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Phantoms in the Early Dark

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The second call comes right on the heels of the first. This time it’s Hathaway, likely to relay some piece of information Dispatch missed. Robbie fumbles the phone out of his jacket pocket with sleep-slow fingers and answers while grabbing his keys and anorak and heading out the door. He’s getting too bloody old for this bloody hour.

“Are you still at your flat, sir?” James asks down the line.

“Aye. Just heading out now.”

There’s a pause as if Hathaway is thinking something over. “Could you swing by mine on the way? I’ve got a tyre puncture.”

“Another one?” Robbie says, putting the key in the ignition. “You been driving off-road in your spare time?”

“Not to the best of my knowledge, sir.”

“I’ll be there in ten,” Robbie says.

“Thank you. I owe you.”

“Ah, you’d do the same for me,” Robbie replies but Hathaway has already rung off.

When Robbie pulls up in front of his flat Hathaway is standing on the pavement in the pre-dawn drizzle, cigarette in hand, looking cold and miserable. He steps off the kerb and pulls the door open before the car has come to a complete stop. Cold air and the scent of rotting leaves and cigarette smoke wafts in as he settles himself stiffly into the passenger seat.

Hathaway does not look like he took Robbie’s admonishment when they parted ways Friday evening, to get some proper rest over the weekend, to heart. He looks like he paid it absolutely no heed at all. The dark circles under his eyes, which have been growing over the last week, are larger even than the early callout could account for.

“What happened to you?” Robbie eyes the plasters on Hathaway’s hands and the way he is sitting stiffly upright in his seat as if slouching would be painful.

“Feeding a neighbour’s cat,” Hathaway says.

“The cat beat you up?”

“Just a few scratches.”

“And your ribs?”

“Slipped on the walk. Don’t we have a dead body to get to?”

“It’ll keep for a minute.”

“I’m fine,” Hathaway says staring straight ahead through the rain-streaked windscreen, a slight twitch in his jaw.

“Sure,” Robbie says. “I can tell by the way your side is so stiff you could barely bend to get into the car. You look done in.”

“It’s barely six am, it’s the second time I’ve tried to go to work only to find I’ve got a puncture, I’ve got a gig tomorrow night and yesterday’s rehearsal went terribly because of my fingers, I slipped and fell outside my front door yesterday and landed on the bloody garden wall. I’m beyond annoyed, but I’m fine. Can we please go look at that dead body now, or shall I get a bus like I did Friday?”

“I’m sorry, lad.”

“Thank you,” Hathaway says, tone nothing like gracious. He turns to contemplate the dark world through the windscreen, plaster covered fingers tapping arhythmically against his knee.

“Right.” Robbie pulls away from the kerb, keeping half an eye on Hathaway as he drives. He’s making an effort to look relaxed, but he’s not fooling anyone, least of all Robbie. He doesn’t miss the fact that Hathaway winces every time the car hits a bump.

* * *

Hathaway stifles a groan as he gets out of the car, his first few strides stiff, but by the time they’ve made it along the Meadow Walk to the bridge and over to the boathouses his gait is almost normal again. The sky is just beginning to lighten as they walk, cold mist rising off the river and shrouding them as they go.

SOCO and Laura are already on the scene, their floodlights circles of warmth in the cold grey dawn. The body of a young woman with dark hair is slumped against the back wall of the Queen’s College boathouse. She could be sleeping if it weren’t for the dark patch of blood on the wall behind her head. A woman in workout kit is stood near the front of the building talking to PC Lockhart, blanket over her shoulders and both hands wrapped around a takeaway cup. Laura stands up from her crouch by the body as they come over.

“Lovely way to start the week,” Laura says by way of greeting.

“Here’s hoping it’s not a sign of things to come,” Robbie says. “What have we got?”

“Single blow to the back of the head,” Laura says.

Robbie eyes Hathaway and the wince he fails to conceal as they crouch over the body. Laura turns the victim’s head and holds her hair aside so they can see it is matted with blood underneath.

“Likely caused by hitting her head against that section of railing.” Laura leans around the corner of the building and points to a spot where SOCO has marked a darker patch of the grey railing, about halfway up the stairs to the balcony. There is an intermittent trail of blood smears leading from the stairs to the body as if someone ran bloody fingers along the side of the building.

“Accidental?”

