Over the next thirty-odd weeks, I will be releasing my debut novel – The Bluebell Informant – chapter by chapter. If you missed Chapter One, you can find it here.
‘You’re DS Giles?’
The officer on duty at the cordon stared down at Giles’ warrant card. He examined her picture for a long time, taking in her long black hair and piercing grey eyes before glancing up once more.
‘Is that a problem?’
The officer shook his head tautly. ‘No. No problem at all. You’re just not what we expected, that’s all…’
He handed the warrant card back to Giles.
‘And what were you expecting, Constable?’
The officer’s eyes squinted in the bright sunshine. Lowering his gaze, he stared off to a point somewhere over Giles’ shoulder where three or four football matches were in session in the great expanse of the recreation ground. He watched the nearest game, his mouth pouting as his mind racked for an appropriate response.
Giles already knew what this was about. It was a testament to the times they were living in. A few months ago, her reputation would have spoken for itself. But now, every time she arrived at a crime scene, she would receive the same suspicious looks – the same guise of thinly veiled disgust.
The officer glanced back at her, his eyes lingering on the white, silk scarf around her neck. Then he gave her a quick smile and, as though the uncomfortable moment had never happened, lifted up the cordon tape for her to pass underneath and beckoned her through.
Giles stared for a moment, her whole body itching to lay into him for his disgraceful attitude. He could sense it as well for, as she stepped forward and ducked down, he lowered the cordon ever so slightly forcing her to fumble awkwardly to the ground and wriggle under the tape.
‘Oops,’ he muttered jovially. ‘Sorry, ma’am.’
Scrambling back to her full height, Giles glared at the constable, wanting nothing more than to dress him down right then and there. But prudence got the better of her – sure, she was a superior officer but she knew who would come off worse in such an altercation.
He was in his own patch and she was an undesirable.
‘DI Harris is waiting for you across the bridge.’
Giles gave a curt nod of thanks and made her way towards the thin wooden bridge that crossed into the next field. Behind her, the officer giggled quietly to himself and she could feel his eyes watching her as she moved up the creaking steps and over the sturdy structure. Beneath her feet, a feeble brook flowed down towards a tributary where it joined a larger river in a series of shallow, but ferocious, weirs that crashed its way down stream towards the town of Edenbridge.
Giles reached up and pulled her scarf a little tighter, pulling it as close to her skin as she could bear.
She hadn’t thought much of the town as she had driven through it. True, there was a lot more greenery – trees, open fields, hedgerows – than one might expect from a town with a population of eight thousand people, but the vast majority of the architecture seemed rather bland and unappealing. The exception to this, of course, were the numerous Tudor-style houses that made up the old town which, standing in the shadow of the local church, stood as impressive monuments to the town’s long history.
And a little further down river, Giles knew, was Hever Castle – the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. A grand estate that, in the wake of Anne’s execution for treason against King Henry VIII, had been effectively pawned off by the crown to buy the king’s next divorce. The estate had survived it, but now it stood as a testament to that terrible time – a memorial to how easily power could be ripped from those who would seek to betray.
Giles stepped off the bridge on the other end, her feet landing rigidly on the unforgivingly hard mud. The field in front of her was lined squat shrubs interspersing tall, ash trees on one side, and a collection of beech and oak trees and thickets that flanked the path of the river on the other. Flurries of bluebells grew beneath the shadows of the riverside trees, stretching out towards the edge of the path like a soft, violet carpet. The cool airy freshly cut grass reminded Giles of happier times – sweet, spice and earth – bringing back memories of a childhood long forgotten.
She followed the path, adjusting her step so as not to trip on the hardened imprints of a hundred dog walkers, until a short, rake-like man appeared from around the corner. Dressed in a slightly old and tattered suit, the man headed straight towards her, a large smile enveloping his face – a smile that rapidly diminished as he came within a few feet of Giles. He came to a stuttering halt and glanced curiously at her, his eyes drawn steadfastly to her face as his mouth slowly began to drop open.
‘Detective Sergeant Giles?’
Giles recognised the anxious whining of his voice straight away. She flashed him a brief smile and stepped forward, her hand outstretched.
‘Detective Inspector Harris…’
‘Please, call me Will…’
He almost withdrew from her, as though the touch of her hand might bring about some awful injury. His eyes remained steadfastly locked on her and it was several seconds after he noticed the awkwardness of her smile that he quickly stepped forward and grasped hold of her hand. His fingers were ice-cold and lacked confidence as they wrapped around Giles’ palm, barely grasping a firm enough hold to even hold contact.
