An Unlawful Death

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Chapter 1

Corpus Delicti (the body of a person who has been killed unlawfully)

Pausing at the top of the small flight of stone steps leading up to the glossy black door, Sam White, cleaner, lit up his third cigarette of the morning, turned and surveyed the almost silent mews with its tiny park bordered by rhododendron bushes. He had arrived earlier than usual at his first job that Tuesday as his wife had dropped him off about half a mile away on Waterloo Bridge on her way to a headteachers’ conference held in a west London hotel. Normally Sam took an early overground train from Sydenham into central London and then walked briskly – as part of his daily exercise routine – along the almost deserted Embankment pathway for at least two miles. There were always a few homeless souls huddled under filthy blankets. Despite this, Sam took pleasure in the river’s silent dankness interspersed by the pungent scent of spring foliage along his route which gradually morphed into the dusty concrete pavements and lofty buildings of the Temple district. Checking his watch, he noted it was six fifty-two precisely; good – the half-mile walk had taken him a mere seven minutes.

‘Hello, Tabs!’

Sam greeted the small calico cat that rubbed itself up against him and tossed the remainder of his cigarette towards the bushes where old Ben, a vagrant and street sleeper, would almost certainly be lurking. Trying to keep himself awake, Sam barely noticed the Chubb locks failing to respond as he turned the keys. The door opened with a light click as soon as he turned the Yale, and he stepped into Weymouth House Chambers. The cat darted in ahead of him and Sam glanced at the highly sensitive alarm as a matter of course, momentarily forgetting that it would not go off; the building had of course already been unlocked save for the Yale. He was accustomed to the young barrister, Belinda Radford, coming in early of a morning to catch up on her work. Sam crossed the marble-floored vestibule flanked by the clients’ waiting room on the left and the lavatories on the right, and made for the small cleaning room-cum-kitchenette behind the stairwell. In what he considered to be his sanctuary, Sam first played a quick game of mah-jong on his mobile, before opening the small door which led from the back of the room out into a quiet rear courtyard.

‘Out you go, Tabs! I’ll get you some milk later.’

Sam followed his feline companion outside and had one more cigarette before collecting the vacuum cleaner, cleaning sprays and cloths. Glancing at the open door of the ground-floor clients’ waiting room, he paused for a nanosecond as a somewhat peculiar scent entered his nostrils. He shrugged and continued to carry all the tools of his trade with ease – being well-muscled and strong – up the thick-piled carpeted flights of stairs with their gleaming oak banisters, to the second floor. He passed by the closed individual consultation cubicles, WC and archive room on the first floor as it was his habit to start from the top of the building and work his way down. He used his small finger to press down the handle and his shoulder to push open the barristers’ main office door. The main light had not been switched on and nor had the uplighters beneath the few oil paintings in the room. The window blind had not yet been opened but the glow from Belinda’s laptop and her Anglepoise lamp lit up the room in subdued hues of blue and green. The three mahogany desks and swivel chairs, large leather settee and armchairs were, however, empty, and the bookcases devoid of any earnest researchers scanning the titles on the shelves. The gentle purring of the laptop and the acrid aroma of coffee were the only signs of life. Sam’s glance fell on the lacquered tri-fold screen that had toppled backwards and he decided to right it, before his first task of emptying the waste bins. Depositing his cleaning equipment on the floor, he moved towards the screen.

‘Holy shit!’

Protruding from the base of the screen was a slim, stockinged foot, its toes splayed awkwardly. A high-heeled court shoe stood nearby, upright and half filled with blood, like a goblet of partly drunk claret. As Sam lifted the panelled screen, he came face to face with Belinda’s lifeless brown eyes.

‘Sorry, Madam, you can’t come in here yet. Could you wait downstairs with the others until we call you?’ Detective Inspector Lydia Carlisle let the annoyance sound in her voice, as she blocked the entrance to the chambers, her tiny frame at odds with her imperious tone. It was eight o’clock and she had only been at Weymouth House Chambers for half an hour, but she could feel her nerves already beginning to fray slightly.

