Chapter five

Paul and Jane slumped into the backs of their chairs. The last of the Zoom interviews wrapped up. They had been going for three and a half hours straight, interviewing four of Joseph’s work colleagues. Speed was a necessity, they needed to speak with them individually before they convened, and the first person interviewed talked to the others, and in doing so sets a common narrative the rest would follow. Nuanced details would be lost, and in Paul’s experience, it was often the small apparently insignificant facts that were key to solving a case.

‘I don’t like interviewing via video,’ Paul confessed. ‘I can’t see their whole body and you won’t believe how many people you can tell are lying from what they do with feet.’

‘By their feet?’ Jane said looking suspiciously.

‘Yes, their feet. You see if they are lying or talking about something uncomfortable, they will sometimes point their feet toward the nearest exit. Subconsciously it’s a fight or flight response.’

Jane looked down at her feet, she was wearing her more practical shoes, and her feet were pointing at Paul. She could extrapolate what that meant and quickly pointed them away.

‘Fortunately, his colleagues were all independently consistent in their assessment of Joseph,’ Jane said diverting the conversation away from feet. ‘Seems that there is nothing to suggest he was stressed or in conflict with anyone. No apparent reason for him to suddenly go missing.’

‘We need to interview his wife in person,’ declared Paul. ‘Want happens in the privacy of a home is a completely different matter.’

Jane collated the pieces of paper she used to take notes. ‘Ok, I’ll type up the interview notes and you arrange a meeting with his wife,’ replied Jane. She was finding this far more interesting than snooping through people’s social media history.

Maria Farley was a short woman in her early 50s. She has black ringlet curls, a stubby nose, and wide cheeks. When she smiled the corner of her mouth downturned. She spoke quickly and insisted on interrupting someone in an attempt to finish their sentence. This interview wasn’t going to be easy.

They sat in her living room, which faced north, and even though it was mid-morning, it felt dark and oppressive. The décor was dated, heavy dark furniture added to the gloom, and most of the surfaces were covered with trinkets and paraphernalia.

Maria made them a cafetière of coffee, which basically tasted like brown water, and a small plate of rich tea biscuits. There were large dark bags under her eyes, unsurprisingly as she had hardly slept since Joseph’s disappearance.

‘Thank you for agreeing to see us,’ Paul started trying to settle Maria’s anxiousness. ‘I’m DCI Rayner and this is DCI Donovan. We wanted to ask you a few questions about your husband. We know you’ve already answered a number of questions from…’

‘Police Sargent Roberts,’ she interjected, ‘he was very thorough in his questioning, I told him there’s no reason for my husband to run away. I’m not sure what else I can tell you, we are very happily married, in fact, we were supposed to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary.’ Her eyes began to glisten as tears formed in the corners. Jane handed her a tissue and she dabbed her eyes with it.

‘I know,’ Paul answered calmly, ‘I read his report. However, we have some further questions that will aid us in our investigations. These may be a little more personal if you don’t mind.’

Maria looked confused and blurted, ‘You suspect foul play, don’t you? I knew it.’ Tears started streaming down her cheeks, and Jane passed her more tissues.

Paul allowed her to regain her composure before continuing. ‘We are not sure, Mrs Farley, we can’t eliminate the possibility but hopefully, some of the answers you give us may help us rule this out.’ Her bottom lip trembled as she held back the tears.

‘Most of the time, in these situations, it can be something innocuous,’ Jane added trying to reassure her. Jane was quoting from a missing person statistical publication she had read. Paul scowled in her direction, now wasn’t the time to quote statistics.

‘Mrs Farley, do you remember the last time your husband communicated with you?’ asked Paul directing Maria’s attention back to him.

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘he sent me a text to say he would be leaving work early to get ready for our anniversary dinner.’

‘And, when he didn’t arrive home for dinner what did you do next?’

‘I texted and rang him. When he didn’t respond I called his work and then his colleagues. I thought maybe he had stopped off and visited his mother. No one had seen him that afternoon after he left work. Can I just say, Joseph wouldn’t do this, it’s just not him. Even when he goes to London, he always calls or texts.’

‘So, your husband is generally predictable from day to day?’ Paul questioned.

‘Yes, I would say so.’

‘Is he happy at work?’ Paul continued to question.

‘Yes, he never complained about work.’

‘Did you have any plans after your dinner and beyond?’

Maria knitted her brow wondering where this line of questioning was going. ‘Yes, of course.’

Paul leaned forward and asked, ‘Did you have an argument or fight with your husband in the days preceding his disappearance?’

‘No, not at all we rarely raise our voices at each other,’ Maria responded a little offended by the question.

‘Was Joseph having an affair?’

‘What?’ Maria stuttered.

‘Was your husband having an affair?’ Paul repeated clearly.

‘No, no absolutely not! Why would you ask such a thing?’ Maria exploded and then broke down in tears.

