Walpole Street had become a sea of flashing blue lights, police cars and fire engines. Paramedics had taken Rachel Thompson to hospital. Although the fire had been extinguished the lingering odour of burnt rubber added to the sense that something terrible had happened. Number 21 had been designated a major crime scene.
Forensic Science Service investigators wearing white hooded boiler suits and shoe covers could be seen ferrying plastic evidence bags to and from their van, which was being guarded by a woman police officer.
Other officers with clipboards were knocking on neighbours’ doors in the search for witnesses and any information.
Two fire engines shielded the front of number 21 from the view of onlookers. The whining noise of their pumps was punctuated by frequent radio messages from Fire Service Control that proved indecipherable to most as they were broadcast on the engine’s loudspeakers.
Despite the miserable weather crowds of people had gathered at both ends of the road, which had been sealed off with police tape.
From out of Kingpole Street, which runs parallel to Walpole Street, a young mother, in some distress, came running. She held a baby in her arms and a towel was wrapped around her head, suggesting she had been in the shower before donning an overcoat and fleeing her home. “Officer! Officer!” she cried as she made for the police line at the end of Walpole Street. All heads in the crowd turned to see the woman approaching. People cleared the way for her to make a beeline for the constable. “Officer, I live in number 14 in the next street…” she pointed in the direction of Kingpole Street, “There’s a suspicious looking man hiding in my back garden!”
“OK Luv,” reassured the Pc, “Yankee-Zulu-three-four to Control. Urgent.” Realising the implications of what he was being told the constable’s training had taken over and he was calmly calling for assistance. He had been given strict orders and knew better than to leave the spot he was told to guard. While he awaited a response from police Control he began obtaining as much information from the woman, “OK Luv. Exactly what is he doing?”
“He’s crouchin’ down – like he’s hidin’ between two refuse bins.” There was fear and panic in her voice.
“OK Luv. Don’t worry…”
The Pc was interrupted by a tinny sounding voice crackling through his walkie-talkie loudspeaker. It was the Control Room Sergeant, “Go ahead Yankee-Zulu-three-four.”
The constable held his hand up in a gesture that told the woman she should pause while he spoke into his walkie-talkie, “Serg. The occupant of 14 Kingpole Street reports seeing a man hiding in her back garden. As you know Serg, Kingpole Street backs onto Walpole Street. Over.”
“Yankee-Zulu-three-four. Has the informant given a description?”
The woman needed no further cue to urgently recite the image that had firmly stuck in her mind, “He’s really evil looking. He’s balding, short and stocky. He’s wearing scruffy clothes and he obviously hasn’t shaved for days…”
The constable began relaying the less subjective parts of her description to Control, “Serg, he’s balding, short, stocky, unshaven and of scruffy appearance…”
The woman – only grateful that her concerns were being acted upon so promptly – continued, “He looks a bit like a gangster or a nightclub bouncer. His nose is twisted and he has a scar across his chin. He’s…”
Oh my God! thought the Pc. He pressed the ‘transmit’ button on his walkie-talkie again, but this time turned away from the woman, as though shielding her from what he had to say, “The woman’s description Serg … I think we should check it out, but it sounds like it’s … er … Inspector Sykes.”
Detective Inspector Eddie Sykes was scouring some of the less obvious places the offender might have dropped a weapon or left any clues as he fled the scene. 25 years’ service with North Yorkshire Police had honed DI Sykes’ uncanny ability to spot clues others would later regret having passed over as being irrelevant.
But alas in the rear garden of 14 Kingpole Street nothing was found. He returned to Walpole Street and surveyed the outside of number 21.
The family who once made the three bedroom terrace house their home had long gone. Another repossession that followed another redundancy at the nearby rail depot. For over a century the city’s main employer had been the rail industry, but the automation of rail carriage manufacture and foreign competition reduced Britain’s biggest carriage and wagon production site to Britain’s largest rail museum; and with it went thousands of jobs. No one knew who owned the house anymore. It had become a squat.
A neighbour had heard noises. Inside number 19, Janet Simpson sat at her pine kitchen table still shocked by what had happened. The bank cashier had telephoned her boss to say she would not be coming in today and fixed herself a large gin and tonic to try to calm her nerves. Mrs Simpson had lived in her home for all of her 38 years. It was clean, tidy and reasonably comfortable. But she and her husband had despaired that Blakehurst was rapidly degenerating and so were saving to move to a nicer area.
DI Sykes listened as she told a uniformed sergeant of what had happened, “Next door’s used by druggies and prostitutes. So when I heard the thuds and the man shouting I thought nothing of it. But when I saw him take off his balaclava and noticed the smoke coming from the window, I dialled 999. The fire service was here within minutes. Not that you lot could be bothered. Nearly an hour it took you to turn up.”
In between sipping his coffee the sergeant was writing everything down, “Exactly what did you hear Mrs Simpson?”
“It was hard to make out his exact words ’cause they were coming through the wall, but it was definitely an Irish voice and sounded like ‘bitch, bitch, fucking bitch’. And then some other sounds. It’s so hard to make out.”
The sergeant looked up for approval to eat yet another biscuit.
DI Sykes read Mrs Simpson’s mind, I’m tearing my hair out ’cause the fireman told me they found someone almost burnt to death next door and he’s filling his stomach without a care in the world. The look of disbelief conveyed her feelings.
