A Stab in the Dark

A detective. A forensic scientist. A journalist.
Three lives drawn together by a murder.
When evidence lies and the case evolves, who can you trust in a city full of lies?
---- Updated every Wednesday ----

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7. The Best Damn Journalist in London

Max

Now, I’d be lying if I said that being a journalist doesn’t have its high points. Sneaking into a forensics lab while the dozy receptionist scrabbles under her desk for something she dropped is one of them, and watching the weirdly revealing interaction between a scientist and a heartbroken husband is another. Doing things you’re not meant to be doing, seeing things you’re not meant to be seeing, and discovering things that people like me aren’t meant to know are all things that, for me, make my job more exciting.

However, one thing that made me wish I’d considered a different career, like bartending or interpretive dance, was the bitter taste of tarmac that smacked me in the mouth as the security guards flung me outside onto the pavement. I was half-hoping they’d chorus “And STAY out!” like cartoon characters, but instead they stood still, waiting for me to pick myself up from the ground, before saying anything.

“You’ve got a warning, mate. Sneak back in here again and you’ll be arrested.”

“Right. Yeah.” Wincing, I picked out a chunk of the pavement that had stuck itself to my arm. “Are you sure it was necessary to hurl me out the bloody door onto the floor?”

‘Holy shit, that rhymed. Maybe you should’ve become a poet.’

“We didn’t.” The security guards shared a glance. “You fell over.”

I frowned, noticing for the first time that my ankle was throbbing, as if it had been twisted round. It was almost as if I’d fallen over by myself, which had been known to happen. A lot.

“Whatever. You’d better watch out, though. I can still claim police brutality.”

“We ain’t the police.” The guard who hadn’t spoken yet finally piped up. “We’re just privately hired by the labs for Lloyd.”

“Lloyd, huh?”

The name seemed like an ill match for a bloke who wore an immaculate suit to spend an entire day with a dead body, but I wasn’t judgemental. I was just nosy as all hell.

I was so nosy, in fact, that Lloyd and his lackeys were crazy if they thought I’d give up. Besides, I didn’t need any more from them; I’d gotten everything I needed. It was all safely jotted in my notebook, which was tucked securely under... wait.

My notebook wasn’t under my arm. It was sprawled open on the ground with the vital pages flicking backwards and forwards in the wind, and I’d almost left without it. I bent to pick it up before giving my shirt and tie a final fruitless dust-down and starting the short walk back to where I’d parked my bike.

I’d gotten everything I needed from the forensics lab; it was all safely jotted in my notebook, which was now tucked securely under my arm. My wrist and fingers still throbbed from writing and the side of my hand was smudged with silvery dregs of graphite; I’d written at least three pages before deciding to test my luck and show myself. Lloyd hadn’t answered my questions, but it didn’t matter. He had no idea how long I’d been watching him from the corner.

Now, I’m not good at many things. I can barely draw a stick figure without wanting to cry, the longest book I’ve ever read is the Christmas Gadget catalogue, and I’m probably not as good at writing as I like to think. I’ve got terrible social skills, to the point where all of the friends I’ve ever had since nursery school have told me I’m tactless, but one thing I have picked up, from six years of harassing people for a living, is reading emotions. I’m no detective, but I didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that Jackie Truman was desperately repressing emotions when she got rid of me. I’m not a psychic mindreader, but when I saw Lloyd, the forensic scientist, watching the heartbroken ex-husband of Martha Kane with a little too much intrigue, I couldn’t help wondering why. At one point, I glanced up from my notebook to see him lowering his hand from his eyes, as if he was on the verge of tears. The sight of someone whispering in a dead woman’s ear and stroking her hair as if she was a doll choked me up and freaked me out in equal measures, and I don’t have a tragic backstory to justify myself, but it’s just in my nature to wonder what secrets people are hiding. I am, after all, the best damn journalist in London.

I wasn’t done yet, obviously. I still had a police station to visit. But first, before I faced the bloody scrutiny of DI Jackie goddamn Truman, I needed to go home and clean myself up.

*            *            *            *            *

The bike snarled to life beneath me; my helmet was promptly shaken from its position over the handlebar and the SMACK of it hitting the ground made me jump. Picking it up and slipping it over my head, I found myself wishing I’d remembered to get my leather jacket. Firstly, it would have fended off most of the chips of tarmac whose sting I could still feel in my arms and hands. I was pretty sure I was bleeding now, actually. Secondly, I would have looked a lot cooler in my motorbike helmet, but that was totally irrelevant to the situation at hand and definitely not a legitimate reason. Thirdly, and most importantly, it was the middle of November and I felt as if I was actually frozen in a block of ice. As I pushed away the kickstand to hurtle away from my house into oncoming traffic (and, nearly, the side of a lorry), the wind began biting me so violently that I could have sworn it was ripping out chunks of my flesh and chilling my bare bones. The police station was only about two miles away, or three, or possibly twenty; I found it ridiculously simple to zone out while I was driving. By the time I arrived at the layby opposite the station, I knew exactly what I was going to say to Jackie.

Then, when I saw her standing in the car park by herself, glaring right at me, every single comprehensible thought dissolved into useless dust and my mind was once again taken over by the ridiculously catchy song that had been stuck in my head for over a month. I started whistling as I parked the bike, pretending and trying not to notice Jackie across the road, but I decided to leave my notebook in my backpack, which I shrugged away and left on the floor. I had no reason to believe that she wouldn’t be answering my questions, but she certainly wouldn’t be giving me any time to write. If I was lucky, I might have a chance to get a recording.

I patted one of my pockets to check that my phone was there. It was. Doing my best to look casual, I shoved both hands into my pockets and sauntered across the road; the effect was somewhat ruined when some stupid bugger on a bicycle almost ran me over.

