Hiding the Past - a genealogical crime mystery story
A Morton Farrier, Forensic Genealogist Story
6th June 1944
When Emily woke, everything was dark and everything was still. The angry, vicious weather from the previous day had subsided and yet something outside wasn’t quite as it should have been. It couldn’t have been an air-raid – they had stopped three months ago. Quietly rolling back her woollen blanket, Emily sat up in bed and listened. She was thirty-one and effortlessly beautiful, even now, after a bad night’s sleep. She gently switched on her beside lamp, not wanting to disturb her precious baby boy, who slept silently beside her in his cot. The lamp cast a low, amber glow over his face. Whatever it was that had disturbed her, had not stirred her son.
Emily padded over to the window and lifted the heavy blackout curtains. It took a moment for her to process the sensations she suddenly experienced: a charcoal-grey curtain of thick smoke, reeking of a chemical she couldn’t quite place, enveloped the beloved orchard which surrounded her home, as enraged orange flames fought their way towards the house. Emily snapped back to reality, let the curtains fall into place and quickly scooped up her child, still blissfully sleeping. She turned and picked up the small brown suitcase beside her bed, which she had hastily packed last night.
Carrying the boy close to her chest with one hand and the suitcase in the other, she hurried into the kitchen, wearing her white, silk nightie. There was no time to change or search for her shoes. She paused at the front door, momentarily unwilling to loosen the bolts that kept her safe inside. Placing her hand on the first metal bolt, she suddenly placed the chemical stench outside, which was now seeping through the cracks and crevices of the kitchen – petrol: she was being driven out.
Emily pointlessly looked around the room for another means of escape, another plan, but she knew it was hopeless. Insidious tendrils of smoke began to creep from the bedroom ceiling, licking their way towards her.
The baby began to cry, a soft, mournful sound that broke Emily’s heart. It reminded her that nothing was real. This life that she had made was not real. Her home was not real. Even her name was not real.
With a final glance around the room, Emily unbolted the brass fastenings. Maybe there was time to run, to get away from here, she thought. She pulled open the solid oak door and could see only blackness tinged with the muted light from the raging fire at the rear of the house. Despite the darkness, she knew that someone was there; waiting in the shadows for her.
Emily held the baby tightly and ran from the house. She navigated the orchard easily - nobody knew it better than she - and made it to the periphery of the woods. As the baby began to scream and pain spiked her bare feet as she ran, she knew she could never escape, yet she kept running – pushing further and further into the darkness, her nightie catching and snagging on branches. Behind her, the crunching of heavy boots was gaining ground, easily homing in on the sound of the screaming child. She pulled him tightly into her bosom, hoping to stifle his cries. From the blackness behind her, an unseen hand reached out and grabbed Emily’s shoulder. It was over.
Morton Farrier was perplexed. He was sitting at home running an online birth search and, according to the indexes, the man for whom he searched hadn’t ever been born. It was a rare occurrence for a birth not to have been registered, he had to admit, but it wasn’t that extraordinary. Nothing to get over excited about. In his twelve years of working as a Forensic Genealogist he had come across it maybe once or twice before. Although, now that he actually thought about it, he couldn’t bring the specifics of any particular case to mind. It certainly didn’t warrant the unnecessary histrionics that his new client, Peter Coldrick had displayed when he had visited him for the first time yesterday afternoon.
Morton had found Peter living an austere life in a run-down council estate on the outskirts of Tenterden, a charming Kentish Weald town not far from his own home in Rye. Peter’s house was crammed with a plethora of genealogical books and guides. Years of personal research and three redundant genealogists later, Peter Coldrick had come to the conclusion that any antecedents prior to his father had been wholly obliterated. It was for the birth of Peter’s father, James Coldrick that Morton had searched in vain. He ran one final check at Ancestry.co.uk, his favoured website for birth, marriage and death searches, but came to the same answer: there was no James Coldrick. He was pondering the implications of this when his mobile rang. It was Juliette, his girlfriend.
'What was the name of the guy that you went to see yesterday?’ she asked. Typical Juliette, storming straight in with a random question, Morton thought.
'The man you’re working for, what’s his name?’ she asked in an impatient whisper.
'Coldrick, Peter Coldrick. Why?’
‘I’m guarding his house while SOCO are inside; he’s dead, Morton.’
Her words struck him like a rock to the head. ‘What happened?’
