There were some parts of a copper's job you never got used to, even after thirty years of it. Having to inform someone that their child had been brutally murdered. Seeing the cold, lifeless corpse of a witness you'd just spoken to hours before. Getting called out at the arsecrack of dawn...
Robbie Lewis blinked awake on the second ring, automatically putting out a hand for the mobile. Bloody thing never stayed in one place. "Sorry, love," he whispered as the phone continued its insistent clamour, drawing himself up on one elbow and opening his eyes blearily –
Only to find the rest of the bed empty, as it had been for ten years, and would be forevermore. That was another thing he'd never get used to.
He bit back the familiar pangs of grief and the rest of the apology as he groped for the phone. He finally found it and hit the accept-call button with unwarranted force.
"This'd better be murder," he announced, "or I'll be forced to do some murderin' meself."
"Inspector Lewis?" the confused tones of the dispatch officer penetrated through the fog of Robbie's brain.
"Where's Hathaway?" Robbie asked, cursing himself for not checking that it was his sergeant calling. Not that it was required procedure, but James usually took over the role of notifying him about call-outs once he himself got the news.
"Sergeant Hathaway didn't answer on my first try, sir. I'll try again in a moment."
Odd, that. Hathaway and his mobile were practically joined at the hip.
"All right, Constable, give me the gory details," Robbie sighed, trusting that some part of his brain was awake enough and professional enough to retain the information.
There wasn't much to go on, the dispatch officer said apologetically – the description from the attending officer had been vague.
Young man. Tall. Caucasian. Blond. Found naked in a farmer's field. No ID. Slathered in mud from the rains...
Robbie was halfway to dressed before the call was over.
* * *
The address he'd been given was a farmer's field twenty minutes south of Oxford. Robbie got there in fifteen, spotting the white SOCO tent as soon as he crested one of Oxfordshire's rolling hills. Uniform and SOCO were crawling all over the crime scene as Robbie picked his way to them between soggy cabbages.
Laura Hobson hailed him briskly as he approached, somehow managing to look trim and fresh despite the hour and the mud attacking her SOCO suit. One look at her and Robbie's fears melted away. Not Hathaway.
"Morning, Robbie. Where's your golden-haired boy?" she asked, peeking around him ostentatiously – he wasn't sure why, given that he wasn't tall enough, and hopefully wasn't wide enough, to block Hathaway from anyone's sight.
"Isn't James here yet, then?" Robbie frowned. Dispatch must have found a way to reach him by now, surely.
"Doesn't he live nearer by? You haven't been working him too hard, have you, Robbie?"
"He doesn't need me to do that for him. 'Sides, we've all been working a little too hard lately," Robbie replied dryly. Oxfordshire's criminal element seemed to have conspired to make the last week the week from hell for the forces of law and order. He and James had worked flat-out juggling three separate top-priority cases.
"Must be something in the drinking supply. I'll test for water-borne pathogens right away," Laura told him, straight-faced, but her look was sympathetic. Most of the cases from last week hadn't required the services of a pathologist, but she'd been there. They all had. "Did you get them, by the way?"
"Yeah. Last one cracked at ten p.m. last night."
"I'm sure the good citizens of Oxford slept safer in their beds."
"This one didn't," Robbie sighed, looking down at the body. It was curled into a crouching, foetal position, and as the dispatch officer had reported, so covered in mud from last night's torrential rains that he couldn't even tell by looking whether it was a man or a woman with very short hair. He could tell, though, from the pale flesh that peeked through the mud, that it hadn't any clothes on. "What's the story?"
Laura squatted down next to him. "There's not much of one. I don't want to remove any of this mud here in case I disturb any evidence. But I can tell you that it's an unidentified Caucasian male, on the younger side – late twenties or early thirties – found naked and semi-buried in the earth by the keen-scented Timmy."
"The dog. He belongs to a Mr Stetton. As does this field." She nodded over to where one of the PCs was taking a statement from a stout, outdoorsy man in his fifties. He was accompanied by a sheepdog wagging its tail a little too enthusiastically for five in the bloody morning.
Robbie returned his attention to the body. "No ID, you said?"
"No clothes means no pockets, no pockets means no wallet or keys, and until I get him cleaned up, no obvious identifying marks either."
