The path that ran adjacent to the river was made of tarmac and grey and brown from use, and every so often had ridges that rose like veins from the tree roots. The river was screened by dense foliage and trees, and in some parts, the only clue that there was a river nearby was the sound of running water. At the narrowest point, the riverbank was five meters from the path as it meandered through the woodland.
Paul and Jane stood at the verge of the path peering through the thicket of trees towards the riverbank. Sargent Roberts caught up with them, ‘Sorry I’m late, Maria needed more time to come to terms with what has happened.’
‘No need to apologise, completely understandable,’ replied Jane.
‘Come over here,’ gestured Sargent Roberts, he walked a few paces to the right of where they were standing. He pointed down at the ground and they saw a small red flag pinned into the ground. ‘Follow me,’ he said as he stepped over small bushes and into the thicket of trees.
Ducking low branches, Paul and Jane entered the woodland. A few minutes later the trees thinned, and they arrived at the bank of the river. In front of them was a natural alcove in the riverbank, where branches and other debris naturally collected.
‘A dog walker found Joseph’s body here,’ said Sargent Roberts. ‘It must have been submerged when we did our initial sweep. The body entered the water about three hundred yards upstream.’ Both Paul and Jane looked upstream, towards where the sun was setting.
They retraced their steps back to the river path and followed it upstream until they reached an area densely packed with mature trees and was in deep shadow due to the extensive tree canopy. A perfect place for an ambush Jane thought. She recalled the coroner’s supposition of Joseph’s last moments.
Joseph headed home and was struck at the base of the neck; he probably never saw his assailant until it was too late. The skull cracked, disorienting him, but not rendering him unconscious.
‘Look over here,’ Sargent Roberts pointed at another small red flag. ‘This is where he was dragged into the woodland.’ Paul and Jane stood over the flag, examining the ground beneath them. Other than the detritus, they could not see any footprints, just scratches in the soil which ran toward the riverbank.
‘His killer was thorough,’ announced Paul, ‘they covered their tracks.’ Paul had been in enough golf bunkers to recognise raking patterns. ‘They raked an area large enough to cover their footprint and also where they dragged the body.’
‘Do you think there was more than one person,’ questioned Jane, immediately regretting asking it.
‘No,’ Paul was quick to respond, ‘if there were more than one person, they would have carried the body.’
‘Let’s continue inwards,’ said Sargent Roberts leading the way. A minute later he stopped, and on the ground were a couple of red flags. ‘We found a rock here which we believe delivered the fatal blow. We’ve sent it to the lab to be examined.’
Jane visualised Joseph’s face on the examination table, one side of his face crushed and torn from a rock being hurled onto it. He must have regained his senses or struggled, the killer was probably surprised and grabbed the nearest offensive weapon to hand. According to the coroner, Joseph was most likely severely traumatised and barely alive at this point.
They continued on until they reached a clearing at the edge of the riverbank. Jane imagined Joseph’s limp body, dragged by his rucksack, being rolled into the cold waters. At least Joseph wasn’t aware of his body autonomously gasping for air but instead of air, his lungs filled with river water. The consumption of water and his waterlogged clothing would have made him sink to the bottom and probably was snared by debris on the riverbed. However, this part of the river is fast flowing and eventually, the body was released from its temporary encapsulation.
‘We found none of Joseph’s personal possessions in the immediate area,’ claimed Sargent Roberts. ‘In fact, his wallet, keys and phone were still on his person when they found the body. We checked with his office; his laptop was left there. This wasn’t an opportunistic crime.’
Paul stayed silent purveying the scene. The sun was setting and soon it would be difficult to see much else. ‘I think we have seen everything there is to see here,’ Paul declared. ‘Thank you, Sargent Roberts, we will head back to our office, if you learn of anything else, please inform us, and we will do likewise.’ With that he grabbed a dead branch from the floor and threw it into the river, watching it sail down following the fast river currents.
They returned to the path, in both directions the path looked foreboding in the dim light. ‘Do you have an idea which way the assailant went?’ enquired Jane.
‘That’s a hard one to answer,’ replied Sargent Roberts, ‘you see there aren’t many cameras on the exits of the path, also the assailant could have navigated perpendicular to the path, through the woodlands, and into the fields beyond. From there they could have gone in any direction.’
They said their final goodbyes to Sargent Roberts and walked back to Paul’s car both deep in thought. With the engine running and the heater on maximum Jane asked, ‘What next?’
‘We still have a few leads to follow up,’ said Paul. ‘Would you mind finding out what CCTV cameras are in the area, and then getting the footage and scouring for anything unusual looking?
