A/N: Thank you very much, as always, to everyone reviewing and adding this to alerts and favourites. I really appreciate it, and please do continue! I love hearing any views on this, and always reply.
Thanks to lily moonlight, for reading through, making suggestions, and restoring my self-confidence.
Evening was falling, a bluish-purple dusk settling over the city, blurring outlines of distant buildings, lying like a cloud of smoke in alleyways. One alley in particular, where it wrapped gently around a woman who was oblivious to the cooling air, and to the dew condensing on her cold skin and in the folds of her clothes.
Lindsay and Hawkes were setting up the crime scene lights.
The alley contained several dumpsters, and piles of miscellaneous pallets, crates, and cardboard boxes from the back doors of stores and restaurants. The woman was sitting slumped against one of the dumpsters, her head resting against the brick of the high wall, eyes closed. There was dirt on her grey trousers, and on her pale blue blouse.
Angell strolled over, sliding her cell into her pocket, as Hawkes flicked the lights on, their harsh beams now picking out the woman's features. He and Lindsay crouched down next to her, Lindsay adding the camera's flash to the glare. He waited until she was finished before touching the body. "Rigor's fully advanced," he commented. "No visible injuries." He inserted the liver probe, waited for the reading to stabilise, and did the calculation in his head. "It's half seven now, I'd put her TOD at about six this morning, give or take half an hour or so. Sid can give us a more accurate time when we get her back to the morgue."
"How can a body lie in an alley all day, and no one notice?" Lindsay asked.
Hawkes shrugged resignedly. "I guess everyone just walked on by."
Maybe it was excusable – just – for the body of the woman not to have been noticed. The narrow alley ran East to West, and was at all times deep in shadow, apart from at high noon.
"Who found her?" Lindsay asked Angell, who held up her hands and shrugged.
"Anonymous 911 call," she said. "It came from a disposable cell phone, about an hour ago."
Lindsay nodded, stepping out of the circle of light and into the gloom beyond and beginning to scan the ground, her flashlight lit, for any out-of-place footprints, anything that might have been dropped. After twelve hours, she wasn't optimistic.
"That's odd," Hawkes muttered, mostly to himself.
She turned back to him. "What is?"
He held up the woman's wallet. "Got an ID for her. Jennifer Philips. Age 30."
"What's odd about that?" she questioned.
He shook his head quickly. "No, her ID's not odd. But there's no cash in her wallet, and the wallet wasn't even in her pocket, just shoved under her arm. Looks like a robbery. Could be motive."
"What's the cause of death?" asked Angell.
"I haven't got anything yet," Hawkes said. "It's any one of a dozen possibilities. But look at this." He indicated one of Jennifer's hands, displaying the palm to the two women, as they approached. Lindsay returned to her previous task once she'd seen, but Angell crouched down to have a better look. Jennifer's fingertips were red, the skin raised slightly, the rash creeping down past the joint. "It's definitely caused by a chemical of some sort," he said. "Possibly an allergic reaction to something she touched."
"Do you think it's linked to her death?" Angell asked, interestedly.
Hawkes shrugged, bent over the body to examine it more closely. "Could be. Some poisons can be absorbed in fatal doses through the skin. I don't think we can rule anything out right now."
Lindsay half-listened to the two of them, busy as she was sweeping through the alley, racing against the fading light. For now her flashlight was enough, but soon she would have to fetch one of the large spotlights, and that would be annoyingly slow to drag around. Better to get evidence collection done before it came to that, but she couldn't see anything that was unequivocally evidence. The dusk was encroaching while she worked. Shadows swept around her as she moved, darkness drifting to collect into pools around and under dumpsters, in corners of the thresholds of the tightly sealed doors, and along the joins between floor and wall.
She glanced behind her to see Angell and Hawkes picking up boxes of evidence, presumably to carry them back to the car. He saw her looking and waved to her, calling out, "We're just beginning to move the evidence. Can you keep an eye on the scene for a couple of minutes?" She raised a hand in acknowledgement, and watched them meld into the gloom. She turned away again, not wanting to venture further and leave the body unattended, but still wanting to make sure that she wasn't overlooking some vital clue from where she stood.
A stack of crates slumped outwards from near a doorway, and as she walked across towards the other wall to see around them, she became aware of a noise, a stealthy rustling. Coming from behind them.
"Is there anyone there?" she called. The noise stopped.
Lindsay snatched a glance behind her, and saw that there was still no sign of Hawkes or Angell in the pool of light. Again there was a rustle, hastily suppressed, and her vague uneasiness compressed to a hard knot of certainty – there was someone behind the crates, someone trying to remain unnoticed. And now, due to her hasty calling-out, they would know that she was aware of them.
She transferred the flashlight to her left hand, and gently slid her gun from its holder. She hovered for a second in indecision, hoping desperately that the other two would return, her brain clinging strictly to procedure, which stated that she needed backup, but there wasn't any. The initiative was only with her.
