It was later than usual when Lyn reached the embankment that ran through the reedbeds, but the morning was even mistier than the day before. A white smudge overlaid everything, swirling into aimless shapes that remained just out of sight. It would burn off later, and by lunchtime it would have become one of the hottest days of the year. But right now all was cool and damp, and the idea of sun and heat seemed far away.
She felt stiff and out of sorts. She and Marcus had stayed up late the night before to watch a film, and her body was still protesting about it. She’d found it uncharacteristically hard to force herself out of bed that morning, grumbling to Marcus who merely grunted unsympathetically as he locked himself in the shower. Now she was out her muscles felt stiff and grudging. Run it off. You’ll feel better for it afterwards. She grimaced. Yeah, right.
To take her mind off how hard the run was proving, she thought about the parcel she’d hidden in the chest of drawers under her bras and pants, where it was a safe bet Marcus wouldn’t find it. The only interest he took in her underwear was when she was wearing it.
She hadn’t intended to buy the pregnancy testing kit when she went into the chemist’s. But when she’d seen them on the shelves, impulse had made her put one into her basket along with the extra box of tampons she hoped she wouldn’t be needing. Even then she might have had second thoughts. It was hard enough keeping anything secret in this place, and buying something like that could well mean the entire village would be giving her knowing looks before the day was out.
But the shop was empty, and there had only been a bored young girl on the checkout. She was new, indifferent to anyone over the age of eighteen, and unlikely to even notice what Lyn was buying, let alone care enough to gossip. Face burning, Lyn had stepped forward and busied herself rummaging in her bag for the money as the teenager listlessly rang the testing kit through on the till.
She’d been grinning like a kid when she hurried out, only to bump straight into one of the doctors. The younger one, not Dr Henry. Dr Hunter. Quiet, but not bad-looking. Caused quite a stir among the younger women when he arrived, though he didn’t seem to notice it. God, she’d felt so embarrassed; it had been all she could do not to laugh. He must have thought she was mad, beaming at him like an idiot. Or thought she fancied him. The thought of it made her smile again now.
The run was doing its work. She was finally starting to loosen up, kinks and aches easing as the blood began to pump. The woods were just ahead now, and as she looked at them some dark association stirred in her subconscious. At first, still distracted by the memory of what had happened at the chemist, she couldn’t place it. Then it came to her. She’d forgotten about the dead hare she’d found on the path the day before until now. And the sense of being watched she’d felt when she’d entered the woods.
Suddenly the prospect of going into them again – especially in this mist – was strangely unappealing. Stupid, she thought, doing her best to dismiss it. Still, she slowed a little as she approached them. When she realized what she was doing she clicked her tongue in irritation and picked up her speed. Only when she had almost reached the treeline did she think about the woman’s body that had been found. But that hadn’t been near here, she told herself. Besides, the killer would have to be some sort of masochist to be out this early, she thought wryly. And then the first of the trees closed around her.
It was a relief when the foreboding she’d felt the day before failed to materialize. The woods were just woods again. The path was empty, the dead hare no doubt part of the food chain by now. Just nature, that was all. She glanced at the stopwatch on her wrist, saw she’d lost a minute or two on her usual time, and picked up her pace as she approached the clearing. The standing stone was in sight now, a dark shape ahead of her in the mist. She was almost on top of it before it registered that something about it was wrong. Then light and shadow resolved themselves, and all thoughts of running went out of her mind.
A dead bird had been tied to the stone. It was a mallard, bound with wire around its neck and feet. Recovering, Lyn quickly looked around. But there was nothing to see. Only trees, and the dead mallard. She wiped sweat from her eyes and looked at it again. Blood darkened its feathers where the thin strand bit into it. Uncertain whether or not to untie it, she leaned forward to examine the wire more closely.
The bird opened its eyes.
Lyn cried out and stumbled backwards as it began to thrash about, head jerking against the wire pinning its neck. It was damaging itself even more, but she couldn’t bring herself to go near the wildly beating wings. Her mind was beginning to function again, making the connection between this and the dead hare, laid on the path as though for her to find. And then that was swept away by a more urgent realization.
If the bird was still alive it couldn’t have been here long. Someone had done this recently.
Someone who knew she’d find it.
Part of her insisted that was just fantasy, but she was already sprinting back down the path. Branches whipped her as she pounded past, no thought of pacing herself now, just get out get out get out yelling again and again in her head. She didn’t care if she was being stupid or not, wanted only to escape from the woods to the open landscape beyond. Only one more twist in the path and she’d be able to see it. Her breath rasped as she ran, eyes flitting to the trees at either side, expecting someone to appear out of them at any second. But no-one did. She gave a half-moan, half-sob as she neared the final bend. Not far, she thought, and as she felt the first stirrings of relief something snatched her foot out from under her.
