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Not What It Seems

There was no doubt that it was murder. The girl’s body was found in a ditch beside a country lane just off the A628 in Yorkshire. She had been badly bludgeoned about the head and the only doubt was whether she had been killed where she was found or had been killed elsewhere and her body brought to the lane and dumped. Disturbed ground alongside the ditch, evidence perhaps of a fight, and a jack handle covered in blood, found only a few yards away, seemed to point to the former but were not conclusive. As Chief Inspector Crossland said to his sergeant, “You can never quite get inside the mind of these bastards, Matthews. You or I would dump the weapon somewhere it wouldn’t be found but you can never tell with murder. A man doesn’t think straight when he’s killed someone.”

Sergeant Matthews, who had been involved with three murder investigations and knew full well that this was Crossland’s first was not prepared to be diplomatic.

“We don’t know it’s a man yet, sir.”

“Well, we know it’s murder and a blunt instrument’s not a woman’s weapon unless she’s killing her husband. But, you’re right. No unwarranted assumptions, eh?”

From documents found in a pouch looped around the girl’s neck, a preliminary identification was quickly made and, before the end of the day, confirmed. Penny Murray, a nineteen year old student from Manchester, was, despite the entreaties of her parents, on a solo walking holiday in Derbyshire. That she had ignored her parents’ advice was perhaps to be expected in a teenager. Just why she should have been found in Yorkshire was not so easily understood and speculation in the press was immediate. For no particular reason other than that Penny had been a remarkably attractive and vivacious girl and had once won a makeover in a competition, the speculation tended to focus on the notion that she had formed a liaison with a man who had subsequently killed her. Her having won the makeover and having had publicity photographs taken ensured the press had a field day and large pictures of the dead girl appeared the next day on the front pages of all the tabloids. Those in the broadsheets were only slightly smaller.

But, for several days, Crossland and his team made no progress. There appeared to be no leads. Forensic analyses confirmed that death had indeed taken place in the lane and that the blood on the jack handle was hers, but such fingerprints as were found were inconclusive. Penny had not been sexually assaulted. No-one was able to suggest why she had been in Yorkshire. She had ignored parental advice but, neverthess, had apparently been quite open about her intentions – a solo walking and youth hostelling holiday in Derbyshire. An itinerary in her bag suggested she had stayed at the Bakewell youth hostel the night before her murder. This was quickly confirmed and detectives from various forces had spent fruitless hours tracking down and interviewing others who had been at the youth hostel that night. Several had recalled the girl with whom they had shared the kitchen facilities, the dining table or the dormitory. Yes, she was pretty. Yes, she was friendly. But, no, they had not noticed her with anyone in particular and, so far as anyone could recall, she had left alone on the following morning. Nor was there any evidence to suggest that any of the Bakewell youth hostellers had been anywhere near Yorkshire on the day of the murder.

The press, having failed to discover any evidence of a boyfriend at the university or elsewhere, became insistent that Penny had been murdered by a casual acquaintance and became even more insistent that the police should discover his (or, perhaps, her) identity.

“They’re a lot of bloody morons,” complained Crossland. “We told them who she was and how she died. We told them she was a bloody beauty queen. Any fool can speculate about unknown, casual acquaintances that no-one saw. What are we supposed to do? We’ve interviewed – what is it? – two hundred and seventy witnesses in three days. The trouble is, they’re not witnesses. No-one saw anything. The doctor says it must have been mid-morning when she was killed. A bright, sunny day at that and nobody saw anything! She was found by that chap with the dog within a couple of hours. It’s not like she’d been dead a year. Someone must have seen something.”

“Sometimes,” said Matthews, “people don’t connect things up. Or they don’t know there’s even been a murder to investigate.”

“Oh, for God’s sake! The paper’s are full of it.”

“How about the old guy with the dog?”

“Taylor’s been checking him out. His wife says he was at home all morning and then just took the dog for a run after lunch.”

“Could be collusion? A wife backing up her husband?”

“Apart from his finding the body, we’ve not turned up anything to suggest it was him but, you’re right, we’d better do some more checking there. It’ll look bad if it turns out it was him and we don’t nail him smartish. But we need evidence. You’d better see him and his wife again yourself. Taylor’s OK but he says they are a bit fed up that he’s landed himself under investigation when all he’s done is report a crime.”

“If that’s all he’s done.”

“Yes. Well, go easy but go thorough. I don’t believe it was him anyway. And while you’re doing that, I’ll go through those reports from Bakewell again. It’s our best hope of finding something.”

The following morning they were talking again when a constable put his head round the door.

“There’s some guys in reception say they’ve some info on the murder.”

“Well, pass them on to Taylor or someone. He can take a statement.”

“They say they actually saw it.”

“You what? Then why’s it taken them so long to come in?”