"It just had to be an unidentified, didn't it?" Robbie huffed.
Laura raised her eyebrows. "Why, did you have something better to do this weekend?"
Robbie wished Laura didn't sound quite so sceptical. "It's Father's Day on Sunday."
Realisation dawned on Laura's face. "You're going up to Manchester to see Lyn?"
"Unidentified body on the Friday before? Not bloody likely." Robbie sighed. "Well, it's not as if I didn't miss loads of her birthdays and things when she was growing up. She's used to it by now."
"Robbie," Laura said, and from her tone of voice Robbie knew that she'd be patting his arm if she weren't in a scene suit.
"It's just an imported American holiday to me, but...Lyn sets so much store by it, you know? I've managed to make it every year since I got back from the BVI. Six years in a row. God knows how that happened. Bloomin' miracle, now that I think about it."
"Speaking of blooming miracles..." Laura pointed, and Robbie turned just in time to take in the welcome sight of his sergeant arriving at last. Hathaway swung a long leg over the stile and landed elegantly in a puddle of mud. There was a loud squelch, followed by a stream of muttered "fudge"s and other expletives sanitised for Church use.
"At the rate you're going, we're going to have to start washing your mouth out with soap, Sergeant," he called out, retreating to a jibe to hide his overwhelming sense of relief.
"Sorry, sir." Hathaway grimaced in disgust as he picked his way over to them. Robbie had to suppress a chuckle when he saw the source of Hathaway's annoyance. The SOCO suit's shoe covers hadn't been enough to keep the ankle-deep mud from launching an all-out assault on James' expensive Italian shoes, or his fancy purple socks.
"Haven't you ever heard of wellies, lad?"
"I was given to understand that we were responding to a call-out to a farmer's field, not a sodding peat bog. Dr Hobson." He gave Laura a quick nod, which she returned with a smile.
"It was rainin' cats and dogs when we left the nick last night," Robbie reminded James. At least, it had been when Robbie left the nick. Three clues clicked into place all at once, and he sighed. "You didn't go home last night, did you."
Hathaway shot him a slanted glance. "We'll make a detective of you yet, sir."
The flippant words were obviously calculated to change the subject, but Robbie couldn't just let it go. Not when his sergeant had given him a mini-heart attack by not answering his phone. And definitely not when he was reporting to work in yesterday's clothes and with shadows under his eyes. Everyone had their limits, even James.
"What did I tell you about cutting down on the late nights and getting more beauty sleep?" he asked.
"I'd rather given that up as a lost cause, sir."
"What were you doing, anyway?"
Hathaway shrugged. "Finishing up the report on the MacLaine case." The one they'd cracked at ten last night.
"Didn't you sleep at all?"
"Caught a few winks on the rec room sofa."
Those "few winks" hadn't been enough to erase the lines of exhaustion from James' face. "Daft lad," Robbie said, shaking his head.
"And here I thought I'd get a pat on the back and a 'well done, Hathaway' for my attention to duty."
"If you two have quite finished your lovefest," Laura began. They both shot her a glare, which she took with her usual equanimity. "If you want to take a look at the corpse in situ, James, better get on with it, otherwise I'm going to clear it to be moved to the mortuary."
Robbie repeated what Laura had told him as James crouched over the body, his eyes running over it. He frowned suddenly.
"Know him?" Robbie asked, semi-hopefully. If Hathaway already knew the identity of their corpse, that would make things a lot easier...but then Robbie thought the better of it. If he had to pull James off the case for a conflict of interest and get stuck with one of the other DSes over the weekend, that would just take the biscuit. He'd rather do an unidentified with James than an open-and-shut with anyone else.
"No," Hathaway said after a moment, and Robbie breathed a small sigh of relief. "Cause of death?"
"Hard to tell at present. There are some flesh wounds on the back, for example here and here," Laura responded.
"Like he was beaten?" Robbie squinted.
"Whipped," James said grimly, pulling himself back up to his full height.
"That's probably right, but I'll need to take a closer look to be certain," Laura confirmed. "Unlikely to be the cause of death, though."
"From the body temp and degree of rigor mortis, I'd say a good six to ten hours."
"And did he die here?"
