The interview room was cold and dark. No; not actually dark, not with all the bright lights overhead, it just felt… like the wrong sort of light. No windows, Alice thought, no natural light. She’d never realised how much of a difference that could make until now, but then she couldn’t remember the last time she’d spent so long sat in a windowless room.
The door buzzed as someone outside scanned their security pass, and Detective Inspector Hall came in, clutching two take-away coffees.
“Here we are,” he said. “One coffee, with milk and two sugars.” He spoke softly, with a voice like caramel that matched the warm smile he gave her as he set the drinks on the table. Combined with the cold formality of the room it was enough to fluster Alice.
“T-thanks.” Her hand was shaking as she reached for the drink, and she blushed. The last thing she wanted was to look a fool in front of this charming young man.
“Let me know if you need anything else, okay. Now… are you ready to go over this yet?”
Alice had been taking a sip of coffee, and spluttered as she burnt her tongue and scrambled to answer. “Yes. Ugh, sorry, yes, of course.” Trying to keep some of her dignity Alice wiped her mouth and pulled her cardigan down. “Yes, of course. Where… where should I start?”
Hall leant his elbows on the table and started fiddling with his pen. The paper in front of him was completely blank. “Start from the top, Ms Freeman. You told the officers downstairs that you’ve seen a murder.”
“When was this?”
“The night before last. Thursday night, that is.”
“And why are you only reporting this now? Why didn’t you come in yesterday?”
“I was expecting you to turn up. When the investigation started.”
“All right. Thank you for coming in at all. And where was this?”
“Outside my house. Just, just on the street–” A half-hiccup, half-gulp escaped, and Alice fanned her face to fight down the tears. "Sorry. It’s just… it was so close.”
“That’s okay, Ms Freeman. Just take your time, and tell me everything you can remember.”
“Please, call me Alice. Not even bank managers call you ‘Ms’ these days.”
“All right then, Alice. Work at your own pace, and just say things as you think of them. This isn’t an exam or anything, you don’t need to be nervous.”
“No, of course. Okay. It was… well, I don’t really know what time it was. Some time in the early morning, I know that. I don’t sleep through the night much, comes of drinking a cup of tea before I go to bed, so I’m up most nights to… you know.” Alice blushed at the merest suggestion of bodily functions around the charming young man, but he just smiled and nodded. “I was on my way back from the bathroom when I heard a noise outside, so I went into my spare room to have a look. It’s not a big spare room, you understand, just a little box thing, barely big enough for a bed–”
“No one is going to judge you or criticise your lifestyle, Alice. We’re only interested in criminals here.”
“Ah, right. Yes. So… where was I? Oh yes, I heard a noise. So I went into the guest room, and if I lean on the bed I can see out the window. It looks down most of the street, but it’s also got a clear view of most of my front garden. I say front garden, it’s little more than a strip of grass. I tried to plant some flowers in it, but the drunks just kept picking them.”
“There’s a lot of footfall on your street then?”
“What? Oh, yes. A couple of pubs at one end, and all the bus routes at the other. The council thought everyone would stick to the main roads, but the council obviously haven't met drunk people.”
“That’s good to know,” Hall said, though he still didn’t write anything down. “Did you see what had made the noise?”
“Yes. It was a man – well, a boy really. He can’t have been much older than eighteen. One of those flash young people, gelled hair, fitted shirts even on nights out, jeans that look like they belong on women, that sort of look. He was… well, he was relieving himself over my garden wall.”
“Oohh. Classy.” It was the first bit of personality that Alice had seen from Hall that wasn’t motherly, and she chuckled and blushed some more. In her lap her fingers tied knots round each other.
“Quite. Not a sight you want to see at any time, and I’m rather afraid that it woke me up completely.”
“Did you do anything? Call down to him, or anything?”
“Oh, gosh, no. It was far too late an hour to go shouting in the street, not that there’s any call for that at any time, in my opinion. Besides, he was swaying and singing to himself. The poor boy had clearly had too much to drink, and there’s no reasoning with someone when they’re in that state. My father, God rest his soul, liked a drink or two on occasion, and my mother would drive herself hoarse trying to get sense out of him.”
“Fair enough. Did you have a camera, on your phone perhaps, to try and take a picture of him? Report him to the police the next day?”
Alice winced at that suggestion. “Take a picture of him while he was… you know? Oh, never. He was young, all young people make mistakes.”
“You’re a very understanding neighbour, Alice.”
“Well, you know. A little understanding goes a long way.”
“Okay then. So, early on Thursday night, so actually Friday morning I suppose, you woke up and found a young, drunk man urinating in your garden. What happened next?” Still no notes, and Alice shuffled in her seat some more.
“He was just… finishing when someone else came down the street. I didn’t think anything of it at first, and I was about to go back to bed when I saw the pair of them start talking. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it got serious quite quickly. They were really close, like aggressive, talking right into each others faces. Then they started squaring off, and there was a little bit of shoving before the new guy…”
“What happened, Alice?”
