The letterbox rattled shut. The postman’s shadow disappearing from the glass of the old front door. He’d reached the gate and was across the busy road before the owner of the house was out of her chair. It took a moment for the lady to gather breath, as it did not come so readily in her twilight years. Minutes had ticked away on the antique clock by the door. The tiny wooden cuckoo long silent, but ever watchful over the rack of coats and the spotless black and white floor in the hall.
With a soft groan and a crack of the knee, the post was collected. Bill. Insurance junk. Stairlift. Insurance junk. Charity. This week’s offers at the minimart down the road. Then an unknown. A well padded envelope. The postmark was from Jersey. Helen’s hands shook slightly and she lowered herself to the stair by the door.
With bent fingers she pulled at the wrapping, but it did not break. “Blasted paper,” she cursed and reached for her letter opener on the hall table. Sliding the sharpened point in, she sawed through the rough paper and opened the bubble packed parcel. She shook it. Nothing came out. Squinting, Helen forced open the envelope’s gummy lips and groped within. Her feeble fingers touched card and... yes! A small bottle. Hurriedly, she tipped the items into her lap; a wide smile lighting her features. The bottle was a tiny plastic length: a bit like one of those perfume samples you’d get in Boots. She plucked it from her lap and with failing eyes, studied the logo. Mayfly.
It was early. Too early to be up and way too late to still be up. The detective snorted crossly, his hands shoved deep into his coat pockets as if he hoped to find some vestige of warmth to push away the chill. Leaves blew across the park’s path, one sticking to his trouser wetly. He shook it off and then climbed under the Police tape. “Morning, Carlson. What’s the situation?”
The uniformed officer gestured for the detective to follow him behind the hastily erected plastic sheeting. “A dog walker called it in, sir. That’s her - sat on the other bench with PC Mistry. Quite shocked by all accounts.”
“A dog walk at this hour?”
“She works shifts, sir. A nurse apparently. The park’s well lit and you know the neighbourhood.”
“Quite. No trouble here as a rule. Hence the shock. You expect this sort of thing in Beasleywood, not out here.” He stopped to study the witness from afar. His brain ticking off the woman’s body language and description. “Anyone been from the lab yet?”
“Not as yet, sir. Called it in. Set the sheets up and taped the place off. Mistry’s getting a statement. We’re waiting on the qua - sorry, sir - necessary parties to process the scene.”
Gerrard looked over to the body. Yes, it - well, she - had been a person. “How long?” Now, they were The Deceased. Maybe an unfortunate soul who’d taken the wrong thing, or not taken the right. He wanted a smoke and a coffee, but neither were good for him. He rubbed his jaw and stopped himself, realising how it must look. “Guess we best wait, eh? Don’t want to go traipsing through the evidence. Have you called it through to the CCTV boys?” The wind blew the plastic sheeting and it boomed against the draft. On the park bench, the young woman’s blonde hair - well cut, Gerrard noticed - blew from her face. She look serene, happy almost. The hem of her flowery dress fluttered, as if the elements were conspiring to rob her further of modesty. She didn’t look the type to be risking her neck on cheap rec drugs, but what did he know? The dress was expensive high street. His daughter’s posh friend had one similar.
Carlson’s radio squealed noisily. “Ten minutes, sir. The processing team. I’ll get in touch with Streetwatch.”
“Get the last few hours if you can. All entrances to the park - foot and by car. See if she came in with anyone and get the direction. Backtrack if you need to. Don’t let Webley give you the run around. If he gives you any lip, I’ll sort it.”
“Sir,” the policeman nodded and began to mutter into his lapel mic.
The detective’s eyes ran around the scene. No obvious wounds. The young woman’s handbag lay at her side and open. He could see an old purse, no mobile, a hanky and a set of keys. His eye fell on something in the long grass. A silver tube. He looked to the face of the deceased and then back to the item in the grass: lipstick. Gerrard frowned as he realised the young woman’s make-up was fresh. For some reason, that jarred with the usual post-pub and club crowd.
The kettle clicked off. No cups rattled. Nothing was poured into the waiting teapot. Helen sat in the little kitchen, the Eighties glory now turned to the wrong side of retro. The small card rested in one hand, the small plastic bottle the other. She turned the card over as if re-examining it would bring around new detail: it did not. Setting the card down, Helen picked up the phone and redialed Harry’s number. “Pick up,” she whispered.
“Hello?” A man’s voice, Harry’s polite tones.
“Hello, Harry. It’s me. Helen. How are you?”
“Oh. Hello, my dear.” Harry was ever the gentleman. His diction crisp like his shirts. No teenage grandad this one. Not that he had any children who visited him. In that way, they were much alike. He, through a bad roll of the dice, she through choice. “What can I do for you?”
