It was dark still when Jenny Smith left the building by the front door, sunrise a few hours off yet, and there was a distinct chill in the air. The weather had been warm most of the week so far, but there was a definite autumnal note as the temperature dropped overnight. She pulled her blazer tighter around her, and shouldered her handbag, heels clip-clopping across the carpark as she crossed from the Hall of Residence to the main road. What had she been thinking, she asked herself, smiling wryly at her actions. Her friends were never going to let her live it down, going home with an 18 year old. A first year undergrad at that. Dan, she reminded herself. He was called Dan, and he was sporty, and enthusiastic and good looking, and when that group of self entitled pricks from Corpus Christi had spilled her drink and not even apologised, he had offered to buy her a new one, and he did seem nice. She’d had fun.
Perhaps a one night stand with a teenage Brookes student is exactly what she’d needed to get herself out of the rut she’d been in lately. No boyfriend, a shitty job that had failed to deliver on any of its promises of career development and prospects, and a mouldy flat that she could barely afford, living in a city she didn’t even like that much.
When she’d agreed to go out for Karen-from-marketing’s birthday drinks last night she had really only intended to have one drink then head home. But she’d had a good time, and then they’d moved onto another bar and then the dickhead poshos had done their thing and she’d met Dan. He was polite and charming and funny, and not especially intellectual but bright and enthusiastic in his chat nonetheless. He was nice, and not like any of the guys she ended up being matched with on any of her dating apps, and he invited her back to his place and why the hell not.
She glanced both ways before crossing the deserted road and heading for the park gate to take a shortcut back into town. The moon was setting, casting some light through the trees, just enough to make out the path and highlight any fallen branches or puddles. There wasn’t any street lighting in this part of the park, but at this time in the morning she was confident that there was no one around so the shortcut would be safe enough. She just about had time for a couple more hours of sleep before work, and this route would add precious minutes onto her nap time.
She hitched her bag further onto her shoulder and crossed under a line of trees and towards a bridge over the small stream. It was still and quiet, no sound from the nearby road, and just the occasional rustle in the bushes as she disturbed the inhabitant creatures as she walked by. Closer to the river there was the sound of trickling water, and somewhere further upstream she heard the soft quacking of a duck. She rounded the corner and struck left at a fork in the footpath, looking down at her feet to navigate a pothole and patch of fallen leaves.
It was when she looked back up that she saw it.
At first she thought her mind was playing tricks, twisting the shadows of trees in the dark into grotesque shapes in the gloom. A tree that looked almost like the shape of a man, arms out to the sides and head hanging forward. With sudden sickening horror, she realised that’s exactly what it was.
Hands shaking, and tears springing at the horror before her, she fumbled in her bag for her phone.
James Hathaway started awake as his phone started to ring. The harsh buzz as it vibrated its way across the coffee table, and the clatter as it tipped off the edge and onto the floor. He lurched upright from his prone position on the sofa and fumbled for the phone with one hand, untangling the woolen blanket from his feet at the same time.
He glanced at the caller ID before answering. The months of slow decline in his father’s health had meant that middle of the night calls made his heart rate rise and created a ball of anxiety. It only would be work from now, he remembered a little belatedly. This time someone else’s pain and anguish; some other family getting the dreaded call.
“Hathaway,” he answered, already crossing his flat to the bedroom, mechanically choosing a suit while listening to the scant details rattled off to him by his sergeant. He squinted into the mirror, assessing whether he’d be able to get away without shaving (a bonus of being so fair haired) and mentally cursing himself for having fallen asleep wearing his contact lenses. Again.
Once he had confirmed the location and his estimated arrival time, he ended the call, and plugged his phone into charge while he showered and dressed. Sergeant Maddox had at least assured him that she would bring coffee to their crime scene.
When Hathaway arrived at the scene he pulled his car into the side of the road behind the phalanx of police patrol cars, the blue flashing lights glittering off the trees that bordered the park, illuminating the otherwise dark night. The barest hint of lighter sky had been visible on the horizon as he’d driven through the deserted city centre streets, but here the eastern sky was obscured.
He nodded a greeting to the uniformed police officer guarding the gate to the park, and followed the line of police tape and the path towards the floodlights being set up for the forensic team.
As he rounded the corner he spotted Sergeant Maddox. She waved when she saw him, and crossed to greet him, leaving a young woman wrapped in a red emergency blanket under the supervision of a PC.
