Authors: James Raven
This one is for Sally-Ann
for being such an avid reader of my books.
O ONE SAW
In the minutes leading up to it, the motorway network was running smoothly. There were a few rush-hour incidents, but only what you’d expect on a frosty evening in January.
A lorry jack-knifed on the M1 near Luton, causing a three-mile tailback. A stray dog was slowing traffic to a crawl on the M25 in Kent. And on the M6 near Birmingham a five-car shunt meant misery for motorists heading north.
But on the M27 in Hampshire there were no problems. At 5.45 p.m. the usual heavy flow of vehicles was thundering along the carriageways in both directions. It seemed that most drivers were sticking to the 70 mph speed limit.
Many of them were tuned in to a local radio station and its live traffic updates. They came from an ‘eye in the sky’ reporter named Owen Jay, who was in a helicopter above the motorway. Jay was telling his listeners that it had so far been a pretty uneventful evening on the county’s roads.
‘For a change there’ve been no hold-ups or accidents,’ he said. ‘With any luck it’ll stay that way.’
But it didn’t.
As Jay was speaking a car on the westbound carriageway suddenly went into a dramatic spin for no apparent reason. It veered across two lanes and crashed with bone-shuddering force into the central reservation.
The car, a grey Honda Civic, was then hit side-on by a white transit van that was unable to avoid it. The crunch of impacting vehicles was like a series of bombs going off.
A second later a ten-ton tipper lorry ploughed into the van,
crushing it beyond recognition. The lorry then rolled on its side, spilling its load of wet gravel across the road.
A Vauxhall Astra hit the gravel at 60mph and flew into the air before flipping over and crashing down on its roof.
And that was just the beginning.
Vehicles continued to pile into each other for another ninety seconds. The noise was deafening and survivors would later describe it as ‘terrifying’.
The shriek of burning rubber and the thump, thump, thump of vehicles colliding was followed by several small explosions.
Then a huge fireball engulfed the Astra and shards of hot metal were flung in every direction. The flames shed light on a scene of utter devastation that spread far back along the westbound carriageway – burnt and broken vehicles; black smoke; mangled steel; shattered glass and hissing radiators.
Suddenly the noise ceased and a heavy, unnatural silence descended on the motorway.
Then came the cries of anguish.
Jeff Temple was told about the pile-up on the nearby M27 ten minutes after it happened.
The news spread like lightning through police headquarters in Southampton city centre. By the time it reached Temple’s office in the Major Investigations department, it had already created a buzz of excitement throughout the building.
Most of his team had been about to leave for the day and for some the way home lay along the M27. They were now discussing alternative routes and alerting friends and relatives to the chaos that was about to spread to other roads in the area.
Temple was glad he lived in the city and he pitied all those luckless drivers who were stuck in the jams. The tailbacks along the motorway were already stretching for miles apparently.
It sounded pretty bad, but it was too soon to know if there were many casualties. Emergency units were scrambling to get to the scene and the true picture had yet to emerge.
All the commotion made it hard for Temple to concentrate on the report in front of him. It involved a three-week-old murder in Winchester that was proving to be one of those cases where nothing comes together.
A 19-year-old student had been stabbed to death in an alley as he walked home from a pub late at night. No witnesses. No CCTV footage. The killer left no clues and robbery did not appear to be the motive. The victim had no known enemies and was by all accounts a well-liked, decent individual.
The team had reached a dead end with the case and Temple was going over all the statements from friends and relatives and trying to see if they had missed something. He was too
distracted now to do a thorough job so he decided to leave it until the morning.
He stood up and was slipping on his suit jacket when DS Dave Vaughan appeared at the door to his office. Vaughan was an earnest looking 40-year-old with black-framed glasses and a thin face. His skin was rough with a day’s stubble.
‘A few of us are going for a drink, guv,’ Vaughan said. ‘We wondered if you’d care to join us? No point trying to get home with all that’s going on. It’ll be mayhem on the roads for a while.’
Temple looked at his watch.
‘Well, it’s tempting,’ he said. ‘But DI Metcalfe is expecting me at her flat with a takeaway. It’s her day off and she’s been studying.’
‘Well, give her a call and tell her to meet us at the pub,’ Vaughan said. ‘If I know Angel she’ll jump at the chance to get out for a bit and have a couple of gin and tonics.’
It struck Temple as a good idea and he was sure Angel would be up for it, especially as she was a big fan of the pub’s steak and ale pie.
‘I’ll call her then,’ he said. ‘I’m sure she won’t need much persuading.’
‘That’s great,’ Vaughan said. ‘We’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes.’