"No signs that it was, no signs that it wasn't. Any blood would have washed away in the rain."
"So, unidentified body, no cause of death, place of death uncertain," Robbie repeated, trying to rein in his frustration and failing.
Hathaway shot him an indecipherable Look.
"Give us a chance, Robbie," Laura chided. "Once we have him back in the mortuary, clean him up, you can get started with fingerprints and a photo. I'll even perform the PM right after breakfast."
"Thanks, Laura," Robbie said gratefully.
"Speaking of the PM, I was cc'ed on that edict of Innocent's. Apparently some of you hotshot detectives have been getting a little sloppy with your evidence-handling."
Robbie and James exchanged a glance. "Not us," they denied, in chorus.
"Oh, I don't know about that. You two are rather cavalier about scene suits and gloves, you know." Hathaway raised his non-existent eyebrows at Robbie, and Robbie gave him an I-don't-know-what-she's-going-on-about look back.
"Anyway," Laura pressed on, "to remind you of the myriad difficulties of gathering and preserving forensic evidence, every detective in the division was to attend one post-mortem within the following month. That was sent three weeks ago, which means you'd better step to. Everyone else already has."
"All right. Hathaway'll attend," Robbie decided.
"Me? Why do I have to go first?"
Robbie didn't particularly want to say that it was because the corpse on the ground fit a demographic that included two people he cared very much about. "Well, you noticed the whip marks and all, so I thought you might have something useful to contribute," he hedged.
"We'll let him go just this once, won't we, Hathaway? He can stand us breakfast at the Big Bang," Laura said with a mischievous grin.
Hathaway's pale face seemed to have acquired a greenish tint. "All right, but could we possibly make breakfast post-post-mortem? And post-a change of socks?"
* * *
James leaned his head against the cool wall of the mortuary and surreptitiously checked his jacket pocket for his smelling salts. He didn't particularly want to have to use them in front of Dr Hobson, but the "proper breakfast" of eggs, toast and bacon Lewis had insisted on buying him in addition to the black coffee he'd requested was sitting uneasily in his stomach, and he wanted to make a fool of himself in front of Dr Hobson even less.
"All right, Hathaway?" Dr Hobson was girded for war in her apron of green, and giving him a piercing look that made him feel as naked as the body on the slab.
"Quite all right, thank you." He walked over to stand next to the autopsy table, hands clasped behind his back.
Dr Hobson nodded, and switched on the recorder. He listened as she identified the body – with a temporary alphanumeric label, since they didn't know the man's name – as well as herself and his presence. "Feel free to make useful contributions," she told him with a grin, snapping on her gloves and getting to work.
She chatted freely as she worked – "this part'll be really dull, otherwise, just cleaning up". "Anything useful from Stetton?" she asked.
"Not unless you count the paeans of praise to his bloodhound."
"Didn't you like Timmy the dog, then?" Dr Hobson tutted.
"Given how proud it looked for hauling us all out of bed at four in the morning, no, not really. But it was Stetton who bothered me more."
"Most people are shocked when they find a body, but he took it in stride. Worst thing about the whole event was losing a few rows of cabbages. He seemed to relish the prospect of telling his story down the pub."
"People process death in different ways," Dr Hobson shrugged. "Morse was terrible with dead bodies, did you know? Could hardly bring himself to look at them." She had a fond smile on her face when she recalled Lewis' old governor.
"He wouldn't have liked Chief Superintendent Innocent's edict, then."
"No more than you do."
"I'm all right with corpses," James objected. He'd never had any qualms joining the police force over the fact that he'd be constantly exposed to dead bodies. As a parish priest, he'd have had to deal with the dead and dying often enough anyway, though probably not quite so many who had met their end so prematurely. "It just feels like...a waste." It wasn't quite the right word, but he couldn't think of one that could quite capture the enormity of what he meant. A subversion of God's will? That would go down well with Laura Hobson.
Returning to his previous train of thought, he continued, "Stetton's probably the only person whose day hasn't been ruined by his discovery."
There was a silence, and when he looked up, Dr Hobson was smiling directly at him. His insides curled with dread. "What?"
"It was awfully sweet of you to work so hard so that Robbie'd be able to get off early to see Lyn."
