Bridge to Burn
Spencer White took a final drag on the cigarette, dropped the butt to the gutter and slammed the back door of his panel van.
A muscle spasm clutched at the base of his spine as he bent over to pick up his toolbox. He hissed through his teeth, expelling the last of the nicotine-heavy smoke.
Late frost sparkled on the pavement where the sun’s weak rays failed to reach into the shadows, and a biting wind tugged at the collar of his waterproof coat. Rainclouds threatened on the horizon, and he shivered.
Shouldering the weight of an aluminium ladder over one arm, the toolbox clutched in his other hand, he waited until a single decker bus shot past him on the busy Maidstone street and then hurried across the road to the newly refurbished office block.
He had been pleased with the call-out. The redevelopment works in the town centre had drawn to their natural completion, and the amount of work he was doing on a weekly basis started to return to its previous levels once the winter months had set in and the hot summer months faded from the memories of the local populace.
He peered up at the façade of the building, squinting against the low morning sunlight.
Once an old bank, the ragstone brickwork now housed a software company. He recalled the number of hours he had spent working late over the summer, as the construction manager for the redevelopment had juggled the completion of the ducted air-conditioning alongside the critical electrical wiring and cabling that was the hub of the business.
It wasn’t often that he was asked to return once practical completion had been reached. Most of his income was generated through day-to-day servicing of existing systems. Spencer prided himself on the quality of his work and that of his employees, but accepted that now and again an anomaly could arise and he would do all he could to ensure the problem was fixed as soon as possible.
He propped the ladder against the stone door frame and pressed the button on the security panel to his right. Through the glass, a head bobbed up from behind the reception desk and a buzzing noise reached his ears. The receptionist pushed back her chair and wandered over to the double doors, smiling as she opened one side.
‘Thanks,’ said Spencer.
‘No problem. I’m just glad you could get here so quickly.’ She wrinkled her nose, highlighting her freckles. ‘It’s all very well working in a posh place like this, but not when it’s stuffy. It’s not like we can open the window or anything.’
Spencer smiled as he picked up the ladder and waited while she let the door swing shut.
He’d been surprised when he’d seen the architect’s drawings for the redevelopment of the bank – rather than introduce windows that could be opened now that the building’s old use was no more, reverse cycle air-conditioning had been installed instead and the windows resealed to avoid potential burglaries.
He realised it was the lifeblood of his business, but knew he wouldn’t be able to face working in such a stuffy environment.
It seemed the software company’s employees were discovering the same for themselves.
‘Am I right in thinking the main conduit for the wiring is in the downstairs eating area?’ he said.
‘That’s what Marcus, our operations manager, told me. I’m Gemma, by the way. I’d imagine this place looks a lot different from when you last saw it.’
He glanced around at the brightly painted walls and the modernist artwork that depicted shapes and colours but no real form. ‘Just a bit.’
‘Give me two seconds. I need to get someone to answer the phones for me, and then I’ll show you through. Sign in and help yourself to one of those visitors passes.’
Spencer leaned the ladder against the reception desk and placed the toolbox at his feet, then reached out for the guestbook and scrawled his name in the space provided while Gemma picked up the phone and spoke to a colleague in a low tone.
She replaced the receiver with a smile on her face. ‘Okay, all sorted. The phones are diverted so I don’t need to worry about those. Come on – hopefully you can sort this quickly. I don’t think I can cope with one more phone call from the top floor moaning about it.’
Her heels clacked across the high sheen of the tiled floor before she held open a solid wooden door and stood to one side to let him through.
As Spencer’s eyes adjusted from the brightness of the reception area to the subdued hues of the software company’s working environment, he couldn’t help but feel that the large room now seemed cluttered – there were so many groups of desks and chairs, it was hard to recall the enormous space that he had worked in over the summer.
Even the high ceilings had been lowered and disguised by acoustic tiles that masked the maze of wiring that he himself had been partly responsible for.
He heard a gentle swish as the door closed behind him, and then Gemma gestured across the room to an open area beyond.
A waft of roasting coffee beans teased his senses as they made their way around the perimeter before advancing on a space in the middle that included a small kitchenette and a seating area where employees could take a break. Spencer tried to ignore the sweet aroma of fresh doughnuts in case his stomach roared in protest, and bit back a smile at the sight of the state-of-the-art coffee machine. His wife had been nagging him for one like it but he couldn’t see the sense in spending that sort of money when it only cost a couple of quid for a jar of the stuff from the supermarket.
