Her heels felt tacky on the tough, balding carpet. Detective Inspector Alison Farber remembered her wild university days quite vividly, but in retrospect they seemed fairly tame compared to students nowadays. A case of rose-tinted glasses on her past, perhaps. A generational thing. Students were students; they got pissed a lot and smashed things up, and the corridor Farber was walking through was cold proof of that.
Discarded beer bottles, cans and plastic cups lined the walls of the corridor like runway lights, each one frozen in the state it was left in barely a few hours earlier. A pungent aroma of stale booze and cannabis filled the air, bringing back memories of every hangover Farber had ever had. She passed a stoved-in pumpkin on her left, the red candle wax having spilled out across the carpet and solidified like a dried bloodstain. Somewhere behind her a collection of glass bottles clattered like bowling pins.
‘Bloody students,’ said Detective Sergeant Leonard Staedler. Farber stopped and watched as he crouched on one of his dodgy knees, letting a compressed breath hiss through his lips as he righted the bottles he’d knocked over. A pair of curious students passed, one wearing a skeleton costume with black and white makeup smeared over his face – undoubtedly a work of art before he’d spent the night lip-locked with the bloodied nurse who walked alongside him. Halloween costumes are getting more impressive each year, thought Farber.
The Detectives continued and turned a corner, making their way towards a room buzzing with police activity. A girl with black hair and a yellow blouse scurried by, tear-streaked mascara running down her pale cheeks. A few doors away they came to the backs of a group of gathering adolescents.
‘Out of the way please,’ said Farber, her stern, authoritative tone making their heads spin like startled owls. Farber and Staedler finally reached their destination where they were greeted by Constable Buchanan, a short man in his forties.
‘Messy bastards, aren’t they?’ he said, pushing open the door to room 412.
It was dim in there, most of the light coming from a solitary window that was partially blocked by an ageing wardrobe. The room was a standard student dive. A single bed occupied one wall, with a cream duvet peeled back haphazardly. Against the opposite wall a long mirror was propped up next to a small wash basin, scabby with limescale from years of neglect. Farber overlooked the other details of the room as her attention was quickly drawn to a lumpy white sheet on the ground in front of her, a burgundy patch soaked into the carpet at one end.
‘Single shotgun wound to the head,’ said Buchanan, notepad in hand. ‘We’re still canvassing, but the lad’s name is Nikolai Guskov. He was 21. We think it’s him anyway, the blast took his face clean off. Forensics will confirm the identity.’
Farber crouched and lifted the sheet at the burgundy end, revealing an unsightly mess; about 75 percent of the young man’s face was missing, exposing a sticky composition of blood, sinew, bone fragments and raw grey-pink matter. The vague shape of a skull could only just be made out, but the jaw and some of the lower left eye socket were gone, most likely on the far side of the room.
‘He was a third-year computer science student,’ said Buchanan. ‘Ukrainian born. Here on a scholarship. We can’t get hold of his mother, the number doesn’t work.’
‘Ukrainian number?’ asked Staedler.
Buchanan nodded. ‘A place called Kosmak,’ he said, ‘…at least I think that’s how you say it.’
‘Kosmach,’ corrected Staedler, ‘it’s in the far west of the country. I wouldn’t put much stock in the uni’s student database. A lot of that info gets compiled the day they arrive and doesn’t get updated again.’
Farber watched as Staedler stepped around the body and homed in on a sawn-off shotgun lying on the carpet by the bed. He tensed before getting down on one knee again, grunting through the pain.
‘This is some serious kit for a computer nerd,’ he said, leaning over and sniffing the barrels.
‘Home connections?’ said Farber.
Farber looked back at the corpse and peeled back even more of the sheet, exposing Nikolai’s bare, sallow neck, then his shoulder where his T-shirt had stretched to one side. Taking a Biro from her jacket, Farber prodded the end just above his collarbone. It was tough with no give. The smell wasn’t too bad though.
‘I wouldn’t say he’s been dead any longer than 12 hours,’ she said, checking her watch. ‘Which puts the earliest time of death around 11 last night.’
‘Who heard the shot?’ said Staedler, grunting back to his feet.
‘Funnily enough, no one,’ said Buchanan, prompting inquisitive looks from the detectives. ‘Well, half the students are still in bed, but you saw the mess on your way in. Students on Halloween? Bloody maniacs. This place was bouncing last night. We even had a few call outs – noise pollution, lads fighting in the street, one drunk and disorderly. You could have set a bomb off in here and no-one would have blinked.’
‘Then who raised the alarm?’ said Farber.
‘Erm, Professor…’ Buchanan quickly consulted his notepad, then gave up, ‘one of his lecturers. She got worried when he didn’t turn up to class.’
‘And all the other pissheads from last night did?’ asked Staedler.
Farber lifted even more of the sheet, revealing the left-hand side of Nikolai’s body. Stopping at his hands, she tilted her head curiously at the sight of white surgical gloves.
‘Weird, isn’t it?’ said Buchanan, shuffling over to Farber. ‘One of the girls outside said he suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder among other things.’
‘Paranoia. Anxiety. Said he was a bit of a loner. Don’t think he had many friends, not in real life anyway.’
Farber carefully placed the sheet back and stood up, letting her bored eyes survey the room autonomously. It appeared to be an open and shut suicide, and there was nothing much more they could do. Almost a waste of petrol. Still, she’d picked up some milk and eggs on the way over.
‘In real life?’ repeated Staelder, questioning Buchanan.
‘He was a computer nut, wasn’t he?’ said Buchanan. ‘My lad’s the same. Locks himself upstairs all day every day on the bloody internet, chatting to god knows who.’
Farber glanced over the corpse once more, then up at the ceiling. Blood spatter had painted the Artex as if someone had thrown a water-bomb filled with red paint. Farber brought her head level and found herself staring at a computer sat on a flat-pack desk straight out of Ikea. The screen was off, but on top sat a webcam with a glowing red light.