Giles smiled. ‘You’ve been out here for a while.’
Harris released his grip and shuffled a couple of steps back.
‘Yes, quite,’ he replied, rubbing his hands together. ‘Our victim was discovered a couple of hours ago. Luckily I only got here shortly after I called you.’
He hesitated. His eyes quivered this way and that as they scanned Giles’ face and his tongue gently licked his top lip.
Giles pulled her silk scarf a little tighter around her neck. Beneath the smooth material, the old scar that ran across her flesh ached although there was no reason for it to. As the wind picked up around them, Giles thought she could hear a voice on the wind. The maniacal cackling of a ghost long gone…
Harris stared in silence as Giles, uncomfortable under his gaze, lowered her face towards the ground a little – concealing the already hidden scar from view.
‘Is there a problem?’ she asked tentatively.
Harris’ eyes registered surprise for only a moment before the broad smile returned, although somewhat half-heartedly.
‘No. Not at all. You are just…’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘You’re just not what I expected.’
A pulse of anger surged through Giles’ body. The scar in her neck ached a little more as her jugular pounded against her skin and her hands impulsively tightened into fists. For all the tension coursing through her body, Giles managed to keep a measure of control, but it was not enough to hide it from Harris. But the detective who, to Giles at least, seemed little more than a nervous excuse of a man, barely reacted to the display. On the contrary, he even raised a small smile towards her – a smile that Giles forced herself to reciprocate.
‘That’s the second time I’ve heard that comment in as many minutes…’
‘I should imagine so,’ he replied. ‘No one in their right mind would ever have suspected that you might turn out to be…’ He hesitated. ‘Well, that you were…’ He paused again. ‘You know?’
A slight waft of relief swooped over Harris’ face. ‘Yes, exactly. Asian.’
Giles tried her best to hide her sneer, although the coarse tone of her voice told the whole story:
‘Have you a problem working with Asians, Detective Inspector Harris?’
‘No. Not at all…’ Harris stuttered. ‘I’m just worried that I may have wasted your time…’
‘Because someone like me can’t do the job as well as you white folks…’
‘That’s not what I said at all…’
‘Then what are you saying?’
Harris stared back at Giles, his mouth falling even further open as he looked upon the fiery detective. As Giles glared back at him, she could see his mind racing – the cogs of his brain turning rapidly. He reached up and loosened his tie, pulling his collar out a little to allow the air to get to it and swallowing hard as he tried to form a coherent sentence.
‘I’m not the man you think I am.’
‘I’m not the one passing judgement.’
Harris licked his lips again and sighed heavily. Slowly, he nodded his head in agreement.
‘Somehow, I don’t think explaining myself will do me much good at this stage,’ he said, raising his hand to gesture down the pathway. ‘Maybe it would just be better if I show you.’
He didn’t wait for a reply. As he turned away, Giles saw Harris shaking his head slowly from side to side – whether from his own ineptitude or from his disgust at Giles, she had no way of knowing. She allowed the anger to subside a little and for her fists to unclench before she began to follow him.
They passed a small collection of trees and bushes that was surrounded almost entirely by more bluebells on their way towards the next corner. As Giles passed it by, a slight rustling of breaking twigs and grass caught her attention and, as she peered into the violet mass of flowers, she thought she saw two black eyes peering out at her. No sooner had she moved a few steps further and blinked had the two eyes vanished in amongst the undergrowth.
No time to explore the wildlife, Eve…
‘I know,’ she muttered.
She followed behind Harris as the pathway swooped around, following the course of the river, to reveal a small grassy area that seemed overgrown and unkempt. At the far side of this clearing, a set of bushes and small trees arched and twisted back and forth as they clambered up and around a small, squat, concrete building that sat, cold and lifeless next to the opening through to the next field. Wide, rectangular openings punctured the sides of this hexagonal oddity and the whole structure looked as though it had been half-built into the ground, for the highest point was no higher the head the heads of the SOCO officers that carefully searched the area.
Harris came to a stop at the edge of the clearing and waited for Giles to catch up. As she came alongside him, he stared with pride towards the dilapidated concrete box, puffing out whatever remained of his chest and placing his hands arrogantly on his hips.
‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ he asked, gesturing towards the bunker. ‘It’s an old World War Two pillbox. Built by us to stop the Germans crossing the River Eden in an invasion. There’s hundreds of the buggers lining the river.’
‘Why is it still here?’
‘It’s our heritage, isn’t it? It’s important for us to know where we come from…’
‘I wouldn’t know,’ replied Giles sarcastically.
Harris ignored the quip. ‘Besides some of the homeless use them as shelters. If it keeps them off the street then I say keep the bunkers standing.’
And why am I here?
As if in answer to Giles’ unspoken question, a couple of SOCO officers who had been kneeling down beside the pillbox stood up and back to reveal a crumpled corpse, sprawled up against the wall. The figure, a man that Giles supposed to be in his thirties or possibly forties, lay hard against the pillbox, his head contorted at a strange angle – his face calm and peaceful. Behind his head, blood splatters painted the wall and his clothing, as well as staining a small patch of grass ten or twelve metres in front of him.
Harris led Giles over to the pillbox, stepping around the SOCO photographer as he lined up to take a shot of the corpse. When the photographer was done, Harris moved in a little closer to the body, gesturing for Giles to do the same. As Giles knelt down beside the body, she could feel the eyes of the investigating team burning into the back of her head and the subsided anger began to brew once more.
‘What do you think?’ Harris asked, watching Giles intently.
Giles leaned a little closer, her eyes quickly scanning the body.
White male. Probably late thirties. Head slumped to one side. Large wound to the back of his head…
‘There’s a lot of blood on the wall,’ she said quietly. ‘He either had his head bashed against it or it was a gunshot injury…’
‘We found a bullet in the back of his head,’ confirmed Harris. ‘Go on.’
Very large opening. No obvious exit wound…
‘He was shot at long distance, I reckon. The victim probably turned his head at the last minute judging by the lack of an exit wound. The bullet blew out a large portion of his skull which is why he didn’t survive it…’
‘That’s our assessment as well…’
So what are you asking me for?
Giles turned her attention to his clothes.
Dark green coat – covered in blood. No surprise there.
Black waterproof trousers. Thick socks. Grey leather walking boots.
She leant forward and sniffed his lips.
‘Well, he was a regular walker,’ she announced. ‘Probably enjoyed country hikes or geocaching or something like that.’
‘Why’d you figure?’
Giles smiled, gesturing to his clothing.
‘This man came out here for a walk. He’s wearing his waterproofs even though it is a nice sunny day. That implies to me that he wears these clothes out of habit.’ She gestured to his boots, leaning forward to pick some dried mud off the soles. ‘His boots are quite expensive, built for purpose. He has dried mud on them because he recently went out walking in the mud on a wet day.’
Harris chuckled. ‘A regular walker…’
The victim’s features were relatively recognisable amongst the blood. His glazed over, green eyes; his skin tight against his cheekbones and long jaw; his neat brown hair, freshly gelled and styled; the small amount of stubble around his chin.
‘Do you know who he was?’ Giles asked, reaching down for the victim’s right hand.
‘No idea. He had no wallet or anything on him. A woman called the police when she came across him and another man but, so far, neither of them can tell us who he was. I don’t suppose you’ve seen him before, have you?’
‘No, why would I?’
Harris shrugged. ‘Just a punt, I guess.’
Giles sat back up. ‘Well, I can’t tell you who he was, but I can tell you he’d been married for some time.’
Harris stared blankly at her. Giles gestured down to a small, gold wedding ring on the victim’s finger.
‘Wedding ring,’ she explained. ‘His skin is quite tanned, probably as a result of all the walking he does. But the skin under the wedding ring is white as a sheet. Whatever prompted him to take up walking happened after he got married…’
Harris stared down at the body for a good, long while before he slapped his thighs and sprang to his feet. With a renewed sense of energy, he reached forward and held his hand out for Giles to take, beaming as he did so.
‘Well, thanks for all your help, Giles,’ he said taking her hand a little more roughly than Giles would have liked. ‘You’ve been a great help. I’ll let you get back to your Bank Holiday.’
Before Giles could respond, Harris moved past her and sauntered his way back towards the path, heading in the direction of the next field where a group of uniformed officers were gathered around a tall, smartly dressed, man. Giles glanced back down at the body, racking her memory for any recollection of the poor man at her feet before she finally turned on her heels and chased after the retreating DI.
