All My Sins Remembered
Last Call for Betty
Detective Sergeant Edwards, haunted by images of murder and mutilation, negotiated seven concrete steps that led down from the footpath and placed one, neatly manicured hand onto cracked, peeling paint. He paused for a second, reflecting on how foolish it was for him to be wandering the streets of Sheffield alone at nearly half three in the morning. Especially these streets. Utter madness. Behind him, burger cartons and chip wrappers blew past boarded-up shop fronts. The few street lights that were not smashed, failed to penetrate the depths of piss-stinking doorways, from which came the occasional catarrhal cough or moan. Heavy, bruise-coloured clouds shifted in the black sky. A bright, white moon appeared and glinted in the tiny diamond set into Edwards’ signet ring as he tapped three times, paused, and then tapped twice more onto a battered, steel door. It swung open silently. He took three steps forwards, then stopped.
The door shut behind him.
Thin, blue, tenebrous light from a makeshift bar in the corner saved the room from complete darkness. A slow, sultry, tenorsax solo oozed through the pall of blue smoke, soothing the handful of hard, sombre drinkers seated or slumped at haphazard, sticky tables.
Edwards walked slowly across the room.
A few faces turned to watch as his steps echoed on the bare, wooden floor. Expressionless faces, attracted only to sound and movement. Edwards ignored them as they turned back to their drinks or closed their eyes on the world. He headed straight for the table on the far side where a man sat in the shadows, totally still, his eyes closed.
He stopped a few feet short. Was he asleep? He didn’t want a scene. On the table were a dozen, empty, shot glasses, plus, one still half full. The man’s head was tilted back, the skin in his neck stretched taught. Shoulder length, wispy grey hair fell across the back of the chair.
Edwards leaned forwards and put his hand onto the man’s shoulder.
Instantly, his eyes sprang open and fixed the Sergeant with a steely blue stare. “What?” he snapped.
“We’ve had a call, sir,” Edwards said. “There’s been another one. Another girl murdered.”
Inspector Frank Vine closed his eyes again, breathed in deeply through his nose and then exhaled slowly through his mouth.
Frank opened his eyes again. Edwards, looking as though he’d just stepped out of Burton’s window. No, he thought, scratch that, Giorgio Armani’s window, with his perfect, blonde hair and immaculate, grey suit. How did he do it? “Time?” he demanded, no sign of any effect from the alcohol.
Frank wiped his mouth across the back of his hand, then pushed up onto his feet, smoothing his hair up and back across his head with both hands, moulding it to his scalp. Creased, black trousers, crumpled, off-white shirt and stubbled chin gave him the appearance of a derelict. He picked up the last drink and emptied clear but dusty liquid down his throat.
He grimaced. The alcohol burned.
“Needed somewhere quiet,” he said, “to think.” He glanced around at the company he was sharing. “You must feel uncomfortable in here, Edwards.”
“Well… I, er… They’re smoking, sir.”
“I know. But then, it is an illegal blues club. There’s no distractions in here. It’s almost meditative. I don’t expect you to understand. Come on.” He dragged a tatty, crumpled, beige jacket from the back of the chair and walked briskly across the room. He spoke to no-one. Looked at no-one.
He pulled the green, steel door open and climbed the seven, too familiar stone steps to the pavement. The cold, night air bit into his face. Made him shiver.
“Bloody freezing,” he said, making his way down the street, pulling his collar up against the wind.
“Time of the year, sir: a bit unpredictable.”
“April is the cruellest month,” said Frank.
“Nothing. How far?”
“It’s only a little way to the car, then we’ll be out of the cold.”
Edwards’ big white Peugeot sat, immaculately clean, in a parking bay outside a graffiti covered video shop.
Frank stood waiting by the passenger door. It would be locked, he knew. The hazard lights flashed as a high-pitched beep sounded from beneath the bonnet. All the door locks snapped open and Frank eased himself in.
“Where is it?” he said, as they drove towards the junction at the bottom.
“Behind the bingo hall, sir. A PC Dent and a PC MacCallum called it in. Sounds like all the others.”
Frank rubbed his face with his hands. When was this going to stop? He tried to get comfortable. Couldn’t. For Frank, being a passenger was almost as impossible as being the driver – almost, but not quite.
Edwards slowed and changed into third as they approached a green light. There wasn’t another car on the road. Farther on he pulled the car gently around a mini roundabout, not once touching the raised, white centre.