James indicated the recorder. "You do realise that your calling me 'sweet' just went on official record?"
"It's all right. I won't put it in the final report." There were times when James wondered whether the Devil himself was behind that twinkle in the pathologist's eyes.
"You won't tell him," James said, hoping his voice contained the right admixture of plea and pride.
Dr Hobson gave him a pitying look. "You know as well as I do that Robbie'll work it out for himself, eventually."
Yes, Lewis would. God help him.
* * *
Jean Innocent's hairdo, Robbie had discovered, was the single most reliable indicator of her general level of stress. It was psychological, he figured – the tighter her hair was tied, the tighter the control she felt over her surroundings.
Today, she was wearing the severest bun Robbie had ever seen. He privately gave thanks for Hathaway's report, and for his own foresight in grabbing it off his desk on his way to see Innocent.
"Hooper said you wanted to see me first thing, ma'am."
"Yes, Lewis. Where's Hathaway?" Innocent asked, her voice brisk.
"Suffering through a PM with Dr Hobson, as per your orders," Robbie said dryly.
Innocent relaxed enough to crack a smile. "About time. Don't forget to do it yourself. But first, I want you to transfer the MacLaine case to DI Peterson. He'll finish up the paperwork, free you up for this new case."
"No need, ma'am. Hathaway finished it last night. Case report, charge sheet, all there." Robbie handed over the folder.
"Very commendable," Innocent said, flipping through the report quickly. It was obvious that what she saw lifted her mood. The bun looked looser already. "Tell him good work from me."
"I will, thanks, ma'am."
"So. Tell me about this body in the farmer's field."
Robbie briefed Innocent on what little they knew, and she nodded as she took it in. "Keep me posted."
"Will do, ma'am." He turned to go.
"Oh, Robbie, one more thing," she said.
"Hathaway is your subordinate."
Robbie blinked. "Er, yes, ma'am, I'm aware of that." He turned back reluctantly, not much liking the way this conversation was going. The senior officers had been subjected to a seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace a month ago, conducted by a speaker who kept referring to their junior counterparts as their "subordinates", and now the two terms were indelibly linked in Robbie's mind.
"Which means you have a duty of care towards him," Innocent continued.
Robbie frowned. "And therefore, ma'am?"
"Well, he's obviously been working very hard. Make sure he gets some rest. I don't want him keeling over in the middle of a murder investigation."
Robbie gave an inward sigh of relief. Not sexual harassment, then, just general concern for Hathaway's welfare. He wondered what had brought it on. "With respect, ma'am, assigning us this case isn't exactly going to help. This was supposed to be our free weekend."
"Yes, I'm sorry about that, Lewis, but everyone else is still knee-deep in cases from last week. Just make sure he doesn't overdo it, all right?"
"He's a grown man, ma'am. He knows how to take care of himself," Robbie tried to reassure her, although he wasn't all that sure about that himself. He idly wondered whether DCS Strange had ever had similar conversations with Morse about him. He dismissed the idea immediately. Morse had been the one who'd needed the looking after. Robbie'd had Val.
Who did Hathaway have? Who had he ever had?
"I'm just saying, Robbie, look after him. Because much as I appreciate James' efficiency, the next time I see a report that's obviously been written at two a.m., it's you I'm going to come after." She brandished the offending folder at him menacingly.
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Robbie held up his arms in surrender. "All right, ma'am. I'll try and talk some sense into him. I have tried, in point of fact. But you know what he's like."
Innocent gave him an exasperated look. "You're his superior officer, Lewis. Order him home if it's late. Tuck him into bed if you have to!"
"Right, ma'am," Robbie said hastily, before she could suggest even more extreme measures. "By the way, how was it so obvious that report was written at two a.m.?"
Innocent flipped the report to the last page, then turned it around to show him the damning evidence. "Because, Lewis, erudite as your esteemed sergeant is, even he knows better – when he's in his right, sleep-undeprived mind – than to quote Cicero at the end of a report."
"Who's he when he's at home?"
Innocent gave him a glare.
"I'll...make sure it doesn't happen again?"
"You'd better," she told him, and Robbie made good his escape before Innocent could harangue him further.
