Dial S for Sunshine, by Adrian P Fayter

January isn’t exactly the greatest time of year for those of us who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  But one good thing about my job is being able to leave the office while there’s still a bit of lacklustre daylight on offer, and, assuming I can cut my house calls short, there’s a chance I can skive off and make a couple of circuits of the duck pond, smoke half a Gauloise and stave off my next panic attack for another twenty four hours.  SAD, by the way, in the unlikely case you haven’t heard of it, is not about being afraid of the dark.  It’s a condition where lack of serotonin causes psychological crises, or, to be more accurate, exacerbates any psychological crises which are already taking place.  It’s the reason there are more suicides per person in Tromsø and Upernavik than anywhere else on the globe.  And the reason why the suicide rate goes up in winter in almost every British city north of Milton Keynes.

Although this particular death could never, ever have been imagined to be suicide.

It was a Tuesday lunchtime and the park was deserted.  No surprise, really, since the sun, even at its very highest, was making no impact on the temperature, nor on the thick frost underfoot. Collar up and head down, I trudged past the beds of hard-pruned rose stumps, then took a shortcut through the topiary where the kids play hide-and-seek in summer.  I took a sharp right at the redbrick public conveniences and walked straight into a teenaged police constable and his thin yellow line of crime-scene tape. I dropped my half-smoked cigarette and stood on it. Twenty yards beyond, between the weeping willows at the pond’s edge, I could see one of those little police tents they use to protect the evidence from the weather, or from prying eyes.  There were a couple of flashy cars parked nearby, too.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said the officer.  ‘If you’d like to come this way, DI Wodehouse is waiting for you.’

I stared at him for a couple of seconds and then obediently followed him towards the tent.  Paul Wodehouse is an acquaintance – friend is too strong a word – from a long way back, but why did he want to see me, and how did he know I was in the park in the first place?   More to the point, how much time would this take?  I was freezing and I needed to get back into my car and turn up the heating.  Still, I thought it might be interesting to find out what had been going on here.

Paul was standing by the tent flaps with a slightly green look about his jowls. His expression was not improved by my appearance.

‘Larry?  What the hell?’ Then he turned to the young policeman.  ‘O’Brien, you really have surpassed yourself this time!  This is not Dr Cambridge, this is Larry Di Palma of the Benefits Agency Fraud Department.  He may be a skilled investigator, but he has no medical training of any sort whatsoever.  And if you ever, ever aspire to become a detective yourself, you should learn at least to verify the identity of people you allow onto the scene of the crime!’

PC O’Brien started to apologise, but Paul took me by the arm and led me back the way I had come.  ‘He thought you were the pathologist,’ he explained.  ‘You’re the same height and build. You’re wearing the same coat.  You’ve got the same bald patch and the same depressed expression. Come on, let’s get out before you end up contaminating the crime scene.  And you can give me one of your disgusting French fags while we’re about it, too.’

I stepped back over the tape and said, ‘After all the grief you’ve given everyone…  All the lectures, the sermons, the smug attitude…  and you’re smoking again?’

He stretched out his hand to me.  ‘I am now.’

I looked at him and the penny dropped.  ‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘Pathologist?  He thought I was the pathologist?   This is a murder, then, isn’t it?’

‘Bingo,’ said Detective Inspector Wodehouse, inhaling deeply.  ‘Took you long enough to work that one out.’

*

We chewed the fat for a bit while Paul smoked and rubbed his eyes, scratched his head and generally looked distracted.  I told him about my crush on the new girl at work and he told me about his new flat, car, promotion and pay rise.  I was all set to go off and warm up when PC O’Brien reappeared with a SOCO in paper overalls who had a little plastic bag of evidence in her hand.  O’Brien jumpily apologised for the interruption and explained what was going through his mind.

‘You see, sir, you said this gentleman was from the Benefits Agency.  And in the bag, this is an ES40 booklet, a benefit claim for someone seeking work. So I thought-’

‘This is the murder victim’s dole card?’ Paul snatched the bag and looked closely through the clear plastic.  ‘But there’s no name!  The name’s been washed off!’  Paul swore and stamped his foot like a child.  ‘First we find his wallet’s gone and it looks like there’s no ID at all.  Now we find something that should be worthwhile, but six hours in a duck pond has ruined it. All right, get it to the forensic graphologist straight away, will you?  There may be some indentations left where the ink has washed away.  Although I’m not holding out any hope…’

‘Let me have a look,’ I said, and, as I examined the document, I couldn’t help smiling.  ‘The date is still just about visible,’ I told them.  ‘You can make out the date that shows the first time he should come in to sign on.’

