Police Officer Morgan Brookes was driving around aimlessly, trying to get to know the vast rural area that she was responsible for until the end of her shift. Lifting her wrist, she looked at her watch: only another seven hours to go. She loved it here, was grateful she got to work in such a beautiful part of the Lake District. But God it was boring being on your own. She much preferred it when she was in company with another officer. Her colleague, Dan, had been her tutor since leaving her training at headquarters. They had spent hours in each other’s company and become friends; despite his terrible jokes and sometimes blasé attitude, she missed his company.
A burst of static as the radio came to life made her jump.
‘5129 we have an IR at Lake View on Easdale Road, Grasmere. A suspected suicide. There’s a female hanging from a tree.’
Morgan felt a surge of blood rush through her veins, as the adrenalin kicked in. She hadn’t attended a suicide on her own before, but she had been to several when she was completing her training and in company with a more experienced officer. She was ready for this.
‘On my way. I’m single crewed though. Are ambulance travelling?’
‘Yes, we’ll get another patrol travelling as well. You’re the nearest.’
She was glad to hear backup was coming, as she put on her blues and turned the van around, speeding through the lanes to get back to the road she hadn’t long left. Morgan knew where Easdale Road was; she’d driven along it already today. Unsure which house was Lake View, she hoped it would have one of those fancy slate plaques outside the gates, which most of the wealthier houses in the Lakes had. She slowed the van so she could read each one. It was a nightmare; she couldn’t see any house numbers and was relying on a name plate. Passing a cluster of houses without spotting the name or the female figure control had mentioned, she radioed back.
‘Do you have me on ARL?’
‘Yes, we do. According to this map you’re about half a minute away, keep driving, it’s the next house on your right.’
Putting her foot down, Morgan sped up until she found the sign for Lake View and turned into the long driveway. The van rattled as she drove too fast along the narrow drive. Just ahead, in front of the large house, she could see the body dangling from a tree and her stomach did a complete flip. A teenage boy was standing underneath, trying to hold the feet up with his shoulders and her heart felt for him. What an awful thing to find. A phone was clamped to his ear, and the look of relief on his face as she jumped out and ran towards him seared into her mind.
‘Please help me, are you on your own?’
‘Help is coming. They’ll be here any minute. Who are you?’
One look at the woman hanging from the tree told Morgan that it didn’t matter how long the other patrol took; there was nothing they could do for her. Her glazed eyes were staring blankly into the sunset; her small frame looked lost hanging from the branch of the large oak tree. There was a gentle breeze blowing her shoulder-length blonde hair across her face as her body swayed in the breeze. On the branch next to her was a worn child’s rope swing and Morgan wondered if she had young children. It was desperately sad; she looked too young and beautiful to be dead.
‘Harrison, you’re doing a great job. Do you know where there are any ladders?’
‘I’ll take over, you go get them. We’ll need them to cut her down.’
She grabbed hold of the woman’s legs and the boy ran towards an outbuilding. He came back moments later carrying a stepladder, his face red and eyes brimming with tears.
‘Is this your mum?’
He shook his head. ‘No, it’s my girlfriend’s mum. Oh God, why has she done this? Is she alive?’
Morgan couldn’t be the one to call it even though she knew the woman was dead; she needed a paramedic to confirm it, and she didn’t want him to think she wasn’t trying to help despite the hopelessness of the situation.
‘Harrison, I’m Morgan. I don’t think she is, but the paramedics will be able to tell us for sure.’
The sound of an approaching siren filled the air and Morgan had never been so glad to see her colleague, Dan Hunt, in her life as he parked the van, leaving the flashing lights on, and ran towards her.
He took one look at the woman and shook his head, confirming what she already suspected.
Harrison had put the stepladder out. Dan climbed up it and pressed his fingers to the side of the woman’s neck.
‘There’s no pulse. How long ago did you find her?’
Harrison shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It seems like hours ago, but probably ten minutes.’
Dan pulled a Swiss Army knife from his cargo trouser pocket and began to saw at the rope above the knot.
