Episode 1 of The Muralist & the Inspector Series
THE SCENE OF THE MURDER OF CAROL OGILVY.
They usually begin with a corpse, don’t they? These stories? These cases? They’re about corpses that have been made.
At least her story will get told. She’s pretty, bright, from a good family. People will care. They’ll demand justice. It shouldn’t matter, the way a person lived before they became the victim of a homicide, but it nearly always did in a roundabout sort of way. It’s difficult to be genuinely interested in people when you meet them after they’d been murdered. All you can see is the manner of their death. It obliterates everything else that ever happened to them. Their life before merely calibrates the tragedy meter, decides their placement in the papers.
Detective Inspector Mark Reed had a more philosophical outlook on life than most of his colleagues, and he found having these sorts of meta discussions with himself helped him keep the distance he needed not to be driven mad. It didn’t blunt his empathy, though. At least he hoped it didn’t. Having spent the better part of twenty years wading through the dregs of humanity must have taken its toll, though. I don’t smile as much as I should, he thought as he zipped up the coveralls the forensics team had provided. His head was splitting and his hands shook a bit. He thought of the mountain of paperwork still on his desk and how much higher it would tower if he took one or two sick days. It was better just to soldier on as always. He’d left his paracetamol in his office, though. It’s going to be a long day, he thought as he knelt to examine the body.
She’d been terrified to the last. He’d squeezed the life out of her with her own tights. She’d tried to fight him off, but he’d overpowered her. They almost always did. They rarely killed their victims after they’d taken what they’d wanted, though. This was an anomaly.
Thank God for that tiniest of mercies.
THREE DAYS EARLIER.
He always awoke before the alarm went off, but he never got out of bed until it started ringing. It was an old fashioned alarm clock, one mounted with two bells and a hammer in between. It was shrill and brassy. He hated it, but he loathed electronic beeping even more. He could have set an alarm to a radio station, or maybe even programmed some music, but that would have defeated the purpose. The clanging of the bells wasn’t about waking. It marked the beginning of a regimented day, the opening of a schedule of events to which he strictly adhered.
The hammer darted back and forth, becoming a blur as it struck the bells, signalling the start of his day. The sound echoed through the nearly empty room. He reached over, switched off the ringer and welcomed the completeness of the silence. His home had been solidly built with thick walls and windows, and it was a quiet neighbourhood — posh. The sounds of London were rarely more than a hum. He rolled out of his single bed — it was barely bigger than a cot and was the only furniture besides a desk and chair. The Spartan furnishings were dwarfed by the high ceilings and scandalously underutilised square footage.
He lived a simple, ordered life.
Complexity created confusion, as did clutter.
He had to keep careful track of his thoughts — they so easily ran out of control.
He made his bed quickly and efficiently, pulling the sheets tight and forming the meticulous hospital corners with the ease brought of years of practice. The bedding was of the highest quality, but it was a muted grey that seemed to rebuke the luxuriousness of its high thread count. The walls were unadorned and painted an inoffensive pale cream. They too were meant to soothe. He wasn’t entirely sure bright colours set him off, but it was better to be safe, so he avoided them ruthlessly whenever he could. All these years later, and he was still unable to identify his triggers. Perhaps there were none. Perhaps it was all inevitable. He covered his work with a heavy goose down duvet and fluffed the single pillow. It all might have looked like something out of a stern Swedish furniture catalogue, but there was a merciless, almost punitive quality to the décor that made outsiders flinch. It seemed institutional, and there was nothing aspirational about a glorified cell, no matter how posh the postal code.
He walked over to the desk. His feet were bare, and the hardwood floor was cold. He’d thought of getting a rug, but it seemed like too much of a commitment. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant turning the heating all the way up, nevertheless the chill in the air cut through his soft, cotton pyjamas. On top of his desk was an old-fashioned businessman’s date book. It was open to the previous day’s date. In a hand so neat it appeared almost typewritten the following entries were inscribed:
7:30 a.m. Wake up.
7:30–7:35 a.m. Make bed.
7:35–7:50 a.m. Morning ablutions.
7:55–8:05 a.m. Breakfast.
8:05 a.m. Take medication.
And so the list of mundane daily tasks and activities went on. Every moment of his day was planned. Spontaneity was suffocated in the crib. He turned the page to the current day’s date. His schedule was the same, save one exception written in red ink:
12:30 p.m. Lunch with Mummy.
He made that simple concession once a week. It didn’t quite jam up the works, but these days were harder than the others because they broke the pattern. Everything else in his life was arranged with the singular goal of keeping his thoughts focussed, of keeping his mind healthy. A purely social meeting to “catch up” did nothing to forward that agenda.
I’m tired, he thought as he made his way to the bathroom.
He was always tired, it seemed.
The marble tiled floor of the master bath was heated. The extravagance of it didn’t escape him. Not after all the hospitals and group homes. Even before then, there’d been university dormitories and before that boarding school. It had been a long time since he’d lived so comfortably, though, and it was taking some getting used to. All these months later, his bedroom was the only room in the house that was furnished. He didn’t need anything else, couldn’t see the point of having anything else. But he knew it would eventually get him in trouble: living in a giant, empty house was even more eccentric than living in one filled to the rafters with back issues of National Geographic. At least compulsive hoarding showed you were attached to something. He didn’t have any friends, and he’d never really been close to his mother and sister. His father had understood him, but he was long dead.
