Will To Live
Elsa Flanagan cursed under her breath and slapped the side of the torch against the palm of her hand.
The beam wavered before it flickered back to life and she exhaled, releasing some of the tension from her shoulders.
She’d told Dennis to change the batteries the previous evening when he’d returned from the pub, the dog carrying a faint scent of cigarette smoke from where his owner had passed the time with his friends in the small undercover shelter to the side of the fourteenth-century tavern.
He’d obviously forgotten all about the batteries after several pints of real ale, and now she was traipsing across the pitch black field with Smokey, praying the beam held out long enough for her to let the dog have a quick trot around before she headed home for the evening.
Early spring, and the air was laden with a freshness, the countryside beginning to waken from its winter slumber.
She’d spent the afternoon in the garden, pulling out all the old and rotten vegetation, the roses receiving a vicious pruning, and the flowerbeds prepped and ready for the first burst of daffodils.
Dennis had phoned half an hour ago and said he’d be late home from the golf course. There had been a crash on the M20 where the new merging lanes, implemented the previous year, still caused grief for unsuspecting drivers.
Elsa had huffed, but knew it wasn’t his fault. They enjoyed their evening walks with the dog together, but he’d urged her to go on without him this time.
‘Goodness knows how long I’ll be,’ he’d said.
Reluctantly, she’d agreed with him, as Smokey was already pacing the hallway in anticipation.
‘Come on, then,’ she’d said, grabbing his lead from its position on the newel post, and headed out, locking the front door behind her.
There was a time when she’d have simply let the dog wait until the morning for a long walk and let him out into the garden instead, but with his advancing years she knew if she didn’t take him now he’d be unsettled all night, and she wouldn’t get any sleep.
Dennis would be too busy snoring to notice.
She’d smiled and waved at a neighbour returning from walking her Yorkshire Terrier, and then turned and followed an overgrown footpath that led to a small field.
As far as she was aware, only the neighbour used the route regularly. She and Dennis normally walked along a different path that took them past the village pub. Their suburb was far enough out of the main town to be uncrowded, and for the most part was populated by people who were retired, or whose children had left the nest long ago. She’d let the dog off his lead the moment she reached the barren field, safe in the knowledge the area was well-fenced. She trusted him to come back when called, but it was reassuring to know he couldn’t stray onto the railway line that cut through the end of the field while he was chasing rabbits.
Conscious of the darkening sky, she’d rummaged in her pocket and pulled out the small torch, and it was then she realised Dennis had forgotten to change the batteries.
Now, she wished she had taken the time to check before leaving the house.
An excited bark from Smokey jerked her back to the present. His silhouette bounded across the field beyond where she stood with the lead in her hand, a flash of white near the hedgerow beyond reflecting off the torch’s beam as a rabbit made a lucky escape.
In the distance, and still several miles away, the sound of the horn of the 5.55 from London Victoria carried on the wind. There was a time, not so long ago, when the sound acted as an alarm clock for her, a signal to switch on the oven and start preparing dinner ready for when Dennis walked through the front door, having driven from the railway station.
Now, she emitted a two-note whistle to the dog and jangled the metal clasp of his lead.
The rabbit out of reach, the dog scampered back towards her.
Tutting under her breath at the sight of his mud-covered paws, she clipped the lead to his collar and ruffled the fur between his ears.
He strained at the lead as she straightened, his head swivelling towards the railway line, and pricked his ears.
A breeze tugged at her hair, and she frowned.
‘Come on, all the rabbits are gone.’
She turned to go but the lead grew taut.
Glancing down, she saw the Border Collie staring at the tracks, his body rigid. His ears twitched, and he lifted his nose into the air before he whined and strained at the lead once more.
‘What is it?’
She felt a pang of fear. Dennis was always telling her not to walk the dog over the field by herself. “You’re too trusting”, he said. “It’s not like the old days”, he said. “Take him around the block instead”.
She waved the torch in a wide circle, the faint beam falling on a pair of rabbits that turned and fled as the light fell upon them.
‘It’s only rabbits, Smokey,’ she scolded, while trying to ignore the tremor in her voice. ‘Come—’
The wind brushed her cheek, and she heard it then.
A faint voice, male.
Smokey whined again before he growled, a rumble that started in his throat and ended in a low bark.
She heard the tremble in her voice, and patted the pockets of her jacket, her heart racing.