‘Morgan, she’s going to be a dead weight when she drops, can you both catch her?’
She looked at the boy. His complexion had lost all colour and his eyes were streaming tears now, but he nodded. They managed to catch hold of her. Dan grabbed her underneath her shoulders as the rope gave way and Morgan and Harrison took the weight of her legs and laid her gently onto the ground.
Harrison let out a loud sob. She put her arm around him, leading him to the van as the paramedics arrived in a first response vehicle and the scene became a flurry of activity. She heard Dan request a sergeant and being told the duty detective sergeant was already en route to attend the scene. Helping Harrison into the back of the van, where the windows were tinted, she sat him facing away from the direction of the tragic scene, where she could see the paramedic shaking her head at Dan. Morgan’s heart felt heavy; this was terrible. Any sudden death was awful, but for this boy to be the one to find this woman was so unfair.
‘Harrison you’ve been very brave. Can you tell me what that lady is called?’
He nodded. ‘Olivia Potter.’
‘How old was she?’
He was sitting with his head buried into his arms, which were balanced on his long legs, and shrugged.
‘Not sure. Forties?’
‘Is your girlfriend home?’
‘No, I don’t think so. The car isn’t here. I didn’t think anyone was home when I got here. I had a heart attack when I turned and saw Olivia like that. I didn’t notice her when I arrived, I was checking my phone to see if Bronte had messaged back. Why, why would she do that? It’s not right, is it? She was always so happy and chilled, not the kind of person who would do anything like that.’
He looked up at her, the tears were flowing freely again, and Morgan reached out to take hold of his hand.
‘I’m so sorry, Harrison, that must have been a terrible shock for you. But I can’t say. I don’t know why she would want to do that.’
He nodded. ‘Oh God, poor Bronte is going to be broken. She is really close to her mum.’
‘Who else lives here?’
‘Saul, Bronte’s dad. Bronte, and her younger sister, Beatrix.’
‘Do you have a number for Saul?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve got Bronte’s.’
Morgan smiled. ‘How old is Bronte?’
‘Sixteen. She’s not speaking to me because I liked Sophie Wood’s Snapchat. That’s why I came here to tell her it was only a like, it doesn’t mean I want to run away with her and get married. She gets very jealous.’
Morgan nodded. ‘Ah, teenage girls. It’s a tough time being a teenager, isn’t it. How old are you, Harrison?’
‘Almost eighteen. What should I do? Do I message Bronte and tell her what’s happened?’
‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I need to speak to Saul first; maybe you could find out where they are for me. Tell them you need them to come home, that there’s been an emergency.’
‘I can try; I don’t really want to be the one to tell her. How do you tell someone their mum hanged herself from the rope swing?’
‘That’s our job, we’ll take care of that. I just need you to try and get them to come back here, please.’
Another car pulled up and she recognised Detective Sergeant Ben Matthews from CID as he emerged.
‘You stay here, I’ll be back soon.’
Morgan crossed towards the DS, eager to introduce herself. She knew who he was but doubted he’d have a clue about her. She was probably just another name and number to him. As she got closer she heard him ask: ‘Who was first on scene?’
‘I was, Sarge.’
He turned to look at her and she felt her stomach tighten. She’d heard rumours that he was a miserable sod most of the time and didn’t take too kindly to younger officers who were fresh out of training.
To her surprise, though, he smiled, completely disarming her.
‘5129 Morgan Brookes.’
‘Well, Morgan, talk me through what happened when you arrived, and tell me you didn’t drop your lunch over there.’
He was pointing to a trampled KFC bag.
She shook her head.
‘Not mine, sir, it must belong to the caller, Harrison Wright. When I got here, he was standing underneath the woman who was hanging from that branch.’
She pointed to where the frayed piece of rope was still swaying in the breeze.
‘She was clearly dead, but we tried our best to hold her up and take away some of the pressure from her neck.’
‘How did you know she was deceased, Morgan? Are you also a paramedic in your spare time?’
