Bridge woke to the sounds of banging and shouting. Under any normal circumstance he would have consider this a common occurrence, however the bright light shining through the gap in the curtains made Bridge sit up and pay attention. He rubbed his bleary eyes and groaned, as he extracted himself from the duvet covers and tiptoed gingerly over to the window. It took him three attempts to peer out the curtains, the first gave him too much of a headache and the second was far too bright for him to discern anything but blinding light.
‘Bridge, get up you lazy sack of manure.’
Bridge did not need to look out the window to confirm the visitor. He could recognize the dulcet tones of Sergeant Francesca Thomas anywhere. Pulling on some trousers, Bridge hefted up the rusty window and stuck his head out into the cool morning air.
‘Morning Fran, how are you on this lovely brisk morning?’
Fran’s stout frame sidled into view and placed her arms very pointedly on her hips.
‘Well, let me see. I am cold, tired and just been lumped with some more bad news concerning our ongoing case.’
Bridge’s eyes, although barely open, seemed to regain some semblance of attentiveness.
‘What sort of bad news?’
‘It’s better I show you then tell you, if you catch my drift.’
‘I’ll be down in a minute.’ He said and disappeared quickly from view.
As he hurriedly ran about searching for his various clothing, Bridge tried to focus his mind on what could have possibly happened to Darren Rhion. Yet try as he might, his head was a foggy blur. Respected detective or not, Bridge could not function without coffee. Not with the lack of sleep he had received the night before. It had been a noisy night at the pub. Some local boy’s birthday or some other such nonsense. This had been the main reason for Bridge’s late rising. That and the fact that shouting and banging outside his window was normally linked to the local youth’s late night antics.
By the time Bridge had gotten himself cleaned, dressed and somewhat half presentable, Fran had relocated to inside her car, the engine ticking over and her finger tapping irritably on the side of the wheel. She almost took Bridge’s leg off, putting her foot to the pedal before he had properly entered the passenger’s seat.
‘Could have waited till I got in the car.’ He said irritably.
‘Drink that coffee it will help.’ Fran replied, gesturing to a takeaway cup in the armrest.
Bridge opened his mouth to protest at Fran’s gruff behaviour but changed his mind. Instead he picked up the coffee cup and cradled it gratefully in his hands. It wasn’t particularly nice coffee but Bridge did not think it would be wise to highlight this qualm with Fran. Not with her current temperament anyway. Besides, the caffeine was slowly helping to cope with the crushing fatigue he felt.
When Bridge had cottoned on to the fact that they were not going to the station and rather heading out of town instead, he cleared his throat.
‘Are you planning to fill me in on where we are going at any point?’
‘You’ll see.’ She said bluntly.
Bridge sighed and stared out the window. He was obviously not going to get any answers any time soon. There was something familiar about the route Fran was taking. If he had been more knowledgeable about the area, he may have been able to hazard a guess. Unfortunately, the majority of the time Bridge had spent on the outskirts and back roads of Llangaerthen, it had been at night.
The smoke was the first thing Bridge noticed. It had drifted over from a field hidden by a low set of hills. He shot a quizzical look at Fran but she remained stoically silent.
‘Can you give me a clue at least?’
Silence. Bridge huffed and squinted at the faraway smoke. He tried to recall the last few nights. A lot had happened. But by the far the most memorable moment had been the burning field. He tented his fingers and bit his lip.
‘Is it to do with the field from the other night?’
Still Fran said nothing and pretended to concentrate on the road in front of her. But Bridge knew her well enough to tell she was deliberately ignoring him.
‘I’ve got it…you’ve found something at the crime scene. A piece of evidence.’
Fran glanced at him but remained silent, her expression blank.
‘No, that’s not it. The fire would have died down by now.’
He sat back, looking puzzled and a tad irritated. Then it hit him like a cannonball to the gut.
‘It’s a different fire…which means…’
He looked at Fran ashen faced. Her expression was grim. Bridge swallowed hard and refocused his attention on the trail of smoke, a tight knot forming in his stomach.
The area had been cornered off already by the time they finally arrived. Bridge was half expecting to discover the arson had occurred in a different field and so was surprised when the realization dawned it was the same field as before.
‘It’s the same field.’ He announced to Fran.
She nodded in response and parked the car as close to the field gate as possible. This turned out to not be very near at all, considering there were two fire engines and a patrol car in front of them. As they unfurled themselves out of the vehicle and approached the police caution tape, Bridge noticed something different from last time. There was no ambulance at the scene. This was either a very good thing or a very bad thing. No ambulance meant no wounded people which was good. Unless of course they were dead, which was not so good.
