Random Acts of Unkindness is now published by Kindle Press! The people who nominated on Kindle Scout have already received their free copy and the reviews are coming in. For anyone who hasn’t got their copy yet, I’m posting the first chapter – if you enjoy it you can get it here
I look a little closer and instinctively back away.
Her eyes are hollow holes where the birds have pecked away at her skull and she’s covered in tiny soft feathers and greying bird shit. Fragments of silvered hair lie on her shoulders, pulled out at the roots and exposing pinprick follicles made bigger by beaks. Her mouth is set in a wry smile showing yellow teeth, as if somehow, despite the torn skin and the deeply painful twist of her body, she’s having the last laugh.
The shock is so deep that it hurts more than it should, and tears threaten as I gaze at her. A human life ending in such a terrible, lonely way. It hits me with sadness so intense that I take a moment to sit with her, to tell her broken shell of a body that someone cares. Then fear oozes through the sadness, pushing it under and reminding me of why I’m here. Where are you, Aiden? Where is my son?
I slump onto a brown box sealed with Sellotape that’s sitting next to a small blue suitcase. It looks like this old woman was going somewhere. Somewhere she never got to.
Bessy Swain, by the looks of post on the doormat. A couple of bills and some takeaway menus. A letter from social services that arrived too late to make any difference.
As well as the boxes there are piles of newspapers and scrapbooks stacked up against ancient peeling sepia wallpaper. From the state of the house this woman has been suffering for a while. Poor Bessy.
Outside, starlings perch on the windowsill, quietly watching, judging me as I put off the inevitable phone call. Through the open kitchen door I can see a couple of blackbirds standing on the shed roof, and I can hear their song of accusation. I know I need to call this in and get Bessy some dignity, but I also need to finish what I came here to do.
The day job kicks in and I pull my scarf around my nose and mouth to protect my senses from the rancid fumes I hadn’t even noticed until now. My phone starts to ring, forcing me into the here and now.
I look at Bessy’s body and then at the flashing screen. Shit. It’s Mike. My partner in crime. Crime solving, that is. Like me, he’s a Detective Sergeant working on Special Operations.
‘Jan. Where the hell are you?’
I pause. How am I going to explain this? I take a big breath and then pull down my scarf.
‘Right, yeah. I was just . . .’
‘Looking for Aiden. Come on, you’re going to get us both sacked. You’re supposed to be in Lytham Road, attending the Operation Prophesy briefing.’
On the worn kitchen worktop that separates the lounge from the kitchen a dead starling stares at me, its dried eyes condemning me from the pits of death.
A small metal toaster holds the remains of two slices of bread, which have been pecked right down to the toaster elements. The dead bird is lying close to the toaster, its feathers puffed from electrocution.
How many birds are there in here?
In my hurry to get inside I hadn’t registered anything apart from needing to know if Aiden was here. But now, sitting here with my mobile hot against my cheek, I realise I am sitting in a house covered in bird feathers and faeces.
The back door slams shut in a gust of wind. A few stray starlings are flying about in the kitchen, but most of the birds are now outside, my entrance breaking open their jail. What I can’t understand is why the windowsills are covered in them, their wings and curled up feet scratching at the dirty glass.
Then I realise they want to get back in.
‘Jan? Jan? Are you there?’
I nod at my mobile phone.
‘Yep. Look, I’ll just finish off here. I got a tip off about there being a funny smell coming from a house and I thought . . .’
Mike sighs deeply.
‘I know exactly what you thought. But this has to stop. Or you have to do it in your own time. It’s not just your own life you’re fucking up here. I’m your partner and I’ll back you up, but there’s a line. There’s a fucking line. Where are you anyway?’
The secure safety net I have in Mike has started to fracture recently and it shatters a little more now with the pain in his voice. I desperately want to put it right, but I can’t. Not yet. I have to deal with this.
‘57 Ney Street, Ashton.’
‘Connelly’s rented houses, aren’t they? I’m telling you, you’re heading for trouble.’
I end the call there. He’s right. I’m heading for trouble. But put any parent in my position and try telling me they’d do differently. I have a good reason. Mike knows that, but he also knows that everyone else’s lives are moving on and he’s trying to drag me on with him.
I push the phone into my bag and I pull my scarf back up against the smell. It’s invaded my hair, clothes and skin, but the action gives me a bit of comfort and control.
There’s a sudden noise from upstairs and my heart skips. The memory of Aiden calls me back and overpowers the sensible part of my brain urgently screaming that maybe poor Bessy wasn’t alone after all. Maybe someone killed her. Maybe I shouldn’t be here on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I tread the worn stair carpet and creep up, nudging open the first door on the right. It’s a boy’s bedroom, all red and white, Manchester United. So she has children. Or grandchildren? But no one is in here now.