There was no time to react. She pitched forward onto the ground, the impact forcing the air from her lungs. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Stunned, she managed one breath, then another, sucking the damp scent of loam into her throat. Still dazed, she looked back at what had tripped her. At first what she saw made no sense. One leg was stretched out awkwardly, the foot twisted at an odd angle. There was a thin gleam of fishing line snagged around it. No, she realized, not fishing line.
Understanding came too late. As she tried to scramble to her feet a shadow fell across her. Something pressed into her face, smothering her. She tried to rear back from the cloying, chemical stink, fighting with all the strength in her legs and arms. It wasn’t enough. And now even that was ebbing. Her struggles grew weak as the morning swam away from her, light bleeding to black. No! She tried to resist, but she was already sinking further into darkness, like a pebble dropped into a well.
Was there a last sense of disbelief before consciousness winked out? Possibly, though it wouldn’t have lasted long.
Not long at all.
For the rest of the village, the day broke as any other. Perhaps a little more breathless, excited by the continued presence of the police and speculation about the identity of the dead woman. It was a soap opera come to life, Manham’s very own melodrama. Someone had died, yes, but for most people it was still a tragedy at arm’s length, and therefore not really a tragedy at all. The unspoken assumption was that it was some stranger. If it had been one of the village’s own, wouldn’t it have been known? Wouldn’t the victim have been missed, the perpetrator recognized? No, far more likely that it was an outsider, some human flotsam from a town or city who had climbed into the wrong car, only to wash up here. And so it was regarded almost as an entertainment, a rare treat that could be savoured without shock or grief.
Not even the fact that the police were asking about Sally Palmer was enough to change that. Everyone knew she was a writer, often travelled to London. Her face was too fresh in people’s minds to associate with what had been found on the marsh. So Manham was unable to take any of it seriously, slow to accept the fact that, far from being an onlooker, its role was far more central.
That would change before the day was out.
It changed for me at eleven o’clock that morning, with the phone call from Mackenzie. I’d slept badly, gone into the surgery early to try and shake the vestiges of another night’s ghosts from my mind. When the phone on my desk rang and Janice told me who was on the line I felt a renewed tension in my gut.
‘Put him through.’
The hiatus of connection seemed endless, yet not long enough.
‘We’ve got a fingerprint match,’ Mackenzie said as soon as he came on. ‘It’s Sally Palmer.’
‘Are you sure?’ Stupid question, I thought.
‘No doubt about it. The prints match samples from her house. And we’ve got hers on record as well. She was arrested during a protest when she was a student.’
She hadn’t struck me as the militant type, but then I hadn’t really got to know her. And never would now.
Mackenzie hadn’t finished. ‘Now we’ve got a firm ID we can get things moving. But I thought you might be interested to know we still haven’t found anyone who can remember seeing her after the pub barbecue.’
He waited, as if I should find some significance in that. It took me a moment to drag my thoughts back. ‘You mean the maths don’t add up,’ I said.
‘Not if she’s only been dead for nine or ten days. It’s looking likely now that she went missing almost a fortnight ago. That leaves several days unaccounted for.’
‘That was only an estimate,’ I told him. ‘I could be wrong. What does the pathologist say?’
‘He’s still looking into it,’ he said, dryly. ‘But so far he isn’t disagreeing.’
I wasn’t surprised. I’d once come across a murder victim who’d been stored in a freezer for several weeks before the killer finally dumped the body, but usually the physical processes of decay worked to an ordered timetable. It might vary depending on the environment, be slowed down or speeded up by temperature and humidity. But once they were taken into account then the process was readable. And what I’d seen at the marsh the day before – I still hadn’t made the emotional jump to connecting it with the woman I’d known – had been as irrefutable as the hands on a stopwatch. It was just a matter of understanding it.
That was something few pathologists were comfortable with. There was a degree of overlap between forensic anthropology and pathology, but once serious decomposition started most pathologists tended to throw up their hands. Their area of expertise was cause of death, and that became increasingly difficult to determine once the body’s biology started to break down. Which was where my work started.
Not any more, I reminded myself.
‘You still there, Dr Hunter?’ Mackenzie asked.
‘Good, because this is going to leave us with a predicament. One way or another we need to account for those extra days.’
‘She might have been holed up writing. Or just have gone off somewhere. Been called away without having time to tell anyone.’
‘And been killed as soon as she got back, without anyone in the village seeing her?’
‘It’s possible,’ I said stubbornly. ‘She could have surprised a burglar.’
‘She could,’ Mackenzie conceded. ‘In which case we need to know one way or the other.’
‘I don’t see where I come into it.’
‘What about the dog?’
‘The dog?’ I repeated, but I could already see what he was getting at.
‘It makes sense to assume that whoever killed Sally Palmer killed her dog as well. So the question is, how long has the dog been dead?’
