Jerry was eating a chicken-and-mushroom slice at his desk in the corner of the CID room when Jamila came in. Today she was wearing a black trouser-suit and a purple silk headscarf.
‘Ah, there you are,’ she said. ‘Is there something wrong with your phone?’
‘Yes, it’s called “switching it off for five minutes so I don’t have to answer it with my mouth full”.’
‘You should eat a proper breakfast before you come to work.’
‘I would, if I had somebody to cook it for me.’
‘You’re wearing a wedding ring. I thought you were married.’
‘I was. It was something to do with the hours I had to work, and the fact that she took a fancy to the manager of our local Waitrose. With him, she could have regular sex and a ten per cent discount on her weekly shop. How could I compete with that?’
‘Do you have children?’
‘One. A little girl. Alice. She’s two-and-a-half. I’m allowed to see her once a fortnight.’
‘Life can be very hard to bear sometimes.’
‘Are you speaking from experience?’
Jamila didn’t answer that, but said, ‘The pathologist just called me, from St George’s. He says he has something unusual to show me.’
‘Oh, yes? Like what?’
‘He said we should go the hospital and see for ourselves. He couldn’t describe it over the phone.’
‘What about Saunders?’
‘He’s stuck up at the Yard this morning. Some kind of policy meeting. But he’ll be down here later.’
Jerry looked at his half-eaten pastry.
‘Take it with you,’ said Jamila. ‘I’ll drive. I wouldn’t want you to go hungry.’
‘No, you’re all right,’ Jerry told her. He opened his desk drawer and dropped the chicken-and-mushroom slice on top of a report on local vandalism.
Dr Fuller impatiently checked his wristwatch when they arrived, although he said nothing.
‘Traffic,’ Jerry explained. ‘Burst water-main on Longley Road.’
‘I have three dead drug-addicts waiting for me,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘It would be nice to get them all wrapped up before lunch.’
He was a big, untidy man, Dr Fuller, with a wild comb-over covering a scalp that was freckled from thrice-yearly Mediterranean cruises and half-glasses that looked as they were going to drop off the end of his snubby nose at any second. His lab coat was done up with all the wrong buttons and his trousers were an inch too short, so that Jerry could see that he wasn’t wearing any socks.
He had a slight cast in his pale blue eyes so that Jerry couldn’t be sure if he was looking at him or Jamila.
‘DS Patel said you had something strange to show us.’
‘Well, it’s something I’ve never come across before, let me put it that way, and I’ve been carrying out post-mortems for thirty-three years.’
Dr Fuller led them along the corridor with his shoes squeaking. The mortuary was as chilly as a church, with high clerestory windows. A young lab assistant was washing a metal dish in the sink, making a loud clattering noise and singing to herself. Three autopsy tables were lined up along one side of the room, and a fourth was standing in the centre. Its stainless-steel covers were folded down on either side and its downdraught ventilation system switched on, so that anybody who leaned over it wouldn’t be breathing in formalin.
Samira was flat on her stomach with her arms by her sides. Both her head and her buttocks were covered with neatly folded green cloths. Jerry and Jamila approached the autopsy table and stood looking down at her, although neither of them could see anything unusual. It was a plump young Pakistani woman’s bare back, with a sprinkling of moles and some bruising around her shoulders where blood had pooled after her death, but that seemed to be all.
‘So… what’s so strange?’ asked Jerry.
‘You’re not looking closely enough,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘Here… use this. This might help.’
He handed Jerry a large white magnifying glass with an LED light. Jerry switched it on and examined Samira’s back through the lens. The light illuminated a forest of fibres, so fine that they were almost invisible. Each was less than a centimetre long, but they were protruding from almost every pore.
Jerry passed the magnifying glass to Jamila.
‘What the hell are all those hairs?’ he asked Dr Fuller. ‘Was she growing herself a winter coat or what?’
‘They don’t… they don’t look like hairs to me,’ said Jamila. ‘At least not the natural hairs that this poor girl would have grown. Look at the hair on her head, it’s jet black.’
‘It’s not her natural hair,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘And she’s not growing it. It has no roots.’
Peering through the magnifying glass, Jamila carefully pinched one of the fibres between finger and thumb and pulled it out. ‘It comes out quite easily,’ she said. ‘Not much resistance at all.’