“Possibly. Falling and being pushed look about the same once you’re on the ground.” Laura looks up the stairs and then back at Robbie. “Those metal stairs would have been slippery in last night’s rain. If she was on her way up she could have slipped and fallen backwards, hitting her head on the railing. Or she could have been pushed. I’ll know more after the post-mortem.”

“Time of death?”

“Sometime between midnight and four am.”

“And the head wound is the cause of death?”

“I can’t be sure. There is a lot of blood, but there will be with a head wound of this type.”

Hathaway stands with another stifled groan and walks over to examine the railing, looking back and forth between it and the corner where the body is. “She slips on the stairs and hits her head, then walks down the rest of the steps and around the corner of the building where she leans against the wall and never gets up again?”

“That would fit with the amount of blood on the wall and the railing.”

“If she slipped, what was she doing out here by herself in the rain between midnight and four am?”

“That’s your job, isn’t it?” Laura says with a grin.

Hathaway doesn’t reply with a witty rejoinder, only grimaces again and walks back toward the body, crouching down next to it. A sure sign that all his talk of being fine is nothing but talk.

“The contents of her purse seem to be intact,” Laura continues. “Phone, wallet still containing cash and credit cards. If something’s missing it’s not obvious at first glance.”

“Unlikely to be a robbery gone wrong, then,” Hathaway mutters, wincing as he straightens up.

“According to the Merton College ID in her wallet,” Laura says, “her name is Hannah Eldridge.”

“Eldridge,” Hathaway echoes, looking thoughtful and suddenly more alert.

“You know her?” Robbie asks.

Hathaway shakes his head, looking away across the river, the corners of his mouth turned down. Robbie’s seen that look before and he doesn’t relish revisiting either of the cases that elicited it.

“Merton,” Hathaway says, after a beat, turning back to Robbie, expression neutral once again. “Their boathouse is down the other end of the island. What was she doing up here?”

“And what was she doing here at all in the middle of the night?” Robbie replies.

Robbie turns back to Laura. She gives him a quizzical look.

“Call over to Merton and find out who her next of kin are,” Robbie says to Hathaway in lieu of asking if he’s all right again. Hathaway nods, pulling out his phone as he starts back toward the path.

Laura stops next to Robbie as he watches Hathaway go. “Is he all right?” she asks. “Those ribs look painful.”

“Said he slipped on the walk yesterday. Says he’s fine.”

Laura purses her lips. “And you believe him?”

Robbie shakes his head. “Not really, no. But he won’t let on, will he?”

Laura gives him a sympathetic look. “Good luck,” she says.

“Thanks,” Robbie says with a wry smile and goes to talk with the woman who found the body.

The Queen’s College crew captain is short, redheaded, and unwavering in her statement, telling Robbie the same thing she told PC Lockhart. She came down to the boathouse early, as usual, to unlock and prepare for practice. When she realised the dark shape she’d seen at the back of the building was a person she asked if they needed help, and when she touched them, thinking they were maybe asleep, she knew something was really wrong and called 999. She didn’t see anyone else on her way to the boathouse save an early jogger along the Meadow Walk and no one else on Boathouse island.

Robbie thanks her for her help, gives her his card in case she thinks of anything else and follows Hathaway to the car.

* * *

Hannah Eldridge was an only child, parents on a seemingly permanent holiday in the Himalayan foothills of India. They’re off the grid according to the butler and manager of their Oxford estate. News that the daughter of his employer has been found dead doesn’t elicit any sense of urgency in the man to get in touch with her parents.

“It is a deliberate lifestyle decision on their part,” he tells them. “They feel the modern world and its too ready communication is to be their downfall lest they break free of it. There was no possibility of doing that here.”

Robbie exchanges a look with Hathaway.

“There must be an emergency number,” Hathaway says. “Some member of the staff over there who could be contacted.”

“They brought no staff with them, and if they hired any in India I am sure I have no idea who they are. I am sorry,” he continues, in a tone that is the farthest thing from apologetic, “but short of travelling to India yourselves there is no reaching them until their return in three months time. It is by design.” And then he closes the door in their faces. Politely.

“What sort of parents leave the country for months without a way for their only child to contact them?” Robbie asks as they walk back to the car, gravel crunching under their feet.