I was torn between being impressed at Mackenzie’s sharpness, and irritation that I hadn’t seen it myself. Of course, I’d been trying hard not to think about it at all. But there was a time when I wouldn’t have needed it pointing out.
‘If the dog’s been dead roughly the same length of time,’ Mackenzie went on, ‘then that gives more credence to your burglar. She’s either here all the time writing or arrives back from wherever, her dog disturbs an intruder, he kills them both and then dumps her body on the marsh. Or whatever. But if the dog’s been dead longer that puts a different complexion on it. Because that means whoever murdered her didn’t do it straight away. He kept her prisoner for a few days before getting bored and carving her up with a knife.’
Mackenzie paused to let the impact of his words hit home. ‘Now, I’d say that was something we’d need to know, wouldn’t you, Dr Hunter?’
Sally Palmer’s house had been transformed since the last time I’d seen it. Then it had been silent and empty; now it was host to grim-faced and uninvited visitors. The courtyard had filled with police vehicles, while uniformed and white-boiler-suited forensics officers went about their business. But the activity only seemed to underline the atmosphere of abandonment, transforming what had once been a home into a pathetic time capsule of the recent past, to be picked apart and pored over.
There seemed nothing left of Sally’s presence as I walked across the courtyard with Mackenzie.
‘The vet came for the goats,’ he told me. ‘Half of them were already dead, and he had to destroy a couple of others, but he says it’s amazing any survived at all. Another day or two would have finished them. Goats are tough buggers, but he reckoned they must have been a couple of weeks without being fed or watered to get to that state.’
The area at the back of the house where I’d found the dog had been taped off, but other than that it was as I’d found it. No-one was in as much of a hurry to move a dog, and either the forensics team had already finished or felt there were other priorities to examine first. Mackenzie stood back and popped a mint into his mouth as I crouched down beside the body. It looked noticeably smaller than I remembered – not necessarily a trick of memory as by this time the decay would be waging an almost visible war of attrition on what was left.
The fur was misleading, disguising the fact that the dog had largely been reduced to bone. Tendons and cartilage remained, like the open tube revealed by the wound in its throat. But there was hardly any soft tissue left. I used a stick to lightly poke in the earth around it, took in the empty eye sockets, and then stood up.
‘Well?’ Mackenzie asked.
‘It’s difficult to say. You’ve got to take into account the smaller body mass. And its fur will have some effect on the rate of decay. I’m not sure what, exactly. The only comparative work I’ve done on animals was with pigs, and they have a hide, not a pelt. But I’d guess it’d make it harder for insects to lay their eggs, except in open wounds. So that’ll probably slow things down.’
I was talking to myself more than him, rapidly brushing through cobwebs of memory, sifting through the knowledge that had been lying dormant.
‘What soft tissue was exposed has had animals picking at it. See this here, around the eye sockets? The bone’s been gnawed. Too small for foxes, so it’s probably rodents and birds. That probably happened quite early on, because once it gets too ripe they’ll leave it alone. But that means less soft tissue, and so less insect activity. And the ground here is much drier than the marsh where you found the woman.’ I couldn’t quite bring myself to say Sally Palmer. ‘That’s why it looks dried up. In this heat, without moisture it’ll mummify. It changes the way the body decays.’
‘So you don’t know how long it’s been dead?’ Mackenzie prompted.
‘I don’t know anything. I’m just pointing out that there are a lot of variables here. I can tell you what I think, but bear in mind it’s only a preliminary estimate. You’re not going to get any hard and fast answers just from a quick look.’
‘Well, there still aren’t any empty pupae husks, but some of these look about ready to hatch. They’re darker than those we found around the body, obviously older.’ I pointed at the open wound in the dog’s throat. On the ground around it, a few shiny black carapaces could be seen crawling in the grass. ‘There are a few beetles here as well. Not many, but they tend to come later. Flies and maggots are the first wave, if you like. But as the decay progresses the balance changes. Less maggots, more beetles.’
Mackenzie was frowning. ‘Were there beetles where Sally Palmer was found?’
‘Not that I saw. But beetles aren’t as reliable an indicator as maggots. And, like I say, there are all the other variables to take into account.’
‘Look, I’m not asking you to swear under oath. I just want some idea of how long the damn thing’s been dead.’
‘Rough guess.’ I looked at the scrap of fur and bone. ‘Twelve to fourteen days.’
He chewed his lip, scowling. ‘So it was killed before the woman.’
‘That’s how it looks to me. Comparing this with what I saw yesterday, the decomposition is perhaps three, four days more advanced. Take off the extra day and night this has been lying outside and you’re still looking at around three days. But like I say, it’s only guesswork at this stage.’
He eyed me, thoughtfully. ‘Do you think you’re wrong?’
I hesitated. But he wanted advice, not false modesty. ‘No.’