Slowly I move on to the next door and there’s a flash of feathers. Two starlings fly past and circle the landing. Another flies at me as I step inside, hitting the side of my head. It’s a dull thud on the temple that causes a slight flash, then turns into a sickening stinging sensation. The shock bursts the tears that have been waiting to be shed since I found Bessy and not Aiden. I slump on an old double bed and touch my forehead, feeling for the dampness of blood, but luckily there is none. I shift my weight onto a pretty pink quilt and pillows for respite.
Suddenly, sitting alone in the empty house, I feel so very small and wish someone would tell me what to do next. Tell me how to find my son.
The thought that he could be captive, suffering, or dead suffocates me, and I feel my body begin to panic. Large hands squeezing my lungs. And then there’s another bird flapping, this time in a large wooden wardrobe. Sounds loosen the squeeze and I can breathe again. I need to finish this.
I open the double wardrobe door and duck out of the way this time as the bird escapes onto the landing, joining the others.
‘How did you get in there, little guy?’
They fly round and round, looking for a way out, some kind of escape, and I know how that feels. This release calms me somehow and I take an enormous breath and find raw comfort from the material of my scarf as it sucks into the crevices of my mouth.
There’s a chest lodged at the bottom of the wardrobe, like a forgotten treasure. It’s against regulations, it’s against everything I thought I stood for, but I open it anyway. I need to find out more about Bessy.
Inside, there’s another box and some papers, on top of a rolled-up baby shawl. Pink. She must have a son and a daughter.
I’m not sure what I’m searching for. A way to avoid it happening to me? What not to do. How to not die alone.
I open the inner box and there are bundles of twenty-pound notes. My fingers trace the smooth paper and lines of thick rubber bands. It isn’t often you see money like this, all rolled up and waiting for something important. My thoughts switch back to Aiden.
I remember his dark hair and angry teenage skin. I remember that I will do anything to get him home. And somehow, at this moment, the realisation of something happening to my son makes me stoop down and contemplate the unknown territory of stealing.
I’ve worked in the police force for almost two decades; I know how criminal minds work. I know that whoever has Aiden could come knocking any second, minute, hour, day now demanding money. I’m surprised they haven’t already. Time I have, but money I don’t and, as I realise the weight of a potential ransom, an intense panic prickles in my fingers. Before I can refuse this primal urge, I push the notes into my deep shoulder bag, along with the papers.
I know it’s wrong, of course; even as I’m doing it I sense my own desperation. I’m a member of the police force. I’m the most honest person I know, committed to catching the scum who do this sort of thing. Yet I can’t help myself. This is different. This is for Aiden. This could be the only way I will ever see my son again.
I’ve been involved in missing person cases before and I’ve looked at the mother, desperate and determined, and wondered how far you would go to find your child. Now I know. All the way Aiden, I’ll go all the way to find you, son.
I unravel the pink shawl, hoping I will, for a moment, lose myself inside someone else’s memories or pain instead of my own. No such luck. My hand touches fragile bone, and a tiny skeletal hand falls into mine.
I almost scream, but aren’t I Detective Sergeant Janet Pearce, Surveillance Specialist? Aren’t I hard? Tough? Impenetrable? I close the lid with shaking fingers and replace the box, hurrying now, fighting back tears. This is all wrong. It’s all too much and I rush downstairs.
My phone rings just as I’m standing in front of poor Bessy. Mike. Again.
‘Jan? Have you left there yet? You need to be here. We’re starting the briefing in half an hour and if you don’t make this one . . .’
The bag is heavy on my shoulder and pinching at the skin under my cotton T-shirt. I need to get it to my car before I ring this in, but now I have no choice. If I don’t say anything to Mike someone will suspect further down the line. I check my watch. I’ve been here ten minutes.
‘OK. I’ll be there. But I need to ring in a suspicious death.’
There’s a silence for a moment. I can hear him breathing. Mike knows what I’m going through. He gets it. He’s probably my best friend in the whole world right now. He speaks again.
‘Not . . . ?’
‘No. An old woman. Looks like natural causes, but a bit gruesome. Anyway. That’s what I found when I got here. I’ll wait until someone arrives, then I’ll be right with you.’
I sound composed, professional, but I’m still shaking. I hang up. He’ll be pleased, because I’ve got a legitimate excuse to miss the briefing. I hurry through the kitchen, out the door, and through the yard. The birds scatter then regroup on the telephone wires above.
My car’s in the back alleyway. I take the money and push it under the front seat. I push the letters into the elasticated pocket on the side of the door and pull my bag back onto my shoulder. Oh my God. What am I doing? I know this is so fucking wrong and I try to tell myself again that it’s necessary. But away from the drama of the house sense creeps in. If there was going to be a ransom from Connelly wouldn’t it have come weeks ago?
No. I can’t do it. I can’t. I pull out the money and push it back into my bag and hurry back to the house. What was I thinking? This isn’t me. The birds just sit there, their heads turning as they watch me rushing around. I try to shoo them away, because they are witnesses to my uncharacteristic misdemeanour, but they won’t go.
