Hell to Pay
Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter leaned over the passenger seat of her car, plucked a pair of old leather ankle boots from the foot well, and cursed both the unfortunate motorist who’d lost control of his vehicle, and DI Devon Sharp for phoning her at one in the morning to attend the scene of the accident.
‘Meet me on site in thirty minutes,’ he’d said, before the line went dead.
She wiggled in her seat until she could slip off her flat shoes, exchanged them for the boots, and shoved the car door open before pulling her waxed jacket around her, gasping as rain lashed her face.
She squinted against the headlights from the emergency vehicles lined up along the hard shoulder of the motorway, an ambulance’s blue lights flashing through the steady downpour and strobing off the windows of the patrol cars that were being used to cordon off the accident scene. Further along, two firemen returned from their truck, their faces grim as they stepped over the remains of the steel barrier and disappeared from sight down the embankment.
Blinking the last remnants of sleep from her eyes, she shoved her hands into her pockets and began to search for her superior officer.
When Detective Inspector Devon Sharp had called her, the shrill tone of her mobile phone had roused her from her slumber and caused her other half, Adam, to curse loudly before he rolled over and tugged the duvet over his head.
His snores had reached her as she’d crept out the bedroom door.
Now, she wished she’d put on another layer of clothing as she stalked along the road.
A vicious wind whipped across the exposed raised section of the motorway, the bordering fields providing no shelter from the change in season.
As she neared the ambulance, she spotted a uniformed police officer standing next to the open back doors, his face attentive on the activities around him. Kay realised the crew were inside and peered in, curious.
The pair worked as a well-rehearsed team, an older woman and a younger man who bent over their patient, their voices clipped.
Beyond, at the front of the vehicle, a radio crackled; a man’s voice from their control centre at Ashford calm and efficient as he relayed information to the crew.
The scent of disinfectant reached Kay as she watched them work, her eyes running over the once immaculate equipment while she wondered how long it would take them to clean the vehicle when they finally returned to base at the end of a long shift.
‘He had to be cut out of the wreckage.’
Kay turned at Sharp’s voice. ‘What are his chances?’
‘Head trauma. Suffered a cardiac arrest while they were bringing him up the embankment on a stretcher. So, not good.’
Kay shielded her eyes against the rain and bright lights and peered along the motorway.
An intermittent stream of transcontinental trucks and an occasional car drove past the cordon, their speed slowed by the warning signs displayed on gantries several miles before the crash site.
Surface water sprayed out from under their wheels, pooling at the road’s edge where Kay stood. Despite knowing the cordon had been erected at a safe distance, she took a step back as a large truck swept by, the downdraught from it buffeting her slim frame.
‘Any other vehicles involved?’
‘No. Uniform are taking the statement of a truck driver over there – he was parked on the hard shoulder when the accident happened.’
They both turned at a call from the ambulance, and the younger of the paramedics stooped so he could talk to them.
‘We’ve got him stabilised. We’ll be off now.’
‘Thanks,’ said Sharp. ‘Where’s he going – Maidstone?’
‘Yeah, that’s where we’ve been told to take him.’ The paramedic lowered himself to the ground and prepared to close the rear doors. ‘I wouldn’t hold your breath about him making it though.’
Sharp turned his attention to the young uniformed officer. ‘Go with them. If he talks, I want to know about it.’
The paramedic waited until the police officer had clambered in, then made his way along to the driver’s door.
Kay and Sharp stepped out of the way as the vehicle manoeuvred away from the cordon before setting off along the motorway, its sirens blaring to clear a path between the trucks.
Kay watched it disappear into the distance, then stamped her feet and turned to Sharp.
Ex-military, he was impeccably dressed despite the time. Only his bleary eyes gave any indication of the fact he had also been woken in the middle of the night.
Kay narrowed her eyes as she realised he was even wearing a tie.
She felt scruffy by comparison.
‘Come and take a look,’ he said, failing to notice her discomfort, and led the way towards the edge of the embankment.