“It’s what they said. I thought you’d want to see them yourself.”

“Yeah. Put them in the interview room. But if they’re reporters or anyone else trying to be funny, they’ll get charged themselves.”

The interview room at Manton police station was larger than some but when Crossland and Matthews entered a few minutes later, it already seemed crowded. Four women and three men stood and sat in various positions of discomfort which Crossland did not feel inclined to alleviate.

“You’ve some information for me?” said Crossland more curtly, perhaps, than he intended.

“You investigating the murder of that girl?” said one of the men.

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Well, we saw it.”

“Oh, no we didn’t,” said a woman. “Well, not for sure. We saw a man and a woman arguing. Arguing rather violently actually but we didn’t think a great deal of it until we saw the paper this morning.”

“It’s the right place,” said the first man. “Ashpen Lane it said in the paper. I knew we’d been in the area and looked it up on the map. We were right there on Monday morning. Margaret’s right. We didn’t actually see a murder, of course, but we saw a fight. That must have been it.”

“Why didn’t you come in sooner?”

“Like Margaret says, we didn’t see it in the paper until this morning. We’re on a camping holiday and like to get away from the news for a bit. We only saw it this morning because Peter wanted to see the exam results and bought a paper.”

It sounded reasonable and some of it could be checked.

“We need a bit more space – and a bit of comfort,” said a somewhat mollified Crossland. “Sergeant, find another room where these good people can wait while we take the statements.” Then, turning to the visitors, “Sergeant Matthews’ll find you a room to wait. I’ll want to take the statements individually. Perhaps I can talk to you first, Madam,” he said speaking to the woman identified as Margaret.

“Now then,” he said when they were settled and he had taken the usual details, “tell me what you saw.”

“Well, we were walking along the path below the wood ... ”

“Which wood was that?” asked Matthews who was, as usual, sitting to one side where he could observe without himself being watched.

“I don’t know. I could show you on a map afterwards. Anyway, as I say, we were just walking along when we saw this couple standing by a van that was parked in the lane. They were having some kind of an argument and getting quite heated by the look of it. I’m ashamed to say we thought it was a bit funny. Peter said something about ‘the course of true love’ but, as I said before, we didn’t really pay that much attention and we certainly didn’t see anyone being killed. Then the path went behind some brambles and I suppose we lost sight of them. We weren’t really paying attention and then we saw some water avens and forgot them altogether.”

“Water avens?” asked Crossland.

“A kind of flower. Pretty, pinkish thing. Not rare but not all that common either.”

“And you saw nothing after that?”

“No. Although Peter said this morning that he saw the van driving away afterwards.”

“I’ll ask Peter about that. Peter who, by the way?”

“Meredith. Peter Meredith. He’s Sandra’s husband.”

Crossland nodded.

“Did you see what kind of van it was?”

“A biggish one. I don’t know exactly what sort. I call them all Transits but it might have been anything, I suppose.”

“Registration?” asked Crossland without much hope.

“I’ve no idea. It was too far away. And I don’t suppose we’d have thought about it anyway. You don’t expect to get involved in murder.”

“Can you describe it? What colour was it? Did it have any lettering? Which way was it facing?”

“It was facing towards the main road. Towards Barnsley, I suppose.”

“And the colour?”

“Blue. Quite a bright blue. And it did have writing. It said ‘Leopard Car Hire’.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult to trace even without a registration. We’ll get on to that. How long were you watching it?

“Like I said, we weren’t really watching it but I suppose it must have been in sight for, oh, a minute or two at most.”

“And they were fighting all that time? You might have guessed it was serious if people were fighting that long.”

“They weren’t really fighting. Sort of pushing at each other and making threatening movements. With hindsight, we might have done something but we were a fair way off and there was a field with cows between us. I suppose we didn’t think it was our business.”

“So you did talk about intervening?”

“Oh, no. I think I must have thought about it but nothing was said and, you know how it is, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. And then we saw the water avens and forgot about it until this morning when we saw the paper.”

“Can you describe the couple?”

“He looked older than she was but at that distance it’s difficult to say. Sort of thirtyish but I’m not very good at ages.”

“What was the girl wearing?”

“Shorts and a blue top, I think. But you must know that. I think he might have been wearing jeans. He had a sort of check shirt.”

“Let’s go back to the girl. We need to be sure that it was the murdered girl you saw. Can you describe her better?”

“Well, it must be mustn’t it? In that place at that time? It must have been about half ten.”

“We need to be sure it was the right place and time. We have to establish that exactly. Can you find a map, sergeant?”

The map was brought and Mrs Isherwood, as Crossland now knew her to be called, was able to satisfy the policemen that she had, indeed, been at least at approximately the right place at the right time but she was able to provide no more information. Indeed, when Crossland tried to press her, she became somewhat defensive and was even reluctant to be sure about the colour of the girl’s top, “Perhaps it was light grey rather than blue.”

