A Handful of Ashes

Rob McCarthy

The following is an exclusive excerpt from A Handful of Ashes, by Rob McCarthy. In the following passage, we’re introduced to Police Surgeon Harry Kent, on hisway to a crime scene to declare a corpse officially deceased, and unprepared to discover he knows the deceased rather well. McCarthy is a doctor and crime writer, based in the UK.

The voice, female and distinctly Geordie, sounded far too happy for the early hour of the morning. “Requesting your services on Calais Street, Myatt’s Fields, if it’s not too much trouble. We’ve got a certification for you to do.”

He had never heard of the road before, but he knew Myatt’s Fields, sandwiched within a concrete triangle of Camberwell to the east, Stockwell to the west, and Brixton to the south, a mix of tall Edwardian terraces, leafy green streets, and two brutalist housing estates, not too far from the hospital where he worked. A few of his colleagues lived in the area.

“Right,” said Harry. “What does it look like?”

He usually tried to find out a little more when he was asked to certify death at potential crime scenes. If the act had occurred within the past half hour, or the circumstances were at all ambiguous, it might be worth dispatching an ambulance and starting resuscitation efforts. It had never happened to Harry, arriving to find a body potentially alive, but there had been a highly publicised case recently in Scotland. A man dragged from the River Ness, hypothermic and half-drowned, and assumed dead by both the local cops and the on-call Force Medical Examiner, only to show signs of life in the mortuary.

“I’m DS McGovern, with the Homicide Assessment Team. We have a female in her forties who’s slashed her wrists. Looks like a suicide, but we’re keeping an open mind.”

Article continues below

“No signs of life?” Harry confirmed. At the question, Wilson got up off the wall he’d been leaning against, his interest piqued.

“She’s cold,” the detective said. “Dead as Elvis. Paramedics took one look and got the hell out of there. Girlfriend came home from a bender and found her, the poor thing. There’s blood all over the place, like.”

“Ok, then,” said Harry.

“How long do you reckon you’ll be?”

“I’m at Walworth nick,” said Harry. “I’ve just seen a patient here, so I can’t leave for a few minutes, I need to write it up.” He checked his watch. “Should be there by five, though.”

Article continues below

“No bother,” said McGovern. “The DCI just wanted to know, that’s all.”

Harry rang off, stabbing his phone’s screen with a finger and shaking his head. Wilson gave a weary laugh, the laugh of a man at the very edge of his sleep cycle.

“Anything fun?” he said.

“Cert waiting for me down in Myatt’s Fields. Suicide, apparently.”

“Good timing,” he said. “Bet you they’re a night-shifter.”

Just like Harry, and presumably the detective who’d just called him, Wilson was working a twelve-hour overnight shift, and had been for the whole weekend. Unless it was an emergency, a job two hours from finishing a night shift, just like this one, was the perfect opportunity to string things out a bit, meaning that he’d finish up and become available at about six twenty-nine, when he could usually avoid another job in the minute before he clocked off.

Harry slipped the tubes of Pauline Wright’s blood into a zip-lock bag, and handed it to Wilson.

“Give those to the custody nurse,” he said. “I’ve written the orders for which tests to send for.”

“And the interview?”

“I’ve given her a decent dose of haloperidol, and there’s a prescription with the nurse for some chlordiazepoxide if she needs some. She’ll be knocked out until about lunchtime. Get the guy who’s on tomorrow to assess her. Sorry I couldn’t have been more help.”

Wilson was pissed off, and Harry sympathised. After arresting a suspect, the police only had twenty-four hours, and then it was charge and release. By the time she was sober and in a state to be interviewed, Pauline Wright’s time would almost be up. CID could apply to a judge for an extension, but Harry suspected they wouldn’t bother. The case would be open-and-shut — Wright would be charged nonetheless, and she’d do the rest of her detox in the infirmary at Holloway Women’s Prison awaiting trial.

