Home > The Girl In The Ice (DCI Erika Foster #1)(3)

The Girl In The Ice (DCI Erika Foster #1)(3)
Robert Bryndza

The small gate in the iron railings was locked. The wind was now blowing horizontally and Lee shivered in his trackies. A miserable old git was in charge of the gardening crew. Lee was supposed to wait for him to show up and let him in, but the street was empty. He looked around to make certain, and then scaled the small gate into the museum grounds, taking a thin pathway between tall evergreen hedges.

Sheltered from the shrieking wind, the world around him fell eerily silent. The snow was deepening fast, refilling his crunching footprints as he made his way through the hedgerows. The Horniman Museum and its grounds covered seventeen acres, and the sheds for gardening and maintenance were set right at the back, against a high wall with a curved top. Everywhere was a dazzling blur of white, and Lee lost his bearings, emerging deeper than he had expected in the gardens, beside the Orangery. The ornate wrought-iron-and-glass building took him by surprise. He doubled back, but after a few minutes was again in unfamiliar territory, finding himself at a fork in the path.

How many times have I walked through these bloody gardens? he thought. He took the path to the right, leading into a sunken garden. White marble cherubs posed on snowy brick plinths. The wind gave a low howl as it blew among them, and as Lee passed, it felt as if the blank, milky little eyes of the cherubs were watching him. He stopped and held his hand up to his face against the onslaught of snow, trying to work out the quickest way to the Visitors’ Centre. The garden maintenance crew weren’t usually allowed in the museum, but it was freezing, and the café could be open, and screw it, he would warm up like any other normal human being.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out. It was a text message from the Jobcentre Plus, saying that ‘due to adverse weather he would not be required to attend his work placement’. He stuffed it back in his pocket. The cherubs all seemed to have their heads turned towards him. Were they facing him before? He imagined their pearly little heads slowly moving, tracking his progress through the garden. He shook away the thought and hurried past the blank eyes, concentrating on the snow-covered ground, and emerged into the quiet of a clearing around a disused boating lake.

He stopped and squinted through the whirling flakes. A faded blue rowing boat sat in the centre of a pristine oval of snow that had settled on the frozen lake. At the opposite end of the lake was a tiny decaying boat shed, and Lee could just make out the cover of an old rowing boat under its eaves.

Snow was seeping into his already-wet trainers, and despite his jacket, the cold was spreading around his ribs. He was ashamed to realise that he actually felt scared. He needed to find his way out of here. If he doubled back through the sunken garden, he could find the path around the perimeter and emerge onto London Road. The petrol garage would be open and he could buy more fags and some chocolate.

He was about to turn back, when a noise broke the silence. It was tinny and distorted, coming from the direction of the boat shed.

‘Hey! Who’s there?’ he shouted, his voice emerging high-pitched and panicky. It was only when the noise ceased, and seconds later, began to repeat, that Lee realised it was the ringtone from a mobile phone, and could be coming from one of his co-workers.

Because of the snow he couldn’t tell where the path ended and the water began, so, sticking close to the band of trees that lined the edge of the boating lake, Lee carefully made his way round towards the sound of the ringtone. It was a desperately light tune, and as he drew nearer he could hear that it was coming from the boat shed.

He reached the low roof, and, ducking down, saw a glow illuminating the gloom from behind the tiny boat. The ringtone stopped, and seconds later the light went out. Lee was relieved it was just a phone. Druggies and dossers regularly scaled the walls at night, and the gardening crew was always finding empty wallets – dumped after the cash and cards were removed – used condoms, and needles. The phone had probably been dumped . . . But why dump a phone . . . Surely you’d only dump a really crappy phone? thought Lee.

He circled the little boathouse. The posts of a tiny jetty poked through the snow, and the jetty continued under the low roof of the boat shed. Where the snow couldn’t reach, Lee could see that the wood was rotten. He eased along the jetty, ducking down under the eaves of the low roof. The wood above his head was rotten and splintered, and cobwebs hung in wisps. He was now beside the rowing boat, and could see that on the other side of the shed, lying on a little wooden ledge, was an iPhone.

Excitement rose in his chest. He could sell an iPhone down the pub, no probs. He gave the rowing boat a shove with his foot, but it didn’t budge; the water was frozen solid around it. He passed its bow, stopping at the opposite end of the jetty. Crouching on his knees, he leaned over, and using the sleeve of his coat he cleared away a powdery layer of snow, exposing thick ice. The water underneath was very clear, and down in the depths he could just make out two fish, mottled with red and black, swimming lazily. A string of tiny bubbles rose up from them, reached the underside of the ice, and rolled away in opposite directions.

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