“Moron! Watch where you’re going!” He yelled, tweaking his adorable little bell as if pounding a fire alarm. “I could have killed you!”

“Don’t have so much faith in yourself,” I called back after a slight pause. “That bike’s so dinky you couldn’t kill me if you smacked me over the head with it!”

It was too late. He was gone. I sighed as I reached the pavement, trying my best to ignore Jackie as she walked up to meet me.

What the hell are you doing here?” She said.

“I could ask you the same question.” ‘Shit. Wrong thing to say.’

Jackie frowned. “You what?”

 “Um... I mean, what are you doing outside? Shouldn’t you be, you know, working?”

“For your information, Chronicle, I’m on a break. The interrogations finished half an hour ago.”

“Oh yeah?” I reached back into my pocket, tapping at what I hoped was the record button on my phone screen.

‘Time to act dumb.’

“So who did it, then?”

Her brow’s furrow deepened into downright bewilderment. “Are you a complete idiot?” She cleared her throat before her expression softened and became blanker. “Anyway, that’s past the point. I’m afraid everything’s classified. Now do me a favour and piss off.”

I grinned half-heartedly. “Nope. I ain’t leaving till you’ve given me something. I don’t really care what it is. Who was in there? I’m assuming one of them’s the ex-husband, huh?”

A flicker of something sparked in her eyes and caused her to shift her weight onto her other foot; the movement had been tiny, but I noticed that now, she seemed taller and more imposing. She didn’t say anything, but she’d given me what journalists like to refer to as a tell.

“So that’s a yes, then?”

Jackie pursed her lips until they almost disappeared into a straight line, showing that I’d succeeded in irritating her. This was good, because angry people were more likely to let something slip. All I had to do now was keep at it. Being annoying was, both fortunately and unfortunately, in my blood; I was so good at annoying people, in fact, that it was practically written into my genetic code.

“Who else? More family? I don’t see why not.”

Jackie opened her mouth, then closed it.

“Did Martha have any kids? I doubt it. Stepkids? Grandkids?”

She continued to glare at me, so I continued to speak.

“Brothers? Sisters? Come on, Detective, I know you could give me something. I’m desperate. Did she even have one goddamn friend in the world?”

The door of the police station suddenly swung open, and through the shaded glass I caught sight of an arm, clad in neon yellow, holding it open for someone else. It wasn’t any kind of surprise to me when Mr Kane strode out, balling his fists in a triumphant display of self-satisfaction that seemed a slight departure from his breakdown at the forensics lab. Jackie, on the other hand, reeled round at the sight of his leaving with stormily angry eyes.

“Damnit,” she muttered under her breath.

“What?”

“Nothing. Not enough evidence, obviously. But—“

“I know.” I smiled, wondering how far I’d be able to push her before getting arrested. “I thought it was him as well.”

I was playing a dangerous game, and I knew it; I needed information if I wanted to keep my job, and annoyance was the best way to get it out of her, but if I pissed her off too much she’d probably call in a second set of banishers. This time, though, I wouldn’t be getting chucked out of the building. I’d be getting chucked in, and then, the roles would be reversed, and she’d be the one interrogating me. I was determined not to let that happen.

“Anyway—“

“No,” Jackie cut across me, holding up one finger. “Shut up.”

The door had opened a second time, and out stepped another figure; this woman seemed to share Martha’s pinched features and bedraggled hair, but her appearance was softened by the silver tears that glimmered on her cheeks and the way her eyes seemed to glow when she looked at Jackie.

 “Who’s that?” I asked, but I didn’t need to; the woman walked up to Jackie and seemed to stop herself only shortly before giving her a hug.

‘Women.’

Jackie frowned at me for what must have been the fifth time that day and turned away.

“Detective, I...” Her shoulders started shaking. “Just- wanted- to say- thank... thank you.”

“No problem, Ms Alderman.” Jackie glanced pointedly back at me. “Just doing my job.”

“You... know what I- I mean.” The woman glanced over Jackie’s shoulder momentarily. “Oh, I... sorry. Am I interrupting... something?”

“No! Definitely not. Just press.”

“Oh.” The woman looked back at me, and her eyes hardened into shards of anger. “You asshole. Taking advantage of... my- my sister...”

“Ms Alderman, please. You’re free to go. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Once she was gone, I smiled smugly at Jackie. “Martha’s sister. She loves you, doesn’t she? Great. Thanks for that. I’ll just be...”

And then the final figure walked out.

Jackie didn’t seem at all surprised by the appearance of the weedy little guy at the door of the police station, but, for a change, I was. Because I knew him. Just a few nights ago, he’d been lying almost upside-down on the sofa in my living-room, smashed out of his goddamn mind on a bottle of soft liquor. His name was Charlie, but that was all I knew; we barely ever saw each other, even though we shared a house.

“Martha’s stepson.” Jackie sighed in defeat as she disclosed the final piece of classified information straight into my voice recorder. She only paused when she saw how completely shocked I was.

“What?”

“That guy’s my bloody housemate. Hey, Charlie!”

Charlie didn’t reply. He looked like the model young man as he hurried past the pair of us, head held down, but he must have been fighting back a hangover. He always was.

“Are you serious?” Jackie turned back to me, eyes sparkling with intrigue. “Then you might be of some use to me after all, Chronicle.”

“Max.”

“Whatever. Do you...” she paused. “Were you with him on the night of the murder?”

I frowned, thinking back to the night when I’d come home at three-thirty to a darkened house.

“No. He was nowhere to be seen.” I paused. “No alibi. But why should I help you?”

Jackie didn’t smile, but her eyebrows were slightly raised in tentative smugness.

“Because Charlie told me the same thing about you, Max. You don't have an alibi either.”

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