“Not your fault,” said Wilson, yawning. “It was good to see you anyway. When are you on the telly?”

“Monday night.”

A month ago, Harry had recorded a segment for Crimewatch, along with some detectives from the Specialist Case Investigation team. The subject was a patient he’d treated back in August 2011, a young woman brutally attacked in the midst of the worst riots London had seen that side of the millennium. She was still in hospital in a minimally conscious state, and despite the police’s efforts she still had no name, no identity, and any chance of discovering who had beaten her into a three-year coma appeared slim at best. In the absence of clues to her real name, they called her Zara, based on a clothing label. Monday would mark just over three years since she had been left for dead in an alleyway off Eccles Road, and Harry had managed to persuade a cold-case team from the Met to put out an appeal. He’d been the first doctor to see her in A&E, so he and the neurologist who oversaw her care had recorded soundbites.

“Well I hope you get something good,” Wilson said. “I’ll be watching.”

Harry thanked him and turned to leave. As he did, a thought emerged from behind the clouds in his mind, the final words of the Geordie detective on the phone still ringing in his ears.


Wilson turned around. “Yeah?”

“How normal is it for the DCI on the Homicide Assessment Team to attend the scene?”

“It’s completely routine if it’s obviously a murder,” Wilson said. “They tend to be too busy otherwise. Send the grunts in and let them make the call.”

“Hmm,” said Harry. He often encountered the HAT at the sudden deaths he was called to, detectives from whatever Homicide & Serious team were on the rota for new cases that week. In the vast majority of cases, they concurred with the opinion of everyone present that the death was non-suspicious, signed off and left the investigation to the coroner. Harry checked his watch again. 4:35 a.m. He’d done police work getting on for two years now, and he’d never seen a DCI at a suicide, let alone in the middle of the night.

Harry checked his watch again. 4:35 a.m. He’d done police work getting on for two years now, and he’d never seen a DCI at a suicide, let alone in the middle of the night.

“Who called you?” Wilson said.

“McGovern,” said Harry. “Geordie girl.”

“Ah,” said Wilson. “She’s new, with Southwark. Looks like you’re in for an awkward night.”

The expression on Wilson’s face was sheepish, a token attempt at sincerity whilst the smirk broke free at the corners of his mouth. Harry didn’t laugh. Wilson’s former boss, Frankie Noble, had been Harry’s girlfriend for nine months and had moved to Homicide & Serious shortly after they’d broken up. If the Southwark team were on the rota for this week, Noble would be attending.

“Well,” said Harry. “I’d better get down there, hadn’t I?”

Harry yawned and turned and headed for the exit, fumbling in his jacket pocket for his car keys. He stepped out of the station, into the car park, and broke into a run, anything to wake him up. The sky was full of storm clouds, black against the blue of the lightening sky. There was a big one expected in the morning, the tail end of some hurricane making its way over from the Caribbean.

He tried to banish all thoughts of Frankie Noble and think instead about the dead woman he was driving over to certify. Unlocked his car and threw his bag onto the passenger seat. Set the SatNav for Calais Street, and headed south.


Something a bit like dead had started brewing on the drive, arriving in his stomach near Kennington. Harry wasn’t quite sure what it was, but the Subway sandwich he’d wolfed down at midnight was sitting uneasily. He parked the car, took his bag from the passenger seat and headed over.

The feeling didn’t ease with the morning air. Walking up to the scene of a death always made his mind wander, thoughts about mortality, his and other people’s. Not with regards to time, but to place — he had long since accepted that life was something fragile that whatever force drove the universe had no respect for. He saw death all the time, but on the hospital wards, where people succumbed despite the tubes and wires anchoring them to their beds, death was sanitary, awful but understandable. Death belonged in a hospital. It was part of the furniture. There was something about encountering death in a kitchen or a bedroom or a garden that always irked him. That feeling had faded with experience, but it never went away completely.

