The forest was bright and warm, the sunlight dappled across the leaf-covered ground in a way that evoked images of autumn holiday brochures and children laughing. There was a slight breeze rustling the upper branches, but down at ground level all it did was bring the warmth of the sun in from out in the meadows all around. For everyone not working, it was a weekend to head out and make the most of the last of summer, before the cold settled in.
It was, I thought, a terrible place for a murder scene.
“All right Andrews?” my boss asked as he came over. Despite the fair weather he was still clutching a take-out cup of coffee like a lifeline, and I could smell the alcohol from whatever he’d been doing last night.
“All right, sir. I didn’t think you were on duty today?” Judging by the state of Detective Matthews, neither had he. However reckless he was on his night’s off, Matthews was a consummate professional out in the field, when the public could see him.
“Huh, tell me about it. But, four bodies in three months. No one gets their Saturdays when that happens.”
Some of us didn’t have many Saturdays anyway, but I only gave him a tight smile in response. It wasn’t right to bitch about hours and shift patterns when there was a dead body in the vicinity.
Another car pulled up into the cordoned off area and Matthews turned to watch it. It wasn’t a vehicle I recognised, but I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert on the department’s cars. Besides, four bodies in three months. This was when the top brass got called in, and all the specialists scraped up from wherever they usually lurked.
Matthews was having the same thought. “More god-damn people sticking their noses in, telling me what to do…” He walked back over to the ‘car park’ still muttering, leaving me to my solo guard duty. The investigators would go over the area first, then maybe I’d get called in to help sweep the area. Until then my contribution to catching a murderer was to stand still and keep people away. Of course, to get to me they’d have already had to get through two other police cordons. I was nothing more than window dressing at this stage, but the more serious the crime, the more window dressing the bosses wanted. Couldn’t let the press take a photo of empty space now, could we?
Whoever had just turned up seemed to causing something of a stir with the other detectives. They all had more sense than to start shouting, but I recognised the way Matthews had started pacing. A few words drifted across the forest to me, though I didn’t get much other than tone. No one was happy about the new person turning up, and I wondered what sort of specialist would cause such a stink.
Maybe it’s our own Sherlock Holmes, I thought to myself with a snort. It would make the shift more interesting at least, but there was no way that Sherlock Holmes would work with a modern policing system. All those deductions and assumptions? The evidence courts would be laughing themselves to death.
The new arrival was coming my way. I wiped the smirk from my face and stood up a little straighter, staring dead ahead as I watched them out the corner of my eye. Smart suit, skinny glasses, slightly crocked tie, and far younger than I’d expected for a specialist. At a guess I’d put the man at a few years older than me, early thirties or so, although he could just have had one of those faces that ages well. His height didn’t help, and though the ground was uneven he was about eye level with me when he stopped.
“Officer Andrews?” he asked, scanning me up and down. I’d braced for this moment – who doesn’t love a woman in uniform? – but there was nothing to his look. It was more like he was trying to read my name on my legs, rather than checking out any curve they may or may not have had.
“Yes, sir.” Even though he was nameless, anyone out of uniform at a crime scene was pretty much guaranteed to be my superior. Better safe than sorry.
“Can you take me down to the crime scene, please?”
“One moment, sir.” I’d barely tapped the call button on my radio before Matthews started waving his arm at me and giving the thumbs up. I tried to nod back, though he didn’t watch long enough to see. “Right this way, sir.”
I led the way through the trees to where the body had been found, all the while fighting down the urge to kick the leaves as I went. Precise placement wasn’t worth preserving when the leaves were so light and likely to move naturally, but it was hardly very professional. We came round one particularly large tree – meant to keep the victim out of sight, we figured – and there she was. No name, no purse, no shoes, clothing torn…
Despite the warm air I shivered. There was no getting used to this bit.
“Here, sir,” I said. It was obvious, but it didn’t feel right to just wave and go ‘ta-da’. Poor woman needed some respect in death, even if she didn’t get any in life.
“Thank you, um, Andrews. You can go back to your post now.”
“Are you sure… sir?” Solo investigation, seriously? And I hadn’t even gotten the man’s name, let alone his rank or speciality. But Matthews had waved me on. If this went wrong I could pin the blame on him, right? No, that was childish.