“Has the body been identified, Edwards?” He didn’t really want an answer.
“Not to my knowledge, sir.” Edwards checked his mirror, indicated and then, carefully, changed lanes.
Frank climbed out of the car, grabbed a powerful Mag-lite torch from beneath the seat and shut the door behind him. He shivered.
Jesus! he thought, looking around, what a dump. It was worse than the last time he’d been around there. How the hell were they supposed to protect people who lived in these places? The coppers had to go around in threes. There were two over by the stone gateposts at the rear of the Bingo Hall – whispering. Frank was used to people whispering when he made an appearance. It didn’t bother him any more.
Edwards kept a discreet distance as his boss marched over to the two men.
“Sir!” one of them snapped, spasming to attention.
Frank nodded. “In there?” he asked, indicating the back yard.
“And you are?”
“PC Dent, sir.”
“You haven’t touched anything?”
The Constable looked at him, started to say something but then seemed to change his mind. “Not a thing, sir. Called in immediately.”
“You called for an ambulance, too, I hope?”
“Yes, sir,” said Dent, “I have. I told them the victim was dead though, so they might take their time getting here.”
“Dead?” Frank snapped.
The two Constables exchanged glances, then MacCallum spoke. “Yes, sir, dead. Definitely dead.”
“Coroner now, are we?” Frank’s raised voice echoed around the empty streets. Even in the dim, sodium glow of the streetlights, it was clear that Frank’s colour was up.
MacCallum dropped his head.
“Sorry?” Frank said sharply. “Didn’t quite catch your reply.”
MacCallum lifted his head again. “No, sir. Just a PC.”
Frank pushed his face close to the young Constables. “There’s nothing just about being a PC. However, it is not your job to decide whether a person is dead or alive. I don’t care if the head is in a different room from the arse-hole, they are not dead until a doctor pronounces them so. Is that clear?”
“Sir,” the two mumbled, half-heartedly.
“Sir!” They said in unison.
“And don’t forget it. I suggest you both spend a few minutes praying to whatever God lights your candle that the victim is dead.”
He then nodded at Edwards, pressed the rubber button on his torch, and passed between the gate-posts and into the yard.
It was like a slaughterhouse.
Blood everywhere. From the thick, red splashes on carelessly discarded cigarette packets at the Bingo Hall’s back entrance, the bright shaft of torch-light picked out fresh pools and puddles as it spread all the way across the old, brick-paved yard, covering a week’s worth of organic garbage: crumpled take-away cartons, dog-shit and broken glass; polystyrene trays with sticky noodles and glutinous rice, half filled with clotting blood. Mouldy, half-eaten pizza bases sponged the red gore from where it puddled and soaked old bingo cards, crushed cardboard boxes, soggy chips and a pile of lipstick-tipped cigarette ends.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, as he picked his way across the filth, acutely aware of the blood smearing the soles and sides of his shoes. At the far end, partly hidden by two steel bins, lying across ruptured, black-plastic bin-liners, was a woman’s naked body. Frank forced himself to approach, heaving aside one of the cold, metal bins to get nearer. He tried to hold the torch steady but couldn’t stop shaking, not knowing if it was extreme cold, excess alcohol or simple fear.
She was spread-eagled and cut; cut so viciously and so deeply that it looked to Frank as though she might tear apart if someone attempted to lift her. A massive gash had almost severed her head which was loosely covered by a piece of torn bin liner. Her arms and legs had been slashed repeatedly, each cut, equal distance and at the same angle as the one next to it. On her belly was carved a huge number four which had been highlighted with ugly, black, puncture holes stabbed in a circle around it. Her left hand had lost two fingers: the little and ring finger, and her right hand hung limply on just a thread of flesh - the bones in that wrist prised and chopped apart.
Frank leaned forwards, his breath coming in fast, misty clouds, and pinched the edge of the plastic covering her features between his thumb and forefinger. The torch beam trembled. He breathed deeply for a few moments, until he was steady, and then slid the plastic away.
A twitch in the corner of his left eye was his only sign of emotion. The woman’s face had not been attacked. It was entirely free from violence. Her mouth was open wide to reveal expensive looking caps and bridge-work, and her make-up, expertly applied, was still impeccable. She looked thirty, but Frank knew she would have been forty-eight next birthday.
Despite the alcohol in his system, Frank desperately needed another drink.
It was the second time he’d seen her that night.