She found the words stuck in her throat. Perhaps making a cup of tea would have helped? Too late now. “It. It came Harry. I’ve got it.”
The phone crackled with silence and the distant sound of Harry’s breathing. “It did? Are you going to? You know...” A pause. “Are you sure, Helen?”
Helen closed her eyes and gripped the handset. “I think, so. Yes.” She took a breath. “Yes.” Certain this time. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The cordless handset carried the gentle sigh of resignation. “If you are sure, my lovely, if you are sure.” She heard him swallow. “I know this last year has been hard for you.”
Emotion pulled at Helen’s heart. “I will miss you, Harold. You kn - “
“No goodbyes, Helen,” came the chuckled reply. “You know my feelings. Go with grace and with my blessing.”
The handset clicked once under an arthritic thumb and the line went dead. Helen looked over at the clock on the microwave. It was 10.24. She twisted the cap on the bottle and drank down the contents. She felt nothing, but then why should she? Getting up, she made her way to the stairs and began her last journey to bed.
The interview room was stuffy. The heater sat wheezing against the wall, burning taxpayers’ pennies with a grudge. Gerrard slipped off his suit jacket and hung it on a peg next to the door. He checked his notes and then sipped his tea. A biscuit would have been good, but his trousers already bit into his stomach when he leaned forward. There was a knock at the door and a young man was ushered in. Tall-ish lad, close cropped hair,nervous eyes, a shirt that was a little too big for him and a tie from the local electrical retailer. “Peter Wilson? Hello, I’m Detective Gerrard. We spoke on the phone earlier. Thank you for coming down. Please, take a seat.” Wilson shook the hand that was offered and sat down. “Do you want a tea, a coffee?”
“N-no thanks,” the boy managed.
“Just to reiterate, “ Gerrard explained and smiled, nodding, “you’re not here to be charged, okay? The coroner and lab reports have ruled out anything suspect. What we’d like to know, is your relationship with the deceased.”
“Relationship? We’d only just met.” The lad starred at the Detective’s drink.
Gerrard pushed his forward. “Here, take mine. S’okay. You were saying. How’d you two meet?”
“It was in Lovecraft. That new club in town. I was out with my mates and we’d had a few jars - not too many mind.” Gerrard tried not to smile as the young man backtracked. Shaky hands raised the plastic cup. “I saw her by the dance floor. She looked gorgeous.”
“This was, when?”
“I dunno. Early. Umm. Eightish I s’pose.” The lad frowned as if that would help squeeze out the memory. “We’d been to the Pitcher and then down to Keats.”
Gerrard scribbled a note down on the scruffy notebook in front of him. What the boy was telling him matched up with some of the CCTV footage. So far, so typical. “Was she there with friends, or on her own?”
The girl woke at eight, her eyes bright as the radio alarm started with its typical chatter. No teenage lethargy pulled at her. Those years were gone now. Slipping out of bed, she stretched her arms out and let out a little grunt as she shifted the final ties of sleep. She looked over to the mirror in the wardrobe and smiled to it. “Today’s going to be a big day,” she said and padded into the bathroom.
A long hot bath and then breakfast followed. Letters were written, the fridge emptied and the doors checked before she left. She had set the house up for sale and when the right buyer came along, all would be well. Pulling the door closed, she slipped the keys into her new bag and tapped down the path to the gate. A gentle breeze ruffled her hair, the weather was warm for May; a mercy as she’d left her coat behind.
The route to town took her by the postbox and then to the bus stop. Looking up at the sky, she put away her purse and set off for a brief walk into the city. The sun was warm on her skin as she strode along the path. Cars whizzed by and people walked on. The letters had been posted, so her bag felt a little lighter as it tapped against her side. To get out and simply enjoy the sun, it was something she should have done more often. Smiling at the thought, she worked her way through her list of things to do. Letters? Done. Savings? Already transferred to her current account. Lunch was booked at Royale and while the price would be high, she had decided it would be worth it. Why not live a little? After that - and if the weather was good - she would visit the new gallery, maybe take a walk in the park and then? Well, she would see where the day took her.
In his office, Gerrard reviewed Wilson’s interview. The kid had done nothing wrong. He’d gone out, had a few jars and then met a nice girl at a club. Despite the Media’s view of ‘Yoof culture’, young Mr Wilson had been the proper gentlemen judging by statements from the bouncers and later, from the taxi driver. He’d walked Jen, the deceased, to the taxi rank and waited with her until she got in. The cab went off into the night and that was that. The team had hauled in the driver - Winston Aleeli and he’d dropped her off at the end of Chisholm Street, about five minutes walk from Jubilee Gardens, the park where the nurse, Sarah Hitchen, found her lying dead on a park bench. Dental records had drawn a blank and there was no joy with fingerprints. Jen did not have a driving licence or for that matter, any ID with her. That in itself wasn’t unusual, Gerrard knew his own daughter would go out with little more than a credit card and her phone. But this girl? She had nothing to her name and no phone. That in itself seemed a little odd.
