Jerry had to sit in the hospital waiting-room for nearly an hour while the young woman was having her injuries sterilised and dressed. He read a day-old copy of the Daily Express and a year-old copy of Country Life and then he texted Jamila to tell her where he was and what he was doing. She didn’t answer, so he assumed that she was out having a meal somewhere. He felt jealous. He could fancy an Indian curry, especially a chicken tikka masala.
He was still thinking about ordering a takeaway when a young neatly bearded Indian doctor came into the waiting-room.
When he heard the word ‘detective’, a middle-aged man on the other side of the waiting-room looked across at him with hostility. The man’s face was bruised and unshaven and he smelled strongly of drink.
Jerry said, ‘That’s me. How is she?’
‘Come and see for yourself. I have to say that her injuries are most unusual.’
Jerry followed the doctor along the corridor to A&E. Behind the curtains that lined one side of the room, a woman was sobbing and a child was grizzling, both in miserable harmony. The doctor took Jerry to the very end of the room and drew back the curtains that surrounded the young woman who claimed that she had been hurt by her jacket.
Jerry recognised her immediately. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said. ‘It’s you.’
Sophie was lying back on her pillows, her eyelids flickering as if she were nearly falling asleep. Her face was waxy and pale, and she seemed to be having trouble in breathing.
‘Hallo, Sophie,’ said Jerry. ‘It’s me again – Detective Jerry Pardoe from Tooting police station. You remember me, don’t you?’
Sophie nodded, still taking little sips of breath as if she were trying to stop herself from crying.
There was a plastic chair next to the young woman’s bed and Jerry pulled it over and sat down. ‘What happened to you, Sophie? The doctor told me that you’ve got some really bad scrapes on your back.’
Sophie nodded again, and her eyes filled with tears.
Jerry waited for a moment, and then he said, ‘You told the nurses your jacket did it. What did you mean by that?’
‘I couldn’t take it off,’ Sophie whispered.
‘You couldn’t take it off?’
‘It was like it was stuck onto my skin. I pulled it and pulled it and in the end I got it off, but it hurt so much.’
‘When you say it was stuck to your skin—?’
Sophie pulled up her bedsheet to wipe her eyes. ‘I was so scared. It was like I was me but I wasn’t me. It was like the jacket was telling me what to do.’
‘Sorry, love. I’m not too sure I understand you.’
Sophie closed her eyes for a moment, trying to summon up the strength to tell Jerry what she had done. When she opened them again, and saw him sitting beside the bed looking at her sympathetically, she let out a bleat of sheer anguish.
‘He upset me, but I didn’t mean to hurt him! Not like that! I swear I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t me!’
‘Who are you talking about, Sophie?’
‘Mike, my boyfriend,’ she wept. ‘We weren’t getting along very well, but I didn’t mean to hurt him as much as that! I never would have done that to anyone, no matter how they treated me!’
‘You hurt your boyfriend?’
‘Yes. But it wasn’t me.’
‘All right, it wasn’t you,’ said Jerry, taking hold of her hand. ‘But what exactly did you do to him?’
Another long pause, and then Sophie whispered, ‘I killed him.’
‘You’re sure he’s dead?’
‘How did you kill him?’
‘I stabbed him in the eyes and then I cut him open.’
Jerry took out his iPhone and his notebook. ‘Sophie… I’m going to write down what you tell me, and also record it. I have to caution you too, love. You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Do you understand that?’
‘Yes. But it wasn’t me. I did it. I killed him. But the jacket made me do it.’
‘When did this happen?’
‘Yesterday night. He was asleep and he was snoring and I stabbed him in the eyes and cut him open.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He’s still at our house, ninety-six Lavender Avenue. He’s in the bedroom. I was going to get rid of his body but then I took off the jacket and I hurt myself so much and the jacket came after me.’
‘Excuse me? The jacket came after you? I don’t follow what you’re saying.’
Sophie clutched Jerry’s hand so tightly that her fingernails dug into him. She sat bolt upright in bed even though it must have hurt her back, and her face was distorted with anger and fear.
‘It wasn’t me!’ she screamed. ‘It was the jacket that made me do it! And when I took it off—!’ Her screaming subsided, and she dropped back onto her pillows. ‘When I took it off, and I was bleeding so much, it came after me. It was crawling after me, like it didn’t want me to go.’
The doctor and two nurses appeared, drawing back the curtain.
‘Is everything all right here, detective?’ asked the doctor.
Jerry stood up. ‘I think Sophie here is still suffering from shock, doctor. I think she needs a good night’s sleep and some time for her injuries to start healing.’
‘She has already been given a sedative,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t worry, she will be very well looked after.’
Sophie looked up at him and said, ‘You do believe me, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Sophie. I believe you. I’ll go round to your house when I leave here and make sure that everything’s OK. You don’t happen to have a key, do you?’
‘No. I left it inside. But watch out for that jacket. It could still be right behind the front door.’
‘I’ll take care, I promise you.’
‘Don’t try to put it on, whatever you do. It’s the same jacket I was wearing in the shop.’
‘In that case, no chance. Far too small for me.’
