Cross Current Excerpt – Chapters 1-3
The girl took the one chance she had to survive. She opened the passenger door and jumped out as he slowed at the stop sign, racing blindly into the darkness across the lonely moor, not daring to look behind to see if he had followed.
She ran on until her foot caught in a rabbit burrow and she fell headlong into the dry grass. Stifling a cry, she bit her lip and sat up, wrapped her hands tight around her injured ankle to stop the pain. She held her breath, ears straining. Was that him, that low, steady whistle in the distance?
It was so dark with no moon. She couldn’t see a thing, and she was shivering from the cold and shock. A bird called from somewhere above her–another hunter. Choking back a sob, she stood, stumbled on, but as she heard the waves crashing nearby she let her tears fall unchecked. She fell to her knees and edged forward slowly until the hand she held out in front of her found nothing but air. She whimpered as the whistling drew closer.
Suddenly she was exposed by a halo of bright light. ‘Why did you go and do a stupid thing like that?’ he said. ‘You know you’ll have to be punished now.’
She turned and screamed, but only the man and the rabbits and the bird of prey that hunted them heard her.
5.30 am, March 27
West Looe, Cornwall
Detective Sergeant Amy Wendell pulled the hood of her parka closer against the spitting drizzle and hunched her shoulders against the icy wind gusting up from the estuary as she threaded a course through the onlookers toward the police constable.
‘Morning,’ she mumbled in response to his greeting, raising a hand to stifle a yawn as she signed his notebook. She’d had trouble sleeping and it hadn’t helped that Caleb had been particularly uncooperative that morning, throwing a tantrum when she’d woken him to drop him off at his grandparents.
She handed the constable his pen and notebook and ducked under the crime scene tape, took a moment to assess the scene. It had been raining solidly for three days and muddy rivulets of water cascaded down the bush-clad hill, puddling across the surface of the road that snaked above the estuary mouth.
A section of clifftop had eroded, and the resulting landslip had brought down two terrace houses from the row above the road. However, the focus of forensic attention was a blue four-door sedan perched with its front wheels inches from the near-vertical drop to the sea below. Two large halogen lamps illuminated the scene.
Curious, Amy headed toward her boss, who was crouched down by the front passenger side of the car. ‘Hi,’ she called out as she approached. ‘Sorry I’m late again.’
Detective Inspector Connor Elliott glanced up with a frown that quickly switched to a grin. ‘Hiya,’ he said, rising. ‘Caleb cause you some trouble this morning?’
‘Yeah, he didn’t want to wake up. How–’ She followed his eyes down the front of her parka and swore, dug a tissue out of her pocket and dabbed at two large translucent-orange spots of apricot jam. ‘Let’s just say we had a battle over the toast. We won’t go into the how or why.’
Connor smiled. ‘Treasure it. They grow up fast.’
His expression hardened, and she knew he was thinking of his daughter, whom he rarely saw now that she had moved in with her mother. ‘So, what have we got?’ she asked, drawing his attention back to the scene before them.
Connor stepped aside. ‘See for yourself.’
Amy crouched down and peered into the rain-slicked window. ‘Oh, wow.’ She shifted her weight onto her back heel and glanced up at him, suddenly wide awake. ‘Is that what I think it is?’
‘If what you’re thinking of is a mummified corpse, yes.’
Amy turned back to the figure in the car. It was difficult to make out much detail through the rain-blurred window, but it was clear the body had fallen forward during the car’s descent and the woman’s forehead now rested on the dashboard. Her skin was dark and leather-like, her long, dark hair thick and fanned out over a slightly yellowed lace top. ‘Poor woman,’ Amy murmured as she stood, glanced over at the technicians clad in white boiler suits. ‘This must be a nightmare for forensics.’
Connor nodded, and she turned to look up at the row of houses, swore as a flash of white light suddenly blinded her. ‘What the hell?’
Raising her hand to shield her eyes, she glared at the forensic photographer who was gingerly making her way through the mud toward them.
