Illusion of Peace
A/N: The usual disclaimers apply. If you read this story, I'd be grateful if you would review and let me know - it seems I'm the only person writing this stuff at the moment, it would be nice to know I'm not the only one reading it! Feedback is always appreciated. I do not have a proof reader, so mistakes are my own fault.
Chief Inspector Morse reached up and loosened his tie, as he leaned back in his office chair, contemplating the days' crossword puzzle in the Times newspaper. It had not been a particularly difficult one, so he was entertaining himself by altering some of the clues to make it more difficult. It had been a quiet couple of weeks, and this was fine with Morse. A Styrofoam cup of rapidly cooling tea sat by his elbow on the desk, and he reached for it, taking a sip, ignoring the bitter taste that indicated that it had been brewed for too long and did not have enough sugar in it. He sighed, scribbled a note next to one of the clues, and considered writing to the newspaper to suggest that they look for better puzzle-writers.
His reverie was interrupted by a sudden knock on the door, but he did not look up as the door opened. There were very few people who dared to knock on the door and then walk in uninvited.
"Morning, sir," Sergeant Lewis said, with a quick smile, "Sorry to interrupt, but we've had a call in – there's a body been found in a bin-bag, in a drainage ditch near the canal – Dr Russell is already on her way."
Morse folded up the newspaper and cast it aside without another thought. He stood up and straightened his tie, stepping around the desk.
"What do we know so far?" he asked, leading the way towards his car.
"Not much," Lewis admitted, "a bloke cleaning some of the ditches and the lock overflow systems called it in. Two constables went down to check it out, and they called for CID. Apparently, the body's been there for some time – there's not a lot left."
"There's probably more there than they think," Morse replied, dourly, "come on then – I'll drive, and you can navigate."
Morse ended up having to park his distinctive Jaguar in a pub car park, in order to walk along the canal towpath. They had to walk some distance, and Morse grew impatient.
"How much further?" he demanded, after about half an hour.
"Just around the corner, I think, sir," Lewis replied, patiently, "ah – here we are."
He pointed down the towpath, to where a white tent could just be seen poking out of the greenery and trees along the bank of the canal. Morse and Lewis headed towards it, and a uniformed police constable stepped forward to greet them.
"Morning, sir," he said, politely, to Morse, "Dr Russell is with the body at the moment. It's quite muddy back there, sir."
The constable indicated his own muddy shoes and trousers with an air of distaste. Morse growled something imperceptible, and Lewis hid a smile.
"Thanks, Joe," the sergeant smiled, "anything useful from the bloke who reported it?"
"Nothing much," the constable replied, with a shake of his head, and pointed down the canal, "between these two locks either side of us runs a drainage ditch behind this tree line – it's kind of an overflow system – it stops this bit between the two locks from flooding in heavy rain, or if the boaters forget to close the top lock properly before they fill it. The water runs out from this middle bit and joins the lower part of the canal via the drainage ditch."
"And that's where the body is?"
"Yes, sir - tied up in a couple of bin bags and dumped in the ditch. Apparently, weights in the bag kept it from washing away. I'm afraid there's not much left – just a skeleton. The bloke who was cleaning the ditch – his name's Bob Lethbridge – came across the bag and opened it to see what it was. Got a bit of a shock, I think."
Morse glanced across to the nervous-looking middle-aged man, who was talking to a female constable further down the towpath.
"Keep him here," Morse ordered, "I'm going to want to talk to him. Come on, Lewis – let's get this over with."
Lewis obligingly ducked into the crime scene tent, and held back the flap for Morse. As the Chief Inspector straightened up, he surveyed the interior. The Scene of Crime Officers, or SOCOs for short, had used one of their larger tents, putting it up as best they could between the trees, stretching it back some way into the greenery, over the drainage ditch, and pitching it on the other side. A tarpaulin had been spread over the ground in an effort to keep the mud at bay, but the ditch was left open. The sour smell of mud and stagnant water hung in the musty interior of the tent, but Morse was grateful to note that the usual smell of death and decomposition did not appear to be present. He took a few steps towards the back of the tent.
"This looks interesting," he commented.
Dr Russell glanced up. She wore a white forensic overall, topped off with green Wellington boots. She was crouching in about a foot of murky brown canal water, looking less than amused.
"You wouldn't be saying that if you were down here, Morse," she replied, not getting up, "pay attention, now, because I'm only going to run through this once."
From the corner of his eye, Morse saw Lewis jotting down notes as the doctor spoke.
"What have we got, then?" he asked, forcing himself to step closer to take a look.
It was a sorry sight – the bin bag had been torn open, and inside was the visible remains of a skeleton, partially obscured in the water that had seeped in.
"I'm not totally sure yet," Russell replied, pushing back a wisp of blonde hair from her forehead with the back of a gloved hand, "the remains are skeletal, virtually no flesh left, though some traces of hair – long hair, colour indeterminate at the moment. Everything's pretty mud-stained. I'd say the body has been here for a year at least. I've had a quick look at it, and from the shape of the pelvis, I'd say it was female, probably mid-twenties. The bin bags were tied off with a cable tie – I've found similar ties in the inner bin bag. There were three bags around her in all. Here you go…"
Russell held up two evidence bags, which Morse reached out and took. Sure enough, there were two fastened cable ties, black ones, stained with mud.
"Restraints?" Morse guessed.
"I'd say so," Russell agreed, "From the looks of it, your victim was tied up, killed, and dumped here. Not a convenient spot – your killer had to travel some distance to get here."
"So I noticed," Morse replied, dryly, "cause of death?"
"So far, undetermined," Russell told him, standing up, "I'll know more when I've got her back to the lab and reassembled the skeleton. Okay, guys – let's get it out of here. Careful now – don't drop anything. And I want a fingertip search of this ditch area. The chances are some of the smaller bones may have been washed away, but let's sift through the mud at the bottom and see what we can find. Morse, I'll call you when I know anything."
"Thank you, doctor," Morse nodded, "come on, Lewis – let's talk to Mr Lethbridge."
"Please, just call me Bob."
Bob was a middle-aged man, probably late forties, with greying brown hair, grey-blue eyes and a heavily lined face with a stubbly grey bristle across his jaw. He was about 5 foot 6, and thin to the point of emaciation – his green waders looked two sizes too big for him.
"Okay, Bob," Lewis nodded, "what were you doing down here?"
"I'm employed by British Waterways, you see," Bob replied, in a slightly Scouse accent, "these overflow ditches often get clogged up with plants, mud, silt, bricks, rubbish – you name it, it washes up in here."
"Like dead bodies?" Lewis raised his eyebrows.
"Now, that one's a first for me," Bob admitted, "I've been working on the canals for twenty-three years, and that's a new one on me."
"Take me through what happened."
"I was clearing away some rubbish and weeds," he replied, indicating a black bin bag nearby, "when I saw the tied up bag, I figured some boater had dumped a bag of rubbish. I went to move it to put it with my bags, but as I picked it up it tore – that was when I saw the bones. I used my mobile to call you guys in."
"What happens to the bags when they're full?" Lewis asked, "you can't possibly carry them all back to a car yourself."
"No," Bob shook his head, "there's a dredger due along here in a few days time – the boaters are complaining about the boats scraping the mud banks in the lock basin, so Waterways are going to dredge this section of canal. The dredger will pick up the bags as they pass through. That's why I was cleaning the ditches – the dredgers can't do that."
"How often is the dredging done?" Lewis asked.
Bob shrugged; "Along here? I think it was last done about five years ago."
"Would that be the last time the ditch was cleaned?"
"Probably – can't remember if it was me that did it though. There're only a few blokes around here that do that sort of work. Or else community service folks do it."
Lewis glanced back at the tent. It was clear that if the SOCOs had not pushed back or cut away the greenery, the ditch would not even be visible from the towpath. It was hardly surprising that the body could have lain undiscovered for so long, especially if the bag had been partially submerged in water for that length of time.
"We're going to need you to come down to the station and make a full statement," Lewis told him, "in the meantime, if you do remember anything else, please contact me."
Lewis handed him a card with the number on it, thanked him for his help, and joined Morse at the canal side. He reported back, in summary, what little he had learned, and Morse nodded his understanding.
"We'll need to wait for Dr Russell's report and the forensic findings before we can do much," Morse commented, as they walked back to the car, "get a full statement from Lethbridge as soon as you can. I also want you to start checking missing persons files for young women between the age of twenty and thirty who would have been reported missing about a year ago. What time is it?"
Lewis checked his watch quickly; "Twelve-fifteen, sir."
"Good. Let's go for a drink while we wait for Dr Russell's report, shall we?"
It was early evening before Dr Russell called them in to the pathology lab. She greeted them as they entered, and immediately led them through to the laboratory, where the skeletal remains had been arranged on one of the autopsy tables.
"She's definitely female," Russell announced, folding her arms and frowning down at the skeleton thoughtfully, "I'm sticking to my early to mid-twenties estimate. Several bits are missing – probably washed away – but the main parts are virtually intact."
"Enough to establish a cause of death?" Morse asked.
"Sort of," Russell replied, cagily, "so far, I've identified two possible causes of death – your victim had two broken vertebrae in her neck – consistent with violent strangulation. I also found knife marks on her ribs – multiple stab wounds. It looks like a frenzied attack. I counted at least twenty separate wounds. There's no way to tell if they were pre- or post-mortem, but any of them could have caused her death. The presence of the cable ties indicate that her wrists and ankles were bound. She was probably killed fifteen to eighteen months ago, I'd say, although the bacteria in the canal water could have speeded up the decomposition – it could have been as little as eleven months ago, but that's as short a time frame as possible under the conditions, I would think."
"What else can you tell us?"
"She was about five foot nine, long blonde hair, no obvious deformities or distinctive features," Russell shrugged, "Statistically, as she had naturally blonde hair, her eyes would probably have been blue. Her skull is very symmetrical – I'd imagine she was quite good looking."
Morse was secretly impressed that this much information could be gleaned from looking at the sorry skeletal figure now before them.
"I'll have more for you when the toxicology results come back on the hair and bone fragments I sent in," she told them, "now, let's move on to the forensics… I found a couple of interesting things in the inner bin bag, which I've sent to the labs. I've got pictures for you here though…"
She crossed over to a desk, where three A4 glossy prints were laid out.
"These bricks were used to weigh down the bag," she indicated the first picture, showing four ordinary red house bricks, "a lack of cement or anything on the bricks suggests they were new at the time, unused, probably taken from a building project or stolen from a building site. Fairly generic, a bit of a dead end, really. Secondly, something more interesting – a sterling silver charm bracelet. This is fairly distinctive, could be used to identify your victim. Finally, a silver hair grip – again, plain and fairly generic, but might help with ID."
"Is there anything else we need to know?" Morse asked, as Lewis gathered up the photographs.
"I couldn't find any cloth or fibres – and a human body decays faster than a pair of shoes or a coat. Your victim was naked when she was dumped, which might indicate she was sexually assaulted – why strip the body just to dump it, and why redress it if it's already naked? As I've said, she was probably an attractive girl. Maybe that goes to motive? I don't know – that's your department."
"Thank you, doctor," Morse nodded, "call me if you find anything else."
"Of course," Russell nodded, "let me know if there's anything else you need."