The floodlights cast a ghostly brightness onto the area. The surrounding trees were transformed into a surreal landscape of light and dark. In the centre of it the team of crime scene officers went about their business. A rectangular section of ground had been marked out with a gridwork of nylon string, and to the background hum of a generator they painstakingly scraped away at the earth, slowly revealing more of what lay hidden beneath.
Mackenzie stood nearby, crunching on a mint as he watched. The policeman looked tired and drawn, the floodlights leaching the colour from his face and accentuating the shadows under his eyes.
‘We found the grave this afternoon. It’s only shallow, about two or three feet deep. We thought it might be a false alarm at first, some animal or a badger set. Till we exposed the hand.’
The site was in a wood, about two miles from where Sally Palmer’s body had been found. The forensics team had cleared away most of the top layer of earth by the time I arrived, just after midnight. I watched one of the officers sifting soil through a sieve. She paused to examine something, then discarded it and continued.
‘How did you find it?’ I asked Mackenzie.
I nodded. It wasn’t only drugs and explosives that the police used specially trained dogs to find. Locating a grave was rarely easy, and the larger the area to be searched the harder it got. If the body had been buried for some time there might be a tell-tale depression as the disturbed earth settled, and long-handled probes could be used to check for any areas that were more yielding than the surrounding ground. I even knew of one forensic scientist in the States who’d had interesting results divining for graves using pieces of bent wire.
But dogs remained the best search tool for discovering where a body was buried. Their sensitive noses could detect the taint of the gases released during decomposition through several feet of soil, and good cadaver dogs had even been known to locate bodies buried over a century before.
The forensics team were scraping the soil from partially exposed remains using small trowels and brushes, working with an almost archaeological precision. The same techniques needed to be used whether the grave was a few weeks or a few hundred years old. The aim in both cases was to uncover the body with a minimum of disturbance, the better to decipher whatever evidence might have been unknowingly entombed with it.
In this case, the most telling piece of information was already apparent. I wasn’t taking part in the recovery process, but I was standing close enough to see what mattered.
Mackenzie glanced at me. ‘Any comment?’
‘Only what I expect you know already.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
‘It’s not Lyn Metcalf,’ I said.
He gave a non-committal grunt. ‘Go on.’
‘This isn’t a new grave. Whoever it is, they’ve been here since long before she went missing. There’s no soft tissue left at all, no smell. The dog did well to find it.’
‘I’ll pass on your congratulations,’ he said, dryly. ‘So how long would you say it’s been here?’
I looked at the shallow excavation. The skeleton was now almost fully exposed, its bones the same colour as the earth. It was an adult’s, lying on its side with what looked like a T-shirt and jeans still clinging to its form.
‘I can only narrow it down so far without doing more tests. Buried this deep, the decomposition would take much longer than it would on the surface. So for it to get to this stage, say a minimum of a year, fifteen months? But my guess is this has been here a good bit longer than that. Probably nearer to five years.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The jeans and T-shirt. They’re cotton, which takes four to five years to rot. They’ve not gone completely yet, but they’re getting there.’
‘Can I take a closer look?’
It was a different scene-of-crime team from the one I’d met before, at the site where Sally Palmer had been found. They glanced at me as I crouched down at the edge of the dig, but continued with what they were doing without comment. It was already late and they had a long night ahead.
‘Any signs of trauma?’ I asked one of them.
‘Some pretty severe cranial damage, but we’ve only just started to expose it.’ He indicated the upper right side, which was still partly covered by soil. But cracks were already visible, radiating from a section where the bone had caved in.
‘Looks blunt rather than sharp or ballistic,’ I said, examining it. ‘What would you say?’
He nodded. Unlike his colleague I’d met at the previous grave site, he didn’t seem to resent any interference. ‘Looks like it. But I’m not going to commit myself until we make sure there isn’t a bullet rattling around inside the skull.’
An injury to the skull caused by either gunshot or something sharp like a knife produced a different type of trauma from one made with a blunt object. It wasn’t usually difficult to recognize them, and the signs so far were that this one, with the bone crushed inwards like an egg, was the latter. But I approved of his caution all the same.
‘You think the head injury was the cause of death?’ Mackenzie asked.
‘Could be,’ I said. ‘By the looks of it, it would have been fatal, assuming it wasn’t made post-mortem. But it’s too soon to say one way or the other.’
‘What else can you tell me, then?’ he said, disgruntled.
‘Well, it’s a male. Probably white, in his late teens or early twenties.’
He peered into the grave. ‘Seriously?’
‘Look at the skull. The jaw shape is different for men and women. A man’s flares out more. And see where the ear was, how that bit of bone is projecting? That’s the zygomatic arch, and it’s always bigger in men than women. As for race, the nasal bones suggest European descent rather than African. Could be Asian, I suppose, but the cranial shape is too lozenge-shaped, so I’d say not. Age…’ I shrugged. ‘Again, only a guess at this stage. But from what I can see of them, the vertebrae don’t look too worn. And see the ribs here?’ I pointed to where the blunt ends of bone protruded from underneath the T-shirt. ‘The ends get more irregular and knobbly the older you get. The edges on these are still pretty sharp, so it’s obviously a young adult.’
Mackenzie closed his eyes and kneaded the bridge of his nose. ‘Perfect. Just what we needed, an unrelated murder.’ He looked up suddenly. ‘There’s no sign of the throat being cut, is there?’
‘Not that I can see.’ I’d already checked the cervical vertebrae for any knife marks. ‘After being buried for this long any damage is going to be harder to make out without a proper examination. But there’s nothing obvious.’
‘Thank God for small mercies,’ Mackenzie muttered.
I could sympathize. It was difficult to say which would complicate things more: having to launch a second murder inquiry, or finding evidence that the same killer had been active for years.
But that didn’t concern me, for which I was grateful. I stood up, brushing the dirt from my hands. ‘If there’s nothing else you need me for, I might as well get back.’
‘Can you be at the lab tomorrow? I mean, later today,’ Mackenzie added, catching himself.
He seemed genuinely surprised by the question. ‘To take a better look at this. We should have finished here by mid-morning. We can have the body with you for lunchtime.’
‘You seem to take it for granted I’m going to get involved.’
It was my turn to be surprised. Not so much by his question, as the fact that he seemed to know me better than I did. ‘I suppose so,’ I said, accepting the inevitability of it. ‘I’ll be there for twelve.’
I woke up in the kitchen, cold and confused. In front of me, the door to the back garden stood open, revealing the first hint of a lightening sky. The memory of the dream was still fresh in my mind, the voices and presence of Kara and Alice as vivid as if I had just spoken to them. It had been even more disturbing than usual. In it I’d felt that Kara had wanted to warn me of something, but I’d not wanted to know. I’d been too afraid of what I might hear.
I shivered. I’d no recollection of coming downstairs, or what unconscious motive had led me to unlock the door. I went to close it, but then stopped. Rising like a cliff from the pale sea of mist covering the field was the impenetrable dark of the wood. A sense of foreboding gripped me as I stared at it.
Can’t see the wood for the trees. The phrase came into my head from nowhere. For a moment it seemed to have some deeper significance, but it faded even as I tried to grasp it. I was still trying when something touched the back of my neck.
I started and turned around. The empty kitchen confronted me. A breeze, I told myself, even though the morning was still and silent, undisturbed by any whisper of air. I closed the door, trying to dismiss the unease that still persisted. But the sensation of fingertips gently brushing my skin lingered as I went back to bed and waited for the dawn.
I’d got most of the morning to kill before I was due at the lab. With nothing better to do, I strolled up to Henry’s for breakfast, as I often did on Saturdays. He was already up and seemed in good form, cheerfully asking me how it had gone the night before as he briskly fried eggs and grilled bacon. It took me a moment to realize he meant the barbecue at Jenny’s rather than the discovery in the wood. News of that hadn’t broken yet, and what the reaction would be when it did I couldn’t imagine. Manham was already struggling to deal with events as it was. And I still felt too unsettled by the dream to want to dwell on such things myself.