Morgan felt a burning sensation rush from her throat up to her forehead and knew she was probably the same colour as a cherry tomato.
‘I, she looked dead. Her eyes were fixed; she didn’t look as if she was breathing.’
Morgan could see Dan, who was standing behind the DS, grinning at her discomfort. He was such an idiot at times.
‘How long have you been out on independent control?’
‘This is my first shift on my own.’
‘And how many sudden deaths have you attended?’
‘Four: two suicides, one accident and a heart attack.’
‘But this is the first on your own, yeah?’
Morgan wanted the ground to swallow her up. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Why was he giving her a hard time?
He smiled again.
‘It takes some getting used to, but you will. Look, all I’m trying to get at is we don’t call death unless it’s pretty obvious, like a body is missing a head or the person’s brains are splattered all over the inside of a car. I’ve turned up to scenes where a body has smelt as if it’s been decomposing for a week and then they’ve moved and still been breathing. Just, don’t presume, okay? At least not until you’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have.’
She nodded, feeling embarrassed at his lecture, but determined not to let him see.
‘Yes, Sarge, the woman is Olivia Potter. She has a husband, Saul, and two daughters, Bronte and Beatrix. The family car isn’t here, and Harrison said there’s no one home. He’s sent Bronte a message asking her to tell her dad to come home.’
‘Call me Ben, you can drop the whole Sarge thing. It’s far too official for my liking.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Bronte and Beatrix Potter; I guess Olivia liked reading.’
‘Have you checked the house?’
‘Not yet, I’ll do that now.’
‘What are your first impressions of the scene?’
‘Is this a trick question? Am I supposed to answer or is it an excuse for you to tell me off again?’
Ben laughed out loud, then obviously realising how inappropriate it was he lifted his hand and pretended to cough.
‘No, it’s not a trick question.’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know, she lives in this gorgeous house with her family, and Harrison described her as “happy and chilled”. Not the kind of woman you’d expect to do this kind of thing. Not many women kill themselves by hanging, do they?’
‘Not often, but some do. We need to locate her family and find out what her state of mind was before we make any judgement. It looks like a straightforward suicide to me.’
Morgan nodded and began to walk towards the house. She paused then turned to face Ben.
‘How did she get up high enough to do it? There was no stepladder. Harrison ran and got that out of the shed.’
Ben shrugged. ‘Maybe she was an excellent climber or used the rope swing. That tree doesn’t look too difficult to get up to that branch. But I’ll bear it in mind.’
Morgan left him and carried on walking up to the large detached house. It looked as if it had been recently painted the walls were so white, and the dusky pink front door made it stand out. Morgan loved it. It was modern yet quirky. There were pots of scented lavender and roses either side of the door and she inhaled the heady smell. It was such a perfect place to be able to call home. She tried the front door: it was secure. Then she walked the perimeter of the building checking the windows and other doors. All of them were shut tight and locked; there was no sign of life inside.
At the back door, Morgan turned and took in the view. She could hear a small creek at the end of the garden as it babbled along. The burning sun was setting against the backdrop of the Lakeland fells, giving out the last of its warmth. Olivia Potter lived in a beautiful place; she wondered what had happened to make her do such a terrible thing.
The bright flash from the CSI camera illuminated the darkened garden. The temperature had dropped along with the last of the sunlight and there was a chill in the air. Morgan couldn’t take her gaze away from Olivia Potter; even in death she looked beautiful. Despite trying for the last hour Harrison hadn’t been able to make contact with Bronte. Ben had asked for a PNC check of all vehicles listed for the address and it had come back with two: a brand new Jaguar F-Pace, in white, and a slightly older Mercedes C-Class. The Mercedes was parked in the garage, its engine cold, but there was no sign of the Jag. An ANPR marker had been placed on the vehicle to find out where it was last seen. It was strange that they couldn’t find anyone to notify about Olivia, but it happened. For all they knew Saul could be on his way to visit family or take the girls somewhere and not even realise something was wrong. Morgan wondered if this was possible, that after being married for a long time like these two had been, for Saul not to have felt something at the moment of his wife’s death? Harrison had said he was sure there had been no plans for the family to go away though. She couldn’t stop the uneasy churning in her stomach that something wasn’t right; she wished she knew what.
