Snow crunched under the rubber soles of boots, the sound announcing someone's arrival from around the corner. Soon enough, a young couple stepped onto the poorly lit street with their hands around each other.
The thirty-something-old man whispered a sweet nothing in the girl's ear, and she giggled, flattered. The blush in her cheeks intensified, and she lifted her eyes to his face for a moment. Then, she hid her face in his coat collar, giggling again.
A rueful grin perched in the corner of the man's mouth. He wasn't sure he had made a good choice for that evening. But then, he had already invested enough money on that date, so he decided not to abandon the race before he had scored.
He dipped his head over his companion, and his lips found her cold mouth. He didn't care about that. He did not doubt that he could warm the woman soon if he were persuasive enough.
He deepened his kiss without breaking his stride. The young woman reached up and anchored herself to the lapel of his coat so as not to fall on the pavement.
Suddenly, the man tripped over something on his path. With a groan, he lunged forward, taking the girl with him. He hardly recovered his balance and pulled the young woman upright again in the last second. At least the giggles ceased, he thought bitterly when his companion couldn't stop gasping, still in shock.
"What happened, Brian?" she asked, pressing her small hand to her luscious chest.
"I'd be dammed if I know," the man replied, a frown between his eyebrows.
Belatedly, he thought of looking behind to discover what had made him lose his footing. A lonely boot lay on the pavement, only partly covered in snow. His tripping had now brushed some of the white powder off. Brian pressed his lips in a baffled grin.
"I tripped on that thing there," he indicated, tilting his head towards the guilty object in the middle of the way.
"Who would leave a boot on the road?" the young woman wondered.
Brian looked at her as if he had seen her for the first time. He hoped that she didn't expect an answer. After all, no one had asked for his opinion before leaving that boot there.
Nevertheless, he read the expectation in the woman's eyes and shook his head slightly. He got that if he poached someone in a generation so far behind his.
"Let's move on," Brian suggested. "You must be freezing already," he guessed.
The young girl's well-being didn't concern him too much. However, Brian worried about his sanity. He felt strongly that their date had already reached the expiration date. To score with that woman didn't seem so important anymore. He was afraid that she would ask God knew what stupid questions precisely at the most inappropriate moment, and his mood would be ruined.
The girl sauntered towards him, provoking another slightly perceptible headshake from Brian. He silently swore to pay more attention when picking women in bars.
She slid her arm around his and giggled once more. That sound had started to grate on his nerves, and Brian gritted his teeth. He should have seen it coming. But then, the noise level in the pub had cushioned his hearing, and he hadn't realised how maddening it sounded.
Brian felt relieved knowing that, soon, they would reach her address, and he could finally get rid of her. Picking her up in the pub had ruined his plans for that night, but he could adapt quickly to conjunctures. He would spend a good chunk of his night in front of the telly and hope for a stroke of better luck the following night.
The woman was chirping next to him, hanging on him, giggling now and then, and leaning over him whenever she felt his attention was waning. Brian tightened his teeth, determined to survive until they reached her house while his thoughts wandered onto more pleasant trails. The man tried hard not to register any of the woman's words.
After a few steps, the young woman tightened her fingers on his arm and leaned forward again. "You know," she said seductively, "I think we will have a lot of fun tonight."
Brian cringed inside and decided to let her know that he would not go upstairs with her once they reached her residence. He opened his mouth to let the words flow, but suddenly, the woman tripped. She would have fallen hard if he hadn't caught her. A second later, a piercing scream came out of her mouth.
Fearing that his hearing would never be the same, the man shook the woman. "What the heck is going on?" he asked harshly, without noticing that the woman shook from all her joints and seemed ready to fall apart.
The girl tried to speak but couldn’t articulate a word. That awed him. Only a few moments before, she had been very vocal. Then, she pointed a trembling finger downward to her left.
Fed up, Brian followed the shaking finger, and his gaze rested on a body lying across the pavement. He swallowed hard when he noticed the scarlet on the snow that covered the man's face.
Considering all that snow, Brian judged that the body had been there for a while. It had snowed almost all day on and off. It had stopped for good only about half an hour earlier.
For a couple of moments, he forgot about the woman's sharp fingernails digging into the cloth of his coat. Brian couldn't turn his eyes from what lay in his sight, his thoughts churning around his mind.
A few moments later, the woman's whimpers drew his attention back to her. Her face was scrunched, and her eyes were already puffy. She needed to be anywhere else but there.
"All right," Brian said in a calm tone of voice. "I will call the police, and then I will show you home," he attempted to soothe her.
"But they won't let you," the girl whimpered. "They will ask you to stay here on the spot," she sniffled.
'Now she's getting rational on me,' Brian thought with exasperation.
"We'll cross that bridge when it comes," he reassured her, patting her arm. "However, we can't leave this person here like that," he continued, pointing to the body on the ground.
A moment later, he regretted his gesture. The woman began crying harder, and he rolled his eyes in dismay. Still, he took his phone from his coat pocket and dialled 999.
McNamara exited the house, throwing an anxious glance over his shoulder. He had asked Bryony not to stand up from the sofa in the sitting room, but he half expected to see her behind him, ready to see him off. With a mule-like stubbornness, the woman had insisted on coming with him to the front door, as she would always do when he left for work.