She’d left her mobile phone on the kitchen counter in her haste to walk the dog before it grew too dark to navigate the field.
She took a step back and tugged on the lead.
‘Smokey. Come on.’
He whined again, and instead of following her, pulled forward.
She stumbled, managed to regain her balance at the last moment, and inhaled sharply.
Elsa craned her neck, trying to see beyond the farthest reaches of the torch beam.
The voice appeared to be coming from the direction of the railway line.
She took a few steps forward and, emboldened, the dog took up the slack and pulled once more.
A moment’s pause, then—
‘Help! Please – somebody help me!’
Her heart hammering, Elsa began to hurry across the uneven ground, and cried out as her ankle turned. She kept her balance, ignored the painful twinge from her arthritic hip, and made her way down the gentle slope towards the tracks.
A tangle of vines covered a wire mesh fence that had been erected between the field and the railway, and she paced beside it until she found an area that was less densely covered in vegetation.
She couldn’t climb the fence, not with her hip, and with her short stature, the top of it reached a half head above her.
‘Please, help me – I can’t move!’
She waved her torch in the direction of the voice, her breath escaping her lips in short bursts, until the beam fell upon a length of material that lay across the tracks.
She blinked, and then the material moved.
‘The train’s coming! Help me!’
Elsa cried out, and covered her mouth with her hand, before dropping the torch. Close up, she could still make out the wriggling form.
A rumble in the ground sent a small shockwave up her legs, and her head jerked to the right.
Smokey began to bark, excited by the roar of the approaching train, and the man’s terrified screams.
‘Oh God, oh God.’
Elsa wrapped her fingers around the mesh of the metal fencing and tried to prise it from the post, but it wouldn’t yield. Her breath escaped in short, panicked gasps as she rattled the wire mesh in an attempt to find a weak point, a way through.
The man continued to squirm, his body against the nearest rail, and his head furthest away from her.
‘Get up, get up!’ she urged. ‘The train’s coming!’
Why isn’t he moving?
Only metres away from where she stood, the rails began their familiar song as the weight of the train’s wheels bore down, coming closer.
The horn sounded once more.
The man began to scream, begging her to hurry, to stop the train, to help him, but the wire refused to yield under her touch.
The train rounded the corner, its light bearing down on her, and she lifted her gaze to the rails.
The man had managed to raise his head, and was staring at her, terrified.
The train’s brakes squealed as the headlights picked out the form in its path, but it wasn’t going to stop in time. It was simply too heavy and going too fast.
Elsa screwed up her eyes in a vain attempt to shut out the vision before her, a moment too late.
The man’s screams were drowned out by a sickening crunch, blood exploding across the front of the locomotive.
The wheels screeched against the rails as the train shuddered to a halt, the ensuing silence only broken by the hiss of air brakes.
The dog whined once before pushing its trembling body against her legs, and then Elsa turned and vomited into the undergrowth.
Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter pulled the car in behind a white four-wheel drive vehicle emblazoned with the British Transport Police logos across its paintwork, and swallowed.
A death on a railway was never easy to deal with, and she’d only had to attend a scene such as this once before in her career – a long time ago, when she was still a police constable.
It was something she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to repeat.
The phone call had come in as the team were starting to leave for the day, with a request from those at the scene to have two detectives attend. Details were scant, but the transport police had been at the scene for the past forty minutes, and the railway owners were keen to reopen the line as soon as possible.
‘Rush hour. Inconsiderate bastard,’ one of the older detectives had muttered. ‘Glad it’s you, not me.’
Now, Kay turned to the woman in the passenger seat next to her.
Detective Constable Carys Miles stared wide-eyed through the windscreen, her usually pale face a deathly shade of white.
‘Think yourself lucky – you’re not the one who has to clear this up.’
‘That doesn’t help.’
‘Come on. Let’s go.’
A motley collection of ambulances, buses and police vehicles were parked either side of the narrow country road. A uniformed officer stood at an open gate set within a hedgerow, directing attending services towards an unpaved track that led away from the lane and across a field. Floodlights created a pool of light the length of it, and as Kay followed the path with her eyes, she saw the train and its eight carriages of trapped commuters on the railway beyond.
‘Evening, Graham,’ said Kay, as she approached.
‘Who’s in charge of the scene?’
The constable pointed across to the small crowd gathered at the bottom of the field. ‘Dave Walker, British Transport Police. He’s the one who requested we attend.’
