Read the first chapter of my debut novel, Mime, which releases in June 2020.
Oily and bitter, the lingering odour of burnt flesh lodged in the back of Elliot’s throat. If he hadn’t known where the smell came from, he might not have thought anything of it.
Fifteen minutes had passed since the first reports had hit social media. Ten minutes since “spontaneous combustion” had started trending and flagged up on Elliot’s searches. Mostly third-hand accounts, but he’d found enough supposed eyewitnesses to convince him it was worth investigating.
Seven minutes since he’d left the Weird News office to drive down Whiteladies Road and across the city centre to the scene. Now, as he approached the waterside edge of Castle Park, that hint of charred human on the breeze made the whole situation more real. He pressed his lips together, swallowed, and headed closer.
A couple of patrol cars were parked on the roadside, alongside a grey Ford Mondeo he suspected was an unmarked police vehicle from the radio equipment visible on the dashboard. Rows of curious people gathered behind railings strung with blue-and-white striped tape. Some held phones above their heads like digital periscopes, trying to glimpse the focus of all the activity before the daylight faded. People loved a morbid circus.
Elliot pushed closer to the front.
Beyond the cordon, blue lights flashed from the roof of a police car parked near the bandstand – no sirens though, which left the park oddly quiet against the background hum of the city. Further in, another police car, two ambulances and a white van were parked in a rough circle around a brightly lit white tent, which presumably hid the remains. A large presence, but then Bristol had been on high alert for violent crime since the shooting last week.
He’d missed the initial frantic activity. Now, quiet tension held sway.
At a break in the railings where a cycle path entered the park, the police tape looped between several bollards. There, a police officer wearing a stab vest stood with his hands clasped in front of him, chin tilted up as if daring anyone to try something. Elliot sized the man up from a distance. In his forties, maybe even early fifties, and stuck with guard duty? Couldn’t be an ambitious sort, but probably dependable, stoic. The onlookers were certainly giving him a wide berth. Elliot doubted he’d get more from him than an official line, but if he could get the man flustered something might slip. He extracted himself from the press of bodies and skirted the rear of the crowd.
The constable gave him the evil eye as he approached. “Should have known you’d turn up at some point.”
Elliot tried for a friendly but professional smile. “Have we met?”
“No, but the inspector warned me about you.”
“Detective Inspector Yates?”
The man nodded. Now Elliot realised where he’d seen that particular grey Mondeo before. He could do without crossing paths with Yates again, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. It had been weeks since a story with genuine supernatural potential had broken so close.
“Well, PC…” He looked for a name tag.
“Right. Elliot Cross.” He held out a hand, which Reynolds briefly shook. “I’m sure he’ll have told you I’m just a reporter. Right?”
Reynolds’ jaw twitched. “That wasn’t the word he used,” he muttered.
Elliot kept his expression bland, pretending he hadn’t heard. “I’m only after the facts. Is there a theory on how the fire started?”
Reynolds widened his stance and straightened up. “You’ve wasted a trip, I’m afraid. We’re not releasing any details at this time.”
“I appreciate your investigation has barely begun, but surely there’s a basic statement you can give me?”
The man folded his arms. “DI Yates will be issuing a press statement tomorrow morning. You’ll have to wait till then.”
“Right, right. But you see there’s already a lot of speculation flying around. Maybe you could help me put a few rumours to bed before they get out of hand.” He took his notebook from his pocket, flipped to a fresh page.
Reynolds frowned and said nothing.
“Are you treating this as an act of violence? An attack?”
“I can’t disclose that information,” Reynolds said, but at the same time he shook his head.
“Alright. Is there any truth to reports of the man getting angry before the incident? Any evidence he was making a phone call?”
Reynolds shifted his feet. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“What about unusual phenomena in the lead-up? Strange silences, animals acting unpredictably…?”
“Unusual… A man died from burns. There’s nothing unusual about it! Have a little respect.”
“I apologise, I meant no disrespect. I’m sure there’s a clear, rational explanation for what happened.”
“Which is?” He held Reynolds’ gaze, letting him see a hint of a challenge.
“We don’t… You’ll have to wait till the press statement.”
“Fair enough.” Elliot made a show of jotting down a few notes.
Reynolds huffed. “Are you done?”
“Did the victim work with flammable chemicals at all?”
“Not that we know of. Now I’m serious, you’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Move along.”
“I understand. Thank you for your time.”
Elliot finished noting down his thoughts as he returned to the crowd.
The number of people didn’t seem to be decreasing. Why were they here, really? He could still taste that bitter taint on the back of his tongue. Had any of them even noticed it? Of course, some of that bitterness might have come from realising how much his reputation had spread among the Avon and Somerset constabulary.
