Detective Sergeant John Durban sipped rooibos tea from his flask and watched as the SOCOs sealed off the street corner. Uniformed officers directed traffic down Queen’s Road and fielded angry complaints from drivers on their way to work. Ice on the the roads had already complicated the morning commute, but that same ice had led to the discovery of the body, further delaying the irate travellers of south-east London. Still, a crime scene was a crime scene and no amount of complaining was going to alter that.
One of the Scene Of Crime Officers that Durban recognised came over and smiled a broad smile. It was Paula Gregory, a short stout blonde woman in her early thirties who had the manner of a PE teacher at a girls public school, but was one of the sharpest and most diligent technicians on the force. Durban had worked with her before and trusted her opinion above those of her supposedly more experienced colleagues.
“Morning Detective,” Gregory said. “Lovely morning for a murder, wouldn’t you say?”
“You’re sure that’s what it is?”
“Well, unless he’s a blooming contortionist, I don’t see how he could have stabbed himself in the back like that.”
Durban shrugged. He never ruled anything out unless he had to.
“Hang on a second,” he told Gregory, nodding across the road to the spot where his colleague was parking the unmarked police car, “I want Pierson to hear what you have to say.”
The pair of them waited as Detective Inspector Derek Pierson got out of the car, ducked under the police line and strode over to join them.
“Morning, John. What we got?”
“Council workman was clearing the road of ice and found a body in the salt bin. Looks to be a white male, late thirties, early forties maybe. Stripped naked. No ID, no distinguishing features.”
“Cause of death?” Pierson asked, turning to Gregory.
“Won’t know for sure until the autopsy,” she shrugged, “but he’s got a deep knife wound in the back. From the depth of the wound, I’d say it’s a stabbing with a large knife, going in the full length of the blade, rather than a slashing wound.”
Pierson took out a packet of Marlboro Lights and offered the pack around. He was the only one who lit up. Durban offered him tea from the flask, but Pierson shook his head.
“That redbush stuff?” Pierson said, taking a drag on his cigarette. “No thanks. I’d rather drink dog piss.”
That can be arranged, Durban thought.
“Did you talk to the bloke who discovered the body?” Pierson asked, taking another pull off his cigarette before exhaling a massive cloud into the cold winter air.
“Yes, guv. Danny Corcorant. Works for the council as a labourer. Bit of a drinker from the looks of him, but he seems shaken up to have discovered the body. Don’t think he’s got anything to do with it.”
“How long’s the body been in there, you think?” Pierson asked Paula Gregory.
“Difficult to say. The salt preserves the body. Could be days, maybe even weeks.”
Pierson sucked his teeth in disapproval, then turned his attention to Durban, who was staring at the yellow salt bin.
“What are you thinking, John?”
“The Ancient Egyptians used salt as part of the mummification process. Well, natron actually, which is a similar chemical compound. I’m wondering if there isn’t some significance to this beside the mundane. I think I’m going to need to speak to someone at the British Museum.”
Gregory stared at the floor and Pierson resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. Durban was a good detective, but had a tendency to launch straight into an esoteric line of enquiry without first considering the more mundane (and perhaps more plausible) options directly in front of him.
“Err… Maybe somewhere down the line,” Pierson said. “For the moment I want you to concentrate on the process these bins get filled by. I want to know whether the body was dumped here, or at the… refinery?” He shook his head. “Whatever the fuck it is that you call a place that makes salt. You understand?”
Durban nodded, but didn’t make eye contact with his superior.
“Was there anything else you wanted to know?” Gregory asked. “Otherwise I’ll get back to it, if that’s OK.”
“Go ahead,” Pierson said. Once the SOCO was out of earshot, he turned to John and murmured: “Come sit in the car for a moment. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
Durban threw the rest of his tea away and followed the Super back to his Vectra. when they were both inside and the heater had run for thirty seconds, Pierson launched into it.
“It’s a bit delicate,” he said, biting his lip as he spoke. “I wanted to talk to you outside the station, you know, but there never seemed to be a good time. I had hoped we could talk about it over a pint or something, but you never come to The Eagle and it never…” The DI blew out his cheeks in exasperation. “Look, there’s no easy way to go about it, so I’ll just say it.”
“Right,” Durban said. He knew what was coming and it wasn’t a rebuke. If it had been a bollocking, Pierson wouldn’t have pussy-footed around like this. Instead, Pierson was finally going to tell Durban that he was seeing his ex-wife. This, apparently, was supposed hard for Durban to hear, which is why Pierson was making such a song and dance about it. Durban was bored already, but he knew he had a part to play, so read his lines like a pro.
“What is it you need to say?” he asked.
“I’ve been seeing Carol,” Pierson said. “About four months now. It wasn’t something either of us planned, but it just sort of happened and… well, it’s starting to become a bit more serious.”
Durban feigned shock by widening his eyes and looking out of the window.
“Wow. I… uh, didn’t see that coming.”
It was bullshit. Durban had deduced that there was a relationship between his ex-wife and his DI months ago. It didn’t bother him, but he knew that it was supposed to.