‘Sorry about that, I was angling for the roof of the car and stood in a puddle,’ Liz called.
Amy frowned. ‘It’s your own fault for wearing bloody heels to a scene like this in the first place.’
Her friend glanced down at her very inappropriate footwear and grinned. ‘Late night but shush, I won’t tell if you won’t. Connor here is being a proper gentleman about it.’
Amy just smiled as Connor raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond.
‘I meant about the heels!’ Liz called out with a laugh, blowing a kiss over her shoulder before disappearing behind the car to continue her work.
Amy shook her head and turned back to Connor, who had already forgotten about Liz and her antics. ‘The pathologist wants to handle this one personally,’ he said, absently rubbing a hand over his hair and scattering water droplets onto the shoulders of his suit. It amused her he didn’t appear to notice. ‘It’s the stand-in. Robert Henry is at a conference, apparently.’
Amy nodded at the mention of her stepfather. ‘Yes, he’ll be back tomorrow.’
‘Right, well, Shaw will be over to supervise the winching and transport of the car to the lab but it may take most of the day.’
‘So no idea who our victim may be then?’
‘None so far. The constable was speaking with the neighbors when I arrived. As far as they know both houses were holiday lets and neither has been occupied since summer.’
Amy frowned, pointed over her shoulder at the car. ‘Surely it would take longer than a few months to do that to someone.’
Connor nodded. ‘You’d think so.’ He stared up at the row of terrace houses and the gaping maw where their neighbors had once stood, shook his head and sighed. ‘This is going to be a mare of a case for all of us.’ He turned back to face her. ‘Right, well let’s get on with it. I’ll have a talk with the lucky workman who came face to face with our mummy here. You go chat with the neighbors. See if you can dig up any background on owners or regular tenants. Organize a detailed house to house of all those within the cordon.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I have to brief O’Reilly at eight so I’ll meet you back at the office. Ring me if you find anything of note.’
Amy nodded, watched as he made his way over to the man in the fluorescent orange vest seated in the back of the constable’s patrol car. Then she turned her attention back to the sedan. She stared at the floodlit vehicle, the unstable cliff face, and the mass of muddy debris scattered across the road.
A mare of a case was an understatement. From initial appearances they didn’t have an easily identifiable victim or any witnesses to a crime–if indeed there had been one. Any evidence that may have been preserved was unlikely to have survived the long and no doubt jarring slide downhill. So, basically, they had next to nothing to go on in a case that seemed tailor-made for the headlines. And she’d thought her morning with Caleb had been bad. She felt a sudden stab of pain in her temple. Her day had to get better from here. Surely it couldn’t get any worse?
10.00 am, March 27
Marrenmore Military Corrective Training Facility, Devon
‘Myers, you have a visitor.’
Noah lowered the weight onto the rack and sat up, leaned over to grab his towel from beside the bench and wipe at his forehead. He still had another set to go, and he debated finishing it before acknowledging the summons, but the sergeant put paid to that idea with a snarky, ‘Did you hear me, Myers?’
Noah gritted his teeth and muttered a ‘Yes, sir.’ He was so frickin’ done with the petty power plays but he daren’t antagonise the gobshite or it would take even longer for him to get back home. So, instead, he stood, grabbed his water bottle and walked over to the uniformed sergeant standing at the entrance to the gym without a word. He hid a grin of satisfaction as the man took a step backward.
‘This way,’ the sergeant snapped, turning and stalking off toward the admin block.
Noah slung the towel around his neck and followed at a slower pace, taking a drink from the water bottle. ‘Hey wait up. I need to shower and change,’ he called out as the sergeant hurried past the changing room door.
‘No, you don’t. My orders are to get you there ASAP so step it up.’
Noah frowned but followed along in silence. It wasn’t visiting hours, and he hadn’t had any notifications of exceptional visits. He was suddenly alert, wondering if Amy had finally decided to break her fifteen-month silence.
