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The blood rushes to my head. "Where the hell am I?" The sentence rings in my ears as I look around. The damp, nicotine air fills my nostrils, making me gag. I try to sit up. A familiar discoloured pine tree dangles from the mirror in which I catch my reflection. "What the hell am I doing in my car?" "How did I get here?" "What the hell happened last night?" The questions are now coming thick and fast, and I can feel the bile rise in me. I just manage to open the door before spraying the watery contents on the gravel below. I gulp for air trying to push the nausea back down as my stomach muscles contract in defiance. Fuck, I feel rough. I lie there with my head hanging out the car door, contemplating my next move.


DI Jo Lawler drained the last of her coffee and leaned back in her chair. It had been a rough couple of weeks, closing out the Pryor case. Child cases were the worst. If I ever become immune to those, it's time to find another job, she mused, picking up the file. At least we got the bastard this time, slippery little fucker.

'Jo, you got the Pryor corres for me?' DCI Nicol shouted from his office.

'Right here, Gov.'

'Good stuff. And don't get too comfy, the water fairies need us to attend a house fire on Hilton road. Body's been found. SOCOs are already on route. Take DC Mather with you.'

Jo groaned inwardly. Ever since Rick had retired, she ended up supervising the noobs. She missed the shorthand with Rick, the decade of cases they worked. Now she was a babysitter. Wonder if Rick felt like that when I started? Thoughts of her first day flashing in her mind. Mather wasn't a bad lad, at least he was eager and observant. Just a shame he looks like a wounded puppy when you tell him off, she smiled to herself.

'Mather! You're with me, Hilton Road.'

'Sure thing, boss, what we got?

'Fire at 151, body found. Possible fatal accident, circs aren't clear right now.'

Mather grimaced, 'Christ. What a way to go. 151? That's just up from the Silver Jubilee, isn't it? Dodgy boozer that one. Been to a few calls there when I was buttoned up. Probably some pissed up punter's gone home and reckoned that a Findus french bread pizza was a good idea.'

'We'll know soon enough. Here', Jo said, throwing him the car keys, 'I'll even let you drive.'


The cherrypicker was still aimed at the first floor as they pulled up. Water ran down the blackened facade and in through the blown-out front window. The road was blocked off by a couple of patrol cars, so Mather pulled up on the verge.

'Great parking lad', Jo mumbled, as they climbed out of the car. She surveyed the area. A couple of familiar white suits were setting up on the patch of grass at the side while waiting for access to the scene. A few uniforms were standing by the tape, trying to keep the looky-loos at bay. Fortunately, at this time of the morning, there weren't too many up and about. She scanned the small crowd. If this was intentional, it wouldn't be the first time a suspect hung around to admire his handiwork. Turning back to the flat, she saw the tell-tale white helmet of the watch manager.

'Alright Jo, long time no see.'

'Always a good thing in our line of work Rob.'

He ducked under the tape and lifted his visor, 'It's a right state in there. Two fires. The first was just inside the front door. We managed to deal with that pretty quick, minimal damage to the stairs, so we were able to go up. My lads got the cherrypicker up and dealt with the first floor from outside, giving us a clearer view of the living room. That's where we found the body.'

'Two fires? So, not falling asleep with a fag then?'

'There goes my Findus theory’, Mather chimed in.

Rob looked quizzically at Mather then turned his attention back to Jo. 'No way two fires were set by the vic in there. That body was lit up.

'Fuck.' She resisted the urge to turn and tell Mather to hold it together, catching him wretch in her periphery. 'Mather, why don't you catch up with the uniforms and see if we can get some background.'

'Sure thing Skip.'

She swore she could hear the relief in his footsteps. 'Neighbour call it in?'

'Not sure yet, got three calls in quick succession about 7.30 am. First one hung up before control could take any particulars. We were out the door at the first one. The scene of crime officers will be able to get in now though.'

'Great. Who’s heading up their team today?'

'Karen Riley.'

'Good, at least she knows her shit. I’m just happy it isn't Barnham, smug wanker.'

'Nice to see you still don't mince your words. I'll go and give them the ok. Talk to you in a bit.'

'Cheers, Rob.'

Jo walked over to the small group of officers. Mather was listening intently to one of them, scribbling furiously.

'What have we got?'

Mather flicked back to the start of his notes, 'Flat is rented by an Ann Marie Couldridge, 28. Neighbours say she was going up to visit her husband, Eric Jarvis, yesterday. He’s doing a stint in Chelm nick. Neighbour John Clark said he saw her last night in the Silver Jubilee looking a bit worse for wear. She was with Jarvis's brother, Ian Jarvis and another female. Clark said he left the pub around 9 pm and they were still there.