Eight men and women milled about, chatting between themselves in low voices as they opened refrigerator doors, fetched milk cartons and handed out china plates and mugs.
‘Bad timing, I’m afraid,’ said Gemma. ‘Those who come in early usually take a coffee break and grab a bite to eat about now.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Spencer. ‘I’ll only need to open one of the ceiling panels to start off with. I’ll put a couple of chairs out to block off access. No sense in disturbing everyone until I find out what the problem is.’
He noticed her shoulders relax a moment before she let out a breath he didn’t realise she had been holding.
‘Oh, that’s great. Thank you – I was expecting some grief from this lot if I had to tell them to move out of the way. Do you want a coffee or anything while you’re working?’
‘I’d love a coffee, thanks. Milk, two sugars.’
Spencer set the ladder against one of the Formica tables that were spread about the area then spun three of the chairs around. He opened his toolbox and pulled out the drawings for the air-conditioning wiring that his wife had printed off for him that morning, before glancing at the ceiling as he got his bearings.
‘Here you go.’
He swung round at Gemma’s voice, then reached out for the steaming mug of coffee she passed to him. ‘Thanks. Back behind the chairs now.’
He winked and waited until she’d joined her colleagues at a table two sets away, then turned his attention to the drawings as he took a sip of his drink.
Satisfied he had the right panel, he placed the coffee mug on the table and then bent down to his toolbox, focused on the task at hand.
He whistled under his breath as he worked; a tune that had been playing on the radio that morning when the kids were getting ready for school, his younger daughter annoying her sister by dancing around singing the current hit single at the top of her voice, and now it was stuck in his head.
Spencer straightened and ignored the curious glances from the breakfasting staff. He needed to concentrate; to find the fault, fix it with as little fuss as possible, and try to ensure that whatever was wrong didn’t impact his profit on the original job.
He pulled the ladder closer, placed the tools on the table, and then climbed up the first four rungs and pressed his palms against the acoustic tile.
It held fast, refusing to leave the thin strip of aluminium housing that it sat against.
Spencer grimaced, repositioned his hands, and pushed again.
The ladder wobbled under his weight, sending his heart hammering before he glanced down.
‘Hang on, I’ll hold it for you.’
One of the men shoved his chair away from the far table and hurried over, placing his foot on the base.
‘No problem. They’re nuts about health and safety here, so it wouldn’t do us any good if we sat and watched you fall.’
He gave a cheeky smile, and Spencer rolled his eyes.
‘You’d think with all the money they spent on this place, they’d have made sure the floor was level down here,’ he said.
The man laughed, then placed a hand on the side of the ladder as Spencer turned his attention back to the ceiling.
He frowned, casting his gaze across the panels to the left and right of the one he needed to access, then braced himself and shoved hard.
He caught a smell emanating from the crack that appeared; a reminder of a dead rat that had got locked in a garden shed when he was a kid – and then the acoustic tile snapped back into place.
He swore, and the man below him chuckled.
Spencer said nothing, and instead placed his right foot on the next rung, repositioned himself and tried again.
His left fist disappeared through the ceiling a split second before a roar enveloped him as the tile disintegrated, destroying the two each side of it.
He fell from the ladder, a cry of alarm escaping from his lips as he tumbled backwards onto the man below in a shower of dust and broken tiles.
Spencer grunted as the wind was knocked from his lungs the moment his shoulders hit the linoleum floor, and then a heavy weight bounced across his legs before falling away.
He lay for a moment, flexing his fingers and toes, making sure he hadn’t done serious damage to himself and then coughed to clear the white cloying dust from his mouth and lungs. He blinked, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand and wondered why his ears were ringing.
As he sat upright, he swallowed.
His hearing was fine, but two of the women who had been in the kitchen when he arrived were on their feet, their food and drinks forgotten.
One held on to Gemma, whose mascara had blotted leaving streaks over her cheeks.
They were all screaming.
Spencer twisted around, thinking that his unofficial assistant had been injured, but when he turned the man was already on his feet, his eyes wide and his face paling to a sickly grey.
