joe. He stared as if he were trying to peel away Joe's secrets.
"I knew it," Colbert rasped, eyes shining. He lowered the bottle. "You repented. You did see something. What? What was it?"
Joe met Colbert's gaze as best he could. Then, very deliberately, he turned his head away.
Joe's silence enraged Colbert. He dropped to his knees, straddling him. He shook Joe so hard, Joe's head whipped up. It seemed to incense Colbert further when he realized Joe was staring up at the evening sky, past the tall walls of the hole he was in.
Joe wasn't given any more water before the lid slammed over him. Just as well; he wasn't sure if he could swallow this time.
During lunch, Finlay knocked his curry off his desk after he hung up on his seventh witness. He stormed off. Emerson wordlessly cleaned everything up. Sanders set aside half his sarnie.
Meg went out to talk to Finlay. They came back immediately; their jaws set, eyes determined, and went back to ringing up witnesses.
Sanders's second half of his lunch was forgotten, but Ray caught Finlay giving Sanders a light punch on the arm and later, a pat on Emerson's back.
Ray said nothing, made no comment. He just stood in front of the whiteboards, waiting for everything to finally make sense.
"Will you not tell me what you saw?" Colbert was close to pleading now.
Joe drank from the warm water bottle as fast as he dared because he knew it could be taken away soon. Colbert was mercurial at best and while ignoring him might be impolitic, Joe knew it also meant Colbert would keep coming back to ask. And perhaps Joe in that time would figure out what needed to be said.
"Why can't you understand I'm trying to help you?" Colbert mourned.
Joe said nothing.
A witness rung 999 in a panic after seeing a man that matched the photo the uniforms had been distributing. It was near the second to last address on the list. The witness then demanded the reward money.
Ray got out of the car before it rolled to a stop. Mansell cursed and fumbled with his safety belt before climbing out as well.
"Where is he?" Ray demanded. He strapped on his body armor. The damn thing took forever to put on, but Judy would never forgive him if he left it behind.
One of the constables, red with the excitement of the chase, pointed to a cluster of short houses where SCO19 lined up in an intent crouch.
"We've blocked off the streets. He was spotted attempting to go in to the address but he somehow saw us. He won't get far though," the pup declared.
Ray sucked in his breath. "Listen. What's your—Mick, is it? We want Colbert alive, do you hear me? Alive."
"Of course, sir." The constable nodded far too quickly for his liking.
But then there was a distant shout and the hunt was on.
His ears still rung from the sound of dirt cascading down on top of him after Colbert had left. A thundering flow of dirt had roared against his prison.
The box around him groaned.
Joe tentatively felt the box with his hands. He ran trembling fingers around the pipe. The wood felt slightly bowed. The dirt was far too heavy for such a simple box.
The wood grain felt soft, malleable. Joe took a deep breath. If the thirst didn't kill him, the dirt crushing in the walls would.
Joe coughed, his aching body jerking helplessly under the fit. He laid back and stared at the space where the pipe was. Unable to help himself, Joe wondered if the others had seen the constellations. Did they sparkle like the ones he saw? Did they see the Draco constellation or did they have their eyes clenched too tight even to imagine them ? Did they know what Colbert was demanding, or did they break down like he had said?
One trembling hand on his chest, Joe took a careful breath. In and out. In and out. Slowly. Carefully. He'd wait. He'd bide his time for his next opportunity with Colbert. For his team.
And hopefully, that would be enough.
Ray could feel Kent's eyes on them. He could come with them to the scene but not enter, a compromise Kent accepted rather than be stuck at the station, waiting by the cars. Ray gave him a short nod before he went off with Meg and two uniforms.
The street had a countryside feel with its squat houses and crookedly dirty white fences. The early moonlight cast a glow that left him feeling uneasy in his gut.
Meg followed the armed officers with an intent look. She looked odd in her body armor, like it was as hard to move. Still, she gave no sign of hesitation when she peered around the corner into an alley. And she didn't have difficulty moving when the gunshot rang out.
"Shots fired! Shots fired!"
A voice Ray didn't recognize screamed out of his radio. When Ray looked up, he saw a flash of light. More gunshots.
"Man down! Repeat—"
Ray dogged the uniforms' heels as they bolted. The SCO19 units, galvanized by the shots, ran without a backwards glance towards the flashes of lights.
Ray spotted Sanders, upright but leaning heavily against a wall. A constable stood next to one of the armed officers. His gun was held limply in his right hand, pointed straight down and he was looking...
His legs burning, Ray still broke into a run. Meg followed behind him, gasping as she quickened her pace.
Finlay was on his knees, screaming at the body he held up with two fists.
"Tell me, you sick bastard!" Finlay shouted into the blank face. "Where did you put him? Where is he?"
"I'm s-sorry." It was the young constable Ray had warned before. "I saw something metal, I thought, I swear it was a gun so I pointed him out to—our bulletins said he was a serial killer!"
"He had a knife," Sanders snarled. His nostrils flared. "Couldn't you tell? It was just a bloody paring knife!"
Mick, the constable, looked ready to vomit.
"Ray," Meg looked up from where she had dropped to her knees by Colbert. Her mouth was streaked red. She had thought CPR might revive a man who was shot in the chest. Twice. "He's dead."
One of the uniforms in body armor squeezed the radio clipped on his vest shoulder.
"Suspect down" he reported succinctly. He turned to Ray with an expressionless facade. He scarcely blinked.
"Sorry, sir. I was told your suspect was armed. I responded accordingly. If needed, you can request an inquest on today's—"
Finlay got to his feet.
"Fuck!" Finlay abruptly spun around and kicked an empty bottle lolling on the ground. It hit a fence, cracking and shattering.
Mick flinched. Even the SCO19 officer grimaced.
"Shit. What now?" Sanders mumbled, deflated.
Ray stared down at Colbert. He didn't answer.
Numb, Joe blinked sleepily in the darkness. His limbs tingled as if they had fallen asleep. And while the pins and needles were unpleasant, they were also a good distraction from thinking about anything else.
He wondered how angry Colbert must have been when Joe had refused to answer again. There was a moment Joe thought that meaty fist would strike down on him.
The air around him had a faint, stale taste. Carbon dioxide, Joe thought. It took up more mass than oxygen. He eyed the pipe above him.
This, he thought as he could feel his eyes sliding back shut, could be a problem.
"Resurrection!" Buchan scurried in, still looking like a dusty, moldy specter. He madly waved his notes about. Kent leaned back to avoid any possible fallout.
Ray grit his teeth; it was too early in the morning for this. And Buchan was bouncing even though Ray heard he hadn't left his basement at all for two nights.
Ray sighed. He had asked Buchan up here, but not now. Not when Finlay and Sanders appeared about ready to flip up some desks, Kent looking like he was a hiccup away from breaking down and Meg appearing ready to murder Buchan.
"Buchan," Ray growled.
"I found them! It took a while; some of the words you gave me were out of order, but when I—What's happened?" Buchan finally got a good look at everyone's expressions. He fell into a chair.
"Oh," Buchan said faintly. "Is it...is it Joe? Is he—"
"Colbert's dead," Finlay snarled. "We couldn't get the bastard to tell us where he hid him."
Buchan glanced down at the papers he held. His enthusiasm completely fled. "I...I see."
Ray sighed. "What have you found?"
"These quotes." Buchan recovered but there was a lack of bounce in his step as he distributed copies—of course he'd made copies— "They are from various texts but most interpretations agree: the words are about resurrection. Being reborn."
"What's he talking about?" Finlay squinted at the papers Buchan had practically shoved into his hands. "What is all this?"
"Ray asked me to assist him—"
Ray bristled. "Now hold on—"
"Him? You?" Sanders blurt.
"Of course, as part of the tea—"
"Oi, I just asked you to look up—"
Meg's whistle was sharp enough to cut into their frenzied conversation.
"Do you mind?" Meg asked tightly, her eyes fixed on her screen. "I'm trying to track down Colbert's surviving relatives. Or do you want Buchan to look this up too?"
That ended the argument very efficiently.
There was something scratching the wall.
Joe's eyes groggily opened but as always, he only saw darkness.
Scrtch , scrtch, scrtch…
"Hello?" Joe whispered, or tried. He really meant to shout. But his throat still felt like a large hand was wrapped around it. His lips stretched oddly when he spoke, like they were about to crack and bleed.
Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch…
Joe knocked on the wall in front of him.
The scratching stopped. Then, seconds later…
Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch…
Tiny chewing sounds pricked his hearing to his left.
Something gnawed on the wood to his right.
Joe started. He couldn't help it. He slapped his hands on the walls, kicked with his feet.
It's normal, Joe thought, chest heaving. Soil was home to numerous…
It's normal. Perfectly natural. Calm. Remain calm. Order your thoughts. Keep your mind.
Joe took a shuddering breath. He rapped knuckles on the walls he could reach. Those he couldn't, he tapped with his shoes. Done, he laid there, reviewing the case again on the whiteboard he conjured in his mind. His fingers twitched as he envisioned writing.
He ignored the tiny sounds that came back.
Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch…
Ray knew he was pacing behind Meg. He knew it was contagious; Finlay kept getting up to peer over. Sanders' nervous crisp eating had paused mid-crunch. Buchan was constantly rearranging his papers as if there was a particular order he had in mind. And Emerson perched on the edge of his seat, looking ready to take flight.
"Hold on, hold on," Meg muttered. She was unused to typing with an audience. She missed a few keystrokes, then glowered at Emerson when he helpfully tried to point it out.
"You were never this slow before," Finlay complained. Sanders shushed him.
Ray curled and uncurled his fists as she finally found Shelly Colbert's parents. Barbara Colbert, a teacher at Edding Comprehensive for twenty-four years and Henry Colbert—
"Minister of Edding Sacred Heart Church for thirty years. He, in fact, died in the middle of a sermon," Meg read. "Natural causes, nothing suspicious." She glanced over her shoulder at him. "Is this what you're looking for? He died when Alan Colbert was ten. The boy was nowhere near—"
"No, no, not Alan," Ray muttered. His mind was still running ahead of him, facts piecing together faster than he could say them. Was this what Joe felt? Was this why he needed to count, to organize, in order to rein a mind that wanted to scatter?
"Shelly Colbert was kicked out when she was eighteen. She came from a very strict and religious family." Ray found he needed to go back to pacing in order for his thoughts to unjumble themselves. "She could have kept those beliefs, maybe passed them on to her boy."
Buchan nodded sagely. He opened his mouth but at Ray's glower, gulped, and thankfully, kept quiet.
"You think this is all some way for him to...talk to God?" Finlay said doubtfully. "I didn't find any religious articles in his room."
"Shelly was found dead in her armchair, her hands clasped together," Ray reminded him.
"In prayer." Sanders swallowed hard, remembering the crime scene. "Think her boy did it, or herself, before she died?"
Meg flipped through her notes. "Caroline said there were fractures along Shelly's wrists, hips, knees. Lividity indicated blood was pooled on the back of her thighs and back. She died lying down, and was moved postmortem." Meg gave Ray her notes. "It was Alan who moved her."
"In all your interviews, what was the one thing they all remembered him saying?" Ray directed this to Finlay and Emerson.
Finlay's brows knitted, so did Emerson's, but his eyes widened almost immediately after.
"That he wanted to help." Emerson checked with Finlay, who nodded.
"Ah," Buchan breathed.
Ray grit his teeth. "Right. Add that to his possible background of abuse, the monologues about Lazarus—"
"Actually," Buchan jumped in helpfully, "none of these quotes referred to—"
Ray raised his voice over Buchan. "And what Tommy Carter said about him being put back in, over and over—"
"That saint!" Kent pointed to Buchan. "The... You told me about him before. The one with the chapel."
"Saint Oran." Buchan pinched a pen off Riley's desk, oblivious to her glare. He tapped it on his chin. "Around 500, 523 A.D. A converted Druid who let followers bury him alive in hopes of ensuring the successful building of a chapel that had been destroyed every night. He received a vision assuring his soul a place in heaven for the sacrifice. He was sealed up behind a wall the next day and over the course of the construction, they discovered he survived."
"Wait, he volunteered?" Finlay demanded.
"Shut up," Kent hissed. "Listen."
Ray clenched his jaw. "Buchan..."
Buchan cleared his throat. "Yes, well, ah, each time they unburied him they asked what he saw, to which he had replied he saw nothing and they reburied him. Again and again until finally..." Buchan's eyes drifted to Kent. He hastily averted them.
"Then," Buchan said brightly, "they built the chapel and they believed Oran's soul was taken into heaven."
Meg pursed her lips. "I don't think that's how it really goes—"
"Doesn't matter," Ray cut in before everybody caught the panic on Buchan's face. "The fact is if Colbert heard this from his mother or his grandfather, chances are in his mixed up mind, he figured it was like resurrection."
Finlay caught on quickly enough. He swore. "So it was never about drunks at all."
"He was trying to save them, the guilty." Ray narrowed his eyes. "He saw a way to help them by burying them alive, taking them out and doing it again and again until he thinks they're saved."
"Jesus Christ," Meg breathed. "So he wasn't trying to punish them, he really thought he was helping them."
"Which means," Ray said as his chest seemed to swell with fresh air, "we can figure out where he buried our boss."
Joe heard the rumble whistle down from the pipe.
Opening his eyes—when had they closed—Joe peered up through the narrow tube.
A drop landed in his eye.
Blinking rapidly, Joe tried to look again, only to get another.
The rumbling grew louder.
The smell of ozone, of wet grass filled his prison. Joe swallowed. He knew what the smell was.
A flash of light flared visibly through the pipe. Another rumble. Another droplet of water came down the pipe.
Joe took a deep breath and tried not to flinch as it began to rain above him.
At the first flash of lightning, Ray's head shot up. The room's windows flared bright, then dulled. Then, they flared again.
"Shit," Sanders muttered.
"How can it be raining again?" Emerson asked desperately.
"Keep looking," Ray ordered. "Everything that he was involved in, every case, every complaint where someone died, I want it all."
A rumble rolled above the station. The windows started rattling as rain pelted the glass.
"Stop looking at the windows!" Ray ordered. "You're looking at the wrong thing!" Bile rose up in his throat; he couldn't help glancing at the windows either. It didn't help that Buchan was wringing his hands when he should be lending Emerson his eyes.
Ray caught Finlay turning his head.
"I said stop looking!"
"Got it," Meg said tersely. "Right after the Ripper case. Small domestic dispute. Husband was killed in jail. Brother blamed Joe's testimony, said the husband should never been incarcerated."
"Found one," Finlay announced. "Bookkeeper. Died in prison after his arrest."
"I have one too," Emerson declared.
"He hasn't made many friends since he started working here, eh?" Sanders muttered.
Yes he has, Ray thought fiercely as he scanned the files he held.
"He's a detective, not a social worker," Meg snapped. She spread her hands apart and towards her computer. "But we've worked a lot of cases."
"It has to be a case Colbert thought the boss was responsible for," Finlay muttered. "Someone who died—" He groaned. "Found another one."
"There's too many cases," Emerson lamented. "The more we keep digging, the more we find."
Ray hung his head so he couldn't look at the windows, but it didn't distract him from how the rain tapped on their windows with mad speed.
"We're going about this wrong," Ray said abruptly. "Colbert targeted our boss the moment they met, he must have found something quickly that made him fit the profile, something Colbert would have found first thing in his research."
"He wouldn't have had access to our systems," Emerson added, jumping in. "He would have been limited to the Internet, newspapers, something big, something—"
Ray's eyes widened.
"Wait," Ray said. "I know where he is."
Eventually the water started coming in through the walls, too.
Joe felt oddly calm as he felt his clothes greedily soaking up the chilly water. His right arm floated up. Even such a small level of water was giving him buoyancy.
It didn't feel like it was happening to him. Perhaps it was thirst. Or hunger. Joe wasn't sure. Maybe his cold? Regardless, Joe experienced a sort of detachment as he felt himself grow numb, his clothing clinging to his icy skin.
Water was still trickling down the pipe but he was no longer thirsty. Pretty soon, the water would cover his only airway.
Joe thought of how Wester and Sage were found, contorted, their nails broken, scratches on the walls. He thought of Chambers and his bloated, twisted body. All from the last struggles for freedom.
He...he didn't want to be found that way.
The water was very cold. Joe shivered as he laced his fingers over his stomach. Water splashed as his limbs spasms; his body wouldn't listen to him, even now.
Joe took a deep breath and tasted grass and earth and thought that actually wasn't a bad thing to have as his last moment. He…he wasn't scared. He knew he should be, but in the end, was there a point? Joe took another breath—it was harder now—and closed his eyes.
The water rose, dripping and rippling around him, louder in the small confines.
When the water reached his ears, Joe opened his eyes again.
By the time they reached the cemetery, the uniforms were already scouring the hills. Their torches were barely visible in the deluge. Cor, it took too long to get here.
"Come on!" Ray shouted to be heard. "Widow said his grave was up there!"
The others didn't reply. They grabbed shovels and more torches. They left the raincoats behind.
There was a tight sensation in Ray's chest as he huffed and puffed up the hill. What if this wasn't the right spot? What if it was Finlay's case? Or Kent's? Why was it still bloody raining?
Ray's heels dug into the saturated soil; he felt like he was going to be sick. It was wet, too wet everywhere. Where was it? Where was—
"Here!" Emerson screamed, practically shrieked like a girl. Finlay didn't tease him about it. Nor Sanders. They just raced to the spot and started digging.
By the time Ray reached them, the three were shoveling wet dirt over their shoulders, the hole now ankle deep. Meg held the torch over them as best she could. A constable stood shivering, holding an umbrella over the pipe Emerson had spotted. It was crooked. It leaned in an angle, no longer anchored by the soil.
"Boss, boss!" Finlay shouted into the pipe. "Can you hear us? Do you hear anything? Kent, you?"
Emerson shook his head. His fringe was a sopping mess plastered to his forehead, his sling dangled forgotten around his elbow. He pressed his foot on top of the spade and dug out dirt. It slurped as it was scooped up.
The boys were down to their knees by now and yet still no sign. Ray wanted to jump in but there was no room. He could only watch as the mounds on top grew, the hole deepened, yet no coffin appeared. No bloody coffin.