* * *

There is a box containing Hannah’s purse and its contents waiting on Robbie’s desk when they return to the nick. Hathaway hangs his coat on the back of the door and picks up the box without a word, carrying it over to his desk and laying each bagged item out in front of him: phone, small notebook, mascara, assorted pens, liquid eyeliner, keys, gum, mints, headphones, a small bottle of paracetamol, a pair of gloves, a glasses case, and the last bag containing what looks like two smaller empty resealable bags. Robbie hangs up his anorak and switches on his computer, watching Hathaway while he waits.

Hathaway is favouring his left side and trying not to show it. His lips are pressed together in a thin line, jaw clenched. Someone who doesn’t spend as much time with him as Robbie might mistake the look for concentration, but he’s going to have to get up even earlier than today’s callout to fool Robbie.

Everything laid out, Hathaway picks up the bag containing Hannah’s phone, ripping it open and sliding out the phone, which looks very much like Hathaway’s own sleek black model.

“Ha!” Hathaway says. “No passcode.” His fingers are already flying across the screen even as he mumbles about the stupidity of not securing one’s phone.

But there is no entry in the contacts for Hannah’s parents or any other Eldridge for that matter. Are her parents not only on semi-permanent holiday but also estranged? Hathaway finds no emails, no recent phone calls, no texts to suggest that she’d been in contact with her parents at all, even before they left the country. All of which, they agree, goes along with what the butler said about their lifestyle choices. Time to interview her professors and fellow students.

The Merton College porter directs them to the offices of Hannah’s chemistry professors and confirms that all fourth-year chemistry students live outside college in lodgings in Holywell Street. He somewhat reluctantly gives them the address when pressed.

Hannah was a brilliant chemist by all accounts from her professors; dedicated, poised to be top in her field. Each one of them gushes about her work—innovative, inspired, cutting edge and still an undergraduate—but none of them can shed much light on her personal life. She kept to herself, was always working except for the occasional outing with her Holywell flatmates. Chemistry, according to her professors, was what she lived for.

* * *

Robbie can hear music blaring all the way from the street as they approach the Holywell Street address. It takes four knocks before the racket shuts off and the door is yanked open to reveal a slightly dishevelled looking young woman with short brown hair and a book in her left hand, fingers between the pages to hold her place.

“What?” She couldn’t be telegraphing annoyance more if she tried.

“Is this the residence of Hannah Eldridge?” Robbie asks.

“Who wants to know?”

“DI Lewis, this is DS Hathaway,” Robbie says holding up his warrant card. She looks unimpressed. “And you are?”

She gives him an assessing look. “Fiona Marshall. Not that that’s any of your business.”

“May we come in?” Hathaway asks from behind him and she rolls her eyes and moves into the flat. The living room is scattered with the detritus of student life, books and clothes in haphazard piles on the floor, the chairs, coffee table, and even the kitchen table which Robbie can see through the open door over Fiona’s left shoulder.

“Sure. Why not?” Fiona says stepping back into the room to let them through the door. “It’s not like I’ve got revising to do or anything.”

“Fiona—” Robbie starts.

“Fi. Not even my professors call me Fiona.”

“Fi, when was the last time you saw Hannah?”

“Last night.”

“About what time?”

“I don’t know, eleven-ish until late? We were celebrating. Nobody was paying attention to the time.”

“Celebrating what?”

“Being alive? It’s just something we do now and then.”

“On a Sunday night?”

Fiona shrugs. “Yeah, there’s no fixed schedule, we just go out when we feel like it.” Her look turns sceptical. “What’s this about anyway? Why are you asking me about Hannah? This time of day she’s always down the lab, go talk to her yourself.”

“I’m afraid Hannah was found dead this morning,” Hathaway says without preamble.

“Oh,” Fiona says. She doesn’t move from where she’s standing by the sofa, fingers still between the pages of her book. Robbie is about to continue with the usual condolences when she schools her features and continues, tone more hostile than when she first opened the door. “What does that have to do with me?”

“If you were with her late last night you may be one of the last people to have seen her alive,” Robbie says. “Who else was with you?”

“Just the other fourth years.”

“Your flatmates?”

“Yes.”

“Are any of them in?” Hathaway asks.

“How would I know?”

“You live in the same house.”

“That doesn’t mean I watch their every move. We’re all in our final year, we’re in the lab more than here anyway.”

“Do you mind if we have a look in Hannah’s room?”

“Yeah, I mind,” Fiona says. “But I suppose you’re going to insist, so you might as well get on with it.”

“Thanks ever so,” Hathaway says. “Bedrooms on the first floor?”

