‘Malcolm, there’s someone at the door!’ DI Swann waits. She can’t hear him shuffling at the far end of the nest. ‘Malcolm,’ she calls out again. ‘Get the door!’
Still nothing. ‘Malcolm, I’m on the eggs! Get the fucking door!’
What is this? Another sulk? Swann hoists herself up from the clutch and makes her way over the sticks and branches. She meets her mate-for-life emerging from the small hole he’s carved into the river bank; the one he likes to refer to as his ‘cob cave’. He looks guilty and his feathers are ruffled.
‘Didn’t you hear me? I said there was someone at the door.’
‘I heard you. I was on my way.’
Swann narrows her eyes. ‘What were you doing in there?’
‘Nothing.’ Malcolm’s answer comes back a little too quickly for her liking. She rolls the door aside, making a mental note to check his search history.
‘Afternoon, Ma’am.’ Detective Sergeant Duckworthy waddles into the nest without waiting to be invited.
‘It’s my day off, Duckworthy,’ Swann says. ‘What is it?’
Malcolm and Duckworthy face each other, puffing out their chests. Swann swears she hears Malcolm hiss. They greet each other… after a fashion.
Even if she wasn’t a detective, the undertone would be unmistakeable:
What the hell does she see in you, you preening waste of feathers.
Fancy your chances do you, Dennis? Dream on: you’re just a fucking duck.
Swann remembers the Christmas party three years ago. She and Duckworthy had too much to drink; said things they agreed would never be spoken of again: he’d said Malcolm wasn’t good enough for her.
‘All that cleaning around in his tail feathers … the way he walks … spends all his time looking at himself in the water. It ain’t right, Maggs. It just ain’t… manly.’
She’d bridled, hissed at him: ‘That’s still DI Swann to you, sergeant, and I can tell you he’s as manly as any swan on the water, and I’ve had eight cygnets to prove it!’
Too much detail, she thinks. Way too much. And far too defensive… He did have that friendship with Tarquin from up river. I mean, what could they possibly have in common? But if he wasn’t here, she’d bet a stack of seaweed he was with Tarquin. What was that all about?
Swann sighs. ‘Would anyone like a cup of algae tea?’
Malcolm says he’ll make it, but Duckworthy says they don’t have time.
‘There’s been another one, Ma’am.’
Malcolm forgets all about the tea; he hunkers down between them and begins cleaning his tail feathers.
Duckworthy clears his throat and waits.
Swann looks nervously at Duckworthy, who pretends to examine a particularly interesting twig poking through the east wall.
‘Malcolm, please… don’t be such a twat.’
Now she definitely hears him hiss. ‘Right, fine,’ he says. ‘I’ll go sit on the eggs then. Seems it’s all I’m good for.’
Swann and Duckworthy wait for him to leave.
‘Sorry about that, Ma’am.’ says Duckworthy, and for a moment Swann thinks he means it.
’So what’s this all about?’
Duckworthy produces a notebook and flips it open with a yellow-stained wing. ‘Victim found a few yards from where we found the other one.’
Duckworthy shakes his head. ‘Nope. A fish this time.’
‘A fish?’ Swann taps her bill. Behind her she can hear Malcolm making a performance of settling down on the eggs. ‘Who would kill a fish?’
Duckworthy shrugs. ‘Just about everybody.’
‘Okay. Cause of death?’
‘Battered to death, Ma’am.’
‘I’m not in the mood, sergeant.’
’No, honest to God, Ma’am. Looks like he was hit repeatedly with a blunt object. He’s a hell of a mess.’
‘Any sign of a murder weapon?’
‘Damn it.’ This is going to be a tough nut to crack; she can feel it. ‘What sort of fish was he?’
‘I said what sort of fish was he?’
‘What difference does it make?’
‘It makes all the difference, Duckworthy. Was he a loner, or does he come from territorial stock? Is he aggressive, or would he prefer to swim from a fight? So again, sergeant: what kind of fish was he?’
Duckworthy looks flustered. ‘Not sure… cod, I think? Or maybe a haddock.’
‘Or maybe a haddock.’
‘I think so, yes Ma’am.’
‘You don’t know what sort of fish it was, do you Duckworthy?’
Duckworthy sniffs and shuffles nervously from foot to foot.
‘Jesus Christ, do I have to do everything myself?’
‘Fine, I don’t know what kind of fish it was. It was a fish: long, slimy, swims a lot, memory like a sieve. It was a fish, Ma’am – they all look the bloody same to me.’
Duckworthy swallows; he thinks he hears the river gasp.
‘What did you say, sergeant?’
‘All I meant was, that it was a fish. You know what they’re like.’
‘No, do tell me, Duckworthy. What are they like?’
Duckworthy wishes he had a tie so he could loosen it. ‘You know what I mean, boss. They come up the Thames, clogging up the waterways, taking all the best pickings, not giving anything back. I’m not saying they’re all like that – just most of ‘em.’
Swann is fuming now. ‘I won’t have talk like that on my task force. Do you understand me?’
‘If I ever hear you say anything like that again, you’re back in uniform. Is that clear?’
‘Good, now get moving; we’ve got a serial killer to catch.’
Still looking very put out, Duckworthy jumps from the nest, beats his wings twice and lands in the water with a loud plop.
‘I have to head out,’ Swann calls out as she eases herself into the water. ‘Not sure when I’ll be back.’
‘Fine, right,’ Malcolm calls back. ‘I’ll stay on the eggs then. Not as if I have to eat or anything.’
‘I’ll bring you something.’
‘Not stale bread; I’m sick to the back teeth of stale bread.’
‘Right.’ Swann swims after Duckworthy, shaking her head. Her mother had always said she was punching below her weight…