Curious, the constable leaned over to look.
"Your umbrella!" Meg snapped. The umbrella straightened in a shot.
"Maybe we should just cover that pipe with something," the constable said meekly.
"No!" Emerson sounded like another person when he barked. "It's the only way he can breathe!"
"Where are the medics?" Ray demanded. A uniform stammered they were on their way.
At last, Sanders's shovel thumped against something.
"Yes!" Finlay dropped to his knees. Emerson and Sanders did the same. Suddenly, they were frantic dogs, pawing the mud.
Ray could feel his breath rattling in his chest like a trapped thing; shouldn't they hear something by now? Finlay wrenched out the pipe and tossed it over his shoulder.
They should have heard something by now. Shouldn't they have heard something by now?
"Almost there," Finlay chanted. "I see the lid."
"Sanders, get back up here, they'll need room," Meg advised.
"I see the hinge!" Emerson shouted as he dug fingers along the edge.
"Here, open it here." Finlay shifted away until he was straddling the coffin. "You got a grip? Careful of your shoulder, mate. On three. One, two...three!"
The lid swung open reluctantly.
Meg's torch sagged.
Emerson pressed the back of his hand to his mouth.
Ray dropped to his knees.
Sanders muttered a prayer.
Submerged in water, their DI's hands were folded over his stomach, eyes closed as if sleeping.
The constable dropped the umbrella to the ground.
"Oh, Skip." Meg dropped a hand on his shoulder.
Ray couldn't breathe. Water streamed down his roughened face. He stared. He couldn't look away. His chest was squeezing the heart out of him.
"Get," Ray croaked. "Get him out of there."
Heedless of the water, Finlay and Emerson dropped to their knees in what little space the coffin offered. Finlay sucked in a steadying breath, slipped an arm under Joe's shoulders and started to bodily lift him up.
Joe's eyes shot open, his body jerking. Water spewed from his mouth.
"Shit!" Finlay squeaked. He fell on his arse, splashing water everywhere. Emerson dove forward before Joe fell back into the water.
Ray couldn't remember how he got down there. His knees throbbed as he looped an arm under Joe's shoulders. Emerson was babbling, or maybe it was Finlay; it didn't matter. Joe sagged between them, completely soaked, coughing harshly against Ray's shoulder.
"Here, here." It felt like pittance when Ray fumbled out a handkerchief. He pressed it to Joe's clumsy hands. He felt Joe lean heavily against him as he coughed harshly into the linen.
Joe looked blankly at the handkerchief.
Ray's stomach went cold with dread.
"Sir?" Emerson leaned in and peered up at Joe.
Blinking, hair flopped over his face, flushed and looking dazed, Joe croaked.
"Just how many of these do you carry, Miles?"
Ray's trousers were soaked, his shoes ruined. His knees ached and his lower back was going to be the devil tomorrow.
But Ray laughed and laughed, lightheaded as if he'd broken free of the water himself. He tugged Joe against him; there might have been a muddled squeak. Ray pounded Joe soundly on the back. Joe coughed up more water over his shoulder, but Ray didn't care. His face felt like it would crack open from his grin.
"Come on, let's get you up," Ray said roughly. "Don't you have enough sense to get out of the rain, you?"
Joe scoffed and smiled weakly. He muttered, "I can walk. I can walk." He was, of course, promptly ignored as Finlay boosted him higher into Sanders's waiting grip. Ray then helped Emerson up, who scrabbled to grab Joe's elbow, Meg taking the other.
"Medics are just down there," Emerson said as Joe stumbled between them. "Did you want tea? I have some tea in the car, sir. Chamomile..."
Ray stood in the middle of the empty coffin, ankles deep in rainwater, grinning like a fool.
"You look like an idiot," Finlay observed with a grin as he leaned over the edge to offer a hand.
"Shut up," Ray cheerfully rejoined. He eyed the coffin and wondered if the higher ups would let the team have it. It would make it a merry bonfire. Sanders could grill his sausages again. And maybe Judy could be coaxed to make her...
Ray's eyes landed on the lid, still flung open, it was glued to the mud walls.
Even in the dark, Ray could make out the inside of the lid.
His smile faded.
One beep, two beeps, three beeps...
Joe opened his eyes. He blinked. White walls.
He closed his eyes, then opened them again.
Still white walls.
Either he was really in hospital or Tommy Carter was getting a cell mate.
His memories were hazy: there were times he was sure he'd been emancipated from his prison, other times he would have sworn he could feel the water rising past his ears and flooding into his mouth. He remembered the agony of water expelled from his body after fresh air teased his face. He remembered how his knees shook trying to walk down the slippery slope. He remembered the ambulance. Sort of. He remembered being guided into the cab, coaxing at his ear to sit down, breathe deep, track the penlight. He remembered feeling so thirsty, just a small sip, sir, watch it, it's still hot—
Coughing. He remembered coughing so hard, he had folded forward, his stomach cramping, eyes watering from the effort.
There was shouting. Much shouting. Then hands on him, too many hands, tilting him back, lifting his legs. A mask. He reached out to capture the images zipping by too fast for his comprehension; he thought he felt a hand gripping his tightly. He thought he heard Miles.
He thought he heard "He stopped breathing!"
Was all a delusion; his mind's last attempt to hold on to some sort of acceptable reality?
Joe frowned at the possibility.
Joe's attention was diverted when he sensed a pinch in his inner elbow. He realized there was a nose cannula blowing cool air under his nose. It smelled vaguely metallic, artificial, and left the back of his throat too dry.
A clear IV bag floated high above him, partially deflated. He eyed it with distaste, tracking as it emptied into the tube that went into his arm and into his body. A heart monitor and an oxygen reader bookended him, chiming in sync, a concert of heart rates and exhales.
The heart monitor chirped faster.
Deep breath. Close your eyes. Open them.
At the gravelly voice, Joe turned to see a blurry figure by the door. The doctor had advised him it might take days before his eyes adjusted from being in the dark for so long.
"Miles?" Joe mumbled. When the person didn't answer, he squinted harder.
"Commander." When Joe heard himself, he sat straighter in the bed. The bed was pulled up, he suspected in deference to his congested lungs. A weight still sat on his ribs, discouraging him from drawing a full breath.
"No. Relax." The figure didn't sharpen in focus but Joe made out the uniform, the medals, the dark eyes watching him. The visitor stood with one foot in his room, one foot out, as if he was still deciding whether to come in. "Just came to see how you were doing."
"I'm fine, sir," Joe scanned about the room. He spotted a stainless steel thermos; must be Kent's. Joe fuzzily recalled a cup pressed to his hand. It felt warm as he sat in the ambulance, an orange blanket over his shaking shoulders. It helped distract him from the press of bodies milling around him like flies. Until he tried to drink and ignited a coughing fit that contorted his body in misery.
Joe tentatively took a deep breath. He was heartened to see his body didn't reject it as before.
"In fact, I think I will be discharged in the morning."
"How odd," Andersen remarked dryly. "I was told the earliest would be two days after tomorrow. Something about pneumonia?"
Joe inwardly winced. "Oh, well. Possibly..." he fumbled.
Andersen's sigh stopped him. Joe smoothed out the rough blanket over his legs. He had been given two, yet his arms still prickled with gooseflesh.
"Is Colbert in custody yet?" The thought of the killer out there picking the next person he would save made Joe's fingers itch to pick each pilled bit of fluff off the blanket.
Andersen was quiet for a moment. He appeared ready to leave the room, but after a moment of indecision, he stepped completely inside.
"Oh." Joe couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for Colbert. He couldn't bring himself to hate Colbert either. He just felt numb.
"Your team figured it all out. Cornered Colbert but he was killed when he pulled a knife."
"Oh." Again, Joe couldn't think of anything else to say.
"This never would have happened if you had listened to me. There were many positions of power I could have offered."
Joe smiled self-deprecatingly. "I'm happy where I am, sir."
Andersen grunted, unimpressed.
"I haven't forgotten how your sergeant humiliated me at the awards ceremony, you know," Andersen stated, his voice tinged with annoyance. "Refusing an award like that, in front of everybody?"
Joe bit back a smile. Even today, he would turn the memory round and round like a puzzle box and it still amazed him.
"Staying a DI was never what we planned, Joe."
Andersen scoffed, his face wrinkling in distaste. "And a Rippologist, once a murder suspect, occupying your basement? What were you thinking?"
Joe chose not to comment.
"Your team ignored protocol entering Colbert's home, utilized half a shift to scour cemeteries, called Cazenove's widow in the middle of the night. We are still getting complaints about repetitive calls to witnesses, never mind the complaints about your pet researcher taking over the basement and random food not properly dispos—
The commander glanced out the hallway, jaw clenched. His mouth pressed thin, holding back what Joe suspected was a plethora of complaints. Joe tensed, ready to defend his people.
Andersen sighed, oddly resigned.
"You have a good team, Joe."
Joe relaxed. He smiled. He could feel something unraveling inside him. He knew exactly what to say to that.
"Yes. Yes I do."
