If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.2
If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 2
‘Lacey, you shouldn’t even be here,’ she said. ‘Give me five minutes, I’ll get someone to run you home.’
‘They were wearing masks,’ I said. ‘So who says they were white?’
Tulloch looked at Anderson, who opened his notebook and flicked back a few pages. ‘Shahid Karim was at the far side of the park at 19.33 hours,’ he said. ‘He saw five white men run across the pitches, coming from the direction of the children’s play area. They disappeared on to the Wandsworth Road.’
‘An alien, a wolf, a zombie, a goblin and the Queen,’ I said.
Eyes stared at me. A couple of people exchanged bemused glances.
‘Did he tell you that?’ I asked.
Some eyes remained fixed on me. The rest went back to Tulloch, who raised an eyebrow at Anderson.
‘Mr Karim said nothing about masks,’ he told her. ‘I made a note to double-check when Lacey mentioned it downstairs just now. You’d think it was the sort of thing he would have remembered.’
Tulloch nodded. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Can we get word to the team down at the recreation ground? If they dumped the masks between fleeing the scene and being spotted leaving the playing fields then they’ll still be down there.’
Barrett crossed the room and picked up the phone.
‘Right, Lacey,’ said Tulloch, ‘as you’re here, why don’t you tell us all what you saw? As much as you can remember.’
Conscious of all eyes on me, many of them more than half curious about the detective constable who’d achieved such notoriety only weeks earlier, I went through the events of the evening again, from my first taking the call from Control.
‘I thought I heard someone running away just before I got to the park,’ I said, ‘but I honestly can’t be sure it had anything to do with the attack. Another thing I’m not sure about is whether they were all men, but my guess is they were. Several of them were tall; the ones who weren’t seemed to be built like men. I’d struggle to guess ages, but they all moved pretty quickly when they had to, so not that old. On the other hand, definitely all adults. Probably all over twenty. They didn’t move like kids.’
‘And you think this was deliberate?’ asked Anderson. ‘Not just messing around gone badly wrong.’ He and I had already gone through this, he just wanted the others to hear it from me.
‘They all had sticks,’ I said. ‘They surrounded him. As he got near to any of them, they’d push him back with the sticks. They wanted to keep him burning. And they were taunting him.’
Anderson looked up. ‘You didn’t say that earlier.’
‘Sorry, I just remembered. It happened very fast.’
‘What were they saying?’ asked Tulloch.
I took a moment, thought hard, then shook my head. ‘Sorry,’ I admitted, ‘I can’t remember any words, if I even heard them clearly enough.’
Silence for a moment as I dropped my eyes to the ground and they gave me time. I was thinking. I’d definitely heard them taunting him, so why couldn’t I recall what they’d said?
‘What is it, Lacey?’ asked Tulloch.
I looked up. ‘Not sure,’ I said. ‘Just something that doesn’t feel right. Who reported it? Who made the call in the first place?’
Tulloch looked from one face to another.
‘Anonymous,’ said Stenning. ‘A female voice, talking from a mobile. Possibly someone in one of the overlooking houses who didn’t want to get involved.’
‘Maybe the person Lacey heard running away,’ suggested Mizon. ‘Anything else you can tell us about him? Her?’
‘Tallish, slim,’ I said. ‘Able to run pretty fast. Could have been anyone.’
They sent me home shortly after that.
I WOKE THE next day to find the country talking of little other than hate crime. Most of the main news sites covered the attack: it was on BBC, ITV and Channel 4 news. The premeditated nature of the murder, the brutality of it and the agonies the man had suffered before death were all grist to the mill of the country’s media, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder, united by collective outrage. Every channel I turned to seemed to carry calls for ‘robust action’ to combat the rising trend of Islamophobic attacks. A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain cited violent assaults, death threats, fire-bombing of mosques and desecration of graves as just a few examples of the rising wave of crime against British Muslims, most of which went unreported or was inadequately investigated.
A woman in a pink coat standing outside New Scotland Yard told the nation that five suspects had been apprehended the night before and items of property seized. An announcement was expected shortly.
Everyone wanted a quick resolution, for punishment to be inflicted fast and hard. The five suspects – unemployed local white men, aged between nineteen and twenty-three, all with police records – were named on social media in the course of the day. As the hours ticked by we waited for an announcement that DI Dana Tulloch, already the nation’s favourite policewoman following her successful closure of the Ripper case, had formally charged the suspects.
The post mortem on the victim was carried out. He’d died from suffocation after his soot-blackened airway had swollen and closed. Had the paramedics got to him sooner, they might have been able to insert a tube and keep him breathing. Might. There were third-degree burns over some 70 per cent of his body. At 80 per cent, it’s nearly always fatal.
We heard that Mr Karim, who’d been walking on the far side of the recreation ground and had seen the five men fleeing, had gone into the station and had correctly identified the photographs of the five suspects. The park was still sealed off and being combed by crime-scene officers, as was the wider recreation ground. The sticks I’d described hadn’t turned up. The door-to-door enquiries went on, in the hope that someone other than Mr Karim and I had seen something, or of finding the person who’d reported the attack. The recording of the anonymous voice was listened to many times before the team concluded that the reporter was female and probably Asian. CCTV footage was gathered and watched. Still we waited for the announcement of Tulloch’s latest triumph.
We waited in vain. And all the time there was that nagging voice at the back of my head. Something was wrong. Something even more wrong than a brutal and unprovoked racist attack. There was something I was missing.
‘WE COULD TRY hypnosis,’ someone suggested.
‘We cannot go to court relying on a statement acquired under hypnosis,’ snapped Tulloch. ‘Look, I’m as frustrated as anyone, but it really doesn’t look like Lacey has any more to tell us.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said again.
We were at Lewisham police station, where the Major Investigation Teams were based. The frustration around me, almost solid enough to cut through, stemmed from my inability to describe in any useful detail the clothes the five perpetrators had been wearing in the park the previous night. I’d done my best, but other than a general impression of dark casual jackets, hooded sweatshirts and dark trousers, there had been nothing. Normally, I’m very good at noticing and remembering details, but either the five men had deliberately dressed to be as inconspicuous as possible, or I’d been too shocked to take much notice.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. This should not be a difficult case. Suspects had been named and apprehended within an hour of the crime. Witness statements would be fresh and reliable. There would have been no time for alibis to be fabricated. There should barely be enough sterile plastic bags to contain the physical evidence.
The others looked at each other. ‘This doesn’t leave this room,’ warned Tulloch.
‘Of course,’ I agreed.
She threw her hands up into air. ‘We have nothing,’ she said.
‘Bugger all,’ added Anderson, in case Tulloch hadn’t been sufficiently clear.
‘They’re denying being anywhere near the park?’ I said.
‘Naturally,’ said Anderson, ‘but we expected that. What we didn’t expect was that two of them would have pretty
‘Is that all?’ I asked. Alibis were tricky, but not insurmountable. They often came down to one person’s word. Yes, my brother was at home all evening, we watched television together.
‘No evidence at all,’ said Tulloch. ‘We seized every pair of shoes in every residence, but none match prints left at the scene or show any traces of mud from the park or grass from their supposed run across the field. No smell or trace of petrol on any of the clothes. No petrol found in any of the houses. You stank like a furnace last night, Lacey, no offence. They didn’t.’
‘I thought somebody picked them out of the Identikit photos?’ I said.
‘Yeah, this Karim bloke,’ said Barrett. ‘Trouble is, he knows them all anyway. He’s had run-ins with them before. They hang around his shop, apparently, making a nuisance of themselves. Bit of petty shoplifting. Any defence worth his salt will just claim he picked out five blokes he knew who’d pissed him off.’
I was starting to see their problem. ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t them.’
‘On the other hand, guess who intervened one time when they were threatening Karim?’ Barrett continued. ‘Chowdhury himself, the victim. He had some balls, that guy. Stood up to them, wouldn’t let them leave until the police arrived. There’s no doubt they had a grudge against him.’
I sighed. A cast-iron case that couldn’t be proven. ‘No other witness accounts at all?’
‘Not one,’ said Tulloch. ‘Only the street you live on is close enough to see anything and everyone had their curtains drawn and their TVs turned up.’
‘We did find the masks,’ said Stenning. ‘Just as you described.’
‘Waste bin at the end of the road where one of them lives.’
‘Well, then …’
‘Smells bad,’ said Anderson. ‘Karim is on record as making no mention of the gang running across the field wearing masks. On the contrary, he talked about five white men, but how would he know they were white if they’d been wearing masks? It means if he did see what he claims he saw, they must have ditched the masks before they reached him.’
‘Or they just took them off,’ I said.
‘So if they all took them off and hung on to them, what are the chances of them all ending up in one bin, at the end of the road where only one of them lives and which three of them do not have to go anywhere near to get home?’
‘Well, not good,’ I admitted. ‘Unless they went to that house first, maybe to agree stories.’
‘There wasn’t a lot of time for that,’ said Tulloch. ‘We picked them up pretty quickly. And how likely is it that they got rid of every other bit of physical evidence, but the masks got dumped in a bin where they should have known we’d find them?’
‘You think the masks were planted there?’ I said. ‘That it’s a set-up?’
I shook my head. ‘No, come on, it’s still too soon. You can’t have had the forensic reports back yet. Or the full post-mortem findings. There could be any number of hairs and fibres that weren’t obvious to the naked eye.’
‘Well, let’s hope so,’ said Tulloch. ‘In the meantime, given the mood on the streets, I’m going to have to keep this lot locked up for the maximum time for their own safety.’
I stopped to think about that. An inability on the part of the police to get justice for an aggrieved minority was the time-honoured path towards mass anger and civil unrest.
‘Thank God it’s cold enough outside to freeze a witch’s tits off,’ said Anderson, and we all said a silent Amen. Riots happened in summer, when it was warm enough to hang around on street corners and stir each other up to throwing the first stone. In winter, when the rain came down from the heavens, the mist from the Thames and the wind from the North Sea, even the most aggrieved campaigner for racial justice was more inclined to turn up the radiator than stoke up rebellion.