‘I’m sorry Mrs Farley, you have to understand we have to ask some difficult questions so we can rule it out,’ Paul’s tone was sympathetic. ‘Let’s take a short break. Do you have any tea by chance?’

Maria blew her nose and dried her eyes. ‘Of course, would you like milk and sugar too?’ Both Paul and Jane nodded. With that Maria shuffled to the kitchen.

‘Could you be any harsher with those last two questions?’ Jane scolded Paul once Maria was out of earshot.

Calmly Paul retorted, ‘It’s called the ‘yes’ escalation method. You ask a series of questions to which they are likely to respond ‘yes’, then you ask them the question you really want to know the answer to. They are more inclined to answer positively if there is an element of truth to it. In this case, she responded negatively, so for now we don’t have to pursue that line of enquiry with her.’

Jane raised her eyebrows and thought to herself that clearly, she had a lot more to learn.

Maria returned with a tray of three mugs of tea, a jug of milk, and a jar of sugar. ‘Help yourself to the milk and sugar,’ she said gesturing to the tray. ‘I hope you don’t mind adding your milk in after, I hear there’s a minority of people who put milk in first,’ she added screwing up her face.

After they had dressed their tea to their liking, Paul continued, ‘What did you talk about at dinner the previous evening to his disappearance?’

‘Oohhh, no one has asked me that question,’ she said thoughtfully. After a brief pause, she answered, ‘We spoke about our upcoming dinner and his visit to London for work.’

‘So, you talk about his work,’ Paul asked.

‘Yes, I mean not in great detail,’ Maria responded, her feet moved to face the door. This subconscious act was not lost on Paul and Jane.

Paul lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. He quietly and deliberately said, ‘I understand that some of your husband’s work is confidential but let me assure you that we have been given clearance as we suspect there may be a link between his disappearance and what he was working on.’

Jane stared at Paul, she may be inexperienced, but she knew they weren’t given any such powers. What was Paul playing at?

‘Well ok,’ Maria said. ‘I may know a little more.’

‘I understand that there was an important decision coming up to do with his role as a Special Advisor,’ alluded Paul, ‘that was the reason for his trip to London. Did he mention anything to you about it?’

‘Vaguely,’ she said, ‘he mentioned that there was a decision to be made on the covid boosters and whether they continue with all of them. You know, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. I think Paul, with his history with Oxford, would advocate for AstraZeneca. He believed it to be the safest and also the more established vaccine manufacturer, particularly over the US-based ones like Moderna.’

‘I see,’ acknowledged Paul. Just then his mobile phone rang. It was Sargent Robert’s number. ‘Will you excuse me,’ Paul asked giving Jane a look that said carry on talking to her.

Paul stood up and walked into the kitchen for some privacy. ‘Morning Sargent,’ answered Paul, ‘what do you have for me?’

‘Morning Paul, I’m in the coroner’s office, a body has turned up in the river just south of our missing person’s workplace. It must have been snagged underwater as we covered that area when we did our search. It was discovered by a local walking their dog. Are you with his wife?’ asked Sargent Roberts.

‘Yes, we are wrapping up our interview with her now,’ Paul responded.

‘Ok, can you drive her to the coroner’s office, we need her to identify the body to confirm if it’s her husband. I should warn you; the body is bloated with water and his face has significant damage. I’ll send you the address of the coroner by text.’

‘We will be there within the hour,’ confirmed Paul and ended the call.

Paul scratched his stubble before returning to the living room where Jane was making small talk with Maria.

‘Everything all right?’ enquired Jane reading into the frown on Paul’s brow.

He turned to Maria and said, ‘Mrs Farley, Sargent Roberts just called me, there’s been a development and I need you to come with us.’

‘You’ve found him?’ she stood up looking optimistically.

‘They found someone, but we need you to come and tell us if that’s him,’ Paul answered as diplomatically as he could. However, it wasn’t diplomatic enough.

Maria covered her mouth with her hand and began to sob. Jane put an arm around her shoulders and said, ‘Look we don’t know yet, come with us before we jump to a conclusion.’

Maria silently nodded, tears streaming down her eyes. She picked up her coat, handbag, and keys and followed the DCs to their car.

Thirty minutes later, during which they phoned Maria’s sister to meet them, they pulled up outside the coroner’s office. It was a large building with pebbledash rendering and dark-tinted windows. An architectural monstrosity dating back to the 1960s and typical of the civic buildings of that era.  Her sister had arrived before them and rushed to comfort Maria as soon as she stepped out of the car.

Sargent Roberts was also waiting outside the building and guided them through to the reception. They asked Maria’s sister to wait in reception before the sombre group walked down the hall to the coroner’s office.

A balding man with a kind face wearing a lab coat welcomed them. He gestured for all of them to sit on the opposite side of his desk with Maria sitting directly opposing him.

