I’m delighted to be sharing an extract with you today from the new novel by Simon Michael, The Waxwork Corpse as part of the blog tour. With thanks to Caoimhe O’Brien at Sapere Books for inviting me to take part. Before I share the extract with you, let’s take a look at what the novel is about.
A deadly crime has been dragged to the surface…
Charles Holborne, maverick barrister, will never fit in at the Bar; he is too working-class, too Jewish and too dangerous.
But that makes him the perfect outsider to prosecute a shocking murder case which has already made its way to the press.
By chance, a body was found, dumped in a lake. It had clearly been there for some time, but the conditions in the water have meant that it was nearly perfectly preserved.
The police have managed to match this ‘waxwork corpse’ to a missing woman and if her husband — a senior judge — was the one who killed her, the scandal threatens to rock the British justice to its foundations.
The waxwork corpse is not the only thing to be raised from the past. The investigation also dredges up a violent mistake made by Charles in his youth which, if revealed, could put his own life at stake…
THE WAXWORK CORPSE, based on a real Old Bailey case, is the fifth crime novel in an exciting historical series, the Charles Holborne Legal Thrillers — gritty, hard-boiled mysteries set in 1960s London.
The shock of entering the black water is enough to take Julie’s breath away. Even in the middle of a warm spring, Wastwater chills to the marrow. She kicks a few times quickly to stir her circulation. A double splash and two champagne bursts of bright bubbles show where her guardians, her boyfriend Neil and an instructor she only met twenty minutes ago, have entered the water, ahead and to her left; only the turbulence and the loom of their lamps reveal their presence.
They have deliberately picked a moonless night. The two beams of light separate and come towards Julie, one on each side, and stand off, waiting for her. The two disembodied light sources are eerie, but she’s glad of them. She’s been preparing for this first night navigation exercise for months. In the clubhouse she’d joked confidently with the rest of the group about getting lost, coming face-to-face with or, worse still, feeling the black caress of the twelve-foot pikes reputed to live in the lake. But now she’s afraid.
Wastwater is the deepest lake in England, carved by glacial action half a million years ago. From gravel beaches, its sides fall steeply for eighty metres until they reach the bottom of a “V” now flattened by millennia of accumulated mud and silt. The sides are steep and regular, except for Tiffen’s Rock. Like a decayed molar, the Rock erupts from the smooth side of the lake, its roots lost in the murk and silt, its top levelled by years of deposits. A sinister, freakish excrescence known only to the underwater fraternity, it has been used for years by divers on navigation exercises.
Julie breaks the even rhythm of her strokes to illuminate her console and check her compass bearing and depth, then kicks out again, following the short stab of light from her lamp. Beyond that, blackness. Monstrous pike with razor teeth glide in and out of her imagination, but she pushes them away and concentrates on her stroke and her breathing.
The Rock, when it appears, takes her by surprise. Her navigation has been perfect and, for a second, exhilaration overcomes fear. The three divers descend steeply, parallel to the side of the lake, the leader sweeping his lamp in an arc from side to side. She watches the depth gauge on her console as they descend: ten metres … fifteen … twenty … and with each metre her sense of unease grows. They find the base of Tiffin’s Rock at thirty metres, deeper than she has ever dived before. She points her torch away to the east, but the light is soon overcome by the inky blackness that hems them in on all sides.
She swings the lamp back to the front and as she does, something stands out for a second in its beam. She slows her kicks. There, caught in the loom of her torch, is a package. Resting where Tiffen’s Rock grows from the walls of the lake, where the root of the tooth disappears into its gum, the package is half-buried in a thick shroud of silt, one corner protruding at an angle. A metre or two in any direction, and it would have rolled all the way down to the lake floor to be lost in millennia of deposits, way beyond human eyes.
Her heart thumping in her chest, she swims over for a closer look, but she’s too close, too curious, and suddenly the water is blurred by millions of dancing particles caught in the light. She spins round, realising too late that she’s made a mistake, and is suddenly and completely disorientated. The lights of her co-divers, only seconds before just ahead of her, seem to have disappeared altogether. She starts panting, her breath loud in her ears, and she kicks out wildly, anxious to get out of the cloud of disturbed silt and back to clear water.
After a few seconds she slows and turns. She points her torch into the complete blackness, illuminating each quadrant for a second and then turning on the spot to the next, but the silt has spread further than she could have imagined, and it’s like driving on high beam through fog. She extinguishes the torch and hangs there in the utter darkness, blood pounding in her ears.