‘You think we’ve got enough to get the full ninety-six hours?’ asked Mizon. Even in murder cases, suspects could normally only be held for a maximum of thirty-six hours without charge. But the police could apply to the courts for an extension of up to ninety-six hours.
‘If there’s any argument, we just say the two magic words,’ said Tulloch.
Nods of agreement around the room. We all lived in fear of a repeat of the murder in 1993 that precipitated what is generally considered to be the Met’s darkest hour. Eighteen-year-old student Stephen Lawrence had been on his way home when he was set upon and beaten to death by a gang of white youths. People had known who the white kids were. Names had been given to the Lawrence family, the police, the media, within hours of the teenager’s death. A racially motivated hate crime with tragic consequences, it had seemed an open-and-shut case.
Except, without substantial cause to search flats, the police had to play it safe and potentially evidence was lost. The resulting investigation went on for years. Nobody wanted a repeat of that. We just had to hope that the evidence was there and that, in the coming days, it would rise to the surface.
IT WASN’T, AND it didn’t. The best and most careful scientific brains in the country couldn’t find any physical evidence that established a direct link between the five suspects and the crime. Tulloch had no choice, once the ninety-six hours had passed, but to release them.
As November grew old and the last month of the year champed at its heels, the threat of violence hung over London like the sour wind that precedes a plague. The five suspects, named on the internet if not in British newspapers, lived in a state of siege, with windows broken, walls graffitied, even a car torched. We had to give each of them police protection, which did nothing to increase our popularity in the city. Our officers were harangued on the streets. Retaliations started. A pig’s head was left on the minaret of a mosque. A veiled woman was pushed on to the line of an underground train. Luckily, she was pulled off again before she came to any harm.
As for me, well, I still hadn’t been reassigned following the big case, so I drifted on to the Chowdhury investigation and no one objected. We talked to the victim’s immediate family and his extended one. We talked to his friends and his colleagues. We found fresh suspects and brought them in: other young men in the area with a history of violence. We combed their bodies and their flats for a droplet of petrol, a discarded match-head. We compared footprints in the mud of the park to shoes we found in cupboards. We checked alibis and then we checked them again. For ten days we threw resources at the case. We got nowhere.
In the meantime, London pulled its Santa Claus outfit from the box in the loft and its citizens started asking each other how preparations for Christmas were going. The night sky above Regent Street was hung with vast crystal cobwebs, whilst statues, which could have been carved from diamonds, appeared on rooftops and peered down at us. At street level, icicles gleamed from window ledges and you had to get close and watch for drips to know whether they were real or not.
The daily castigation of the Metropolitan Police went on. The attack had been our fault, because we’d fostered a climate in which society believed black lives meant little; the failure to bring justice to the Chowdhury family was similarly our fault.
And throughout it all, I couldn’t help feeling that the blame lay primarily with me. That there’d been some detail I’d missed: a scar, a tattoo, a distinctive item of clothing. Something I’d heard, something I’d seen. Anything that would provide a direct link between what I’d witnessed that night and those who were suspected of the crime. It didn’t help that I had a feeling at the back of my mind that there really was something; but at the back was where it was staying.
There were two people I could have talked to about it. One was on remand in Holloway prison, waiting for a trial that would probably result in a twenty-year prison sentence for multiple murder. The other was in a hospital bed, trying to recover from a near-fatal bullet wound. Two very tricky sets o
So it was just me, alone, with some very disturbing pictures in my head. And then, one Monday night, some ten days after the attack, I saw the woman in black.
ALL DAY, YELLOW clouds had mustered over London, getting thicker, heavier and lower with each hour that passed. Some time in the afternoon, the canopy had collapsed under the strain. It didn’t so much splinter into a million tiny fragments of white as burst open and release the waiting onslaught. For the following few hours, snow fell like fog, thick and all-encompassing, masking everything. People who ventured out did so with heads down and eyes half closed. Offices closed early. Traffic slowed, cars skidded, buses relentlessly turned the snow to brown slush.
By early evening, the onslaught had calmed, but there were several inches of snow on the ground. I was in the top flat of a house in my street, interviewing the elderly couple who lived there in the hope that they’d seen something on the night in question. I wasn’t overly hopeful, because they’d been interviewed once already and memories fade with every passing day. On the other hand, their back windows directly overlooked the park. Had they been so inclined, they could have had a ringside view.
Twenty minutes in, it wasn’t going well. They’d argued that visibility at the back of the house was very poor, especially at night, and said that neither of them had great eyesight. I’d maintained that if they’d switched off the lights they’d have had a close-to-perfect view, and pointed out that they both wore spectacles. They humoured me by switching the lights off. Ah, yes, they agreed, a very good view, and didn’t London look lovely in the snow? But, you see, they never walked round their flat in the dark, and on winter evenings they always drew the curtains.
It was hopeless. I thanked them for their time. They turned away, the man to switch the lights back on, the woman to answer the piercing call of the kettle she’d insisted on filling. I remained at the window for one last second.
by S J Bolton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes