The rain worsened, rattling down on the steel roof of the SOCO Scientific Support Branch van, sounding as hard as hailstones. The windows were opaque, to allow in light but keep out prying eyes. There was little light outside now, however, just the bleakness of wet dusk, stained the colour of rust from ten thousand city street lights.
Despite the large external dimensions of the long-wheelbase Transit, the seating area inside was cramped. Roy Grace, finishing a call on his mobile, chaired the meeting, the policy book he had retrieved from his go-bag open in front of him.
Squeezed around the table with him, in addition to Glenn Branson, were the Crime Scene Manager, a Police Search Adviser, an experienced SOCO, one of the two uniform scene guards and Joan Major, the forensic archaeologist Sussex Police regularly called in to help with identification of skeletons – and also to tell them whether the occasional bone found on building sites, or by children in woods, or dug up by gardeners, was human or animal.
It was chilly and damp inside the van and the air smelled strongly of synthetic vapours. Reels of plastic crime-scene tape were packed in one section of the fitted metal shelving, body bags in another, plus tenting materials and ground sheets, rope, flexes, hammers, saws, axes and plastic bottles of chemicals. There was something grim about these vehicles, Grace always felt. They were like caravans, but they never went to campsites, only to scenes of death or violent crimes.
It was 6.30 p.m.
‘Nadiuska isn’t available,’ he informed the newly assembled team, putting his mobile down.
‘Does that mean we’ve got Frazer?’ Glenn responded glumly.
Grace saw everyone’s faces fall. Nadiuska De Sancha was the Home Office pathologist everyone in Sussex CID preferred to work with. She was quick, interesting and fun – and good-looking, as an added bonus. By contrast, Frazer Theobald was dour and slow, although his work was meticulous.
‘But the real problem is that Frazer is finishing a PM up in Esher at the moment. The earliest he could get here is about 9 p.m.’
He caught Glenn’s eye. They both knew what that meant – an all-nighter.
Grace headed the first page of his policy book: PRE-SCENE BRIEFING. Friday 19 October. 6.30 p.m. On site. New England Quarter development.
‘Can I make a suggestion?’ Joan Major said.
The forensic archaeologist was a pleasant-looking woman in her early forties, with long brown hair and square, modern glasses, dressed in a roll-neck black pullover, brown trousers and sturdy boots.
Grace gestured with his hand.
‘I suggest we go and do a brief assessment now, but it may not be necessary to start work tonight – especially as it’s dark. These things are always a lot easier in daylight. It sounds as if the skeleton has been there a while, so another day won’t make much difference.’
‘It’s a good thought,’ Grace said. ‘One thing we need to consider, though, is the construction work going on here.’ He looked directly at the Police Search Adviser, a tall, bearded man with an outdoors complexion, whose name was Ned Morgan. ‘You’ll need to liaise with the foreman, Ned. We’ll have to stop the work directly around the storm drain.’
‘I spoke to him on my way in. He’s worried because they’re on a time penalty,’ Morgan explained. ‘He nearly had a fit when I told him we could be here a week.’
‘It’s a big site,’ Grace said. ‘We don’t need to shut the whole of it down. You’d better decide where you want work stopped as part of your search plan.’ Then he turned back to the forensic archaeologist. ‘But you are right, Joan, tomorrow would be better, in daylight.’
He put a call through to Steve Curry, the District Inspector responsible for coordinating uniform police in this area of the city, and advised him that a scene guard would need to be kept on until further notice, which didn’t thrill the inspector. Scene guards were an expensive drain on resources.
Grace turned next to the Crime Scene Manager, Joe Tindall, who had earlier this year been promoted to the post. Tindall gave a self-satisfied smile. ‘All the same to me, Roy,’ he said in his Midlands accent. ‘Now I’m a manager I get to go home at a decent hour. Gone are the days when you and your fellow SIOs can screw up my weekends. I ruin other people’s weekends for you now.’
Secretly, Grace envied him. What’s more, in reality the remains could easily wait until Monday – but now, as he again regretted, they had been discovered and reported, that was not an option.