Police withholding information was to be expected, but Reynolds’ unsettled demeanour suggested that whatever had happened wasn’t clear cut. Otherwise they’d have wrapped up faster and at least issued a basic statement to forestall any hysterics. He was certain they didn’t have a theory, but that didn’t mean much. As a rule, he didn’t accept a lack of evidence as proof, especially when it came to the supernatural. For all that Weird News drew a fairly sensationalist readership, it was a matter of principle that he stuck to the same journalistic standards he always had.
What he needed now was a first-hand witness.
He backtracked along the cordon. About fifty yards from the cycle path the road dropped below the level of the park; it turned ninety degrees to the right along the base of a four-foot retaining wall topped by dense shrubs. There was technically no access into the park this way, and no police guarded it. With the daylight fading quickly it should be easy to stay hidden. Elliot checked no one was looking, then hoisted himself onto the wall. He scrambled through the overgrown bushes, picking up a few scrapes and almost losing his glasses when a stray branch flicked in his face.
He crouched behind the fence at the top of the slope and paused, giving any details a chance to leap out at him from this new vantage point. Three shadows moved around inside the tent, silhouetted against the canvas by work lights running off a portable generator. Still gathering evidence.
The rear doors of one ambulance stood open. Inside, a paramedic moved around a person sitting on the stretcher. Elliot could only see the edge of a knee and arm, but anyone being treated must have been involved. He checked Reynolds was still facing the other way, then climbed over the fence.
As he approached, it became clear the patient was a young woman. The harsh fluorescent lights washed the colour from her pale complexion, and greasy soot stained her blonde hair. The paramedic was applying dressings to her hands.
Behind the ambulance, the central tent stirred as those inside emerged. Elliot darted round to the far side of the vehicle, out of sight.
“… but they’re not looking in the right place,” the girl was saying.
“I wouldn’t worry,” the paramedic said. “The police will go over every inch of the park if they have to. If it’s important, they’ll find it.”
“But they won’t. Everyone’s walked all over it now; you can’t even see where it was.” She sighed, then sucked in a pained breath through her teeth.
“Sorry, nearly there.”
Elliot leaned against the side of the vehicle, listening to see if she’d elaborate further before he put his head in to introduce himself.
“All done,” the paramedic said. “We’ll get you up to the hospital as soon as we can. I’ll be back in just a tick.” She stepped down from the ambulance and Elliot waited until she’d moved away. Inside, the girl with the burned hands sniffed like she was crying.
He was about to step round to talk to her when a hand settled on his shoulder and squeezed tight enough to make him wince.
“You’d better have a damn good explanation why you’re on this side of the tape,” a deep voice said near his ear. The hand on his shoulder pulled him round and he stood face to face with a man he unfortunately recognised.
“Detective Yates. I hoped I might—”
“Cross! What a surprise.” A sneer pulled at the detective’s mouth, replaced quickly by a rigid scowl, which deepened lines that clearly saw a lot of use.
Elliot had started off on the wrong foot with Yates not long after he moved to Bristol. He’d published a piece debunking one of the detective’s cases while it was still going through court. While his article hadn’t affected the proceedings, the scandal had escalated in ways he hadn’t anticipated. Talk of positive discrimination, and questions about whether Yates had been promoted on merit or because the colour of his skin helped someone, somewhere, meet a target.
And that wasn’t the only time they’d clashed.
Yates stepped closer, invading Elliot’s personal space to the point where Elliot could smell the mint of his gum tainted with tobacco.
“Always got to push your luck, don’t you? Poking your nose in where you shouldn’t.”
The frustration radiating off the detective couldn’t only be about him. Nosey reporters were a fact of police life; and although Yates made no effort to hide his distaste for the press in general, he was usually more subtle. No, this was because what lay in that white tent defied explanation.
“No nose poking,” Elliot said, retreating several steps and raising his hands in placation. “Just after the facts.”
Yates followed. “Facts are my business.” The detective glanced at the ambulance. “I hope you weren’t planning on approaching a vulnerable witness.”
Elliot fought to keep his expression neutral and his mouth shut.
“Come on, piss off. This is a crime scene, for Christ’s sake.” Yates gestured towards the barrier tape and Reynolds, who was watching them in the fading twilight. The constable reached for the radio clipped to his vest.
Elliot turned to face Yates. Over the detective’s shoulder he could see the girl sitting in the ambulance. She briefly made eye contact, then Yates stepped closer, blocking the view.
Elliot refocused on the detective. “So this is being treated as a crime?”
Yates blinked, then scowled. “What did I just say about pushing your luck? Leave. Now. Or I will physically escort you out of the park.”
When Elliot hesitated, the detective made to grasp his arm.
Elliot jerked out of reach. “Alright, I’m going.” With one last frustrated look towards the ambulance, he started walking.
“Freak,” Yates muttered behind his back.
He swallowed the jab and kept moving. There was nothing more he could do here anyway. The girl would be the key; somehow he’d have to identify her and find her again.
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