At the sounds of pages rustling, Joe opened his eyes again. He stared at the ceiling, listened to the light, crackling noise of dry, thin paper until the last of the dark images that had wrapped around him ebbed away. When it felt like he was no longer trapped in another's skin, he turned his head. It still surprised him he could move so freely.
Buchan started, his face brightening as soon as he realized Joe was awake. "Good evening, Joe! You know who I am? Yes, they mentioned you have your wits about you." Hearing himself, Buchan grimaced and was suddenly fascinated with the floor. "I mean… Good, good!"
Joe winced. "Yes...good." He scanned his room. Somehow, he warranted a private room yet it felt too—
"What are you reading?" Joe asked hastily before he could turn that feeling around and around in his head.
Buchan perked up, delighted at the question. "Ah. Fascinating book about the Burke and Hare murders of the nineteenth century." He leaned forward, his voice dropping conspiratorially. "Two men in Edinburgh made a trade smothering their victims, killing them that way in order to preserve their bodies so they could be sold as medical specimens—"
Buchan glanced at Joe and something flickered over his face.
"It isn't important." Buchan took great care in taking off his glasses. He cleaned them, then tucked the pocket square back in his pocket. He slipped his spectacles back on before he turned his chair, making sure the legs didn't scrape across the floor, and faced Joe.
Joe studied Buchan, sitting unusually straight and looking solemn, as if bracing to tell him some bad news. And yet, Joe was finding it a struggle not to yawn in front of him.
"What is it?" Joe asked tiredly. He opened his eyes wider when he felt them droop.
"I...I'm afraid I must confess something, Joe. I did something at the time I thought was helpful but upon reflection, I know now how wrong it was for me to do it and...and..." Buchan trailed off. His shoulders lifted, almost to his ears as he inhaled.
"I lied to Detective Constable Kent," Buchan said in a rush.
Joe's brow knitted.
"You lied to Kent," Joe repeated slowly.
Buchan slouched. "Yes, I am afraid so, and during the investigation, I might add."
"I..." A yawn broke free, so large it rendered tears at the corners of his fever-swollen eyes.
Buchan mistook the wetness around his eyes. He wrung his hands. "Oh Joe, I'm terribly sorry! He looked so distraught at the car park, I couldn't leave him there and he was positive of your fate, I just had to—"
"What did you lie to him about?" Joe interrupted because he neither the energy nor experience to deal with a distressed Buchan if he started to cry.
"Oh." Buchan shifted his weight on his seat. He toyed with one of his glasses' earpieces. "He wanted to know about cases of premature burials such as yours."
"You've looked before," Joe reminded him.
"Yes and I must apologize for that as well." Buchan's shoulders slumped. It reminded Joe of when Buchan had publicly burned his books.
"I wasn't able to provide enough information to contribute to the case. Had you been better informed, you would have caught the killer sooner. I had such high hopes for this archive you entrusted me with. I have failed you." To himself, Buchan muttered, "Perhaps I need to acquire more records, more cases to complete the archives, fill the gaps. Possibly, we should search beyond British crime. Yes. America, perhaps? Asia?"
Joe felt like he'd opened a Pandora's box. He cleared his throat. He grimaced; it'd hurt more than he'd expected.
"So what did you lie to him about?" Joe prodded. Buchan had started muttering about 'mannequins' and 'artifacts' that Joe doubted even the Commander's clout could provide.
"He wanted to know how many in history had survived being buried alive. I did some careful editing. I included Harry Houdini of course and—"
"So you led him to believe many had survived being buried alive?" Joe's stomach churned. "Not many did?"
"No. Sadly, most can't survive such an ordeal. And the rare few who did went mad when they were found. Why, the odds of surviving are astronom—" Buchan stopped. He cleared his throat.
Joe's mouth twisted ruefully. "The odds were in my favor then." He dropped his head back. He ached everywhere and lying here, not of his own volition, he could no longer ignore or distract himself from the pains burrowed deep beneath his skin.
"Yes, you were truly fortunate, unlike poor Tommy Car—" Buchan stopped at Joe's expression. "Oh…I assumed Sergeant Miles would have informed you when he visited."
"Informed me of what?" Joe asked. He didn't bother correcting Ed about the visit, or lack thereof; he didn't want to wonder why he needed to correct anything. He also didn't want to analyze why it bothered him.
"It's really not my place," Buchan hedged. "As your sergeant has repeatedly reminded me, I'm not a detective therefore such things should really be left to—"
Joe grimaced as he struggled to sit up. Buchan squawked, chair screeching as he bolted up to help him.
"I should let you rest," Buchan babbled. "It's lat—"
"Eddie." It took effort to keep his voice even. "What happened to Tommy Carter?"
Buchan pulled at his gray cardigan's neckline like it was strangling him. He blinked myopically at Joe, even though his small spectacles were perched on his nose, and his shoulders dropped.
"Tommy Carter jumped from a fourth story window, unable to cope with the demons in his head any longer."
A weight settled on Joe's chest and for a brief moment, Joe was grateful for the nose cannula streaming air into him. He inhaled as deep as he could manage and released it as slow as his lungs would permit. It didn't help.
"I see," Joe managed, because Buchan stood there with his hat in his hands. He bit his lower lip as he gazed down at Joe.
"I should not have told you." Buchan fretted. "It wasn't my place." His brow furrowed. "Although why hasn't Serge—"
"There's much to do after an inquiry," Joe cut him off. "He probably forgot."
Joe wondered why it sounded false and uncertain to his ears. He glanced at the empty doorway. No, it didn't matter. He dragged his eyes back to Buchan. At the very least, he looked convinced.
"Very true. An investigation is never over just because the culprit is apprehended! There is much work left to be done!" Buchan appeared to be looking forward to it though. Unfortunately for Miles.
"Joe." Buchan stopped fidgeting. He gazed down at Joe with a serious expression. "I am truly sorry. For both lying and for failing in my duties as your investigative researcher. I promise this will not happen again."
Joe wanted to joke that he hoped not, that his wardrobe would suffer for it, but the words felt ill-fitting when he tested them in his head. He nodded, drowsy, and tracked Buchan as he shuffled out of the room. When he was finally alone, Joe closed his eyes and tested his confines by moving his limbs up and down, spreading out like a starfish.
Satisfied, Joe let the steady beeps of his heart monitor lull him back to sleep.
He clawed the walls over and over. Strips of wood peeled away into honeyed curls under his bleeding nails.
He had no voice, otherwise he would be screaming.
Over and over, one scratch, two scratches, three, he dug deeper until he felt the wood shatter under his torn fingers. Free. He was free.
A hole formed from the claw marks he left. The hole stretched wider and dirt came down on him, over his body, weighing him down.
He tried to cover the hole with both hands but dirt and water trickled out between his fingers. Brown and wet, plenty of it dropped down from the hole until he realized it was uncovering something. A face. Tommy Carter's face.
He stared up at the face framed by the hole he made. Still speechless, he shakily reached up towards it.
Tommy Carter's eyes flew open as he began to scream...
With a jerk, Joe awoke. His head felt many times heavier and his pillow was damp with sweat. And it was dark.
The prick in his arm didn't belong. It dug deep and burned like his fingers would clawing the mud. Feebly, he tugged at whatever was there.
"Leave it alone. Nurses weren't happy the last time you did that."
Joe's fingers traced the tubing down to his elbow.
"Don't. Damn it, you never listen, do you?" A hand knocked his away.
Joe couldn't help it; he flinched. He immediately hated himself for it.
There was a ragged sigh by his ear. Joe turned his head towards it but all he could make out were fuzzy blots.
"Shit. Sorry. Sorr—Look…It's…it's alright. You're out of there. You're safe now, To—" There was a sharp inhale. "…You're safe."
Joe rolled his eyes around his head, and blinked as much as he could, but everything was still blurry. It was like a curtain of heat shimmered up from the ground, obscuring everything.
A hand hesitantly patted his shoulder. Joe started. Something rattled against the raised bed rails. Joe jerked in alarm. He had thought he wasn't a prisoner any longer.
There was a metallic squeak as the bedrails were lowered.
Joe sagged deeper into the bed. He blinked dizzily at the ceiling, or what he assumed was the ceiling. Was that the ceiling? It looked high enough.
Please let it be a ceiling.
A broad hand slipped over his forehead. Joe felt like he could sink under the weight of the cool hand. He felt winded yet he hadn't left his bed, had he? He panted.
"Damn," the voice swore. "Hang on. I need to get the nurse."
"Wait," Joe croaked. When the hand slipped away he was startled to realize he felt bereft. He watched, his eyes fogged over, his body shook with chills, as a figure left the room before he could call him to stay.
As nurses and doctors rush in, lights flaring too bright, Joe squinted blearily at the doorway.
No one was there.
The envelope dared him to open it. One of the uniforms had brought it up and left it on his desk. It lurked in wait for him this morning.
It was a padded envelope, no larger than the A1 sort, not particularly heavy but stiff enough to keep the envelope flat. There was no address on it except for the SOCO stamp at the corner, accompanied with a messy "DS Ray Miles" scrawled next to it. A green courier receipt was stuck on it, verifying it had been signed for at 7:32 in the morning by PC Shawn Front.
Ray stood over his desk, staring at the parcel, waiting for it to spring to life and bite him. Why had he even asked for it?