‘But … what’s happened to Belinda?’ demanded the plump woman of indeterminate middle age standing before her. Taking in her dyed yellow-blonde hair, her too-tight blue blouse and navy pinstripe trousers and breathing in the slight musty mothbally smell which emanated from her, Lydia disliked the woman on sight.

‘I can’t release any details yet. Who are you?’ Hoping to distract this pushy person away from the crime scene, Lydia opened her tablet and tapped on her page of notes. She looked up expectantly.

‘Sharon Hardy. Clerk to the barristers – been here longer than any of them, though! Can I go into my office?’ The woman gestured to a half-glassed door next to the main office.

At that moment, Sergeant Terry Glover, Lydia’s uniformed colleague, appeared panting and wheezing at the top of the stairs.

‘Sorry, Detective. She shoved right past us. Excuse me, Madam, please could you accompany me back down to the waiting room? No one’s supposed to be up here yet.’

‘Of course. But – poor Belinda. I can’t believe it. And what about the appointment diary? We’ve got clients coming in today – would you like me to cancel them?’

Lydia observed how Sharon snapped into office mode; while it was a perfectly professional and sensible suggestion, it grated on the detective. She should have thought of that herself, but in the heat of the call-out and making sure the correct scene-of-crime protocols were followed, she had overlooked this aspect of a busy workday in a barristers’ chambers.

‘Fine,’ no way was Lydia going to thank this irritatingly helpful woman, ‘do it in your office but leave the door open. Sergeant – call Sergeant Davis and tell him to come up here. You go back down to the lobby and try not to let anyone else past you. Think you can do that?’

Lydia’s sarcastic tone was not wasted on either Terry or Sharon Hardy who smirked as she smoothly unlocked her office door, switched on the light and sat down at her desk in one well-practised movement.

Lydia was left alone on the landing, knowing she had been testy and sharp, and resolved to be more pleasant to others – for the umpteenth time. She attributed the acerbic side of her nature to her father, but that did not mean that it was OK. She caught a glimpse of herself in a huge, gilt-framed mirror at the top of the stairs. Staring back at her was a tiny yet wiry and toned figure in a beige, figure-hugging jumper dress and brown pixie boots. Her white-blonde hair was cut in a spiky elfin style and she had large blue eyes that frequently tricked people into thinking she was an innocent pushover. This often proved to be an advantage though and Lydia had risen quickly within the Met’s criminal investigation department. She knew that she had become infamous for solving crimes due to her tenacious and uncompromising nature.

Sergeant Clive Davis, her second uniformed officer, lithe and energetic, took the stairs two at a time and in a few seconds was at Lydia’s side.

‘Stand outside that office door and don’t let her go anywhere,’ she whispered to him and gestured towards the office of the barristers’ clerk. Taking a deep breath, Lydia turned and re-entered the room where the body lay.

‘So, Nick, what do we know about Belinda Radford?’ Lydia addressed her partner, Assistant Detective Inspector Nicholas Fairman, who had perched on one of the office chairs, his laptop balanced precariously on his knees.

‘Twenty-eight years old, Caucasian, brown eyes. Lives – sorry, lived – alone in a flat in Chalk Farm—’ he began.

‘OK, Nick.’ Lydia held up a hand to stop him. ‘Could you jot down a few notes for me about her background, training, qualifications, how long she’s been working here, et cetera, and email it over to me? That would be great.’

Nick nodded, well used to Lydia’s curt interruptions and watched her as she stood still and surveyed the chambers carefully. The forensic team of three, Norman Combe, Beth Monkton and Max Burgh, were working steadfastly since being called in at half past seven that morning; the dusting for fingerprints was well underway and the scene-of-crime photographer was already uploading her first pictures. Elsewhere in the building, uniformed offices were combing every nook and cranny for a possible murder weapon. Lydia approached Julie Morris.

‘May I have a look, please?’ Lydia took care to be a little more courteous than usual as Julie could be as spiky as herself.