Ducking under the tape, Bridge recognized the young officer from the other night. Bridge felt his skin flush red with embarrassment, as he replayed the awkward situation from that night. The young officer smirked and gave a friendly smile, as Bridge passed. Fran raised an eyebrow but Bridge said nothing and hurried his step.
As they stepped into the field, he realized with a sickening lurch in his stomach that it was the latter of the two. This was mainly brought to his attention by the rancid smell of burning flesh filling his nostrils. The smell got much worse as Bridge and Fran neared the tree at its centre. Bridge felt his stomach lurch horribly but it wasn’t due to the rotting smell of flesh. He had been around enough dead bodies in all manner of grisly cases to stave off any sense of nausea. The butterflies in his belly came more from the thought of who the burned body belonged to. It was a weird sensation to feel concern over the welfare of another human being. Bridge had always had the ability to detach himself from the victims he investigated. Yet the merest possibility of it being one of Gethin’s brothers or worse yet Gethin himself, made Bridge feel utterly terrible.
There were a couple of SOCO officers in their signature white overalls inspecting the crime scene but apart from that the area was empty. It was obvious that many of the younger and more inexperienced officers assigned to the area had stayed back, not able to stomach the sight and smells of the crime scene. As they approached the blackened tree, Bridge could discern a red and white skeleton slumped against the trunk of the tree, its mouth slung open in an eerie laugh. Since having been burnt twice, there wasn’t much of the tree left standing and most of the high top branches and foliage had fallen off and lay scattered around the field.
Bridge and Fran halted a little way away from the body and watched the SOCO officers for a moment, as they huddled around the blackened bones and half dead tree.
‘Who is it?’ Bridge said darkly.
‘Not sure yet. It will need to go back to the morgue for further inspection.’
Bridge nodded solemnly.
‘I’m sure its not…’ He trailed off, noticing Fran’s ashen face and not quite knowing how to finish that sentence anyway.
‘Fran, we found something.’ One of the SOCO officers said, retrieving something from the ground and rising to his feet.
Bridge and Fran eyed one another before moving forwards to inspect the discovery.
‘What is that?’ Fran queried, holding up the small evidence bag in front of her.
‘Looks like a stud earring.’ Bridge suggested.
Fran squinted then gave Bridge a suspicious glance.
‘How do you know so much about men’s jewelry?’
Bridge flushed red with embarrassment for a moment and he quickly changed the topic.
‘Who do you think it belongs to?’
Fran chewed on the inside of her cheek, thinking.
‘Doesn’t Darren Rhion have one of these?’
‘Yeah and half the youth population of Llangarthen.’
Fran handed the evidence bag back to the SOCO officer and folded her arms.
‘Again, you seem to know a lot about men’s fashion. Something you’re not telling me Bridge?’
Bridge massaged his eyebrow anxiously.
‘My…sister makes her own jewelry.’
‘Right.’ Fran said slowly, not looking convinced at all but not pursuing the matter any further.
‘Do you think it’s Rhion?’ Fran suggested.
‘I hope so.’ Bridge answered but hurried on, as he noticed Fran’s outraged expression. ‘I mean rather then someone more important…I mean its terrible either way but…’
Fran held up her hand to stop him from rambling.
‘Bridge…it’s fine. I know what you meant.’
Bridge relaxed and turned his attention back to the smoking body.
‘Guess we will soon find out either way.’ He said grimly and turned around to head back to the car.
Fran watched him go. She felt exactly the same way which wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that Bridge felt the same way too. He seemed to be changing. The Bridge she was looking at now was a far shot away from the one who had arrived just over a week ago. She turned her attention back to the scene in front of her. He wasn’t the only one who had changed.
Gethin glanced from the creased piece of paper in his hand to the grey block of buildings looming over him. There was a light misting of rain that flecked his pale Caucasian skin and made him shiver a little. There were the sounds of children playing in the nearby park, their shouts, laughter and screams competing for the most noise. Challenging them were the loud barks of dogs and cars backfiring, as gangs of kids zipped around the estate, blaring deep bass music out of their windows.
This was the last name on Gethin’s list. The others he had crossed out in thick black felt pen. He flipped up his collar to keep his neck warm and crossed the road to where the chewing gum infested concrete steps led up to the stony faced block of flats. One of the boy racers, honked at him loudly, as he made his way briskly over the road. Gethin ignored him and the insults they shouted out the window in their wake.