I move past Bessy, running now, and toward the narrow stairs, silently apologising for disturbing her secret.
But it’s too late. I see a blue flashing light against the darkness of the room and hear the back door open. Two uniformed police officers appear and someone is banging on the door.
Hugging my bag and shame to my chest, I fumble with the lock and open it. DS Jack Newsome, one of my opposite numbers in the regional police, pushes past me, followed by two uniformed officers.
‘Jesus Christ. That’s awful. How long’s it been here?’
I don’t like Jack. He hasn’t got a compassionate bone in his body. I find myself moving protectively between him and Bessy.
‘She, Jack, she. This is a person. A woman. She deserves a little respect.’
The word sticks on my tongue, heavy with mockery. Respectful, unlike me, who has just stolen her life savings. I’ve never felt guilt like this before, and I wonder how people can live with it. He smirks.
‘Right, Jan. She. How long has she been here?’
I see Bessy with fresh eyes. As Jack does, as any policeman would. Her faded dress is sagging in odd shapes against the decomposition of her body, and brown lace-up shoes sit the wrong way round, her ankles ballooning awkwardly in the crossed position they must have rested in as she died.
‘I don’t know, Jack. But I arrived fifteen minutes ago. Had a tip off about a bad smell and was just passing.’
He’s nodding and grinning. Yet underneath I can see his annoyance as he sighs and wipes his hand through his dark hair, then wipes tiny beads of perspiration away from his forehead. And, of course, the giveaway twitch at the corner of his eye that always tells me when Jack thinks he’s onto something.
‘Just passing, were you? A little bit out of town, isn’t it? Away from your usual place of work? So who was the tip off from?’
I smile now and wonder if it covers up my devastation.
‘Member of the public. In a public place. Just on my way to Ashton Market buying some bacon for the weekend when I heard two women talking about this property and the smell. Simple as that.’
He’s shaking his head.
‘OK, Jan, if that’s how you want it. I suppose all’s well that ends well.’
We look at Bessy. She’s someone’s mother. Like me.
‘Not for her, though. Which is why we’re here, not to find out the ins and outs of my shopping habits. No?’
Jack turns away now. He’s looking toward the kitchen. As he approaches the door, I hear a flutter of wings and beaks tapping on glass.
‘What the bloody hell? Get those birds out of here. And search the house. Get forensics down here, and we need a coroner’s wagon for the old bird here. Cover her up, John. She’s giving me the creeps.’
So the police machine swings into action. I stand there for a moment, wondering if there is a way for me to put the money back, but the two uniformed officers are upstairs now, battling with angry starlings.
I don’t mention that they will need two coroner’s vehicles, one for poor Bessy and one for the tiny baby. God only knows why she’s got a dead baby in her wardrobe. That poor woman must have had a terrible life if the state of this place is anything to go by. Without a word I leave by the front door and walk around to the back alley.
The houses are well maintained and I feel a little easier now the neighbours are out and I have a reason for being here. I get in my car and, with the bag still over my shoulder, drive off. In my rearview mirror the birds still watch, their heads cocking.
Two streets away, I pull up outside an old peoples’ home. I know this is a safe spot away from CCTV. My phone hasn’t even got a signal here. I’m a surveillance expert, latterly of the Communications Department, more lately promoted to DS in Special Operations. It’s my job to know these things.
Even so, guilt overwhelms me, and I remember when I first became a police detective; so full of goodwill and always on the side of the person who had been harmed. I spent hours poring over mind maps and evidence boards, midnight sessions in the operation room and endless visits to witnesses.
Sometimes when I lie awake at night thinking about Aiden, I wonder if I would have shuffled events in a different way this wouldn’t have happened. That always leads to me swearing that from now on I’ll do the right thing, be good, anything, as long as I get him back. Holding myself bolt upright, smiling, being polite, saying thank you; are they all little combinations to finding out what has happened?
In the clarity of daylight it all seems different. No hippy thinking will get me through the day. Action is needed. And, after all, in this game it’s almost impossible to be good all the time. The deeper you get into something, the more complex the relationships, the situations. Everyone’s got something on someone, and they’re going to use it at some point. Until now I’d kept my fingers out of the till, been good as gold. But this is different. This is personal.
I count the money. There’s forty-four thousand pounds. Jesus. I automatically scan the horizon for the signs I know are there, at the root of my suspicions of where my son is. Connelly. I see the scarves and shoes hanging from the telephone wires, silent messages in an unspoken world and my heart turns back to stone.
I push the money under the seat, still distraught that I took it, more distraught that I couldn’t put it back, and seeing no way to return it now. I decide that, in return for it, I’ll do what I can to see Bessy Swain’s case resolved. I’ll do what I can to find out why she had to hide a baby. Someone owes her that, at least.