"...all I'm saying," Finlay argued in a tone that suggested this was a topic that had been discussed over and over, "is that flowers are boring. He's probably got loads of them in his room; he wouldn't know they were from us!"
There wasn't even a card, Ray thought bleakly. He'd asked the nurses last night if they had binned them. The blank look he received stayed with him the rest of the night, like an open wound.
"It doesn't matter if he knows what we get him," Meg shot back.
Not with a temperature that high, Ray thought, his throat working. The staff wouldn't let him back in the room afterwards. He had had to watch through an observation window as Joe went into a fit before they could cool him down.
Ray sat shakily.
"It's the thought that counts," Kent agreed with Meg.
"But everyone gives flowers," complains Finlay. "He's our boss. It should be different."
"Maybe we should get him food then," Sanders suggested.
"Some fruit?" Kent relented, offering an idea. "Fruit's healthy."
"Dirty magazines!" Finlay said a bit too gleefully. "For all thos—Oi! Stop hitting me!"
"Stop being a pillock!" Meg snapped.
"There's nothing wrong with my idea," Finlay fired back. "Am I right, Ray?"
Everybody turned to Ray expectantly.
"Any better ideas?" Meg tilted her face towards him. She frowned. "You're sure you won't come with us later? You haven't seen him since—"
"I saw him plenty," Ray said gruffly, "on the ride to the hospital." Not that Joe had been awake to know he was there. It was just as well. Ray had sat hunched by the stretcher, his fists curling and uncurling as he fought the urge to grab the idiot by the shoulders and give him a good, violent shake.
"Besides," Ray went on as he tossed a small stack of files on top of the envelope, "Judy's been having trouble getting around the house these days. She needs me home." Actually, Judy had kicked him out of their bed last night because he'd kept tossing and turning.
"If you're sure..." Meg hedged.
Ray caught them giving each other looks.
Ray cleared his throat.
"Get him candy," Ray suggested roughly. "He likes the ones with the different colors."
Joe pulled down the breathing mask and nebulizer when he heard them coming. He smiled tiredly when Riley poked her head in. Sanders and Mansell greeted him with a hearty "Boss!" that earned them dirty looks from the nurses.
"How are you feeling, sir?" Mansell asked distractedly, his eyes on one of the nurses, as she departed the room. "Here." Without looking, he extended his arm and the plastic Tesco shop bag in his grasp. He nearly whacked Sanders with it. "We brought you candy. To your health, boss."
Joe raised an eyebrow but accepted the bag. He hadn't known chocolate candy came in sacks. "Um...thank you."
"You sound horrible, sir," Riley sympathized. "Want me to ask the nurse to bring you some tea with honey? No? You sure?"
Joe smiled wanly. He didn't relish the thought of more people in the room. They stormed in and out with thermometers, medicine, stethoscopes, and questions. They finally left him alone after his fever dropped a few hours ago. The room had felt crowded all day; it felt like everyone was looming over him, waiting for him to start screaming.
"Ray said these were your favorite," Riley went on. When she caught Joe glancing towards the door, her mouth twisted. "He couldn't come today. Judy—"
"I understand," Joe said quickly. He did. Miles had surely spent enough hours on this case. Joe didn't begrudge him wanting to spend time with his family.
Oh. And his fish.
"...the blue ones are the aphrodisiacs," Mansell argued.
"No, the red ones. Everyone knows that," Sanders insisted. "Am I right, sir?"
What? "Uh..." Joe quickly turned to Riley. "Have you closed the case yet?"
"…but I heard if you ate the red ones and the green ones together…" Sanders pressed on.
Riley rolled her eyes at them and proceeded to apprise Joe of the case.
"What about…" Joe asked when she paused. "What about Alan Colbert's flat?" He pretended he didn't see everyone exchanging looks. "Was there anything there to explain his motives?"
Riley made a face. "We've just finished processing Colbert's place. He had dozens of names he was watching. And he..."
"There was a journal of sorts. From when he was a child." Riley appeared discomfited. "Disturbing stuff, really. Talked about how his mother used to lock him in a small box whenever she said he was bad."
"Real loonie, that woman," Mansell declared as he tore open the bag of candy. A red dot, bright as a new button, escaped to land on Joe's pullout table. "Kept her boy locked up for days before pulling him out to be her 'good boy' again." He grunted. "Almost makes you feel sorry for him." He tossed a couple of candies into his mouth. "Almost."
Joe watched a green one bounce out of Mansell's mouth and knock into the red one. Like marbles, they shot apart in different directions on impact.
Joe reached out to nudged them back front and center, then stopped and tucked his hands under the blanket.
"Sorry it took us so long to find you, sir," Riley murmured. Mansell and Sanders fell silent.
"You found me," Joe said. He pressed his shoulders against the mattress. "That's all that matters." He smiled as best he could. "Good work. All of you."
"We don't know how many victims are really out there." Riley's mouth was still curled downwards. "We only knew about the four because their bodies were discovered."
Mansell grunted. "People could be walking over one of Colbert's victims and never know what's under their feet."
Joe's throat worked. "At least there won't be any more victims," he offered. It seemed like the right answer because Riley's smile returned.
"There is that." Riley patted his arm with the back of her hand. "Get better soon. Let's go, boys."
"Wait. Wait," Mansell muttered. He tilted the candy bag back and a rainbow spilled onto the tray.
"What are you doing?" Riley hissed.
"Hang on," Mansell picked out eight red candies. He tossed them into his mouth. He tweaked his tie and grinned.
"Where did that nurse go?"
Riley offered Joe a shrug and with Sanders, hauled Mansell out of the room.
The IV needle was digging deeper, into bone.
Joe's fingers twitched. He had tucked them under his arms in an odd sort of self-hug under the blankets he'd drawn up to his chin.
The needle wiggled and wormed in...
Joe's eyes opened. As he reached for the IV, he noticed the shadow lingering by the door. It was night, too early for moonlight to slip in-between the blinds.
"Kent?" Joe hazarded a guess after a few squints rewarded him with a lanky shape.
"Boss," stammered Kent. "I thought I would see how you were feeling." There was a rustle before Kent set down a shop bag. "I brought fruit. Apples. Oranges."
Joe blinked at the bag. He thought about the sack of candy in the drawer behind him, where the hospital staff had tucked in his watch and his wallet as well. There was no room to lay them out properly: clock, warrant card, watch, mobile. They were all tossed in a clutter in the top drawer.
His fingers itched terribly; the itch seemed to have spread up to his elbow.
"Thank you," Joe managed. He didn't reach for the fruit. He didn't dare.
Kent, with his back straight, eyes to his notebook, prattled on about where they were wrapping up the details of the inquiry. Joe listened, as he had listened to Riley. He wondered why no one would talk about what happened during the inquiry.
Trailing off, Kent shifted from foot to foot, unknowingly mirroring Buchan.
"What is it?" Joe prodded.
Kent sat on the chair next to the bed. He stood up. Then, after a short pace, he sat again. Then he stood again.
Fearing Kent might start circling the chair, Joe wrestled his right hand out and gestured towards it.
Thankfully, Kent sat.
"Sir..." Kent gulped. He sniffed and bowed his head. "I'm truly sorry, sir."
What is it, Joe thought, baffled, about this room and everyone's compulsion to apologize?
"If I...if only I didn't let Colbert get the better of me..."
"If I remember correctly," Joe said quietly, "he got the better of the both of us." His stomach clenched. "We both went into that alley."
He remembered thinking, as he crumpled to the ground, how livid Miles would be that Joe had managed to get himself in trouble after all.
Joe's eyes flicked to the doorway, then slid away.
"I shouldn't have let you gone into the alley, sir." Kent squared back his shoulders. "I accept full responsibility."
"No one let me do anything," Joe said tiredly. "It was my decision to go in. No one is responsible for that decision—good or bad—except me."
If anything, Joe should be apologizing to Kent, for very nearly leading the DC to his death. Colbert could have easily taken Kent instead. And if Joe had continued the assumptions in his inquiry, Joe wouldn't have realized his error, his flawed theory until it was too late.
"If anyone is to be blamed for this, Kent, it's—"
"Colbert. Yes. Understood, sir." Kent jumped in eager to compensate for his imagined faults.
Joe's smile felt odd on his face. "Right you are. Colbert is to blame as well."
A weight seemed to have lifted off Kent's narrow shoulders. Joe wished it was that laughably easy to absolve his own errors. He smiled faintly at Kent, nodded as Kent pointed out the fruit he brought over. He politely declined a slice of apple; his stomach was too knotted to allow anything in.
"I am sorry nevertheless." Kent's chin stuck out. "It won't happen again."
Joe smiled tiredly. Ah, Kent. His idealism struck a familiar note in Joe; like a friend he'd regrettably drifted apart from without realizing it.
"Of course it won't, Kent." Joe leaned back into the bed. It was hard to relax in a bed so different from his. Waking up here was always a shock. "Thank you for the fruit. It was very thoughtful."
"I'll see you back in the office. Feel better, sir." Kent paused, one foot out the door. His brow knitted as he turned back around.
Joe reviewed their conversation. He inwardly winced. Damn the medications. He pasted a reassuring smile on his face.
