"When you walk by the water in London N1,
Remember that name and the deed that was done,
We know how she lived and we know how she died,
But give her the dignity this life denied."
- The Ballad of Nasra Ismail.
"No one should be sent down into darkness with too few words."
- Harlan Ellison, writing on his mother's funeral.
My first inkling of the murder came when I saw a line of police tape blocking the canal towpath ahead of us. There was a lot of commotion going on there, and a young copper directing everyone up the concrete steps to the street above. All he would say was that there had been "an incident".
This was April 11, 2004 - Easter Sunday - and I'd had a friend staying with me in London for the weekend. I lived in Islington then, near the towpath of the Regent's Canal, so that's the route we took when I walked Eric back towards King's Cross to get his train home. We hadn't gone far when we came to that police tape.
I could see from all the fuss going on around the canal between the tape and Islington Tunnel that this "incident" must have been something pretty serious. It's a pleasant little stretch of water, overhung by trees and lined with houseboats, where the water emerges from beneath Islington itself to continue eastward under Danbury Street's bridge and on to Hackney. In the five years I'd lived nearby, this had become one of my favourite sections of the walk to Islington's shops, and now someone seemed determined to give it a new, ugly connotation.
Like most people, I generally loose track of the crime stories in my local newspaper. A stabbing or a mugging near me makes headlines now and again, often with the name of a victim and a culprit attached, but then the story disappears for months while a court date is found and everyone gets ready for trial. Only the most vicious crimes get any trial coverage and, by the time that appears, I'll invariably have forgotten the names of everyone involved. If I read about the verdict at all, it's very unlikely I'll even realise it's the same case I first glanced at all those months ago.
This time, though, it was different. Returning home after seeing Eric on to his train, I passed the scene again, and resolved to keep a close eye on the local papers that week to discover what it was all about. The area police were now searching was just a few hundred yards from my home, and the young copper's anodyne explanation made me more curious than ever. Next morning, when I passed by again, there were police frogmen in the canal and more uniformed officers searching the bushes on its southern bank.
The first explanation I found came in Tuesday's Evening Standard, headed "Voodoo fear over body in Regent's Park canal" and by-lined to a reporter called Alexa Baracaia. "Detectives are today investigating whether a young woman whose torso was found floating in a London canal was the victim of a voodoo-style killing," she wrote. "Police today said they were not ruling out links to the so-called 'black magic' killing of a five-year-old boy whose torso was found in the Thames in 2001". This referred to the case of a Nigerian boy nicknamed Adam whose remains showed strong signs he'd been the victim of a Muti ritual killing. (1)
Reading down the single-column story, I saw that a group of teenagers messing around at the junction of Danbury Street and Graham Street at about three o'clock on Saturday afternoon had seen a suitcase floating eastwards from the tunnel. They'd fished it out, opened it, and found the dismembered torso of a slim black woman aged between 18 and 30 inside. They called the police immediately, who'd held a preliminary post-mortem at St Pancras Mortuary on the Monday, establishing that the woman had been about 5ft 3ins tall and died at least two days before she was found. As the Standard went to press on Tuesday, her head and limbs were still missing.
Police were already making house-to-house enquiries along the side of the canal, and questioning the houseboat owners nearby in the search for witnesses. "We are pretty sure the case was dumped in the Islington area," a police spokesman told Baracaia. "It was too heavy to have floated far, and there is very little current."
A body discovered so close to my home, a glancing encounter of my own with the search, and a voodoo angle to boot. This was one crime story, I decided, which I'd follow all the way through to its conclusion. The thought of writing a modern murder ballad about it had not yet occurred to me, but the ideas that eventually went into PlanetSlade were already buzzing round my head, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually tackle this particular victim's story in verse.
Nasra Ismail would have been just 14 years old when the civil war started in her native Somalia. I don't know exactly when she fled to Britain but, like thousands of other Somali asylum seekers, she came here in the hopes of finding a better, safer life. In her case, though, Britain turned out to be every bit as dangerous as Somalia had ever been, and her life soon took another downward turn.
By the time she was 27, Nasra had abandoned her partner Gary and her two children and was living alone in London. In January 2004, she moved into Dennis Handfield House, a homeless shelter in King's Cross Road. At nights, she'd call herself Suzy, and work the streets around the nearby station as a prostitute to fund her crack addiction.
That's where she met Daniel Archer, a 53-year-old unemployed man living about a mile from the station at his brother's flat in Conistone Way, just off the Caledonian Road. Archer had been married twice, and had two children of his own, but now lived in the one-bedroomed flat alone. His brother, who owned the flat, was in prison at the time.
Archer picked up Nasra near King's Cross one night around March 17, 2004, agreed to pay her £20, and then took her back to Conistone Way where they had sex and smoked Archer's crack together. "He then gagged and handcuffed her, intending to rape her" the Islington Gazette later reported. "But, when she struggled, he battered her to death with a crowbar and stabbed her in the face eight times." Dorian Lovell-Pank, the prosecuting QC at Archer's trial, added: "He paid her £20 for sex, they both smoked some crack cocaine and after that, he killed her". (2, 3)
Archer's own version of events was that Nasra had attacked him with a knife after their crack session, demanding he hand over the £150 he had from his incapacity benefit. "He said he received a stab wound in the hand, but retaliated by grabbing a crowbar and clubbing her over the head," the BBC News site reported. "Archer, who claimed self-defence, claimed he spent five hours trying to revive her." The police's forensic evidence did not support this account, however, and Archer's jury clearly didn't believe a word of it. (4)