Detective Inspector ‘Tiny’ Tears leaned back in his seat, chewing his bottom lip as he re-read the torn, dirty letter for the umpteenth time.
On the other side of the desk his sergeant, Marilyn Jarvis, waited. “Any conclusions?”
“You’re the intelligent one,” said Tears without looking up, “you tell me.”
“I’ve gone through it half a dozen times and I still don’t know what it means.”
“What, you haven’t put it under some sort of infra-red machine, scrutinised every dot and crossing of tees?” He smiled. She didn’t.
“I may be a workaholic, but I’m not obsessive.”
“You’re bloody ultra-efficient, that’s what you are.” He waved the letter between forefinger and thumb, “I haven’t got a clue what this is, not a one. It’s either some sort of fantasy thing, the ramblings of an over-imaginative schoolboy, or ...” He let the unfinished sentence hang in the air.
“The body certainly wasn’t over-imaginative.”
“No, far from it.” Tears scanned the scrawl on the piece of paper again, but the words had blurred before his eyes as he recalled where the letter had been found, screwed up in the dead fist of a soldier, or a foreign policeman, dressed in a strange uniform, body jammed half-in, half-out of a sewer entrance in the harbour part of town. The truck had hit him as he’d emerged into the daylight, almost severing him in half. The truck-driver, still in shock, could tell them little more than the babble he came out with when first questioned: ‘He just appeared from the ground. I didn’t see him. I didn’t know!’ Tears shook his head, recalling the image of the mangled mess of the soldier, the black hole of a mouth, the wide, unblinking eyes. A hideous mangled caricature of a human being. He shivered, a sudden chill running through him. “Do we know anything more about him, this soldier?”
“I’m waiting for the call from Samuels.” Police pathologist Samuel Samuels. Expert in his field, methodical and slow. Marilyn shrugged. “I might take some photographs of his uniform down to the Army Museum, they’ll be able to tell us what his unit is at least.”
“No identity cards, passport, anything at all?”
“Not a thing.”
Tears held his breath for a moment before releasing the air slowly. “There’s nothing right about any of this, Marilyn. What would a soldier be doing down a sewer, clutching this?” He waved the letter.
“I’ll get onto the museum.” She stood up, smoothing down her skirt. “It might be some sort of role-playing game. You know, paintball or something.”
“Yeah, or the other thing...air-soft. Kids, adults too, get into groups, run around in protective clothing, shooting each other with little plastic balls. It’s all the rage.”
Tears screwed up his face, not sure whether he believed her or not. “Never heard of it.”
“That’s because you sit at home and do nothing but read books. Old books.”
“History, Marilyn. And you know the reason.”
“Open University degree, isn’t it?”
He shook his head, a ghost of a smile flickering around his mouth, “MA, Marilyn. I got my degree three years ago.”
“Perhaps you should be the one who goes to the museum?”
“No. I’ll leave that to you. It’ll be good for you – expand your mind.”
“My mind doesn’t need expanding, thanks very much.” She picked up her bag and rifled inside. “I had something for you, and I can’t remember...Ah!” She grinned and brought out a brightly coloured leaflet. She passed it over to him.
Tears read, ‘Doctor Keith Melling, in conversation at Birkenhead Central Library. Come along and chat all about Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England.’
He frowned at her. “You picked this up for me?”
“Thought you’d be interested.”
“I am.” He carefully folded the leaflet and slipped it into his inside jacket pocket. “Thanks, I’m touched.”
She flashed another smile before turning and walking away. Tears studied her, feeling only mildly guilty when he allowed his eyes to linger a little too long on her legs as she stood in the doorway. He looked up, caught the bemused expression on her face, and felt the heat rush to his cheeks. For something to do he scribbled a few words in his notepad. When he glanced her way again she was gone.
Tears sighed, propped his chin on his hands and thought for a moment. He pulled out the flyer Marilyn had given him, unfolded it and stared at the wording. Keith Melling. Doctor Keith Melling. They’d gone to school together, a thousand years ago. Melling, top of every single class there was, Tears at the bottom. Except for history. In history he was second. Melling, as always, first. Now here he was – a doctor, giving talks in the local library. Tears wondered if Melling would recognise him. There was every chance he would remember him, of course, seeing as Tears had saved his life.