A Darker Place
Kevin Short tugged the navy baseball cap over his ears and squinted in the bright early morning sunshine. A freshness clung to the air, a slight dew pooling across the tops of the second-hand cars lining the concrete hardstanding.
Traffic roared past, motorists ignoring the speed limit sign concreted into the pavement a few yards from the forecourt’s entrance. They wouldn’t slow down until they rounded the corner, just before the speed camera and a good half mile before the pedestrian crossing.
The doors to the sales office were pegged open, the sound of a vacuum cleaner scrubbing back and forth across the thin carpet and a faint scent of pine furniture polish wafting out to where Kevin stood beside an outside tap, a hose aimed at the yellow plastic bucket at his feet.
Eyeing the vehicles arranged across the concrete apron, he assessed the ones that would take the longest and which ones would only need a quick wipe down.
His gaze rested on a vehicle parked at the end of the left-hand side of the line.
It was older than the rest, and wasn’t there when he finished work yesterday.
The car had been parked nose-first beside the whitewashed brick wall bordering the forecourt instead of being reversed in but the burgundy paintwork looked all right from here, not too shabby.
He reckoned if he T-cut the scuff he could see on the rear passenger door, it’d be ready today, and then he could get a head start on the paperwork for it once all the other vehicles were primed and ready for the day’s trading.
Kevin glanced down as water sloshed over his shoes.
He cursed, reaching for the tap and turning it off before coiling the hosepipe behind one of the doors. Lifting the bucket in one hand and box of cleaning materials in the other, he slouched towards the four-year-old silver hatchback at the right-hand end of the semicircle display nearest the road.
The hatchback suffered the most wear and tear out here, as did any car in that position. Parked next to the pavement, it was subjected to all the splatter and dirt ejected from passing vehicles and bore the brunt of any bumps and scrapes from careless or vindictive pedestrians.
The weekend mornings were the worst.
Kevin never knew what he would find thanks to the number of drunken patrons from the pub up the road who walked past the garage on their way home at night.
Today, a Monday, was better.
Quieter for a start.
An old bus rumbled to a standstill at the stop opposite the garage, belching out diesel fumes and a pair of pensioners who meandered up the road towards the traffic lights as it drove away. Kevin turned his head to one side and blinked, coughing to clear his throat as he began to work.
Squirting a liberal amount of soap over the bonnet of the hatchback, he slopped water across the vehicle, grimacing as he rubbed at the bird shit that clung to the roof.
It was why Mike, the owner of Mike O’Connor’s Used Car Sales, insisted that the cars be wiped down every morning before the official opening time. Most occupants of the vehicles going past were watching Kevin as he worked, perhaps eyeing up their next car.
You never knew where the next sale was coming from, that’s what Mike said.
Kevin straightened and stretched his back before carrying the bucket over to the next vehicle, wiping it down while his thoughts turned to the couple who had taken the car for a test drive yesterday afternoon.
They made all the usual noises when they got back, trying their luck, trying to haggle a better deal.
Mike was having none of it, and sent them packing with a recommendation they try the auto barn on the other side of Maidstone if they wanted a cheap vehicle – one that would probably break down with alarming regularity.
He only dealt in quality used cars here, nothing less.
Kevin squeezed out the sponge, pulled a cloth from his back pocket and swiped moisture from the windows and windscreen.
The water was cool against his warm skin, and he slicked back his floppy fringe with the back of his hand before adjusting his baseball cap.
The weather app on his phone promised a blisteringly hot day, and he wanted to be done before the sun crested the buildings opposite the forecourt.
He worked as fast as he could, moving around to the front of the next vehicle and scrubbing dead bugs from the radiator grille.
Another test drive yesterday, another sale later this week perhaps.
By the time he’d squeezed out the cloth and rolled his neck, sweat prickled at his forehead. Pausing to take off his sweatshirt, he tied it around his waist and glanced over his shoulder at the passing traffic as a horn honked.
Half past eight now, and tempers were starting to fray.
A phone rang inside a dark blue four-by-four, the hands-free system booming out the caller’s voice as it was answered, the volume increasing while the vehicle inched past and an argument ensued.
Kevin shook his head, wondering if people knew how much of their conversations escaped their metal cocoons.
Whistling under his breath, he worked his way along the cars back towards the office, stopping to empty and refill the bucket with clean water before returning to his work.
He paused to check his watch as Mike’s voice carried out through the open doors, his broad Wiltshire burr carrying over the sound of the traffic as he spoke into his mobile phone.
Kevin raised his hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare as he peered inside the office to see Mike pacing back and forth, gesticulating with his free hand, a frustrated edge to his voice.
