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Authors: Jane Isaac

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Suspense, #Crime Fiction

Before It's Too Late

BOOK: Before It's Too Late
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Legend Press Ltd, The Old Fire Station, 140 Tabernacle Street,

London, EC2A 4SD

[email protected]
|
www.legendpress.co.uk

Contents © Jane Isaac 2015

The right of the above author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available.

Print ISBN 978-1-9103946-1-8

Ebook ISBN 978-1-9103946-2-5

Set in Times

Cover design by Simon Levy
www.simonlevyassociates.co.uk

Set in Times. Printed in the United Kingdom by Clays Ltd.

All characters, other than those clearly in the public domain, and place names, other than those well-established such as towns and cities, are fictitious and any resemblance is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

 

Jane Isaac
studied creative writing with The Writers Bureau and the London School of Journalism. Jane’s short stories have appeared in several crime fiction anthologies. Her debut novel,
An Unfamiliar Murder
, was published in the US in 2012, and her second novel,
The Truth Will Out
was published by Legend Press in 2014.

Jane lives in rural Northamptonshire with her husband, daughter and dog, Bollo.

Visit Jane at
www.janeisaac.co.uk

follow her
@JaneIsaacAuthor

 

 

 

To Stephanie

 

 

‘And why not death rather than living torment?’

William Shakespeare

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Chapter
One

A rumble in the background woke me. I could feel something rolling, somewhere nearby. Gently, side to side, like a baby rocking in a crib
.

I swallowed, slowly opened my eyes. The images were unclear; bleary dark shadows flickered about in the distance
.

The rocking continued, and I suddenly became aware that it was my own body moving. A wave of panic caught me. As much as I tried, I couldn’t keep it still. I had no control over my limbs
.

Rivulets of sweat trickled down my neck. More blurred images. The sound of an engine
.

Darkness. I was travelling in a vehicle with no windows
.

I tried to recall earlier: the thump of music, the babble of conversation punctuated by bouts of laughter. Hanging my head over a toilet pan. Pressing my cheek to the cold tiles in the cubicle. Worming my way through sweaty bodies jammed together, moving to the beat, drinks sloshing everywhere. I needed air, and quick. Tom’s face contorted in anger, the muscle in his jaw flexing as he spoke through tight teeth. The slam of the pub door behind me. The relief at emerging into the silvery darkness. Alone. The throb of an engine as it revved behind me
.

My thoughts fragmented and faded. Little pieces of the jigsaw were missing. I reached for them in the semi-darkness, but they danced about on the periphery
.

My head grew heavy, a thick smog began to descend on my brain
.

The van stopped abruptly, snapping me back to the present. I was shunted forward. A pain speared through my foot and up into my calf. I couldn’t move, yet I still felt the sharp ache
.

The engine cut. The grate of a door as it swung open. A soft breeze reached in and tickled my hair
.

Footsteps shuffled around me. Hands reached beneath my armpits. Warm breaths on my neck. Dragging
.

I mustered every ounce of energy to turn my head and let out a gentle moan
.

The breathing instantly halted. The grip released
.

A cloth was pressed down on my nose and mouth. A sickly-sweet smell. I desperately wanted to struggle, I tried to, but my limbs felt like they were immersed in a puddle of glue. The world spun around me. Slower and slower. Gradually fading. Until my brain became an empty well of darkness
.

Chapter
Two

Detective Inspector Will Jackman lowered the window and sucked in a wave of crisp air. Stars peeped down at him through the dark blanket of sky above. A moth flew into the car and fluttered about on the dashboard but he ignored it, relishing the breeze that rushed through his hair as he pressed on.

The sweet scent of grass mingled with wild honeysuckle wafted into the car. The smells were always stronger in the dark hours, especially that gap between 2 and 5am when the roads were quiet and the people of Stratford rested in their slumber. It reminded Jackman of his early years in the police, working instant response on a rolling shift pattern around the clock. The whole atmosphere changed at night. Jobs were more sporadic but intense. Colleagues rallied around in support. Emotions were heightened. Back at the station things took on a much lighter feel, practical jokes came to the fore in an effort to lighten the load and stave off the fog of fatigue.

Jackman cast the memories aside and pushed on, leaving the town behind him, through a tunnel of trees that cast hazy shadows on the road ahead. By day, Warwick Road Lands was a haven for riverside wildlife, walkers, families sharing their picnics with the ducks in the balmy sunshine. As the sun subsided and the birds roosted it grew peaceful once more, haunted only by the occasional footfall of a passing fisherman, the call of an owl or the swoop of bats, hunting their prey.

He grew closer, turned into the empty car park and stopped the car. Gravel scratched beneath his feet, the sound elevated in the darkness, as he crossed the tarmac and made for the river bank.

He glanced at his watch. It was 2am. Right here. This was where Ellen’s body had floated just over a week ago, huddled amongst the bulrushes on the water’s edge.

On Saturday 3rd May, Ellen Readman had packed her suitcase into the boot of her black Ford Ka and climbed into the driver’s seat. Her face had stretched into a wide grin as she had lifted her hand to wave at her housemate, revved the engine and disappeared down the road. She was off to visit her Aunt in Corfu for a week’s break. A missing persons’ enquiry later revealed that she’d never even reached the airport.

Media appeals followed, asking for witnesses to come forward, desperately trying to trace Ellen’s movements. Her car was last spotted by police cameras leaving Stratford on the A46. But, apart from the usual crank calls and the odd sighting earlier in the week, nothing to reveal what happened next. Until her body surfaced in the River Avon.