I’m going to London to interview some of the committee members to see what they can tell me about Joseph. I mean there was nothing taken from him so it wasn’t a theft gone wrong, the laptop wasn’t missing, and he didn’t have any confidential documents on him, so it can’t have been intellectual or sensitive document theft. My gut feeling is someone wanted Joseph silenced. I don’t know why, but this committee meeting has something to do with his murder. The committee members will know something, but I need to be in front of them. After all most of these politician types lie for a living.’ Paul turned on the car headlights and pressed the accelerator. They raced away from the woodland not noticing the dog walker who had been watching them from afar.
The 07:38am train left on time with Paul looking over his case notes. The previous evening, he had made arrangements to meet a few of the committee members. After an hour and a half, the train pulled into Kings Cross, its final destination, and Paul alighted and made the short trip by Underground to Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.
He had been told to use a specific entrance to the rear of the building, and when he completed security, he was ushered into a small room adorned with oak paneling, and two tan Chesterfield couches facing each other with a coffee table between them on which a pot of tea and coffee were placed.
There was a sharp rap on the door and a plump woman with horned-rimmed glasses stood on the other side. She introduced herself as Dr Catherine Remy who works for the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency).
‘Please take a seat,’ Paul offered, ‘would you like tea or coffee?’
‘No thanks, I have my water,’ she replied.
‘Thank you for meeting with me today,’ Paul began, ‘I’m DCI Paul Rayner, and I working on a case involving your fellow committee member Joseph Farley.’
‘That’s right, I heard that he went missing. Have you found him now?’ she quizzed.
‘I’m afraid to inform you that Joseph we believe was murdered a few days ago,’ he stated pausing to gauge her reaction to this news.
‘Oh my god that’s terrible,’ she cried. ‘Who did it…his poor wife.’
‘We haven’t caught the murderer yet, but I am hoping you could tell me about what you have been working on with Joseph,’ replied Paul.
‘You don’t suspect it’s one of us?
‘No, we don’t,’ insisted Paul, ‘however, we think there may be a connection with something Joseph was working on. Could you tell me a little more about your committee meeting this week? The one Joseph was due to attend.’
Dr Remy composed herself and began, ‘We are a committee that meets to discuss the next stages of the Covid vaccination programme and procurement. Most people have now had their first two vaccinations, and with the new variants, we believe that now is the time for them to receive boosters. The current crop of vaccines wasn’t designed to be used as boosters and with several manufacturers in the market we believe we need to rationalise them down to one or two.
We meet and look at the scientific data, then we officially advise the MHRA who in turn advises the Government.’
‘Was Joseph in agreement with you all?’ asked Paul.
‘Well, we couldn’t be a hundred percent sure as he didn’t attend the meeting, but in principle, I think he would have arrived at the same conclusion as the rest of the committee did,’ she responded. ‘How do you think his murder is connected to this committee?’
Not wanting to scare her, Paul cautiously framed his reply, ‘We aren’t sure, we obviously have to follow up leads, and when there are politics and large contracts involved there may be sufficient motive to remove people from that decision-making process.’ He really must work on his delivery, he thought.
‘Oh,’ Dr Remy said, her brow knitting together, ‘do you think we are vulnerable?’
‘No,’ he replied quickly, then changing the subject, ‘do you know if he had any disputes or arguments with people here in Westminster?’
‘Not that I’m aware of,’ she answered, ‘he’s always courteous… I mean he was polite and friendly.’ They talked for a little while longer, but nothing that would require Paul to follow up on.
‘Thank you for your time,’ Paul said closing his notepad and from his inside jacket pocket he produced his business card, ‘if you should recall something, you can contact me on this number or email.’
With that, they simultaneously stood up, and Paul showed her to the door.
Paul met with three other members of the committee, two were virologists and one was a behavioural scientist who also worked for the MHRA. They all expressed their condolences and like Dr Remy’s statement they were not aware of any animosity towards Joseph and agreed that he would have approved of the committee’s decision.
Following a late lunch Paul had one final committee member to interview. A professor of oncology, Dr Theodore Finnan.
He looked nervous from the moment he met Paul, shifting from one foot to another. When he sat down his feet were already pointing to the door.
‘My name is DCI Paul Rayner; I have a few questions about your fellow committee member Joseph Farley.’
‘I heard about Joseph,’ Theodore stated, ‘don’t believe what they told you.’
‘You heard what exactly?’ demanded Paul.
‘He’s dead, isn’t he? Murdered!’ Theodore shifted around in his seat, perching on the edge, almost ready to take flight.
‘What do you know of his murder?’ questioned Paul cutting to the chase.
Theodore looked at the door, then stared directly at Paul, ‘The other members will tell you that he would have agreed with their decision, but they aren’t being entirely truthful. You see Joseph was very vocal about his concerns about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the ones based on the mRNA technology, they initially dismissed his concerns, saying he’s loyal to the AstraZeneca vaccine because it was developed in Oxford – his university – but he had legitimate concerns. I shared them too; I’m seeing some unusual cancers and cancers in remission are returning aggressively.’
