Cradle to Grave
Michael Cornish placed his hand on his young son’s shoulder as they crossed the footbridge over the River Medway, mindful of the hidden dangers from the dark waters below.
The seven-year-old hadn’t stopped talking since they’d left their house in Loose half an hour earlier. At first he’d been sleepy, grumbling about being woken at six o’clock in the morning. Then, as Michael had checked in his rear-view mirror that the boy had fastened his seat belt properly, Daniel’s face had broken into a wide grin, his sheer joy and excitement at the prospect of spending the day fishing with his dad evident by the questions peppered from the back seat as the car had woven through the roads towards the river.
Michael knew it wouldn’t last.
It was this fear that now kept Michael’s attention on the narrow stone-covered path that snaked away from the blue railings of the bridge and along a public byway at the water’s edge. He couldn’t shake the thought that he only had a few more years left before Daniel decided that hanging out with his dad on a Saturday morning was the last thing he wanted to do.
Fear turned to sadness; a pre-emptive grief.
Michael turned his attention to the heron that rose into the sky.
‘We scared him, right?’
‘He’ll be back, don’t worry. I’ve seen him here before. Mind your step.’
He tightened his grip as Daniel stumbled, then righted himself.
As they walked, Michael turned his gaze to three boats on the far side of the riverbank, varying sizes of cabin cruiser that bobbed on a gentle current, colourful hulls offset by white decking. In all but the first one, the curtains were closed, the owners away – or enjoying a lie-in.
A lone figure sat on the back deck of the first cruiser, an older man who wore a baseball cap as he polished a brass trombone, the metalwork gleaming in the sunlight. He raised his hand in greeting as they passed.
Daniel waved back, grinning. ‘Do you think he’s going to play that, Dad?’
‘I hope not. I don’t think his neighbours would thank him for it this time of the morning. Maybe he was playing in a band last night, or getting ready for tonight.’
‘Could we hire a boat one day?’
‘Of course. We’ll have to check with your mum first.’
‘She could come, too. She’d like it.’
‘You’re right, I think she would.’
‘Will I catch anything?’ Unperturbed by the terrain, the boy swatted his bamboo pole fishing net at a patch of stinging nettles they passed.
‘Maybe some small stuff. Remember what I said, though – you need to be quiet and keep still, otherwise you’ll scare them away.’
‘Okay.’ Daniel lifted the bright-red net to his face and pushed his glasses up his nose, frowning. ‘Hope I catch more than just tadpoles this time.’
‘Wrong time of year, mate. Don’t worry. You’ll get something, I’m sure.’
His son’s enthusiasm took him back to his time growing up in Tovil, fishing with his own father at this very spot and trying to land something bigger than a minnow.
Not a pike, though.
Then he’d gotten older, and for years the river hadn’t factored into his life at all. It wasn’t until he and Michelle had Daniel that he’d remembered what it was like to be that age – and what he missed about it. He might work all hours in his role as a mobile mechanic, but he spent time with Daniel whenever he could, knowing Michelle relished the few hours of peace and quiet their Saturday outings afforded her.
Michael’s attention was taken by a sudden rumble to his right, moments before a three-car passenger train roared past, its wheels swooshing along the line towards Paddock Wood. As it disappeared between the trees, a calmness returned to the riverbank.
A soft plop reached him, and he paused, crouching next to his son.
‘Keep still. See that log poking out from the bank?’
‘The water’s rippling, see?’
‘Why? What is it?’
‘Either a water vole, or an otter. Quiet now.’
Holding his breath, Michael pointed at movement on the water’s surface as a sleek brown streak of fur burst from the water and scampered up the opposite bank.
‘Otter! We saw an otter!’ Daniel spun around and grinned at him. ‘That was so cool.’
‘Did you like that?’
‘Yeah – wait until I tell them at school next week.’ He slipped his hand into Michael’s and tugged. ‘Let’s fish, Dad.’
‘Okay. There’s a good spot along here, over by that tree. Your granddad used to bring me here when I was your age. Let’s go.’
Moments later, Michael cast off his line and dug his boots into the soft undergrowth, his shoulders relaxing.
Daniel crouched at the water’s edge, his brow furrowed as he swept his net back and forth in the shallows, and Michael smiled at the boy’s expression of sheer concentration. A light breeze ruffled his strawberry-blond hair that was darkening every year, another reminder that his childhood was passing too fast for his father’s liking.