He stripped naked and tossed his clothes into the hamper. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was so pale and weak — thin and bird-chested. He’d never quite made it out of puberty, and he’d always hated his boyish frame. He couldn’t quite count his ribs, but it was a near thing, and his scapulae jutted out of his back like wings whose construction had been halted. His thick, dark hair was an Einsteinian tangle. He looked away, self-conscious of his awkward looks even in solitude.
He stepped into the steam shower and started up the powerful jets. He found the sound of the water beating against the tiles calming, as was the gathering cloud of precipitation surrounding him. He felt cocooned. Safe.
Perhaps I’ll have a sensory deprivation tank built, he thought.
MEANWHILE, IN A MIDDLE-CLASS ENCLAVE OF LONDON.
Mark Reed was having a simple breakfast of strong, black coffee, toast with strawberry preserves, and paracetamol. He’d awoken with a stiff neck and the feeling his head was in a vise. The long hours and irregular sleep patterns of a homicide detective were beginning to take their toll. I’m getting old, he thought. That morning as he’d shaved, he’d really looked at himself in the mirror for the first time in ages. He’d never been a vain man, but he’d begun to wonder how much longer he’d be considered handsome. He’d always been a bit embarrassed by the attention his brawny good looks had drawn. When combined with his working class accent and choice of profession, they caused severe misapprehensions about his intelligence. He’d been a dissertation defence short of getting his Ph.D. in the Classics when he’d left academia to join the police force. He read Ancient Greek and Latin and loved museums so much he could scarcely breathe when he thought of his favourite exhibitions. He’d spent so much of his early career making sure everyone knew he wasn’t just a plod. He never let a mistake or error in judgement go uncorrected. He’d told himself it had been about refusing to apologise for being clever, refusing to dumb himself down, that the embarrassment of the colleagues he’d shown up was necessary collateral damage, that the setting and meeting of a higher standard was more important than bruised egos. But the truth was he’d been insecure. He hadn’t fit in and took to wearing it as a badge of pride instead of taking it as an admonition to make more of an effort. Time had made him wiser, and he looked back on those days with some regret about the relationships he’d soured.
Time also meant the lines stayed even after he stopped smiling now. His face was craggy and weather-beaten — it told the story of a life flooded with tragedy. His hair was greying at the temples, but its pale blond colouring thankfully made it less obvious. At least he still had a full head of hair, which was more than he could say for many of his friends and colleagues, some of whom were a decade younger. And no one had eyes like his. They were the wintry blue of a glacier refracting the rays of a brilliant sun, so striking they sometimes stopped passers-by dead in their tracks. He’d been lying to himself all these years about how much that pleased him. He was still broad-shouldered and powerfully built, but for how much longer?
Mid-life was a bastard. Just as you began to have things figured out, the confidence of youth was supplanted by the anxiety of a fuller appreciation of your mortality. The inevitability of death truly came home. How did the saying go? Age humiliates us all.
Mark prepared another cup of coffee — heavily creamed and sugared, and made his way back upstairs. He placed the mug on the bedside table and shook his wife gently. “Vanessa,” he whispered. “I brought your coffee.” She stretched and yawned. She hated mornings more than anyone he’d ever met. She was younger than he was, beautiful. They were beautiful together — a matching blonde and blue-eyed pair. Like a Ralph Lauren ad. That’s how a friend had described their wedding photos.
She smiled at him and said, “Thanks.”
Mark felt he should say something, so he did. “I don’t expect to have too long a day.”
“Don’t tempt the Fates,” Vanessa replied wryly. Coolly? Mark was excellent at reading other people and was a master at getting witnesses and suspects to tell him what he needed to know, but he’d been on the back foot with Vanessa from the beginning. It’s what he’d liked about her most — that sense of surprise.
He leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” she replied.
BACK IN A POSH, UNFURNISHED TOWNHOUSE.
He slipped into a heavy navy blue dressing gown and headed to the kitchen, making his way past cavernous, empty rooms and down a grand staircase. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have moved into a flat, he thought. But this place was his birth right; there was no point in trying to deny it.
His kitchen was enormous, meant to accommodate preparations for elaborate dinner parties, but apart from the basic appliances, it too was bare. He opened the refrigerator. It was filled with neatly stacked plastic containers. He pulled out one labelled: “Monday: Breakfast”. Inside was diced fruit and yoghurt. He found a spoon and ate standing up at the counter. There was a staticky feeling tingling under his scalp, as if his synapses were misfiring. He shook his head, trying to dislodge it. He shut his eyes and suppressed a bitter laugh. He’d done everything they’d asked: took medications that exhausted and zombified him, kept a strict schedule, and saw his psychiatrist weekly.
His head began to buzz.
It was all out of their control, wasn’t it?
He looked out the window. The sky was dark.
She would come to him soon. It was only a matter of time.
NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON