The Crime

I let myself in to Ben’s house. He gave me a key the day he moved in and that was the biggest compliment you can imagine. We’d love to keep contact with all the kids we’ve fostered, but we take teenagers and often they’re lost by the time we get them. They lead wild and chaotic lives and once they officially leave care there’s nothing we can do to hang onto them. Ben was different from the moment he arrived. Vulnerable and damaged and often locked away in a world of his own, but it was still possible to reach him. He got a couple of A levels and we thought he might try uni. He never fancied it though. Too shy or not interested in what was on offer. He found himself a job in a cycle shop – bikes were his passion – and then a room in a shared house in Heaton. I thought we might lose him then, but he presented me with a spare key and I almost cried.

He called last night. We weren’t in and he left a message on the answerphone. I lost my mobile a week ago – or maybe it was nicked on the metro – so he couldn’t text me. That was our usual means of communication. My husband Rob is a dinosaur – he doesn’t even have a mobile phone.

So this time Ben had rung the landline. His voice was quiet.  Uh Suzie, I’ve got a bit of a problem. Any chance we could chat? It was late when I arrived home, so I didn’t call him back until this morning and then there was no answer. I thought maybe his battery was dead or he had his phone on silent because he was working. I’d done a bit of washing for him at the weekend – I don’t mind and it’s a way of keeping in touch – and I thought I’d just call at the house, drop it off, see if Ben was there. But there was no answer when I knocked so I let myself in using my key. The door was definitely locked and there was no sign that anyone had tried to break in.

Ben’s bedroom door was locked too. It was a Yale and it would pull shut behind him if he went out. But I was there and I had a key for that as well, so I thought I’d put his laundry inside. No point in having to come back later. I wasn’t anxious at that point. There hadn’t been any panic in his phone message, you see. He was a worrier, Ben. Small things could throw him. He often called to ask about domestic problems like working the micro-wave or organising his rent. We were used to him getting in touch for odd pieces of advice and we were pleased to help.

I saw him as soon as I opened the door. His curtains were drawn but the fabric was very thin and the sunshine was strong. He was sitting at his desk in front of his computer, slumped forward over the keyboard. When he lived with us he’d spend hours on the computer and I once found him in just the same position, fast asleep. But I could tell immediately that he wasn’t asleep this time. His head had been hit so hard that his skull had been smashed in and there was blood everywhere.  A lot of blood. Spattered on the ceiling and on the floor and the wall behind the desk.

I stood just inside the door and I saw the room as if it was a photograph. It’s fired in my brain. Like a brand or a tattoo that can never be removed. His bed was pushed against one wall. I recognised the pillow case and the duvet cover we’d bought together when he first left us. Black and grey stripes. The bed was unmade, but that didn’t mean anything. It could have been like that for days. How many young men make their bed when they get out of it in the morning?

Against one wall was a bookshelf, he’d made himself from bricks and planks. He always liked reading. Crazy science fiction mostly. That was one of the things we had in common. On the other he’d stuck up a poster of a world map. He didn’t talk much about his dreams for the future, but he told me once that he’d like to cycle across America.

Next to the map on the same wall was a cork board with some photos. Him with his bike having just won a race. An out of focus picture of his birth mother holding him as a baby. A young woman I didn’t recognize. He’d never talked about a girlfriend and certainly had never brought anyone to our house. This girl had blond hair and a wide, Cheshire cat smile. I thought she had freckles until I saw that her face was covered with tiny drops of Ben’s blood.

That brought me to my senses, woke me up from the kind of dream I’d been having and I looked at Ben again. I didn’t know what I should do, whether I should check for a pulse. But I couldn’t bear to touch him and I couldn’t see that he could be alive with that sort of damage. He’d never introduced any of his house-mates. He’d always been a solitary soul. His landlord’s the guy who owns the cycle shop and he lives in a flat on the top floor. I’ve seen him in the shop, but we’ve never talked. He’s middle-aged and looks a bit of a geek. Perhaps that was why Ben got on so well with him. I believe the other residents are students. Ben moaned occasionally that they were noisy, but he hadn’t even told me their names.

This morning the place was so quiet that I didn’t believe that anyone was in. But I ran through the house knocking on all the doors, shouting for someone to help. In the end I rushed into the street and asked a passer-by to lend me her phone. I dialled 999 and screamed at the poor woman on the other end of the line who was trying to get some sense out of me. Then I went back in to be with my boy and to wait for people to arrive.

© Ann Cleeves

Scene of Crime Officer

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