Pierson looked at him with grim concern. “Yeah, I know. I want you to know that neither of us planned it and that there was never anything going on while the two of you were married.”
“Really. I know things didn’t end well for the two of you, but that doesn’t mean… All I’m saying is that I hope that you’re OK with this. I know it must feel a bit strange - your ex and your DI shacking up - but I don’t want this to become an issue between us.”
Durban didn’t think that such a thing was entirely Pierson’s decision, but didn’t bother to say as much. Instead, he took a deep breath that was supposed to signify that he was taking it on the chin.
“Well… It’s come a little out of the blue,” Durban lied, “but I appreciate you being straight with me. And, you know… even though it didn’t work out between me and her, I do want Carol to be happy. If that’s with you… well, good luck to the both of you.”
“That’s very decent of you,” Pierson said, “very decent indeed. I’ve wanted to tell you for a while, but…”
“It’s OK. I know how it is,” Durban said. He didn’t, but could pretend to if need be. Now that he was struck with the reality of his suspicions, he found them almost laughable. Of course she would choose Pierson. The two of them made more sense than he and Carol ever had. Carol liked George Clooney and Chicken Kievs. Pierson read Andy McNab and drank beer out of a can.
“Listen, John, there’s a reason I’m telling you this now,” Pierson said.
Because you finally plucked up the courage? Durban thought, or because you couldn’t take the guilt any more?
And this time, Durban didn’t need to feign shock. A weight pressed down on his chest and was several seconds until remembered how to breath. When he did, he almost blurted ‘but Carol doesn’t want kids’, until he realised that this unshakable belief was his own assumption, rather than anything his ex-wife had ever expressed. The truth, it seemed, was that she didn’t want children with him. He felt a slicing pain in his gut, but decided to stow it away for later, when he could treat it at home with a bottle of Cachaça and a slow raking over old coals.
“Congratulations, Derek. That’s fantastic news,” Durban heard himself say. “I’m please for you both.”
Pierson looked at him with wary hope. “I know it seems a bit sudden,” he said, gabbing rapidly to work through his nerves, “but we’re not getting any younger and we might not get another opportunity. It wasn’t exactly planned. Not exactly.”
“I understand,” Durban said, staring through the windshield at a ghostly vision of Pierson impregnating Carol. It wasn’t a pretty sight and he didn’t want to watch, but his mind’s eye refused to close so he just stared at the phantasms.
“You’re OK with it?” Pierson asked. “Really?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think I would be, but I am. I really am.” Durban turned away from the sexual spectres outside the car and looked at the flesh and blood Pierson sitting beside him. “Carol will be a great mother. She deserves this chance to be happy. You both do.”
“Thank you,” Pierson nodded before leaning back and exhaling loudly. “Boy, I can’t tell you how nervous I was about that.”
“I’m sure. But thanks for telling me. I’ll call Carol this evening, but in the meantime pass on my congratulations, won’t you?”
Durban nodded and kept a rictus grin fixed on his face. He didn’t know what else to say and there was a long pause as both men tried to find a comfortable exit.
“Well-” they both said simultaneously, before laughing about it.
“Better get back to it,” Durban blurted as he bundled himself out of the car. “I’ll see you back at the station.”
Shutting the door behind him was a relief and each step towards the crime scene made him feel a little better. Each breath of the cold morning air cleared his head and the further he got from Pierson, the less sick he felt. Having the last word was Pierson’s speciality, however, and even in this delicate situation he couldn’t let it go. Durban heard his name being called through an open car window and was forced turn around and look back at the wife-shagging bastard.
“Maybe give the BM a call about that mummification thing,” Pierson shouted. “You never know, eh?”
Durban nodded and gave a thumbs up - a gesture that felt utterly alien to him - and muttered ‘patronising wanker’ under his breath as Pierson rolled up the window and started to drive away. The Vectra beeped as it went past and Durban’s eye once again fell on the salt bin containing the body. He idly wondered how many roads around here were yet to be cleared of ice and whether Pierson’s Vectra had anti-lock brakes. While calculating the likelihood of a fatal accident, he walked back over to where Gregory was standing.
“Mind if I have a look?” he said, pulling on latex gloves and looking at the corpse.
“Be my guest,” she said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Durban looked at the body in the salt. The white crystals looked like snow and even though the dead man didn’t look comfortable, there was a certain peace to him.
“Was he dead when he went in there?” Durban asked.
“Can’t tell at the moment. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy.”
“It would have hurt like hell, though, wouldn’t it?” Durban wondered aloud. “You know what they say about salt in the wound…”
Paula Gregory clucked her tongue and tilted her head to one side as she considered the point.
“Least of his worries, I would have thought.”
Durban wanted to look more closely at the body, but his vision was blurry, so he stepped back and turned away.
“Everything all right?” Gregory asked.
Durban nodded and quickly rubbed his eyes with the sleeve of his coat.
“Let me know when you have something more,” he said, then turned and walked away. There was work to be done - statements to be taken, facts to be checked, theories to be considered.
But all Durban wanted was to find a yellow bin of his own.