The other emergency services had set up two floodlights at the top of the hill to enable the fire crew to work to free the driver of the vehicle. Saving his life had taken precedence over preserving the scene for the crime scene investigation unit, and Kay could well imagine what the lead investigator would say when he saw the state of the undergrowth.
Large footprints led down from the roadside, and as Kay reached into her pocket and switched on her torch, the beam highlighted the total devastation left by the vehicle’s path, followed within an hour by a team of first responders.
‘What’s their initial thoughts about what happened?’
‘According to the truck driver parked back there, he saw the car veering to the left in his mirrors – thought it was going to hit him. Seems as though the car driver tried to correct it at the last minute, but lost control and sent himself spinning through the barrier. Traffic have already taken a look at the point of impact and traced it back – there’s oil on the road, plus the grease from the past two weeks.’
Kay nodded. After a particularly dry end to the autumn, a sudden deluge had lifted all the grime from the roads and created hazardous conditions for unsuspecting motorists.
Avoiding the broken edges of the barrier, they moved to a spot that wouldn’t block the team’s egress from the broken vehicle to the motorway and stood for a moment, watching the activities below.
‘What made Traffic call it in as a murder scene?’ Kay called over the howling wind.
In reply, Sharp held his hand out for her torch before walking a few more paces until he was at a different angle to the car and swept the beam over the back of the vehicle.
A pale arm snaked out from the boot and over the rear licence plate at an impossible angle.
‘Her,’ he said.
Sharp stepped closer to the barrier and whistled to the crime scene team below.
One of the white suit-clad figures straightened at the sound, then pointed to its right and up the bank.
‘Good. Harriet’s got a demarcated path set up at last.’
They pulled on overalls and booties from a box of supplies left next to the barrier, the thin material flapping in the wind against their own clothes, and then Kay tied her hair back and followed Sharp down the slope, mindful of the fact that if she wasn’t careful, she’d slide on the wet undergrowth and scoot down the rest of the way on her backside.
The floodlights provided enough light to move safely along the path, so Kay shone her torch to her right, tracking the path the vehicle had carved through the vegetation as it had plummeted to where it now lay.
She’d seen some bad road accidents in her time with the police service, and gave a low gasp as she cast her eyes over the destruction.
‘It’s a wonder he lived, isn’t it?’ said Sharp over his shoulder.
‘Yeah. He must’ve been thrown around like a rag doll.’
As they drew closer to the foot of the embankment, Kay noticed that a wire fence separated the Highway Agency land from that of a farmer’s field.
The landscape beyond the outer reaches of the floodlights appeared as though it had been abandoned since harvest time, the earth laid fallow and bare.
Kay shivered as a cold gust of wind buffeted her and rocked the gantries from side to side, then turned her attention to the crash site.
She could only imagine the mammoth task that faced Harriet’s team – it was only now the driver of the car was on his way to hospital that the investigators could do their job. Their task would be exacerbated by the fact that at least twelve other people had traipsed through the now-cordoned-off area since the crash.
A tent had been erected over the back of the vehicle while she and Sharp had been talking at the top of the embankment, and as Kay drew closer she could see Harriet standing off to one side, calling out instructions to her team while they propped up a second tent over the driver’s door of the car. A photographer moved from one side of the car to the other, the flash from his camera illuminating the scene in bursts of light that bounced off the trunks of nearby trees and cast silhouettes amongst his colleagues.
Harriet glanced over her shoulder when they approached the cordon, and then made her way towards them, her progress hampered by tree branches and thick vines that covered the mud-strewn ground.
‘Harriet.’ Sharp jerked his chin towards the vehicle. ‘What’ve you got so far?’
The crime scene investigator pulled her paper mask down. ‘Female, mid-twenties by the look of it. Wrapped in a black plastic sheet that was taped together. Bruising to the face, which obviously wasn’t caused by the accident – not enough time has elapsed. I can’t see any bindings around her wrists. I’ll let Patrick finish the preliminary photographs, and then we’ll take a closer look.’
