9

Next morning two more people were injured in traps. They were separate incidents, neither of them anywhere near those of the previous night. I knew because our surgery lacked a permanent nurse, so I treated them both. One, a policewoman, had impaled her calf on a stick embedded point up in a concealed hole. As with Scott Brenner, I did what I could and sent her to hospital for stitches. The other injury, to Dan Marsden, a local farmhand, was more superficial, the wire noose having only partially cut through his tough leather boot.

‘Christ, I’d like to get my hands on the bastard who put it there,’ he said through gritted teeth as I dressed the wound.

‘Was it well hidden?’

‘Bloody invisible. And the size of it! God knows what they were hoping to catch with something that big.’

I didn’t say anything. But I thought it was likely the traps had caught exactly what had been intended.

So did Mackenzie. He called a temporary halt to the search for Lyn Metcalf and had a first-aid station set up outside the mobile incident room. He also issued a statement warning everyone else to stay out of the woods and fields around the village. The result was predictable. If the mood before had been largely one of numb shock, news that the countryside around Manham was no longer safe brought the first touch of real fear.

Of course, there were those who refused to believe it, or stubbornly insisted they weren’t going to be scared away from land they’d known all their lives. That lasted until one of the loudest objecters, fuelled by an afternoon’s drinking in the Lamb, put his foot into a hole that had been covered with dried grass and snapped his ankle. His yells drove home the point far more effectively than any police warning.

As more police were drafted in and the national press finally woke up to what was going on, descending on the village with their microphones and cameras, Manham began to feel like a place under siege.

‘There’s just the two different kinds of trap so far,’ Mackenzie told me. ‘The wire one is pretty much a basic snare, same sort of thing any poacher might know how to make. Except these are big enough to take an adult’s foot. The stakes are even worse. Could be ex-military or one of these survivalist buffs. Or just someone with a nasty imagination.’

‘You said “so far”?’

‘Whoever laid them knows what he’s doing. There’s real thought been put into this. We can’t assume he hasn’t planted some more surprises.’

‘Couldn’t that be what he wanted? To disrupt the search?’

‘I daresay. But we can’t afford to take the chance. The ones we’ve found have only caused injuries. We carry on blundering through the woods and next time someone might get killed.’

He broke off as we came to a junction, drumming the steering wheel impatiently as he waited for the car in front to pull out. I looked out of the window, my anxiety returning in the silence.

I’d called Mackenzie first thing that morning to tell him I would examine Sally Palmer’s remains if he still wanted me to. The knowledge had been with me from the moment I’d woken, as if the decision had been made while I was asleep. Which, in a way, I suppose it had.

Realistically, I didn’t know how much use I would be. At best I might be able to give a more precise idea of the time-since-death interval, assuming my rusty knowledge hadn’t deserted me. But I was under no illusions that it would do much to help Lyn Metcalf. It was just that doing nothing was no longer an option.

That didn’t mean I was happy about it.

Mackenzie had sounded neither surprised nor greatly impressed when I’d told him. Just said he’d check with his superintendent and get back to me. I hung up feeling left in limbo, wondering if I’d made a misjudgement.

But he’d rung back within half an hour to ask if I could make a start that afternoon. Mouth dry, I’d said I could.

‘The body’s still with the pathologist. I’ll pick you up at one and take you over,’ he’d told me.

‘I can make my own way.’

‘I’ve got to go back to the station anyway. And there’s one or two things I’d like to talk about.’

I’d wondered what they might be as I went to ask Henry if he would cover for me during that evening’s surgery.

‘Of course. Something come up?’

He’d looked at me expectantly. I still hadn’t got round to telling him why Mackenzie had been to see me in the first place. I felt bad about that, but it would have meant more explanations than I’d been ready to go into. I knew I couldn’t put it off much longer, though. I owed him that much, at least.