* * *
Gradually, painstakingly, the corpse transformed from a mud sculpture to something resembling the moulted husk of a human soul. Once the body had been cleaned and straightened – with great and memorable difficulty – Dr Hobson had one of her minions take photographs of the corpse and run them up along with the fingerprints and dental record. She took samples from each of the bodily orifices, and a blood sample, and had them sent along to Forensics as well. Finally they turned to the real work of the post-mortem.
The first thing that came to light was a rather distinctive identifying mark on the victim's belly, just above the crotch. "That's a brand, isn't it?" James asked, suppressing a shudder. He'd seen animals branded as a kid, at the working farms that dotted the Mortmaigne estate, and it had seemed cruel enough then.
"It is," Dr Hobson confirmed, running a finger over the raised, bumpy surface. "But someone didn't like it." The brand was criss-crossed by a fresh X-shaped pair of scars.
"As if one person was asserting ownership over him and a second person denied it. What's it shaped like?" The scars made it a bit hard to interpret, but they finally agreed that it was supposed to be a palm tree.
"It must have been pretty professional work, to get a design this complex to work as a brand," Hobson mused. "The degree of inflammation would make it much more difficult than tattooing."
Their next step was to catalogue the list of what James had correctly diagnosed as whip marks. They ran all up and down the front and back of the body, and Dr Hobson painstakingly recorded each and every one. "There are also signs of faded whip marks," she reported.
"How old would you say?" James asked, looking at the pale white marks under the angry red ones, so faint as to be barely visible except to someone who knew exactly what he was looking for.
"Months? Years? Hard to tell. After he'd grown, for the most part."
Small mercies. "But these wouldn't have been enough to kill him," James said. He immediately wished he'd phrased it as a question when Hobson shot him a glance tinged with suspicion.
"Not unless he was a haemophiliac, which we'll be able to tell from the bloodwork. No, these weren't the cause of death."
"Then what was?"
"There's some bruising on the back of the head," she said, brushing away the blond hair to show them to him. "But that's not enough to kill him either." She moved down the face a little. "Ah," she said significantly, using a scope to peer down the victim's nostrils.
Dr Hobson inserted a speculum into the right nostril and scraped, then showed him the result under a magnifying glass. "Grains of sand."
"So he was asphyxiated, close enough to the ground to be able to breathe in sand," James said, thinking quickly. "That means he could have been pushed into the ground so he couldn't breathe, or he could have been buried alive?"
The transformation was so sudden he didn't realise it was happening until she was in full-blown panic attack mode. Then he remembered what he'd said and what she had experienced, and connected them too late.
James Hathaway, you are a first-class idiot.
"Laura, it's me, it's James, you're all right. You can breathe. You're all right." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him, checking all the boxes. Familiar names. Reassurance. Repetition. Straight out of the pastoral care manual.
It didn't work. It had worked the last time. Because then the physical stimulus had been removed, but this time the stimulus was in her own mind, and therefore it couldn't just go away. Or maybe because he'd been so relieved, pure instinct had taken over, but this time...
He was overthinking this. The solution was obvious. Keeping one arm around her, he fished his mobile out with the other and hit speed-dial 1. "Sir, it's Laura. She's having a flashback." Lewis didn't reply, but he knew from the immediate termination of the call that he was on his way. "Laura, Robbie's coming. You'll be all right."
Still it didn't get through. The minutes ticked away as James tried and abandoned more and more improbable ways of calming her. A change of environment. Her office. No, that would take them past a whole bunch of hospital folk, and he suspected she wouldn't want them to see her in this state. Encouraging her to breathe. One, two. One, two. No, that wasn't penetrating either.
James knew he'd reached rock-bottom when all his supposedly clever mind and vaunted education could come up with was: what about a kiss? The fairy tale solution to break all spells. He dismissed the idea instantly – smoker's breath, not to mention the non-zero probability of winding up on a slab next to their corpse once she realised what he'd done.
An eternity later, Lewis burst through the swing doors, and James thankfully relinquished his charge. "There now, lass, it's Robbie, you're going to be fine," Lewis soothed.
How did he do it? The words were similar, but they sounded so different coming out of his governor's mouth, so full of love and caring and certainty, a promise of protection you knew he was going to keep.