He sighed. ‘Shit.’
His mobile rang. He unclipped it from his belt and moved away to answer it. I stayed by the dog’s body, scrutinizing it for anything that might cause me to revise my opinion. Nothing did. I bent down to take a closer look at its throat. Cartilage lasted longer than soft tissue, but animals had been here too, chewing the edges. Even so, it was still evident that it was a cut, not a bite. I took a pencil light from my pocket, reminding myself to disinfect it before I examined anyone’s tonsils again, and shone it inside. The cut extended all the way to the cervical vertebrae. I played the light on a pale line gouged across the bone. No animal had caused that. The blade had gone so deep it had cut into the spine as well.
That made it a big knife. And a sharp one.
I’d been too engrossed to hear Mackenzie return. I told him what I’d found. ‘If the bone’s marked clearly enough you might be able to tell if the blade was serrated or not. In any event, it would have taken strength to cut that deeply. You’re looking for a powerful man.’
Mackenzie nodded, but he seemed distracted. ‘Look, I’ve got to go. Take as long as you like here. I’ll tell forensics not to disturb you.’
‘No need. I’m done.’
‘You won’t change your mind?’
‘I’ve told you as much as I can.’
‘You could tell us more if you wanted to.’
I was beginning to feel angry at the way he was trying to manipulate me. ‘We’ve already been through this. I’ve done what you asked.’
Mackenzie seemed to be weighing something up. He squinted into the sun. ‘The situation’s changed,’ he said, reaching a decision. ‘Someone else has gone missing. You might know her. Lyn Metcalf.’
The name hit me hard. I remembered seeing her outside the chemist’s the evening before. Thinking how happy she’d looked.
‘Went running this morning and didn’t come back,’ Mackenzie went on, relentlessly. ‘Could be a false alarm, but right now it doesn’t look like it. And if it isn’t, if this is the same man, then the shit’s really going to hit the fan. Because either Lyn Metcalf’s already dead, or she’s being held somewhere. And given what was done to Sally Palmer, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.’
I almost asked why he was telling me all this, but even as the question formed I knew the answer. On the one hand he was putting more pressure on me to co-operate; on the other, Mackenzie was simply being a policeman. The fact that I’d reported Sally Palmer as missing had put me low on the list of potential suspects, but if there was now a second victim then everything was up in the air again. No-one could be discounted.
Mackenzie had been watching to see how I would react. His expression was unreadable. ‘I’ll be in touch. And I’m sure I needn’t ask you to keep this to yourself, Dr Hunter. I know you’re good at keeping secrets.’
With that he turned and walked away, his shadow chasing him across the grass like a black dog at his heels.
If Mackenzie had been serious about my keeping Lyn Metcalf’s disappearance to myself he needn’t have bothered. Manham was too small a place for something like that to remain secret for long. Word had already spread by the time I’d got back from the farm. It came at roughly the same time as news broke that the murdered woman was Sally Palmer, a double blow that was almost too much to take in. Within hours the mood of the entire village had changed from febrile excitement to one of shock. Most people clung to the hope that the two events would prove unconnected, and that the supposed second ‘victim’ might yet turn up safe and sound.
But it was a hope that faded every hour.
When Lyn didn’t return from her run, her husband Marcus had set out to look for her. He admitted later he wasn’t unduly worried to start with. At that point, before Sally Palmer’s name had been released, his main concern was that his wife might have decided to try a different route and become lost. It had happened before, and as he followed the track towards the lake, it was with a degree of irritation that he called her name. Lyn knew he had a busy day, and now her stupid insistence on an early-morning run was making him late.
He still wasn’t too anxious as he crossed the reedbeds and cut into the woods. When he found a dead mallard tied to the standing stone, his first reaction was anger at the senseless cruelty. He’d lived all his life in the country and had no time for sentiment where animals were concerned, but neither did he like casual sadism. Only as he thought of it in those terms did the first chill of fear begin to enter his mind. He told himself that the dead bird couldn’t possibly have any connection with Lyn being late. But once there, the fear was impossible to dislodge.
It continued to grow, fed by his echoing shouts that rang unanswered in the trees. By the time he began making his way out of the woods he was fighting to remain calm. Hurrying back towards the lake, he told himself she would probably be waiting for him back at home. And then he saw something that blew away his false hopes like so much dust.
Half-hidden by a tree root was Lyn’s stopwatch.
He picked it up, took in the broken strap and cracked face. Fear now giving way to panic, he looked around for some other sign of her. There was nothing. Or, at least, nothing he recognized as such. He saw the thick wooden stake hammered into the ground nearby without realizing its significance. It would be several hours before the police forensic team confirmed it as the remains of a snare, and several more before splashes of Lyn’s blood were identified on the path.
But of Lyn herself, there was no trace.