‘Give me till the weekend,’ I’d said. By then I should have finished what I had to do, and there wouldn’t be a surgery to worry about. ‘I’ll tell you everything then.’

He’d studied me. ‘Everything all right?’

‘Fine. It’s just… complicated.’

‘Things generally are. This time last week no-one expected we’d have bloody journalists crawling all over the place and police asking everybody questions. Makes you wonder where it’s all going to end.’

He’d made an effort to brighten. ‘OK. Come for Sunday lunch. I fancy cooking, and I’ve got a nice Bordeaux I’ve been looking for an excuse to open. Talking’s always easier on a full stomach.’

Grateful to be able to put that much off for a little longer, at least, I’d agreed.

The traffic streamed past as Mackenzie came to a roundabout. The interior of the car smelled of menthol air freshener and his aftershave. It was as neat as if it had been newly valeted. Outside the roads and streets were all confusion and noise. It seemed familiar and strange at the same time. I tried to remember when I’d last been in a city, and realized with a shock that this was the first time I had been outside Manham since the rainy afternoon when I’d arrived. I felt warring emotions, torn between wishing I’d stayed there and amazement that I had buried myself away for so long.

Life outside had gone on, regardless.

I watched a crowd of schoolchildren jostling each other as a teacher tried for order outside school gates. People hurried by, intent on their own affairs. All of them with their own lives, untouched by mine. Or each other’s.

‘The wire from the snares is the same type as was used to bring down Lyn Metcalf,’ Mackenzie said, bringing me back to the here and now. ‘And that was used to tie the bird to the stone. Don’t know if it’s from the same batch, but I think it’s a safe assumption.’

‘What do you make of that? The bird, I mean.’

‘Not sure yet. Could have been to panic her. Could be some sort of statement or signature.’

‘Like the wings found on Sally Palmer’s body?’

‘It’s possible. We heard back from the ornithologist about those, by the way. Mute swan. Common enough round here, ‘specially this time of year.’

‘You think there’s a connection between the swan’s wings and the mallard?’

‘I can’t believe it’s a coincidence, if that’s what you mean. Perhaps he’s just got a thing against birds.’ He overtook a slow-moving van. ‘We’ve got psychologists on it now, to give us some idea what sort of mindset we’re dealing with. And every other type of specialist you’d care to think of, in case it’s part of some pagan ritual, or Satanism. Some bollocks like that.’

‘But you don’t think so?’

He didn’t answer at first, clearly debating how much to say. ‘No, I don’t,’ he said at last. The wings on Palmer’s body got everybody all excited. There was talk about the killer using religious or classical symbolism, everything from angels to God knows what. Now, though, I’m not so sure. If the mallard had been sacrificed or mutilated, then perhaps. But just tied up with wire? No, I think our boy just likes hurting things. Showing off, if you like.’

‘Like with the traps.’

‘Like with the traps. Fair enough, it slows us up. We can’t just concentrate on the search when we’ve got to worry about what else he might have left behind. But why bother? Anybody sussed enough to go to all this trouble will know how to cover their tracks. Instead, we’ve got the bird left for us to find, the stakes used to trip his victim left in place, and now all this. He’s either not worried about us finding anything, or he’s just, I don’t know…’

‘Marking his territory?’ I offered.

‘Something like that. Showing us he’s in charge. Doesn’t even take that much effort. He just leaves a few traps dotted around at strategic points, then stands back to watch the fun.’

I was quiet for a while, thinking about what Mackenzie had said. ‘Couldn’t it be more than that?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘He’s made the woods and marshes a no-go area. People are going to be scared to go for a walk in case they step in one of his traps.’

He was frowning. ‘So?’

‘So perhaps he doesn’t just like hurting things. Perhaps he likes frightening them as well.’

Mackenzie stared thoughtfully through the windscreen. It was dappled with the squashed remains of dead insects. ‘Could be,’ he said at last. ‘Mind telling me where you were between six and seven o’clock yesterday morning?’