‘Sure’, replied the photographer, turning her laptop to face Lydia. The first few snaps were wide-angled shots of the room, taking in the paintings, tall bookcases, empty desks, and window with a half-open taupe blind. Gradually, the photos zoomed in on the fallen tri-fold screen and finally on the carnage behind it. Belinda Radford lay awkwardly; her head twisted to one side, and her body and legs bent in a parody of the classic cobra pose that Lydia practised in her yoga classes. Belinda’s cream-coloured suit reminded the detective of raspberry ripple ice-cream – so much blood. Lydia wondered if she would ever really get used to the sight of it.

‘So it looks like she was taken unawares from behind and her throat was cut before she could do anything to defend herself. Any traces of a weapon?’ asked Lydia.

‘Nope, nothing,’ replied Julie. ‘They’ll be taking her away for the post-mortem in a bit, thank goodness. Christ, the smell in here makes me feel sick.’

Lydia’s mobile phone beeped at that moment and she began skimming over the notes that Nick had just emailed to her:

‘Belinda Radford. Twenty-eight years of age, Caucasian with brown eyes. Unmarried, lived alone in Chalk Farm apartment. One brother, grew up in Lymington where parents still live. Studied Law then Professional Training at Curtis Hall Legal Services. Weymouth House Chambers is her first tenancy. Other two barristers in the practice – ’

‘Excuse me.’ A familiar and courteous yet somehow gratingly persistent voice intruded into Lydia’s space and she looked up in vexation. Sharon Hardy stood in the doorway to the chambers; behind her in the corridor stood Clive, grinning sheepishly. What is wrong with these policemen? All it takes is a gutsy woman and they are anybody’s, thought Lydia.

‘I’ve managed to reach most of our clients today and the others I’ve left voicemails for.’

‘OK, Ms Hardy. Go down to the waiting room now,’ said Lydia in what she hoped was a dismissive tone.

‘Er, well, I was just wondering if you would all like me to make some tea? I’ve got a tea and coffee machine in my office … and some biscuits,’ came Sharon’s response.

Before Lydia could say “no”, Max, the most junior of the forensics officers called out,

‘Yes, please! We’re parched. White no sugar.’

It would have been churlish of Lydia to contradict her colleague, and admittedly they had all come straight in somewhat early in the morning; it was probably time for a break.

‘All right. But not in here – we mustn’t disturb the evidence,’ she replied testily.

‘There’s an archive room down on the first floor,’ said Sharon helpfully. ‘You could use that as a base and I’ll put the tea in there for you.’

‘Fine.’ Lydia turned away and looked back down at her phone.

‘Oh, Ms Hardy, before you go, are the other two employees here yet?’

‘Yes – though we call them tenants, Detective! QC Sir William Bond and Attorney Anthony Greenwood are waiting downstairs. I took the liberty of calling them in early – they don’t normally get in much before nine, you know!’

Nodding at Terry, who was still standing on guard on the ground floor, Lydia strode into the clients’ waiting room as assertively as she could. The three males sitting on black leather tub chairs looked at her apprehensively.

‘Who’s who, then?’ she demanded. No time for niceties, she thought.

‘William Bond QC. I’m the Senior Tenant here.’ The older of the men appeared to be in his fifties; he had thinning grey hair, was average in height and was somewhat overweight. He wore his expensively tailored suit well though, and came across to Lydia as regal yet personable. He indicated to his right.

‘And this is my colleague, Anthony Greenwood.’

Lydia locked eyes with those of a tallish, dark-haired tanned young man in his thirties and immediately felt a thrill of attraction. Anthony had brilliant white teeth and bright blue eyes that really seemed to look at her. Quite the charismatic barrister in court no doubt, was the cynical thought which ran through her mind. She turned to the third person in the room.

‘So you must be Samuel White.’

‘Yes, officer. I found the body,’ replied a fit-looking forty-something man, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

‘It was effing awful. She was—’

‘Stop right there. I’ll be taking all of your statements in due course.’ Lydia continued,

‘Wait here until you’re called.’

She turned and left the three men, suspects, as she now considered them and made her way up to the archive room for a well-deserved cup of tea; it was, after all, still only half past eight and it would be a long day ahead.

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