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Search, part 1; Steve Lamb

(December 01, 2016)

by Steve Lamb

Chapter 1

Garthmaelwg - llwybr dail

Autumn seeped through the gloomy forest. Greasy branches dragged at your clothes as you passed. Greasy leaf mould clung to your boots as you slipped and tripped over broken ground and contorted roots. Even the light was greasy as you peered ahead hoping to catch sight of a sharp colour distinct from the monochrome of the forest gloom. To his left, no more than ten feet away, he could see that young girl from the day shift who played rugby for the new ladies’ team in the village. To his right Bill Faulkner was stepping carefully and probing the undergrowth with his staff. He knew the line stretched away in both directions for more than 200 yards even if he could see no other officers in the gloom.

You tried hard to pay attention to the search but after three hours a kind of boredom set in. You started thinking about other things, about your children safe at home. In his case he thought about how they were changing. Big school, as they called it, had seen to that. There had been a time when he knew the universe they occupied and had some control over it. Now he was lucky to have any insight at all into the priorities that set the momentum for their lives. Have some confidence, have faith, he told himself. Julie was always saying he worried too much. They were good kids even if they were not entirely his kids any longer. It was only natural apparently. They had to become their own people. They had to begin breaking away even though they were not even teenagers yet. God help!

When the whistle was blown and repeated along the line, he had fallen into a trance and, like those closest to him, he took a couple more paces before stopping. He was now fully awake. Had something been found: a body, clothing, a weapon? There had been nothing at all since that morning’s search had begun. There had been nothing for two whole days since the alarm had been raised. Where was the child? He did not hold out much hope. He thought again about his own children and about the fragility of safety. even in the most ordinary of lives.

Stand fast, stand fast, stand fast…” he could hear the instruction growing louder and quieter as it was repeated along the line. The call must have originated close to his right as when he passed it on to his left it was echoing away from him in both directions. Then the megaphone crackled and after a squeal of feedback a new instruction was given.

Officers 35 to 45 stand fast. All other officers return to the forest car park. Retrace your steps. Be vigilant.” The message was repeated twice, over the sound of men and women trudging back past wet trees. “Officers 35 to 45 you will continue the search.” Another wail of feedback cut the air like a banshee’s cry and then the megaphone was switched off. Without the electronic distortion it was easy to recognise the voice of DI Ken Rudge. He needed no help to be heard across just 30 yards of this terrain even if trees blocked line of sight. “We’re now looking for a chest freezer; right by an overgrown track; something which has been dumped. First look for signs of the old path or track. Signal if you think you have it. Start again when you hear two blasts. Repeat: look for signs of a path, restart the search after two blasts.”

What had happened to change things? Had Rudge received further information from headquarters or from the temporary base set up in the car park? Dog walkers used the forestry and knew the roads and paths well. His son had told him about running cross country in the forest and how boys looking for short cuts would take overgrown tracks. It could be tricky though as you had no landmarks to help you when all directions looked the same. Everything looked the same now. If his colleagues had not been within sight he would have been lost in the half light.

Just as he realised that the trees had thinned out and the ground was more level, a number of whistles went off at the same time. He stopped immediately this time. This had to be the old track. You could see that its direction was forward to the left and back to the right behind the line of searchers. There was a distinct corridor: distinct, but ragged and already losing its character as a path as nature reclaimed its territory. He could see the shapes of other officers standing and waiting. He had been on many similar searches and knew this would probably end in nothing at all so held his expectations in check.

I am going to light a red flare in one minute on the line of the path. Make your way to that flare,” DI Rudge was shouting from some way off to the left. “Make your way to the flare and…” Rudge said no more because someone was blowing a whistle. In the damp silence the whistle sounded over and over. His stomach tightened. It came from his right, just the other side of Bill Faulkner. “Stand fast! Stand fast! Stop that bloody whistle!”

Two figures came in a hurry from the left. Although the ground of the old path was hardly level or clear, at least there were no trees. DI Rudge was in the lead. They did not have much further to go because at that moment the brooding silence ended with the violent noise of someone retching just to Bill’s right.

You,” Rudge pointed at Bill Faulkner, “get that idiot out of there and let’s hope that no evidence has been contaminated. I’ll be wanting a statement mind, so tell whoever it is to think straight. You two, secure this scene; no-one to enter until I say. ”

With that the day changed dramatically. Bill sat on a rotting stump helping a pale faced officer who looked no older than a schoolboy. They were not speaking. Eventually they were joined by another two officers and then by DI Rudge and a woman he did not recognise. Another group was probably gathering just ten yards or so away on the other side of what must now be a crime scene. DI Rudge took Bill’s place and started quizzing the young officer. His colleague was on her mobile, on an emergency frequency making arrangements for the SOCOs and the medical officer. They could hear her asking for a replacement team to secure the site as well as lighting, tents and transport.

Well lad, are you feeling any better? It’s a bit of a shocker, especially if it’s your first one. The kids are always the worst. Take your time; just tell me how you found the body.”

I’m alright now sir. It’s just, just the way the kid’s eyes were damaged. That’s what did for me.”

That’s OK son. Just tell me how you spotted it. Remember the last person who saw what you saw was probably the killer. Tell me what you can.”

I heard the first whistle just as I realised I’d reached the path. So I stopped like everybody else. I sort of did a 360 degree scan. That’s when I saw straight lines. I know it sounds odd but there were straight lines in the tangle of undergrowth where the edge of the path used to be. You had just started to speak when I stepped forward and saw it was an old freezer without a top. I didn’t hear what you were saying ‘cause I looked inside and saw the mess. I blew my whistle but then couldn’t stop. It was all I could do. I think I was kind of crazy for a minute. I don’t really know. It was awful though sir. I didn’t think it would be like this.”

Right lad, just stop there and start using your brain not your heart. Go back to the straight lines. Think now. Go back over it. Play it again like repeating a scene on a DVD. This time try to be a police officer. Can you see anything that will help us? The SOCOs will go over the area in detail but you barged in there first. ”

It can’t have happened there sir. There wasn’t a clear area. The weeds and stuff hadn’t been flattened as they probably would have been. It wasn’t easy to get to the freezer but there was a way through. It was too dark to see other stuff. That’s all I can think.”

Ok lad, you go with these officers back to the car park,” he waved vaguely at the others. “Report to DS Johnston. He’ll take a full statement. What’s your name by the way?”

Brian sir, Brian Jones, it’s my first week on the job but I was a PCSO before.”

Right Brian,” the kindly tone of voice changed and there was ice in his words as he continued, “next time, if there is a next time, you follow orders. Stand your ground and blow your whistle if you spot anything unusual. That’s all. If you’ve contaminated evidence or destroyed valuable clues, a child killer might evade arrest. Worse, we’ll be searching these woods again for the mutilated remains of another victim.”

They took very little time to retrace their steps through the search area, even though it was no lighter and the steady drip of heavy drizzle continued. What had he meant by damage to the child’s eyes? Had the face been mutilated? Thoughts of his family once again filled his mind. As they trudged in silence the sound of heavy vehicles struggling in low gear intruded from the track behind them. Someone had found a way to get close to the scene on four wheels and not on foot.

The young officer spoke out sulkily: “Are they worrying about obliterating evidence now? I bet they’re not the first to have driven as close as possible to where that body was dumped. Is DI Rudge worrying about that?”

Good thinking Brian,” said Bill. “That’s what you should have said to him. The killer must have driven close to where you found the kid. So there’s another scene where SOCOs will find clues. With the ground as soggy as it is up here there will be tyre prints at the very least. Maybe even a fag end. That could mean DNA. You make sure you give your thoughts in full to Johnston. They think you’re pig thick if you’re in uniform.”

Flashlight beams strobed from the direction of the car park as they were completing their journey back towards normality. Replacement officers were filing through the trees led by a forest ranger in a Hi-Viz jacket. The car park itself had been transformed: specially adapted vans and lorries were parked along the boundary away from the entrance and the picnic area was now home to a family of gazebos. A number of patrol cars and two bikes were parked haphazardly opposite the shelters. The electronic squawk of police radios was the soundtrack and a cast of about a dozen men and women moved back and for with seeming purpose.

As they stepped out of the forest, movement in the car park came to a halt and conversation ceased. Only the radios continued to mutter. The door of a mobile office opened and a red faced man with rolled up shirt sleeves shouted across the open space.

Which of you is Jones? Get in here now.” Brian raised his hand like a boy in school answering a question in a history lesson. He squared his shoulders and marched across to the office, climbed up the steps and with just one glance back, pulled the door to behind him.

A mini-bus arrived at the car park as they were walking over to the gazebos and the coffee urn. Members of the original search team were being taken back in batches, but they were able to jump the queue and in little time were being decanted in the car park behind the Station.

There was a bundle of messages for him at the desk. They were all from Julie but the last had been timed at mid-day. Someone must eventually have told her that he was not contactable. What was wrong? He should not give form or words to the abstract anxiety that rippled inside him. It can’t be the children. What had happened to those eyes?

Don’t hang around here Dave. There’s nothing I need you to do. It’s already past six o’clock. I want you back bright and early, and fit, tomorrow: eight on the dot, alright? Now go and see what’s the problem at home. Julie wouldn’t say.” The desk sergeant ushered him out of the station through the side door.


Chapter 2

Their front door was already being opened spilling light from the hall as he got out of his car. Julie was not in a state but she did look troubled. He relaxed a fraction and the fears he had been refusing to acknowledge consciously started to fade. He suddenly realised how hungry he was.

What’s up love? I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you.”

That’s alright. Just come in to the warm. We’ve had some bad news. It’s your mother.”

The house was warm and smelled of cakes. There was a plate of scones on the kitchen table and he was soon drinking tea and eating while listening to the full story.

When the phone call from Birmingham came she had been in the shower. She’d heard the persistent ringing and had gone to the bedside phone dripping wet. It had been Jane ringing from his mother’s house, his oldest friend, like a twin sister to him when he was growing up. He had always lived next door to her when they were children and she had never left. Dave had moved to south Wales, where his mother had been born, when he joined the force. She’d rung to tell them that the ambulance had just left; she’d promised the paramedic she would contact Dave.