But Crossland and Matthews were fairly satisfied that the hikers had, indeed, been witnesses to an argument that had led to Penny Murray’s murder. Interviews with the other hikers elicited little more although it became fairly certain that they were looking for a man around thirty with dark hair who was probably a few inches taller than Penny’s five foot six. He was driving a blue van, perhaps a Mercedes, with the words ‘Leopard Car Hire’ in white. One of the women drew a picture from memory which clearly showed the van with its side freight door open and the words ‘Leopard’ with ‘car hire’ below it in upper case.

Even before the interview had been completed, a constable had been dispatched to search the telephone database for the Leopard Car Hire company so, as Matthews conducted the hikers to the reception area with grateful thanks for their help, he passed the grinning constable as he made his way to Crossland’s office. He was too late returning to hear the officer’s report.

“He says there are two,” reported Crossland. “One in Oldham, the other in Exeter.”

“Well, Oldham’s nearest. We’ll check that first.”

“Yes, we can do that ourselves. But we can get the Devon lads to have a look at Exeter. Find out what kind of vans the outfit has.”

“So long as they don’t frighten any villains away.”

“Well, get on to them. Ask them to send someone from traffic to check plating or something. Have they sent a vehicle down to ... oh, anywhere at all so long as it’s in the other direction from here ... Cornwall or somewhere? All we want at the moment is to check their vehicle livery.”

“Will do.”

“And then we’ll get over to Oldham. I’ll check with the local lads that we’re not treading on their toes.”

It was barely half an hour to Oldham and to the back street premises of Leopard Car Hire in a converted house with a yard behind. At first glance it did not look promising. No vehicle of any kind was in evidence. Matthews opened the door which led straight into the office gesturing Crossland to go in first but, while Crossland looked around, it was Matthews who spoke.

“We’re looking for a van.”

“No vans. Leopard Car Hire it says and car hire is what we are.” The man in shirt sleeves did not look up.

Matthews reached for his ID.

“I didn’t say anything about hiring a van.” He spoke with a hardness in his voice that made the man look up. “I want to know what vans you have.”

“Cops is it? You’re not from Oldham”.

Matthews waited, slowly shaking his head.

“Well, like I says, we ain’t got no vans.”

“What about service vans? Or the van the staff use?”

“We ain’t got no vans. No staff either. You can see what sort of an outfit this is. There’s just me and six cars – Escorts and Astras – I can’t afford no bleeding service vans.”

“I want to see your records.”

“Why? You’re looking for a van and I ain’t got none. What do you want with my records?”

“To check what you say.”

“You’ve no right. You’ve no right to my records unless you tell me why. I ain’t done anything. I keep my nose clean and I ain’t got no van.”

“I can come back with a search warrant.”

“You do that, mate. Now, I’m busy and you’re blocking the light so you can bugger off.”

There was nothing the two policemen could do except withdraw with as much dignity as possible. Once outside, Matthews said, “I believe him. An outfit like that doesn’t rate a Mercedes service van or any other kind of Mercedes.”

“I think you’re right, but we’ll have to double check. Let’s get over to the local nick and see what help we can get.”

Crossland’s mobile phone rang. “Yes?” He listened intently for a moment. “Right. Thanks. We’ll be back in an hour.” He turned to Matthews, “Taylor. He says the super wants to see me. And he says the Devon and Cornwall boys have had a look at Exeter and the Leopard Car Hire set up is well known locally. Quite a respectable outfit apparently. They’ve half a dozen vans but they’re all painted red and black and always have been.”

Later, in Superintendent Finch’s office, Crossland felt on the defensive.

“I think the hikers are our best information although we are still checking out the man who found the body and looking at the reports about the people who stayed at that youth hostel. We’re checking out the hikers’ story of course, but they back up each other and there are no significant discrepancies in their stories. I can’t figure out the Leopard Car Hire aspect though. At the moment, neither of them seems likely but we’re checking them again for undeclared vehicles. I’ve no hopes, though, on that score. I want to see the hikers again to check on the words they say they saw on the van. You know, did they all see it or did one of them convince the others that’s what it said? They were, by their own account, some way off. And how come they all recall the name when they said they weren’t paying that much attention? And then we need to check we haven’t missed any Leopard Car Hire companies. Could be they’re not on the phone or they’re a new outfit and not on the database yet. It’s all fairly straightforward, Sir, but it’ll take time.”

“Have you any idea why she was in Yorkshire?”

“No. Not really. It’s not really that far from, say, Glossop. I suppose, like the papers say, she got a lift from someone and it went wrong – but there’s no evidence.”

