The DS looked blank.
None of it had much to do with Serrailler directly unless the death turned out to be suspicious. He headed for the canteen and his first coffee of the morning, wondering as he went whether he would get a lift home by dinghy later.
So far as the rest of Lafferton was concerned, the day was written off. Schools were closed, shops shut, traffic non-existent. The skies cleared as the storm moved away and shafts of sunlight touched the flood waters. The rescue boats went on ferrying people from their water-filled houses. Television cameras shot the scene from helicopters.
Simon caught up on a backlog of admin until shortly after eleven when a head came round his door.
‘The bones, guv. Definitely human. There’s a skull as well.’
‘Have they started clearing again?’
‘Don’t let them. We don’t know whether there are any more remains, where they came from, how old they are. This will be a slow job, sifting through a few tons of embankment.’
‘Problem is, if they can’t reopen the bypass and traffic can’t get through the town …’
‘You said it. Any chance I can get out there?’
‘You’ll have to wade to the main road, get picked up there and dropped off by the roundabout. Walk along the bypass from there. The landslip is about half a mile down. Forensics are out there now and they’ll get a couple of small diggers to start shifting the debris bucket by bucket. Move it to the other side, check, then scoop it away if there’s nothing in it.’
‘And too many bods are still tied up in the rescue and clear-up op.’
‘I need boots.’
‘You need waders and a hard hat, sir.’
He went down the concrete stairs to the basement and the equipment store. An hour later he was standing on the empty bypass looking at a small hill of soil and rubble, beside which tarpaulins had been laid out. Two forensics in their white jumpsuits were bending over some pale grey bones, dirty with earth.
‘What have we got?’
‘Most of a body – that’s limbs, skull, ribcage … there was some damage as it all tipped down. We’re missing a foot, pelvis –’
‘At a guess. But until we get it all onto the table and fitted together we won’t know for sure.’
The young woman shook her head. She was pretty, short dark hair, nice smile. Shelley Churcher. Simon knew her well from many a crime scene over the last five or six years. She had once told him she had wanted to do this job since she was twelve and watched an American detective series every Saturday night.
‘No,’ she said quietly. ‘Much more recent.’
‘How much more?’
‘Can’t tell you that yet. But categorically not your Roman soldier.’ She looked down at the bones.
How appalling, Serrailler thought, to have what remained of someone who had been flesh and blood, life and breath and laughter, finally spread out on a tarpaulin under the sky. To have been pitched down from some hole or ditch or grave along with tons of earth in a howling storm and then to lie being scrutinised by strangers, waiting to be fitted back into something that once again resembled a human body. It seemed wrong simply to stare at the bones, wrong to see what should never be seen, wrong and lacking in all respect and sensitivity – though forensics, he knew, always treated the dead as respectfully as they could, even while doing their job with medical detachment.
‘Cause of death?’
‘Come on, sir, you know better than that.’
‘How long has he been dead then? Can you give me anything?’
‘No,’ Shelley said. ‘Not yet. Nothing at all.’
They both stood for a moment longer. On the empty bypass, the diggers were still. Clearing the mounds of earth and debris would now have to be done slowly and carefully, everything sifted in case there were any further remains. The road would not reopen for several days, adding to the traffic chaos around Lafferton in the aftermath of the storm.
But the logistics of all that were someone else’s job. Simon glanced down again at the skeleton, laid out on the tarpaulin.
Shelley shook her head. ‘That’s one thing I can tell you,’ she said. ‘This is a female.’
From the Bevham Gazette, 21 August 1995
FEARS GROW FOR MISSING HARRIET
Fears are growing for the safety of 15-year-old Lafferton schoolgirl Harriet Lowther who went missing last Friday afternoon after playing tennis at the house of a friend. Harriet left the house of Katie Cadsden, in Lea Close, at around four o’clock and was last seen walking towards the bus stop on Parkside Drive. She was due to catch a bus into Lafferton and meet her mother, Lady (Eve) Lowther, at La Belle hair salon. She never arrived.
Police are conducting house-to-house enquiries and are also combing undergrowth and woodland, a playing field close to Parkside Drive, together with nearby allotments and towpaths, and divers are searching the river.
