As morning wore on, they crawled along the riverbank on frozen knees, with frozen rubber-tipped fingers rooting among the grass and the briars and the tangled knots of nettles. Eyes bent to the ground, labouring under the lightening sky and the scudding clouds – hoping that the clouds wouldn’t hold true to their threat. Rain meant wet, glistening mud and destruction of evidence, and further cold. Rain meant the loss of precious hours. Rain. The enemy.
Sura watched on, occasionally checking her watch. A press conference at 11 meant pulling together a picture of what was known and what wasn’t – looking to create a sense of urgency (“we need to identify this woman as quickly as possible, please help us”) without creating an unhelpful media storm (“Police Seek Sex Pervert Murderer”). In truth though, not much was known. Until the full details of the autopsy, mostly everything fell into the ‘not known’ category.
She couldn’t hang around here much longer if she was going to make the conference and – truth be told – she wasn’t adding anything to the efforts, other than to be a focal point for information; and that could be done remotely. Still, as lead investigator, it was important that her face was seen and known and that she set the tone for the investigation. Her briefing had been crisp, sombre. For a few of the younger beat coppers, this was their first murder scene search and she wanted to instill in them the need for thoroughness and respect. Too often when she had first joined the force uniform would joke their way through a search. She understood the need for a certain strain of black humour, but it could wait for the station canteen. The current crop of young officers though looked suitably serious. Training was better now. Everything was better.
She pulled D.S. Mallaby over to her.
“Right – I’d better get off. Press conference so I need to make myself look…” she looked down at her boots and muddied overshoes,”… even more glam. Call if anything turns up.” Mallaby nodded a thin-faced nod, and she climbed back in the car.
The drive back out of the country to town was fairly pleasant now that the rush hour traffic was beginning to die off and she soon shook of the sombre feeling that had pooled in the back of her thoughts since being hauled out of bed at six. Which reminded her…
She fingered the bluetooth and dialled.
“Oh hello – how’s work then?” Umesh cheerfully answered, fully accustomed to the demands of her job. By now he would have got the kids packed off to school and be sat at his laptop, comfortably doing whatever it was that he did. Something digital. It had long been their custom that they didn’t talk too much about work: her because of conventions of the job allied to the utterly alien nature of the world she lived in, and he because as soon as he opened his mouth to talk about his work Sura fell asleep.
She finally felt the heat from the car reaching her toes and wiggled them pleasurably in her boots. Tights and socks tomorrow if there was any fieldwork.
“Oh you know. Classified. A murder though, so I wouldn’t worry about putting anything on for tea.” For these first days – and very possibly the next few weeks – she would be keeping unusual hours, and living on tea and takeaways and canteen food and her nerves most of all. Unless there was some kind of early break, it could last for a long time. The signs of this lifestyle were beginning to take a toll on her body as she entered the second half of her forties, and she caught the site of her hairline in the mirror as a reminder – threaded with grey roots and with a gloss born of grease rather than expensive products made with oils from exotic fruits. As they chatted, their voices still sounded the same, but she could feel the years in the soft fold of fat around her waist, and the tightness of her wedding ring, and the still faint but definitely visible laughter (was it laughter?) lines around her eyes.
They talked for a little while and by the time she hung up she was pulling into the car park of what uniform had wittily titled the ‘Duplo Block’ – a big police building at the Northern outskirts of the city that had been clad in red and blue and yellow rainscreen cladding during the brief spell when money was awash for anything ‘modern’. For a few shining moments, it had been hailed as part of the new face of public policing, with eager young journalists invited to see the state-of-the-art facilities, but then like most public buildings had settled unhappily into middle age, the atmosphere of the grim proceedings inside leaking into its walls, tired paint reflecting tired faces, carpets worn thin.
Most of the cops she’d learned under had started leaving then – taking with them some of the practices and prejudices of the past – followed by a certain generation of journalists, who also smoke and drank and made free with their hands around the lasses in the typing pool. The times had always been a-changin’ – and never more so than now that the press barely existed at all, except in a loose network of cynicism and bad writing, chasing clicks instead of the truth. That’s what it looked like from the other side of the cameras anyway.
Inside, she stopped in the toilets to make herself look a little more presentable. The story wasn’t yet national – and might never be – but there was always a chance she’d make the local TV news if there weren’t any bad traffic jams or a big football signing to fill the airtime.
The force’s PR officer popped her head into the toilet as Sura fretfully plucked loose strands from her hairline.
“Got the script ready if you’re ready?”
“Yeah OK. This haircut’s a dead loss anyway.”
In the corridor, they chatted. Liz Grattan was a good PR. She understood the force’s needs, and wasn’t given to writing hysterical prose. Some forces had dabbled with trying to make their ‘content’ more ‘engaging’ but at a training session, Liz had cheerfully pointed out ‘well fuck that‘ to the trainer and that had been an end to the matter. Her press briefings were as they should be: concise, factual, and unemotional.
What was needed now was facts, attention, and help. Emotion was a card kept back in the hand, to be played if the leads ran dry. Sura read the briefing and nodded to herself while Grattan talked her through it.
“…and anyway,” Grattan concluded with a shrug, “we know fuck all, really.” Sura laughed. Grattan’s long years in the local press had given her as black a sense of humour as any beat copper.
“Well thanks for that summary, Liz. I’ll be sure to tell the Observer.” She straightened her skirt one last time and walked with Grattan to the press briefing. Show time.