He tapped a chewed Biro against the desk. Why didn’t Jen have a mobile? Didn’t everyone have one nowadays? No-one had followed Jen into the park. He pulled the mouse from under a set of papers and re-ran the export from the StreetWatch team. No doubt Webley would be licking his wounds after the dressing down he’d been given. Overtime was nothing to Gerrard. To him, he had a young girl in her twenties found dead on a park bench. With no name, they hadn’t managed to contact a Next of Kin and Missing Persons hadn’t had any calls that matched her description either.
After battling through the software, Gerrard got to the video files. He skipped the taxi drop off and followed the footage of Jen walking into the park. The place was well lit and was as much a thoroughfare as public space. Jubilee Park had been there since the last jubilee and the avenue the digital ghost of Jen walked along had been renovated in time for this summer’s celebrations. New flowerbeds, brickwork paths that were wheelchair and buggy friendly and retro style Victorian lamps now lined the long curve of the Avenue as it cut through the south end of the park.
Gripping the pen between his teeth, Gerrard slowed the file down using that trick he’d picked up from Ken in IT. Forcing himself to study the film, he watched Jen walk along the Avenue in her dress and shoes. He paused the image and tried to zoom in. The software froze, he swore and then with a pixelated detail, played on. She wore flats, but not one’s his daughter would. These were more retro. Was there a name for her style? Something about her appearance nagged at him, but the reason remained as elusive as Jen’s last name.
Something flickered on the image and Gerrard grabbed the mouse. He reserved the film and played it back one second at a time. Jen’s image stuttered as it walked in frozen time to the bench and then to sit. She opened her bag, took out her lipstick and as she did so, she dropped something. The zoomed in image was pretty poor at this time. It was a square of something: a pad of tissues, some paper? It wasn’t the tube of lipstick he’d seen during his first visit. Gerrard picked up the telephone and sent some uniforms out.
The meal had been truly excellent and the cocktail at the end now sang pleasantly in the girl’s head as she walked from the gallery. Passing through Hockton, she paused as a young lady in skin tight jeans and a 50s style top handed out flyers. “Rockabilly at Rudy’s! Be there, not square,” she teased as the girl took the leaflet. A 50s starlet peaked out from the riot of bands of another time. The two of them chatted about the event easily. The flyer was slipped into a bag and the girl wander into the shop selling this year’s take on retro fashion. Tonight she would throw caution to the wind, live as free as she felt. She needed to dance, to drink, to sing and if Cupid was kind, to love. But first, there would be retail therapy.
Harold’s stroll through the park matched the mood of the weather. Originally warm, but now stormy. Heavy clouds rolled overhead, fat with menace; dispelling all but the most dedicated outdoors folk. He always took his umbrella, even on sunny days. It was a habit he’d kept from The City, a nod towards the fact that he needed a stick most days. His dog, Watson, trotted alongside, the mongrel’s tail wagging at the thought of scrounging the last part of the Rich Tea at eleven.
The old man slowed down, noting a man in a raincoat waiting by his door. Harold paused to ensure Watson’s lead was on. “Hope he’s not a salesman, eh lad? Shame you don’t bite.” Mirth danced in the man’s eyes and Watson barked at him playfully. “Shh. Let’s see what he wants.”
The man turned as Harold approached and smiled to him. He took something out of his pocket - a wallet - and flipped it open. “Mr Kingley?” Harold nodded. It wasn’t a wallet, but a holder for an ID card. A police ID card. “I’m Detective Gerrard. I’d like to ask you a few questions about a missing person.”
“Really?” Harold managed. He had expected this, but not quite so soon. “I’m afraid you’ve caught me on the hop, sir. Would you like to come in? Please, call me Harold, Mr Kingley is so formal. Would you like a drink at all? I’m quite parched after my walk.”
Minutes later both men were sat at a small table, cups - never mugs - of rich coffee placed in front of them. Gerrard noticed the dog hadn’t taken his eye off the biscuit tin. He also noticed that Harold’s coffee had merely been sipped at and that the old man seemed to keep trying to put his hands in his lap and under the table. Gerrard explained the reason for his visit; the search for details about the young lady they’d found dead in the park a few nights ago. “The reason I’m visiting you today is that we found this not far from her resting place.” At least he hadn’t said ‘body’. The detective placed a photocopy of half a gas bill on the table and turned it so Harold could see it. He watched the old man study the address and then the handwritten shopping list across the charges.
“Where did you say you found it?”
“By the body of the deceased. That’s all I can say for now.”