‘Yeah?  And how does that help?’

‘We just need to look at a calendar.’ I pulled out my pocket diary, the one where I note down all my home visits in case the boss wants to see what I’ve been doing all day. ‘This was a Thursday.  So he’s been signing on every fortnight since then.’

‘So what?’

‘Well, we just work out the actual day he’s next due to come into the Jobcentre to sign on.  It’s either this week or next week.  And then anyone who fails to sign…  Anyone who doesn’t turn up on the right day…  That could be the identity of your victim.’

‘Larry, you genius, we’ve got him!’

‘Well, bear in mind that on any particular day, between five and fifteen claimants usually fail to sign.  Late, ill, forgot…  Sometimes they’ve even got a job.  But it does narrow it down a bit, you have to admit.  See this stamp here?  It is definitely our local Jobcentre.  He’s one of ours.  Was one of ours…’

A thin man in a coat just like mine was walking quickly along the path by the topiary.  ‘Is this really a murder?’  I asked Paul.  ‘How did he die?’  Wodehouse nodded towards the approaching newcomer, and told me that Dr Cambridge would give a professional opinion.  ‘Although,’ Paul added quietly, ‘I don’t think our pathologist will contradict me if I say that the victim spent several hours under water, where he was thrown after having been impaled on the spike of a small sundial.’

I winced.  ‘Any jokes about time of death being particularly unwelcome.’

‘Of course, idiot.  Sundials don’t work at night.’

*

And so, two days later, instead of my usual round of home visits and phone calls to local businesses, instead of catching up with all the referral forms from the national fraud hotline, and instead of doing a performance review with our attractive new trainee investigator…  Well, you get the picture. Instead of all that I spent the day showing Detective Constable Milligan what happens on signing day down at the Jobcentre.  To make it more fun, I told the clerks he was a Quality Award Assessor from London, so they were all on their best behaviour, hoping they might get National Employee of the Month and win a high street shopping voucher.  We weren’t short of offers of tea and coffee all day, that was for sure.

But in the event, it was all very quiet.  Uncharacteristically quiet.  No-one turned up drunk or stoned for once; no-one’s money had been stopped in error; no-one came in and found their ex-husband in front of them in the queue.  None of the clerks lost their tempers, and there wasn’t even the usual mix-up over the three different individuals who all choose to sign on under the name Elvis Presley.  It was the sort of day that could give a casual observer totally the wrong impression of how it is to be a public sector employee in twenty-first century Britain.  There were only two little problems all day long:  firstly, only three failures to sign, all of them female, and therefore no help in identifying the unknown corpse from the park.  Secondly, Mr Mark Halliday, who came in three hours late, just as we were closing. He had mislaid all his paperwork, which meant he had no evidence of applying for any jobs in the last two weeks.  Strictly speaking, we could suspend his payments for this, but I’d been enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, so I asked the clerk if I could speak to him instead.

‘Hello, Mr Halliday.’ I gave him a cheery smile.  ‘Just need to get your record on screen. I don’t suppose you know your National Insurance Number, do you?’

‘Yeah.  I do, actually.’

I typed in the letters and numbers and leaned back in the chair.  ‘You’re looking well.  Nice colour in your cheeks for such a cold day.  Quite a suntan, really.’

DC Milligan gave me an odd look, but I suppose the police don’t often trouble with the niceties of conversation in this way.  They probably don’t have to pay as much attention to their Customer Care Charter as we do.

Mr Halliday gave an embarrassed cough.  ‘There was a discount at the tanning salon,’ he explained.  ‘Twenty per cent off for OAPs and the unemployed.’

‘Ah.  Good value.  Now, perhaps I should issue you with a new Jobseekers Folder and signing-on booklet.’

‘It’s all probably at home somewhere, but maybe it’s best-’

‘Of course.  After all, it says on-screen that last fortnight you forgot your Folder.  And the time before that, too.’

‘Oh.  Well-’

‘We wouldn’t want you risking having your payments stopped, Mr Halliday.  And we wouldn’t want you to miss out on more discount suntans by not being able to prove you are unemployed.’

‘That’s, er, very thoughtful.’

‘If you would just like to wait a few minutes, while I sort things out with my colleague here?’

I looked across the office and checked that Jean had put up the ‘closed’ sign and locked the doors.  Then I took DC Milligan into one of the private interview rooms at the back.  ‘Well,’ I asked him, ‘what do you think?  Does Mark Halliday look like a murderer to you?’