“Morning,” Maddox greeted, handing over an insulated travel mug filled with coffee.
“What have we got?” he asked, already taking in the sight of the forensic team setting up, although the dead body itself had been screened off with a white tent to keep away prying eyes and protect the scene.
“A crucifixion.” Maddox stated bluntly.
Hathaway’s attention snapped right back to her at that.
“Yep. Young man, probably in his early 20s, possibly a student. Tied to a tree, hands and feet have been nailed to it. Dr. Hobson arrived just before you; she’s taking a look now.”
He nodded towards the woman Maddox had been talking to when he arrived.
“Is that who found the body?”
“Yes: her name’s Jenny Smith, 26 years old, she’s a marketing executive and lives in Jericho. She spent the night with a friend at the Brookes Halls just the other side of the park. She was on her way home, taking a shortcut through the park when she saw him. Control have the call time listed at 04:13. She didn’t see or hear anything, no signs of anyone around the park, just her and the resident wildlife she thought.”
Donning protective scene suits they ducked into the forensic tent, and greeted the grim scene.
“What do we know?” Hathaway asked Dr. Hobson. She raised an eyebrow at his lack of civility, but didn’t comment on it.
“Not much yet.” she informed them. “He’s been badly beaten. I wish I could tell you that he was dead before he was trussed up like this, but the level of bleeding from the wounds on the hands and feet would suggest not. He must have been here for a few hours, but rigour mortis isn’t fully set in yet, so not too long. I’ll know more when I get him back to base.”
“Sir!” a uniformed police constable came jogging over, evidence bag in hand. “We’ve found a wallet in the bushes by the bridge. Driving license looks like our victim.” he handed over the wallet, and with gloved hands Sergeant Maddox flipped through and pulled out the green rectangle of a provisional driving license.
“Michael Carr, 19 years old,” she read out, “the address is in Cheltenham, but there’s a student bus pass and a library card in here for Brookes University. I’m guessing the Cheltenham address is his parents.”
“Right, let’s confirm that and get someone to inform the next of kin. And get on to the university as soon as we can, find out where he lived and who saw him last.” Hathaway ordered, stepping away and taking a moment to collect himself.
Nineteen was awfully young to be dead at all, let along brutally beaten and nailed to a tree, Hathaway thought to himself, stepping away from the crime scene and lighting a cigarette.
He needed more coffee.
It was never easy to break the news of a death, even less so when it was a murder and the person involved was still a teenager. Nonetheless, that was the unhappy job of the Gloucestershire Constabulary, arriving at a 1980s semi-detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Cheltenham just as the sun was rising over Cleeve Hill. The anguished cry of his mother was painful to hear. The look of despair and stoic silence from his father no less terrible.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford a no less unpleasant task befell the team, to inform the university of the gruesome discovery and to track down the victim’s friends.
By nine o’clock the team were assembled at the police station, ready for the morning briefing.
“Alright everyone, settle down,” Hathaway called, gripping his third coffee of the day like it was a lifeline. “Sergeant Maddox, can you please take us through what we have so far?”
He slumped back against the wall, at the back of the collected detectives, as the team turned to face Maddox and the whiteboard on which they had started to assemble the facts of the case.
Maddox smiled briefly in acknowledgement, took a final swig from her tea, and began the briefing.
“Michael Carr had just started his second year at Brookes, studying for a BA in Fine Art. He lived in Halls at Cheney Student village, which is close to the park where his body was found. His bedroom was in a unit with four other students, a Melissa Bell, Fiona Kazmeirczak, Rashid Ahmed and Daniel Salter. The housing office doesn’t know whether they’re particularly friends, as they were randomly assigned to the accommodation. None of them are fellow art students though, but we have been in touch with the course office and we’ve got the name of Carr’s tutor, and we’ve left a message for her to call us.
“The park being closed for a police investigation is causing a bit of a stir among the students at Cheney Halls and in Headington campus, and we’ve got the student paper and the Mail asking questions. There’s already rumours that someone has died, so let’s get someone to speak to his flatmates at the halls and see if we can get an idea who his friends were, when he was last seen, and how he came to be in that park last night. We’ve heard from family liaison in Cheltenham, and the parents are on their way to do formal ID now. It’ll be a couple of hours until they arrive, so let’s find some answers for them. Thanks everyone.”