Mounting the steps, he felt the muscles in his legs begin to stiffen. It had been a very long day, most of which Gethin had spent either on public transport or on foot, travelling to the next person of interest on his list. He assumed it must be late, not that there was any definitive way of knowing, as the sky had remained a permanent grey since he had arrived that morning. Since his meeting, Gethin had repeatedly hit dead ends and brick walls. After talking to Arthur’s daughter, he had decided to look up his own army pals. This had proved more difficult then he had expected. A handful had passed away and a few others had moved abroad, making it impossible to contact them. The few he had managed to speak to only had good things to say about their old comrade in arms. Either his behaviour had been much less sadistic in the forces or his buddies were covering for him. Whichever one it was, he had got nowhere and he was expecting more of the same with his last visit.
Caught up in his own thoughts, Gethin nearly trod in an unpleasantly large pile of dog feces in one corner of the stairs. He wrinkled his nose in disgust and sidled past the horrid sight, continuing up to the third level, where his last hope of finding anything concrete on the killer lay. According to the last veteran he had visited, Ex – Lieutenant David Barnes lived at number 45. It was the third door down. Gethin didn’t need to read the numbers on the door to know this was the one. It was the only door on the whole level that was immaculately maintained. The paint wasn’t peeling or cracked like the others but complete and well preserved. It was also the only flat with flowerbeds lining the windows. Gethin pulled to a halt outside the door, straightened out his collar and cleared his throat. He pushed down on the doorbell and heard the sharp ring echo through the flat.
No answer. Down below on the estate, a group of kids were riding their bikes around in a large circle. From Gethin’s position on the balcony, they looked like hungry sharks circling for the kill. He let out a sigh and went for a loud rap on the wood of the door instead. Still no answer. He was considering packing it in, when a ruffling noise to the right of him made him turn.
A man in his late fifties/early sixties was moving towards him. It was hard for Gethin to determine an exact age, due to the fact that the man was in very good shape for his age. He also moved with a litheness and ease of a prowling cat. As the man got nearer however, his age became more apparent due to the creased forehead of wrinkles and slight jowls underneath his chin. He eyed Gethin suspiciously as he approached.
‘Whatever it is you’ve got to sell, I’m not interested.’ He said gruffly, pulling his keys out of his pocket and moving in front of the door with his back to Gethin.
‘Lieutenant David Barnes.’
Barnes was halfway inside the door, when he stopped and turned to face Gethin, a hostile look on his face.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘My name is Officer Gethin Jones. I am investigating a case related to one of your former war associates.’
‘Officer.’ Barnes replied with a raised eyebrow. ‘You got any I.D?’
This would have proven tricky, seeing as Gethin had been placed on leave and his I.D. temporarily confiscated. Luckily, the young officer had had the foresight to plan for this. Just before he had departed for London, Gethin had enlisted the help of his younger brothers to retrieve the I.D. It hadn’t been particularly hard to accomplish. There were a plethora of ways to get pass Desk Sergeant Paul, be that a distraction in the form of an semi attractive female or even simply calling him out on a certain crossword answer. Once this had been achieved it was a simple matter of sneaking into the evidence room and locating his confiscated I.D. In any high tech or remotely modern police station this would have proven tricky, as a door code would bar the way. Fortunately, the code on the door had never worked. Members of the public did not attempt any break in, as they assumed it would be locked. Only officers of the law knew the truth and thus they avoided any circumstances of burglary. Until now.
Gethin produced his I.D and held it for Barnes to inspect. The ageing Lieutenant gave it a long hard look before returning his attention to Gethin.
‘How come you are not in uniform son?’
Gethin had been prepared for this as well. He had encountered the same kind of hostility and questioning from the previous contacts on the list. This was why he had stolen back his I.D. Dylan had suggested a fake one instead, to avoid having to sneak into the station but Gethin had objected. These men were highly trained and sharp witted. Everything he said and did needed to read from the book. Appear kosher, so as to avoid a shut door in the face.
‘Due to the nature of the case, my superior Detective Nicholas Bridge has sent me to ask you a few questions. We have a list of known associates with the victim and rather then spend a lot of time working through them together, we decided it best to split up duties, so as to most effectively conserve our time.’
Barnes eyed him warily for a moment. Gethin was worried that it had come across too rehearsed. It had been his speech of the day. Memorized over and over again on the train journey down. However it seemed to do the trick, as Barnes nodded. He moved inside his flat but didn’t shut the door in behind him.
‘I suppose you will be wanting tea. I will put the kettle on.’
Gethin assumed that was an invitation to come in, so without waiting any longer to find out, he brushed his shoes off on the door mat and stepped inside the dinky flat.
Gethin readjusted himself in the squeaky wooden chair and took a sip of the mud coloured builders tea. Barnes was stood in the corner of the room, looking out the window at the traffic streaming past on the main road, opposite the council estate.
‘Me and Arthur had our differences but I never would have wished for him to go like that.’
