Read the previous chapter, Chapter 1, here first.
Chapter 2 of Desecration, London Psychic #1. Click here for buy links to the full book.
The jet black BMW motorbike pulled up in front of the Royal College of Surgeons in the square of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, an area renowned for the legal profession and dominated by Georgian terraced houses. Jamie tugged off her helmet and dismounted the bike, putting her safety gear and protective leathers into one of the panniers. She had traded in her old car when Polly had entered the hospice. She couldn’t stand to look at it anymore without feeling that her daughter had gone already. The bike was cheaper to run and the independence increasingly suited her. She wasn’t meant to use it for getting to crime scenes but today she needed the mental space even though it rumpled her clothes. She straightened the black crush-proof trousers and tucked in her white shirt, pulling the matching suit jacket out with her handbag from the other pannier. Dusting the jacket down, she put it on and her transformation was complete. Polly sometimes called her the ‘black work wraith’, but Jamie preferred to wear the equivalent of a uniform to separate her professional life.
Glancing around and seeing none of her colleagues, Jamie pulled out a pack of Marlboro Menthol. Lighting one, she looked up at the imposing classical entrance to the Royal College. She smoked quick and fast, her breath frosty in the air, cheeks red with the winter cold. The cigarette was a shot of delicious poison, her own private rebellion against what she would have preached to Polly. What did it matter anyway, Jamie thought. Life is poison, drip drip drip every day until we die of whatever addictions hold us. Everything she lived for right now hung over her head like the sword of Damocles, so what difference would another cancer stick make? Besides, she needed just a little fix before facing the body that lay inside. The cigarette was a chemical separation between her home life and the professional, a space where she could squash her emotions into the mental box she kept separate from her police work.
Jamie took another drag, enjoying the mint fresh aftertaste through the harshness of tobacco smoke. In the old-school tango clubs of Buenos Aires, smoke filled the air, an important part of the culture where life was often short and lived intensely. In these brief moments Jamie recaptured that sensation in the little beats of time between her dual lives in this crazy city. She relished the start of a new case and already she was glancing around, her mind posing questions about the area. Why was the murder committed in this elegant part of town?
A gust of wind blew leaves along the road, brittle reminders of autumn tumbling over each other and rustling in the gutter. The sharp breeze bent the branches of trees in the park, a few skeletal leaves hanging on against the grey. Jamie looked up at the early winter sun, the only color in a sky that was as washed out as the commuters who walked, shoulders hunched, into the Aldwych. Winter was almost upon them and soon the British would begin their annual vigil, longing for spring as the nights arrived ever earlier. Jamie thought ahead to Christmas, a time that Polly loved and she had always over-indulged. Would she be alone this year? Jamie pushed the thought aside, taking a final drag and pulling a small tin from inside her bag. She stubbed the cigarette out on the lid and carefully placed the end into it. The tin served as a way to monitor her habit but also to remove any evidence. She noticed there were already three inside, too many for this time in the morning.
Walking into the main lobby of the Royal College of Surgeons, Jamie gave her details for the crime scene log and put on protective coveralls and booties. A uniformed Officer directed her past the yellow tape of the perimeter to the first floor. The entrance hall was imposing, wide stairs with rich red carpet sweeping around in a curve, with marble balustrades to guide the way upwards. The hall was overlooked by extravagant paintings of the men who had once ruled this surgical empire. Artifacts from the museum were displayed in niches, drawing the eyes back through its illustrious history.
Upstairs, Jamie entered the Hunterian Museum, a place she’d never visited but vaguely knew of. It was one of those hidden treasures of London that few came to see but which changed those who did. She was partially glad of her ignorance, because she wanted to see it with untainted eyes before she polluted her instinctive impressions with fact.
Near the door, a uniformed officer sat with an elderly man, the Curator. He was agitated, wringing his hands and then rubbing his neck, repeatedly loosening his tie. Jamie recognized the body language of self-comforting and wondered if perhaps he had found the body. She would circle back to him in a bit. The officer looked up and Jamie nodded her head in a professional greeting, avoiding a smile.