‘So what is it?’ asked Jerry. ‘If she’s not growing it, how did it get into her pores? Even pushing one hair into one pore would be hard enough, and there are hundreds of them – thousands, even. Gordon Bennett – it takes me about half an hour to thread a needle.’
‘I’ve carried out a preliminary analysis,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘Of course the forensic unit will be able to do a much more comprehensive check. But it’s not hair at all. Not human hair. It’s a mixture of wool and polyester.’
Dr Fuller poked his half-glasses more firmly onto the bridge of his nose. ‘No doubt about it. It’s the sort of fibre that clothes are made out of. Somehow it seems to have penetrated her skin. Her back, mainly, but her arms, too, and her sides, and her breasts and her stomach.’
‘Do you have any idea how that might have happened?’ asked Jamila.
‘Absolutely none, I’m afraid,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘I’ve come across quite a few cases in which people have exhibited allergies to certain fabrics, such as nylon or pure wool. They’ve had rashes and spots and sometimes they’ve become very ill. But I’ve never seen anybody who appears to have been invaded by a fabric before, not like this unfortunate girl.’
‘What’s your next step?’ asked Jamila.
‘I’ll take further samples including a section of skin with the fibres embedded and send them up to Lambeth Road to see what they make of it. The cause of death was almost certainly cardiac arrest brought on by shock, but that’s hardly surprising when you consider what was done to her face. I’ll be setting up some further tests, though, to see if these fibres didn’t contribute in some way to her demise. Perhaps they caused some chemical reaction that dramatically lowered her blood pressure.’
‘They’re just wool and polyester; how could they do that?’
‘They contain elements of a synthetic disperse dye, too. That’s a man-made dye frequently used to colour clothing, especially clothing with a polyester content.’
‘The fibres are dyed? What colour?’
‘Some variety of grey, as far as I can make out. Pigeon grey, dove grey. Something like that.’
Jerry and Jamila left St George’s and drove back to the station. They were both silent for most of the way, but as they turned into Mitcham Road, both of them spoke at once.
‘I hate bloody inexplicable mysteries,’ said Jerry.
‘How can a fabric attack a woman?’ said Jamila. ‘It makes no sense at all.’
As they went up in the lift to the CID room, Jerry said, ‘It was grey. And that coat was grey, the one that went missing.’
‘The one that you thought went missing.’
‘I know it went missing. I distinctly saw it when we first entered the house, and by the time we left it had gone. And it was grey.’
‘That’s not even a coincidence.’
‘Well, perhaps it isn’t. But I’d still like to know where that coat went.’
‘In that case, why don’t you go around to the Wazirs and ask them if they know where it is. Then maybe you’ll stop nagging me about it.’
‘I just have a feeling about it. I don’t know why. It could be that her mother or her brother got rid of it because it was evidence that it was one of them who poured acid in her face. Maybe one of them was wearing it when they attacked her, and some of the acid splashed onto it.’
‘You really are clutching at straws, Jerry.’
‘I know. But I have OCD when it comes to circumstantial evidence. We had a case in Tower Hamlets last summer and there was only one shoe in this missing woman’s bedroom and we couldn’t find the other shoe anywhere. I looked everywhere for that bloody shoe, and in the end I found it. It was jammed underneath the passenger seat of her husband’s car. He’d knocked her out, dragged her out of the house, and driven all the way down to Leigh-on-Sea so that he could hire a boat and chuck her into the estuary.’
‘Go on, then, if it’s bothering you that much. But DI Saunders has arranged a media conference for twelve noon and you need to be back in time for that.’
‘What are we going to tell them? It wasn’t an honour killing, after all. They were trying to turn her into a magic carpet and something went wrong?’
‘Sorry. It’s just that it gets my goat sometimes, all this pussyfooting round the Muslim community.’
‘Jerry – we respect your religion. We ask only that you respect ours, in return.’
‘I don’t have a religion. I gave it up about the same time that I gave up smoking.’
‘We don’t smoke, either.’
‘Oh, don’t you? I thought you were still burning embassies. Sorry – sorry! Bad joke!’
‘It’s probably just as well for you that I don’t get it.’
‘Embassy cigarettes? Never heard of them? Never mind.’
‘I’ll see you at twelve.’