It was the first time Barnes had spoken since Gethin had revealed the nature of his former colleague’s death.
‘The other members of your squadron had nothing but praise for Arthur. What was he like as a soldier?’
Barnes moved away from the window and placed his mug down on the table beside Gethin. It echoed loudly through the flat. Gethin felt like he was sitting in a ghost apartment. The living room, if it could be called that, consisted of a couple of hard back chairs and a plain unadorned table, a roll out mattress, a half empty bookshelf and a slightly medieval TV set. The only thing that had struck Gethin as odd was a modern looking games console. It looked rather out of place against the minimalist furniture. The kitchen wasn’t much better. Cooker, kettle, bin and a small table pushed against one wall. Everything of use resided there, yet the place lacked any semblance of homeliness. It was very hard to gauge what sort of a man Barnes was, when his flat gave no hints or clues about his lifestyle or interests.
‘Arthur had balls. Not the most cunning or strategic of men. But I have never seen a man with such defiance or gall in a fight.’
Gethin sighed. This was the same answer he had gotten from every other member of Arthur’s team he had managed to visit. Yet there was something different. When the others had spoken of Arthur’s bravery or bullheadedness, it had been in a tone of adoration for the man. Barnes was different. He agreed with the assessment but his tone was clinical, sterile almost, as if he was merely stating a fact. Gethin took a sip of his tea and swilled the liquid around in his mouth, contemplating.
‘You were his superior right?’ He eventually asked.
Barnes nodded matter of factly.
‘Did Arthur have any problems taking orders? What was your working relationship like?’
Barnes frowned, folding his arms across his chest defensively.
‘Why do you say that?’
Gethin took a punt.
‘Some of the other guys said you two didn’t always see eye to eye.’
Barnes shot him a sharp look. None of the others actually had said this but he needed more to work with.
‘It’s true that me and Arthur weren’t best of pals.’
Gethin felt his body relax, as the punt paid off.
‘Arthur was a good soldier but the man thought he was a walking one man army.’
‘He had issues taking orders and his attitude was…lacking to say the least.’
‘Did you ever feel like he undermined your authority at all?’ Gethin egged on.
‘Is this a fucking therapy session?’ He spat bluntly.
‘No…of course not.’ Gethin stammered. ‘I just want to find out what sort of a man Arthur Babcock was.’
‘In other words you want to know if I killed him or not.’ Barnes retorted, looking angry. ‘Well, I didn’t. Arthur was a pain in the arse but there are far more people I would much rather seen done harm to. I can assure you that.’
Gethin gave him a scrutinizing look, trying to decide whether he was telling the truth or not. It was very hard to tell. Barnes’ poker face was on point.
‘Is there anyone else you can think of, who would want to do Arthur harm?’
Arthur stroked his stubble, contemplating. Eventually, he shook his head.
‘No, the men loved Arthur. Looked up to like an idol. If I’m being honest, I was a little bit jealous of the bloke.’
‘Jealous?’ Gethin said intrigued.
‘I was the commanding officer and for the most part the men did as I commanded. But secretly they all favoured Arthur. Especially since he ignored my orders repeatedly.’
Gethin steeled himself for the hardest part. This was normally where the interview tended to go south.
‘Mr. Barnes. Where were you on the night of Tuesday 14th January?’
Barnes smiled ruefully.
‘I was wondering when you were going to ask that. Probably assume because I live alone that I have no alibi.’
‘Well…do you?’ Gethin said frankly.
‘I do as a matter of fact. I was at my AA meeting. You can check with my sponsor if you must.’
Barnes nodded. Gethin studied him hard. He seemed genuine enough.
‘Fair enough.’ He said, rising to his feet. ‘I appreciate you sparing the time for me Mr. Barnes.’
Barnes rose as well and held out a hand.
‘I hope you find the bugger who did it. Like I said, Arthur was a bullheaded prick but he was part of my team and it is a loss to us all.’
Gethin shook his hand and left the near empty flat. As he made his way down the concrete steps, taking care to avoid the present left by the dog, Gethin felt the tiredness of the day wash over him. Like the air pressed from a balloon, Gethin felt deflated. He had been travelling all day and talking for a good few hours, yet he felt as if he had gotten no further in solving the case. If the aim of the day had been to establish who wasn’t the killer, then Gethin would have passed with flying colours. But that wasn’t much of a consolation when there was a killer roaming the Welsh valleys.
The one tiny shred of hope Gethin now clung to was that something would turn up from visiting the home delivery service. If they could determine who cancelled the meal, even if it was a vague description, they would be one step closer to solving the case. Gethin had to stay positive. Because god knows Bridge and Fran needed help if they had any hope of catching the killer.
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