Read the previous chapter, Chapter 4, here first.
Chapter 5 of Desecration, London Psychic #1. Click here for buy links to the full book.
As Jamie pulled up on her bike, Missinghall stepped out of the unmarked car to greet her. With the information she now had from Jenna’s flat, Jamie wanted the two of them to approach her boyfriend. He would always have been under suspicion in a case like this but more so given what Elsa had told her. The press would be onto the story soon, given how high profile the case was, but Day-Conti hadn’t been informed of Jenna’s death yet and Jamie wanted to observe his raw reaction to the news.
Missinghall was munching on a foot-long Subway, wiping the side of his mouth carefully to keep the crumbs off his suit. Jamie’s stomach rumbled but she pushed the slight nausea aside. She felt a need to punish her own body for clinging to life while Polly lay immobile in her bed.
“We got the results back from the autopsy. It was rushed through because of the Nevilles’ high profile,” Missinghall said, pausing to take another bite as Jamie waited with barely restrained impatience. He offered her a piece of the sub and she shook her head, wondering even as she did so why she continued to resist even the slightest offer of help. “Jenna was definitely pregnant, around eight or nine weeks. Cause of death was asphyxia secondary to cervical injury and she was dead when her uterus was excised. There was some bruising on her hands, consistent with defensive wounds, so it’s likely that she was deliberately pushed down the stairs.”
Jamie nodded. “Anything interesting on her smart phone?” In so many cases now, phones provided intimate clues and almost exact time of death since people were so active on social networks or texting all the time.
Missinghall finished his last bite of the sub. “Work emails, the usual social networking with friends but nothing on her research into the Nevilles. Some angry text exchanges with Day-Conti, though.”
He handed her a piece of paper with the printed texts, some highlighted. Jamie glanced through them, noting that it seemed the arguments were about Day-Conti’s work but they didn’t suggest a sudden escalation in violence and there were no actual threats. She frowned, sensing that pieces of the puzzle were still missing. But this was what she loved about her work, the moment where moving parts were beginning to be revealed and she needed to work out exactly how they fitted together. Her mind shuffled them around, but the edges didn’t yet fit. It was a welcome distraction from the realities of the hospice, but Jamie’s fist clenched as she thought of Polly lying there without her. There was a fine line between her desire to be at her daughter’s side all the time, and her attempt to keep a hold on her job and her sanity.
Jamie and Missinghall walked together towards the Hoxton studio where Day-Conti lived and worked. The building was a huge brick warehouse, seemingly abandoned, but in this area of London artists were reclaiming the area and remodeling it into a trendy, creative haven. There was a large warehouse door marked Entrance that had a proper apartment door fitted into it. Jamie eyed the graffiti on the wall close by, unsure as to whether it was vandalism or art. Around here, it could be both.
She pressed the buzzer. There was no response after a minute so she pressed again, holding the buzzer down until the intercom crackled.
“Yes,” a voice said, indolent, as if he had been woken from sleep.
“I’m Detective Sergeant Jamie Brooke from the Metropolitan Police. I need to speak to you about Jenna Neville.”
“Jenna?” the voice said, suddenly concerned and alert. “Is she alright?”
“Can you let us in please, sir, so we can discuss the matter.”
The buzzer sounded and the door clicked open, revealing a large warehouse space. Jamie walked into the vast building, her first impression of a high ceiling, making the space light and airy. Her second was the smell, a heavy chemical preservative over the pungent stink of decay. Jamie noticed Missinghall’s nose wrinkle, and she knew that he also recognized it. There was something dead in here. The huge space was bisected by great metal walls, creating a myriad of smaller rooms in the large warehouse, so it was hard to see where the smell might be coming from, but Jamie felt herself tense at the possibility of what they might find.
There was a clattering of feet down the metal stairs at the side of the warehouse and they turned to watch a man approaching.
“Is Jenna OK?” the figure called as he hurried over. Tall and gangly, he was dressed in shades of faded black that seemed to merge into his skin. As he came closer, Jamie realized that this was because he was covered in tattoos and in addition, he had small horns protruding from the front of his closely shaven head. Even his eyeballs looked different, as if they had ink on them too.