Temple went back to his desk to use the phone. He got no reply on Angel’s home number so he tried her mobile. That too went to voicemail. He left a message for her to call him ASAP. It had been a month since the pair of them had gone out after work with the team. In fact it was just before Angel let slip that she was having an affair with her boss. The rumours had been circulating for some time, but Temple had thought it best not to confirm them.
Now that it was out in the open he felt awkward about it and had been steering clear of social gatherings. He sensed that the rest of the team disapproved of the relationship, partly because Angel would almost certainly have to be transferred to another department once they were living together.
That wasn’t actually a big issue with her because she didn’t
plan to spend her entire career in major crime. She was keen to broaden her experience and explore other opportunities within the force. She was even contemplating a move to the Scientific Services department, which was why she was taking a course in forensic science.
Temple was at one with the rest of the team in not wanting to lose her. She was a first-rate detective and an asset to MIT, but he accepted that living together and working together could make things difficult for both of them in the long term.
The current situation was bad enough. He had to be careful not to show favouritism towards her, or to appear unduly concerned when she came into contact with dangerous felons.
But it was never easy.
He glanced at his watch again and decided to send her a text message in case she’d popped out and was in a location where she didn’t have a signal. But just as he was about to, DS Vaughan appeared again.
‘I think you might want to come and listen to this, guv,’ the detective said. ‘The news on this motorway accident is getting worse by the minute.’
Out in the large open-plan office the team were glued to various TV screens. There were nine detectives and five admin staff. Phones were ringing, but they were mostly being ignored.
All their attention was focused on a conversation between a news presenter and the well-known traffic reporter, Owen Jay, who was speaking live from a helicopter above the M27.
There was a photograph of Jay next to a map showing the 25-mile long motorway that runs through southern England from the New Forest to Portsmouth. The scene of the accident was marked with a red cross and Temple had to move nearer to see that it was just east of junction five, which was a couple of miles from the centre of Southampton.
‘The scene below me is hard to describe,’ Jay was saying above the roar of the chopper’s rotor blades. ‘Scores of vehicles have collided. I can see flames and smoke and I can see people moving around in the dark amongst the wreckage.’
Temple felt a shudder run through him. He could imagine what it must be like for the people involved. Multiple crashes on Britain’s motorways were thankfully rare, but when they happened there were almost always a high number of casualties.
‘The pile-up is on the westbound carriageway,’ Jay continued. ‘The tailback stretches into the distance. The eastbound carriageway is also at a standstill now.’
Temple wondered what had caused the accident. Had a lorry driver fallen asleep at the wheel? Had one car rammed into the back of another – perhaps while the driver was speaking into his mobile phone? Or had someone suffered a puncture that caused his or her vehicle to swerve?
It would be up to the Collision Investigation Unit to determine the cause and Temple didn’t envy them that task. Just as he didn’t envy the paramedics and fire officers who would soon be dealing with the bloody aftermath.
From experience Temple knew that serious road accidents were frequently more gruesome than a typical murder scene. The victims usually suffered multiple injuries and they often had to be cut from the wreckages of their vehicles. During his time as a PC he’d attended crashes where heads had been severed and bodies flattened.
On the TV screens the shot changed to show the news presenter at a desk with an image of Jay over her shoulder.
‘Did you actually see what caused the accident?’ she asked him.
Jay gave his answer through a blizzard of static.
‘No, I didn’t,’ he said. ‘One second I was looking down on a fast-flowing river of tiny bright lights and the next everything was grinding to a halt. I thought at first it was a tailback caused by sheer weight of traffic, but I quickly realized it was far more serious.’
Temple was familiar with the M27. He drove on it at least once a week. It was always busy and during rush hours it was usually a nightmare. But then the same could be said for all of Britain’s motorways. There was just too much traffic, too many lorries, too many tired and inconsiderate drivers, too many
‘I feel like I’ve had a bleeding lucky escape,’ someone said behind him.
Temple turned around. The speaker was Fiona Marsh, a 28-year-old detective with flaming red hair and sharp, intelligent eyes. She was the newest recruit to the team, a brash, ambitious Londoner with a broad, cockney accent.
‘I was going to leave here about forty minutes ago,’ she said. ‘Looks like I would have been caught up in it if I had.’
She was clearly shaken and her normally healthy complexion had taken on a grey, sickly pallor.
‘Seems to me you could do with a drink,’ Temple told her.
She nodded. ‘I think we all could.’
Temple came to a decision. ‘Then why don’t we retreat to the pub? We can monitor developments from there and drink to your near miss.’
There was a collective murmur of agreement and those whose shifts had finished started heading towards the doors. As Temple returned to his office to collect his things he tried again to reach Angel. But she didn’t answer her mobile or house phone. He left a message on both to either call him or drop in at the pub.