*

 Of course, he wasn’t the murderer – it could never have been that easy – and I was being  facetious to suggest it.  But Halliday was the first, indeed the only link to the dead man, and once that connection had been made, the murder investigation could begin in earnest.  The police could really start to address the question of who killed Colin Antony Swann.

Now, I’ll be modest and say that I’m sure the police would have identified the body eventually, one way or another.  I’m not claiming my input did anything more than speed up the case a tiny bit.  Although Paul Wodehouse was nice enough to disagree with me about this.  He was clearly pleased because he started slapping me on the back and calling me his ‘dole queue expert witness.’

‘Colin Swann was a loner,’ he told me over a late-afternoon pint in the Dark Horse pub.  ‘Lived on his own, survived on casual agency work, had lost contact with his family.  Didn’t know any of his neighbours except for Mark Halliday, two floors down the block. Think about it:  it’s hard enough tracing missing people who are still alive.  Dead bodies have to be claimed by someone.’

‘Really?  So unless Halliday had been prepared to come forward unprompted to say that his neighbour had gone missing..?’

‘Exactly.  Who knows how long it would have taken?’ Paul sighed and took a pull at the last of his pint.  ‘In the old days, someone would have noticed the banana yoghurts building up on his doorstep or something, but no-one has a milkman now.’

‘It must have been easier being a cop back then.’

Wodehouse gave me a scowl.  ‘I’m not saying you didn’t get lucky, mind.  I mean, what sort of evidence did you have?  Someone comes in to sign on with a suntan and you immediately assume he’s been off on a month’s holiday without permission?  You must be suspicious beggars down at the Jobcentre.’

‘We are.  It’s in the training.  Come in sometime and see what happens when a clerk notices someone with paint on his hands or brick dust in his hair.  Especially if there’s some new building work going on nearby.’

‘You’re kidding!  If we pulled people in on that sort of basis we’d be sued for harassment.’

‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘it wasn’t just the suntan, was it?  He’d lost all his paperwork. His job application record and his signing on booklet.  There were no fail-to-signs of any use on the day.  That’s unusual, and a lucky coincidence, but he was the only male with a missing booklet.

I pushed aside my own empty pint glass and continued.  ‘The computer notes for the previous two fortnights showed he had brought in nothing to prove that he was looking for work.  It’s easy to give your mate your booklet and get him to go in and sign a slip in your place, but anything more than that is pushing your luck.  Colin wouldn’t be confident carrying through the act while being questioned about a lot of job adverts or about what was on Halliday’s CV.  And he was hardly going to apply for any jobs on his behalf while the guy was sunning himself on the beach in Tunisia.’

‘Poor sod.  His only friend in the world is a guy who goes off for a lovely holiday in the sunshine, and persuades him to tramp down to the Jobcentre in the freezing cold, so that the money keeps on coming through.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?’

‘Enemies…  How long d’you reckon, Paul, before you get the answer to the most important question in all this?’

DI Paul Wodehouse finished his pint and began to put on his coat.  ‘Who knows, Larry?  Who knows?  Halliday may know nothing of any help at all.  Colin Swann could have been killed by a bunch of junkies trying to mug him for drug money, or a bunch of thugs who did it for kicks.  Or this could be the start of something much, much bigger.  Who can tell?  The only certainty is that he didn’t kill himself.  Dr Cambridge made it clear that you couldn’t walk to the water’s edge with a stab wound like that.’

‘I imagine they’ll get rid of the sundial now.  Health and Safety…  You don’t want any copycat crimes on your patch, do you?’

‘Catch up with me in a month or two and I’ll let you know how it’s going,’ Paul offered, which was surprisingly generous of him. As long as you promise to keep it to yourself.  I’m prejudicing the investigation just by talking to you about it, really.’

‘I’m the soul of discretion!’ I protested.

‘Maybe.  But I know you, Larry.  You’ll be having a smoke in the park with your new trainee investigator, and she’ll say, “Didn’t there used to be a sundial over there?” and you’ll want to impress her, so you’ll say, “Let’s sit on this bench and I can tell you a story about it.”’

‘I don’t know if I can wait a month or two,’ I said, joking but half serious, too.  ‘I don’t think I can stand the suspense.’ But DI Wodehouse was already at the pub door, on his way to see other witnesses, whether ‘expert’ or otherwise.  What new clues and answers were to be discovered, only time would tell.  But not for the first time, I could take satisfaction in my small contribution towards solving a serious crime.  It felt almost as good as a half hour walk in the sunshine.

Adrian P Fayter

http://crimebooks.wordpress.com



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