“Second door on the left,” Fiona says waving her hand in the direction of the stairs before going back to her book and the open laptop sitting on the sofa cushions. The music starts up again before they reach the landing.

Hannah’s room is unremarkable in its contents save for what isn’t there: any sort of correspondence with her parents. Their initial search doesn’t turn up even one envelope with an Indian postmark, or any emails on her laptop that could be from her parents; not much of a surprise after what the butler said. Nor do they find anything to indicate who besides her parents could be considered next of kin.

The most interesting things they find are multiple envelopes bearing a bank logo, most of them unopened, containing notices of deposit. Her parents, though absent and uncommunicative, left their daughter with a not insubstantial stream of income in the form of monthly deposits into a trust account. Hathaway picks up Hannah’s laptop to go through more thoroughly later.

Back in the living room, Hathaway has to shout over the music to get Fiona’s attention. She looks over at them as if she’d hoped they’d vanished up the stairs never to return, rolls her eyes, and switches the music off.

“Fiona,” Hathaway says again, this time at normal volume.

She glares at him, possibly because he didn’t call her Fi, possibly because she hates coppers, possibly because she really does have revising to do, though Robbie can’t fathom how she can think with music that loud.

“What?”

“We need to ask you a few more questions,” Hathaway says, leaning against the wall by the stairs. Robbie takes a seat in the armchair opposite her.

“Get on with it, then,” Fiona says clutching a book to her chest like a shield.

“You said you were celebrating last night—”

Before he can continue the front door bursts open and a lad with messy dark curls rushes in already in mid-sentence.

“Fi, I think they—” He stops short when he sees Robbie and Hathaway. “What’s going on?”

She gives him a look clearly meant to silence as Hathaway shows him his warrant card. “DS Hathaway, this is DI Lewis. Did you know Hannah Eldridge?”

“Yeah.” The word elongates to fill the silence as he looks from Robbie to Hathaway, his eyes wide and fearful. “What do you mean ‘did’?”

“What’s your name, son?” Robbie asks.

“Danny. Danny Longbourne.”

“I think you’d better sit down,” Robbie says. Danny sits on the arm of the sofa closest to the door and looks over at Fiona sitting on the other end, laptop and papers spread out next to her and still holding the book up to her chest. She gives Danny an imploring look.

“Danny,” Robbie says. “Hannah was found dead this morning.”

“Okay,” Danny says, nodding his head and staring at the floor. Robbie resists the urge to get up and lay a comforting hand on the lad’s shoulder.

“Were you with her last night?”

Danny looks at Fiona who nods at him slowly. “We were celebrating.”

“What time did you last see her?”

“Late. I don’t know. We were walking and we’d drunk most of the bottle and then—” Fiona drops her book on the floor with a loud thump and Danny looks up at her. She moves her head in a way that could be a shake of the head or nothing but an errant movement. “We all went home.” Danny finishes.

“This celebrating,” Hathaway says. “What does it entail?”

“What do you think?” Fiona answers not giving Danny a chance to speak.

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

Fiona sighs. “Booze. Lots of it. Mostly vodka.”

Hathaway raises an eyebrow. “And?”

“What do you mean ‘and’? You don’t celebrate with a few drinks?”

“I don’t tend to celebrate,” Hathaway says, stone-faced.

“Fiona. Fi,” Robbie cuts in. “This whole investigation is going to go much more smoothly if you can help us find the answers we need and find out what happened to your friend.”

“She’s not my friend.”

“Okay,” Robbie says glancing at Hathaway who is watching her intently, no doubt cataloguing every subtle movement. “But we still need your help.”

“Yeah, so, we were out and we were drinking. That’s not a crime.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Then what’s all this,” Fiona waves her hand at the two of them and Danny perched on the other end of the sofa.

“Murder is a crime,” Hathaway says.

“You think Hannah was—” Danny starts, chokes on his words and then starts again. “You think she was murdered?”

“We don’t know,” Robbie says. “That’s what we’re trying to find out. Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm Hannah?”

Danny shakes his head. “No I— Everyone liked Hannah. She was nice. Just really nice, you know? Why would…” Danny trails off and looks at the floor, then up at Fiona again, an inscrutable look on his face that is clearly trying to telegraph silent information to her across the room. Neither of them says anything aloud.

“Fiona,” Hathaway prompts. “Can you—”

“Of course I can’t,” she says with a huff before he can finish the question.

