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Detective Inspector Harnley pulled the white sheet back over the body. The woman had been dead for several days according to Jansen, the pathologist. He was glad that she had no children, heaven knows what she would have done to them if she had.
‘I’ll send you my report in the morning,’ said Jansen in his usual nasal tone, wrinkling his nose up as he often did when concentrating on something.
Harnley stood there for a moment. Usually, that would have been the end of their business for the night, but it was clear that something was on his mind. ‘Jansen…’
‘Have you ever had experience with mass hysteria?’
Jansen laughed under his breath: ‘ So that’s what’s been bothering you. Three violent incidents in as many nights and you think this is some sort of panic?’
Harnley didn’t know what to think, but he’d never known anything like it. A few days earlier he’d attended the death at Queen’s Cafe; the next night another at the football game; and now this: One Miss Freud - no relation - 63 years of age, worked part time in a local charity shop. Heavily involved in the church, and while the town knew her as a gossip, most thought her harmless. She’d never married and was the first to remind anyone about the dangers of living in sin, but no one would have thought her capable of such violence.
Jansen closed his little black book where he kept the names of those who passed through his sterile metal doors. The countless customers, as he called them, who’d been laid out on his gleaming silver trays like slabs of meat. ‘I’ve heard of mass hysteria, but if you ask me it’s just the heat that’s getting to people. It’s October, people aren’t used to this kind of weather at this time of year. Heat can make anyone crazy, you turn up a thermostat for long enough and even the most easy-going will get riled up.’
And Jansen was right. The weather had been strange. The climate in and around the town was usually colder by now, but summer had hung around like a bad smell.
‘Three horrendous acts in three nights, though?’ said Harnley. ‘When we haven’t seen so much as a violent crime here in four months, and you don’t think that’s strange?’ Harnley didn’t like being so quickly dismissed. There wa a silence between them before Harnley continued.‘So, you think mass hysteria is nonsense?’
‘No, not at all. I’m sure it’s possible. I remember hearing a story a while back about a spate of violent attacks a few towns over, all because someone spread the rumour that there was a dangerous prowler on the loose. Of course, there was no such thing, but a few folk took the neighbourhood watch a little too serious.’
Harnley looked down at what was left of Miss Freud, her body covered, but the imprint of it perfectly outlined by the thin sheet which now obscured it. ‘It’s just... All three were from people you’d never suspect.’
‘I’m telling you, it’s the heat. Makes people do all manner of things they wouldn’t usually. Especially in a town like Hengeworth, all that built up repression ready to go off with the slightest nudge. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure this’ll be the last of them.’
But would it?
Harnley felt in his gut that something was very wrong in the town. Miss Freud had been an avid moral lecturer of the highest order, and yet there they found her, in her old, usually pristine, townhouse. She’d come home from church, poured herself some milk from the refrigerator, and then went crazy. She owned a dog, a big blond labrador called Henry. Miss Freud had taken a bread knife and cut out both its eyes. Next, she took her cat and placed it in her microwave. Harnley couldn’t abide cruelty to animals. The police who entered the house found the poor dog still alive, whimpering in the corner. It was put down shortly after. The cat was already dead having been cooked alive from the inside out.
And Miss Freud, she was found in her bedroom. She’d hung herself from her Venetian blinds. This wasn’t normal for a town of 50,000, never mind a little place like Hengeworth. A place where nothing much ever happened. And yet, in the last three days, the most violent crimes Harnley had witnessed in 22 years working as a detective inspector happened one after the other.
He had always covered Hengeworth and four other towns in the area, but if he was honest with himself he would have admitted to having a little bias towards the place. The town was picturesque, quiet. He’d always liked it. His wife, Agnes, grew up there before moving to Windarm, where they now lived. 18 years of marriage — ups and downs. Half way through his 40s, retirement was still some ways off, but Harnley had always wanted to buy a place in Hengeworth and live out the rest of his days there. Go fishing in the Tarn river, enjoy a local beer or three. But this perfect vision of Hengeworth was being sullied. There was something going on. Just one more, he thought, one more violent death and he’d be certain they were all linked.
After saying his goodnights to Jansen, he went home, climbed into bed next to his snoring wife, Agnes, and waited. Waited to see what the next day would bring. He hoped for nothing, but deep down he knew what would happen.
*Next Chapter coming soon*