Harold looked at the handwriting. He knew it well. “The writing is from a friend. A good woman.”
“Close friend, Mr Kingley - sorry, Harold?”
The old man smiled and pointed to a small painting on the wall: a rainbow. “Very close, but not as you’d think. To be honest with you, detective, I had expected you to call.” He laughed. “My, this does all sound a bit Touch of Frost doesn’t it.” Gerrard didn’t laugh and listened as the old man continued. “Pardon me. The gallows humour. It is not appropriate, but I will explain why. May I ask you a few questions though?” Seeing the detective nod, Harold stopped to take a drink of coffee. “The young lady you found: she had nothing in her bag, yes? No purse, no driving licence?”
“That is correct. May I ask how you know this?”
The old man smiled. “You took her fingerprints, checked her dental records, did whatever those.... CSI.... people do to find the killer, and you came up blank, yes?”
The detective said nothing, he merely bobbed his head and drank his own coffee.
“No-one has reported her missing and photo-fits - or whatever you call them nowadays - they’ve all been dead ends.”
Gerrard cut in. The idea of amateur sleuth night with a nosey old pension was not high on his agenda. “Are you saying you went through her things, Mr Kingsley? I take it you knew her. We know her as Jen. Who was she?”
“Jennifer was her middle name,” Harold said. “One more question, please. You’ve been in touch with others within the Police, how many similar cases are there?”
“I beg your pardon?” Gerrard managed. “If I may be blunt, we are talking about the death of a young woman and - “
“I’ll wager that you’ve had two dozen or more such deaths in the last few months. If you check with your European colleagues, you will find the same is true. Young people, fit as a fiddle, dead in the middle of the night and not a jot of paperwork with them.”
“Look, if you coul - “
Something cold slid behind Harold’s eyes as he sighed. “All of those deaths had one thing in common. Something called Mayfly.”
“Is that a drug? Are you a chemist?”
“It is of sorts. More a potion.”
Gerrard couldn’t help but sneer; his professional mask slipping.
“It is mad isn’t it,” the old man continued. “Two professionals talking like this. Me an old professor and you an officer of the law.”
“So you did make it?”
“Please do listen, detective,” Harold continued. “I will explain all.” He opened the biscuit tin and offered it across. Gerrard shook his head, the dog barked under the table. “Shh, Watson. Pets, eh? Yes, you will not find any documentary evidence for these people. Until 24 hours earlier they did not exist. Or perhaps more accurately, they did not exist as we see them.”
Gerrard shut his notebook. This one was clearly a nutter.
The day had gone by in a blur of delight. The pleasures of comfort, food and, now, good company. Jen giggled into her cocktail as the young man, Peter, joked about his inability to make a cake for his mum. She could picture him, covered in flour and looking very much worse for wear. She smiled from under her hair to him; my, he was handsome. Putting the glass down, she leaned forward and placed her hand on his leg to balance herself. “I shall be awful and make you dance,” she teased and she felt her heart flutter. She hid the pain in a little cough. “A girl hasn’t got all night, Peter.” she added and then kissed him on the cheek. Her took her hand, smiled and they edged to the dance floor.
Harold paused to stir his coffee as the detective watched him. “The mayfly - or to use the German translation ‘the one day fly’ is a creature that lives all of its life within one day. When you are ill, when you are old, the Mayfly potion is a choice.”
Gerrard raised his coffee and drank slowly, his eyes never left Harold. He waited for the old man to prattle on, but it did not happen. Even the dog was silent. “And if you make that choice?”
“Take it and soar in the glory of youth... for one day only. That is Mayfly’s gift and its curse.”
Hours later, Jen’s heart sang and her feet complained. Peter and her had kissed in one of the private booths like groom and bride. She blushed at the thoughts she had had while they embraced. He had been forward, but not fast. At the end of the night, they had left together and the walk to the taxicab had felt like something from another time.
Jen checked her watch as she stepped from the cab and into the street. She tipped the driver and shut her purse with a soft click. Around her, good people slept unaware of the magic that filled her. She closed her eyes and took a long breath. She would miss this city; it’s familiar twists, its people and the change that time had wrought upon it.
She was not sad, but joyful as she walked towards the park. This is where she would rest and for a moment, she felt bad at the idea of someone needing to tidy up after her. She batted the thought away as there was no time to plan anything else. Reaching into her bag, she took out that new lipstick from the shop, checked her appearance and walked on.
Helen Jennifer Smith straightened her skirt as she sat down. She smiled, remembering how her gran had told her that’s what young ladies did. Her heart felt weak, her breathing barely as whisper and yet she was still here. The silver tube in her hand became heavy and she let it roll from her fingers. Perhaps someone would make it their lucky find. She found herself tired and she let her eyes close.