The vacuum cleaner had been abandoned in the middle of the carpet.
He turned, saw Kevin, and lowered the phone. ‘Finished yet?’
‘Clock’s ticking. Aren’t you meant to be at college by eleven o’clock?’
‘Class got cancelled. I’m not due there until two now. Do you want me to do the paperwork for the new one when I’m done?’
Mike’s brow furrowed and he opened his mouth to reply, but then someone squawked on the other end of the phone and he waved Kevin away.
Kevin took the hint.
Twenty minutes until opening time, and five more cars to wipe down.
Wandering along the forecourt to the new car at the end of the line, he squinted as sunlight caught the rear window, blinding him for a moment.
He placed the bucket on the concrete next to the back wheel, wrung out the sponge and peered at the damage to the door.
It looked deeper upon closer inspection, and recent too. There was no rust embedded in the cut, and, as he crouched to take a closer look, he noticed the wheel arch bore scuff marks as well.
Kevin ran his hand over the paintwork, reckoned on a couple of hours’ extra work to fix that, then straightened. Reaching out for the door handle, he gave a satisfied snort as it gave under his touch.
For a fleeting moment, he wondered if Mike realised the car had been left unlocked overnight.
Then his eyes fell upon the figure slumped across the back seat, the man’s face turned away from him, and his legs curled at an awkward angle.
A dark puddle of liquid had soaked into the polyester upholstery beneath the man, and Kevin’s top lip twisted into a snarl as he sniffed the air.
If he’s pissed all over the seat…
‘Bloody great,’ he muttered, and raised his voice. ‘Mate, wakey-wakey. Pubs closed ten hours ago. Time to get up.’
He frowned, then sniffed the air.
No alcohol fumes.
No signs that the man had been sick.
That was something, at least.
But how the hell had he managed to park his car on the forecourt overnight?
Kevin reached out to shake him awake, then paused.
There was a damp coldness to the man’s denim jeans, scuff marks to his leather shoes, and when he looked closer he could see that the man’s hair was wet as well.
But it hasn’t rained in days…
Kevin’s heart lurched, a sickness clenching at his bowels.
‘Mate, are you all right?’
Leaving the door open, Kevin walked around the back of the car to the other side. Hand hovering over the door handle, he glanced across the roof to the sales office but Mike was still busy, phone to his ear and his back turned to the forecourt.
He took a deep breath and pulled open the door, then staggered backwards, arms wheeling as he tripped over the low kerb stones between the forecourt and the pavement.
The man stared at him from the back seat through terror-stricken dead eyes, mouth open in a rictus scream exposing blue lips and tongue, his fingers clawing at an invisible enemy.
By half past nine, the road had been blocked in both directions and a diversion route put in place that led disgruntled drivers away from the Tonbridge Road and onto a circuitous route between Barming and Maidstone.
Warm sunshine bathed the pavement outside the used car dealership, the coolness of early morning long forgotten.
The kerbside was cluttered with liveried Kent Police cars, vans and a growing cluster of uniformed officers who fanned out along a line of blue and white tape that already sagged in the middle as the sun’s rays beat down on the concrete forecourt.
A quartet of white tents placed strategically across the far side of the property provided shelter to the working crime scene investigators from both the weather and any passing unauthorised drones.
Detective Inspector Kay Hunter popped her seatbelt as the blue pool car came to a standstill behind a plain panel van and frowned at the sight of a lanky individual smoking a cigarette while he leaned nonchalantly against the rear doors.
‘The body’s still in situ, then,’ she said. ‘That’s Simon Winter from the morgue.’
‘From what I’ve heard, he won’t be going anywhere for a while.’ Detective Sergeant Ian Barnes turned off the engine and opened his door.
Kay climbed out and shrugged off her suit jacket, placing it on the back seat before her colleague locked the car and fell into step beside her. ‘What’ve you heard, then?’
‘He’s frozen solid,’ Simon called out as they drew near, stubbing out his cigarette before placing the butt in an empty soft drink can.
Barnes narrowed his eyes. ‘In this weather?’
‘That’s what Lucas said.’ Simon jerked his chin towards the cluttered sale yard. ‘He’s still back there if you want to take a look.’
Kay rolled an elastic band off her wrist, tied her shoulder-length blonde hair into a ponytail at the nape of her neck and strode over to the first cordon that stretched across the pavement between a speed limit sign and a fencepost.
Beyond the tape, the used car business appeared to be in good shape with a cluster of newer model vehicles for sale and none looking older than about seven years. The signage above the open double doors was bright and clean, and the concrete apron appeared to have been pressure-washed on a regular basis.
