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Max Sheehan had lived in Bridgelands Cross all his life and served in the police force for the best part of thirty years. For the last twenty he’d been a Sergeant, the highest rank possible for the area. He’d seen a lot during that time, more than anyone would want to see.

That might not be much compared to his colleagues in the towns and cities but, even in a place this small, there was crime. Sometimes it was committed by locals, but mostly it came from outsiders, the transient population attracted to the area by its remoteness.

Sheehan knew most people who lived here, and the woman who’d fallen from the cliff-tops during the storm was not someone he knew. An outsider. What brought her to Bridgelands Cross, and whether she was involved in anything she shouldn’t have been, was another matter. His first priority was to find out who she was. Or rather, who she’d been.

Ray Connors had come from out of town to conduct the post-mortem. Sheehan was pleased to see him. Always did a good job, did Connors, and thought nothing of working through the night to cut down on departmental expenses. There weren’t many who would do that. That was the kind of employee anyone would be happy to have.

The village medical centre was acting as a temporary mortuary, and had been closed to the public until the body could be moved. With any luck Connors would be finished before Sheehan was obliged to offer a room at the police station for the more pressing medical appointments.

He watched as the pathologist put the final touches on the dead body.

‘How’s she lookin’, Connors?’

The pathologist looked up from applying a last daub of concealer to a head wound.

‘Ready for identification, Max.’

Sheehan hovered in the doorway before walking over to the table and looking at the body.

‘You’ve done a good job, Connors,’ he said. ‘Very good job indeed.’

‘Just make sure she doesn’t get moved,’ Connors replied. ‘Her face looks clean, but there were too many fractures to the back of her skull to seal them all. It wouldn’t take much to open them up again – a hard knock to the gurney would be enough – and no-one wants to see that.’

Sheehan nodded.

‘You take a look at those fractures?’

‘I ran all the necessary tests, yes.’

‘And?’

‘Mixture of blunt trauma and sharp impact. There’s nothing to suggest anyone else was involved. Had someone attacked her and inflicted this much injury, I’d expect to see pressure marks here and here.’

He indicated to areas on the dead woman’s cheek and jaw.

‘How’d she smash her skull up?’

‘The most likely explanation is that the body became trapped in a current,’ the pathologist said. ‘The waves would then have thrown her repeatedly against the rocks, causing the damage to the back of her head. It would also explain why her face was relatively unscathed.’

He paused for a moment.

‘Had she been facing the other way, we couldn’t have done any identification at all.’

‘What a way to go,’ Sheehan muttered.

‘She was already dead when these injuries were sustained,’ Dr Connors corrected. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind about that.’

Sheehan whistled.

‘Still, after my time’s up, I wouldn’t wanna have my skull smashed up like that.’

‘Not many of us would, Max.’

The pathologist looked down at the body on the table. He never looked at any of the bodies until they were ready for show. Never looked at them properly, in any case. When they first came in, they weren’t people but a set of tests and tasks he needed to complete, a jigsaw of tissue and bone for him to stitch back together.

It was only when his examinations were over that Dr Connors could look at the corpse and see a dead human. There was no mistaking the greying pallor of the lifeless body on the slab but, now he’d done his job, it was conceivable that the girl had simply passed away in her sleep.

She hadn’t looked so pretty when she first washed up. The drowned never did. People threw themselves off the cliffs. It didn’t happen every day, but it happened. And when it did, it could take weeks, or sometimes months, for the bloated body to wash ashore.

Given the ferocity of the recent storm, it wouldn’t have required any suicidal urge to take someone over those cliffs. Any unfortunate on the coastal path when the storm broke could easily have been swept to their death. That just might be what happened here.

The body had washed up the morning after the storm, the grim discovery made by one of the local forestry workers while walking his dog. Jack Lacey claimed he’d followed the dog onto the shoreline while the tide was out.

This story was treated with some suspicion within the police station. It was more likely, in Sheehan’s opinion, that Jack Lacey had been scavenging for any saleable items the high winds might have liberated from their owners. Since finding the body, Lacey had been angling for some reward, and this was quite possibly his only motive for reporting the woman’s death to the police at all.

His discovery had sent widespread whispers through the village. News of this scale inevitably did, especially as the dead woman’s identity remained a mystery. Sheehan could live without the tittle-tattle. He’d even fielded enquiries from out-of-town journalists, each one keen to get an exclusive on the tragedy.

Nosy parkering Sheehan called it, although this outside interest at least helped the news reach people further afield who might recognise the woman. There was no shortage of relatives fearing for the mental health of their loved ones. Sheehan couldn’t be expected to reach out to all of them on his own.

‘So you don’t reckon anyone else was involved?’ he asked the pathologist.

‘I very much doubt it,’ Connors replied. ‘Not unless they pushed her off the cliffs.’

Sheehan considered this possibility for a moment.

‘So we’ve got three choices,’ he said. ‘Either she took a dive of her own accord, the storms swept her away, or there was someone else up on them cliffs with her.’

‘Not necessarily,’ Connors said. ‘She just washed up here. The current can carry a body for miles.’

‘S’pose it can,’ Sheehan said. ‘Just as long as we haven’t got some murderer on our hands. That sort of talk gets round town, it gives people the jitters.’

‘It’s a possibility that can’t be ruled out,’ Connors replied.

Sheehan glared at him.

‘Of course, it isn’t the most likely scenario,’ the pathologist added, ‘and it isn’t my place to tell you how to do your job. However, I think your efforts at the present time are best served on getting an identification.’

Sheehan liked the sound of that.

‘That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.’

Both men looked at the blue-blemished body on the table.

‘Any idea at all who she might be?’ Connors asked.

Sheehan screwed up his face.

‘I had Byers run her description though Missing Persons,’ he replied. ‘Got a few leads but nothin’ solid.’

Sheehan picked something from between his teeth with a thumb and forefinger.

‘I got it narrowed down to three possible matches,’ he said. ‘After that, it’s anyone’s guess.’

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