It took a moment for him to hide his disappointment when he saw not his wife, but the colonel in full RMP uniform. He stood near the window, his posture straight with hands held stiffly behind his back. He nodded his thanks to the sergeant, gestured for Noah to take a seat at the table once the man had left.
‘How have you been Noah?’
Noah raised an eyebrow. He felt no need to stand on ceremony now that they were alone. ‘I’m fine granddad. Still a disappointment, but such is life.’
The colonel did not respond, but his pale eyes were assessing as he held Noah’s gaze. Finally, choosing to ignore Noah’s sarcasm, he turned to look out the window, purportedly watching the unit training on the parade ground outside. ‘Have you given any further thought as to what you will do for a living once you have completed your sentence?’
The lack of antagonism frustrated Noah, and he sat back in his chair, absently drumming his fingers on the table as he considered his response. ‘I think it’s clear that I’m not meant for a long-term career in the forces. And if you think I’m going to kowtow to that pretentious git of a CO just to get my job back, you’re wrong. I’d rather take another swing at the bastard.’
The colonel turned to face him then, but his tone remained mild. ‘The thing is Noah, something has come up. A situation for which you are rather uniquely qualified. I’ve been assured that if you cooperate, you’ll be guaranteed an early release and a future transfer to a special unit where your skills will be better utilized.’
Noah scowled. ‘I don’t need you pulling any strings for me.’ He hesitated. ‘Or did Amy put you up to this?’
The colonel smoothed his moustache with two fingers, a tactic Noah knew from experience meant he was stalling for time.
At last, he responded. ‘No, I haven’t spoken with Amy recently. However, the situation does involve her and Caleb so do consider carefully before you make your decision. You have a responsibility toward them, Noah.’
Noah bit back a smart retort. The colonel hadn’t said as much, but it was clear he thought Noah had let his family down badly. And he was right, of course, which only stung more. He felt his inability to do right by them every single day he was trapped in this damn place, which was probably just what the colonel was hoping for. The man was a wily old fox, and Noah knew very well he was being manipulated. Still, the words had hit home and he couldn’t help but retaliate. ‘Just what is your stake in this so-called situation?’ he demanded.
For a moment anger flashed across the colonel’s face, but he controlled it well. ‘I have no personal stake in this matter at all, Noah. The only reason I was approached was because it was thought that you would respond better to a request that came from me rather than some faceless bureaucrat.’
Noah sat back in his chair and stared at his grandfather. Closer inspection revealed that the old man was under some strain–there were dark shadows under his eyes and his hair was whiter and thinner than it had been when he had last seen him. The tension in the room also told him that there was far more to this sudden invitation than the colonel had implied. ‘Well, what is this situation I’m suddenly so well suited to?’ he asked at last.
He clenched his jaw when he saw the flash of victory in the colonel’s eyes, but what was the point in arguing? If there was some mission he was apparently suited to and it got him out of here six months sooner then he’d take it, no questions asked. There wasn’t much point pretending otherwise. For one thing, he had to find out whether he still had a marriage worth saving.
But the colonel’s next words put paid to the fantasy that life may, for once, be working in his favor.
‘There is a slight difficulty, Noah. The project will require some subterfuge that may cause some ruckus in your personal life.’
Noah stopped drumming his fingers on the table. ‘What kind of ruckus?’
The colonel smoothed his mustache again. ‘You will be fully briefed once you agree to accept the mission. I cannot tell you more until such a time. However, I can assure you that this is the only way forward. The slight difficulty with Amy is something I am sure you will be able to overcome with time.’
Noah couldn’t hide his animosity now. ‘What slight difficulty with Amy?’
The colonel pursed his lips as he stared down at Noah. His posture had slumped since the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, something that concerned Noah, but not enough to cause him to back down.
Finally, the colonel sighed and turned to look out the window again. He kept his back to Noah as he replied. ‘It has come to our attention that Amy is working a case that we may need to involve ourselves in. We have no wish to engage in a combined investigation, but we do need to know what is happening so we can forestall any adverse outcomes.’