“Rowan Day-Conti?” Jamie asked, looking doubtfully from him to the picture in her hand, which showed a preppy, clean cut young man with blonde hair and a muscular body. It was a long way from this clearly modified version.
“Yes,” Rowan looked down at the picture. “That’s the one on file, right. It’s the way my family wanted me to look, the way they try to remember me, but I haven’t been that boy for a long time.”
As he spoke, Jamie saw that his tongue was forked, split into two, strangely grotesque but mesmerizing to watch. Rowan’s eyebrows had been replaced by the intricately drawn wings of a dragon and there was a thick spike through his nose. Missinghall was staring and Jamie was trying not to, but Rowan was clearly used to it.
“Now, tell me about Jenna,” he said, “because she’s not answering my texts.”
As Rowan turned slightly, Jamie realized that his left ear had been carved into an asymmetrical shape surrounded by rune lines making the ear more of a spiritual offering than a facility for listening. She had seen body modification in magazines and on TV but never so close up. Those who pursued it considered the body as an art form in itself, a tool to be shaped into something new, a canvas for self-expression and a way to differentiate from the pack.
“I’m sorry, Rowan,” Jamie said, “but her body was found early this morning. It looks as if she was murdered.”
Rowan froze, his face falling and he sank to the floor, kneeling on the concrete in his ripped jeans. He hugged his thin arms around himself and took deep breaths, exhaling loudly to calm himself.
“No, not Jenna,” he whispered, panic in his eyes. “What happened? How did she die? Oh my God. When did it happen?”
Jamie crouched next to him, trying and failing to keep her eyes off his inked skin. From this angle, she could see that around the lower half of his cheek the tattoo revealed teeth inside a skeleton’s jaw, a sweep of bone towards the eye socket as if the skin had been carved away.
“We’re investigating exactly what happened,” she said, “but we do need to ask you some questions.”
“Of course.” His eyes were haunted, uncaring of their judgment. “Anything to help the investigation.”
Jamie stood up and looked around the warehouse, pointing to the metal walls.
“What do you do here, Rowan?” she asked.
Rowan’s eyes changed, flickering to mistrust as if he suddenly realized that he could be under suspicion.
“I’m an artist. This is my studio, my livelihood.”
“Can you show me some of your art?” Jamie asked, keen to investigate the source of the smell. It was death overlaid with sterility and it certainly wasn’t innocent.
Rowan stood up, crossing his arms, his posture defensive.
“Don’t you need some kind of warrant?”
Missinghall moved closer to Jamie, his bulk an effective backup.
“Not if you want to show us around as visitors,” he said, his voice calm. “We’re just here for a preliminary chat, after all.”
Rowan paused, then shook his head in resignation. “I’ve got nothing to hide, so look all you like. This is all legal, although you might find it a bit disturbing.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow, thinking of what they had already seen today. “I’ve been in the Met a long time so you’ll have to try really hard to disturb me.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Rowan said, leading them around one of the huge metal walls. A human cadaver sat at a desk, flesh ripped open to reveal its inner organs, as if it had been exploded from the inside out. “This is one of my works in progress.”
Jamie didn’t react and she was impressed that Missinghall didn’t either. They just stood there in front of the body looking inside the preserved corpse, a compelling obscenity.
“This is your art?” she said.
Rowan walked to the cadaver and stood by it, forcing them to look at him. Jamie found it odd to see this modified living specimen next to a body that had been mutilated after death. One art form presumably chosen as a statement to the world, the other displayed intimately without choice.
“Have you heard of the Von Hagens Bodies exhibition?” Rowan asked. Jamie shook her head. Missinghall looked grim-faced, and remained silent. “It was made famous by the controversy over the provenance of the bodies, because some believed they were procured from Chinese prisons and used without consent. Whatever the truth, his technique of plastination has revolutionized anatomy preservation, and has also spilled over into art for private collections, as you see here.” He pointed to the cadaver. “Plastination removes water and fat from the body and replaces it with certain plastics that can be touched, that don’t smell or decay. It effectively preserves the properties of the original sample but in a state that will last over time. There are several Bodies exhibitions, including one in New York, that display the cadavers in modern poses so you can understand how the bodies work.”