‘I killed Mike,’ said Sophie. ‘I killed him, but it wasn’t me. You have to believe me.’
‘All right, love. Don’t get yourself all worked up. I’ll come back later.’
Jerry left the A&E department and walked back to the hospital’s main entrance. The doctor came with him.
‘She is claiming that she killed somebody?’ the doctor asked him.
‘Her boyfriend. She says she stabbed him.’
‘She is in a state of hysteria. We can’t really work out yet how she sustained her abrasions, but there were fibres implanted in her skin, and it would appear that her injuries were caused when these were forcibly pulled out. There are still quite a few remaining. Whatever happened, she has been left extremely traumatised.’
‘What kind of fibres are they?’
‘They appeared at first to be very fine hairs, but of course it would be extremely unusual for a female to have hairs all across her back and her shoulders and her arms. Even when a woman is suffering from hirsutism the hairs are usually thicker and darker. I thought at first she might have polycystic ovary syndrome, but when we examined the hairs more closely we could see that they were not hairs at all. We haven’t had the time yet to carry out a conclusive analysis, but as strange as it may seem, my opinion is that they are some kind of thread, like silk.’
‘Silk? OK. If you can let us have a sample, doctor, I’ll send it to our forensics experts.’
‘Of course,’ said the doctor.
They had reached the main door now. As Jerry was about to leave, the doctor said, ‘She was really telling you that she had killed somebody? Do you believe that this is true?’
‘I have no idea. Like you say, she’s in a state of hysteria. But there are two officers posted outside and I’ll ask them to liaise with your security people in case she gives you any trouble or tries to leave before we’ve fully investigated. In any case, I’ll be back here myself to talk to her again – tomorrow morning at the latest.’
The doctor looked dubious, but then he shrugged. ‘I have dealt with some very strange cases,’ he said. ‘But this is the strangest case I have come across so far. Who can weave silk into a woman’s skin?’
He was driving back to the station when Jamila texted him. Did u want me?
He called her back on his hands-free phone and told her about Sophie and her confession that she had murdered Mike.
‘I’m going to go around to her house with a couple of uniforms and a bosher. It’s possible that she’s simply gaga and making the whole thing up. It could be that she’s been smoking or snorting something or popping Molly. We won’t know until we take a butcher’s.’
‘I’ll meet you at the station. I’ve just come back from a meeting with the Asian Women’s Resource Centre.’
‘Oh. I thought you were out having a curry. I was jealous.’
‘Really? One day I will cook you one of my curries. I make a wonderful keema.’
‘If I knew what a keema was, I’d probably be drooling.’
Jamila was waiting for him in the CID room when he got back. She looked as tired as he felt, but they went immediately down to see Sergeant Bristow to arrange for uniformed back-up.
‘What’s the SP?’ asked Sergeant Bristow.
‘Suspected stiff,’ Jerry told him.
‘Don’t forget your Vick’s, then,’ said Sergeant Bristow. He was referring to the strong mentholated vapour rub which was often dabbed by undertakers and pathologists on their upper lip to mask the smell of corpses.
Two PCs were out on patrol close to Lavender Avenue where Sophie lived, and they arranged to meet up outside her house in fifteen minutes. They had a battering ram on board their patrol car – what Jerry called a ‘bosher’ – so they would be able to open Sophie’s door without any trouble.
‘So what’s this Asian women’s thing all about?’ Jerry asked Jamila, as he drove them to Lavender Avenue.
‘I’ve been involved with it for over a year now,’ said Jamila. ‘It’s partly a social group, partly an information centre, and partly a refuge where Asian women can go if they are being abused or battered by their husbands.’
‘Sounds very worthy.’
‘Oh, it is more than worthy, Jerry. It saves some women’s lives.’
When they reached Lavender Avenue, they found that the patrol car was already parked outside Sophie’s house. It was a small terraced property with a pebble-dashed frontage, typical of thousands of suburban houses built around South London in the 1930s. An elderly man and a woman were standing in front of the house next door to watch what was going on. The man was even holding a cup of tea and smoking a cigarette.
‘Nothing to see here, chum,’ said Jerry, as he passed them by.
‘Always screaming and shouting, those two,’ the woman retorted, as if that justified them standing outside and rubbernecking.
‘Yeah, nothing but a bloody nuisance,’ her husband put in. ‘The times we’ve called the council.’
‘Well, we might want to talk to you later,’ said Jamila. ‘Meanwhile, my colleague is quite correct. There is nothing for you to see.’
The two constables were a burly black officer and a small red-haired WPC. The black officer was cradling the red Enforcer battering ram like a babe-in-arms and waiting patiently by the yellow-painted front door.
Jerry rang the doorbell and knocked, just in case Sophie had been hallucinating and her boyfriend was still alive and unharmed, or somebody else had come round to the house.
‘What – there’s supposed to be a body inside?’ asked the WPC.
‘A young woman was brought into St George’s with serious contusions,’ Jerry told her. ‘She said that she’d murdered her boyfriend. Stabbed him in the eyes, that’s what she said, then sliced him open.’
