Manchester, 2002. The Commonwealth Games are coming to town and the city is alive with possibilities.
It’s the phone call DI Jon Spicer has long feared – his wild younger brother has been found dead. He has been murdered and horribly mutilated. Aware Dave was involved in drugs, Jon had hoped to steer him away from his doomed and self-destructive fate. Full of anger, he heads to the town where Dave’s body was discovered, bent on finding the killer.
Meanwhile, Dave’s young girlfriend, Zoe, is trapped in an inner-city hell. Vulnerable, destitute and now alone, she is being hunted by the vicious criminal Dave owed money to.
Arriving in the Peak District, Jon finds a community with plenty to hide. With time running out and his distraught family cracking under the strain, Jon realises the truth of his brother’s death lies in two places: with a frightened girl trapped somewhere among Manchester’s tower-blocks and out on the bleak heights overlooking the secretive rural town.
After miles of deserted countryside, Jon saw the Haven Inn at the side of the road and knew Haverdale must be close. He took the next turn, crossed a small bridge and then a set of railway tracks. Seconds later he was on the high street, eyes roving for any sign with a large red H. A right turn led him down a quieter side road, bed and breakfast notices in the front window of many of the houses that lined the street. Another minute and the hospital came into view.
As he drew closer, he felt like an actor in a performance. Here’s the main entrance, he thought, pulling into it. Now I slow up and check the sign for where the mortuary is. Probably they’ve placed it near the bottom, so I have to read through a load of other departments first. Orthopaedics. Cardiology. Children’s Unit. Maternity. An image of Alice flashed in his mind. Wasn’t it their thirteen week scan day after tomorrow? Pharmacy. Mortuary. Turn right.
He glanced at the main building as he did so. Like most of the town, the hospital looked like it had been constructed during the Georgian period. Heavy blocks of sand coloured stone whose upper edges were now tinged with black. He took in the regimented rows of windows and square lines before his eyes were drawn to the large glass dome that curved above the main building’s roof. He guessed it was some kind place for recuperating, a light filled space to coax a previous era’s sick and infirm back to health. No doubt with the assistance of the town’s famous spring water.
His car glided round the corner and a second, smaller, sign directed him off to the left. This side road was narrower, more private. It led to the rear of an annex, day-glow markings of a police car contrasting with the building’s sombre stone. Two uniformed officers waited for him at the entrance. He manoeuvred his car into a space, the feeling of detachment still there. Turning the engine off, he flexed his fingers. Pins and needles surged up his forearms. A sharp intake of breath sent them scurrying back the other way, right to the ends of his fingers. Come on Jon, let’s get this done. He climbed out of the car and the tarmac seemed slightly mushy under foot. Walking towards the waiting officers, he hoped they didn’t notice the unsteadiness of his step.
‘DI Spicer?’ The one on the left asked, a slightly nervous-looking man in his mid-twenties.
Jon felt his lips peel apart and he realised his mouth was dry. ‘Yes.’
‘The Super told us to look out for a big bloke: he’d seen your photo after that case with the church arsonist, a while back.’
‘My fame spreads before me,’ Jon tried to smile.
‘They feed you on some kind of protein mix in Manchester?’
Jon appreciated his attempt at lightening the tone of their meeting. At six feet four and just over fifteen stone, he was used to his size dominating most people’s first impression of him. ‘Got to keep up with our steroid-abusing criminals.’
The officer’s grin widened. ‘I’m Constable Spiers. And this is my colleague, Constable Batyra.’
Jon held out a hand. ‘Have you got first names?’
He relaxed slightly. ‘Chris.’
‘I’m Jon.’ He shook, then turned to the female colleague.
‘Shazia,’ she announced. An Asian woman of a similar age to Chris, black hair tied back, a slightly pudgy face that normally would have looked kind. Now Jon saw only concern in her brown eyes. They shook, her grip light but firm. ‘The Super sends his apologies for not being here in person. With the way things stand…’
‘Of course,’ Jon replied. ‘He’s got a murder investigation to run. I understand.’
She pointed weakly towards the heavy wooden doors, then turned back to Jon. ‘Are you absolutely sure, Sir? About doing this? We’ve got photos back at the station. You could make an ID from them.’