“We need to know who else was with you last night and who was the last to see Hannah,” Hathaway says.

“It was just us,” says Danny gesturing to the flat at large. “The five of us.”

“Your flatmates?”

“Jess and Alex. But they spent most of the time snogging. When it started raining they came back here.”

“It started raining around half two,” Hathaway says. If Hathaway knows that then that would account for the ever-expanding dark circles under his eyes.

“I guess,” Danny says.

“And you, and Fi, and Hannah? You came back here as well?” Robbie asks.

Danny looks at Fiona then back at Robbie. “It wasn’t raining that hard.”

“So you stayed out in the rain instead of coming back here with your flatmates?”

“Yes,” Danny replies hesitantly, glancing at Fiona again. Fiona is tight-lipped and gives him a barely perceptible shake of her head.

“How long did you stay out in the rain?”

“I don’t know.”

“What aren’t you telling me, Danny? Where did you go? If you saw something happen to Hannah we need to know.”

Danny is staring intently at his hands clutched together in his lap, knuckles white. Fiona glares at him but he doesn’t look up.

“We… We weren’t in the rain for that long.” Robbie leans forward with his elbows on his knees, as Danny starts to explain. He can almost feel Hathaway radiating impatience from his spot leaning against the wall. “We went to the Botanic Garden. There’s this night blooming flower in one of the greenhouses. There’s a spot in the fence where there’s this tree and you can…” Danny holds up one hand and makes a jumping motion over it with the other. “You’re not going to arrest us for trespassing are you?”

“No Danny, we’re not,” Robbie says, as kindly as he can. Danny gives him a look of sheer relief.

“You saw this flower and you came back here afterwards?”

“Yes.”

“With Hannah?”

Danny glances at Fiona again, she looks murderous. “No.”

“Where was Hannah?”

“She said she was going to the lab.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“She was always going to the lab,” Fiona says. “We’d be watching a movie or celebrating or whatever and she’d just get up and say she had to go to the lab. Anytime. All the time.”

“And what time was this, when she went to the lab?”

“After it started raining.”

“Can you give us anything more specific than that?” Hathaway asks.

Fiona shoots him a look as if he’s asking for something impossible and should know better.

“We were celebrating,” she says as if that is enough of an explanation.

Hathaway frowns and then changes tactics. “How do you get into the lab in the middle of the night? It must be locked after hours.”

“Key cards.”

Hathaway nods and writes something down in his notebook. “The last time either of you saw Hannah was when you left the Botanic Garden last night?”

Fiona and Danny both nod and Danny mumbles, “Yes.”

“And you didn’t think it strange when you didn’t see her here this morning?”

Fiona shrugs. “No. She was always sleeping at the lab if she had some big experiment on, and she almost always had some big experiment on. Chemistry was basically her life.”

“Except for celebrating and breaking into greenhouses to look at night blooming flowers?”

Fiona shrugs again. “Sure.”

“Can you think of any reason why she would have been by the boathouses?” Hathaway asks.

“Is that where they found her?” Danny asks.

“Yes,” Robbie says.

Danny shakes his head. “She said she was going to the lab. I guess I should have— We just came back here.” He shakes his head again and stares down at his hands in his lap looking morose. If there is more to get out of him they’re not going to get it right now.

“Thank you for your help,” Robbie says, standing and handing Danny one of his cards. “If you think of anything else, anything at all, ring me.”

Danny nods, takes the card, and stuffs it in his pocket, earning a glare from Fiona.

“We’ll show ourselves out,” Hathaway says, crossing to the door. Fiona’s glare follows them until the door is shut behind them.

Jess and Alex, found in the lab, have no more useful information than Fiona or Danny. By seven pm they barely know any more than they did at seven am. Hannah Eldridge was out late Sunday night with her friends, broke into the Botanic Garden to look at a flower, and was found dead the next morning on the other side of Christ Church Meadow. Despite Hannah’s assertion that she was going to the lab, there is no indication that her key card was swiped Sunday night or early Monday morning—though the records do show that Hannah did indeed often go to the lab in the middle of the night.

Hathaway is looking downright surly by the time they leave the lab and has stopped trying to hide the fact that he’s favouring his left side. He lights a cigarette as soon as they’re out the door letting out a sigh of relief with his first exhale.

“Pint,” Lewis says.

Hathaway nods. “But no celebrating.”