‘Try to make it, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘There’s a steaming steak and ale pie with your name on it.’
The pub was busier than usual and all the talk was of the accident on the motorway. Temple and his entourage claimed their usual table in a cosy alcove next to the fireplace.
The TV above the bar was tuned to Sky News and a screen caption read:
Serious pile-up on the M27 in Hampshire. Casualties reported.
‘Do me a favour and make mine a double, guv,’ DC Marsh said when Temple offered to get the first round. ‘I really think I need it.’
He gave her a sympathetic smile. She smiled back and raked a hand through her hair.
‘I know I must be coming across as pathetic,’ she said. ‘But
my heart is still going like the clappers.’
He could tell she was anxious about what might have been. But that was entirely understandable. If she’d left the office earlier she might now be seriously injured or even dead.
‘Why don’t I make it a treble?’ he said.
She chuckled. ‘I think that’s a very good idea.’
At the bar he ordered the drinks. As he plucked a twenty pound note from his wallet his eyes were drawn to the photograph he kept next to his warrant card. It had been taken three months previously and showed Angel and him at a local restaurant on her thirty-sixth birthday. Her short brown hair was combed back and pinned behind her ears and her pretty, angular face held a beaming smile: she looked terrific.
By contrast he looked every one of his forty-eight years. A tired, sagging face and receding hairline. Eyes that were dull and sunken. In fact in the harsh glare of the camera flash he looked old enough to be her father. Was it any wonder then that he pinched himself every morning? He still could barely believe his good fortune.
Eleven months ago – almost five years to the day since the death of his wife Erin – Angelica Metcalfe had entered his life. She’d moved from London to Southampton after breaking up with her boyfriend and had joined the team as a detective sergeant. She’d spent the previous few years working for the Met and had a solid reputation.
What began as an office fling turned into a passionate affair that had been going on for six months. Now she was set to move in with him and he couldn’t wait.
‘So where the hell is she?’ he murmured to himself as he glanced yet again at his watch.
He was becoming a little concerned because it wasn’t like Angel not to respond to calls or messages. He’d spoken to her at lunchtime and she’d told him she had no plans to go out. So maybe she’d grown tired of studying and had decided to have a nap. Or maybe she’d popped out to the shop without her phone.
While he waited for the drinks he tried again to contact her, only to be disappointed. He left another message and decided
that if he didn’t hear from her soon he’d head home after one beer.
Back at the table, DS Vaughan said, ‘So is Angel on her way over?’
Temple shrugged. ‘I can’t reach her. For some reason she’s not answering her phones.’
‘Then she’ll probably turn up at any minute,’ Vaughan said.
They drank to DC Marsh’s lucky escape and then had a brief chat about the various cases they were working on. It wasn’t long, though, before their attention returned to the TV which began showing aerial footage of the motorway carnage.
There was enough light on the ground to illuminate the appalling scene. Temple was horrified by the extent of the damage. He saw at least one car on fire and two overturned lorries. Scores of other vehicles had smashed into each other. The emergency services had arrived at the scene, but it was clear that they were overwhelmed.
Temple and the others watched the story unfold on the screen. Reporters gave updates to camera from a bridge above the motorway. They used words like ‘horrific’ and ‘distressing’ to describe what they could see. Then a senior fire officer gave a brief interview in which he revealed that at least five people were known to have died, but that the toll was likely to rise.
An air ambulance helicopter was filmed landing on a clear section of the westbound carriageway. Minutes later casualties on stretchers were shown arriving at Southampton General Hospital’s emergency unit.
When Temple next looked at his watch he was shocked to see that a whole hour had passed since they’d arrived in the pub. He felt a rush of guilt because he’d completely lost track of time. He quickly checked his phone to see if he’d had a message from Angel. He hadn’t.
So where in God’s name is she?
He was about to call her mobile when his phone rang. He checked the ID, hoping to see her name. Instead he saw that the caller was his boss, Chief Superintendent Mike Beresford.
‘Where are you, Jeff?’ Beresford said without preamble when
‘The Red Lion, sir. What’s up?’
‘I assume you’re aware of this crash on the M27.’
‘Of course. We’re watching it on the TV. Looks really bad.’
‘It is. And you need to get out there right away.’
‘What for?’ Temple said, confused.
‘I’ve just had a call from the scene,’ Beresford said. ‘A paramedic has made a rather startling discovery and you need to check it out.’
‘What do you mean?’
Beresford took a breath and said, ‘At least five people have been found dead in the wreckage so far. One of them has apparently been shot.’