Someone took a lot of pride in their work, and cared about first impressions.
She pursed her lips as she approached the tape.
It didn’t look the sort of place that would attract trouble, so why had a body been found here?
‘Morning, guv.’ Police Sergeant Tim Wallace shot her a cheerful smile and thrust a clipboard at her.
At six feet five, he towered over Kay, his stab vest and equipment belt adding to his bulky frame.
‘Morning.’ She scrawled her name across the sign-in sheet, then passed it to Barnes and ducked under the tape. ‘What’s the latest?’
‘Lucas Anderson is over there inside the main cordon,’ he said, pointing at the largest of the white tents. ‘He’s confirmed the bloke’s dead but wanted to hang around and run some more tests while Harriet and her lot are working. I’ve got a team of eight constables taking statements from businesses and home owners along this stretch of road, and we’ve put in a call to the council requesting their assistance to obtain CCTV images.’
‘Good work – you’ve been busy. Any idea who he is?’
‘No, guv. Harriet’s lot didn’t find a wallet or mobile phone on him. There’s no documentation in the glove compartment, either.’
‘A mystery man, then.’ Kay’s gaze followed the small crowd milling about between the cars. ‘Who’s currently managing the scene?’
‘Gavin Piper.’ Wallace pointed to the office. ‘He’s in there, speaking to the owner and the young lad who found the body. Apparently he only works three or four days a week in between his college timetable.’
‘Shall we take a look before we speak to the owner?’ said Barnes, nodding towards the tent beside the pavement. ‘Might as well see what we’re in for.’
‘Lead the way.’ Kay fell into step beside her colleague, holding up her hand to greet a slim CSI technician swathed in protective clothing as they drew near. ‘Morning, Harriet.’
‘Good morning, Kay.’ The CSI lead wiggled her mask free from her mouth and nose. ‘Lucas is just finishing his examination if you want to suit up and join him.’
‘If that’s all right with you.’
‘We’re finished with the preliminaries so as long as you don’t touch anything, you’ll be fine.’
‘No problem.’ Kay took the protective suit another of the CSI technicians held out. ‘What do you know about the vehicle so far?’
‘Nothing yet. Your officers are still interviewing the kid who found it and the yard’s owner.’
Kay tore open the suit’s plastic wrapper. ‘I’ll catch up with you again before we leave for the station, then.’
Ten minutes later, protective booties over her shoes and attired in the full body protective suit and gloves, Kay followed Barnes through the tent opening and immediately baulked at the temperature caused by so many people working within the confined space.
‘Christ, it’s stuffy in here,’ Barnes mumbled behind his mask.
A figure crouched beside the back door of the car glanced over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at him. ‘Look on the bright side – he’ll defrost quicker that way.’
‘Morning, Lucas,’ said Kay. She edged closer, peering past the pathologist’s shoulder, then swallowed. ‘Jesus. That’s different.’
‘Isn’t it?’ He prodded the dead man’s arm with a gloved finger. ‘You won’t be getting the post mortem results for at least forty-eight hours. He’s going to take most of today and tomorrow to return to some sort of normality.’
Kay’s eyes roamed over the blue tinge to the victim’s skin, and she shuddered at the terror in his frozen gaze.
He had been placed on the back seat on his right side, his knees pressing against the back of the front passenger seat and his feet now dangling out the opposite side of the car.
She raised her hand to shield her eyes as Patrick, one of the CSIs, leaned in and raised his camera, the flash illuminating the interior while he worked his way around the vehicle.
‘All right,’ she said, moving to one side so that Barnes could peer in, ‘what are your first impressions?’
Lucas tossed the last of his instruments into a canvas bag at his feet and straightened. ‘There are no signs of any wounds or trauma other than the obvious signs of frostbite to his fingers and nose. There’s no blood in his hair, but I can’t rule out a head wound until we get him back to the morgue and I can take a closer look. Same as the rest of his body, really. We can’t risk moving him just yet while he’s still so frozen.’
Barnes gave the dead man a final glance before turning his back to the car. ‘How did he get into this state?’
Lucas held up a gloved hand. ‘That’s all you’re getting from me until I carry out the post mortem, detective. I’m not going to hazard a guess – there are too many considerations. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to organise getting him out of here.’
Kay followed him outside and squinted in the bright sunshine. ‘Unusual for you to hang around to do that, Lucas. Isn’t that what Simon’s here for?’
‘This one’s going to be a bit tricky.’
The pathologist grimaced. ‘Put it this way, Hunter. I don’t want anything important to fall off if we can help it.’