Big enough to topple over, Bryony could hardly walk a few steps those days. McNamara's heart would skip a beat whenever the woman crossed the room in her duck-like waddle. He always feared that her legs would break under the weight of her swollen belly. The thought that he had had a direct hand in her present state made him nauseous.
McNamara refrained from rolling his eyes, but his mouth set in a hard line. Barely had he pulled the front door behind him that he found himself nose to nose with Mrs Stevens. Although they had known each other for about two years, their relationship had never become warmer. They tolerated each other for Bryony's sake only.
"I see you're leaving again," the woman noticed in a reproachful voice. "I knew that Bryony would always be alone if she married you. Of course, I was right."
"I have a job, Mrs Stevens," the chief inspector groused. He was sick of that conversation. It repeated with too much frequency to care for it.
"Aye, that's what I hear all the time," the old woman waved her fingers. "At least now that she is in her last month of pregnancy, you could stay at her side," she continued.
McNamara felt guilty enough without needing her reminder, so he waved his hand disgustedly and rushed down the stairs. The old woman snorted behind him and let herself inside the detective's house. She was a permanent fixture there, after all.
Gnashing his teeth, McNamara strode to his car and almost pulled the door out of its hinges. He plopped onto the car seat and turned the ignition on with a nervous gesture.
The Chief Inspector didn't want to leave Bryony alone but couldn't ask his people to do what he wasn't willing to do himself. Besides, he had already arranged not to go into the station for the following two weeks. He couldn't take time off before that.
The DCI shook his head with determination and, hoping for the best, drove his car to the address James had given him a few moments earlier. As usual, he felt that too many cars were on the road. Besides, everyone was moving at the speed of a snail on sleeping pills. So, he swerved from one lane to another to compensate. A concert of horns punctuated his progress in traffic. That didn't bother him. It was an everyday occurrence whenever he drove through the town.
He spotted the police cars stopped next to the couple huddled under a tree when he turned on the street that James mentioned earlier. His Detective Sergeant seemed to be in a deep conversation with the man in the couple. A few yards away, the coroner examined a body on the ground.
McNamara stopped his car and got off, gathering his overcoat closer to his body. The wind blew fiercer than when he left the house and chilled him. He shivered and breathed deeply, then strode towards David Stewart, the coroner.
"What can you tell me, David?" the DCI asked quietly once he reached him.
The coroner lifted his eyes to the DCI's face and shrugged.
"I don't think the cause of death would be too difficult to determine in this case, lad," the older man replied dryly.
"That evident," McNamara noted, matching the doctor's tone.
David nodded and pointed toward the body at his feet. The top of the body's skull showed an indentation that spoke clearly about a blunt trauma to the head.
"That's a lot of strength there," the Chief Inspector observed.
"That is, indeed," the coroner approved his verdict. "And probably a lot of hatred," he thought to add.
"Why do you think that?" the detective asked, his brows climbing up his forehead.
"I've examined his pockets," David said with a shrug. "The guy's got a lot of money on him, and no one bothered to steal it. I'd say that the motive for the murder wasn't the money," the man continued, a hint of irony sliding into his tone.
"Aye, it wasn't," the DCI nodded, pressing his lips in a tight line. "All right then," he said, borrowing his hands in his pockets. The tips of his fingers had turned into icicles. "We need to find another reason, then," he continued, his gaze sliding over the body. "Have you found any ID on him? That would make things easier," McNamara lifted a shoulder, tilting his head to the right.
"We did find one, lad," the coroner reassured him. "Gilchrist has already sealed it in one of his omnipresent bags," the doctor informed him, tilting his head towards the forensic team leader.
Gilchrist was a bit farther, picking up the boot that had tripped Brian earlier. At the same time, the man was surveying his team, which seemed a bit lost. They didn't seem to find any evidence to collect. The snow on the ground made it difficult to see anything else.
"Still, when do you think you could do the post-mortem?" the DCI turned his eyes to the coroner.
Stewart raised his brows, watching the DCI over the top of his glasses.
"You've heard about Christmas, have you? Even you must know about it, lad. It's in two days from now," he added.
"Aye, I know," McNamara waved his hand. "I imagine you have plans with Agatha," he added, mentioning the man's wife. McNamara considered few people friends, but Stewart and Agatha were part of that exclusivist group. "Still, there's tomorrow. You could do the post-term tomorrow," the detective insisted.
David Stewart sighed deeply and shook his head. He knew McNamara well. When the lad got an idea, no one could make him change his mind.
"I'll do it tomorrow, then," the coroner agreed. "But you owe me one, lad," he waved his finger in front of the detective. "I don't want to have any post-mortem to do for New Year's Eve. You've got other people," he warned McNamara.
The DCI nodded without too much enthusiasm. "I know we have other people, but you're the best, David."
"That doesn't mean you have to work me to death, lad," the man shook his head. "I deserve a break now and then. I'm not as young as I used to be," he warned the policeman.
"Huh," McNamara snorted. "You'll bury us all, mate," he added with a hint of a smile on his lips. Then he turned his back to the doctor and headed towards his DS, James, with long strides, unaware that Stewart chewed his lips, not to burst into laughter.
David Stewart was one of the few who saw McNamara's intricate mind. It fascinated him, so he forgave the younger man a lot.
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