"It's nothing. Don't concern yourself with it."
Kent's brows didn't ease. "But—"
"Good night, Kent." Joe kept his smile on. His cheeks hurt from the effort.
"…Good night, boss." Kent gave Joe one more puzzled frown over his shoulder before he left.
Joe's smile dropped immediately. He looked at the semi-transparent shop bag, counting three apples and five oranges, all thrown together. He reached for them but halted when he realized he'd been planning to sort the apples to the right, the citrus to the left.
Jaw flexing, Joe jerked his hand back. He turned on his side, despite the doctors advising against it during his convalesce.
Ignoring the fruit on his pull out tray, Joe tried to go back to sleep.
It took a very long time.
The carp weren't eating.
Ray glowered at his traitorous fish. Bloody fish just swam serenely in the water, ignoring the pellets bobbing on the surface until they sank to the bottom and drowned—
The fish scattered when a pellet cut into the water like a cannon shot. Ripples scarred the tranquil surface. The red and white spotted carp cowered along the edges of the pool.
Ray wearily sat down on the bench he'd made a few years before, when just feeding fish wasn't enough. Back then, a hammer and nails soothed the rest.
"He didn't do anything wrong," Ray told the largest of the school. He hadn't bothered naming them. He couldn't keep track of the lot, swishing around in the pond. "He kept himself alive. He just..." His jaw clenched. The food he held crumbled in his fist. Ray released it over the water. The surface burbled as the carp swam up for it.
Ray stared at his fish swarming around the shredded food, mouths gaping frantically over every speck.
"Why?" Ray rasped. He thought about the envelope still unopened on his desk. "Why the bloody hell did he..."
Ray scrubbed a hand over his mouth. He looked at his watch. Looked at his fish.
"Right," Ray muttered. "Let's go see him."
Ray tossed in a few more pellets. But he couldn't bear to watch them sink into the water. It sent a shudder down his spine that he didn't want to acknowledge.
"Popping out for a bit," Ray called into the house through the kitchen door.
"Give my best to Joe!" Judy called cheerfully from the living room, knitting away yet another pair of pink booties "Don't come back until you do!"
Sometimes, Judy could be terrifying.
The water rose steadily. His shirt clung to his skin like an oil slick, gluing to his flesh. The weight of saturated cotton felt like lead, an anchor pulling him deeper into the water.
There was nowhere to go. No time left.
He felt chilled skin riddle into gooseflesh. He felt numb. In his arms. In his legs. In his heart.
This...this was beyond his control. But that's...that's okay. It was.
He looked up at his prison, soon to be his final resting place. He visualized the blank surface. He remembered Sage's skeletal handwriting, scratched with his fingernails until one broke off. 'I love you, Sissy' was punctuated with a bloody fingernail.
He stared into the dark, imagined the water creeping up past his ears and teasing the corners of his mouth.
As foul tasting water began lapping his throat, he reached up...
"...Easy...Easy...use the mask..."
Joe realized his chest was tight, too tight, when a mask slipped over his nose and mouth.
"You weren't supposed to take that off, you know."
Ray's scruffy face melted out of the darkness into clarity.
Déjà vu struck him when Joe reached up a hand. He paused.
He poked Miles.
Miles glanced down at his chest and the finger, an eyebrow raised. Then his mouth contorted, jaw working.
"Yeah," Miles rasped, "I'm real." He gave Joe's shoulder an awkward pat and went over to peer out between the blinds at the moonlight.
When it felt like pulling in air didn't hurt so much, Joe tugged the mask down.
"Don't tell me you're here to apologize too," Joe coughed.
Miles frowned at him. "You're supposed to keep that on."
Joe grimaced. "It feels strange on my face."
"Of course it feels strange," Miles rolled his eyes. "It's a breathing mask, not makeup."
"...that would feel stranger."
His sergeant scoffed. He turned back towards the window.
"And I've got nothing to apologize for," Miles muttered.
"Of course not," Joe agreed easily.
Miles rubbed a hand to the back of his neck. "It's been busy. That bastard Colbert left a mess and we're still tracking those names..."
"And Judy...I haven't seen Judy in a while or the kids..."
It pulled something in him to hear Miles fumble. Joe exhaled "It's alright, Miles—"
"No, it's not alright!"
Joe studied Miles. He deflated.
"So you did see it."
Miles's face darkened. "Your message? Yeah, I saw it!" He yanked out an envelope from his coat pocket and tossed it onto Joe's covered legs.
Joe was puzzled to see the sealed envelope. It took him a few tries to coordinate his fingers to tear the flap off.
Miles merely watched him, a brooding shadow. He offered no comment. He offered no help.
As soon as he felt the smooth, freshly cut edge, Joe froze.
"Aw, forget it," Miles said harshly. "Give that back to m—"
Steeling himself, Joe yanked it out before Miles could reach for it.
A section of mud-streaked, water-stained coffin lid slid out and landed, facedown.
Joe wordlessly flipped it over with two fingers. Even knowing what it was, seeing the words, his words read alien to him.
RM. It's alright. Jo—
Joe hadn't finished because as the water touched his ears and his near-frozen hand began to tremble uncontrollably. On the precipice of panic, he tucked his arms into the pose he hoped would stave off the urge to pound uselessly against the lid.
"If we were too late and we found you...It wouldn't have been alright," Miles bit out. "Why did you ever think it could be? What were you thinking when you wrote this?"
"I was thinking all the victims had written something to someone… and I didn't want to leave that wall blank." Joe studied the carving. He was grateful no blood marred the surface; no blood sullied what could have been his last message. "And I wanted to be sure you understood that whatever happens, no blame..." He rubbed a thumb along the cut edge; he thought he could feel the sawdust left behind.
"No one was to blame for what happened." Joe absently wiped his thumb clean on his blanket. "I wanted you to know that."
Miles inhaled loudly. It sounded like ground glass.
"I wanted to leave something behind to someone. And, well...I wanted to leave something behind for, for, you." Joe traced the lettering with his finger. The wood had grown porous, soft enough to etch final words without losing a fingernail. He was amazed it had worked and his nail was still intact. "It really was alright, Miles. At that point, I accepted it was my end."
"At that point," Mikes repeated. "You didn't think we'd find you?"
Joe shook his head. "No, I knew you would all figure it out. I just didn't know if it would be in time."
"So you decided to tell me that it was okay you died while we were trying to find you?" Miles folded his arms.
Joe found he couldn't look at Miles. His fingers reached for his temples until he realized he didn't know where his Tiger Balm was. His stomach churned.
"Why the bloody hell aren't you bothered by the fact that you almost died, that we almost didn't find you in time?"
Miles sounded like he was going to rage but he kept his distance, standing by the window, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. Even from here, even with Joe's blurry vision, he could tell they were shaking.
"It's not that I'm not…bothered," Joe said carefully. Sometimes talking to Miles was like walking on thin ice; one wrong step and he would plunge into unknown depths. "But I knew the life." He shrugged a shoulder. Just his right; his left side felt too bruised. He was told the person who gave him CPR in the ambulance might have over done it.
"The life?" Miles echoed, his tone reminiscent of when they were in the car going after Colbert, just before he insisted Joe go back to the station.
"A detective's life has few guarantees." Joe picked at the pilling on his blanket. The mask dangling around his neck still blew sterilized oxygen around him. It permeated the room and left it smelling faintly…wrong.
"It's a dangerous one, one I knew could very well mean…" Joe chuckled, strained. "I was once told I could only be the best detective I can be. That's not necessarily enough at times." He gestured towards himself. "Exhibit A." Joe coughed, grimaced at the ache in his chest and sank deeper into the bed. "I was wrong about Colbert and it nearly cost me. I…I needed to take responsibility for that, Miles."
Miles said nothing but Joe could feel his eyes on him.
"I didn't want you to overly concern yourself with what may have gone wrong. I didn't want you to obsess." Joe smiled self-deprecatingly. "We both know how that can turn out."
"Concern." The blinds rustled as Miles pivoted away from them. "Bloody hell, I was concerned. I was concerned when you went missing. I was concerned when Colbert died. And I was sure as hell was concerned when you stopped breathing!"
Joe checked the doorway when Miles's voice rose to the point of shouting. Fortunately, no irritated nurses arrived. Then the words sank in. Joe's head whipped back.
"You were in the ambulance with me?"
Caught, Miles slumped back against the blinds. "Someone needed to get your incident report," he muttered. He glanced over and bristled."Stop it."
Joe's eyebrows rose. "What?"
"I know that look. Don't even think about hugging me."
"You get off that bed; you'll fall flat on your face. I'm not picking your half-naked self up. I'm just going to point and laugh."
At the reminder, Joe burrowed deeper into his blankets. Now it was his turn to glare.
"Where are my clothes?"
Miles sounded too smug. "Evidence."
"How am I supposed to leave here then?"
Joe pressed his lips together.
Miles nodded curtly towards a bag on one of the chairs along the wall. "Brought a spare shirt from your office." He paused. "Why do you have spare shirts in your office?"
"Thank you," murmured Joe. He ignored the second question because the answer was one he didn't like to hear himself.