The sudden change of tack threw me. ‘At six o’clock I was probably in the shower. Then I had breakfast and went to the surgery.’

‘What time?’

‘Perhaps quarter to seven.’

‘Early start.’

‘I didn’t sleep well.’

‘Anyone vouch for those times?’

‘Henry. I had a cup of coffee with him when I arrived. Black, no sugar, in case you need to know that as well.’

‘It’s just routine, Dr Hunter. You’ve been involved in enough police inquiries in the past to know how it works.’

‘Pull over.’

‘What?’

‘Just pull over.’

He seemed about to argue, then flicked on the indicator and pulled into the side of the road.

‘Am I here as a suspect or because you want my help?’

‘Look, we’re asking every-‘

‘Which is it?’

‘All right, I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have come out with it like that. But they’re questions we’ve got to ask.’

‘If you think I had anything to do with it then I shouldn’t be here. You think I’m looking forward to this? I’d be more than happy if I never had to see another dead body in my life. So if you’re not going to trust me I might as well get out now.’

Mackenzie sighed. ‘Look, I don’t think you had anything to do with it. If I did, then you can take my word for it we wouldn’t be using you. But we’re asking everyone in the village the same thing. I just thought I’d get it over and done with, OK?’

I still didn’t like the way he’d sprung the question on me. He’d wanted to surprise me, to see how I would react. I wondered if the rest of our conversation had been a similar test. But, whether I liked it or not, that was his job. And I was starting to realize that he was good at it. Grudgingly, I nodded.

‘Can I carry on now?’ he asked.

I had to smile. ‘I suppose so.’

He pulled out again. ‘So how long is this likely to take? The examination,’ he asked after a while, breaking the silence.

‘Difficult to say. A lot depends on the condition of the body. Has the pathologist come up with anything?’

‘Not much. Although we can’t tell if there was a sexual assault, given that she was found naked it’s pretty likely. There’s what seem to be numerous small cuts on the torso and limbs, but they’re only superficial. He’s not even able to say for sure whether it was the throat wound or the head injuries that killed her. Any chance you’ll be able to shed any light on that?’

‘I don’t know yet.’ Having seen the crime scene photographs, I already had some ideas, but I didn’t want to commit myself until I was sure.

Mackenzie gave me a sideways glance. ‘I know I’m probably going to regret asking, but what exactly is it you’re going to do?’

I’d been deliberately trying not to think about it. But the answers came automatically. ‘I’ll need to X-ray the body, if it hasn’t been already. Then I’ll take samples of the soft tissue to find the TSD, and-‘

‘The what?’

‘Time-since-death interval. You can analyse changes in the body chemistry to find out how long it’s been dead, basically. Composition of amino acids, volatile fatty acids, the level of protein breakdown. After that I’ll have to remove any soft tissue that’s left so I can examine the skeleton itself. See what sort of trauma it suffered, what type of weapon caused it. That sort of thing.’

Mackenzie had a frown of distaste. ‘How do you do that?’

‘Well, if there’s not much soft tissue left you can either use a scalpel or forceps. Or you boil the body for a few hours in detergent.’

Mackenzie pulled a face. ‘Now I know why you wanted to be a GP’ I could see the moment when he remembered my other reasons. ‘Sorry,’ he added.

‘Forget it.’

We drove in silence for a while. I noticed Mackenzie scratching his neck.

‘Have you had it looked at yet?’ I asked.

‘Had what looked at?’

‘The mole. You were scratching it.’

He hurriedly lowered his hand. ‘Just an itch.’ He turned into a car park. ‘Here we are.’

I followed him into the hospital. We took a lift from the ground floor to the basement. The mortuary was at the end of a long corridor. The smell of it hit me as soon as I went inside, a sweetly pungent chemical blanket that seemed to coat the lungs after a single breath. Inside was an essay in white, stainless steel and glass. A young Asian woman in a white lab coat stood up from behind a desk as we walked in.