'Right. Get one of the unis to take Clark down to the station for a statement and get him to radio for a unit to track down the brother. I'll ask the Gov to send a couple of guys to the nick and see if she made it there yesterday. Any other neighbours worth questioning?'

'Nope, lady there, Ruth Thomson, called the fire brigade but said they were here within minutes, so hers was probably not the first call. Everyone else came out when they heard the sirens.'

Mather turned purposefully to the unis and set about giving instructions. Jo smiled, he really was a good lad. She snapped her phone open and hit one on the speed dial. Mather turned back and waited patiently for her to finish her call.

'Sorted. Gov's sent Adams and Dodd to the nick. You done?'

'Yep. All organised. PC Williams is taking Clark to the station for his statement. He's also radioed for a unit to track down the brother.'

'Ok. Let's get suited up and take a look around the scene. We can head to the Jubilee afterwards. Hopefully, we'll get the name of the other female seen with them from there.'

Jo and Mathers made their way to the SOCO tent. A makeshift marquee to hide the horrors from within. Riley was finishing setting up.

'Morning Karen. All organised?'

'Morning Jo, Morning’, she nods at Mather, 'Shitty one for first thing. I’ve just sent Will and Campbell into video and photograph.

'We're not going to move the body into the tent, but safer for all of us if we catalogue in here. Pathologist is backed up and can't attend, but he can get what he needs from the video before the autopsy. Suits are there for you.'

'Great, thanks.'

As they were about to change, raised voices cut through the air.

'What now?’ Jo cursed, 'C'mon Mather.'

Jo stepped out first and saw a dishevelled man, in his late forties, talking animatedly and trying to get past the uniforms.

She turned to Mather, ‘I’ll do the talking.’ Mather nodded, falling in behind her.

Jo strode directly to him. 'Sir, Sir. I am DI Lawler; how can I help you?'

'I need to get in, that's ma’ brother's bird's flat'. The bruising on his face contorting with every word, and the stench of alcohol punctuating his sentences.

'And you are?'


'Ok Ian, let's just step over here, and we can have a chat.' Jo nodded to Mather; notebook now poised at the ready. Maybe, they would develop a shorthand, Jo thought as she ducked under the tape and moved Ian back from the perimeter.

'Is sh-she in there?'

'We are still investigating Ian. The fire brigade has just put the fire out. When was the last time you saw Ann?’

'I took her up to see ma’ brother yesterday, only they wouldna’ let me in.'

'And where is your brother?'

'Chelm nick. Is she in there? Have you seen her?'

'One step at a time Ian. Now you say you didn’t get into the prison to see your brother, is that right?'

'Aye, Ah didna have ma ID.'

'So, what did you do then?'

'I just went up to the Admiral and watched the game. Ann came and met me there.'

'And what did you do after that?'

'We came back down here an' went to the Jubilee. Ann's mate came and met us.'

‘What is her friend’s name?’

‘Dunno. I s’pose she said, but I canna remember.’

'And what time did you guys leave there?

Ian paused, considering the answer. Jo doesn’t wait for the response.

'You're looking a little bit banged up there, Ian. How did you get the marks on your face?'

'Cutting through the fence at the Jubilee. I had to come get ma phone.'

'Where was your phone?'

'At Ann's.'

'So, you saw her again?'

'Aye about, half twelve. I got ma phone an then spoke to ma bird an went to get a taxi.'

'Ok Ian, I think what we need to do is get you down to the station so we can take a formal statement. Hopefully, I'll have more information for you after that. Is that ok with you?’

'What about Ann, are you looking for her? Has anyone spoke to ma brother?'

'Don't worry Ian, just go with this officer here and I will be with you at the station soon.' Jo motioned for one of the officers.' Can you radio for a car to take Ian to the station, we'll be there shortly.'

'Yes, Ma'am.'

Jo and Mather ducked back under the tape. 'Did you get all that?'

'Sure did Skip.'

'I’m gonna call the Gov really quick and let him know the brother is on his way in.'

Jo takes a deep breath, hoping for voicemail. Now was not the time for a live update. She inhales deeply as the beep clicks in. That should be enough. She taps the phone closed and turns to Mather.

'Right, let's try this again.'

Jo and Mather ducked back into the tent. Riley had their coveralls set out. They stepped into their Tyveks, snapped on their gloves and booties. Riley handed them a couple of masks.

'Shall we?'

'After you Riley, Mather, you good?'

'All good, Skip.’