‘Well,’ Juliette began, lowering her voice so that Morton struggled to hear her, ‘we’ll know more when the Scene of Crime Officers are done but it looks like suicide.’
‘Uh-huh. Look, I can’t talk long, just thought I’d let you know.’
‘Thanks,’ Morton said absentmindedly.
Juliette paused. ‘Listen, Morton, I’m going to have to tell the Sarge that you visited him yesterday and that he phoned our house last night,’ she warned.
‘That’s fine,’ Morton answered.
‘Got to go. See you later.’
He pocketed his iPhone and thought back to Peter’s garbled voice message, which he'd left within two hours of Morton having left his house. The message asked Morton to phone back as he'd found something important. Morton never returned the call, figuring that it could wait. A frenetic surge of thoughts and questions bounced around his brain. The idea of Coldrick topping himself seemed ridiculous. Then he remembered the money. Coldrick had paid Morton way over and above his usual fee. Who pays someone all that money in the morning then kills themselves that same night? It didn’t make any sense.
The sun was shrouded behind voluminous, concrete-grey clouds when Morton set out, rendering the drive an uncomfortable fusion of stickiness and claustrophobia, which only worsened as the ten-mile journey progressed. By the time he reached Peter’s house on Westminster Rise, his skin was clammy and his pulse racing. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find when he got there – one police car and a few nosey neighbours maybe – but the reality was very different: an angled police car dramatically blocked the road, its blue warning lights flashing rhythmically, matching the beat of two further police cars and an ambulance parked behind it. A strip of yellow tape proclaiming in thick black letters: POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, cats-cradled its way between lamp-posts and gateposts across the street. Behind the cordon were what appeared to Morton to be half of Kent’s emergency personnel idly chatting and drinking hot drinks. And behind it all quietly stood the mournful little council house containing Coldrick’s dead body, penned in like a quarantined animal. He felt slightly sick as he parked up and climbed from his car. Morton, handsome with a boyish face that belied his being in the final few weeks of his thirties, was dressed casually in a loose-fitting, white t-shirt and faded jeans. He ran his fingers through his short, dark hair, as his chestnut-brown eyes surveyed the scene before him; he blended well with the crowds of spectators who had gathered on the pavement.
In his peripheral vision, a uniformed figure broke from the mêlée, heading towards him. It took a double-take to realise that it was Juliette, thunder etched onto her face, ducking under the cordon tape. Although she’d been a PCSO for more than six months now, he still hadn’t got used to seeing her in uniform. His presence here wasn’t going to go down too well.
‘What’re you doing here?’ she demanded. Morton shrugged. He didn’t know.
‘I just wanted to see… Is there any news?’
‘SOCO are still in there. Nothing else to report. There’s no need for you to be here, Morton.’
‘I’m sure he wouldn’t have killed himself, you know, Juliette,’ Morton ventured.
‘Not what it looks like in there. Besides which, you knew him for what, six hours?’
‘It just doesn’t feel right. Have you actually been inside?’
‘I’ll talk to you later. The Sarge is sending someone over to talk to you at home.’
‘Coldrick wanted to show me something, Juliette. Can you get me in?’ Morton said, knowing it to be a futile question, but hoping that she could flash her badge or whatever she did and wave him through.
Juliette laughed, glancing over her shoulder. ‘You think going out with me is going to get you past that lot? No chance. Go home.’ And with that she turned, stooped under the yellow tape and was reabsorbed into the sea of fluorescent yellow jackets.
Morton returned to his car and started the engine. All he needed to do was stick it in reverse and leave this unpleasant place behind. But he was mesmerised by the spectacle playing out through the windscreen, his own television set with no off button. He supposed that was why cop shows always did so well on TV; there was something strangely appealing about life going so terribly wrong for someone else. He wasn’t a great fan of emergency services dramas. Juliette loved and loathed them in equal measure, usually lapping up the crime then decrying the police work with angry snorts of ‘It’s obvious who the murderer is’ or ‘That wouldn’t happen in real life’. Not like this, this was real life and he knew that if he waited long enough, he would see it – that one defining image that he’d seen a hundred times on telly and, sure enough, it came. Half an hour later Peter Coldrick’s lifeless corpse, enveloped in a black body-bag was rolled out onto the pavement by two sombre paramedics, his head and feet cutting revealing shapes into the shiny, dark material. Seconds later, in front of the mesmerised audience, he was loaded into the yawning rear of the ambulance and slowly driven away. No sirens. No blue flashing lights.
He started the car and headed home.