Then: a flash of light, followed by another. She illuminates her torch once, twice, three times quickly in succession, and she’s answered: eighty yards away, off to her right, she sees both of her guardians’ torches moving simultaneously in slow arcs. Relief overwhelms her, and a giggle bubbles in her chest. She recognises with alarm the light-headedness that signals incipient nitrogen narcosis. She feels her breathing quicken involuntarily, and she fights to maintain control but it slips further away with each breath.
One of the men, the instructor she thinks, is before her now, gesticulating in her face. ‘Up!’ he points, once, twice, urgently. She nods. He sets off again, close to her right side, Neil on her left. The exertion and regular rhythmic strokes calm her. By the time they reach the top of the Rock, she has control again. They break surface to find a gale howling across the lake. Rain pounds the water so hard it’s as if the gods are hurling missiles from the skies.
The instructor is swimming purposefully towards the gravel beach. Neil spits out his regulator mouthpiece and spins in the water. ‘Come on!’
‘No, stop! Didn’t you see her?’ Julie says.
A bolt of lightning lights up the sides of the Vale, and the almost instantaneous crack of thunder immediately above their heads almost drowns her reply.
‘There’s a woman down there!’
‘What? Another diver?’
‘No! A woman! On the rock! I saw her face!’
‘No,’ he shouts, ‘it was just a boulder. Covered in silt.’
‘I saw her, I tell you.’
‘It’s an hallucination. Nitrogen narcosis.’
‘For Christ’s sake, Neil, it was no hallucination! That was no boulder. It was a woman, wrapped in plastic. And I’m telling you: I saw her face.’
The detective inspector from London named Abercrombie hugs himself against the wind blowing over Wastwater, stubs out his third cigarette in the car park gravel, and lights another. He bitterly regrets his decision to allow the local sergeant to take the car and go for his dental appointment. But his boss said “Be nice”, and so he is being nice. Relations between the Met and the Cumberland, Westmorland and Carlisle Constabulary have become somewhat strained and thus, in the spirit of co-operation, he is freezing his balls off.
He glances at his watch. The divers have been out there for so long, they’ve had to change air tanks once, and will soon be up for more. The fellow from the Diving Club who bent Abercrombie’s ear for fifteen minutes before strolling off to enjoy his hot breakfast somewhere out of the biting wind had opined that that the police divers, who were unfamiliar with the lake, were probably stirring up the silt, making the search more difficult. Abercrombie thinks otherwise; he suspects the entire story of a body-shaped package was either cooked up altogether or exaggerated out of all proportion. If they find anything at all he expects it to be some fly-tipping, maybe an old mattress or a carpet. A student goes missing in a small community and sightings occur everywhere. One imaginative local had even reported seeing a body dropping into the lake from an aeroplane — by parachute! If it weren’t for the fact that the missing student happened to be the daughter of some diplomat based in London, he wouldn’t even be here.
He shades his eyes and squints over the grey water to the boat two hundred yards out. He can see the man who’d been prevailed upon to row it there, huddled in his coat and trying to shelter below the gunwales. The poor bastard, thinks Abercrombie; he must be even colder than me.
As the inspector watches, the water parts and a black shiny head appears. It is followed shortly by another. They resemble otters, or seals, he thinks, although his knowledge of matters aquatic is limited by his urban upbringing and a detestation of water, boats and everything connected with them. The two divers spin in the water, looking for the shore, and one of them waves energetically.
My God, they’ve found something! thinks Abercrombie, grinding out his cigarette under foot. Sure enough, the other two divers surface, towing a large muddy object between them. The first two haul themselves into the boat, wriggle out of their apparatus, and lean out over the water. The small craft dips precipitously and for a moment the inspector’s sure it’s going to capsize, but with two divers pushing and two pulling they eventually get the object into the boat. The oarsman stares at it, and even from the shore the inspector can see his dropped jaw and wide-open eyes. One of the divers prods him into action and he sets to, turning the boat expertly towards the shore, and begins rowing.
DI Abercrombie walks towards the water as the boat grounds on the gravel. He helps pull it up the shore and peers inside. The two divers and the oarsman watch him intently as he bends over the find. Christ, it is a body! It’s wrapped round and round with some thick plastic material and is bound with yards of wire and rope of differing thicknesses and colours, but the outline of a person can be seen clearly inside. The two divers who were forced to swim back in splash up the gravel and stand by the side of the boat, dripping.
‘Well, sir. Looks like we’ve found her,’ says one.
‘Call the coroner’s office and get a photographer up here immediately,’ replies Abercrombie. ‘You’d better call your DCI and a police surgeon too. Leave it in the boat and don’t touch it till I tell you.’