The inspector quipped, “Now you know why they call the police pigs!” He got a smile. “You were saying Mrs Simpson?”
“Thinking back now there was something else. It was like there was a fight. Then it all went quiet. And about half an hour later I was cleaning the upstairs back room window when I saw the man taking off his balaclava. But I didn’t see him for long. My eyes were drawn to the smoke coming from inside. Then I dialled 999. The firemen say they found a body. Who was she?”
“I don’t know,” the sergeant, like all other police officers, had been told not to give anything away, “What did the man who removed his balaclava look like?”
“I’m not sure because it was just a quick glance…”
“Aye up!” there was no mistaking the heavy Yorkshire accent, “… ’Ere comes th’ bloody cavalry,” with raised eyes a constable spoke through the corner of her mouth as the two squad cars rolled up.
In the front passenger seat, of the front car, sat Jeremy Evans-Pearce. Had he been out of uniform and wearing his thick lens black square rimmed glasses, instead of contact lenses, he could have been mistaken for the force’s newest probationer rather than its newest superintendent.
“Good morning Sir. Nice to see you,” said the Pc, “This is the house where the girl was found and Inspector Sykes is next door with a witness.”
“A witness…” Supt Evans-Pearce sounded like one of the stiff upper lip brigade. Friends of the ex-military intelligence colonel described him as a brilliant strategist and perfectionist, who demanded exacting standards of colleagues. Others concluded he was a jumped up public school boy, whose accent and Oxbridge education unduly elevated him above officers with more operational experience when competing for police jobs. “Thank you constable.”
“Not at all Sir,” said the Pc. And when Supt Evans-Pearce was inside the front door of number 21, “Wanker!”
When Janet Simpson had given the gist of what happened DI Sykes went next door. The first thing he noticed was the stench of petroleum fumes and the unmistakable smell of burnt human flesh. The walls, ceiling and windows in the downstairs back room had been completely blackened by the smoke. A settee had been reduced to a mass of coiled springs and there was a metal framed table in the middle of the floor. It wasn’t possible to make out what the other burnt out remnants had been. The burning of the material and the water used by fire fighters left a mass of black sludge.
As the inspector went inside he saw the senior Scenes of Crimes Officer and Fire Commander briefing his boss. Shit. What the bloody hell’s Evans-Pearce doing here? “Morning Sir. Gentlemen.”
Supt Evans-Pearce ignored DI Sykes’ greeting. The SOCO and Fire Commander respectively acknowledged the inspector with “Sir” and “Hello Eddie”.
The Fire Commander was describing what his officers found on entering the house, “The girl had been bound by her hands and ankles and spreadeagled over this metal framed table. But she was in luck. She had been stripped naked before petrol was thrown over her…”
“In luck to be stripped?” interrupted Supt Evans-Pearce.
“When she was doused in accelerant, the offender probably spent some time making sure he’d finish her off by soaking everything else in here too. With the severe winds we’ve been having and the time spell, the petrol had largely evaporated or left only a minimal trace. So she escaped with relatively minor burns – apart from to her hair, which is more badly affected. The fact the neighbour called us out so quick means she’s bloody lucky to be alive.”
Supt Evans-Pearce couldn’t believe what he was hearing, “So she’s OK?”
“I didn’t say that. Just that your offender had been reading too many books on how to use petrol to finish someone off. Your SOCO will tell you about the injuries she sustained. You know where I am if you need my help.”
DI Sykes thanked the Fire Commander, whom he had known for many years, and he returned to the mobile fire Command & Control unit outside.
Before the SOCO spoke the inspector took a call on his mobile. “It’s the hospital,” he mimed as a detective waiting at York District Hospital relayed the detail of what the doctors had told him. When he rung off DI Sykes gave a summary, “The girl’s in a coma in intensive care. Impossible to say for how long. The hospital says it’s a deep one.” He paused and the expression on his face suggested he was half expecting, or fearing, the second part of the message, “She was raped with some kind of solid implement. The doctors say it appears the trauma resulted more from psychological than the physical effects…”
“Meaning?” the SOCO didn’t understand.
“Meaning the poor little sod was nearly frightened to death before he carried out whatever he did to her.”
There was a collective sigh from the three men in the room before the SOCO began sharing his knowledge, “Although he didn’t finish off the girl, he spent some time dousing everything else in here. We’ll have to await the results of Forensics, but at the moment there’s not a scrap of evidence.”
“Nothing at all?” DI Sykes was desperate for clues.
“There are prints. Smudged prints. There’s blood. As I say we’ll have to wait for Forensics, but it looks like being the girl’s.” The SOCO paused while a Forensic Science Service officer, who had entered the room, picked up his equipment and left. He then told DI Sykes what neither he nor the superintendent wanted to hear, “And a claw hammer, cleaned of course, was found next to her head.”
“Oh Christ! This means…” As Supt Evans-Pearce put his hand to his face and ran his thumb and index finger around his mouth as though deeply contemplating what he’d just been told, his thoughts were confirmed by DI Sykes.
“Yes Sir. I think it does.”
“Jesus Eddie. A serial rapist.”
“And he’s becoming increasingly violent.”