So I didn’t mention that a second body had been found. But Henry’s good mood was infectious, and by the time I left I was in a much brighter frame of mind. My spirits lifted further as I walked back home to collect my car. It was another beautiful morning, without the stifling heat that would come later. The yellows, purples and reds of the flowers edging the village green hurt the eye with their vibrancy, filling the air with the heavy sweetness of pollen. Only the police trailer parked nearby disturbed the illusion of rural quiet.
Its presence seemed to chastise my sudden optimism, but it had been so long since I’d felt like this I didn’t care. Of course, I didn’t question the reasons for it too closely. And I was careful not to link my new outlook with Jenny. It was enough just to appreciate the moment while it lasted.
As it turned out, it wasn’t about to last much longer.
I was passing the church when a voice called out, ‘Dr Hunter. A moment, please.’
Scarsdale was in the graveyard with Tom Mason, the younger of the two gardeners who tended Manham’s flowerbeds and lawns. I faced him across the low church wall.
‘Morning, Reverend. Tom.’
Tom bobbed his head with a shy smile, without looking up from the rose bush he was tending. Like his grandfather he was happiest left alone to look after his plants, which he did with almost bovine gentleness. By contrast, there was nothing bovine or gentle about Scarsdale. He didn’t bother to acknowledge my greeting.
‘I’m curious as to your thoughts on the current situation,’ he said without preamble. His black suit seemed to absorb the sunlight among the old and uneven gravestones.
It seemed an odd thing to say. ‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘The village faces a difficult time. People all over the country will be watching to see how we acquit ourselves. Don’t you agree?’
I hoped this wasn’t going to be a repeat of his sermon. ‘What is it you want, Reverend?’
‘To show that Manham won’t tolerate what’s happened. This could be an opportunity to forge a stronger community. To unite in the face of this test.’
‘I don’t see how a lunatic abducting and killing women can be regarded as a “test”.’
‘No, perhaps you don’t. But people are frankly concerned about the damage being done to the reputation of the village. And rightly so.’
‘I would have thought they’d be more concerned with finding Lyn Metcalf and catching Sally Palmer’s killer. Isn’t that more important than worrying about Manham’s reputation?’
‘Don’t play games with me, Dr Hunter,’ he snapped. ‘If more people had paid attention to what was going on in this community it might not have come to this.’
I should have known better than to argue with him. ‘I still don’t understand what your point is.’
I was conscious of the gardener’s presence in the background, but Scarsdale was never shy about performing in front of an audience. He rocked back on his heels so that he was looking at me down the length of his nose.
‘I’ve been approached by a number of parishioners. It’s felt we need to present a united front. Especially in our dealings with the press.’
‘Meaning what, exactly?’ I asked, though I was beginning to get an inkling of where this was leading.
‘It’s felt that the village needs a spokesman. Someone best able to represent Manham to the outside world.’
‘That’s you, I take it.’
‘If anyone else is willing to take on the responsibility, I’ll be happy to stand aside.’
‘What makes you think there’ll be need for anyone to do it?’
‘Because God hasn’t finished with this village yet.’
He said it with a conviction I found unnerving. ‘So what do you want from me?’
‘You’re a figure of some importance. Your support would be welcome.’
The idea of Scarsdale using this as a public platform for himself was galling. Yet I knew the fear and distrust that pervaded the village would create a receptive audience for him. It was a depressing thought.
‘I’ve no intention of talking to the press, if that’s what you mean.’
‘It’s also a question of attitude. I wouldn’t want to think anyone was undermining the efforts of those acting in the village’s best interests.’
‘I tell you what, Reverend. You do what you think best for the village, and so will I.’
‘Is that supposed to be a criticism?’
‘Let’s say we just have different views on what constitutes the village’s best interests.’
He considered me, coldly. ‘Perhaps I should remind you that people here have long memories. They’re not likely to forget any transgressions at a time like this. Or forgive them, unchristian as that may be.’