Noah fought to control his rising anger. ‘Why don’t you just cut the BS granddad? What you’re saying is that you want me to spy on my wife so you can avoid some adverse publicity. I know how this works, and the answer is no.’
The colonel turned to face him again, his expression troubled. ‘I am sorry about this Noah, but you need to realize that Amy will be a subject of interest, regardless. If you do not agree to do this, then someone else will be given the job instead. Is that what you want?’
Noah clenched his jaw and glared at the colonel as he tried to think of a way out of what he could now clearly see was an even bigger mess than the one that had landed him here in Marrenmore in the first place. He was surprised when the colonel suddenly leaned forward and slammed his hands down on the desk. ‘Listen to me boy,’ he said in a low voice. ‘You did not hear me say this but for God’s sake do the right thing for once. Your wife and son are in danger. Am I making myself clear?’
The note of desperation in the colonel’s voice cut through Noah’s anger and increased his concern. He stared hard at the colonel, who simply held his gaze.
After a moment, Noah nodded. ‘Alright, I’ll do it. Now can you please tell me what the hell is going on?’
The colonel nodded. Then he stood and smoothed his moustache again. ‘All in good time, my boy, all in good time.’
1.00 pm, March 27
West Looe, Cornwall
The rain had abated by midday, but the scene remained clogged with mud and soggy vegetation. Amy walked to the crest of the hill and turned to watch as a large crane winched the sedan onto the back of a waiting lorry. A row of workmen stood in a group on the side of the road by the crane while their colleagues worked to secure the houses that were still standing and shore up the eroded hillside.
She’d organized a house-to-house enquiry targeting the neighbors who could still occupy their properties, and had sent the Detective Constable, Cherie, back to the station to chase up the car registration and make a start on searching the missing persons database. Shaw, the locum pathologist, had collected the body an hour earlier.
Now, she sighed as she turned her attention to the handful of journalists who had gathered around the constable manning the cordon. As per usual, news had travelled fast. Hopefully, they’d be able to keep a lid on what they had found for a while longer. Not that that was likely though, she thought with another sigh.
She turned her back on the scene and stepped toward the edge of the cliff to watch as the tide flooded back into the estuary. Time for lunch. But first she needed to check on Caleb. She dug in her pocket for her mobile, and called her mother, holding the phone to her ear as she watched the gulls gliding with wings outstretched over the water below.
‘Hi mum, how’s Caleb?’
‘Ah, Amy. Hello. Yes, he’s a bit sniffly still. I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to go back to daycare tomorrow.’
Amy shook her head. ‘And you’re back at work then are you?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
‘Okay, I’ll see how he’s doing tonight. We’ve got a bit of a big case on at the moment, so I’m not sure what time I’ll be able to pick him up.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen the news. I’ve also heard from someone in your department. Cherie is it? Apparently it’s one of our terraces that has come down.’
‘You mean one of your rentals?’
‘Yes, I’ve been meaning to call you. She called about an hour ago and asked me to look up some information they couldn’t find in the office database. I said I’d check the backups. Have a talk with Caleb and I’ll go look it up now.’
‘Alright,’ Amy said, turning back to look at the crime scene as her mum called Caleb to the phone.
‘Hey, baby. What you doing?’
‘Really? What you having?’
‘Um … pea soup. It’s very green. Granny put lots of peas in.’
Amy smiled as she listened to Caleb explain how he had helped make the soup, but turned at the sound of running footsteps. ‘Hang on, Caleb,’ she said, lowering the phone and stepping forward as a man ran toward her. She held up a hand, and he stumbled in his haste to stop.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ he muttered, glaring down at her.
‘Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t go down there right now.’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘No,’ she said more forcefully. ‘I’m afraid you can’t.’
She held up her warrant card and the man’s lips thinned. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘Do you live around here?’
‘Yes, at the end of the lane back there.’
She nodded, placed her call on hold, and flicked through to the required app. ‘I’ll need your name and address, please.’