Miles grumbled under his breath. . He stood there, hands in his pockets, his mouth a thin line. He wasn't looking at Joe, his eyes darting from the chair to the bed, then the bag of fruit on top of his pullout table.
"We were both wrong about Colbert," Miles said finally. "But we figured it out in the end, that's what matters." He stared at the wooden panel on Joe's lap; what almost became Joe's epitaph.
Miles glanced back towards the window, his face hooded in shadows. He looked back at Joe, then shook his head.
"You keep talking about not being Nipper Read, about being the best detective you can be."
"I'm trying," Joe said quietly.
Miles breathed out sharply; the blinds rattled by it. "You are. I see that. You're trying. It's all we ask."
Joe smiled faintly to himself. "I know."
Joe looked up. Miles gazed back, still sheltered in the shadows like a cornered beast.
"I'm not sure you really understand it's enough that you try. If you did, you wouldn't think that dying was an appropriate punishment for not decoding the logic of a crazy man before he attacked you."
Joe rested his head back against the pillow. It felt odd against his face. He closed his eyes. "That's not what I—"
"Yes, it is," Miles interrupted, sharply, inexplicably angry. "There is a difference between understanding the risks of the job and thinking you called them down on yourself and it doesn't take a fancy-pants degree to see that. We put the pieces together as fast as we could and even if we figured it out sooner—"
"You figured it out," Joe murmured. He kept his eyes closed.
"You were well on the way, and as I was saying, even if we had his motivation sussed before you entered that alley, the results would likely have been the same. From that point in time, your only job was to stay alive."
Miles stepped away from the window and broke away from the shadows. He walked up to Joe's bedside. "And you managed it. You kept your head, even though the others didn't."
Joe glanced up to Miles. His sergeant scratched his jaw with a finger. He appeared fascinated by the IV bags above them.
"Thanks for that, by the way. I don't have the patience to deal with Buchan and Kent weeping in the car park."
Joe chuckled with Miles. They shared a rueful grin before falling into a silence that felt comfortable and reassuring. Miles shook his head and sat down in the chair closest to the bed. He wordlessly poured some water into a tumbler and nudged it towards Joe with an arched eyebrow.
The first sip made Joe flinch. He steeled himself, mindful of Miles staring, to drain the glass. It helped his throat, but as Joe lay on his bed, hands curled under his blankets, his mind couldn't help but conjure memories. He told himself his breathing was unobstructed; the water didn't bother him. He slowed his breathing.
Suddenly, Miles began to talk about the happenings of the case, the list of potential victims Colbert had an eye on, the journal they'd found. He made a face when he spoke about Shelly Colbert. He scowled when he begrudgingly mentioned Buchan's contribution to the case. Joe had heard it before from Riley and the others, but he found he didn't mind hearing it again.
After a few minutes, Joe started when he realized Miles was leaning over him now, carefully tugging the breathing mask over his mouth.
"You were starting to wheeze again," Miles explained gruffly. "Go back to sleep. I'll pop in tomorrow if I can. Meg mentioned they wanted to come by again as well."
Joe tried to force his eyes to open wider but it was too hard. Conceding defeat, Joe nodded, his throat working.
Miles patted his elbow. "And stop pulling out your IVs." He made a face as he straightened.
"And if Finlay asks if you want any reading material, I suggest you say no."
Confused, Joe opted for the easier route and drowsily bobbed his head.
"Well…it's late. I…I'll be off, then. Judy's waiting up." Miles hesitated, clearly debating something. He took a deep breath and stooped down close.
"Listen to me very carefully, Joseph Chandler: it's not okay. Not under any circumstances." Miles stepped away from the bed. He gave Joe a stern look. "It is not alright, at all. Do you understand?"
Joe met Miles's gaze. Slowly, he nodded.
Smiling, Miles clapped Joe on the arm.
Ray burned that cursed bit of wood.
After waiting a little while to see if Joe would jerk awake as he had before, or try to pull out his IV again, Ray drove home. The piece of wood—evidence, Joe had insisted when Ray tried to leave it with Joe—was heavy in his coat pocket. Even sitting in his car, it dragged him down, an anchor pulling him into the dirt...
Ray pulled over to the side of the road, made a hole in the dirt with the heel of his shoe and burned it.
He stood there, chest heaving, eyes stinging as he watched the last bit of Colbert burn. That little bit of wood he'd promised he would return to SOCO and file away. The thought of Buchan finding it, squirreling it away for his bloody archives, putting it in a dusty box for future There-was-a-case-once-s made Ray stomp on the ashes. He ground his heel over them, twisting his shoe to mix the scorched remains with the earth. Good riddance.
When he was satisfied nothing could be salvaged, Ray gave the spot a final kick, got back in his car and drove back to his Judy.
The nurses weren't pleased with him.
Joe could tell. Especially after the morning duty nurse found the IV needle tucked behind his pillow once more. And when she shook out his blanket three green, four red and nine yellow candies flew out at her.
The IV needle was back in him again and the double tape over it felt extra tacky on his skin.
Joe closed his eyes. He slowed his breathing and kept his shoulders relaxed, but when he realized he was counting his breaths, he uttered a groan and opened his eyes.
A woman with silver hair and a sympathetic smile canted her head towards him.
"Joseph, is it?" She carried a clipboard, which she consulted for his name. She wore a plain gray dress and white trainers. She reminded him of a teacher he had once had, who had tried to explain to his father why it wasn't Joe's fault; that it wasn't a reflection of his flaws. Young Joseph was merely reacting to all the machinations imposed on him without his consent. What happened to Joe was treatable, like a disease.
She was offered a position elsewhere and he never saw her again.
The visitor's voice was kind. Too kind. It made Joe flinch.
"I'm Dr. Carol Levins. I was wondering if you would like to talk?"
"He what?" Ray wasn't sure he had heard the head nurse correctly. He took another look into the pristine room; the chairs were set around the bed at precisely two and nine o'clock.
Ray sighed. Was he really surprised after all?
Kent was ordering the desks.
Joe froze by in office doorway. He had finished his review of the reports on the activities of the team during his…absence. He didn't realize he'd automatically got up when he heard his team exchanging "Good nights" until he reached his doorway.
"Oh," Joe said weakly. "Shouldn't you be going home, Kent?"
A paper ball was plucked off Mansell's desk. Kent shrugged.
"Meeting my flatmates later for dinner around here so thought I'd tidy up first." Kent peered up. "I hope that's alright."
Joe tucked his hands into his pockets. "No, that's fine. It's…fine. Very good of you to do that, Kent."
"Going home yourself, boss?" Kent gave him the same critical look everybody'd been giving him since he returned to work yesterday.
"Yes. I'll see you tomorrow." Joe's coat rack rattled too loudly when he unhooked his coat. It took him two tries to get it on properly. Maybe he should have taken more than two days at home, Joe told himself. He buttoned the coat all the way up.
"Well…" Joe found himself at a loss of what to say. He tracked Kent as he dropped a stained coffee cup into the bin. He was working his way up the desks not down. That didn't bother him. It absolutely didn't. "Good night then."
Kent stood up, bin tucked under his arm. "Good night, sir."
Joe took a step out of his office. He paused.
Kent's brow knitted. "Is everything alright?"
Joe dug his nails into his palm inside his pocket. "Of course. Everything's fine. Yes. Uh…Good night."
It was easier to walk away if he didn't look at Kent clicking off the desk lamps one, two, three in the wrong order.
"You've done good work in the Colbert case, Sergeant."
Ray fought to keep his face impassive when he recognized the voice on the phone; the bloke didn't even bother with "Hello". He flicked his eyes into Chandler's office. The door had been left open ever since his return two days ago.
"Thank you, sir," Ray said low into the phone. He nodded and randomly scribbled notes to look busy.
"I would grant you an award for your service, but considering the last time…"
Ray grimaced. The dry tone failed to hide the commander's disapproval. He looked about but no one noticed. Riley was cleaning up her notes from the numerous interviews. Mansell and Sanders were gangpressed to help Buchan with the flood of dusty boxes that had come in and Kent was…he wasn't sure what Kent was doing. The kid looked to be alphabetizing his current files.
"We have high hopes for DI Chandler. It would have been a pity had he not been found."
Unbidden, Ray checked on Chandler. He had yet to look up from the reports. Ray's eyebrow rose at the unruly stack that threatened to slide off the desk.
"A man of your experience might do well in a position upstairs."
"Right," Ray said distractedly as he tracked the top file slipping, slipping—down she went to the floor.
Chandler's head ducked fractionally lower. Ray frowned to himself. He could have sworn his DI had silently counted to three before his head turned towards the fallen file on the floor. Chandler looked at it before slowly bending down to pick it up. He moved like an old man.
"…can meet with DCI Arms tomorrow and…"
"Wait, what?" Ray pulled his eyes away from Chandler's office. He quickly reviewed their conversation, then blanched.
"No, no, wait." Ray turned his back to the office. He cupped the mouthpiece and hissed. "No, sorry. Not interested." After a beat, Ray remembered his manners. "Thank you. I appreciate the gesture, sir."
The commander harrumphed in his ear. "Let me guess? You are happy where you are?"
"Ecstatic, sir," Ray drawled, paying mind to keep short from too much cheek.