‘Oh, I’m looking forward to this,’ said the black officer.
Jerry rang the doorbell again. They all waited another fifteen seconds, and then he said, ‘OK. Bosh away.’
The black officer swung the battering ram and knocked the door open with one hard blow, cracking the cheap Yale lock away from the frame. He gave it a kick to open it wider, and immediately they smelled the ripe gassy smell of death.
‘Urghh,’ said Jamila. ‘I believe your young woman was telling you the truth.’
The woman constable waved her hand in front of her face and said, ‘God. I hope I’m not going to throw up. I just had a Big Mac.’
Jerry switched on his flashlight and pointed it inside the darkened hallway. As Sophie had told him, the blue velvet jacket was lying crumpled on the floor.
‘That jacket,’ he told Jamila, shining his flashlight on it. ‘Take a picture, could you, skip?’
‘What for?’ asked Jamila, although she took out her iPhone and photographed it, as he had asked her.
‘I’ll tell you later. But it’s one of the reasons why Smiley wanted us to follow this up. I mean, DI Saunders,’ he added, turning to the two constables with a stern expression, in case he had given them the impression that they too could refer to him as ‘Smiley’.
Jerry looked into the living-room, and then the kitchenette. The smell of decomposition was so strong that it was difficult to tell where it was coming from. He opened the small downstairs toilet but there was no dead body in there.
‘Upstairs, I reckon,’ said the black officer.
Jerry climbed the steep, narrow stairs. He checked the bathroom, and then he opened the bedroom door. It was chilly in there, because the window was open, but the stench was overwhelming. He shone his flashlight onto the floor, and there was the purple duvet cover with the dark purple flowers on it, and from the way it was bulked up, it was obvious what was inside it. The lower folds of it were shining wet, and the beige carpet next to it was stained dark yellow.
Jerry cupped his left hand over his nose and mouth and wished that he had taken Sergeant Bristow’s advice to bring some Vick’s vapour rub. He pulled his black forensic gloves out of his coat pocket and snapped them on, finger by finger. Then he stepped carefully into the bedroom and crouched down beside the duvet cover. Jamila watched him from the doorway.
Laying his flashlight down on the carpet, Jerry unbuttoned the duvet cover, lifted it up and peered inside. He could see the back of Mike’s neck, and his shoulders, and when he lifted it higher he could just make out some of his greeny-yellow intestines, all piled up in his lap. He couldn’t see Mike’s face, because his head was bent so far forward, and he didn’t want to touch him until the forensic experts had taken photographs of him in situ, so he was unable to determine if Sophie had been telling the truth about stabbing him in the eyes. He dropped the duvet cover and stood up.
‘She wasn’t lying about one thing,’ he said, peeling off his gloves. ‘She’s cut him open.’
Jamila shuddered, and said, ‘Yuck.’ Then she said, ‘I’ll contact forensics. There’s nothing else we can do here, not at the moment.’
‘I’ll call Sergeant Bristow for some more back-up,’ said Jerry. ‘And I also need to make sure that we’re keeping an eye on that Sophie. We don’t want her doing a disappearing act before we arrest her.’
The two constables were waiting downstairs in the living-room. They didn’t need to ask if Jerry and Jamila had found the victim’s body.
‘She wouldn’t have had far to go to get rid of him, would she?’ said the black officer. ‘London Road Cemetery’s just round the corner, and there’s a wheelbarrow in that garden over the road there.’
Jerry tried not to give him a smile. ‘Let’s get the front of the house taped off, shall we?’ he said. ‘We don’t want any nosey neighbours wandering in.’
He took another look around the kitchenette and the living-room, but there was nothing in either room to indicate that Sophie and her boyfriend might have been fighting before they went upstairs – no broken plates, no cushions thrown around. As he came back out of the living-room, though, he saw that the blue velvet jacket was no longer lying in the hallway.
‘Hey!’ he called to the black officer, who was outside the front of the house now, unwinding a roll of blue-and-white police tape. ‘Did you move that jacket?’
The black officer shook his head. ‘I saw it was gone but I thought you’d taken it.’
Jamila was outside, too, by their car, calling the forensic service. Jerry went out and said, ‘You didn’t pick up that jacket, did you?’
Jamila finished her call and frowned at him. ‘Of course not. I haven’t touched anything.’
‘It’s gone. It’s not there any more.’
‘This is ridiculous,’ said Jamila. ‘This is exactly like what happened at the Wazir house. It can’t have disappeared on its own. Maybe one of those neighbours took it when we were upstairs.’
‘Well, I’ll ask them. But why would they?’
Jerry went next door. The neighbours were still standing in their front yard, smoking and chatting to another neighbour who had just joined them.
‘Haven’t seen a blue velvet jacket, have you?’ Jerry asked them.
All three of them stared at him in bewilderment.
‘I was wondering if you happened to see a blue velvet jacket lying in the hallway next door – and, ah—’
‘And what, mate?’ asked the husband, blowing out smoke.
‘No, never mind,’ Jerry told him.
‘Blue velvet jacket, mate?’ said the husband. ‘Nah.’