If Jackman closed his eyes he could still see her lying there, tossed aside like a rag doll. Her face was concealed beneath a mop of long dark hair, thickly matted with Japanese knotweed. The t-shirt she wore was pulled tight across her bloated body, a short denim skirt clung to her thighs, her feet bare. Jackman let out a ragged sigh. Her parents came across from nearby Nottinghamshire to identify her body. Tissues pressed to tear-stained faces, distraught over the death of their youngest daughter. Twenty-two years old. Barely a couple of years older than his own daughter, Celia.

Jackman sunk his hands into his pockets and glanced across the water. It was calm and still. The pathologist’s report indicated her body had been immersed in water for some time. Grazing on the backs of her thighs suggested she may have been lodged somewhere, freed up by the increased flow of the river due to the barrage of heavy rainfall the weekend before.

As soon as the incident room was established, police computers had identified a link with the case of a woman found in the River Nene in rural Northamptonshire, two months earlier. Twenty-two-year-old Katie Sharp’s neck bore similar ligature marks, her body no sign of sexual intervention. Just like Ellen. She’d also been immersed in water for some time before a dog walker had stumbled across her.

Jackman massaged his temples. Despite there being separate incident rooms in two counties, less than an hour’s drive from each other, neither were close to finding a motive, let alone a suspect. Forensics worked hard on the clothing, the bodies, the surrounding area, and yet any clues were likely flushed away.

The investigation had been code-named Operation Sky and now it felt like the clouds were rolling in, blocking out any gaps of possible light as the lines of enquiry began to dry and shrivel. The irony was not lost on him.

Jackman picked up a stone, skimmed it across the water and watched it plop twice and disappear, before turning on his heels back to the car.

Chapter
Three

The bubbling ringtone his daughter had installed as a joke played out as Jackman retrieved his back door key from his tracksuit bottoms the following morning, and fumbled with the lock. Erik, his four-year-old chocolate Lab jumped around his knees, the lead still attached to his collar slamming against everything in sight. Finally, the key turned. He wrenched the door open and grabbed the phone off the kitchen side.

“Where are you, sir?” The sir followed afterwards, an add-on in an attempt to pacify.

Jackman recognised the gruff tone of Detective Constable Andrew Keane immediately. “Morning to you, too.” He glanced at the clock. It was 8.30am. “On my way to Northampton, or I will be in a minute. What’s up?”

“The Super’s trying to get hold of you. Wants to speak to you urgently.”

Jackman lunged forward and stretched out his stiff calves. The run had failed to release its usual endorphins and his muscles, dogged by sleep deprivation, felt hard and tight. “What about?”

“A misper.”

“What kind of misper?”

“Missing girl. Twenty-year-old student. The Super wants you in for a briefing, as soon as. Apparently, it’s high profile.”

Jackman wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “What do we know?”

“Female, Chinese student at Stratford-upon-Avon College, name of Min Li. Missing person call came in at two o’clock this morning. Argued with her boyfriend and left the Old Thatch Tavern on the corner of Rother Street and Greenhill Street around…” Jackman heard the rustle of a page turn in the detective’s notebook, “… 10.35pm. Later, her boyfriend couldn’t reach her on her mobile, so came back to her apartment at the college to check on her and then alerted her roommates. They called the police at 2am when they’d phoned all her friends and couldn’t locate her. I was the lucky bunny working the CID nightshift, called in to assist.”

Jackman crossed to the sink, filled a glass and took a swig as he listened. “What do we know about her?”

“Not much. We’ve checked both her and the boyfriend out. They’re not known to us. She’s been over here since last September doing an access course in business. Originally from Beijing.”

“And the boyfriend?”

“We’ve spoken to him. They were celebrating his birthday with a group of friends. Claims he hasn’t seen her since she left the pub last night.”

Jackman bent forward and wrestled with the laces on his running shoes. “Witnesses?”

“We’ve checked the council CCTV cameras, she was spotted turning the corner from Rother Street into Greenhill Street, probably on her way back to the college. Then nothing. In between Greenhill Street and Alcester Road she disappeared. A few vehicles passed through around the same time, which we’re trying to trace. Bloody council footage is hopeless though. We’ll have to get it enhanced to read the number plates.”

Jackman thought for a moment. “Any chance she could have taken herself off somewhere? Gone somewhere to calm down?”

“I don’t think so. In the light of current events we’ve been extra thorough. Luckily, it was quiet last night and most of the uniform shift helped us out. We’ve made the usual checks – she doesn’t own a car, so we tried the trains, buses, taxi firms. No sign of her there. There were no recorded accidents in Stratford last night but we checked the local hospitals anyway and they’ve no record of treating a Chinese female.”

“What about GPS on her phone?”

“Switched off.”

He had to hand it to Keane. He’d been diligent. Jackman sighed inwardly. With the changes in the recruitment process and the possible introduction of shorter-term contracts, officers like Keane were on the decline.

“There’s something else,” Keane continued. “We talked to her friends at the college. Min Li is a dedicated student. She didn’t turn up for an early tutorial at 7am this morning. We used one of the college’s interpreters to speak to her parents in China as it’s only her father that can speak reasonable English. They have no idea where she is. Last heard from her at the weekend with a routine catch-up call. Take it from me, sir, this ain’t no regular misper.”

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