Barry Steel was barely alive when they pulled him from the cab of his blue Ford Transit van that night. This was no accident, nor was it suicide. Somewhere beneath the layers of twisted metal, along with a dead woman's body now trapped in the front passenger seat of the little red Volkswagen Polo, lay the truth. It would take all night before accident investigators would get to the bottom of it - they were in no hurry.
Jack Mason waved his warrant card under the young Constable's nose, signed his name in the crime scene entry log sheet, and braced himself against the elements. Not usually the sort of job for a Detective Chief Inspector at ten minutes to midnight, he thought. As if he didn't have enough problems already. Feeling like shit, his head was pounding and the back of his throat felt like course sandpaper. He'd read somewhere that oestrogen gave women a stronger immune system, and more resistance to respiratory illnesses compared to their testosterone-filled counterparts.
Bullshit, he cursed.
Mason heard the ambulance radio crackle into life, then saw the blue emergency warning lights spinning. Seconds later, he watched as four burly firemen prepared to lift the heavily sedated van driver into the back of the waiting ambulance. Overseeing the proceedings, a young female trauma-team doctor was holding up an IV bag, whilst giving out instructions to a male paramedic on the other end of the drip line. It was then that he spotted the large recovery truck. It was facing downhill, its engine switched off and cab windows heavily frosted over. Closer to home, not far from the crash scene, he caught his first glimpse of the Fire and Rescue Appliance. Nearby a group of road traffic officers stood huddled around the back of their police BMW X5 Traffic vehicles. Picked out in the floodlights, their distinct yellow hi-vis jackets reminded him of a nineties skiing jacket his father once made him wear.
'Not the best of nights, Jack.'
Mason turned sharply to confront the Crime Scene Manager. Early fifties, with an unruly shock of jet black hair, Stan Johnson had a touch of the eccentricity about him. He bred budgerigars for show and was honorary president of his local Morris Dancers' Society, whatever that meant. Amidst bouts of coughing, he watched as Johnson glanced across at the crumpled wreckage and raised his black thickset bushy eyebrows as if about to speak.
'Do we have an ID on the casualty?' Mason asked.
'His name's Barry Steel, he works for the local water authority.'
'Not his lucky night!'
Johnson's frown lines corrugated. 'He was on his way to an emergency callout when the accident happened.'
'Has he said anything?'
'Not yet he hasn't, he's still unconscious.'
Mason hunched his shoulders and dug his hands deep into his coat pockets. When he spoke, his warm breath condensed into tiny water vapour droplets sending out thick clouds of white fog. He wasn't a conspicuously tall man, five-nine, stocky, with strong powerful shoulders and short cropped hair. His nose had been broken a few times, and stuck back on a face that had seen more than its fair share of trouble. Barely six weeks into his new role with the Serious Crime Squad, Mason was out to impress - or that was his intention.
Cursing man flu, his whole body was aching and he clearly lacked energy. Now turned forty-five, his twenty-seven years with the Metropolitan police had taught him many things. Above all, never take anything for granted.
'What do we know about the red Volkswagen Polo?' he asked.
It's registered to a Miss Caroline Harper,' Johnson replied.
And the young woman still trapped inside of it?'
'Ni ID as yet, but she's already been pronounced dead.'
Ouch! Bad start for someone's New Year.'
'I'm afraid so.' Johnson acknowledged.
Mason did a quick mental check. He'd taken the call shortly after crawling into bed that night. Head on collision, they said. The driver was missing and uniforms were out searching. This sort of thing happened regularly in Gateshead; late night revellers out of control. Mason hated uncertainty. The not knowing what was coming next. Ducking below the police cordon tape, he pulled his collar and made towards the crash scene.
Out of all the police doctors who could have been on duty that night, it had to be Henry Hindson. The man exuded arrogance from every pore of his body, and he wasn't ;liked either. Well, Mason cursed, might as well get it over with.
'What do we have, Henry?'
'Young woman, slightly built, around thirtyish,' Hindson mumbled.
'Died on impact?'
'You need to look closer, Jack.'
Hindson's reply was abrupt, and Mason had picked up on it. Seething with anger, he struggled to stay in control. His whole body was aching and his legs felt as though they had lead weights attached to them. To make matters worse, every few milliseconds the dead woman's face was illuminated by the ambulance's blue flashing spinner lights. Eyes glazed over, mouth frozen open in a cry of revulsion, she was staring back at him through the mangled passenger door. Not your usual drunken driver head-on collision, he thought. This one felt different - sinister, more controlled.
Mason stepped back a pace, his voice sounding croakier by the minute.
'Estimated time of death?'
The doctor stood for a moment, removed his wool beanie hat, and ran his fingers through his silky white hair. 'It's difficult to be exact. Not more than four hours, I'd say.'
'She didn't die here if that's what you are thinking, this one was murdered.'
Mason flinched as the SOC's camera flash bounced off the dead woman's wax-like features. From where he now stood, only the rear half of the Polo was visible. The air reeked of diesel fumes, and the temporary floodlighting was casting ominous shadows over the entire crash scene. It was then he noticed the water authority's van roof had been cut away. There was blood over the drivers seat, oil on the floor, and the steering wheel had been removed by the emergency services.
'What makes you say that?' Mason asked.
'Take your pick: there's bruising to the neck and severe blunt force traumas to the back of the scull. No doubt a detailed postmortem examination will tell us more.'
Mason tried not to dwell on it.
The doctor nodded. 'There's oil stains on her dress but very little blood, which you'd anticipate finding from such extensive head trauma injuries.'
Murdered elsewhere, well I'll be damned!'
From what he could see, Coldwell Lane ran a good half mile to the crossroads with Windy Nook. Judging by the impact damage, speed was the overriding factor here.
Stepping from the shadows he was met by Sergeant Morrison, an old school copper now nearing retirement his peaked cap and peered in through a small jagged opening at the rear of the Volkswagen Polo. What Morrison didn't know about RTC's wasn't worth discussing.
'What do you think, old-timer?' Mason asked.
'It looks like the driver 's done a runner, boss.'
Mason stared at him quizzically.
'TWOC, do you think?'
'We'll need to check whether the vehicle was in gear before it collided.' the sergeant confirmed. 'At least that should tell us how it arrived here.'
'Who would jump ship with a dead woman sat beside you?'
'Some scumbag did.'
Mason peered into the well of the vehicle again. There was glass everywhere, a strong smell of engine oil and the metallic clicking sound of cooling metal. Fingerprints found on the steering wheel might uncover something. There again, it had probably been wiped clean. He stared at the dead woman's face. She was a pretty thing, with long wavy brown hair, high cheekbones, and incredibly long eyelashes. She looked so innocent, he thought.
He flashed his torch beam ahead of them. Some crime scenes spoke volumes to him, but not this one. This one felt different, as though he had stepped through an open door not knowing what was on the other side. What had started off as a routine road traffic accident was now a full blown murder investigation.
As he walked back towards the recovery vehicle, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Hold on a minute!
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