She looked around, taking in the activity before her. Scene Of Crime Officers (SOCOs) were processing the area, and Jamie’s eyes were drawn to a central space surrounded by walls of glass shelving that contained thousands of body parts in preservation jars. Jamie had seen many bodies in various states, but usually they were recognizably human. This was a collection of the macabre, and a strangely appropriate place for another dead body.
Jamie felt a familiar surge of excitement at a new case, a new puzzle to solve and a way to distract her from thoughts of the hospice. She registered the usual guilt as well, because for her to feel this way, a human being had to die. But Jamie was a realist and there would always be murder, violence and death. It was endemic to the human condition. She had a short window of opportunity in her life to make a difference and potentially lower the body count and it made her remarkable for just an instant. This job was not some office function where busy work whiled away the hours, counting for nothing. This work could save lives, bring justice and occasionally equilibrium to the small corner of the world that was Jamie’s London. It was a chance to be extraordinary, the reason she had escaped her parents’ home on the Milton Keynes housing estate as soon as she could. She had known growing up there that she had to get out of that rut or risk being trapped forever in mediocrity.
Jamie walked into the central area where a female body was laid out on the floor wearing a scarlet evening dress that had been slashed open. Her beautiful face was calm but there was a deep wound in her lower abdomen, looking more like a surgical operation than the butchery it must have been. The woman’s blonde hair looked like an unnatural wig, the tresses freshly brushed and seemingly too alive to be attached to a dead body. Flashes of light from the crime scene photographer illuminated the corpse, her skin pale and posed like a model exhibit. Jamie stood still as she took in the scene. This was the moment when she knew nothing and her mind was filled with questions. Who was this woman and why did she die here last night. She noticed the red lipstick on the woman’s mouth and imagined her speaking. What would she say?
“Jamie, good to see you.”
Jamie turned to see Detective Sergeant Leander Marcus, his slight paunch extending the dark weave of his suit trousers, visible through the thin protective coveralls.
“Hey Lee, were you first on scene?”
Leander nodded, his face crumpled with lack of sleep.
“Keen to get off it ASAP. I’ve been up all night and this only came in a few hours ago. Cameron get you called in?”
Leander arched an eyebrow and Jamie gave a complicit half-smile. Detective Superintendent Dale Cameron was respected for his accomplishments but he also seemed to have Teflon shoulders, deflecting any scandal onto other ranking officers, so his cases came with a health warning. With his salt and pepper hair and a body kept trim from marathon running, Cameron had the looks of a Fortune 500 CEO and his star was on the rise within the Metropolitan Police.
He had been appointed Senior Investigating Officer for the crime, assigning Jamie to the case along with a small team of Detective Constables as an inquiry team. Jamie had clashed with Cameron before, receiving a verbal warning for acting outside of protocol. She knew that she needed to rein in her independent streak, it didn’t sit well with the rules and regulations of the Force. But she also knew that her exemplary investigation results meant she was given a little more leeway. Her methods might be unorthodox, but at least Cameron trusted her enough to get the job done and assign her to this case. She needed distraction, and losing herself in work was the best way, keeping her mind occupied while her heart was slowly breaking.
“So what have we got so far?” Jamie asked.
“The deceased is Jenna Neville,” Leander said. “Her handbag is missing but we got a list from security of people who entered in the last 24 hours and she was easily recognizable after we got the names. You must have heard of Neville Pharmaceuticals?”
Jamie’s eyes widened in recognition at the name.
“Of course, it’s one of the biggest British pharmaceutical companies.”
“Exactly. Her father is Sir Christopher Neville, the CEO, who mainly concerns himself with politics and media campaigning. Her mother is one of the top scientists for the privately owned company.”
“Any indication of why she was here?” Jamie asked.
“There was a gala event downstairs last night for alumni surgeons of the college. Jenna Neville attended the event, along with her parents, who are benefactors.”
Damn, Jamie thought. A medical style murder in the Royal College of Surgeons after a party filled with actual surgeons. No obvious suspects then. “How many people?”
“Around 90 guests, plus staff. The Museum was supposed to have been locked though, and it wasn’t used for the function.”