‘Have you got a whammer?’
Ben’s voice brought Morgan back to earth. She shook her head.
‘Dan might, I’ll go ask. Why?’
‘There were no house keys in Olivia’s pockets. I want to make sure everything is in order inside the house and see if we can find details of other family members. We need to find a next of kin for Olivia.’
She walked over to where Dan was sitting in the van with Harrison.
‘Any luck getting hold of Bronte?’
He shook his head. ‘She must be really pissed with me; her phone is going straight to voicemail now.’
‘Is that usual, does she normally not answer?’
He shrugged. ‘Yeah, well she ignores me when she’s angry. She doesn’t usually turn her phone off though, she’s too addicted to Instagram. I’m getting a bit worried about her.’
Morgan didn’t like it. Something was niggling away at her. Most people couldn’t live without their phones, especially not teenagers. Why would Bronte not answer or turn her phone off? Perhaps it had run out of battery.
‘Dan have you got a whammer in your van?’
Dan nodded. ‘I’ll go get it.’
Harrison stared after him and asked. ‘What’s a whammer?’
‘A metal battering ram; we use it to put the door in when we need to gain entry to a property. Do you know if anyone might have a key? Have you got one?’
He shook his head. ‘No, but Bronte sometimes left hers under a garden gnome for me so I could let myself in. Should I go and look?’
‘Yes please, that would be great.’
She didn’t ask him why he hadn’t told them this earlier, putting it down to shock. Dan came over carrying the heavy metal bar.
‘We might have a key.’
He rolled his eyes and let it drop onto the gravel drive with a loud thud.
Harrison came back holding a silver key in his fingers. He gave it to Morgan.
‘Should I come inside with you?’
‘No, you wait here. As soon as we’ve checked the house, I’ll drive you home.’
‘It’s okay, I’m in my car.’
‘You’ve had a shock, it might be better for one of us to drive you.’
‘I need my car for work. I can’t get to Kendal if I leave it here and I can’t afford not to go in tomorrow. My supervisor is a right arsehole and I’m on my final warning.’
‘I’ll ask the boss and let you know.’ Morgan pointed to the DS, who was chatting to Wendy, the CSI. She took the key over to Ben.
‘Sarge, we have a key.’
‘Great, you and Dan go and do a quick search. I doubt anyone’s home; I’m pretty sure they’d have noticed us lot out here before now. But try and find anything with details for a family member we can contact. Undertakers should be here any minute to transport the body to Royal Lancaster Infirmary mortuary. Do you want to go with it and get it booked in?’
Morgan nodded, feeling sad that the woman who had been a living, breathing soul a couple of hours ago had now been reduced to an ‘it’. She knew Ben wasn’t being rude or impersonal; it was just the way it was. To him this was just another suicide, another body. He’d been doing it long enough that it didn’t affect him; she hoped that the job would never become so matter-of-fact for her.
‘Oh, I said someone might drive Harrison home.’
She turned and walked towards the house, Dan following behind.
Opening the door, she stepped inside, calling, ‘Hello, this is the police. Is anyone home?’
They were greeted by silence. Inside the open-plan living area, she pulled out her torch and turned it on, shining it around. Nothing looked out of place and it smelt of fresh linen: no nasty, lingering smells to arouse their suspicion. Dan found the light switch and flicked it on, lighting up the whole downstairs.
‘Wow, nice digs,’ he said out loud.
She nodded. ‘Nice indeed.’ It was all very modern. No clutter. The entire lounge, kitchen, and diner was painted white, with different tones of grey picked out on feature walls. A set of keys dangled from a small hook behind the front door and Morgan wondered if they were Olivia’s.
Dan headed for the kitchen. ‘I’ll do down here.’