She glanced up and raised an eyebrow as he frowned and appeared ready to protest. Then he shrugged. ‘Thomas Fisher. Four Lansdown Rd. Now what’s this about?’
‘Have you not seen the news this morning?’
‘No, I’ve been busy.’
She gestured behind her. ‘As you can no doubt see, sir, there’s been a landslip. The road is closed for now, so you’ll have to take another path.’
‘Surely the road workers can take care of it. What’s it got to do with you lot?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m not at liberty to say. The area is clearly unsafe, so I suggest you go jogging elsewhere.’
Thomas Fisher looked put out at her abrupt tone, but he didn’t argue. Instead, he shook his head, turned, and jogged back up the hill, disappearing down the narrow footpath that led into the wood next to the terrace houses.
Amy watched for a moment, then returned to her call.
‘You there, Amy?’
‘Yes, sorry mum. What can you tell me?’
‘I’ve sent Caleb out to the sitting room. He said bye.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ Her mother’s bracelets jangled and there was the sound of rapid tapping of nails against a keyboard. ‘Okay, it looks like that terrace is actually managed by our local office. I’m not sure why they don’t have the records handy. It’s owned by a trust based in Dubai.’
‘Any information on recent tenants?’
‘It was being managed by Larry by the looks of things. Regular payments, lawn maintenance, and so on. We’ll have to talk to the tenant and-’
‘No, don’t worry about that just yet. We’ll contact the owner. Can you send me the details? Just email it for now.’
‘Okay, will do. The sitting tenant is a young woman. Emma Walsh.’
‘And the last time you spoke with her?’
‘I’ll have to check with Larry. He hasn’t updated the system. Honestly, that man-’
‘Right, thanks mum. I have to go. Don’t say anything about this to the owner or Larry just yet. We’ll be sending someone round.’
‘This is more than a simple landslide and burglary, isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid so. But like I said mum, keep it to yourself for now. Alright?’’
‘Okay, but Amy-’
Amy hung up before she could be asked any more questions. No time to waste now they had a name. She pressed the button to call Connor and waited impatiently while his phone rang. ‘Emma Walsh,’ she said when he finally answered.
‘The sitting tenant of the house that came down. Her name was Emma Walsh.’
‘Ah, that should narrow things down a bit. Right, we’ll round everyone up and have a quick overview of where we’re at. Say in a couple of hours?’
‘Okay, see you then.’
Back at the station, Amy grabbed a granola bar from her desk and made her way to the meeting room.
‘Here, got you a coffee,’ Cherie said when she joined her a moment later.
‘Thanks,’ Amy mouthed as Connor entered the room and immediately launched into his rundown.
‘Right, folks. Let’s get started. We need to get going on this one ASAP and tidy it up quickly.’ He held up a hand at the chorus of protests. ‘I know. Impossible task, but we have the media and the super watching our every move so be extra careful about dotting those i’s and so on.’ He turned to the whiteboard where Cherie had jotted down some notes. ‘For those of you who haven’t been to the scene yet, the slip brought down two terrace houses just above the bridge heading into West Looe. One was a holiday let that has been empty since at least last summer, and the other was occupied. Cherie, any update on that?’
Cherie nodded. ‘Yes, so the tenant is a young woman by the name of Emma Walsh. According to the property management agency, she’s been paying the rent regularly and has been there for at least three years.’
‘Although, oddly, none of the neighbors recall seeing her for at least the last year and a bit,’ Amy said. ‘The last sighting we can confirm is from the elderly couple to the right of her. She was waiting for a bus on the corner and they just assumed she had moved out when they didn’t see her again.’
Connor nodded. ‘Right.’ He clicked the projector button, and an image appeared on the screen in the far corner.
‘Rob sourced a photo of what the terrace row looked like prior to the slip. The house we are interested in is the one on the right. At present, we are presuming the sedan the woman was found in was kept in the lock-up garage you see here. Have we traced the owner of this house yet?’