It takes an hour for the cast to assemble. The body has been carried out of the boat and placed on a large sheet of clean plastic. The area has been taped off and two officers now stand at the top of the road leading down to the car park to prevent unauthorised entry. The local Detective Chief Inspector is the last to arrive, by which time everyone on the beach is hunched in their coats, stamping their feet and blowing on cupped hands. Abercrombie has given up; he lost sensation in his fingers and toes some time ago.
The DCI, a heavy man with the corrugated face of a bloodhound and an accent which, to Abercrombie, is almost entirely impenetrable, wastes few words.
‘Let’s see what we’ve got then.’
One of the divers crouches at the head end of the package, a diving knife poised in his hand. At the other end, near its feet, is a detective sergeant with a decade’s experience in forensic crime scene investigation. He carries secateurs. This will be his last job in this role because, in an idiotic change he’s sure is designed only to save the force money, he and his specialist colleagues are shortly to be replaced by civilians with the grand title of “Scenes of Crime Officers”. As the two men begin to cut the cords binding the package, working from its ends towards its middle, the DCI holds out his hand. Abercrombie knows what he wants and hands him a copy of a large fuzzy black and white photograph.
‘How was she held down?’ asks the DCI.
‘Some sort of concrete block with a hole in the middle,’ answers the diver between grunts. He is struggling to cut the cords binding the package; they’re so tightly embedded in whatever is inside that he’s unable to get the blade of his knife under them without risking damage to the corpse.
‘The rope’s no problem, but this stuff’s wire,’ comments the detective sergeant. ‘It looks like coaxial.’
‘Coaxial?’ asks the inspector.
‘The stuff you use for TV aerials,’ replies the DS, slightly out of breath with the effort of sawing through the bindings. He’d just acquired a colour television — the first on his street — and he and a friend from the Post Office had spent the previous weekend doing the cabling themselves.
One by one the bonds are severed. The diver stands, leaving the DS to cut the last cable. The DS takes a deep draught of clean air, anticipating having to hold his breath as soon as the body is revealed. Everyone leans in closer to watch as he peels away several layers of stiff, muddy, plastic. With one to go, the inspector steels himself. He’s seen bodies that have been immersed in water for some weeks, and no amount of familiarity can make the sight prettier. The head of a woman is revealed but, to the onlookers’ surprise, there is a further plastic bag, perhaps a shopping bag, over it. There is a smell, but far less than anyone expected.
The DS leans and gently wipes a thin layer of silt off the shopping bag. The clarity with which the woman’s face appears startles everyone. Her eyes are open and it’s as if she’s looking at them through a window. She has shoulder-length curly hair and an oval face and so far as they can see, astonishingly, her skin is almost completely intact.
The DS leans a little closer trying to decide what’s wrong with the woman’s face. It may be the effect of the plastic bag, but despite the almost flawless skin, her features seem somehow blurred; the eyes melt gradually into the nose and it’s not quite clear where the mouth begins and ends. She looks like a waxwork dummy that’s been left too close to a radiator. Nonetheless the features suggest a Caucasian, despite the coffee-coloured skin. Could the skin colour have been produced by prolonged immersion? wonders Abercrombie.
The plastic sheet is pulled back further. Silt has gathered around her, in the gap between her arms and her torso, in the folds of her ears and in the mesh of the undamaged stockings on her legs, but she seems otherwise perfectly preserved. She wears a pink flowery dress with buttons from the neck to the hem which stops just below her knees. It’s tight in the bodice, flared to just below the knee and cinched by a narrow leather belt. Her clothing is water-stained but the colours are still vivid. The silence from the onlookers is broken only by the keening of a bird nearby and the wind over the water.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ whispers Abercrombie.
The DCI looks from her to the photograph in his hand and back again. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he says quietly. ‘It’s not her.’
‘Can’t be, sir,’ says the DS, kneeling over the corpse. ‘This one’s been down there months, years probably. I know from the others we’ve brought up over the years; this silt takes ages to accumulate, especially through so many layers.’
‘Then why the hell does she look like that?’ asks one of the divers. ‘Surely she’d have … deteriorated more?’
‘I don’t know,’ replies the DS.
‘Maybe because of the depth,’ offers another diver. ‘She was a long way down, more than thirty metres. It’s at freezing point most of the year.’
‘Well, this is all very interesting, gentlemen,’ concludes the DCI, ‘but we’re still looking for a student with white skin and short blonde hair who’s only been gone a few days, and we’re no further forward. Get this one to the mortuary and see if we can find out who she is. You and your men,’ he continues, pointing to the diver with a stubby forefinger, ‘get a hot drink inside you, and then get back into the lake and keep looking. God knows how many more we’re going to find.’
Publisher: Sapere Books
Publication date: 23rd December 2019
Print length: 355 pages
The Waxwork Corpse is available to buy:
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