Jack Mason’s iPhone rang the minute he stepped out of the Area Commander’s office. The details were sketchy, but the truth when it came shocked even the most hardened police officers on the team. Now kitted out in white protective coveralls, shoes cover and face mask, the Detective Chief Inspector took another deep breath and poked his head in through the open doorway. The flies were the giveaway. Thousands of them, along with an overpowering stench of rotten flesh. No matter how many precautions he undertook, it always had the same effect on him. Mason had read somewhere that blow flies weren’t the only organisms scavenging on the human corpse. Bacteria, fungi and vertebrates were also in competition. The thing was, blow flies used an antenna to sniff out dead meat and usually got there first. Not that he was an expert or anything. He wasn’t.
Maggots troubled him most; the damn things got everywhere. No longer than a grain of rice, once a larva had metamorphosed it would mature into a fully-grown blow fly and join the rest of the goddamn swarm. If they did have a useful purpose in life, it was to tell him how long a person had been dead. Shit happened, but this was ridiculous.
‘It’s not a pretty sight,’ the Crime Scene Manager said by way of introduction.
Early fifties, with an unruly shock of jet black hair, Stan Johnson had a touch of the eccentric about him. Not one for mincing his words, Johnson was more than capable.
With sunlight bleaching through a chink in the curtains, Mason’s eyes toured the room. Johnson was right. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Now taking centre stage, the dead woman’s bloated body looked surreal. From what he could see, the corpse was showing early signs of blistering. Blood everywhere, the head had fallen back slightly, and the tongue forced out of the mouth. He could see the wrists had been bound to the chair armrests with heavy duty duct tape, and her ankles strapped to the base. He’d seen evil before, but nothing compared to this.
From the outside, the house had looked ordinary. Inside was a different matter, of course. What had begun as a routine enquiry was now a full-on murder investigation.
The small knot of forensic officers had grown.
‘Do we know who she is?’ Mason asked.
Dr Colin Brown, a lean, long-backed, balding man, with a stern flushed face and thick bushy sideburns peered back at him from the corner of the room. ‘Her name’s Jennifer Oakwell.’
‘What do we know about her?’
‘Neighbours say her ex-husband is doing time in Durham prison.’
‘That complicates things.’
The doctor shook his head resignedly. ‘It gets worse.’
‘There’s been another incident.’
‘What do you mean. . . incident?’
‘Upstairs,’ the doctor said, pointing a finger at the ceiling. ‘There’s blood everywhere, but we’ve yet to find a body.’
Mason peered at the woman’s corpse and stiffened. He wasn’t a tall man, five-nine, Mediterranean looking with a moon-like face that had seen more than its fair share of trouble.
‘What about forensics?’
‘No. Nothing yet,’ the doctor replied.
‘Another grudge attack by the looks?’
‘I’ve counted at least thirty stab wounds to her head, neck, and body. The chest wall has been punctured, penetrating the lungs and heart chamber.’ The doctor ran his spatula over the dead woman’s upper body and shifted his stance. ‘He used a long-bladed knife by the look of things, but don’t quote me on that. Not until Home Office Pathologists have completed their findings.’
The doctor’s voice sounded lame, as if his cage had been rattled.
‘The suspect may have been disturbed at some point,’ Johnson added. ‘After he’d finished his business down here, he then set about the upstairs victim.’
Mason bristled, pen poised. ‘Any sign of a struggle?’
‘By the amount of force used, I’d say it was over in seconds.’
Mason checked his notes. ‘It’s a bit over the top don’t you think?’
‘Whoever he is, he intended to leave his trade mark behind.’
Mason swung sharply to face the Crime Scene Manager. ‘Trade mark, what mark is this?’
‘He’s drawn smiley faces on the upstairs bedroom walls, using the victim’s blood.’
‘That’s all we need.’
Johnson shook his head. ‘It takes all sorts I suppose.’
‘What about neighbours?’
‘University students mainly. It’s half-term and many have gone back to their parents’ homes.’
‘Who found her, Stan?’ Mason asked.
‘A close friend; she was on her way to work apparently. When Oakwell’s mobile phone kept ringing out, that’s when she decided to call in.’
Still grappling with his emotions, Mason brushed another annoying blow fly from his face and stepped back a pace. ‘What time was this, Stan?’
‘Half seven this morning.’
‘Has she given us a witness statement?’
‘I wouldn’t go there if I were you. She’s in a bad state of shock by all accounts.’
Mason tilted his head back in thought. ‘She obviously had a key to the place.’
‘Yes, she did.’
From what Mason could see, the dead woman looked mid-fifties. Not tall, plump, with a rounded face and square jawline. The front of her dress had been torn away, and dried blood covered her breasts and lower limbs. These weren’t random killings; these murders had been planned, he reasoned. Once they knew more about the victims’ backgrounds, it would be a simple matter of legwork.
Mason ran his hand over his short-cropped hair and felt a knot in his stomach tighten. It wasn’t a particularly large room, drab, with plain painted walls and cheap second-hand furniture. The living room carpets were worn, shabby in places and badly stained. Truth be told, the victim and assailant were probably known to each other. There were no signs of forced entry, and all the ground floor windows were shut.
His next question, when it came, was more direct.
‘How long has she been dead?’
‘I can’t swear to it – not longer than a week.’ The doctor glanced back at him, then down at the dead woman’s hands again. ‘No doubt Dr Gillian King will fill you in with the rest of the details during the post-mortem examination.’
‘Jennifer Oakwell, you say?’ Mason said, looking over the top of his notebook.
‘We’ve run a database check over her ex-husband,’ said Johnson, ‘he’s currently serving a twenty year stretch for armed robbery. His name’s Frank Wiseman, and he’s a nasty piece of work by all accounts. Six months ago, he was involved in a minor dispute over prison visitors’ privileges. A few days later a scuffle broke out in the prison canteen, and he beat the living daylight out of one of the prison officers.’
‘CV’s don’t come much better than that.’ Mason grimaced. ‘Is there anything else I should know?’
‘Like I say, it’s still early days.’
The real horror lay in the upstairs front bedroom. Blood everywhere, graffiti-filled walls; it was like stepping into a slaughter house at the end of a long day’s shift. The room smelt of fear, reminiscent of another case he’d recently worked on. Whoever had died here had certainly met a horrific ending.
Mason stood in silence for a moment, thinking.
The report would come later, after he’d cleared his head of unpleasant thoughts. The problem was, Mad Frankie Wiseman didn’t exude charm at the best of times. The man was a moron, and not to be taken lightly. But there was more to it than that. There had to be.
As he made his way back downstairs, he tried to get his head around it all. Without a second body to work on, it was difficult to get a real feel for what might have happened here. Judging by the amount of blood spatter, it looked a prolonged attack. There was no sign of a scuffle, and no quarter given. And yes, Mason thought, whoever had killed these people had a definite point to prove.
Before leaving, he checked in with the Crime Scene Manager, and made a few observations. More importantly to Jack Mason was the pub on Bensham Road. It was Friday, and the start of his weekend was fast slipping away from him. He needed some thinking time, and right now he could murder a drink.
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