The water shimmered delicately in the evening sunlight. The River Dee was exhibiting its usual resolve to reach the Irish Sea. Drake thought it meandered a little as it passed through Chester. Perhaps it was to give the swans and gulls a smoother ride, or maybe it just enjoyed the surroundings of this historic city. Detective Chief Inspector Carlton Drake sat taking in the scene. He had grown fond of the Boathouse Pub. It was conveniently located just a few steps upstream from the house he had rented on The Groves, so it had become an easy habit to call in on an evening. Drake liked the alternatives of a cosy traditional interior or, his choice this evening, of sitting on the flat-decked barge moored against the river embankment. As usual, he chose a seat facing upstream. He found that this view would often help him to sift through the facts of his current case. The slowly fading light picked out swans and gulls against the darker water. This offered Drake just the calming influence he needed. It had been a busy and frustrating day full of bureaucratic obstacles. During his career, policing had become more a matter of paperwork than pounding the pavements. As a young copper, he had not particularly enjoyed patrolling the old-fashioned beat. Now, even that seemed preferable to all the paperwork that had become the defining feature of modern police life. Of course, he fully understood the need for documentation and accountability. He felt it had all gone too far, and even some happy medium seemed an impossible dream.
But it was all a lot better here. He was glad he had taken the chance to relocate to Chester from The Met. The promotion and departure of his protégé, Detective Inspector Martin Henshaw, had created the opportunity. Martin was off to the Far East for two years, acting in an advisory capacity to the Hong Kong Police Force.
This place allowed Drake an indulgence he valued more than he could say. He would occasionally find himself thinking of his wife. Many things triggered a memory of Cynthia. It might be what somebody said. It might be a mother with a child. Often, it would be a building or even just a place. He had always envied her architectural career without ever fully understanding it. Now, he was trying to put that right, but these unbeckoned memories would so often interrupt a present that he needed to concentrate on. She lived on in his mind. There was no escaping it.
Here on the banks of the Dee, he could allow his mind to wander where it would, bringing its choice of memories to the fore. A glass of wine sat invitingly on the table in front of him. Drake twiddled the stem between his first three fingers and thumb, and the red liquid swayed gently, tempting him to take one more sip. Inevitably, he wondered what he would be doing now if Cynthia had lived longer. Would they still be in London? Would they both still be absorbed in their careers? Would they have found a way of spending more time together? He idly watched the small girl at the front of the barge trying to tempt a swan with the bread her mother supplied from a plastic bag. She reminded him of his daughter, Lucy, when she was that age.
‘Mummy, there’s a lady in the water!’ the little girl shouted suddenly.
‘Is she swimming, dear?’ asked the mother, her head buried in a glossy magazine. ‘I bet that water is cold now.’
‘Maybe that’s why she’s got all her clothes on.’
‘That’s silly,’ grunted the mother without looking up.
‘I think she’s asleep,’ said the little girl, tugging her mother’s sleeve.
The mother’s scream scattered the little group of gulls floating nearby. Most of the drinkers looked up from their mugs. Several stood up. One, a rather burly man, immediately took off his jacket, pulled up a shirtsleeve and lay down precariously on the edge of the barge. He fished fruitlessly. Another young lad grabbed one of the barge poles intended more for decoration than serious use. It proved just too long and cumbersome to manipulate accurately. A couple of teenage girls dressed for a later disco started to scream. A crowd soon assembled as people pushed forward to see what the fuss was about.
Drake arrived at the front of the barge and instinctively took over the increasingly chaotic situation. He spoke in that reassuring voice he had.
‘I’m a police officer,’ he said.
Two uniformed constables had arrived quickly in their patrol car. They soon got everyone back behind the blue and white plastic ribbon that was now across the entrance to the barge. The crowd of chattering onlookers stood on the riverbank, watching as an incident tent was assembled. The pub staff were trying to persuade people to move to the indoor bar. Drake watched as the woman’s lifeless body was laid on the barge deck, out of sight, behind a temporary screen. That she was dead had been immediately apparent to Drake. He had seen many dead bodies in his time. They had met their end in a variety of unpleasant ways. Some had been drowned, a particularly nasty way to go, Drake thought. This one floated face down with her legs, arms, and head hanging down into the water in a way that he knew suggested she had been dead for some time. She was wearing black denim jeans and what looked as if it had been a black long-sleeve blouse. Drake’s brain interrupted proceedings. Was the wearing of all black on a warm summer’s day odd? The approaching ambulance siren made the watchers clutch their hands to their ears. The two paramedics were soon in discussion with Drake, who persuaded them to turn off their siren. The blue light flashed silently, insistently confirming that some tragic and alarming event had broken the peace of Chester’s Groves.
‘I think we have to assume this could be an incident needing investigation,’ said Drake. ‘I’ve called the pathologist, and he is on his way. My preference would be to leave the body undisturbed until he arrives.’
Professor Cooper, the local pathologist, was busy with his grisly work. He and Drake had worked together now on several cases, and they had learned to accommodate each other. Professor Cooper had slightly relaxed his meticulous manner and would give Drake his interim findings as early as possible. Drake stressed the importance of speed in the early hours of so many investigations. Cooper was more inclined to take his time but gave Drake a running commentary. It was always couched in appropriately cautious language. For his part, Drake agreed to abandon his habit of sitting in as a spectator at the postmortem. Professor Cooper appeared from the blue incident tent far earlier than Drake anticipated.
‘That’s quick, Prof,’ said Drake.
‘The body is a complete mess,’ snapped the pathologist. ‘Everything is entangled with reeds and water grasses. I need to do a lot of cleaning before I can even begin on the mortuary table.’ Drake grunted a groan that the pathologist ignored. ‘You are, of course, right about the time of death. Enough time has elapsed since death for the build-up of gases in the torso to float the body. People tend to assume dead bodies automatically float. They don’t. The human body is slightly heavier than water, so it usually sinks. The decomposition gases take some time to develop enough to float the body. This is usually face down as the limbs can easily hang forward but not backward. It was exactly as you observed. The timing of all this is rather imprecise. I estimate she has been dead in the water for at least one or two days. Much longer, and we should see other changes to the corpse at the autopsy. That is the best I can do for now.’
‘Thanks, Prof,’ said Drake. ‘I don’t think I can do anything further here. I live just down the road, so I will head home and do my flute practice.’
‘You play the flute?’ snapped Professor Cooper.’
‘I’m learning,’ replied Drake. ‘It’s a slow process. Thanks, Prof. I’ll leave you to finish your work. One final question. I assume she drowned?’
‘It looks like it, but I will need further investigation to confirm that. In the meantime, I think you ought to come and look at the body while it’s still here. It will have been cleaned of all the reeds and other detritus once I have performed the postmortem. I will, of course, photograph it, but the actual reality is always more informative.’ With that, Professor Cooper pulled aside a flap of the incident tent, and Drake followed him in. The body was now lying on its back, staring into the evening air. It was covered in weeds and plastic bags, all collected in the water. Drake was well used to confronting dead bodies. However, his sharp intake of breath admitted to Professor Cooper that even he was seeing something unusual.
'It is the head,’ said Drake. ‘The face is so covered in scratches and abrasions that its features are no longer apparent.’