Drivers and regular dog walkers and joggers in the area are being handed leaflets and asked if they remember seeing Harriet, who is a pupil at Freshfield College for Girls.
‘Her disappearance is completely out of character,’ Sir John Lowther said.
He stressed that there was no reason why Harriet, an only child, would not have wanted to meet her mother or return home. ‘We are a close-knit family and there have been no arguments or problems. Harriet is sensible and she would never fail to come back on time or to let us know if she was in any trouble.’
Harriet, who is five feet four and very slim with blonde hair, was wearing shorts and a white T-shirt with a pale blue sweatshirt over it, and carrying her racket in a navy zipped bag.
Lafferton Police are continuing searches. Detective Inspector June Whybrow, who is leading the investigation, said: ‘We remain hopeful that Harriet will return home safely. We are following all lines of inquiry and are keeping an open mind at this stage.’
From the Bevham Gazette, 26 August 1995
SEARCH GOES ON FOR HARRIET
Lafferton residents joined forces with more than 100 police officers this week as the search for missing 15-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Lowther intensified.
Police and firefighters from across the county were joined by volunteers as they scoured wasteland, woods and playing fields in a bid to find the daughter of prominent local businessman Sir John Lowther and his wife, Eve, of Up Starly near Lafferton. Harriet disappeared after leaving the house of a friend, to catch a bus on Parkside Drive.
Officers have also carried out extensive searches of the towpath and river areas and police helicopters have circled the region.
Detective Inspector June Whybrow of Lafferton Police said: ‘We’re still hopeful that we may find Harriet but as each day passes the search becomes more difficult and frustrating.’
Members of the public who think they may have seen Harriet in the vicinity of Parkside Drive, Lafferton, at the bus stop, on the 73 bus or who have any other in formation that might be of help are asked to call the dedicated line at Lafferton Police HQ or to contact any police station.
From the Bevham Gazette, 19 September 1995
Lafferton Police today confirmed that a 37-year-old local man has been arrested in connection with the disappearance of 15-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Lowther, daughter of Sir John and Lady Lowther. Harriet has been missing since leaving the house of a friend on the afternoon of 18 August …
From the Bevham Gazette, 22 September 1995
Police in Lafferton said that earlier today they released a 37-year-old local man, without charge. Neil Marshall was arrested on 19 September in connection with the disappearance of 15-year-old Harriet Lowther …
From the Bevham Gazette, 18 November 1995
Police today confirmed that the body found in Lafferton Canal, close to the town centre on Monday morning, was not that of 15-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Lowther, who has now been missing since August …
IT WAS FOUR days before Jocelyn could get an appointment, partly because of the floods and their aftermath, partly because Dr Deerbon now only took two surgeries a week and as she was still very popular these booked up well in advance. But the receptionists and Cat had an understanding that patients she was concerned about, anyone with a serious condition or who just sounded more worried than seemed normal should be given one of what the practice manager called the ‘secret slots’.
There had been no more rain, the water was going down quickly and the flood alert had been lifted, though the bypass was still closed and the town centre was filthy with the silt and rubbish left as the water receded. The shops which had been flooded out were mostly still closed as proprietors tried to clean up.
For a couple of days after the storm Jocelyn had been too busy helping Penny, whose ground-floor flat had suffered water damage. Penny had a big case about to start at Bevham Crown Court and little time to organise anything, which meant that Jocelyn had had no space in which to worry about herself. She had made the doctor’s appointment and now felt foolish. She shouldn’t be taking up surgery time. Her panic about being incapacitated had only come on because she was alone, it was two in the morning and the storm had seemed to be heralding the end of the world.
She would have cancelled the GP appointment if she had not let slip to Penny that she had one. That had been that of course. Penny was insistent, Penny the competent one, Penny the barrister, Penny who took charge and was irritated that she had had to leave her mother to sort out the flat.
‘I don’t think I’ll bother, Pen. Someone else needs the appointment more than I do.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘It’s obvious. I’m perfectly fit.’
‘You must have made it for a reason, Mother.’
‘What are you frightened of?’