‘Afternoon, Marina,’ Mackenzie said, easily. ‘Dr Hunter, Marina Patel. She’s going to be around to help you.’

She smiled as we shook hands. I was still trying to get my bearings, adjust to once again being back in a setting that was both so familiar and strange.

Mackenzie looked at his watch. ‘Right, I’d better get to the station. Just ring me when you’ve finished and I’ll get you a lift back.’

After he’d gone the young woman looked at me expectantly, waiting for instructions. ‘So… are you the pathologist?’ I asked, putting off the moment for a little longer.

She grinned. ‘Not yet. Just a graduate student. But I have hopes.’

I nodded. Neither of us moved.

‘Do you want to see the body?’ she asked, eventually.

No. No, I didn’t. ‘Fine.’

She gave me a lab coat and led me through a pair of heavy swing doors. Behind them was a smaller room, like an operating theatre. It was cold inside. The body was laid out on a stainless-steel table, incongruous on the dulled metal surface. Marina switched on the bright lights fixed overhead, showing it in its pathetic entirety.

I looked down at what had been Sally Palmer. But there was nothing of her left here now. The relief I felt was fleeting, quickly replaced by a clinical detachment.

‘OK. Let’s get started,’ I said.

The woman had seen better days. Her face was pockmarked and worn, her features beginning to lose any distinction they might once have held. With her bowed head, she seemed to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders. Yet there was something noble about her resignation, as though, unwelcome as it was, her lot was one she nevertheless accepted. The statue of the unknown saint drew my attention during the church service. I couldn’t say what there was about it I liked. Mounted on its stone pillar, it was roughly hewn, and even to my unschooled eye the sculptor had a poor sense of proportion. Yet whether it was the softening effect of age or something less definable, there was something about it that appealed. It had endured for centuries, seen countless days of joy and tragedy played out beneath it. It would still be there, watchful and silent, long after everyone else had faded from memory. It was a reminder that, good or bad, everything passes.

Right now that was a comforting thought. The old church was cool and musty, even on a warm evening. Light fell through the stained-glass window in blues and mauves, the ancient glass warped and uneven in its leaded frames. The central aisle was flagged with uneven stone slabs now worn smooth, interspersed with ancient gravestones. The one nearest me was engraved with a skull, beneath which some medieval stonemason had inscribed a sombre message.

As you are now, so I once was

As I am now, so will you be

I moved my weight from side to side on the hard wooden pew as Scarsdale’s insidious baritone echoed off the stone walls. What had supposedly set out to be a prayer service had predictably become an excuse for the reverend to inflict his own brand of piety on a captive audience.

‘Even as we pray for the soul of Sally Palmer, and for the deliverance of Lyn Metcalf, there is undoubtedly a question all of us want answered. Why? Why should this have happened? Is it judgement that these two young women have been taken from us so brutally? But judgement for what? And on who?’

Gripping the aged wooden pulpit in both his hands, Scarsdale glowered down at his congregation.

‘Judgement can fall upon any of us, at any time. It is not for us to question it. It is not for us to cry that it isn’t fair. God is merciful, but we have no right to expect His mercy. And God’s mercy is delivered in ways we may not understand. It does not fall to us to decry it, simply because of our ignorance.’

Flashbulbs popped silently as Scarsdale paused for breath. He’d allowed the press inside the church, which added to the unreality of the situation. Its normally meagre congregation had swollen to overflowing. By the time I’d arrived the pews were full, and I’d been forced to ease my way through to a small space at the back.

I’d forgotten about the service until I’d seen the glut of people in the churchyard. Mackenzie had arranged for me to be driven back to Manham by a taciturn plain-clothed police sergeant, who clearly resented being forced into taxi duties. The inspector’s phone had been switched off when I’d called to tell him I’d finished for the day. But I’d left a voicemail message and he’d rung back almost immediately.

‘How did it go?’