The commander sighed, exasperated. "Very well. Should you reconsider—"
"I won't, but thank you."
"Should you reconsider or think of anything…" The commander continued, ignoring Ray. His voice deepened, rougher, but held no rancor.
"You have my number, Sergeant."
"Lovely. I'll let you know when I think of somethin—" Before Ray could finish, the phone went silent.
By the time Ray hung up and turned around, Chandler's door was firmly shut.
He was being watched.
This time though, Joe knew exactly who it was. He chose to ignore it, like the messages he received two days he was at home. He made no mention of them when he returned to work and he was never asked. But for days, Joe has been catching his team eyeing him, waiting for him to start screaming or clawing the walls. But they'll stop eventually once they realized he was perfectly fine. Everything was back to normal. In the meantime, there were reports to be reviewed and corrected; Mansell often forget and used language not…appropriate for official records.
His neck ached from being bent so long over the final reports.
There was a knock at Joe's door, but Miles didn't bother waiting for the invitation to enter; he just came right in. At least he knocked first.
"Here's Caroline's revised report on Shelly Colbert's autopsy," Miles announced. He didn't toss it on his desk like Sanders had with his material. He waited, hand extended until Joe took the folder.
"Thank you," murmured Joe. He coughed into a fist, cleared his throat, and waited for Miles to continue. When he heard nothing, he glanced up to find Miles watching. "What?"
Miles shrugged. "Went by the hospital couple of days ago. Nurses said you'd left early." He pursed his lips. "Maybe you left too early."
"Oh." Joe lowered his eyes to the report. "I felt fine. I felt I could recuperate better resting comfortably at home. I discharged myself."
"Thought it was DI Chandler, not Doctor Chandler."
The corner of his mouth ticked up, but the phantom itch in his inner elbow gnawed at him.
"They kept trying to stick things in me," Joe muttered.
"They're called IVs. I'm told those things are important."
True, but they didn't feel like they belonged there and they kept moving, digging deeper, picking apart his skin.
"They…" Joe idly brushed the dust of his desk.
Joe stopped when he realized there was no dust to begin with.
"They sent a psychiatrist to talk to me," Joe reluctantly admitted. He couldn't look at Miles.
Miles said nothing but Joe heard the door quietly shut and the couch creak.
Joe stared angrily at the report he held. He couldn't remember what was in it.
"I'm alright," Joe said, voice low. He didn't look up. "I wish everyone would believe that. I can do the job."
"Didn't say you can't. You were kidnapped by a madman." The couch squeaked when Miles leaned forward. "No one will think anything less of you seeking counsel."
Joe looked up and matched gazes with Miles. His neck hurt from not looking away.
"How many times did you count the pins today?" Miles asked suddenly.
Joe blinked, taken aback. "Excuse me?"
"None!" Joe spluttered. His fingers still tingled from being tucked under his legs so much.
"What about yesterday? Day before?"
Joe glared at Miles. "I haven't... None!"
Miles sounded inexplicably smug. He leaned back with a weary smirk. "Ah."
"What?" Joe said tiredly. It was exhausting trying to figure everyone out.
"None." Miles pointed at Joe. "You're trying so hard to be normal that it isn't."
Joe stared. "That…that doesn't even make sense."
Miles shrugged. "No, it doesn't. You were stuck in the ground for nearly a week yet here you are, reading Kent's report upside down."
Joe started. Sure enough, Kent's report was the wrong side up.
Sagging, Joe sighed.
Miles leaned over and nudged the Tiger Balm towards him. Joe stared at it. It had looked oddly misplaced from its new location at two o'clock, next to his Rolodex.
"I still think it can't be good for you to use every day," Miles declared.
The ointment cooled the spots on his temples instantly upon contact. Joe closed his eyes briefly as he massaged away the headache he'd been ignoring all morning. He felt almost dizzy from the relief; it'd been days.
"I don't use it every day," Joe countered absently as he replaced the cap and set the jar away. With a jolt, he realized he had started putting it back to his left automatically. He tensed, started to move it to his right instead.
Miles sighed, exasperated. "Stop it."
Joe froze, caught between two directions.
"Where does it need to go?" Miles asked quietly.
"It doesn't need to go...I mean...it doesn't matter where..." Joe curled his fist tighter around the jar.
"Where does it need to go, sir?"
Joe made a frustrated noise and set it on his left, at ten o'clock.
Joe set his jaw. "It shouldn't be."
"No," Miles agreed, "It probably shouldn't but it did, didn't it?"
Joe nodded jerkily.
"Then stop trying so hard not to—" Miles exhaled sharply."Look, if you have a wobble over this, it's understandable. I think you're due. We all are." Miles ignored his scoff. "Buchan's been grabbing records from every station and library he can find like a magpie. Finlay's been scrambling home to his wife every night. Sanders has been snacking on carrots; I think Meg's going to murder him soon. And who do you think has been leaving you fruit every day?" At Joe's look, Miles shrugged.
"At least it wasn't grapes. Messy squishy buggers roll into everything." Miles sobered.
"This isn't working for you, sir. Whatever you think you're doing, it's not working." Miles flicked a glance towards Joe's desk. He made no comment, but Joe suspected he was sorely tempted to say something about the letter trays pushed back to the corners, the stack of folders off center next to the misplaced stapler.Just tell me or someone if you have the urge to count pins or parcels."
"Guess that would be you, then," Joe muttered.
Miles frowned for whatever reason. "I don't care; just stop trying so hard to be fine. It's irritating."
Joe laughed tiredly. "So everybody's alright if I start screaming and tearing up my hands?"
"You're not Tommy Carter," Miles snarled.
Joe smiled wearily.
"No, but you thought I could be. For a little while."
Miles scowled and for a moment, it didn't look like he would answer. In fact, he appeared about ready to storm out of his office.
Joe looked down at the report he held.
"Why didn't you tell me what happened to Tommy Carter?" Joe asked quietly.
"No, you didn't," Joe corrected.
"Obviously I must have because you knew already," Miles countered feebly.
"Buchan told me." Joe added hastily at Miles's darkening look. "He didn't know I was never told." Joe tapped a finger on the reports he had yet to review and sort. "But I would have found out eventually."
Shoulders slumped. Miles sighed. "Alright, there was a point I thought about what we might find." His mouth twisted. "I didn't tell you about Carter because…well…" He grunted, his eyes sliding sideways. "I didn't want to think about it at all." Miles scrubbed his face with his hands. "I really thought he would make it."
"There was a point," Joe said quietly, "I was afraid I was going to turn out like…" He dropped his eyes.
"It just feels like everyone's waiting for me to do something," Joe whispered, his throat tight. His eyes drifted to his door then to his desk, which still looked and felt like it wasn't his. "I thought if I behaved normal enough, everyone would stop worrying."
"No," Miles told him bluntly, "the harder you try to be fine, the more you're really not."
"Everyone's in bits right now because it isn't normal." Miles idly poked one of the letter trays towards their correct spots. "It's so bloody not normal for you; they're about ready to explode. My hair is about turn white waiting for you to be you again."
"Oh," Joe flashed a shaky, small smirk. "Don't blame me for that, Sergeant."
Miles grumbled under his breath but Joe caught the corners of his mouth twitching up.
"Perhaps," Joe admitted falteringly, "maybe I've over-reacted."
"Really?" Miles drawled with a smirk. "I had't noticed."
Joe scoffed softly to himself. He nudged his stapler back into its proper position and felt much better for it. Unfortunate, but there it was.
"I will be alright," Joe offered in concession.
Miles harrumphed. "Good enough, I suppose. Stop worrying about Tommy Carter. You're not him."
Joe studied the smudges under Miles's eyes. "Perhaps you should take your own advice."
Miles grunted. "Me? I'm not worried. Luckily you are not Tommy Carter. You are Joseph Chandler."
Joe blinked. "Oh. Thank you?"
Miles shook his head. "Right. Thank God there's only one of you though." He rose to his feet. "Let me know if you have an urge to organize; Judy could use some help cleaning the house before the baby comes."
Joe scoffed, but he found himself smiling more easily. "Can I turn your light on and off one hundred fifty times?"
"Only if you pay the electric bill," Miles returned with a chuckle. He waved over his shoulder. "We're finally getting the analysis on that drug from Bury. Once Caroline is done, I'll sent it over."
"Miles," Joe called out. "What about you?"
Miles stopped, his hand around the doorknob. "Eh?"
"I...How did you cope?" Joe blanched at a sudden thought. "Have you been feeding your fish live food again?"
Miles's toothy grin was unnerving.
Miles chuckled as he opened the door. "Oh, I forgot," he said brightly. "Tonight. You free?"
Puzzled, Joe replied; "Yes, I suppose I am."
"Good. Eight o'clock. My yard. Everyone's invited, even Buchan if he gets tired of breathing dust. Sanders is bringing his famous sausages but don't ask what's in them. Bring beer."
Brow knitted, Joe mentally made a note. "Eight. Beer. All right." He searched his memory. It wasn't anyone's birthday yet. "What's the occasion?"
Miles shrugged but his grin broadened as he stepped out. "No occasion, just having a bonfire. Great, so expect you at eight then."
Joe gaped at the shut door, utterly baffled.