And the magic worked. Before long, Laura was extricating herself from Lewis' embrace, wiping away her tears and looking rather shame-faced. "Sorry. I can't think what came over me."
"It's all right, lass. What brought it on?"
"My fault, sir," James volunteered, feeling wretched inside for having dragged her through that nightmare once more. "I said something thoughtless."
Lewis turned his frank, appraising gaze on James. "Thoughtless? You?"
Laura hiccupped a laugh. "It's all right, James. It's my fault for being silly. Should be able to make it through an asphyxiation PM without being triggered any more."
"Entirely understandable," James reassured her.
"I can't believe I broke down on the record," Laura said, looking mournfully at the traitorous recorder, its timestamp still climbing.
"Don't worry," he told her. "You don't have to put it down on the official report."
That brought a smile to Laura's face at last, and she took a pause to clean her face and put on a new, uncontaminated apron and gloves.
"Thank you," she said, smiling sweetly at them as she came back to the table. "Both of you."
James hadn't done anything to actually help, but he nodded anyway.
"So, Robbie, are you going to stay?" Laura asked, her tone becoming brisk once more, making it clear she expected the answer to be "yes".
"I'm beginning to think this was all an elaborate ploy to get me in on this PM," Lewis complained, his tone joking.
Laura took a deep breath, then continued with the post-mortem, announcing Lewis' presence and summarising her discoveries so far. "Taking into account the bruises on the back of the head, I believe these findings are consistent with his head being pushed into the sand, and being held down so that he couldn't breathe."
"That would have been quite a struggle. Big lad like that," Lewis observed.
Six foot two, Dr Hobson had measured, about James' own size and build.
"It wasn't a pleasant way to go," she agreed.
"As if all this wasn't already enough." Lewis' voice grew rough as he gestured vaguely at the scars from the whipping.
For one mad moment, James fought the irrational urge to exchange places with the man on the slab, just to be the recipient of Lewis' compassion. He took a deep breath and the feeling passed. He needed no one's pity.
"Actually, Robbie, it wouldn't have been such a struggle," Laura was explaining. "There are marks consistent with him having been handcuffed. Wrists and ankles." They'd noted that in their preliminary examination.
"What about his mouth?" James asked. "Is there sand in his mouth too?"
Dr Hobson took a swab obligingly. "No, there isn't," she said, sounding surprised.
"If he was struggling to breathe, he should have got some of the sand in his mouth too, shouldn't he?" Lewis said.
"Not if he was gagged, sir."
Dr Hobson nodded approvingly at his deduction. "I'll probably find traces of it when I do the dental examination. Bits of fibre."
"Or rubber," James added.
"You were saying 'sand'," Lewis said. "So it wasn't soil, or mud?"
"No. He didn't die in Stetton's field," Dr Hobson said, her tone definitive. "In fact, I'm not an expert, but I'm fairly sure that he didn't die in Oxfordshire. This sand didn't come from river deposits. It's coastal in origin – look how round the grains are. Our victim died on a beach somewhere."
Lewis' eyebrows went up. "Well, then. Maybe this isn't our problem after all."
"If we can figure out which police force's jurisdiction the murder actually occurred in," James added. And if Lewis could bring himself to relinquish the case. He didn't like leaving a case even nine-tenths done.
"I'll get Forensics analysing the sand particles. They may be able to narrow down where it came from. Right. One last thing. You may want to avert your eyes, James."
"Why?" Lewis asked. "Oh, you're looking for signs of..."
"'Funny business' is, I believe, the fashionable term," Dr Hobson said impishly. Lewis coloured.
James couldn't resist. "Really? Times have changed. Last I heard, it was 'rumpy-pumpy'."
"All right, that's enough out of you two," Lewis growled, as James and Laura exchanged triumphant grins. "Well?"
"Signs of penetrative sex. And it was rough," Dr Hobson said after a while, during which James kept his eyes obediently averted. "You'll have to wait for the sample to be analysed to see if we can isolate any DNA."
"So he was tied, gagged, beaten, raped, and then smothered," Lewis summarised, shaking his head.
"Thanks, Robbie, you just wrote the official report for me." Dr Hobson glanced at her watch, then announced to the recorder a pause in the proceedings and pressed 'stop'. "Right then. Off you go. Shoo."