“I’m sure. Thank you.” As he dismissed me he knelt down by the body and started looking at it, leaving me to walk away.
I turned back half a dozen times, but he didn’t seem to be doing anything. Just staring. Waiting, perhaps. But then what for, me to leave? My stomach tied itself in knots and I looked at the dead woman’s face. I didn’t like leaving her here alone with him.
Rank left me with no option though. I dragged my heavy feet back to where I’d been standing, and was grateful to see that Matthews had wandered closer again.
“Sir?” I said as I came up behind him.
“What’s up?” he asked. Despite the coffee cup hanging empty in his fingers he looked rougher than he had earlier. Whoever the stranger with the body was, he sure could rile people up.
“Am I good to leave him alone, sir? Only protocol and all…”
Matthews snorted. “Ha, protocol. Some fancy arse from god-knows-where rocks up and suddenly we’re ignoring it. Yeah yeah, it’s fine, Andrews. He’s got special dispensation.”
Curiosity got the better of me. “How come?”
“Because of his impeccable completion rate. Solved more crimes than half of our department by all accounts, so the sun shines from him and we all have to bend over and worship. Damn it, if I knew we’d be standing around with our thumbs up our arses I’d have gone and gotten another coffee.”
I bit back all my opinions on what that would do for the twitch under his eye and watched as he walked away again. Curiosity was still burning inside me. ‘Impeccable completion rate’? What did that even mean? And if he worked alone, did that mean he had some secret technique for solving crimes?
I headed back to my post, but when I got there I checked over my shoulder. No one was watching, not that they had any reason to. All the detectives were huddled together, all complaining judging by the way they folded their arms or put their hands on their hips. They really were quite a melodramatic lot. The other uniforms about were scanning the area, sorting paperwork, checking maps, milling about, trying to look useful. There was no telling when a camera could appear.
I slipped past my spot and re-traced my steps back to the body. There couldn’t be some secret technique for solving crimes, so what exactly was that guy doing? I had to know, and I had to know that it wasn’t anything dodgy. Even with clearance from the boss, I’d brought the man out here and I’d left him here. He was my responsibility.
Between the crispy leaves and my full uniform it was hard to sneak, but I did the best I could until I got to a nearby tree. From there I could lean round and watch the guy work. It took me a few moments and lots of blinking before I registered what I was seeing.
The man was crouched on the ground where I’d left him, but he wasn’t looking at the woman. He was focused on the pair of squirrels sat across from him, on the other side of the corpse. Too add insult to injury, he was talking to them.
“So it wasn’t an attack here? This was just a body dump?”
My shoulders slumped. A great detective, wonderful record, and his secret technique was explaining things to animals? My brother would talk out programming problems to his dog, but this was just ridiculous. At least no one else saw my brother doing that, and at least he wasn’t doing it for a murder enquiry.
“Yeah. The man knew her, was crying the whole time.”
I froze at the other voice. There was no way…
“Did he say anything?” the detective asked.
“Yeah,” the squirrel – the squirrel! – replied. “Kept apologising, saying it was an accident. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’, that sort of thing.”
“And then what?”
“He took her shoes,” the other god damn squirrel said. “Then he ripped her shirt, rumpled her clothes and all. She was properly dressed before she got here. He did all that here.”
“Don’t think so. That all you need?”
“Yes, thank you. That’s most helpful.” The detective smiled and nodded at the squirrels before they turned and scurried away.
My eyes were dry from the non-blinking staring and I ran a hand across my face. There was no way I just saw that. Had Matthews infected me with his hangover?
The detective pulled out his notebook and jotted down some notes, before he looked up and round the clearing. I only just ducked back behind the tree in time.
“Is there anyone else?” he said, just loud enough to carry, but not enough to reach back to where the other officers were. Heaven forbid they see him talking to the animals.
On cue a mouse scurried up and perched on a branch sticking out of the leaves. “Yes,” it said.
“And what did you see?”
"See, not much. But they smelt the same, her and the one who brought her.”
“Exactly the same? Like, they lived together?”
“Thank you. Anything else?”
“No. Don’t see much I’m afraid.”
“No worries. Thank you for your help anyway.”
The mouse scurried away as the detective made more notes, and the last strand of my sanity snapped. I stormed out from my hiding space, oblivious to the fact I was marching through a crime scene.