‘Who are they?’ queried Paul.
‘Most of the committee members working for or under the influence of the MHRA,’ he declared, ‘the MHRA is funded by the pharmaceutical companies, so they have an independence problem; a conflict of interest.’
‘So, you think Joseph would have disagreed with the rest of them? He’s just one member though,’ stated Paul.
‘Yes, but he told me he had been working with another professor, and they had some damning data to present at the meeting. It may have swayed some of the other members too.’
‘Do you know who this other professor is,’ asked Paul.
‘No, he didn’t tell me that,’ Theodore replied, ‘I think they got to him though.’
‘Did you disagree with the rest of your committee members?’ Paul asked quizzically.
Theodore paused for a moment and was clearly crafting his response, ‘I raised my concern, but without Joseph’s data, it was difficult to convince the others. We are under pressure to do something, even when sometimes the best solution is to do nothing.’ He grimaced, realising he had just said the quiet part out loud.
Paul remained deliberately silent, a trick he learned from his years of experience interviewing people. Most people hated the silence and will talk to fill the void.
‘Look, you don’t understand. It’s like everyone here has a hive mentality, they think the same, and they act the same when it comes to Covid. There are a few people who question our government’s approach, and even fewer who are vocal about it.’ He was clearly exasperated.
Paul lowered his voice to almost a whisper, another trick he had learned, to demonstrate empathy and trust with the interviewee. ‘When did you last speak with Joseph?’
It worked, Theodore leaned forward and in a similar hushed tone replied, ‘Two days before the committee meeting. He said he would send me an electronic file after his wedding anniversary dinner, to give me time to go through the summary findings. I waited but it never arrived, and when Joseph didn’t turn up to the meeting, I began to fear the worst. His wife rang me looking for him and then I knew something was wrong. I called her back yesterday and she told me he had been killed. Then you contacted the office to arrange this meeting.’
‘Do you have any suspicions, someone else I should go and talk to?’ enquired Paul.
Theodore shook his head. ‘No, in the pharmaceutical circles, Joseph was quite outspoken about his opinions, even notoriously so. He was on the committee because of his work during the first SARS Cov-1 back in 2003. People respected and listened to him. So, there’s not one specific person, but there are a lot of people who stand to gain and lose from our recommendations.’
Paul decided that he had heard enough and reached into his jacket pocket to fetch his business card. ‘If you hear of anything else, or something you remember later then call me on this number.’ He noticed Theodore’s hand trembling as he handed over his business card.
As Theodore left the room, they shook hands. Paul squeezed Theodore’s hand in reassurance saying. ‘It takes courage to say what you believe in, thank you.’
Paul could still feel the negative energy in the room when he stood there alone. Theodore’s interview justified his trip down to London and supported his gut feeling that there was something more to this committee meeting. Trusting his gut instincts was another lesson he had learned the hard way if only he had listened to it before marrying his first wife.
Jane pinched the bridge of her nose transferring fine glitter embedded in her foundation onto her fingers and then onto her keyboard. She had been staring at CCTV footage from about a dozen cameras for the last seven hours. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, mothers with their push buggies, joggers, dog walkers, commuters. The cameras were spaced at either end of the path, and they weren’t there to monitor the park entrances but neighbouring commercial properties. The cameras from Joseph’s offices didn’t show anyone tailing Joseph when he left. The last image of Joseph was a fleeting one of him entering the river path. No one followed him until at least forty-five minutes later, at which time he should have come out the other end of the path. The other entrance camera was less helpful as it was positioned a junction down from the beginning of the path, meaning someone could have entered the path from a side road without being caught on the camera. Joseph’s killer must have already been on the path sometime beforehand or came in through the fields. Jane hoped Paul was having better luck than her.
Her phone rang; it was Paul. She stopped looking at the CCTV footage and left it on fast forward as she took the call. She could hear train announcements in the background as Paul spoke. ‘Any luck with the CCTV?’ he questioned.
‘No, nothing,’ she said looking at the screen and seeing images of herself and Paul entering the woodland via the path. She really needed a haircut she thought to herself. ‘How about you, did you find anything out from the committee members?’
‘Most had a similar story,’ he answered, ‘but one of the committee members indicated that there was a motive to silence Joseph. I’ll tell you more when I see you tomorrow.’
Jane swivelled away from the screen towards the window and gazed out. ‘Paul,’ she started, ‘are we turning over stones we shouldn’t be?’
There was a pause from Paul before he replied, ‘No, it’s our job and we’ve been tasked by the Super Intendent. Now go home and get some rest, I’ll see you in the morning.’ With that, he ended the call.
Jane turned back to her desk and logged off from her computer. She didn’t see the image from the CCTV of the dog walker watching them as they left the path from the previous day.