Lewis and James exchanged a puzzled glance. "What about the internal PM?" James asked.
"You know and I know that you both don't want to be here for that, smelling salts or no smelling salts," Laura said pointedly.
"But what about you, will you be okay?" James asked awkwardly. He didn't want her to have to cope alone with another panic attack.
Lewis and Dr Hobson seemed to exchange a glance, before Laura replied, "I'll be all right, James. Thanks. For being here. You too, Robbie."
"And what about Innocent?"
"Just promise me that you'll take more care with scene suits and gloves in future, and I'll officially record you as being present, since you were. In a manner of speaking."
James exchanged a look with Lewis. "Scout's honour," they swore.
"You'll get my report in the afternoon."
"And we're just a phone call away if you ever need us," Lewis reminded her.
"I know," Laura said sweetly. "Now, get the hell out of my mortuary."
* * *
The nick was buzzing with activity when they returned, so Hathaway didn't bother to mute the accusatory tone in his voice as he said, "You got off easy back there."
"Not much more than you did," Robbie shot back.
"You weren't there when they straightened the rigor out of the mortis. That'll fuel the nightmares for the next few weeks."
And what's been fuelling the nightmares up till now, lad, Robbie wanted to ask, but this was hardly the time or the place. He docketed it in his mind for future enquiries.
"By the way, sir, thank you."
"What for?" Robbie asked absently, nodding at a passing Uniform.
"For coming to my rescue, back there. I'm...not very good at that sort of thing."
"Years of practice from calming the kids down after they'd had a nightmare, man. It's easy when you know how. Didn't anyone do that for you, when you were a wee one?"
James froze for an instant in the process of opening the door to their shared office, then thawed out enough to go inside. "Did you brief Innocent on the case yet, sir?" he asked irrelevantly.
Robbie gave a mental sigh and added yet another item to the docket. "Yeah, and I turned your report in at the same time."
"What did she say?"
"That she was sorry to have assigned it to us, but everyone else's still hard at work clearing their bits of last week's mess."
"In other words, we're paying the penalty for our efficiency," Hathaway said, looking contrite.
"Not our efficiency, man. You were too efficient. I just plodded along behind you." The look of contrition deepened, which annoyed Robbie a little. It was always one thing or another with James, wasn't it? If he wasn't thinking he was bollocks at his job, which he wasn't, he was kicking himself for being too good at it. "I'm just kidding, lad," Robbie hastened to say. "You do good work. Innocent said as much when she read the report."
"How'd she know it was mine?"
"Because I'm not a smartarse who concludes reports with obscure quotations, much less in the original Latin," Robbie said dryly.
At least Hathaway had the good grace to look mildly embarrassed. "Did I? Which quotation was it?"
"If you'd gone home at a decent hour, like I told you to, you'd remember."
"I probably wouldn't even have written it," James admitted.
Robbie briefly considered telling him about the bollocking Innocent had given him over it, but decided against it. James was resistant enough to any sort of interference in his own affairs as it was, and he wasn't likely to take it any better if he knew the order had ultimately come from the Chief Super.
"At least the report's done. That's one less thing to worry about today." Robbie looked at the whiteboard, which was looking pretty sparse at the moment – he'd put up the victim's initial photographs and date of death, but that was all. Now they knew more, but it still didn't add up to an identity. Perhaps Julie had had some luck.
"No match with the fingerprints, sir," DC Lockhart reported, as soon as she entered the office. "As for Missing Persons, my search turned up quite a few tall, blond young men, but no one bearing an exact physical resemblance."
"'Quite a few'?" Hathaway repeated. "What does that mean?"
"Gurdip calculated that the number of missing tall, blond young men exceeds their incidence in the population by a statistically significant margin." Julie grinned at Hathaway. "Better watch out, Sarge."
"All right, Julie. Thanks. Keep looking, will you?" Robbie said.
She promised to try, and ducked out of the office.
"Died on a sandy beach somewhere." Robbie returned to his musings. That fact had been bothering him all the way from the mortuary. "The nearest seaside is a good hour's drive. Why dump the corpse in a farmer's field in Oxfordshire? Why not just chuck it into the sea and let it wash away?" And let him have his proper weekend off?