Jon flicked his eyes at the building. A narrow window high up in the wall, cardboard boxes pressed against the other side of the frosted glass. ‘Don’t you worry, I’ve been in one or two mortuaries before.’ The comment had popped out and he realised it must have sounded patronising. ‘If it’s Dave, I’d prefer to see him in person.’
She glanced uncertainly at her colleague. ‘What was the code again?’
‘Three three eight four.’
The panel was directly below the door handle. Curved little buttons that clicked as she pressed each one. She turned the handle and pushed the door open. ‘After you, Sir.’
Jon stepped into a familiar smell of antiseptic. Behind him he heard Spiers mumble. ‘Just need to check something out with Mallin. I’ll be through in a minute.’
The door swung shut and he and the female constable were now alone in a small, silent room. It had an austere, functional feel – bare walls and a few formal notices. One was titled, ‘Moving and handling of the deceased.’ Below were four dense paragraphs of instructions. Across the room was a double set of doors.
‘They’re expecting us, the Super rang ahead,’ Batyra sighed. She moved to the doors and rapped on a glass panel, half-opening it as she did so. ‘Hello? Constable Batyra here.’
Jon heard a male voice from further inside. ‘Come on in.’
Shazia beckoned and he followed her into the next room. This was just as drab, a row of tall grey lockers lining one side. Lurking in a corner was a heavy- looking metal gurney. Like much of the hospital, it was something that seemed to have survived from an earlier age. A padded layer of red leather covered the top, straps with thick buckles lying across it. Directly ahead was a single door, a notice screwed squarely into its middle. Please put on yellow overshoes before crossing the red line.
A white metal cabinet was positioned to its side and Shazia opened a drawer to fish out two pairs from inside.
‘Thanks,’ said Jon, taking his and slipping them over his shoes, one palm against the cold concrete wall to steady him.
The inner door was swung open, revealing a red line across the floor. A member of the mortuary staff was standing there, head to toe in white overalls. The smell of cleaning fluids picked up in strength.
‘Is Dr Henderley here? We rang about an hour ago,’ Shazia asked.
The man’s head shook. ‘He had to nip home.’
Jon caught her look of irritation. ‘We’re here to view the body brought in earlier.’ She turned towards Jon. ‘This is…’
‘DI Spicer. Major Incident Team, Manchester Police.’
The man nodded. ‘He’s here.’
Jon took a quick breath, then stepped across the red line and into the mortuary itself. Christ, this can’t have changed in over a century either. The end wall housed a double row of square metallic doors, brass handles giving them the appearance of opening hatches from a submarine. A high ceiling and, low over the three autopsy tables, strips of lights hanging by chains that must have been over twelve feet long. One table was empty, one had a shrouded body and one was being used for what appeared to be the mortician’s equipment bag. To his side, water dripped from the nozzle of a hose mounted at waist height on the tiled wall.
Jon’s eyes went back to the middle table. Oh God, don’t let it be him. It’s only his phone they’ve recovered. It could have been stolen off him by one of the scrotes he got caught up with. Maybe he sold the thing for a bit of cash. To buy what? Drugs? He pushed the thought aside. Oh God, it’s going to be him. The mortician moved towards the table and Jon shadowed him, plastic over-shoes scraping on the damp stone floor.
This was, in many ways, a strange novel to write.
Parts of the plot had been floating around in my head for a while, waiting for the right story to come along. Without giving too much away, that includes the elusive egg-collector who, DI Spicer believes, is key to the investigation.
Egg-collectors – those strange individuals who scale trees and cliffs to strip the nests of rare birds – are a peculiarly British bunch. (A hang-over, apparently, from the days of empire when oologists would scour the territories collecting samples.) My research into these people led me to the RSPB’s chief investigation officer. He enlightened me as to how what often starts as a boyhood hobby often comes to exert a dark and all-consuming power over the collector’s life.
Part of the plot that evolved as I wrote the story was the plight of Zoe, the murder-victim’s girlfriend. I really liked the idea of having Jon believe there was a second character out there, who also appears key to the investigation. In Zoe’s case, she is trapped in a flat high up in a derelict tower block. With no phone, no neighbours and the estate’s gang trying to hunt her down, she is effectively a prisoner.
I called the book The Edge to hint at a central theme of the novel: heights. (Although the title also refers to DI Spicer’s increasingly precarious mental state as the pressure of the investigation builds.) Much of the action takes place dangerously close to some very big drops – and I hope the sense of vertigo leaves you hanging onto your seat as you read!