Rustle. Rustle. The beam of the flashlight was on the ground near her feet. She didn't want to shine it directly at the crates, didn't want to do anything that would break this fragile stalemate she was trapped in.
She took a step forwards.
A box which had teetered precariously on the edge of the pile, suddenly slipped or was dislodged, falling with a crash to the ground. She jerked instinctively, weapon and flashlight raised, aiming wildly, as a shadow dislodged itself from the indistinct shapes and launched itself towards her, into the narrow band of light –
It was a cat. Just a cat.
Her shoulders slumped as her tensed muscles relaxed and she took a few steadying breaths, heart rate slowing, mentally chiding herself. A trained police officer, and she had been frightened by a black cat, which was now purring and rubbing itself against her leg. Gun still in her hand, she shone the flashlight directly onto the crates, seeing the gaps between them, satisfying herself that there could be no one behind them, and then walking slowly and silently to the other side of them to confirm. A black plastic bag was trapped at the base of the pile, probably what the cat had nosed to cause the rustling. She stepped back so that she could see the crime scene lights, laughing slightly to herself, replacing her piece. The cat had jumped up onto the pile again, level with her waist, and she absently paused for a second and stroked it, its fur feeling strange to her through the latex barrier of her glove.
"Hey, Lindsay?" Hawkes stepped into the lit crime scene, peering in her direction, and she left the cat behind and hastened towards him. "The body's being removed now."
"Ok," she said, slightly absently.
"Did you find anything down there?" he asked.
She too reached the flood-lit area. "No, nothing," she said, deciding to preserve her dignity by not mentioning her false alarm over the cat. She replaced the flashlight in her pocket, and turned to help with packing up the equipment.
"Lindsay…" Angell was suddenly staring at her.
"What?" she asked, the look and tone stirring a feeling of anxiety, to flutter inside her.
She looked down at her still-gloved hands, and her eyes widened.
Her right palm was smeared red, gleaming stickily in the bright light. She held it out in confusion, and stood there watching as Hawkes swabbed it, testing it, confirming it. Blood.
"Do you know what it's from?" he asked.
It was a ridiculous, and even repulsive, idea, that she'd touched a blood-covered surface without noticing it. But somehow, she had. She pulled the gloves from her hands and dropped them into the evidence bag which Hawkes held out, shaking her head in answer to his question, and already trying to think of possible explanations. "I don't know where it's from. I didn't see anything…"
- - - - -
The dusk pressed against the windows of the crime lab, repelled for now by the glass, and the lights. Stella stared out at it, standing by the coffee machine as it gurgled to life, reluctantly spurting coffee into the waiting cup. The brightly lit labs only made the evening sky outside appear darker.
Not looking where she was going, she stepped into the corridor, and nearly collided with Mac, who stepped back sharply, out of range of the coffee slopping from its cup, some of which soaked into the cuff of her lab coat. "Ashes aren't keeping you awake enough?" he asked her.
She pulled a wry face. "It's not even funny, Mac. We've been picking through them for hours now."
"Have you found anything?"
She raised an eyebrow. "We're still sorting out 'paper', 'cloth' and 'miscellaneous', don't expect miracles quite yet."
She almost told him about having seen the motorbike again, and then didn't. They didn't know that it was the same one, anyway. And it hadn't done anything, just idled on the side of a busy road. And Mac was busy now, they all were. There would be plenty of time to tell him later, and in the meantime she and Danny were more than capable of handling whatever was going on.
Unaware of her brief internal struggle, he was smiling, slightly teasingly. "Speaking of evidence, you've got some on your forehead."
His hand gently brushed away the smudge of dark soot that must have transferred when she had absently pushed her hair back. For a brief second she thought about how she would kill Danny, who could have hardly avoided noticing it, but the thought drifted away unmissed. "New forensic technique," she said, grinning. He laughed.
"And yet another reason why I'm heartily tired of ashes."
A clock in a nearby room chimed the hour. "I need to go and find Adam," Mac said, recalling them both to the situation at hand.
"I'll let you know if we find anything," she told him.
"Good luck." He strolled away, and Stella felt a twinge of guilt at lying to him by omission. But what was there to say? Someone on a red motorbike had happened to park for a few minutes across the street from their building? Put like that it seemed a silly thing to worry over, although she couldn't quite quell the unease she felt as she passed empty rooms, left abandoned to the night's shadows.
She shook her head to clear it and walked slowly back towards the layout room, the loud click of her heels the solitary noise in the deserted corridor, cooling cup of coffee almost forgotten in her hand.
- - - - -
Adam was sat in front of four computer screens, occasionally swivelling his chair around to get a better view of a particular one. Currently, he was watching a sped-up feed of everyone who had been in or out of Grace Ellison's apartment block that day. Everyone was uniformly unsuspicious looking. Even Grace Ellison herself, when he'd pinpointed her as having left at about five a.m., wasn't carrying anything other than the purse slung over her shoulder, and although her movements were fast, they weren't unnaturally so. If he hadn't known who she was, he would have just assumed that either she was a habitually fast walker, or that she was cutting it fine in getting to work.