“Is a team on the statements already?”
Leander nodded. “There’s several officers starting on it now we have the guest list.”
“I don’t envy them,” Jamie said. “ That’s going to take a while.” She looked up at the glass walls surrounding them, stretching two stories high and lined with specimen preservation jars. “Cameras?”
Leander shook his head. “There aren’t any in the Museum itself and the ones downstairs show all those guests milling around. We need to go through the footage and see if any of them weren’t on the guest list, but to be honest, there are other entrances. This isn’t a highly secure building as it’s not considered a security risk. There are no drugs here, or money, only old bones and bodies.”
Jamie indicated a walled display of surgeon’s tools.
“And scalpels, knives, hacksaws and other equipment that could be used as murder weapons.”
Leander shrugged. “Of course, but the College says that these are historical objects and there are easier ways to procure knives around here. But they’re checking the inventory now.”
They stood in silence for a moment as a white suited figure finished examining the body. Jamie knew forensic pathologist Mike Skinner from multiple crime scenes but he barely strayed outside the boundaries of professional talk related to the case. He stood and stretched his back, then turned to them, inclining his head in a slight greeting.
“There’s massive blunt force trauma to the skull and her neck’s broken.” Jamie could see that the head was positioned at an unnatural angle, and the hair had been pulled back from the wound. Skinner pointed behind them to an open space at the bottom of a flight of stairs from the upper level of the museum, now surrounded by crime scene markers. “There are blood and bone fragments over there so it looks like she fell and hit the post at the bottom of the stairs. I suspect that the way she landed would have forced her head into hyper-extension with sufficient force to cause a fracture at the C2 vertebrae.” Skinner demonstrated with his own neck, dropping his chin close to his chest. “It’s a classic hangman’s fracture and cause of death is likely to be asphyxia secondary to cervical injury. It only takes a few minutes. I’ll confirm in the post-mortem but those would be my preliminary thoughts. Her body was then dragged to this central area and postmortem lividity shows she was on her back here when the body was cut open.”
Jamie glanced down at the bloody wound, held open by a retractor. “Can you tell what was done?”
Skinner nodded. “Looks like her uterus was removed. Skillfully done too. It’s a perfect Pfannenstiel incision, a Caesarean section, and it looks like the instruments used were from the Museum’s collection.”
Jamie tilted her head on one side. “That implies no pre-meditation, at least for the excision.” She paused, looking around the museum at the specimen jars surrounding them, an echo of the mutilated body. “Was she dead when her uterus was cut out?”
“It looks that way but I’ll know for sure after the autopsy. The lack of significant blood loss around the wound suggests that the heart stopped pumping during the operation.”
Jamie felt a sense of relief that Jenna hadn’t felt the invasion of her body, but why had it been done?
“Any idea of time of death?”
“Between nine and midnight, but I might get something more exact after the autopsy. I would say that it was certainly during the gala event. Right, I’ve done all I can here.”
Skinner nodded at two other men, also in protective clothing and they came forward to remove the body. They bagged the woman’s hands and laid down a plastic sheet. As the corpse was lifted, Jamie heard something fall from the folds of Jenna’s dress with a dull thunk. She signaled for the photographer to capture it as she bent to look more closely, pulling out her sterile gloves and an evidence bag. It was a figurine carved of ivory, around four inches long, a woman laid on her back, torso opened in a detailed miniature dissection. The woman’s serene ivory face portrayed a calm demeanor even as her body lay open and mutilated, her organs and loops of intestines painted a deep red.
“You can take the body,” Jamie said to Skinner, who was clearly eager to get back to his lab. “I’ll deal with this.”
She waited until the body had been zipped in its bag and strapped to the gurney. Once it had been wheeled out, she beckoned to the officer by the door to bring the Curator. He shuffled over slowly, his face a mask of grief. Even surrounded by mementoes of death every day, it must have been a horrifying shock to find the newly dead body early this morning. After some brief introductions, Jamie indicated the figurine.
“Could you explain what this is, sir?” she asked, her voice coaxing.