‘I’ve sent off samples for gas chromatograph tests. When they’re back I’ll be able to give you a more accurate time-since-death,’ I’d told him. ‘Tomorrow I’ll be able to start examining the skeleton. That might give us a better idea of what sort of weapon was used.’

‘You’ve not got anything yet, then?’ He’d sounded disappointed.

‘Only that Marina told me the pathologist thinks the cause of death was probably the head injuries rather than the throat wound.’

‘And you don’t agree?’

‘I’m not saying they wouldn’t have been fatal. But she was still alive when her throat was cut.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘The body’s prematurely desiccated. Even in the heat we’ve been having it wouldn’t have dried out this quickly unless there was major blood loss. That doesn’t happen after death, even with a cut throat.’

‘The soil samples from where the body was found showed a low iron content,’ Mackenzie had pointed out.

That meant not much blood had soaked into the ground where the body had been found. With the amount that would have gushed out of a severed jugular, the soil’s iron content should have been sky high.

‘Then she was killed somewhere else.’

‘What about the head injuries?’

‘Either they didn’t kill her or they were caused post-mortem.’

He was silent for a while, but I could guess what he was thinking. Whatever Sally Palmer had gone through, the same was now facing Lyn Metcalf. And if she wasn’t dead already, it was only a matter of time.

Barring miracles.

Scarsdale was beginning to wind down. ‘Some of you may still be asking what those two poor women did to deserve this. What our community has done to deserve this.’ He spread his hands. ‘Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the modern consensus is right; perhaps there is no reason, no prevailing wisdom behind our universe.’

He paused, dramatically. I wondered if he were deliberately playing to the cameras.

‘Or perhaps we have just allowed ourselves to be too dazzled by our own arrogance to see it,’ he went on. ‘Many of you here have not set foot in this church for years. Your lives are too busy to share with God. I cannot claim to have known either Sally Palmer or Lyn Metcalf. Their lives and this church did not often intersect. That they are tragic victims, however, I have no doubt. But victims of what?’

Now he leaned forward, thrusting his head at us.

‘We should all of us, every one, look into our hearts. Christ said, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” And today we are doing just that. Reaping the fruit not just of the spiritual blight of our society, but of turning a blind eye to it. Evil doesn’t cease to exist just because we choose to ignore it. So where should we look to lay the blame?’

He levelled a bony finger and slowly swept it around the packed church.

‘At ourselves. We are the ones who have permitted this Serpent to move freely among us. No-one else. And now we need to pray to God for the strength to cast it from our midst!’

There was an uneasy silence as people tried to digest his words. Scarsdale didn’t give them a chance. He lifted his chin and closed his eyes, as the camera flashes cast shifting shadows on his face.

‘Let us pray.’

Outside the church there was none of the milling around that normally follows a service. A police trailer had been set up by the village square, and its white, bulky presence seemed both incongruous and intimidating. Despite the attempts of the press and TV cameras, few people felt inclined to provide interviews. This was all still too raw, too private for that. It was one thing watching coverage of other communities that had been struck by tragedy. Being part of one yourself was another matter.

So the journalists’ fevered questions were met with a stony response that was no less impenetrable for being polite. With only one or two exceptions, Manham turned its collective back to the eyes of the outside world. Surprisingly, Scarsdale was one of those who allowed himself to be interviewed. He wasn’t the sort you would normally expect to have much truck with publicity, but he’d obviously felt it was permissible to sup with the devil, just this once. Given the tone of his sermon, he seemed to regard what had happened as a vindication of his calling. In his jaundiced eyes he had been proved right, and he was going to grasp the moment in both gnarled fists.

Henry and I watched him preaching to soundbite-starved journalists in the churchyard, while behind him excited children scrambled over the Martyr’s Stone, trampling the wilted flowers that still decorated it as they hoped to get in shot. His voice, if not his actual words, carried to the green where we waited under the horse chestnut. I’d found Henry there when I’d emerged after the service. He’d given me a skewed smile when I went over.