‘We’ve got a name and a contact number, but we haven’t spoken to him yet,’ Cherie said. ‘Jael El Sahid. We’re looking into his background. He’s a UK permanent resident, but he spends most of his time in Dubai. We’ll be checking on any other connections between him and Emma.’ ‘Presuming our vic is indeed Emma Walsh,’ Rob said.
Connor nodded. ‘Anyone have any photos of her? Do we know where she worked? If that car was hers, then where was she going by bus?’
Amy nodded. ‘We’re looking into it.’
‘Okay. One more question – how is it possible for the rental agency not to have noticed she’s been missing given the time that has elapsed?’
‘I spoke with the listed agent, and he said the last time anyone checked on the property was six months ago. The tenant arranged to meet him by email, but she didn’t show. He did a cursory check from the outside, but left it at that. The rent was paid on time, the post collected, and the lawns mowed, so as far as he was concerned everything was fine,’ Rob said.
Connor nodded. ‘Right, so our priority right now is to find out more about Emma. Amy will head over to the morgue tomorrow to see what pathology has to report, but we can’t expect any detailed findings for at least a week. Meanwhile, I need someone to cross-check all the house-to-house notes and see if we can find anything of interest. Cherie, can you take care of that?’
Cherie nodded, and Amy grinned as she sent her a sidelong grimace as she jotted down the task.
‘Rob, I’d like you to follow up on the financials relating to the property. Focus on the landlord, the last couple of tenants, and the letting agent as I’m not sure he’s telling us everything he knows. The records for the property were missing from the database at the office, and we could only retrieve them by searching a backup database stored off site.’
‘The rest of you keep working on building a profile of Emma. Social media, school and work history. Call around, do some digging.’ He glanced down at his watch. ‘Right, well let’s get to it. Back here tomorrow at eight folks.’
There was a sudden burst of movement as they all stood and prepared to leave. Connor raised his voice. ‘One more thing, I hope this is clear to all of you by now, but no media interviews please. We need to keep this quiet for as long as possible.’
Amy filed out the room and headed over to her desk. She sat down and had just started up her computer when her mobile rang. ‘DS Wendell,’ she said automatically as she reached down to open a drawer.
‘Yes, how can I help you?’
‘Um, this is Olive. Olive Easton? We spoke earlier today, and you asked about that young girl next door?’
Amy stilled. ‘Yes. Have you any additional information?’
‘Yes, actually. We were just watching the news, and I happened to glance down at your card on the coffee table, and it reminded me.’
‘Yes?’ Amy fought to keep her voice calm, excited now at the possibility of some new insight, a break in the case.
‘Yes, your surname. Wendell.’
Amy frowned. ‘What about it?’
‘Well, that was the name of that doctor who went missing last year, wasn’t it?’
Amy swallowed hard at the sudden and unexpected mention of her brother. ‘Yes, yes it was,’ she said after a moment. ‘But I’m not seeing the connection-’
‘He was there. At the house with that girl.’
Amy glanced around the office and lowered her voice slightly. ‘What do you mean?’
‘He was there with her. I know because he came over to help my Phil when he fell by the letterbox. I remember thinking what a shame it was when he disappeared like that.’
Amy closed her eyes. For a moment she couldn’t speak.
She sat up. ‘Yes, thank you for letting me know Mrs Easton. I’ll look into it.’ She spent a moment reassuring the elderly woman that she had done the right thing, and that no, she wasn’t wasting police time, but her responses were purely habitual. As she looked around the office at her colleagues, she suddenly felt as if an invisible barrier separated her from the bustle. She hung up the phone and sat staring blindly at her computer screen.
‘You alright? What was that about?’ Rob asked.
Amy swallowed. ‘A neighbor thought she had some more information regarding Emma. I doubt it will help, but I’ll check it out.’ She hesitated, then stood, made a show of checking her watch. ‘Right now though, I need to go pick up Caleb. See you tomorrow.’
She forced herself to walk calmly out of the office and over to her car. She was obligated to tell the team. There were no ifs or buts about it. But somehow, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
The woman hadn’t been seen for a year and a bit.
And neither had Tim.