‘Okay. Let’s go see what he’s got.’
Kay led the way along the track, careful to avoid the muddier parts of the field.
‘This bloody railway,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘The fencing was supposed to stop this sort of thing happening.’
‘Is it common here?’ asked Carys, as she hurried to keep up.
‘Put it this way, the locals called it the “Suicide Mile” for years. It calmed down for a bit once the fencing went up eighteen months ago, but I guess if someone’s determined to end their life—’
‘There has to be a better way to go.’
‘You’d think so, right?’
A man broke away from the group of police officers as they approached, his face shadowed by the angle of the floodlights.
‘Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter?’
He held out his hand. ‘Sergeant Dave Walker.’
Kay introduced Carys, and then gestured towards the track. ‘Another suicide?’
‘We’re not sure, and that’s why you’re here. According to an eyewitness, the victim tried to change his mind at the last minute.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’s with one of your constables at the moment, giving a statement.’ He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. ‘Pretty shaken up, as you can imagine. Apparently, she was out walking her dog when she heard a man’s voice. She wandered down here to investigate, and said he was calling out to her for help. She couldn’t get over the fence to reach him in time.’
Kay glanced over her shoulder as one of the attending ambulances started to drive away across the field, bumping and jerking over the uneven ground towards a gate that had been opened on the far side.
‘They didn’t hang around to declare life extinct?’
‘No need.’ He pointed to a small, white tent that had been erected the other side of the fence amongst the undergrowth some metres away from the front of the train. ‘His head’s over there.’
Carys emitted a groan and turned away.
‘We’re waiting for confirmation from the control centre that the line’s safe and no locomotives are shunting between stations, and then we’ll start to get these people off the train and onto the buses. All other passenger trains have been stopped at stations either side of our location, so there are buses running between Maidstone and Tonbridge. It’s a mess.’
‘How long do you think it’ll be before you get your confirmation we’re good to go?’
‘Should be within the next fifteen minutes.’
‘Okay, thanks. We’ll go have a chat with the witness ourselves in the meantime.’
Kay walked side by side with Carys as they approached one of the patrol vehicles, the back door open. Inside, the figure of a diminutive, older woman sat huddled on the back seat, her eyes wide as she spoke to the police officer standing beside the vehicle, notebook in hand.
A Border Collie sat at her feet, his ears attentive as she spoke, but sensed the two detectives approaching and twisted round to meet them, straining at his lead.
Kay bent down to pat the dog on the head, then straightened and waited while the uniformed officer introduced them to Elsa Flanagan.
‘I’ve finished taking Mrs Flanagan’s initial statement,’ she said. ‘I’ll have it on your desk by the morning. Mrs Flanagan’s husband is on his way to collect her. He should be here soon.’
‘Thank you,’ said Kay, as she turned her attention to the older woman and crouched down. ‘Mrs Flanagan, I realise that you’ve spent time with my colleague here going over the events of this evening, but would you mind telling me what happened?’
The woman exhaled, a shaking breath that spoke volumes, and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders.
‘It was terrible,’ she said. ‘I had no idea there was someone down here. I was walking Smokey, and he was busy chasing rabbits, and then when I called him, he came running. It wasn’t until I’d put his lead on that he heard something. I thought he was being difficult, but then I heard a voice. Down here.’
‘Where were you when you first heard the voice?’
‘There. About halfway up the field, where that dip in the landscape is. See it?’
Kay shielded her eyes from the bright floodlights, and picked out the area the woman indicated on the fringes of the taped-off area. ‘Yes.’
‘There’s a footpath just beyond. Leads back to the road where we live. There’s only us and another woman who use it to walk our dogs.’
‘You didn’t see anyone else when you set out?’
‘Only the woman who was out walking before me. She’s got a Yorkshire Terrier.’
Kay glanced at the police officer, who nodded. ‘We’ve got a note of the neighbour’s details,’ she said. ‘PC West left twenty minutes ago to go and speak to her.’
‘Thanks.’ Kay turned her attention back to Elsa. ‘What happened, after you first heard the man’s voice?’
‘I thought it was a mugger or someone. Dennis is always telling me not to come down here on my own. Prefers me to walk Smokey around the block if he’s not back to walk with me.’ She leaned forward and ruffled the dog’s ears. ‘But Smokey likes it down here.’
Kay waited. The witness was processing her memories of the accident, and she had no wish to rush her. The poor woman was traumatised enough as it was.