‘Couldn’t you get in?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t try. I wanted to show my respects, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pander to Scarsdale’s ego. Or listen to his bile. What was it, God’s judgement on our sins? We’ve brought this on ourselves?’

‘Something like that,’ I admitted.

Henry snorted. ‘Just what Manham needs. An invitation to paranoia.’

Standing behind Scarsdale as he continued his impromptu press conference, I noticed that the ranks of his hard-line parishioners had been swelled by new converts. The likes of Lee and Marjory Goodchild and Judith Sutton and her son Rupert had been joined by many less regular church-goers. They looked on like a mute, approving chorus as the reverend raised his voice to drive home his point to the cameras.

Henry shook his head in disgust. ‘Look at him. In his element. Man of God? Hah! This is just his chance to say “I told you so”.’

‘Still, he has a point.’

He gave me a sceptical look. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve been converted.’

‘Not by Scarsdale. But whoever’s behind this must be local. Someone who knows the countryside around here. Knows us.’

‘In that case God help us, because if Scarsdale gets his way things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You ever seen The Crucible? Play by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch-hunts?’

‘Only on TV.’

‘Well, that’s going to be nothing to what goes on in Manham if this carries on much longer.’ I thought he was joking, but the look he gave me was entirely serious. ‘Keep your head down, David. Even without Scarsdale stirring things up, the mud-slinging and finger-pointing is going to start soon. Make sure you don’t walk into any of it.’

‘You’re not serious?’

‘No? I’ve lived here a lot longer than you have. I know what our good friends and neighbours here are like. The knives are going to be sharpened already.’

‘Come on, don’t you think that’s stretching it a bit?’

‘Is it?’

He was watching Scarsdale, who was turning back towards the church having finished whatever he had to say. As the more persistent of the journalists tried to follow, Rupert Sutton stepped to block them with his arms outstretched, a vast barrier of flesh none of them felt inclined to pass.

Henry gave me a meaningful look. ‘Something like this brings out the worst in everyone. Manham’s a small place. And small places breed small minds. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic. But if I were you I’d watch my back all the same.’

He held my gaze for a moment to make sure I’d got the message, then glanced over my shoulder. ‘Hello. Friend of yours?’

I turned to find a young woman smiling at me. Dark-haired and plump, I’d seen her around occasionally but didn’t know her name. It was only when she moved to one side slightly that I saw she was with Jenny. By contrast, her expression was far from happy.

Ignoring the look Jenny shot her, the other young woman stepped forward. ‘Hi. I’m Tina.’

‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said, wondering what was going on. Jenny gave me a brief smile. She looked flustered.

‘Hello, Tina,’ Henry said. ‘How’s your mum?’

‘Better, thanks. The swelling’s nearly gone now.’ She turned to me. There was an unmistakable glint in her eye. ‘Thanks for walking Jenny home last night. I share the house with her. Nice to see there’s some courtesy left.’

‘Uh, it wasn’t a problem.’

‘I was just saying you’ll have to come round some time. For a drink or a meal, or something.’

I glanced at Jenny. Her face was crimson. I felt my own beginning to match it.

‘Well…’

‘How about Friday night?’

‘Tina, I’m sure he’s got-‘ Jenny began, but her friend didn’t take the hint.

‘You’re not busy then, are you? We could always make it another night.’

‘Uh, no, but-‘

‘Great! See you at eight o’clock.’

Still grinning, she took Jenny’s arm and marched her away. I stared after them.

‘What was all that about?’ Henry asked.

‘No idea.’

He looked amused.

‘I haven’t!’ I insisted.

‘Well, you can tell me all about it over Sunday lunch anyway.’ The smile left his face as he looked at me, serious again. ‘Just remember what I said. Be careful who you trust. And watch your back.’

With that he began to wheel himself away.

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