The police had cordoned off a section of road that formed one side of a square of five-storey red-brick terraces that looked out onto the park. The park itself wouldn’t have been out of place in an Oxfordshire village, with a tennis court, an old bandstand and a pond, above which a mist rose, tendrils of dawn poking into the summer night. Here, though, the park and its genteel apartments were sandwiched between Camberwell and the estates of Akerman Road. That was South London for you, Harry thought, as he approached the line of tape marked by a solitary uniformed officer under a streetlight. There were nice parts and rough parts of every city, but few places where the demographic could vary so drastically from one street to the next.

The whole street was quiet but for the various police vehicles, only two of which had their blue strobes on. In a few hours, the residents would wake up to find their house behind a police cordon. Harry counted two unmarked police cars inside the tape, a forensics van, ambulance and two patrol vehicles.

He saw death all the time, but on the hospital wards, where people succumbed despite the tubes and wires anchoring them to their beds, death was sanitary, awful but understandable. Death belonged in a hospital. It was part of the furniture.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Harry showed his ID. “Force Medical Examiner.”

“Right you are,” the officer said, leaning into his radio. “Shona, the doctor’s here.”

Harry looked across the street as he waited. Fiat 500s and Minis parked on the road, old-fashioned wrought-iron grilles guarding the bottom of the wide windows on every floor, the odd house with a name as well as a number. He allowed himself a few moments’ distraction to ease the nerves, wondering if celebrity was the reason for the DCI’s presence, if it was a politician or a pop star waiting for him with slashed wrists. If it was a case like that, one where every detail was set upon by the media like vultures to carrion, then he wanted nothing to do with it.

DS McGovern came down from a communal hallway, heading towards the cordon, frizzy hair down to her shoulders and a trenchcoat down to her knees.

“We spoke on the phone,” she said. “Good to meet you.”

She held up the police tape and signed him in. The address had a communal courtyard accessed by a dark archway, through which Harry caught glimpses of activity. Two uniform coppers held a foil blanket over a silhouette, despite the summer heat. A forensic photographer set up equipment. No glimpse yet of Noble. Harry made to move towards the arch, but McGovern blocked his way.

“Before we head in, Dr Kent, I need to ask you something,” she said, her voice quiet. “The victim’s a thirty-four-year-old female. Our provisional ID is that she’s a doctor. I just wanted to check it’s not someone you know before you go inside.”

“Christ,” said Harry. His brain started listing his colleagues and friends who he knew lived around here, matching it with the age and the gender. No obvious candidates. He looked up at the dark morning sky, now dreading the grim task that faced him even more.

“What’s her name?”

“Susan Bayliss.”

Harry knew it, but couldn’t remember where from. She was around the same age as him, so maybe she was an old medical school classmate, or they’d rotated together as juniors. Every doctor had colleagues who’d killed themselves, so the sadness he felt was not a new one.

“I don’t know her,” said Harry. “Thanks for checking.”

“I’ll take you through, then.”

The local uniforms were milling around in the courtyard and Harry nodded to the faces he recognised. McGovern let him into a wide stairwell, where two detectives stood with their back to the wall, arms folded. The younger one, male and Asian, stepped forward to greet them. The other detective stayed with her back to the wall, arms folded, in the half-light.

“This is Dr Kent,” McGovern said. “Dr Kent, DC Bhalla and Acting DCI Noble. She’s the boss.”

As Harry stepped further into the hallway Noble came into the light, and he got a good look at her. More than that, he got to watch her react as she recognised him. The leather jacket, dark jeans and Doc Martens that had once been her calling card were gone, as was the short fringe, replaced by a white collared shirt, smart trousers, flat shoes and a conservative bob. The face was different, too, but he couldn’t work out how, though the expression hadn’t changed. Her face moved little.