Michael craned his neck to see further up the riverbank, but saw no-one else. They had the place to themselves. Not that he was overly surprised – with the summer drawing to its inevitable end, most people were making the most of the weather and spending Friday nights having barbecues or sitting outside in pub gardens until darkness set in. It was only because it was his turn to be designated driver last night that he was here, and Michelle was having a lie-in.
‘What do you think, shall we buy some cakes on the way home? Do you think your mum would like that?’
‘Yes!’ Daniel grinned up at him, then went back to inspecting his net. ‘Haven’t caught anything yet, Dad.’
‘Patience, kiddo. Waiting is half the fun.’
Michael’s gaze turned back to the river, and he blinked as he caught sight of some thing further upstream.
For a moment, he couldn’t understand what he was seeing. The spread-eagled form floated along on the gentle current, brushing against the reeds that clumped against the bank only a few metres away, then spun around on an eddy and drew closer.
A chill crept across Michael’s shoulders, goosebumps rising on his arms. He swallowed, gagging as the form became something more tangible, more terrifying.
It drew closer, water lapping over the dark material covering the lower half, the upper end covered in dark matted hair that seemed to––
‘Daniel? Grab your net. We’re going.’
He reached out and steered Daniel away from the riverbank so he was facing the train line instead, all the while fighting down a rising panic.
Pulling out his mobile phone, he peered at the screen.
Heart racing, he wound in his line, cursing under his breath as it snagged and tangled around the reel. He snipped the trailing hook and dropped that and the broken line into the tackle box, wrapped his fingers around the handle, and then grabbed Daniel’s wrist.
‘Come on. Back to the car.’
‘What’s wrong, Daddy?’
‘Nothing. I just remembered I promised your mum I’d have you home by now.’
‘But we only just got here.’
‘I know. We’ll do this another day, though. Promise.’
Michael bit back the lie, knowing he would never fish on this stretch of the river again.
Maybe never fish again.
As they approached the footbridge, he glanced over his shoulder to the waterway. The trombone player had disappeared inside the cabin on his boat, the others were still deserted.
Beyond, by the tree he’d been standing under with his son only moments ago, the body continued its gruesome journey.
He placed the tackle box on the ground and looked at his phone again. Two bars of signal, thank God.
‘What is your emergency, please?’
‘Putting you through.’
‘Daddy?’ Daniel’s voice hit a higher note, and he stepped closer to Michael, dropping his fishing net next to the tackle box. His bottom lip quivered. ‘What’s going on?’
He gave Daniel a gentle shove. ‘Go and wait by the car. I’ll be there in a second.’
Michael’s son trudged onwards, not asking why, and not turning back. His heart gave a lurch; his son would never understand, because he’d never tell him what he’d seen.
‘Hello? What is your emergency, please?’
Michael took a deep breath, realising at that moment his life would never be the same. He closed his eyes, and tried to keep his voice steady.
‘There’s a dead man floating down the River Medway near Tovil Bridge.’
Detective Inspector Kay Hunter slammed shut the door of the mud-streaked silver pool car and hurried after her detective sergeant.
Ian Barnes, late forties, greyer around the temples this past year, held up the crime scene tape draped between two ornamental posts, and pointed at the river running beneath their feet.
‘This is the outer cordon,’ he said. ‘The body got tangled up under one of the pylons of the bridge after the call came in. Uniform organised the underwater search team and forensics.’
‘Witness?’ said Kay.
‘Got sent home after his initial statement was taken. You heard he had his seven-year-old son with him?’
‘Christ. Did the boy see it?’
‘No. I figured uniform did the right thing in the circumstances.’
They paused in the middle of the bridge and Kay peered over the railings, hooking a tendril of blonde hair behind her ear.
Below, the pathway alongside the River Medway was teeming with white-suited forensic specialists and their accumulated equipment.
A team of three divers stood up to their knees in the shallows, their attention taken by activities underneath the steel and concrete construction. A fourth diver emerged from the middle of the water to Kay’s left, his neoprene suit glistening as he raised his hand and gestured to his colleagues.
‘All clear there, then,’ said Barnes.
A group of six people were milling about on a concrete pier beside the boats. Two uniformed officers stood close by with their notebooks out, one holding a radio to his mouth.