That goaded her, as Penny had known it would.
‘I am not frightened of anything.’ She met her daughter’s eye. ‘Fine, fine, I’ll go, waste Dr Deerbon’s time.’
‘It’s what she’s paid for.’
Now Jocelyn sat in the waiting room looking at a magazine for young women under thirty and feeling pleased that she had no need to starve herself or binge drink or worry about unfaithful men or wear skirts no wider than a hairband. By the time she was called she felt extremely cheerful and even more of a fraud.
‘MAKES A CHANGE,’ Gordon Lyman said. The pathologist stood at the head of the dissecting table looking down at a sheet of heavy-duty plastic on which the set of bones was assembled into an almost complete skeleton. Serrailler had a momentary shock at not seeing a dead body, whole and entire.
‘Let me show you why I’ve got you in.’
Like most of the pathologists Simon had known, this one managed to combine efficiency and enthusiasm with a laid-back air.
‘It’s been surprisingly straightforward actually. Pity. I don’t often get a build-your-own-skeleton kit to play with.’
‘They seem to have sifted everything out of half a hillside pretty quickly.’
‘Thing was, it had pretty much stayed together – clods of damp earth formed a protective mould around it.’
‘How long has it been there?’
‘Well, sixteen years, give or take. These are the remains of Harriet Lowther.’
‘Right. No doubts?’
Gordon shook his head. ‘Firstly, we know Harriet wore a brace on her front teeth, even without accessing her dental records, and these braces always fit pretty snugly. It’s still there … see?’
Simon leaned over and looked at the jaw. The brace, discoloured but undamaged, was still firmly fixed to the upper front teeth.
‘But we have her dental records as well. Perfect match. One other thing is the clincher … Harriet only had four toes on her left foot. Congenital thing.’ He pointed again. ‘Everything else fits – height and so on.’
‘One hundred per cent sure?’
Gordon shook his head. ‘With a skeleton there always has to be a sliver of doubt, but what are the chances of the body of a girl of fifteen with a tooth brace, and only four toes who disappeared near the burial spot sixteen years ago –’
‘I get it. Right, thanks for the heads-up. The press are already panting at the door but we can let them pant a bit longer. There’s enough here for me to alert the Chief and reopen the case.’
He looked round the cold-tiled room under its blue-white light. Harriet Lowther had been found but it would be some time before she could be laid to rest in a place of her family’s choice, not of someone else’s.
It was still well before nine o’clock when he slipped the Audi into his parking space. The pathologist had been on the ball in alerting him, as they always were. It was a fascinating job, he thought, going up the stairs two at a time, he could see its attraction. You needed to have a certain detachment, an eye for minute detail, an orderly and meticulous nature with a flair for interpretation, the ability to solve puzzles logically yet allow for the occasional flash of understanding or enlightenment – inspiration even. If he had become yet another doctor in the Serrailler line, he could see that the career might well have suited him.
The Chief Constable, Paula Devenish, was on sick leave following an emergency appendectomy and a post-operative infection, so he had to put in his call about the identification to the ACC.
‘Thanks, Simon. All systems go then. I’ll authorise the reopening of the case now. You head it up, get a team together.’
‘Sir. The first thing is for Harriet’s family to be informed. I’ll do that myself this morning.’
‘Parents live in Lafferton, don’t they?’
‘Nearby, but only the father, Sir John Lowther. Her mother died about four years ago and there were no other children. I’ve met him a couple of times – family connections.’
‘Helpful. These things are never easy. And the interview board meets today to appoint your new DCI so you’ll have another pair of hands, make it easier for you to focus on the case.’
Simon wondered about taking DS Ben Vanek with him but in the end decided it would be better to go alone. The Lowther house was in a village four miles out of Lafferton and to reach it he would drive past Hallam House. A word with his father might be useful – Lowther was in the same Masonic Lodge and Simon thought they had also been on a hospital committee together. Lowther had made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, and both before and even more since his retirement had given a lot of time and business expertise as well as money to Lafferton. He and his wife had retreated from the public eye after their daughter’s disappearance, but John Lowther had thrown himself back into the swim after being widowed and become involved in a number of causes.