Although a lot of the smoke had cleared, it still caught the back of Jo's throat. Inside the front door, she could see the circular charred spot on the carpet and the dark stains going up the wall where the first fire had originated. As they got to the top of the stairs, Jo saw the charred doorway of the living room.

'Jesus Christ', gasped Mather, 'It smells like a metallic barbecue up here. That is rotten.'

Riley grimaced, 'Unfortunately that smell that will never leave you now.'

Jo shot him a look. She understood that this was his first burnt body, but she hoped he would hold it together. What he was about to see was not going to be any easier.

The two SOCOS already in the room came to the doorway. The one Jo knew as Campbell addressed Riley.

'We have videoed, photographed and marked up the room. The body has been badly burned around the torso, upper legs but did not spread as far as the head. There are deep purple marks on the neck and what appears to be bruises on the head. Cause of death to be determined by the pathologist.'

'Thanks. Do you mind stepping out while we get a look? It is not the biggest room.'

'No, problem.'

Mather grunted as he stepped inside the room, but kept his mouth shut this time. Jo wondered if the sickening sight had him lost for words. She looked down at the body, trying to take in as little air as possible. The torso looked as if it had melted away, like a flesh coloured rubber tyre. The hair on the body was strawberry blonde and matted. Jo was grateful it was covering the face. She needed to build up to that view. Riley sensed the mood and carefully crouched down to check the features.

Jo walked to the back of the room, where there was a picture hanging. Although the glass was smeared with smoke, she could make out a bubbly blonde face smiling back at her. She motioned to Riley, 'Is that her?'

Riley moved towards her 'I cannot say positively, but it certainly looks like the same person.'

'Mather, go check the bedroom for a handbag, phone or ID.'

'Aye, Skip.'

'Just horrible', Jo turned back to the body, 'The things people do to each other.'

'Don't I know it.'

Both women stood for a moment, their silent contemplation of the human condition only broken by the return of Mather.

'No handbag or phone in the bedroom, but I found an old college card. Ann Couldridge,' he said, handing it to Jo.

'That her?', showing it to Riley.

'Jo, you know I cannot confirm,' she crouched down again, pulling back the hair.

'I know, I know, but that certainly looks like Ann to me.'


Jo and Mather parked up at the Jubilee. Since leaving the flat and disrobing in the tent, both detectives had travelled the short distance in silence, what they had just witnessed hanging in the air between them. The rundown pub was not yet alive with customers, and the car park was almost empty, apart from a red beat up Renault Megane parked in the corner.

Jo turned to Mather, 'Do we know how Ann and Ian got to Chelmsford nick?'

'Not yet, but it’s a good two hours from here. If Jarvis said he took her, it was most likely by car.'

'Do a reg check on that car. L686 LTM.'

Mather radioed in to control, 'Sierra Oscar from DC Mather, can I get a reg check, over?'

'Sierra Oscar to DC Mather, go ahead, over."

'Sierra Oscar - reg for a Vehicle - Renault Megane - Red - lima six eight six lima tango mike.'

The radio crackled for what seemed like an age. ' Vehicle - Renault Megane - Red - lima six eight six lima tango mike is registered to an Ian Michael Jarvis.'

'Thanks, Sierra Oscar, DC Mather, out.'

'Well, we know he was here, but that he apparently got a taxi home. Let's take a look anyway.'

'Sure thing Skip.'

They walked towards the car without getting too close. Jo walked round to the driver's side and stopped abruptly.

'Someone was near this car recently,’ she pointed to the gravel, beside the rear door. ‘Looks like they were also a little worse for wear,’ nodding to a small puddle.

'Could've been someone leaning on it to throw up, or taking a piss?' Mather suggested.

'Possibly.' Jo looked in the back window. ‘Got a sleeping bag and pillow in there. Let's get a unit out here too to cordon it off, just to be on the safe side. Get the unit to bring the keys from Jarvis if he has them. Tell them that we just need them so we can bring his car to the station for him.'

Mather headed back to their car. Jo took the moment of solitude to work through her thoughts. Ann and Jarvis had gone to see his brother and had made it to this pub. Ann left before Jarvis, but he admitted seeing her later. Who was the female with them and who is Jarvis' girlfriend? Did he get a taxi to hers? Her thoughts were interrupted by Mather's return.

'All good Skip, ETA ten minutes.'


Jo was grateful; the ten minutes actually felt like ten minutes. Two pandas arrived, and the four officers set about securing the car.

'Did he give up the keys?'

One of the unis turned around, jangling them, ‘He was a bit cagey at first, but we managed to persuade him that we just wanted his car there for him once he was done.'

'Good, give us a minute while we check to see if there are any staff on just now and we can get a quick look when we get back. Any sign of a forensic unit coming out?'