“Why?” Missinghall asked, finally breaking his silence. “What’s the point?”
Rowan looked at him with disdain, as if explaining such meaning was beneath him.
“It’s the intersection of art and science, confronting mortality head on. It’s like seeing your future, looking inside yourself and realizing the truth. You are just flesh and you will die. The truth can set you free, Detective.”
“You like playing God, Rowan?” Jamie asked, watching his eyes narrow as she spoke. There was a spark there, a defiance.
“I enjoy the confrontation of challenging established, so-called truth, yes. Most people remain in their safe little worlds, but I like to live in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Take the way I look, for example. People judge me, expect me to behave in a certain way because I believe in the right of each person to modify their own body. But most people are incapable of seeing behind the facade of skin to the true self.”
“But is it your right to modify the bodies of others, even after death?” Jamie asked, pointing at the cadaver.
Rowan shook his head. “Of course, you don’t get it. I didn’t expect you to. Cops are on the side of the comfortable masses.”
Jamie felt herself bridling against that, but she forced herself to listen. “But you have to check me out before you take any action. I have all the permits and my flesh provider guarantees that these bodies are donated specifically for artistic purpose.” He looked down at the body, running his fingers gently over the defined muscles in the neck. “I don’t see a dead person here. I see beauty and a tool for learning, for the illustration of truth. You see, I customize my body while I am alive but life is too short, so I modify the bodies of the dead so that they might live forever. Of course we are not our bodies, Detectives, we are more than that. But I also want to demonstrate that our bodies can live on in this fashion.”
Jamie considered his words, her thoughts flashing to Polly. She realized that she believed a similar truth, but from a different angle. Her daughter wasn’t defined by her broken body any more than these were actual people that Day-Conti worked on. Once consciousness left with death, the body was a mere shell, so why did this instinctively feel wrong?
She walked closer to the cadaver, bending slightly to look into the partially-exposed folds of its brain. From one angle the face was intact and from the other, the cranium was open, displaying the preserved brain tissue. The body looked as if it was in the process of being dissected where it sat, the shoulder muscles on one side partially exposed. Some of the right wrist had been opened so the tendons and veins could be seen, like a belated suicide attempt.
Rowan moved back as Jamie deliberately invaded his personal space. She had read in the file that he was the son of a family similar to the Nevilles, who were appalled at his recent life choices and the alternative world he now chose to inhabit. Eton, Oxford, and now Hoxton, Rowan had become an artist dissecting bodies while indulging in body modification of his own design. It was extreme as rebellion went, but Jamie couldn’t blame him from trying to escape his past, since she tried so often to forget her own.
“What else have you got here?” Jamie asked as she straightened.
“Follow me,” Rowan said, leading them through a labyrinth of metal walls, until they rounded a corner into another workspace.
Jamie blinked, trying to identify what she was seeing.
“This is what we call the explosion technique,” Rowan said.
It was a decapitated head, plastinated in the same way as the other cadaver, so that it was a tan-color, preserved and dried. The brain sat intact with eyeballs staring ahead, tongue poking out from a deconstructed mouth. The rest of the head was peeled away in layers, skull carved in half with teeth intact grinning outwards. The face, skin and lips were peeled further out, fanned like a flasher in a horror movie, exposing what was meant to be hidden and intimate.
Jamie stood looking at the head, examining her emotional response to it. Logically it should be stomach churning, disturbing to the point of nausea like the worst murder scenes. But it was actually so far removed from anything you would normally see that it did indeed become objectified art instead of flesh. It was clean, sterile, ultimately fake-looking. Jamie had seen the decapitated heads of murder victims, and they were never as clinical as this.
“I am driven to view the body as a receptacle,” Rowan said, waiting for their response. “As a mere container for who we truly are. Our skin, bone and physical flesh is but nothing in this life, only a carrier for our soul.”
Jamie turned to him. “And what did Jenna think of all this?” she asked.
Rowan sat down heavily on a wooden chair, rubbing his hand along his jaw. He sighed.
“Jenna was a lawyer,” he eventually said, his strident tone now gone. “We met at a body-mod event. She was researching the legal status of human body parts, consent for medical research and how that fitted with the use of bodies for art. There was an artist in the late 90s, Anthony Noel-Kelly, who was found guilty of stealing specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons. He and his accomplice were the first people in British history to be convicted of stealing body parts, even though the trade in bodies was centuries old. The body parts were classed as property because they were preparations, so there was actual work applied to the cadavers. Ironically, it would have been legal if the bodies hadn’t been worked on. Jenna was exploring those legal issues as part of her specialization. When I learned of her interest, I showed her the artistic side of the anatomical world and one night, she stayed over. We’ve been seeing each other on and off for a while now, not exclusive or anything, but she was special. There was something different about her.”
Rowan’s voice trailed off.
“Not exclusive?” Jamie asked.
“No, we agreed to see other people, and that was fine with me, although lately I’d been thinking about her more seriously.”
“Did she model for you?”
Rowan shook his head. “No, she would never do that.” He went quiet. Jamie waited, aware of the photo from Jenna’s flat in her pocket. After a full minute, he continued speaking. “But I couldn’t help myself. I had taken some pictures of her naked. She looked so beautiful and I wanted to use them as inspiration for a new piece. A body came in, almost as perfect as hers and I posed it like she had lain for me on the bed.”
“Before you carved it up, you mean,” Jamie said, unable to stop herself.
“Fuck you,” Rowan said, slamming his fist down onto his leg. Jamie didn’t even flinch. “This is art, this is what collectors pay for. It’s an evocative piece, imbued with emotion. I had a particular buyer lined up who was willing to pay a lot for it, but Jenna was furious when she found out what I’d done.”
“What happened?” Jamie prompted.
“We had a huge fight, a real screaming match. She said she would find out where the woman’s body had come from and make sure she was buried with dignity. She was going to stop the sale. Jenna refused to be the inspiration for what she saw as the abuse of another woman’s dead body. That was two days ago, and that’s the last time I saw her, although there have been angry texts from both sides, I’ll admit that.”
Missinghall looked up from his notes.
“Your name was down for the Gala Dinner at the Royal College of Surgeons last night.”
Day-Conti nodded. “I think she wanted me to go as a ‘fuck you’ to her parents who were attending as well.” He put his head in his hands. “I wish I’d gone now. Maybe she’d still be safe if I’d been there.”
“Why didn’t you go?” Jamie asked.
“To punish her, perhaps. She was disrespecting my work and I couldn’t bear to be there if she was going to ignore me anyway, not when my appearance would cause such a stir amongst that stuck-up crowd. I’ll admit it was a power-play.” His hands clenched into fists. “But damn, she was good at winding me up.”
Day-Conti must have realized what he looked like and relaxed his aggression, taking a deep breath.
“The piece she objected to,” Jamie asked. “Were you going to sell it anyway?”
“It’s what I do, Detective,” Rowan snapped. “The pinnacle of my art is to have it displayed in a collection, for other people’s pleasure. I don’t do this to have the final piece hidden away or buried, to rot and disappear into the earth like any other mundane piece of flesh. For this woman, the best way to be remembered was to be immortalized. This way her beauty won’t ever fade.”
“I’d like to see it if that’s OK with you?” Jamie said as her phone vibrated in her pocket with a text message from the investigation team back at the station.
As Rowan led the way into another section of the warehouse, Jamie checked the text. Day-Conti financials show that his gallery is on the verge of bankruptcy. Family have disowned him. He desperately needs cash. Here was motive indeed, money on top of art.
Jamie shivered. It was colder down the back of the warehouse, and the lights were dim. They rounded a corner and saw a
rectangular tent, made of opaque plastic, like a containment area of some kind.
“She’s in there,” he said, his voice hushed. “I’m still working on her.”