Certainly not that three hours later, she would be apparently running for her life.
The main trouble that he was facing was that almost everyone leaving the building had been carrying a bag of some description, and the security camera seemed to have been placed on purpose at an angle that failed to pick up nearly everyone's faces. And it only recorded in black and white. After several hours spent staring at the screen, he half expected to see the whole world in monochrome when he looked away from it. Even so, he had nine suspects, men who had been both into and out of the building in the time between Grace's exit, and Stella and Danny's entrance. Three of them had gone in and out carrying nothing, two had come in carrying nothing and exited with bags, one a sports holdall and the other a laptop case, and the other four had entered and exited with bags, three laptop cases and one briefcase. But he highly doubted that he would be conclusively be able to identify them. The camera seemed to be designed more as a deterrent than as a serious method of catching anyone.
He was faring no better with the camcorder. Whoever had set it up had easily walked around the edge of its line of sight after turning it on, leaving him with ten seconds of the tip of a shadow moving across the roof, and then an hour and a half's worth of film of the metal drum and a couple of inquiring pigeons, before Danny and Stella appeared. He couldn't even use it to make a time line, as about halfway in, it had apparently stopped filming, and then started again an indeterminate amount of time later. With no time stamps.
There hadn't even been any sort of uplink on the camera, no way that the images had been transferred anywhere else. Either whoever had set it up hadn't thought that it might be discovered, or else… well, he didn't know what else. "What were you supposed to do?" he asked it, pleadingly. He put his elbows on the desk, and stared hard at the monitor, as if the answers were written somewhere on the screen in pixel-high letters. All that it came down to was that someone had made the crime lab a gift of a brand new camcorder, and an hour and a half of a recording of a rooftop.
He groaned in abject frustration, dropping his head and clenching his fingers into fists in his hair. "Stupid computer," he muttered. "Just tell me what's going on!"
"Voice recognition software?" someone asked dryly.
He jerked upright, and spun his chair through a half-turn, halting himself with a foot against the floor. Mac was leaning against the doorframe, eyebrows raised, surveying him with what appeared to be amusement. He felt his face flush. "No, I was just… I mean…"
Mac strolled forwards into the lab, surveying the screens. He pointed to the one on the left side, grey frozen people packed together. "Is that the tape from the subway station I gave you earlier?"
"Uh, yeah. I was looking at that a minute ago. I found who pushed her."
Mac nodded, his face keenly interested. "Really?"
Adam gulped, suddenly regretting his over-optimistic wording. "Well. Yes, but no." In response to Mac's raised eyebrows, he hastened on. "I mean, I found the guy on the tape, but… Well, it's here." He played the clip that he had isolated.
The crowd stood still, a uniform monochromatic mass all looking in the same direction, all avoiding eye contact with each other. Suddenly, a grainy, black-and-white man wearing a baseball cap shoved against the people standing next to him, and a wave of movement immediately rocked forwards. A moment ago he had been barely indistinguishable from anyone else. The man strained his neck up, possibly checking to see what he had accomplished, and then turned, forcing his way through resisting people behind him, and off the screen. The entire incident had taken less than thirty seconds.
"Can you clean the image up at all?" Mac asked, without much hope of it. He knew that if it had been possible, Adam would have already thought to do it.
Sure enough, Adam's reply was negative. "This is cleaned up. If I zoom in any further you can only see a mess of pixels."
"What about a better angle of him?"
Adam shook his head again, nervous in the face of his failure. "Sorry, this is all we've got. Well, actually, I managed to get the logo from his hat and run it through recognition software, but it's just the Mets logo. I mean, thousands of people have it."
"Do you have anything from the tapes of her apartment?"
"Not yet. I've got some suspects, but I'm still working on it." He immediately wanted to bite his words back again, for the second time in the conversation, but again it was too late.
"Good. Call me when you get something, ok?"
"Sure…" Adam trailed off dismally as Mac left. He waited until he was out of earshot, and groaned. "Why didn't you just tell him you've got no leads from those tapes either, you idiot?" he muttered to himself. Now he would have to find something, because Mac would be expecting him to. He began to rewind the film again, grey clockwork figures walking backwards, jerkily. Grace appeared again, and he stopped the tape to let her walk forwards from the elevator towards the exit, zooming in, viewing frame by frame.
"Please, tell me something!" he begged her desperately. Talking to a picture. Probably no less useless than talking to a machine.
He stared at her, caught and trapped on the film, until all the shades of grey began to blur together, and he had to rub his eyes to clear them. He looked again, and all at once a smile began to spread over his face as he realised exactly what he was seeing.
Maybe she was telling him something.