'Gov said to let you know Riley is going to be down in the next half hour once she organises the SOCOs to finish up at the scene.'

Jo stepped back from the car and looked back at the rundown building. This was not somewhere you would think to come for a night out. The building screamed 'keep out' more than 'welcome in'. Its dark-cloaked windows were more function than feature.

Jo thanked the officer and nodded to Mather. 'Let’s head in and see who's about. I’m sure I just saw a curtain twitch.'


The stale smoke in the pub did little to mask the intermingling smells of body odour, sick and alcohol. A small haggard cleaner was doing what she could.

'Hey there, gaffer about?', Mather shouted over to the old dear.

'In the back, I'll get him for you.'

The cleaner wandered behind the seventies pine bar and shouted, 'Jack, Jack', she turned back and looked at them, 'Polis here for ya.'

Jo reckoned they’d had their fair share of visits from plain clothes and it was not unusual for the cleaner to spot them a mile off.

Just then 'Jack' appeared. His crumpled shirt and stained trousers looked more late-night customer than early morning owner.

'Hey there folks, what can I do ya for?'

Jo stepped forward, 'We are just looking for a bit of info and to let you know we have cordoned off a vehicle in your carpark.'

'Zat so? What's goin' on?'

'What's your full name, sir?

'Jack Thomson. Manager an’ general dogsbody', Jack flashed them a toothy grin.

'Were you working last night?'

'Yep, here all day every day.'

'Do you know a woman by the name of Ann Couldridge? Was she in last night?'

'She was. In with one o' her pals and Ian.'

'Do you know the name of her friend?'

'Donna, something...Donna Eaton.'

'What time were they all here until?' Out the corner of her eye, she saw Mather underline the name.

'Ann and Donna left about 11 pm an' Ian was here until closing.'

'And what time did you lock up?'

'About twelve, was up the stairs about quarter past. Live-in. So, what's going on?'

'We are investigating a fire that happened on Hilton Road.'

'Jesus, Ah wondered what was goin' on this morning. Ann's?' Jack was quick, Jo noted.

'We believe so. We’re just trying to track everyone's movements.'

'Like ah said Ann an’ Donna left about eleven. Pretty far gone by all accounts.'

'What about Ian?'

Jack laughed, 'If it hadn't been closing, I would have had to cut him off.'

'Did you see anything else?'

'Nah, just shut up shop and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.'

'Thanks very much, we'll get out of your hair. We’ll be out of the carpark in the next half hour or so. Do you know who the car belongs to?'

'Aye, it's Ian's. Often leaves it there when he's had a skinful. What ya needin' that for?'

'Thanks again for your time Mr Thomson.'

As they headed out the door, the cleaner stopped them. 'There was someone in that car this morning, I saw them movin' about when I got here at seven.'

'Did you see who it was Ms..?'

'Mrs Stevens. No, just saw a lump in the back movin'.'

'Thank you, Mrs Stevens. We’ll be in touch with you and Mr Thomson if we need anything else.'

'Wonder who was in the car?' Mather mused as they headed to the car park.


Riley was just arriving as Jo and Mather stepped out of the Jubilee.

'Perfect timing. Good thing you brought your car,' Jo smiled.

'I know, it was easier this morning when I got the call. So, what's up? What you are thinking Jo?' Riley asked as she walked to the boot of her car and got out her second set of Tyvek coveralls for the morning.

‘That’s Ian Jarvis' vehicle. He said he left it and got a taxi home, but we noticed a sleeping bag, pillow and a lovely bit of what could be sick or piss by the car door.'

'Nice. I will get a sample. Keys?'

'Here', said Jo handing them over.

'Let’s see what we've got.'

As soon as the door opened the smell of smoke was overpowering.

'Woah, that's as bad as the crime scene,’ Mather sniffed behind Jo.

'It certainly smells a bit stronger than cigarette, smoke,' Riley commented from behind her mask. 'Jo?'

'I think it's time to impound this car. Not sure what it will achieve though. Smelling something is one thing, evidence is another.'

Riley’s eyes lit up, 'There may be something to help with that. There is a relatively new technique called Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry or GC/MS.'

'Ok, and what's that when it's at home?'

'Simply put, if any of the materials in the car have come into contact with an accelerant, and we can match it an accelerant that may have been used at the scene, the 'smell' can be introduced as evidence.'

Mather whistled, 'Christ what will they think of next!'

'It seems like a bit of a long shot to me', sighed Jo, 'But I'll take it. Time to have a little chat with Mr Jarvis, I think.'

© Copyright 2020 ZOE COOPER
All Rights Reserved.

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