‘In that case I’ll just have to try not to transgress.’
‘You can be as glib as you like. But I’m not the only one who’s wondered about your loyalties. People talk, Dr Hunter. And what I’ve been hearing is quite disturbing.’
‘Then perhaps you shouldn’t listen to gossip. As a man of the cloth aren’t you supposed to give the benefit of the doubt?’
‘Don’t presume to tell me my job.’
‘Then don’t try to tell me mine.’
He glared at me. He might have said more, but there was a clatter from behind him as Tom Mason put his tools in the wheelbarrow. Scarsdale drew himself up, his eyes as hard as the gravestones he stood among.
‘I won’t keep you any longer, Dr Hunter. Good day,’ he said, stiffly, and stalked away.
Well, you handled that well, I thought, sourly, as I continued on past the church. I hadn’t meant it to turn into a confrontation, but Scarsdale brought out the worst in me. Still brooding about what he’d said, I didn’t notice the car until it pulled up alongside.
‘You look like you lost a pound and found a penny.’
It was Ben. Sunglasses on, he had a brawny arm propped on the open windowsill of his new black Land Rover. It was dusty, but still made mine look like an antique.
‘Sorry. I was miles away.’
‘So I noticed. Nothing to do with the Witchfinder General over there, was it?’ he said, jerking his head towards the church. ‘I saw you talking to him.’
I had to laugh. ‘Yeah, it was, actually.’ I gave him a brief rundown of the encounter. He shook his head.
‘I don’t know what God he’s supposed to worship, but if the good reverend’s any indication I wouldn’t like to meet him down a dark alley. You should have told him to bollocks.’
‘That would have gone down well.’
‘By the sound of it he’s got it in for you anyway. You’re a threat to him.’
‘Me?’ I said, surprised.
‘Think about it. Until now he’s been a dried-up minister with a shrinking congregation. This is his big chance, and as far as he’s concerned you’re a potential challenge to his authority. You’re a doctor, educated, come from the big city. And secular, let’s not forget that.’
‘I’m not interested in competing with him,’ I said, exasperated.
‘Doesn’t matter. The miserable old bastard’s set himself up as the Voice of Manham. If you’re not with him you’re against him.’
‘As if things aren’t bad enough as they are.’
‘Oh, never doubt the ability of a righteous man to fuck things up. All in the name of the greater good, of course.’
I looked at him. His normal good humour seemed to have left him. ‘You all right?’
‘Just feeling cynical today. As you might have noticed.’
‘What did you do to your head?’
There was a grazed bump next to one of his eyes, partly hidden by his sunglasses. His hand went to it.
‘Got it chasing another bastard poacher in the reserve last night. Someone made a try for a marsh harrier’s nest I’ve been keeping an eye on. I set off after them and went arse over elbow on one of the trails.’
‘Did you catch them?’
He gave an angry shake of his head. ‘I will, though. I’m sure it’s that fucking Brenner. I found his car parked nearby. I waited for him, but he didn’t show. Probably hiding, waiting for me to leave.’ He gave a hard smile. ‘I let the bastard’s tyres down, so I hope he was.’
‘Taking a chance, aren’t you?’
‘What’s he going to do? Report me?’ He snorted derisively. ‘You going to the Lamb later?’
‘Might see you there, then.’
He drove off, the Land Rover’s powerful engine leaving a haze of exhaust dissipating in the air behind it. As I set off for my house I thought about what he’d said. There was always a thriving black market for endangered species, and birds in particular. But given the role they’d played in Sally Palmer’s mutilation and Lyn Metcalf’s abduction it was something the police should know about. The problem was that aspect of the crimes hadn’t been made public, so it wasn’t something I could suggest to Ben. Which meant it was down to me to tell Mackenzie. I wasn’t happy with the idea of going behind Ben’s back, especially when it would probably turn out to be nothing. But I couldn’t take that chance. Experience had shown me that sometimes even the smallest details could be important.
I didn’t know it then, but that was about to be proved in the way I least expected.