Ambulance, what do you mean? Has there been an accident? Is she alright?” Dave stammered.

Listen, I don’t know what’s happened really. Jane told me that she hasn’t been right for days but there’s been a lot of winter flu about. Everybody’s been off colour. She must have used that alarm button you got her. The first thing Jane knew was when she saw the lights of the ambulance. It had still been dark but it wasn’t the middle of the night. By the time Jane got to the house, they were putting your mother in the ambulance. Dave you’ve got to go there. She’s in the QE and it doesn’t look good. Jane said the paramedic was working on her in the ambulance as they pulled away. I’ve rung the hospital twice and they aren’t saying anything except the doctors are running tests and that she is comfortable.”

He had difficulty processing this information and his own confused feelings about the day and this extra chapter. Practicalities had to come first and he quickly contacted the station and told them why he had to go to Birmingham and would not be in the next day. Within half an hour he had packed while Julie made him a sandwich and a flask of coffee. The children were in their bedrooms when he told them that Nan was ill and he had to go up to Birmingham to see her. They looked so normal doing homework and messaging friends at the same time. It pleased him to see their obvious concern. His mother had always been good with kids. He should have made sure that she spent more time with her grandchildren. He would from now on. Within an hour of arriving home he was speeding off towards the motorway.

As he drove north his head was busy with rushing streams of worries and plans. One minute he was thinking about a care package for when his mother got better. Next he was back in the forest with those words about damage to the kid’s eyes haunting him. Should his mother come to them when she was out of hospital? How would they manage? Their routine worked so well at the moment. Could Julie go part-time? Would the school allow her to cut back and remain in the job? What if his mother did not recover? It was his fault. He should have agreed when his mother had talked about moving back to Wales to be close to them. He had convinced himself that it was better for his mother to remain in Birmingham where she had lived all her married life. Had it been better for his mother or better for them? When he thought ‘them’, did he mean ‘him’?

These thoughts came round in circles. There was no progress except physically as the miles were counted off and he turned from the M50 to the M5. His headlights cut a tunnel through the darkness of the November night but nothing could be seen outside of the direct route north. He expected to be able to deal with things. His pals said that nothing fazed him. He did not know how to get on top of this day’s burden. Everything he had taken for granted was being tested and found wanting.

He left the motorway at junction 4 and followed the A38 until he saw the sign for the hospital. It was a relief to have to concentrate so carefully on traffic signs. He navigated his way through unfamiliar roads to the hospital he had not visited since he had his tonsils taken out as a nine year old. At least his noisy mind was sedated by necessity. He pulled into the visitor parking bay, mercifully empty at nine thirty in the evening, and ran in following the sign towards reception.

Excuse me, my mother Edna Brown was brought in this morning. I’m her son. Is there any news?” His voice did not ring with the confident authority of a police officer.

Have you proof of identity sir?” asked the young woman peering at him over smudged reading glasses. Dave fumbled for his warrant card as the receptionist scrolled to the relevant screen on the hospital intranet. “Thanks, it’s a necessary formality of course,” she muttered as she found the right information. She looked once again at the police officer in his rumpled casual clothes and saw tired eyes. “Please sit over there and I’ll call someone to take you up now.”

But can you tell me anything? I mean, is she going to be alright?” He had seen the skin tighten around the receptionist’s eyes momentarily as she had found his mother’s details on the system. What had that meant?

Before Dave had time to quiz the receptionist further a nurse arrived and ushered him to an office. She was clearly in a hurry but said that Doctor Sayeed would be with him immediately.

I want to see my mother,” Dave called in vain after the retreating nurse. He could hear the muffled noises of a hospital at night and nothing more. He was losing patience because he had expected to have all his questions immediately answered on arrival at the hospital and instead he was being delayed by a series of gatekeepers. He knew he was not being fair, but this was his mother.

The door opened and an efficient looking, white coated woman carrying a buff file sat at the desk.

It is Mr Brown, isn’t it?” Dave nodded and his throat contracted. “I’m Dr Sayeed. I examined your mother when she was brought in to A and E earlier today. My news is not good I’m afraid. She must have suffered a series of heart attacks in the course of the night and the last of these actually occurred in the ambulance….”

Dave could hear the careful, professional report, but he did not take in the exact words from this point on. He knew that his mother had gone. There was no chance to say anything more, to correct mistakes, to make plans. He knew these things but not rationally, it was a smothering understanding.

Without being aware of exactly how it happened, Dave found himself walking with a kindly nurse down a cold corridor and into a curtained room with cubicles.

Mother is in here,” she said as she eased Dave into the first cubicle. It was his mother, but not exactly. The paper ruff around her neck was ridiculous, peeping out as it did from the muddy coloured coverlet pulled right up over her body. And somehow her flesh had fallen away from her nose and cheeks. Everything about her was sharper, sterner, less forgiving. She had always had such a forgiving face. “I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes. Just come back to the office at the end of the corridor when you are ready. Take your time... ”


To be continued...

Steve Lamb, December 2016


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016

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