"All right, what the hell is going on?” I said.
The detective jumped to his feet, guilty as though he’d killed the woman, before a carefully schooled expression took over. “I am investigating this murder, officer. You should be back at your post–”
“No! None of that! What the hell is happening? How the hell are the animals talking? And why the hell are you so calm about it?”
“Miss, I can assure you–” He cut off mid-sentence and stared at me, as though I was the weird one in this scenario. “Hang on, talking?”
“Don’t pull that crap with me, I saw you taking notes, you heard them–”
“But so did you. You heard the animals talking?”
“Yes! But how?”
He ignored the anguish in my voice and just kept staring. I was halfway through weighing up whether to just punch him (assaulting a superior, and how would I explain why?) when he broke into huge grin. I hadn’t realised how morose he’d looked before, and I blushed at the sheer childlike joy on his face.
“I’ve never met anyone else like this before,” he whispered. “Hey, prove it. Mouse! Come back.”
The mouse scurried up again, though it shuffled away when it saw me. “Yes?”
The detective spun to me and nodded. “Go on. Talk to it.”
“Um,” I said. Would this count as playing along, or was I loosing my mind as well? For the first time in my life, I wanted nothing more than to be on guard duty. “Hello… mouse?”
“Greetings,” the mouse said with a little bow. I shook my head. I wasn’t bowing to a mouse.
“Yes, fine, greetings. Are we done now?” I asked the detective. “Because I am currently talking to a mouse, and I would like some explanations.”
“One more thing,” he said. “Ask it about the weather.”
“Are you for real, right now?”
“Just do it.”
I rolled my eyes, but academy training was hard to kick. Someone says jump, you ask how high. Or ask after the weather. “How’s the weather?” I said to the mouse with a wild grin on my face.
“Fair,” the mouse replied. “The leaves are falling early this year, but the rain has stayed off for now.”
The detective took a step towards me and peered at my face. “What did he say?”
“You heard what it said–”
“No, you tell me. Repeat what the mouse said.”
Shaking my head at the stupidity of the statement I did as I was told. “The leaves are falling early, but the rain has stayed off for now. Is that it, are we done with this madness now?”
“You really did hear it.”
"Yes. I told you that.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I just had to make sure that you weren’t lying.”
All sense of decorum went out the window. “Look, mate, of all the things I’m going to lie about, ‘I can hear mice complain about the weather’ isn’t one of them.”
The detective ran a hand across his hair and smiled sheepishly. “Yeah. Guess not. I’m sorry, like I said, I’ve never met anyone else who can do this. I had to be sure.”
“But, you know, how? How are we hearing animals talk?”
“No idea. I’ve never found any explanation, or even a suggestion that it’s happened before.”
“Did I discover it? I used to do it as a kid, but then I figured it was just something wrong with my head. One day I got fed up at a crime scene, saw a squirrel and asked for help, and it led me right to wear the stolen goods had been stashed. Insurance fraud, and I proved it in about ten minutes. From there it just kind of grew.”
“So what, you’re Detective Inspector Dolittle?”
He laughed and looked even younger as years of secrets drifted away from him. “Something like that I guess.”
“What happened here then?”
He looked down at the body and the smile dropped. “Accidental death, deliberate dumping. She died in her home, I reckon, maybe a fight, maybe sheer unhappy chance. Her partner panicked, knew about all the murders out here, so came and dumped her here. Maybe he’s got a record or something. But I’ve got a registration number for the car, so we can go and check it out. By the sounds of it he’s feeling guilty, so it shouldn’t take long to push him to a confession.”
I had been nodding along, till I fixated on one word. “We?”
He looked back at me and blushed. “I thought so. I mean, I could use a hand working all these cases, and you can work the same way as me.”
“Hold on. You mean, become a detective?”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I mean…” In truth I hadn’t thought about it until then. My eyes fell to the corpse again. How many things had she been planning to do, or put off doing? I had to swallow the lump out my throat before I could answer though. “All right. I’m in. Assuming you can sort it with the boss.”
The detective grinned at me. “I have a lot of pull. I can figure something out.” He stuck his hand out, which I took. “Detective Inspector Christopher Griffiths.”
“Officer Iris Andrews.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Iris. Now, let’s go talk to a murderer, shall we?”