‘Maria Farley, I assume?’ he started. She nodded in acknowledgment. ‘I need you to look at few photos of items of personal possessions,’ he continued matter-of-factly. His experience taught him that this part of the job wasn’t helped by exchanging pleasantries. He produced an A4 photo of a close-up of a wedding band still worn on the ring finger.

‘Do you recognise this ring?’ asked the coroner. Maria took the A4 photo and inspected it closely. She looked up at the coroner and said, ‘I’m not sure, it could be Joseph’s.’

‘How about this?’ the coroner handed her a photo of a mobile phone. It was an iPhone 11 with a green silicone cover.

She briefly looked at it. ‘He has a phone like this, but that could be anybody’s.’

‘Finally,’ spoke the coroner, ‘will you look at this photo.’ The final photo was of a black rucksack with one of the straps almost torn off and covered in mud.

‘He did go to work with a black rucksack, but this one is filthy.’ Maria was quick to assert. Maybe they had found someone else.

‘Thank you, Maria, could you all follow me please,’ the coroner strode out of the room, leaving the others to catch up with him. He waited for them in front of stainless-steel double doors. ‘This is the post-mortem examination room,’ he announced, ‘Mrs Farley, I need you to identify a body, I’m sorry but the person you are about to see had drowned and suffered some extensive contusions and sub-cranial damage.’ Without further ado, he opened the doors and they all passed through.

The room had a high vaulted ceiling, with pipes and flexible tubing hanging down over three stainless steel slab beds. Procedure and exam lights on swivel arms were mounted to the rafters and trolleys with surgical tools sat adjacent to each bed.

They were immediately hit with a pungent irritating odour of putrescine and formaldehyde, a smell not easily forgotten. On one of the beds lay a body covered from the head to the ankles in a grey-green plastic sheet and a paper tag fastened to a big toe.

Jane realised she had never seen a dead body before. She started feeling queasy and took short breaths in an effort to avoid vomiting. As she approached the corpse, she could also detect the smell of stagnant river water.

The coroner gestured for Maria to approach the bed with the corpse on. She took tentative steps toward it, clutching her handbag tightly in front of her chest. The coroner gripped the corner of the plastic sheet closest to the head.

‘Mrs Farley, in a moment I’m going to lift this cover. What you see is not pleasant and you will feel the urge to look away and even flee. However, we need you to do your best to identify whether or not this is your husband. Are you ready?’

She took a deep breath and nodded. The coroner lifted the cover back and revealed the corpse’s head. From where Jane stood, she could see a disfigured face, heavily bruised on one side, and a gash that ran from the top of the forehead, through the temple, and to the bottom of the ear. The skin was extremely pale, almost translucent blue, the belly distended from what she would find out later was water from the river and dark dried blood marks that hadn’t been washed off around the base of his neck. Jane found to her surprise her queasiness abating replaced with fascination in the corpse and the story it had to tell of its final moments of life.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a wail emanating from Maria as she fell to the floor uncontrollably crying in grief. It had taken her but a moment to positively identify the corpse as her husband Joseph. Paul helped her to her feet, and she grasped at him, burying her head deep into his chest. Paul despised this part of his job; his lack of empathy was probably why he was two times divorced.

Paul signalled to Sargent Roberts to fetch Maria’s sister from the reception. When she arrived, she prised Maria off Paul and they clutched each other for several minutes both sobbing in grief.

‘Sargent Roberts,’ Paul announced, ‘would you kindly escort Mrs Farley and her sister to reception and when they are ready to her home.’ Turning to Maria he said as gently as he could, ‘We are very sorry for your loss, we have a few matters to discuss with the coroner and we will be in contact with you shortly.’

As Sargent Roberts walked past Paul, Paul whispered, ‘We would like to see the site where the body was found. We will meet you at the police station later this afternoon.’

Sargent Roberts nodded in acknowledgement and led the two women away. When the doors of the examination room stopped swinging and the now widowed Maria had left the building, Paul addressed the coroner.

‘What do you believe to be the cause of death?’ Paul asked.

‘Ultimately, I believed he drowned, but the likelihood is that he would have perished from his head wounds,’ stated the coroner. ‘There is blunt force trauma to the base of his neck and given that the blood had time to dry would indicate that this occurred on land. The contusions and lacerations to the face, I believe, resulted from a heavy object such as a rock being smashed into it. I suspect the blow to the neck did not concuss Mr Farley, and a second attempt was made to render him unconscious.

However, the rucksack’s muddy appearance and torn strap suggest that he was dragged to the water using it. He was still alive at the time, as his lungs and bowels were filled with river water.’

Paul stood there in silence absorbing all the information presented to him. His missing person’s case now appeared to be a homicide case.

Jane was enthralled by the coroner’s assessment, she thought to herself that if her career as a DC didn’t work out, she could train to be a coroner or a forensic scientist.

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