‘You okay?’ said Spencer.
‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ came the response. He pointed behind Spencer.
Spencer glanced over his shoulder, and then shuffled away as fast as his hands and feet could move, trying to put as much distance as possible between him and the thing that lay slumped beside his ladder.
As his brain began to digest what it was seeing and he fought to keep bile from escaping his lips, all he could recall was that it shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be lying on the floor like that, and he needed to get away from it.
The women’s screams had subsided to hysterical sobbing as more and more of the staff hurried over from their desks to find out what was going on.
Gemma’s voice reached Spencer as he grabbed hold of the back of a chair and hauled himself unsteadily to his feet.
‘Why was there a dead man in the ceiling?’
‘Lucky charm,’ said Gavin Piper, and led the way along the pavement and towards Gabriel’s Hill.
‘What?’ Detective Inspector Kay Hunter zipped her fleece before hurrying to catch up with the detective constable who kept a rapid pace over the uneven surface. ‘And slow down, will you? I know these cobblestones have been replaced, but it’s still bloody slippery.’
Gavin paused to let a group of teenagers pass, and then continued. ‘Lucky charm. A few hundred years ago, they used to shove a cat into the wall of a building before sealing it as a way to scare off evil spirits. It’s like that, isn’t it? Mummified.’
‘I don’t think our victim was put there for luck, Piper.’ Kay suppressed a shiver as they reached the crest of the hill. ‘No guessing which building is our crime scene.’
Diagonally across from where they stood, two patrol cars and an ambulance hugged the kerb while a silver four-door car had been parked haphazardly, covering half the pavement. A uniformed officer by the name of PC Toby Edwards directed an elderly couple away from the blue and white crime scene tape that fluttered in a cold breeze as Kay and Gavin approached.
‘Lucas got here fast,’ she said, eyeing the silver car.
‘Apparently he was already in town. Conference at the Marriott or something.’
The Home Office pathologist would have been summoned by the first responders, and Kay was glad to have him on site to hear his initial thoughts on the unusual find.
A grey panel van slid to the kerb behind the silver car, and four figures emerged before donning protective outerwear and collecting a range of coloured boxes from the van.
Kay nodded in greeting to the shortest of the four figures and followed Gavin over to where Harriet Baker divided up her small team and sent them towards the building.
‘Morning, Kay.’ The crime scene investigator shook hands with both of them and lowered her voice. ‘I hear we’ve got a strange one this morning.’
‘Apparently so. Gavin and I were on our way in.’ Kay shrugged. ‘I was at headquarters when the call came through, so I probably know as much as you at the moment.’
‘Mummified, I heard?’
‘Yes. Lucas is here.’
‘Ah, good. Always useful when a pathologist can see a body in situ.’ Harriet turned and picked up a box of equipment from the foot-well of the passenger seat of the van. She locked the vehicle and then pulled out a pair of protective gloves, tugging them over her fingers. ‘I’d best get on.’
‘We’ll see you in there.’
Kay stood aside as Harriet swept past and then narrowed her eyes as a familiar figure hurried towards the tape, his focus on the open satchel slung over one shoulder. She called over to the police constable. ‘Edwards – make sure Jonathan Aspley doesn’t speak to any of the witnesses, would you?’
‘Will do, guv.’
The reporter from the Kentish Times pulled a phone from his pocket, his gaze locking with Kay’s as he neared, then his shoulders slumped as he caught sight of Edwards approaching.
‘Oh, come on, Hunter!’
She held up a hand. ‘No, Jonathan. Later. Be at headquarters at five o’clock this afternoon. DCI Sharp is organising a press conference. You should get an email within the hour. In the meantime, let my team do their work.’
She turned her back to him before he could protest further. ‘Have the paramedics finished?’
‘Still with one of the employees,’ said Edwards. ‘She’s asthmatic, and they were concerned about the effect of the shock on her.’
‘All right. Extend the cordon a car length beyond the ambulance and get some barriers across the pavement to give us some privacy.’ She glanced up at the building opposite, her top lip curling at the sight of a number of inquisitive office workers at windows, smartphones in hand. ‘And for goodness sakes get a couple of officers over there to tell that lot to mind their own business.’
Edwards hurried away, barking orders to his colleagues and relaying Kay’s instructions.