Sharp fell silent as Harriet replaced her mask and returned to the small tent, her white suit covered in splatters of mud from the knees down.
Kay sniffed the air, a heady mix of spilt fuel and the earthy tones of the nearby field. She glanced back up the embankment at the sound of air brakes, and spotted a large tow truck pull up to the barrier, its hazard lights flashing. She checked her watch, and wondered if they would be finished in time before sunrise.
The last thing they would need was for the crime scene to slow down the morning commute and end up on the news before they could work with the media team to coordinate a structured response.
On the other hand, to rush the forensic examination of the vehicle while it was still in situ would be a disaster. The next few hours were crucial for capturing as much evidence as possible.
The photographer moved closer to where Kay and Sharp stood, then lowered his camera.
‘Okay, Harriet, I’ve got all the preliminary photographs,’ he called over to the car. ‘Anything else you need from the perimeter?’
‘No, that’s fine. Let’s get a move on and find out what we’ve got. Charlie, can you move one of those floodlights closer?’
A technician moved away from the group, slapped a colleague on the arm as he passed and pointed away from the car, before the two figures grabbed hold of the nearest floodlight and shuffled their way towards the rear of the vehicle.
Once satisfied the lighting rig had been secured so the wind wouldn’t blow it over on top of someone, Harriet set to work once more.
Kay held her breath, the temptation to lift the tape between her and the vehicle tempered by the knowledge that she couldn’t simply impose upon Harriet’s work.
From their position at the cordon, Kay had to crane her neck to try and see what Harriet was doing.
The woman spoke to her team as she worked, her low voice carrying on the wind as she pointed to different parts of the vehicle and set her colleagues to work taking samples and placing everything in evidence bags to begin their arduous task of recording every minute detail.
After half an hour, Harriet lifted her head from the back of the car and beckoned them over.
‘All right, come and take a look.’
Sharp lifted the tape so he and Kay could pass underneath it, and led the way to the car.
Her eyes roamed the vehicle as she drew closer, the dents and scrapes caused by the velocity of the crash even more evident under the harsh bulbs of the gantry lights.
She left Sharp to speak with Harriet while she circled the car, surveying the damage to the panel work.
The passenger door had been ripped off its hinges and lay further up the embankment from where the vehicle had finally stopped, a steady stream of debris tumbling amongst the undergrowth as three of Harriet’s colleagues hurried to collect as much of it as possible before the wind seized it.
Rounding the back end of the car, she joined Sharp beside Harriet.
He stepped to one side and gestured to the woman’s body. ‘She didn’t stand a chance.’
Kay lowered her gaze.
The woman appeared to be in her twenties, her naked form wrapped in the black plastic before being dumped in the back of the car.
Harriet had snipped away at the tape that held the plastic together, exposing the woman’s bruised and battered body. Cuts and welts covered her left cheekbone and eye socket, her face twisted away from them.
‘We’ll finish here and get her to Lucas as soon as possible,’ said Harriet. ‘Though bear in mind we have to take samples from the whole car and gather everything from its path of travel. We’ll be here a while yet.’
‘Understood,’ said Sharp.
Kay shifted from foot to foot and ignored the damp starting to seep through the protective bootees and into the leather uppers of her boots. ‘I can’t recall any similar cases to this one, can you, guv?’
‘No. That’s what worries me.’
She turned to face Sharp. She was almost the same height as him, but he stood a little further up the slope to her and so she had to lift her chin. His face was troubled.
‘You think he’s done this before?’
‘Perhaps it’s a one-off, a domestic case.’
Kay sighed and faced the car once more.
No matter what Sharp thought, their first priority would be identifying the driver and his victim before working out where they had travelled from.
And where he had been taking her.
The thought that they might have missed a practiced killer with several burial sites spread around the county town sent a shiver down her spine.
What if he hadn’t crashed?
When would he have been caught, and how many other victims would there have been?
‘He’d better survive surgery,’ she muttered.
"A fast paced thriller – once you’ve picked it up you’ll struggle to get anything else done until you finish it!"