The case started off routinely enough with a neighbour's report that she hadn't seen the old man for over two weeks.
I despatched an officer to the block of flats to search for any evidence of Mr Sculthorpe – he drew a blank. Via the DSS, some distant remnants of family were traced but they lived several hundred miles away and hadn't been in contact for years. Acquaintances from the local OAP club also drew a blank. By all accounts Mr Sculthorpe was unsociable; just another lonely old man who kept himself to himself. His kind were ten-a-penny in this area, holing themselves up for endless hours neither seeking nor encouraging companionship. Then, in solitude, they popped their clogs leaving us to pick up the pieces.
So, lacking any excuse not to, I gave the order that enabled two officers to return to the property and break in. I suspected that they would discover just another long-dead, frail old body. It would be slumped on the sofa, or half submerged in a long-cold bath. Most commonly, it would be in bed where it had finally given up the ghost.
However, I was wrong, and the case became far more interesting.
I arrived less than an hour later. The block of flats, the concrete stained greyish-brown, was one of many that had been hastily erected in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Long overdue for demolition, they were abhorred by all except their shortsighted designers. The lift was broken so I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor. As my feet negotiated the litter-strewn steps I couldn't believe people had been seriously expected to make their homes in these abominations.
I greeted Officer Peterson who guarded the property. I entered the hallway and nodded to Officer Maguire who stood before the bathroom door at the far end of the short hallway. I peered into the first door on my left – the lounge. It was decorated in oldness: there was an old sofa in front of an old television beside an old wooden table covered with a faded old tablecloth. Old fruit mouldered in an old dusty fruit-bowl. Even the air smelt old.
Back in the hallway I heard the tinkle of running water coming from behind Maguire. His face was a shade or two paler than usual and he looked distinctly uncomfortable guarding the room containing the corpse.
"Nasty?" I asked.
"And the bathroom door was shut when you broke in?"
"Yes, Inspector. Shut, not locked."
Maguire moved aside to let me in. I slid sideways into the bathroom and stared down at the body that lay twisted upon the carpet. In the bath, a stream dribbled from shower attachment to plughole.
Mr Sculthorpe had obviously not died peacefully nor had he died naturally, though this could not be deduced from the expression on his face, for Mr Sculthorpe no longer possessed a face. It, along with much of his skull probably accounted for most of the gore that was distributed upon the carpet, on the side panel of the bath, on the battered old rusty bathroom scales, and upon anything within two feet of the tattered top section of his torso.
Mr Sculthorpe was naked, and his back and what remained of his shoulders were gouged with deep, ragged channels from which blood, now dry and almost black, had once run, oozed and then congealed.
I looked more closely at the injuries. The parallel cuts, three on one shoulder and four on the other, suggested that some sort of large animal had pounced on him from behind. If I had discovered this body in an American or East European forest then its condition may not have surprised me. But finding it inside a small, suburban bathroom was, inevitably, perplexing.
I stared at Mr Sculthorpe's remains. The dim light coming in through the shaded window coupled with the random patterns of the flecked carpet played games with my eyes that, after a morning wading through the usual mound of paperwork, were already gritty and tired. I reached into my inside jacket pocket and retrieved my glasses from their case. Once balanced upon my nose they reduced the swimming effect that the carpet imbued - I really should wear the damned things all the time.
The windowsill, littered with shampoo bottles, disposable razors and toothpaste tubes showed no evidence of disturbance – nothing had come through the window. Besides, it was the fifth floor and the window was secured shut.
Leaving the bathroom I made a quick scan of the rest of the flat. The bedroom held a single, metal-framed bed, its mattress sunken with use. Protruding from under the ragged bedspread was a stack of yellowed magazines. The bedside cabinet held a wind-up wristwatch alongside a glass of water whose surface was specked with dust. Inside the small wardrobe, shelves displayed socks and underpants, and from the hangers hung a handful of thin shirts along with a single, well-worn black suit.
The room was nothing out of the ordinary.
The same was true of the kitchen. Some crockery, cutlery and a saucepan lay unwashed in the sink, while the small Formica work surface, slightly grimy and etched from years of wear, was home to an assortment of typical kitchen items: a knife-block with all knives present and accounted for; a plastic kettle, its mains lead winding away behind a biscuit barrel to a socket on the wall; a teapot upon which was casually dumped a tatty tea cosy stained brown by years of heat and spillage; and packets of cereal, tins of soup and other nondescript paraphernalia.
In other words, an old man's normality.
I left Peterson and Maguire to their guarding duties and went back out into the dull afternoon. Locked room mysteries were always intriguing and I hadn't encountered one for several years.