Murder makes monsters of people. Prosper Snow knows that better than most.
He stared down at the corpse of the middle aged man and grimaced. The man had been butchered beyond recognition. Flaps of skin hung off his cheeks like they had been sliced with razors and rivers of blood pooled in a congealed puddle in the grassy depression by the corpse’s feet.
Flies buzzed around the body. One alighted on the clear fluid that had oozed out of a punctured eyeball. Part of the man’s entrails protruded from slashes in his khaki shirt, most of the material sodden with blood. He was wearing dark trousers and a pair of sunglasses sat a few feet away, the lenses broken. The man’s style of dress made Prosper think it was some sort of uniform.
The air reeked of death. Prosper wrinkled his nose and tried to hold his breath, but the white mask he wore as part of his crime scene coverall seemed to retain the smell, making it linger inside his nostrils.
Prosper folded his arms, trying to distance himself from the sickening scene. He listened to birdsong emanating from the elm trees about forty feet away. The sound seemed out of place at such a brutal site.
As the Senior Investigation Officer, Prosper was like the conductor of an orchestra, overseeing all parts of the enquiry and coordinating people from various departments on site. But there were so many people lingering around that it looked as though every nosey bugger from within a ten mile radius had descended. Death attracted people like metal to a magnet. The more grotesque, the stronger the pull.
“Look, everyone who’s not vital to the case, can you get the hell out of my crime scene before I kick you out?” he shouted, watching as some of those in attendance slouched away.
Since packing in smoking almost a year ago, Prosper had resorted to chewing gum, but the gory sight made the piece in his mouth tasteless and too chewy, like a lump of flesh.
Gagging, he lowered the mask and turned to spit the gum out when he realised he couldn’t contaminate the area. So he swallowed it instead and turned back to the corpse, the paper suit rustling as he moved. The flash from the crime scene photographer’s camera left a glare on his retina.
“This is just great,” Detective Sergeant Mike Holmes snapped from behind the police cordon. He shook his head and ran a hand through his buzz cut as he stared at the body. “What is it with you and death? No wonder they’ve called it ‘Operation Avalanche’, because this is going to be a fucking disaster.”
Prosper glared at Mike. He knew he was referring to last year’s Oracle case in which a multitude of people were murdered, including a police officer, so the last thing Mike probably wanted was to be partnered with Prosper on another murder investigation.
Hell, in the circumstances, even Prosper wouldn’t want to be partnered with himself, but that didn’t make the snide comment any easier to accept.
After a moment, Prosper turned away and stared around the area. Grey clouds scudded across the sky, threatening rain. A cluster of green prefabricated buildings stood in the distance. Most of them looked like industrial units hundreds of feet in length and width. One was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, while a lorry belching smoke pulled up outside another. The units looked quite new, and were surrounded by trees and architectural features such as small sculptures comprised of cubes. In the middle of the complex sat a large artificial pond with a fountain spraying water into the air.
The spot where the body had been discovered was a grassy area punctuated with evergreen bushes, one of which was splattered with blood like gory Christmas decorations. A small stream flowed near by, the sound of bubbling water counter-pointed by the bird call. The closest building stood about one hundred feet away.
Prosper turned his attention back to the body. It had been discovered by a woman walking her dog. The pile of vomit nearby was an indication of how much the spectacle had affected her before she was taken away for counselling.
Although he wasn’t immune to the sight of blood and gore, Prosper had been closely associated enough that he was less distressed.
At first glance, the victim looked as though he had been attacked by a wild animal, but of course there were no wild animals in the UK capable of doing something like this – at least not unless something like a bear or a large wild cat had escaped from a zoo. The only domestic creature capable of doing so much damage was something like a large dog, or perhaps a pack of them, but while a dog attack would look nasty, the slashes and puncture marks on the man’s body indicated the use of a knife or a sharp implement. But it was the severity of the cuts that was most disturbing. It indicated a frenzied attack with no concern for the victim.
A police cordon had been erected around the corpse, the yellow tape stencilled with CRIME SCENE – DO NOT CROSS fluttering in the breeze. Prosper saw the flash of a camera, making him grit his teeth.
“Make sure they stay behind the barrier,” Prosper shouted to one of the uniformed officers as he saw a young man lift the tape with the intention of approaching the crime scene for a closer look. “And where’s that blasted tent to cover the body?”
“They’re bringing it from the car now,” someone shouted.
Prosper turned towards Mike. “Any thoughts?”
“Thoughts, I’ll give you my thoughts. You and murder are the last things I need.”
Prosper bit his tongue. Although it had been a year since the Oracle debacle, his colleagues would never let him forget. He just thanked God that they didn’t know the true events of that case.
“Look, Mike, someone’s dead. It’s our job to find out the how, why and who, so let’s cut the sarcasm and get on with the job at hand. If you’re not happy about the situation, I can have you replaced.”
Mike snorted loudly. “Do you really think you’d find anyone willing to replace me? If so, then go ahead.”
Prosper rubbed his brow. “I realise you’re not happy about the situation. Jesus, I’m not over the moon about it either. But it’s our job, so let’s be professional about it. Now I want to start canvassing the area to see whether anyone saw anything. Can you arrange that for me?”
Mike licked his lips, glanced at the corpse and then nodded.
“Good. Then hopefully we can catch the bastard who did this and put it to bed.”
He watched Mike walk away, and then turned back to the crime scene. Less than twenty minutes ago, he had been looking forwards to his lunch of ham sandwiches, but the sight of the dead man quenched any hunger pangs.
The crime scene photographer was packing his stuff away and a forensic pathologist kitted out in a white paper suit crouched down to examine the body. Prosper walked across to see what he could find out.
“So how’s it going?”
The pathologist looked up and shook her head. “You see the way the victim’s gripping that branch? Well it’s probably a result of instant rigor mortis, what’s called a cadaveric spasm. This happens when the person is exerting themselves at the time of death, such as running hard or when a struggle takes place.”
Prosper nodded. Although the mask hid much of her face, he could tell by the sound of her voice and how quickly she spoke that she was excited, that she liked her job.
“Also, the grass around the body was flattened; indicating lots of movement, and judging by the severity of the attack, much of the assault was probably undertaken after the victim was already dead as he wouldn’t have survived for long judging by the wounds.”
“So how long has he been dead?”
“Help me roll him over and I’ll try to find out.”
Prosper knew she was going to push a thermometer up the corpse’s rectum to see how much his temperature had dropped, and although he wasn’t comfortable with it, he stepped forwards to assist when he heard the roar of engines and he turned to see two black, nondescript four by four vehicles slide to a stop behind the group of spectators.
The passenger door of the lead vehicle swung open and a man jumped down and approached the police cordon, talking into a mobile phone. He pulled out a wallet and said something to the officer guarding the perimeter, and then slipped underneath the tape.
Smartly dressed in a dark suit, he stood about 5 feet 10. Of average build, he had a pockmarked face; medium length wavy brown hair, bushy eyebrows and a condescending look that made Prosper want to slap him.
“Prosper Snow,” the man said, lowering the phone from his ear. He withdrew a wallet and flashed a card that showed he worked for a branch of MI5, the domestic intelligence agency. Prosper didn’t have time to study it closely before the man snapped the wallet closed and slipped it back into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Surprised the man knew his name, Prosper nodded. “And you are?”
“Pick a name.”
The man’s arrogant, confident tone matched his look and got Prosper’s back up straight away. He bit his lower lip; took a deep breath and then regretted it when he got a lungful of the dead man’s aroma. “So what are you doing here?”
“I’m taking over the investigation.” He raised his hand and pointed to indicate Prosper should leave.
Prosper felt as though he had been blindsided. How did the man know who he was? He cleared his throat. “This is my case.” He knew it sounded petulant, but he couldn’t help it.
“Not any more.”
Before Prosper could respond, the man passed him his mobile phone. He glared at the man for a moment before accepting it. “Hello?”
“Prosper, this is Chief Superintendent Hargreaves. The case you’re on, drop it, now.”
“Drop it, but sir—”
“No buts, that’s an order. The man in front of you is taking over.”
Prosper heard a sense of urgency in his superiors voice. He stared at the man opposite. “Who is he?”
“That’s none of your concern. Now just do as I say and leave.”
Prosper disconnected the call and handed the phone back. It didn’t escape his notice that although the body had only been reported less than an hour ago, wheels had been set in motion that took him out of the loop.
But why? What was so special about this victim?
“Now, if you don’t mind, I have a job to do.” The man walked past Prosper and stood staring down at the corpse.
Realising there was nothing he could do about it, Prosper turned to walk away when the man said, “Although there is one way you can still be involved in the case, Snow.”
Prosper halted in his tracks and looked back. The man still had his back to him, staring down at the corpse. “And what does that mean?”
“I want someone like you on my team.”
Prosper frowned. “Your team? You mean MI5?”
“We’re a branch of that agency. But let’s just say we take the jobs no one else can crack.”
“And what do you mean someone like me?”
“I know all about you, Snow.” He turned and fixed Prosper with an unwavering stare. “The Oracle case. There were certain, how shall I say, discrepancies with your statement.”
Prosper felt the colour drain from his cheeks and his heart did a little flutter. “There were no discrepancies in my statement.”
The flicker of a grin crossed the man’s lips. “Cards on the table, you and I both know that’s not true. You’re loyal. I like that in my operatives.”
Prosper licked his lips. “Look, I don’t know who the hell you are, or what you think you know, and frankly, I’m not interested. As you said, you’ve got a job to do, so I’d suggest you concentrate on doing that.” Without another word, Prosper spun around and started walking away.
“Well, think it over,” the man shouted after him. “I’ll be in touch soon.”
As he reached the cordon, Prosper tore his mask off and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to clear the stench of death from his nostrils. He turned and looked back at the man as he inspected the crime scene. Did he really know damning details about the Oracle case? Prosper shuddered.
“What’s happening? Who are they?” Mike asked as he jogged over.
“Someone higher up the ladder, that’s who they are. And they’re taking over the case.”
“Really? Well anyone would think you were disappointed by the look on your face.”
Prosper took another stick of gum out of his pocket and stuffed it in his mouth. Disappointed? He was far from disappointed. He was terrified.
The Oracle case was supposed to be dead and buried just like the person Prosper had helped murder.