The Curator’s posture became more focused as he directed his attention to the figurine, bending down to look but careful not to touch it.
“It’s an anatomical Venus,” he said. “They were made from the seventeenth century onwards as a way to teach anatomy, but increasingly they became more of an attraction for the cabinets of curiosities belonging to various wealthy collectors. They wanted things that were strange or terrible, horrific or unusual, those that would provoke a reaction in the viewer.”
“Is it valuable?” Jamie asked.
The Curator nodded. “Absolutely. We have some examples here but it’s not one of ours. It must belong to a private collection, or a museum perhaps. Someone will be missing it, for sure.”
There was a bustle of noise at the doorway to the Museum and Jamie turned to see Detective Constable Alan Missinghall enter, hunching over in an attempt to be less obtrusive. He failed miserably, his six foot five muscular frame dwarfing the other officers on scene. He was new in the department and so far Jamie was impressed with his work. Missinghall had only just turned thirty and many underestimated him, seeing in his physicality a propensity for violence. But he was gentle, his expressive face betraying an acute compassion for victims of crime and he had a way of standing that made others feel protected. As usual, he wore an understated dark blue suit, slightly too short in the leg for his height, but he still walked like a man with authority.
“What have we got, Sarge?” Missinghall said, bending to look at the figurine.
Jamie recapped what she had found out so far and he took notes on his pad, putting asterisks next to aspects for follow-up. Jamie appreciated his keen attitude, hoping that it would last, for he hadn’t yet tasted the bitter side of detective work.
“This room is seriously weird,” Missinghall said, glancing around at the glass walls. He walked over and stared at the rows of specimen jars.
Jamie took a picture of the figurine on her smartphone, bagged the item for processing and then followed him over. The jars looked marvelously benign until you leaned closer, until what was inside became clear. The specimens were organs grouped together across comparative species. A whole shelf contained jars full of tongues, fleshy camel, spongy lion, then a human tongue with soft palate and enlarged tonsils, wrinkled and puckered like an alien mouth. These jars of disease are evidence of our mortality, Jamie thought with a shiver, fragments of flesh and bone that once walked the earth, now imprisoned in jars of preservative, drowning anew each day.
The Curator shuffled over to the cabinets, noting their interest and clearly eager to distract his own attention from the misery of the crime scene.
“John Hunter was an eighteenth century surgeon,” he said. “He introduced direct observation of the body and scientific method into anatomy, rejecting the flawed textbooks his generation used. Although his methods were unorthodox and he gained many enemies, he nevertheless changed the practice of surgery and made medical discoveries that saved countless lives.”
“Is this all his work?” Jamie asked, indicating the glass shelving with a sweep of her arm.
“Most of it and more in storage,” the Curator replied, “but much was lost in a fire. He worked with his brother initially, William Hunter, who specialized in medical education and gynecology. But John was the real anatomical genius, and he prepped the specimens perfectly as you can see. It became his obsession and he spent his life seeking out the strange and terrible from humanity and the animal kingdom in order to learn from them.”
There was so much death here, Jamie thought, imagining John Hunter and the bodies he had cut to pieces to make this collection. It was certainly a triumph of science and reason at a time when the body was misunderstood, before anesthesia, before antiseptic, when surgery was more akin to torture and generally ended in death. But it was also a disturbing museum of the deformed and misshapen monsters that Hunter had found so fascinating. Jamie looked into one of the cabinets, staring at the face of a child with no eyes, covered in smallpox. Just a face, floating in liquid. This place was indeed a bizarre and perfect location for a murder.
“John Hunter eventually had his own anatomy school and private medical practice as well as working at St George’s Hospital. He would hardly sleep, so driven was he in his studies.” Jamie could hear the admiration in the Curator’s voice, his respect for a lifelong obsession. “Hunter was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition for his pioneering work and he was considered the authority on venereal disease, possibly even infecting himself to study its destructive course. He was obsessed with direct observation, hence the specimens you see here.”
Missinghall leaned towards one of the cabinets and Jamie saw the grimace on his face as he realized he was staring at a set of
diseased sexual organs. He shifted uncomfortably and turned back to the Curator.