‘What about the boat owners?’ Kay pointed to the three cabin cruisers further upstream on the opposite bank. She spotted two women amongst the men, and all seemed to be middle-aged or older. ‘What do we know about them?’
‘Locals. One couple – the pair nearest that boat at the end – are from Thanet. Apparently, they come down here every other weekend for a break. The ones who own the middle boat are from Yalding and stopped here overnight on their way up to the estuary later today. All bar one of them were asleep,’ said Barnes. ‘The nearest boat is owned by a local jazz musician. He saw our witness this morning as he was making his way up the riverbank towards a popular fishing spot. You can see it up there, by that beech tree.’
Kay shielded her eyes against the morning sunlight.
The riverbank curved away from Tovil, its path mirrored by the railway line to the right beyond a line of trees. A wide grassy bank sloped gently from the railway line to the Medway Footpath that stretched onwards towards East Farleigh and beyond. Wild flowers flourished, and a pair of swans graced the water’s edge. The whole vista was one of Kentish idyll.
Except for the body underneath the bridge where she stood.
She slapped her hands on the railing and turned. ‘Let’s go. Who’s in charge down there?’
‘Harry Davis. He was out on patrol with Parker when the call came in. They were first on scene.’
Kay followed Barnes down the other side of the footbridge and raised her hand at the older police sergeant who hovered on the footpath.
‘Morning, Harry. Good work getting this organised.’
He handed a clipboard to her. ‘Thanks, guv. Morning, Ian.’
Kay signed the crime scene log, then paused at the blue and white tape that fluttered in the breeze off the waterway and cast her gaze towards the group of divers now conversing with the CSIs on the path a few metres away.
‘What’s the current status?’
Harry turned and gestured towards a form that lay amongst a tangle of reeds beside one of the divers. He wrinkled his nose. ‘They’ve managed to retrieve the body from the bridge pylon about ten minutes ago. Harriet is here. Lucas is around somewhere – he’s already confirmed the bloke is dead.’
Kay sought out the Home Office pathologist and spotted him further up the riverbank, the tops of office buildings in Maidstone visible through the line of trees beyond his position.
Lucas Anderson held his mobile phone to his ear while he gesticulated in the air. He saw her, pointed to his watch, then returned to his phone call.
Kay’s eyes moved to the shortest of the three CSIs cloaked in white suits as the CSI lead, Harriet Baker, started to move towards them.
‘Morning, you two,’ she said. She tugged at the mask that covered her mouth and nose, then jerked her gloved thumb over her shoulder. ‘You’re going to have one hell of a job identifying him.’
Kay’s heart fell. ‘Has he been in the water too long?’
‘No – he hasn’t got a face.’
A stunned silence followed Harriet’s words.
‘You what?’ said Barnes eventually.
‘Yes, I know. God knows who he pissed off but he didn’t fall in the Medway by accident, that much is certain,’ said the CSI lead.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Kay. She glanced over her shoulder as Lucas approached. ‘Morning.’
‘Kay.’ He shook hands with her, then Barnes, and tucked his phone into his pocket.
‘Busy morning?’ said Barnes, raising an eyebrow.
‘I’ve got two technicians on holiday,’ said Lucas. ‘And now, this.’
‘All right,’ said Kay. ‘Fill us in, you two – what have you managed to ascertain so far?’
Lucas scratched his chin. ‘Obviously I’ll confirm once the post mortem is complete, but Harriet’s probably told you our man is missing most of his face. Initial examination seems to point to a gunshot wound to the back of the head, with the exit wound causing the damage to the front.’
‘How long has he been in there, do you think?’ said Kay.
‘Not long. There isn’t a lot of bloating to his body, so assuming he fell – or was pushed – face down, I don’t think he ingested much water, and I doubt there’s enough in his lungs to suggest he drowned. Again, I’ll confirm once we do the PM.’
‘Was he killed along this stretch?’ Kay turned away from the pathologist and watched the group of CSIs who were working, heads down, under a copse of trees that lined the riverbank further upstream.
‘I don’t believe so,’ said Harriet. ‘My team are processing that scene further up to rule it out – it’s where the witness said he first saw the body in the water.’
‘So he floated here?’ said Barnes.
‘That’s what we think, reading the witness statement and talking to the divers, yes.’
Kay shielded her eyes and squinted at the river as it curved away to the left and out of sight a quarter of a mile from where she stood.
‘Then where the bloody hell did he come from?’
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