‘Is that is?’ she called out, overtaking Harris and bringing him to a stop. ‘Is that all you brought me down for?’
‘I told you I thought I had wasted your time,’ he replied, raising his hands defensively. ‘I apologise for the inconvenience…’
He tried to step past her but Giles, with an air of defiance in her eyes, stepped across to block his path.
‘You called me all the way down here to identify a dead man? Couldn’t you just have emailed me the crime scene photographs?’
‘I’m not really one for technology…’
‘So you summoned me down here? An hour driving for this?’
Harris swallowed hard. ‘I prefer the personal touch myself but perhaps on this occasion it wasn’t the most efficient use of anyone’s time…’
He took a step forward, hoping this action would force Giles out of his way. As he made contact with her, Giles stood firm, forcing Harris to retreat back, his face knotted with irritation.
‘What do you want from me, Evelyn?’
‘My friends call me Evelyn, Inspector Harris. You can call me Giles.’
‘Fine,’ Harris shot back. ‘What do you want?’
Giles let the question hang for a moment. She hadn’t actually thought that far ahead. Something about this whole scenario hadn’t made sense from the beginning, and it wasn’t to do with some casual racism either. Something about the death of the man affected Giles personally, or at least there was the potential it could. As she glared back at Harris, she felt his eyes drift over her shoulder as he looked towards the group of officers behind her.
What is it with people looking past me today?
“I think we have one of your informants’. That was what you said.’
Harris nodded. ‘Yes. At the time, that was my thought on the matter…’
‘But now you don’t think that.’
‘But not because I didn’t identify the body,’ Giles said slowly, her eyes narrowing in to watch Harris’ reaction. ‘There was something that made you think you were wrong the moment you laid eyes on me. You already knew I was a woman so it wasn’t that…’ She saw Harris’ lip quiver. ‘It’s something to do with my ethnicity.’
Harris cleared his throat, his eyes darting around to look at anything apart from Giles.
‘I told you I had made a mistake…’
‘But how did you? There was nothing on that body that suggested he disliked Asian people. There was no membership card for the Britain’s Own Party. He wasn’t wearing a t-shirt with the slogan, ‘Britain for Whites’ on it. So how did you…?’ She hesitated. ‘You weren’t talking about the dead man, were you?’
Harris smiled and manoeuvred himself to step around Giles.
‘I’m really sorry but I have work to do. Thanks for coming down.’
This time he made it past her.
Giles span quickly around, walking just behind Harris as the path narrowed before moving in to the next field. Up ahead, the uniformed officers turned to watch as they approached and Giles began to smell the whiffs of smoke from the smartly dressed man’s cigarette.
‘There was another man,’ Giles said. ‘Someone else who you thought might be my informant.’
‘Yes, but we now know that isn’t true…’
‘Why not, sir? There must have been something to link me to this guy, or else you wouldn’t have called me out here…’
‘Yes, there is, but I can categorically say that he isn’t your informant.’
‘How would you know that?’ Giles blurted out, reaching forward and pulling Harris back around to face her. ‘If you don’t let me talk to him, how will you ever know?’
‘Because I already know, alright?’
Harris’ voice was loud enough that everyone stopped to watch. For a moment, the two detectives stood silently, glaring at each other as a smooth, spring breeze began to pick up around them. The leaves began to rustle in the trees and the carpet of bluebells rolled back and forth like a comforting duvet being aired over a bed.
Finally, Harris turned to the group of officers and slapped his thighs in surrender.
‘Fine,’ he muttered. ‘You can talk to him. But, I can guarantee you, you will not enjoy the experience…’
‘Why?’ Giles asked as Harris turned his back and marched towards the group of officers. ‘Who is it that could be so bad?’
Harris didn’t stop to answer. He marched straight up to the group of officers, signalled for a sergeant to come to him and engaged in a short, brief discussion. The sergeant nodded apprehensively before turning to signal for the rest to back away, leaving the smartly dressed man stood alone and isolated in a ring of police officers.
Giles hadn’t looked at him properly before – if she had, she might have realised it sooner. Behind the haze of cigarette smoke, the man stared out at Giles like a dragon considering its prey. His lips curled in disgust and his cold eyes drilled into Giles’ like an unforgiving branding iron. Despite the sunshine, the air around them seemed to grow cold with the breeze and Giles tugged furiously at her scarf, willing it tighter with every tweak.
Harris had been right. She wasn’t going to enjoy the experience.