“The Penistone area’s not exactly near Glossop, let alone the main holiday area.”

“No. Although there’s the minor road over to Ladybower. It’s on the way to the Hope Valley.”

“Have you got enough help? We need to get this one nailed.”

“I think so, Sir. A lot of the work is off our patch – Oldham, Exeter and so on. The hostellers from Bakewell come from most counties north of Dover. We’ve got chaps working on the house to house but that’s nearly done and hasn’t turned up anything useful that I can see. To be honest, I’m not sure of my next move if the checking doesn’t produce anything.”

“Well, I’ve got a press conference tomorrow at ten, so if anything turns up, let me know before then. Actually, you’d better be there yourself to field any questions I can’t answer – but keep Leopard under wraps for the time being. Letting that out too soon could alert someone. Best keep it to ourselves.”

The press conference passed off without too much stress. Superintendent Finch had mastered the art of appearing frank and open and was prepared to release uncontroversial information ‘off the record’ so that reporters felt they were being given as much information as possible with nothing held back.

“I think he’s being straight with us,” said the man from the Mirror.

“Well, if you say so, he probably is,” said The Times representative.

“That’ll keep them off our backs for a day or two,” said Finch to Crossland.

But a day or two brought no progress. The Bakewell hostellers were checked again. The old man who had found the body seemed blameless – although one humorist said that the dog had only been interviewed twice. The hikers’ stories checked and all were sure of the word ‘Leopard’ because they had been talking the previous day about big cats at large in the countryside. One of them recalled having said, “Look, there’s a leopard in Derbyshire anyway,” and another had said, “except it’s Yorkshire.”

No further Leopard Car Hire companies had been discovered despite appeals to other forces across the country and all investigations of the two known firms had failed to suggest that either had any blue vans.

Gradually, for want of any leads, the investigation was scaled down but Crossland and Matthews continued to devote all their own time to reviewing the evidence and following up such leads as did appear.

“How the hell do you find Leopard Car Hire?” complained Crossland. “You’d think it’d be easy with the BT database and the internet as well as forty-odd police forces all looking. Not to mention Companies House, the AA, the RAC and the Inland Revenue. It’s as if someone had painted the van especially to go out and do a murder – but that I won’t believe.”

“It’s a thought though, isn’t it?” suggested Matthews. “There was that case a few years back where a couple of public school boys somewhere decided to have a go at the perfect crime for no better reason than to see if they could. Perhaps we’re looking for that kind of nutter.”

“Hmmm. You can’t rule anything out, I suppose. But who’s going to paint a van like that and risk it being seen anywhere before or after the murder? And you’d have to assume they planned on being seen at the murder site. Doesn’t make sense.”

It didn’t. Crossland went again to see the hikers. Yes, they had seen the two people standing by the open van door. Yes, it was definitely Leopard Car Hire. And so things rested. Both Crossland and Matthews began to find themselves involved in other investigations and the murder of Penny Murray was, as Crossland admitted to his wife, on the back burner.

It was some weeks later that, sitting in his car, drumming his fingers while waiting for some traffic lights to change, that Crossland saw the van. It was blue and was backed into a drive completing a delivery to a house on the other side of the dual carriageway. On its side as clearly as one could wish were the words “Leopard Car Hire”. The traffic lights changed. Crossland lurched forward and to the consternation and audible displeasure of other road users executed a handbrake turn in the middle of the intersection. He had time to grin to himself with the pleasure of having expertly executed a manoeuvre he had learnt at the police driving school. But the van had gone. It’s blue roof could just be seen disappearing in the traffic ahead. Without a siren, Crossland could only sit fuming while angry motorists glared at him hostilely if unnoticed.

Parking, more sedately now, he ran to the house to which the delivery had been made and hammered on the door which was opened by a young woman.

“Police,” he said abruptly. “You’ve just had a delivery from Leopard Car Hire.”

“I haven’t,” was the response.

“Well then, they were using a Leopard Car Hire vehicle. Who was it?”

“I want to see your warrant card,” said the girl.

Crossland recovered himself. “Of course. I’m sorry. You are quite right but it really is very urgent,” he said producing his ID.

“You’d better come in. The delivery was from Sheppards. We’re having our suite recovered and the cushions didn’t fit. They had to go back and they were just returning them. I didn’t notice the van.”

Sheppards workshops, it turned out, were at Carsdyke, only a few miles away near Wakefield and it was less than an hour later that Crossland, now accompanied by Matthews, pulled into the parking area in front of the workshop. The van was there, the legend ‘Leopard Car Hire’ clearly visible on the side. But as they looked, the driver slid the freight door closed and the legend slowly changed to three lines of text:

 

van

 

“Jesus,” whispered Crossland. “Come on, Mike, We’re on our way again.”

 
Word Count: 4000
 
 
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