Morgan made her way to the stairs tucked away at the back of the room. She turned on the light and went up the steps, calling out again, ‘Hello, is anyone home? It’s the police.’
There was no reply. She reached the first floor and admired the clean lines and clutter-free landing. Five doors came off it and she checked each room in turn. The master bedroom was as spotless and tidy as the rest of the house, with an en suite that sparkled. Morgan wondered if Olivia kept the house this clean or whether the family had a cleaner. She was almost afraid to touch anything for fear of leaving a mark. The next two rooms seemed to be spares. They were empty and decorated in the same style as the rest of the house. Morgan pushed open the fourth door and breathed a sigh of relief; this room looked as if it had been ransacked. The duvet was strewn across one side of the bed and there were piles of clothes on the floor. Make-up littered every available surface. She was glad the girls got to be typical messy teenagers in this immaculate show home. Walking towards the heart-shaped picture above the bed, she smiled to see a myriad of family photos in the frame. There were several of a dark-haired girl with her arm around Harrison; this must be Bronte. Other photos were of Olivia, a man she assumed was Saul and two girls in different locations. Morgan recognised New York, the Grand Canyon, Paris and Rome. They looked like the perfect, happy family and she felt her heart tear in two. Their lovely life was about to be torn to shreds. She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach for the girls who were about to find out their mum had taken her own life and left them alone.
Dan’s voice echoed up the stairs.
She tore herself away from the pictures and checked the last room, not quite as messy as Bronte’s. Instead of bottles of expensive perfume and make-up this one was full of books. They covered every available surface and were stacked in piles by the side of the bed. She nodded in approval; Beatrix was a bookworm like her. At least she’d have the luxury of stealing herself away from the horror of her life into someone else’s when it all got too much for her.
The voice was more demanding this time and irritated her.
‘I’m coming, Dan. I had to check each room.’
‘Well they’re all empty, obviously. What about down here? Did you find anything?’
He held up an address book and waved it in front of her.
‘Guess who’s getting the brownie points off Sergeant Moody?’
They went back outside where Ben was now sitting in the van talking to Harrison. Dan shut the door behind him, pushing it to make sure the door was secure. The body was being zipped into a black body bag and lifted onto the steel gurney. Morgan watched as the undertakers slammed the door of the private ambulance. The driver turned and waved.
‘See you at the hospital.’
She waved back.
They drove away, leaving the garden looking like nothing had happened. Well, it would once the police vans had left. The only thing out of place now was the stepladder. When Saul and his daughters returned home, there would be nothing to show it had been a scene of such heartbreak that their lives would never be the same again. Morgan felt drained. She walked over to the van where everyone was congregated around Harrison. Ben looked at her, his steely gaze softened, and she felt a little better.
‘Still want me to book her in at the mortuary?’
‘Yes, please. Dan is going to follow Harrison home to make sure he gets there safely. Another patrol is on the way to wait here and see if the family turn up, to break the news to them.’
He stood up and got out of the van, followed by Harrison. Dan was already on his way back to his own van. Climbing into the driver’s seat, Morgan turned on the engine, then whacked the dial on the heater up to full blast. Her hands had turned into blocks of ice and she was shivering. She waited for Harrison to leave, with Dan in convoy, before setting off.
About to drive away, there was a knock on the window. Jumping, she looked to see Ben standing there.
‘I just wanted to say thank you, you did a good job.’
Before she could answer he turned and walked back to the white Ford Focus he’d arrived in. She smiled. Maybe he wasn’t the ogre everyone had told her he was.
All the way to Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Morgan listened intently to her radio, waiting for someone to report that they’d located a relative for Olivia Potter. It was really starting to bother her that they hadn’t. Three hours had passed now since she’d first arrived on scene and not one family member had turned up or been successfully contacted by the police. It happened, but unless Saul worked shifts, he should have been home by now. There was no obvious reason for the girls to be missing either. There had been no indicators inside the house that they’d gone away for a few days. Whenever she went anywhere her flat always looked as if a tornado had gone through it while s. . .
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