The farm was bordered by trees on one side and marshland on the others. The Land Rover threw up dust as it jolted along the rutted track that led to it. I parked on the uneven cobblestones that were all that was left of the courtyard and got out. A tall corrugated-metal barn shimmered in the heat. The farmhouse itself was painted white, peeling and fading now, but still blindingly bright in the sun. Bright green window boxes were fixed either side of the front door, the only shot of colour in a bleached-out world.
Usually, if Sally was in, her Border collie Bess would set off barking before you had chance to knock. Not today, though. There was no sign of life through the windows, either, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. I went to the door and knocked. Now I was here my reason for coming seemed pretty stupid. I stared out towards the horizon as I waited, trying to think of what I should say if she answered. I supposed I could always tell her the truth, but that would make me look as irrational as Linda Yates. And she might misconstrue it, take the reason for my visit as something more than a nagging disquiet I couldn’t explain.
Sally and I had, if not exactly a history, then at least something more than a casual acquaintance. There had been a time when we’d seen quite a lot of each other. Not too surprising, really: as outsiders who’d both moved to the village from London, we had our past metropolitan lives in common. Plus she was around my age, and the outgoing sort who made friends easily. And attractive. I’d enjoyed the few times we’d met in the pub for drinks.
But that was as far as it had gone. When I began to sense she might want more I backed off. She’d seemed puzzled at first, but as things had never really had a chance to develop between us there had been no ill feeling or embarrassment. When we bumped into each other we still chatted easily enough, but that was all.
I’d made sure of that.
I knocked on her door again. I remember I actually felt relieved when she didn’t open it. She was obviously out, which meant I wouldn’t have to explain why I was there. Come to that, I didn’t even know myself. I wasn’t superstitious, and unlike Linda Yates I didn’t believe in premonitions. Except she hadn’t said it had been a premonition, not exactly. Just a dream. And I knew all about how seductive dreams can be. Seductive and treacherous.
I turned away from the door, and the direction in which my thoughts had started to travel. It was just as well she wasn’t here, I thought, annoyed with myself. What the hell had I been thinking of? Just because some hiker or birdwatcher had died was no reason to let my imagination run away with me.
I was halfway back to the Land Rover when I stopped. There was something bothering me, but until I turned around again I didn’t know what it was. It still took me a few moments before I realized. It was the window boxes. The plants in them were brown and dead.
Sally would never let them get that way.
I went back. The soil in the boxes was baked hard. No-one had watered them for days. Perhaps longer. I knocked on the door, called her name. When there was no answer I tried the handle.
It wasn’t locked. It was possible she’d got out of the habit of locking her door since she’d lived here. But she was from a city, like me, and old habits died hard. The door stuck as I opened it, caught on the mound of envelopes that lay behind. They slithered in a mini-avalanche as I pushed my way in and stepped over them into the kitchen. It was as I remembered: cheerful lemon walls, solid rustic furniture and a few touches that showed she hadn’t been able to leave behind all traces of the city – an electric juicer, stainless-steel espresso maker and large, well-stocked wine-rack.
Other than the build-up of post, at first glance there was nothing wrong. But the house had a musty, unaired smell, overlaid with the sweet scent of decaying fruit. It came from an earthenware bowl on the old pine dresser, a still-life memento mori of blackened bananas, apples and oranges furred white with mould. Dead flowers, now unrecognizable, hung limply over a vase on the table. A drawer by the sink was half-open, as if she’d been disturbed as she was about to take something from it. I automatically went to close it, but left it as it was.
She could be on holiday, I told myself. Or been too busy to bother throwing out old fruit and flowers. There were any number of possible explanations. But I think at that point, like Linda Yates, I knew.
I considered checking the rest of the house, but decided against it. Already I was starting to think of it as a potential crime scene, and I knew better than to risk contaminating any evidence. Instead I went back outside. Sally’s goats were in a paddock around the back. One glance confirmed that something was badly wrong. A few were still standing, emaciated and feeble, but most were lying prone, either unconscious or dead. They’d almost stripped the paddock of grass, and when I went to the water trough it was bone dry. A hose was lying nearby, obviously used to fill it. I hung it over the edge of the trough and followed the other end back to a stand-pipe. As water spluttered into the metal trough one or two of the goats tottered over and began to drink.
I would get the vet over here, just as soon as I’d called the police. I took out my phone but there was no signal. Reception around Manham was notoriously patchy, which made mobile phones unpredictable at the best of times. I moved further from the paddock and saw the signal bars stutter into life. I was about to dial when I noticed a small, dark shape half-hidden behind a rusting plough. With a tense, oddly certain feeling of what it would be, I went over.
The body of Bess, Sally’s Border collie, lay in the dry grass. It looked tiny, its fur dusty and matted. I batted away the flies that left it to inspect my fresher meat and turned away. But not before I’d seen how the dog’s head had been almost severed.
The heat seemed suddenly to have intensified. My legs automatically took me back to the Land Rover. I resisted the urge to get in and drive away. Instead, putting it between me and the house, I continued with my call. As I waited for the police to answer I stared at the far green smudge of the woods I’d just come from.
Not again. Not here.
I realized a tinny voice was coming from the phone. I turned away from both the distant wood and the house.
‘I want to report a missing person,’ I said.
The police inspector was a squat, pugnacious man called Mackenzie. Perhaps a year or two older than me, the first thing I noticed about him were his abnormally large shoulders. The lower part of his body seemed out of proportion in comparison; short legs tapered to absurdly dainty feet. It would have given him the appearance of a cartoon bodybuilder if not for the blurring line of his gut, and a threatening aura of impatience that made it impossible to take him anything less than seriously. I’d waited by the car while Mackenzie and a plain-clothed sergeant had gone to look at the dog. They’d seemed unhurried, almost unconcerned as they strolled over. But the fact that a chief inspector from the Major Investigation Team was here instead of uniformed officers was a sign this was being taken seriously.
He’d come back over to me while the sergeant had gone inside the house to check the rooms. ‘So tell me again why you came.’
He smelled of aftershave and sweat, and, faintly, of mint. His sunburned scalp flamed through his thinning red hair, but if he felt any discomfort at standing out in the sun he didn’t show it.
‘I was near by. I thought I’d call round.’
‘Social call, was it?’
‘I just wanted to make sure she was all right.’
I wasn’t going to bring Linda Yates into it unless I had to. As her doctor I had to suppose she’d told me what she had in confidence, and I didn’t think a policeman would put much stock in a dream anyway. I should have known better myself. Except that, irrational or not, Sally wasn’t here.
‘When was the last time you saw Miss Palmer?’ Mackenzie asked.
I thought back. ‘Not for a couple of weeks.’
‘Can you narrow it down more than that?’
‘I remember seeing her in the pub for the summer barbecue about two weeks ago. She was there then.’
‘No. But we spoke.’ Briefly. Hi, how are you? Fine, see you later. Hardly meaningful, as last words go. If that’s what they were, I reminded myself. But I no longer had any doubt.
‘And after not seeing her since then you suddenly decided to come round today.’
‘I’d just heard a body had been found. I wanted to check that she was all right.’
‘What makes you so sure the body is a woman’s?’
‘I’m not. But I didn’t think it would hurt to make sure Sally was