Jamie pushed through the curtains and into the tiny space. On a lab table lay the plastinated body of a perfectly beautiful young woman, her breasts round and pert, nipples hard, with one side partially dissected, the same as the picture she had found at Jenna’s flat. The woman’s arms were held above her head, her legs provocatively crossed, as if tied, but willingly. Jamie could definitely see the echo of the nude picture of Jenna, but with one huge difference. The woman’s head had been sawn off and the arms cut off at the elbows.
Rowan saw what she was looking at.
“I wanted her body to be the focus, not her face. This way she can be everywoman, a fantasy.”
Jamie was struggling to contain her anger at such a desecration, yet she argued with herself that those feelings didn’t make logical sense. This body was no longer alive, yet the callous treatment of the flesh was abhorrent to her. There was no sense of a person here, even less so because the face was missing. But it was the objectification of a woman mutilated and displayed without her consent. It was pornographic in some way, and yet how could anyone find this arousing?
“Has this collector bought from you before?” Jamie asked, keeping her voice even.
“I don’t know who they are though. They buy through a dealer, but I know this one likes vanilla skin, no mods at all. They do specify the partial dissection though, in order to see inside the bodies, always to their hearts.”
Jamie shook her head, sure that the buyer would be untraceable, but her sicko alarm was blaring.
“I’ll be needing all your permits, because I just can’t believe this is in any way legal.”
Rowan nodded. “I’ve been investigated before, Detective, based on a nosy neighbor’s curiosity. So you’ve got all the paperwork for me at the local station. They know what I’m doing here and it’s all legal, I promise you.”
Jamie walked out of the tent, away from the disturbance of the body as Missinghall went into the tiny space after her. She heard his muttered expletives and knew how he felt. She had seen a lot of bodies, in various physical states because of violent death, but this casual arrangement of sex and death seemed much more of a violation.
She led the way back into the main gallery, then turned.
“So, apart from the fight over that piece, you and Jenna had a good relationship?” Jamie asked, trying to refocus on other aspects of the case.
“She wasn’t my usual type, you know, vanilla skin and all that, but she had a fucked up mind. I’m modified on the outside, but Jenna, she was pretty mod inside. That girl had some problems.” Rowan shook his head. “You should talk to her family, right. They’re a bunch of screw-ups. She hated them, did you know that?”
Jamie remained impassive. “So where were you last night?”
“I was here working alone until around 10pm and then I went to Torture Garden.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously?” Rowan said, his voice rising an octave with annoyance and frustration. “Check it out. It’s all consensual and legal. Just because it’s a fetish club, you reckon something evil’s going on, right? At Torture Garden, there are lines you can’t cross, it’s not just a free for all. Seriously, I’d expect you to be more open-minded. We just want to express our individuality and that makes us far more normal than the rest of you. If you want to find some really fucked up individuals, look at the suits and ties and those who can only express themselves after drugs or alcohol. ”
“Did you know Jenna was pregnant?” Jamie asked, not giving Rowan a moment to recover from his tirade.
He looked shocked. “Shit. No.” He ran his hands over his scalp, rubbing the short hair upright. “Really? You think it was mine?”
Jamie could see that he really hadn’t known about it. Her inner radar was going off over many things in this house of plastinated horror, but her gut told her that he hadn’t known about the baby. He needed the money and he had motive around the sale of the female torso, and he definitely had the skills to carve up Jenna’s body. But if he hadn’t known about the pregnancy, there was no reason to extract her uterus. She’d have to clear his alibi by checking out the cameras at Torture Garden, but she didn’t think it necessary to take him in. She raised an eyebrow at Missinghall and he shook his head, clearly feeling the same way.
“Thank you for your time, Rowan,” Jamie said. “Don’t go far though, will you?”
He shook his head, still reeling from the news of the pregnancy. “Of course, I’ll be here. Please Detective, let me know if I can help in any way. You might not approve of what I do, but I loved Jenna.”
Jamie saw tears welling in his eyes as he turned away to show them out. They needed to speak to the other man in Jenna’s life. Could an affair have led to her death?