Elsa sighed and sat back on the passenger seat, her eyes downcast. ‘Smokey wouldn’t budge. Kept pulling on the lead, as if he knew something was wrong. Then I heard it. He called out. “Help me”, he said. At first, I didn’t know where the voice was coming from, but then he called out again and I realised the voice was coming from down here, near the railway line.’ She brought a shaking hand to her mouth. ‘I heard the train horn, then. You can hear it as it leaves East Malling station if the wind’s in the right direction. I ran, well as fast as I could, to the bottom of the field, where the fence is. I couldn’t see anything at first, and kept shining the torch around, but then he moved.’
‘Where was he, exactly?’
‘Across the tracks, at an angle. His feet were nearest to me, and his head was on the other side.’
‘Okay. Go on.’
‘I couldn’t get over the fence. I have arthritis in my hip, and the fence was too high. I tried to pull the mesh, to loosen it, but I couldn’t. The train was getting closer, and all the time, he’s crying out for help. Then the train came round the corner. I don’t know – I suppose by then the driver could see him because the headlight nearly blinded me, but he couldn’t stop. He didn’t stop—’
Kay placed her hand on the woman’s knee. ‘Thank you, Elsa.’
‘Sarge? Looks like Mr Flanagan is here.’
Kay straightened at Carys’s voice, and came face to face with a man in his seventies, his face ashen.
The woman thrust the blanket aside as the dog spun round and launched himself at the man. The woman fell into the man’s arms, and his eyes met Kay’s.
‘Can I take her home now?’
‘Yes.’ Kay handed one of her business cards to the couple. ‘Thank you, Mrs Flanagan. We’ll be in touch over the next day or so, but please – if you need to talk to someone, please seek help. You’ve witnessed a very traumatic event, and these things take time.’
‘Thank you, Detective.’
Kay watched as the older couple moved towards the floodlit track and then turned as Sergeant Walker approached.
‘We’ve got the all clear,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you what we’ve got.’
Kay and Carys followed him as he led the way towards a gap that had been severed in the fence line to allow the emergency services and investigating teams to access the railway tracks.
A steady stream of disgruntled passengers was being discharged from the carriage at the far end, away from the carnage at the front of the train.
‘Where’s the driver?’ she asked as she pulled on the coveralls and plastic booties that were handed to her.
‘Giving his statement to one of my colleagues,’ he said. ‘We’ll have a copy of that over to you as soon as possible.’
Kay acknowledged Carys’s murmured comment as they approached the front of the train.
Blood spatter covered the front wheels, a tangled mess of clothing and limbs strewn underneath.
Kay checked over her shoulder.
The first responders had erected shields at the start of the carriages, so none of the passengers would be able to see what was going on at the business end of the investigation.
‘Harriet’s here,’ said Carys.
Kay greeted the head of the Crime Scene Investigation team and explained the known facts while the woman pulled a set of protective coveralls over her own clothes and tied her hair back.
An astute and respected CSI, Harriet Baker had studied at Oxford before taking up residence in the Kent county town with her sales manager husband and had worked with Kay on a number of cases.
Her face grim, she gestured to the photographer that joined her.
‘If we’re all ready, let’s take a quick look, and then I’m locking down this crime scene for processing. I’d prefer it if only one of you accompanied us,’ she said to Kay.
Kay took one look at Carys’s pale face and wide eyes and knew she’d have to go.
‘Makes sense. Carys – if you could wait here, and then liaise with Harriet’s team for the rest of this evening?’
‘Yes, Sarge,’ said the detective constable, the relief in her voice palpable before she scurried away.
‘Someone changing their mind about committing suicide isn’t unusual,’ said Kay. ‘So, what do you need us for?’
Walker beckoned to her and the CSI and then made his way to the rear of the locomotive via a demarcated path that had been erected above the troughing route caused by the ballast, the photographer trailing in their wake. He crouched beside the wheels and shone his torch onto the tracks. ‘It wasn’t suicide.’
Kay gulped at the mess, but tried to focus on the task at hand. ‘What am I looking for?’
In reply, Walker wiggled the torch beam across the far rail.
‘There. What’s left of his ankles is tied to the tracks.’
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"Another thrilling, adrenaline-pumping ride"
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"A fast-paced detective thriller where the personal issues, Kay’s secret investigation and the case of the psychopathic serial killer are entwined in a provocative and fascinating storyline"
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