Kay moved so she could see past Gavin and down the High Street towards the old Town Hall. Along the length of pavement on each side of Market Square, people stopped and stared. A mixture of curious glances and openly eager faces greeted her, and she knew from experience that it would only be a matter of time before a crowd began to gather, especially if the office workers opposite had already managed to film anything of interest and upload it to social media.
If they didn’t manage the situation properly, the town centre would soon be reduced to gridlock.
Running feet drew her attention back to the taped-off perimeter in time to see four uniformed officers hurry across the street and into the building.
‘At least they haven’t got the body on camera,’ Gavin muttered.
‘Thank goodness. Who’s got the clipboard, Debbie?’ said Kay, calling out to a female officer who hovered at the doorway to the software company’s premises, several metres away from where they stood.
‘Aaron, guv,’ said Debbie. ‘He’s had to give Sergeant Hughes a hand with the barrier. Won’t be a minute.’
Despite her impatience at wanting to enter the crime scene, even Kay’s rank wouldn’t stand her in good stead if she broke with protocol and lifted the tape that stretched between a lamp-post and a gutter bolted to the ragstone brickwork.
‘What else do we know about this morning’s events?’ she said to Gavin, lowering her chin until she sensed the soft fabric of her jacket, then exhaling to create a warm cocoon of air to offset the morning chill.
‘No-one knew the body was there until it fell through the ceiling, guv. Apparently, a fault in the ducted air conditioning was reported last week and the bloke who installed it – Spencer White – couldn’t get here until today.’
‘What sort of fault?’ said Kay.
‘The system packed up. No air going through the building at all. Being an old bank, and given the amount of traffic that goes by here every day, the windows can’t be opened – they’re double glazed and sealed. Someone decided to turn up the temperature last week after we had that cold snap, and everything ground to a halt.’
‘Bloody hell. So does anyone know how long it was up there?’
Gavin shook his head. ‘No, but the acoustic tiles were installed towards the end of the redevelopment works to the building so he wasn’t up there before that—’
He broke off and jerked his chin over Kay’s shoulder.
Turning, she saw Aaron Baxter approaching, a clipboard in his hand.
‘Sorry, guv. Bedlam at the moment.’
‘No problem,’ said Kay. ‘The main thing is, you’re maintaining a good crime scene so don’t worry about us having to wait.’
The police constable managed a smile as he took back the signed paperwork from Gavin. ‘Thanks, guv.’
Kay ducked under the tape Aaron held aloft, waited for Gavin to join her and then took a set of protective coveralls from Patrick, one of Harriet’s assistants, and donned the bootees and gloves he held out.
Once suitably attired, she followed Gavin to the front door of the building, noting with relief that the barriers had been erected and the bystanders now moved away from the opposite office block.
The double doors to the old bank had been propped open and as Kay entered, a faint sound of weeping reached her ears.
A young woman, no more than twenty, sat in one of the leather seats in the reception area, a paper tissue clutched in her fist while a colleague tried to placate her.
Debbie moved to Kay and Gavin’s side. ‘Gemma Tyson,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Receptionist. She was present when the victim was discovered.’
Kay nodded her thanks, then moved towards the doors that she reasoned led into the bowels of the building. ‘We’ll have a quick word with her on the way out.’
Gavin nodded in understanding, then paused as they entered the open plan office. ‘Bloody hell.’
The central space that served as the working hub of the software business teemed with people.
A group of a dozen uniformed officers milled about the room. They had divided the employees into small groups in order to seek witness statements from them and ensure mobile phones were confiscated until any photographs were removed and ground rules regarding social media had been communicated.
An air of shock permeated the air, tinged with a dark undertone of disbelief at the sudden entrance of the mummified body.
As they made their way towards the kitchen area and Harriet’s team of crime scene investigators who were beginning to process the evidence, Kay fought down the urge to panic at the sheer number of people that were present.
As crime scenes went, it was going to be one of the hardest to manage and would test her team’s skills to the limit.
‘What made them suspect foul play?’ she said.
‘Bloody great dent in the side of his skull,’ said Gavin. ‘You could say it’s a no-brainer, guv.’
Kay groaned, and brushed past one of Harriet’s assistants. ‘You’ve got to stop hanging around with Barnes, Piper. He’s a bad influence.’
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