For a moment I’m struck by how young she looks with the smattering of awkward childhood acne at her temples and chipped pink glittery nail polish. She’s twelve, the slip of yellow paper tells me that much alongside her name, not even a teenager yet. I don’t allow myself to dwell on it too much as the small voice in the back of my mind tells me to remain professional, to not let my emotions cloud my judgement.
I ask her if she wants someone to sit beside her as we talk, someone familiar and comforting, but she simply shakes her head and offers me a watery smile that wouldn’t convince even the most gullible of people into thinking that she’s ok. I try to insist, asking her who we can call, offering to get a lawyer or someone who specialises in children of her age, but she just stays silent, bites her lip and looks up at me with large brown doe eyes rimmed with red, and I have no other option but to launch into it.
I start by asking her about herself, trying to ease her into it as gently as I can. She slowly starts to warm up to me, offering little titbits that keep me sated and happy as I try to build up an image of her in my mind and try to distract her from her own tears. It seems to work as she spirals off on a tangent about school plays, books and make-believe games. As soon as she lets out a low giggle, my heart momentarily warming as she looks up at me with a bright sparkle in her irises, it’s then that I know I have to move on.
And so I ask her about it, about the body in the woods.
She quickly shrinks back into herself, clamming up and darting her eyes back to the ragged tissue. It takes a couple of moments, a hint of coaxing and a minute of awkward stares as I repeat the question once more, silently willing her to speak. Eventually her bitten lips part and hushed, hurried words start to tumble from them. I simply sit there and listen as she launches into the story, my head instinctively tilting to the side in sympathy as she recounts the horrors of what she found.
She begins by describing the scene to me, describing the twist of the neck, the mouth that was left slightly agape, the way the body lay crooked with blank, clouded eyes, sallow grey skin stretched over bone and dirt covering their blood-stained clothes. She then moves on to describe the smell, the sense of decay that hung in the air, the way the light breeze carried the stench throughout the forest, picking up the damp scent of the earth along with it.
As she speaks, it’s almost as if I’m there myself, there in the forest right beside her as she leans over the emaciated corpse. I can almost feel the soft mulch beneath my feet, taste the rotting flesh in the air and hear the mournful birdsong that coats the cold evening’s breeze. It’s vivid, oh so vivid. My gut twists and I feel nauseous.
She goes into detail, explicit detail, at times almost sounding gleeful before she seems to catch herself and sheds a glossy tear that drips off her chin and onto the cold table. I continue to listen throughout it all, offering the odd word of encouragement when needed and motioning for her to continue on as she pauses in the midst of her sentences even though I want her to stop, even though I can’t bear to hear any more.
I have to resist letting out a low sigh of relief as her words slowly trail off into a steady silence only filled by the occasional sniffle and sound of her tapping the toes of her muddy blue trainers against the coffee stained plastic floor. It’s then that I finally open the file and slide it across the smooth table, forcing her to come face to face with the hideously graphic images.
I force her to see exactly what she’s done.
They say the camera never lies, that a picture is worth a thousand words and so forth, but in this case, I want so desperately for the camera to lie and these pictures leave me stunned, shocked to my very core and at a complete and utter loss for words.
I tell her to drop the act, that we know what she’s done and there’s no escaping it now. I tell her of the witness who saw her, of the evidence, of her blood under the victim’s fingernails and everything else that we managed to find, how everything links back to her.
With a sharp intake of breath her expression immediately drops, the self-pitying simper morphing into nothing but placid boredom as she turns to look up at me, blinking slowly with eyes that once seemed so soulful and bright, but now sit blank, empty and dull.
Just like the eyes of the body she was describing mere moments ago.
It’s then that I cast a glance back to the one-way mirror, seeking I don’t know what from the invisible people who sit behind it, watching, waiting, desperate for some answers that they think I can get her to provide. I can almost feel their eyes boring into my skull, almost hear their low mutters of disapproval as they see me about to crack, see my eyes screaming for some form of relief.
I can’t do it any more, I can’t sit here and have my heart and mind pulled in every which way. I stand up to go, not daring to say any more to her as I sweep the file up in my hands. My fingertips just brush against the cold steel of the door handle when I hear her small voice echoing through the stark room, bouncing off the plain walls and back into my ears.
“You’re not leaving already are you? Please stay, please. I’ll even tell you where the others are!”
“Of course. You didn’t think that I’d stop at just one, did you?”