Hathaway had a tentative look on his face, the look he had whenever he had to tell Robbie that he was getting too close to a witness or mention a fatal car accident. "Are we going to start investigating this, sir? Because you know we'll have to transfer the case eventually."
It was a tempting thought, with Manchester and his grandson beckoning, and if he went to Innocent now with an update, she'd probably say to concentrate on figuring out which police force to hand the case over to. But the image of that poor, nameless boy lying on the slab was in Robbie's head now.
"There has to be a good reason that the lad's body was dumped here. Like as not, he was from here, or maybe his murderer is. And even if we do hand it over, we'll still have to help out with the Oxfordshire part of the investigation. Might as well get cracking, see if we can't give them the name of the victim. And the name of the murderer, while we're at it."
"Right, sir." Hathaway crossed over to the whiteboard and uncapped a marker. "In answer to your questions – could be any number of reasons for leaving the body in Stetton's field, but none of them seem very likely. It doesn't seem as if there was anything significant about that field. It just happened to be by the road. The burial was pretty perfunctory, too. Once the rains came they just washed away the topsoil and exposed the body. Stetton said Timmy barely had to dig to find it."
Robbie read the rest of what Hathaway had written. "Tied, gagged, beaten, raped – or, at least, had sex – smothered to death. Someone didn't like the lad very much. That's torture, that is."
Hathaway frowned at him. "Aren't we making a pretty big assumption, sir?"
"That whoever tied, gagged, beat and had sex with our victim also killed him. What if he was alright with the tying, gagging, beating and the sex?"
"What, you think our victim underwent all that voluntarily?" Robbie asked incredulously.
"In the beginning, possibly. I was just thinking that he might have been into BDSM."
"Bondage and domination, sadism and masochism," Hathaway spelt out helpfully.
"Yeah, I know what it stands for," Robbie said testily. It still amazed him how James could be all innocent choirboy one moment, walking dictionary of erotica the next. "Even if you put aside the fact that the lad died, don't you think that was a bit harsh?"
"Yes, I do," Hathaway conceded. "And strictly speaking, trust and attention to safety are very important in BDSM culture. So I understand," he added hastily, catching Robbie's eye. "But maybe this was someone who got terribly carried away."
"Or just never cared for the rules in the first place."
"Or perhaps not even the same person. But our victim could have been part of the BDSM community. The brand is the key clue. It was old, Dr Hobson said. A lot older than the worst of the whipmarks."
"Okay, I'll bite. Where can we find out more about this 'BDSM community'?"
Hathaway turned to his computer and began typing. "We're in luck, sir," he announced after a moment. "There's a BDSM convention going on at the Holborne Hotel. Three days, beginning today."
"They have conventions for these things?" And why did Robbie get the feeling that James already knew exactly what search terms to type into Google?
"Looks like every tattoo artist in Oxford will be there," Hathaway continued, scrolling. "One of them may have done the brand. If not, we can ask around for someone who does."
So Hathaway was inviting him to a BDSM convention? They'd be the laughingstocks of the nick if anyone else found out. And yet – somewhere out there, there was a murderer on the loose. Somewhere out there, there was a father wondering where his son had got to. They owed the lad his name and some justice.
"All right, it's worth a punt," he said finally. "Sounds like the most efficient way to get a hold of our victim's identity. Let's go, James." He got up and reached for his jacket.
Hathaway obviously hadn't been expecting him to agree quite so readily. He blinked, then stood up himself and fished out his wallet.
"What, people pay to go to these things?" Robbie asked, appalled.
"Twenty quid each."
"You know, we could just wave our warrant cards and demand entry. Privilege of the police."
"And everyone would probably instantly shut up and not tell us a thing. Better to be discreet at these things, don't you think, sir? For efficiency's sake. Besides," – a cheeky glint came into Hathaway's eyes – "we can get fifty percent off the second ticket if we ask for the couple's discount."
Now he really was taking the mickey. "All right. But just for that, you get to be the one who presents the expense report to Innocent at the end of the investigation," Robbie threatened.
The smirk instantly vanished off James' face. He examined his wallet once more and gave a long-suffering sigh.
"We'll just consider it my treat, shall we, sir?"
Couple's discount it was, then.