Harry shook Bhalla’s hand, looked at Noble and nodded. The weight had moved from his stomach to his chest, and he found himself using all of his willpower to look at the stairs, the ceiling, anywhere but her. The two of them had met two Januarys ago when she’d investigated the events leading up to the shooting of a local teenager, and then the cruel slaughter of one of Harry’s closest friends. In those two weeks he’d lost an immeasurable amount, but the case had built an emotional connection that had evolved into an intense and complex relationship. She’d moved in in September, and Harry had kicked her out for the final time, drunk and screaming, on New Year’s Day. Since then they’d managed to avoid one another, even on the few occasions they’d been in the same building. Harry hadn’t expected the first rendezvous to be in the middle of the night with a dead woman lying upstairs, though on reflection he probably should have.

“Right, Harry,” said Noble. “Thanks for coming.”

Harry noticed Bhalla and McGovern share a raised eyebrow at her use of his first name. They wouldn’t know the story, he reasoned. Christ, if he was in Noble’s shoes, he’d keep it secret. It would take up so much time at the water-cooler no murder case would be solved in South London for weeks.

“The victim’s a thirty-four-year-old female, lives in Flat 5b with her girlfriend,” Noble continued. “The girlfriend came back from a night out about four and found the victim sat in a chair, incised wounds to the wrists and upper arms. There’s an empty packet of pills on the dining room table.”

Susan Bayliss’s name was an itch in the back of Harry’s brain. He still couldn’t place it and the fear began to rise.

They started up the wide staircase to the fourth floor, where the door to Flat 5b was open but covered with an “X” of crime-scene tape. It reminded him of plague houses, how they’d been marked with the same shape.

“Who’s been inside?” Harry said.

“Paramedics, the first pair of responding officers, me and Gurpreet, and the girlfriend. We were waiting on you to certify before Forensics go in.”

Christ, Harry thought. On the stairs above him, a uniformed officer, a woman of no more than twenty-five, was in conversation with a forensics tech. The uniform had a dark red smear of blood across the collar of her white shirt. It was fairly difficult to commit suicide by slashing your wrists, though many tried. You had to cut painfully deep in order to hit an artery. In fact, in the time he’d now been working with the police, he’d not certified a single cutter out of all the suicides he could recall. Plenty of hangings, and jumpers—bridges, tower blocks, underground trains. A solitary carbon monoxide job, stuck in a stuffy garage in Dulwich with taped-up doors, once the hazmat team had cleared it. But not yet someone who’d bled themselves to death. They tended to show up in A&E, surrounded by confused friends or terrified parents.

“Is there a pathologist on the way?” Harry said.

Noble shook her head.

“Not yet. I’m waiting to see what Forensics make of it. It looks like a suicide for sure, but there are a few things that seem a little strange . . . It’s pretty brutal. I dunno, call it gut instinct. I’m open-minded, but I need a bit more before I kick off a murder inquiry at this hour. Don’t want to seem to eager, that’s all . . .”

“Right . . .” said Harry.

“You’ll see what I mean.”


They arrived at the top of the stairs and a forensic tech handed each of them a white paper zip-up, overshoes and a facemask. They got dressed in silence. Susan Bayliss’s name was an itch in the back of Harry’s brain. He still couldn’t place it and the fear began to rise. Fear that he’d step through the cross of tape into the flat and see the face of a friend or a colleague, fear that Noble be able to notice his reaction. But as Harry pulled the white paper suit over his arms, he tried not to think about that. He’d encountered plenty of bodies before, that’s just what this was, he told himself. Another life shortened prematurely, and one subject to the procedures and protocols and paperwork of the police doctor, just like any other.

He finished suiting up and realised Noble, the detectives and the forensic techs had all done so before him, the benefit of frequent practice. One of the techs gestured towards the cross of tape barring the door.

“After you, Doc,” he said. “After all, whoever she is, she’s not dead until you say so.”


From A Handful of Ashes. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2018 by Rob McCarthy.

More Story
26 Crime Writing Poets At first blush, poetry and crime fiction may not seem like the most obvious pairing. For decades, labels like "highbrow"...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month