“So where did the bodies come from?” he asked, and Jamie felt her own curiosity piqued too, for there were thousands of specimens even in this one room.
“That was … difficult,” the Curator said, nodding. “But they had no choice, you see. Since the time of Henry VIII surgeons had only been allowed a small number of bodies each year, usually criminals hanged on the gallows. But there were too few to use for effective teaching and the surgical schools required each student to dissect several bodies in the course of their studies. John Hunter and his brother were part of a renaissance in anatomical teaching, but they needed fresh bodies every day in the winter dissection season. Summer, of course, meant the bodies putrefied too quickly.” The Curator was speaking fast now, almost apologetic for what had happened all those years ago. “So they had to work with so-called Resurrection Men, grave robbers who would take fresh corpses from new graves, from the hospitals or poor houses and sell them to the anatomists.”
Missinghall’s expressive face showed his distaste, and although Jamie had heard of such practices, she hadn’t really understood until now that many of the bodies were stolen, taken from graves without the consent of loved ones or sold because of poverty.
“Seriously?” Missinghall was incredulous. “Wasn’t that illegal then? Because it sure is now.”
The Curator shook his head. “The corpse was not considered property and the Resurrection Men were careful to only take the naked body, leaving the shroud and coffin so as not to be prosecuted for stealing. They were paid more for bodies that died of exotic diseases or deformities, and Hunter also wanted to recover the bodies of patients on whom he had performed surgery to see how they had healed.” He pointed into the glass bell jars at the fetuses preserved there. “These little ones were priced by the inch. There are even some claims that the Hunters bought corpses murdered to order, particularly women at various stages of pregnancy for William Hunter’s detailed study of the gravid womb.” He paused. “Ridiculous rumors, of course.”
Jamie didn’t want to hear any more of Hunter’s ghoulish past and Missinghall was looking increasingly queasy, even though he was accustomed to the newly dead. What mattered right now was establishing what had happened last night, not over two hundred years previously.
“Thank you for your time, sir,” Jamie said. “We may come back to you with further questions.”
The Curator nodded and walked away, his shoulders tense and rigid.
Missinghall shook his head. “Let’s process this freakish place and get out of here,” he said. “We can look into Hunter some more back at base, but I suspect this place will give me nightmares for weeks.”
Jamie nodded, walking slowly around the glass-walled cases to the bottom of the stairs. She bent and examined the blood stains there, careful to avoid the crime scene markers.
“Why was Jenna even up here during the gala dinner?” Jamie thought aloud. “The body was clearly dragged from the bottom of the stairs, so it would be logical that she fell first and hit her head before being moved.”
“Or she was pushed deliberately,” Missinghall noted.
“Not a very effective way to kill someone,” Jamie said, walking up the stairs to the next level. “It’s not guaranteed that the person will die, only be injured in some way. And these steps aren’t even that steep.”
“Maybe it was an accident?” Missinghall said, as they both looked down at the scene below through more glass display cases.
“Cutting out her womb wasn’t an accident.”
“Maybe the killer has something against women?” Missinghall said. “Or perhaps this place just inspired impromptu surgical practice?”
Jamie ignored his black humor, understanding his need to keep a light tone with what they dealt with every day. She turned to look at the other cases on the second floor, which was focused on the history of medicine. In one was a life-size wax model of a hideously deformed victim of war, with half a face and its neck torn away to reveal the jawbone. One hand was burnt to raw pink skin with fingers missing, and there were slashes in the chest, open to bloody rib bones. In the next case, a whole series of surgical saws were displayed, all from a seventeenth century surgeon’s kit. Jamie read the sign on an amputation saw, describing a time before anesthetic and antiseptic, when people’s limbs were hacked off while they were tied down, dosed only with laudanum or alcohol. She turned away, before the imagined horror dominated her thoughts any further.
“We’ll have to wait for the autopsy results on whether she was pregnant and we’ll need the statements of the attending surgeons from last night.” Jamie sighed. “So let’s go talk to the parents in the meantime.”
Click here to continue reading Chapter 3.