“The new man grabbed the young one, and he slammed him into my garden wall. He just went thunk.” Alice acted out the action, her hands clutching an invisible melon and slamming it on the edge of the table. Even as they were moving though her hands shook, and she quickly pulled them back into the ends of her sleeves, horrified at the motion.
“The young man went still. He just.. dropped, to the pavement.” Alice started sniffling, and she ferreted about in her sleeve for a mangled tissue. Detective Inspector Hall leant across the table and pushed her coffee towards her, waiting until she’d had a deep sip before he spoke.
“Did you see what happened after that, Alice?”
Alice nodded straight away, but it took a while to get her words out. “The older man poked the young one a few times, but he didn’t move. Then the older went and got a car, and he loaded up the young one into the boot and drove off. No, wait, he wiped down the wall first. I… I didn’t see what he wiped off, but…”
“That’s okay Alice, it was dark. Did you get the registration plate of the car?”
“No. The tail-lights were too bright. I think there was a V in it, somewhere?”
“Is there anything else you can tell us about the car? Model, make, what style of car, colour, anything at all.”
“It was grey, or maybe silver. White at a push. I’m sorry, in the yellow street-lights everything looks the same. And it was an estate car, one of those with a separate boot bit. And I think it had a round logo, but I couldn’t make out which brand it was.”
“A round logo is a good start, thank you. Can you tell me anything about the second man, the attacker?”
“He was tall, and quite broad. Not as well dressed as the first one, and he didn’t have a coat despite the season. A close-shaved head, yes, because I remember thinking that he must have cold ears. That was before he.. you know. I wasn’t thinking of much afterwards.”
“That’s understandable. And do you know anything else about the young man, the first one?”
“He’s a regular I think. I see him go past quite often. It’s that style, he always looks so well turned out, if a little effeminate. They say it’s the fashion these days, but I don’t get it myself.”
“Each to their own tastes, I guess. I don’t suppose you know his name at all? Ever hear someone talking to him in the street? Or see him with anyone else at all?”
“I think he’s come down the road with a couple of women on occasion, but these days that doesn’t mean much does it? They probably knew as much about him as I do.” Alice looked at the empty notepad in front of Hall, and leant forward. “Please. Please, I know you think I’m just some crazy old lady. But that boy died. I know it, I can feel it, please you have to find him, to help him.”
At last Hall stopped playing with the pen, but instead of writing he put it down and leant over as well. He went to reach for Alice’s hands, before realising she had them clutched under the table. “It’s okay, Ms Freeman. We’ll make a note of everything that you’ve told us, but…”
“But what? You have to do something, it’s your job!”
“Ms Freeman, we’ve already been to your street. Our officers have checked the area, and the wall outside your house. There aren’t any signs of a fight, no signs of blood, nothing. And we’ve asked in the area and no one has reported any missing people that match your description. At the moment we don’t have anything to investigate.”
“But… I saw it! Are you saying I’m crazy?”
“Not at all, Alice. We will keep your account on record, but at the moment there isn’t a crime to solve. We can’t find a murderer if there hasn’t been a murder.”
“I know this has been a trying time for you. Do you have any friends or family that you could stay with for a while? Somewhere outside of your house?”
“Y-yes. My sister, Ruth. She lives on the other side of town.”
“Would you be able to go and stay with her for a few days? Just to take your mind off it. We’ll keep asking round and looking, and we’ll contact you if we find anything.”
“Y-yes. I suppose. But, please, it really did happen–”
“No one is doubting you Alice.” The blank notepad in front of him told a different story. “Now, would you like a lift home with an officer?”
“No. No, thank you. I don’t want to bother anyone. I can get the bus home, it’s fine.”
On her way out the room, remains of the coffee clutched tight in both hands, Alice Freeman heard the sweet Detective Inspector Hall talking to his colleagues.
“Daft old bat. Probably dreamt the whole thing up. Halfway between a repressed wet dream and social justice if you ask me. Forget the whole thing, we didn’t find anything outside her house.”
Keeping her head down Alice made her way out of the police station. She stepped aside for everyone else, and apologised when people rammed into her. By the time she’d made it out the remains of the coffee had gone cold, but she drank it anyway. Waste not, want not. She kept her head down all the way to the bus stop, keeping her coat held tight about her to ward off the worst of the November chill.
It was only when she was on the bus, and the police station was streets away, that she dared the tiny smile that had been waiting. No evidence? It was good to know that the bleach had worked, and the fact it had rained for all of Friday couldn’t have hurt either. No one reported missing? Just as she’d suspected, the brat was some low life who didn’t have anyone who cared for him. Why would anyone care for someone with so little respect? Drunks were all the same, and he'd been a nuisance for months.
As the bus trundled on she settled into her seat and straightened out the sleeves of her cardigan. A few days with Ruth sounded like a nice idea, and the police would let her know if they found the body. The cricket bat she’d used to drop him was long gone, but if they went by her account they wouldn’t be looking for a weapon any way. Between that and the imaginary car, it should buy her some leeway at the very least. Enough time to get the flowerbed planted up again.