The Burning

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Authors: M. R. Hall
with exaggerated politeness. ‘Yes, I am,’ she glanced up at Jenny, ‘all things being well. Now
don’t tell me you’ve called up to wish us a happy New Year.’
    Jenny knew that she had already lost the fight. Alison was perfectly aware that she wouldn’t pass the detailed competency assessment recommended by the Chief Coroner’s office, so had
called her bluff. She had offered Jenny a bald choice between taking her back on trial and betraying her. While Jenny hadn’t asked her to lay down her life for her that night in the Savernake
Forest, she could hardly claim that she would have preferred to take the head-on impact from a Range Rover herself. And it wasn’t only Jenny’s life that had been saved; Jenny had
escaped from the scene of the confrontation with the antibiotics that had pulled Ross back from the brink of death. Viewed that way, there was no question of Jenny refusing her.
    Alison took notes in large, childlike script as the caller, a DI Ballantyne from Broadmead, passed on details of another traumatic death.
    ‘Yes, I’m sure Mrs Cooper will want to see for herself,’ Alison said, giving Jenny a look that said she knew the answer without needing to ask. ‘If you can leave him
where he is for now, she’ll be along shortly. Thank you.’ Alison rang off and handed Jenny her note. ‘Suspected suicide in Henleaze. Male, mid-thirties, found hanging in his flat.
Been there a few days, apparently.’
    ‘He lived alone?’
    ‘Apparently so.’
    Jenny looked at the address and recognized it as one of the smarter streets in the North Bristol suburb. Solitary hangings were more usually the stuff of tower blocks and bedsitters. A lonely
suicide at Christmas. There was always one.
    ‘I could go if you like, but I thought you’d prefer to,’ Alison said. ‘I mean, you don’t know how many of my marbles I’ve got left, do you? I could be a
complete nutcase with all this grey matter missing.’ She tapped her flattened temple with the end of her pen.
    Jenny smiled, grateful to see light return to Alison’s eyes. ‘We’ll play it by ear, shall we?’
    ‘I’m happy with that if you are, Mrs Cooper.’
    ‘It’s good to see you.’
    ‘There’s no need to over-egg it.’ Alison switched on her computer. ‘We both know the score.’
    ‘You’d think they’d clear the pavements. What the hell did we elect a mayor for? Look at it – solid ice. Someone’s going to break their bloody
leg.’
    Detective Inspector Jack Ballantyne smelt of last night’s booze and had cut himself shaving. Last time they had met at a scene of death his beef had been what the lawyers were charging him
for the privilege of divorcing his unfaithful wife. Living alone hadn’t been good for him: the broken veins across his cheekbones had migrated upwards into his eyes and he looked more like
sixty than forty-five. Jenny suspected he spent most nights alone with a whiskey bottle.
    She ducked under the cordon tape and followed him over the few yards of pavement the police had shovelled clear leading to the Edwardian terraced house in Janus Avenue. It was a family area to
which young middle-class professionals flocked for the schools, but number 15 had been divided into two single-bedroom flats. The occupants of the ground floor had been away for the holidays,
Ballantyne said, and had returned home to a choking smell that had permeated the whole building.
    He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a crumpled paper mask. ‘Here, have mine. I’m used to it.’
    ‘Thanks,’ Jenny said, trying to sound grateful, and pulled it uncertainly over her face as they approached the front door. The mask was impregnated with a sickly pine scent that was
invariably as hard to stomach as the odour that started to reach them as they stepped inside the tidy communal hall.
    Ballantyne led the way up the single flight of stairs to the first-floor landing, breathing heavily with the effort. ‘Our forensics boys have done their

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