18

Two things happened over the next twenty-four hours. Of the two, it was the first that had most people talking. At any other time this was an event that would have been a source of scandalized gossip, subject to endless tellings and retellings before it became absorbed into Manham folklore, a chapter of village history to be chuckled and tutted over for decades. As it was, it was to have repercussions that were far more serious than any physical injuries it caused.

In a confrontation that many thought was years overdue, Ben Anders and Carl Brenner had a fight.

It was partly drink, and partly animosity, and partly the pressures of recent days. The two men had never made any pretence of liking each other, and the unnatural tensions in the village had the effect of rubbing raw far slighter grievances than theirs. It was almost closing time at the Lamb. Ben had just ordered a whisky to finish, after what he admitted was a pint or two more than normal. He’d had a hellish day at the nature reserve, having to give first aid to a birdwatcher who’d had a heart attack in the heat, as well as coping with the usual crises of the tourist season. When Carl Brenner came into the pub, ‘cocky and full of himself’, as Ben later put it, he’d turned his back, determined not to give a bad day a worse end by letting himself be goaded.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Brenner hadn’t come in just for a drink. Fired up over Scarsdale’s call to arms the night before, this was both a recruitment drive and an announcement of intent. With him was Dale Brenner, a swarthy cousin unlike him in looks, but a brother in habit and temperament. They were part of a larger group who, under Scarsdale’s urging, had taken it upon themselves to patrol the village, day and night. ‘Because the police are doing fuck all, so we’ve got to sort this bastard out ourselves,’ was how Brenner put it, echoing the reverend’s sentiment, if not his language.

At first Ben remained silent as the Brenners tried to drum up more volunteers. But then Carl, emboldened by alcohol and his new-found mission, made the mistake of confronting him directly.

‘So what about you, Anders?’

‘What about me?’

‘You with us or not?’

Ben slowly finished his whisky before answering. ‘So you’re going to sort this bastard out, are you?’

‘That’s right. You got a problem with that?’

‘Only one. How do you know he isn’t one of you?’

Never blessed with the sharpest of minds, that had obviously never occurred to Brenner. ‘In fact, how do we know it isn’t you?’ Ben demanded. ‘Digging holes, setting traps. Sounds right up your street.’

He admitted later that he was merely baiting the other man, didn’t stop to think what a dangerous accusation it was. And it pushed Brenner further than he might otherwise have gone.

‘Fuck off, Anders! The police know I had nothing to do with it!’

‘This the same police you said a minute ago were doing fuck all? And you want me to join you? Jesus,’ Ben sneered, letting his contempt show. ‘Stick to poaching. It’s all you’re good for.’

‘At least I’ve got an alibi! What about you?’

Ben levelled a finger at him. ‘Watch it, Brenner.’

‘Why? Have you or haven’t you?’

‘I’m warning you…’

Bolstered by the presence of his cousin, Brenner didn’t back down as he usually did. ‘So fucking what? I’m getting sick of you throwing your weight around. And you were quick enough to stick up for your doctor mate last week, weren’t you? Where was he when Lyn went missing?’

‘So now you’re saying we both did it?’

‘Prove you didn’t!’

‘I don’t have to prove anything to you, Brenner,’ Ben said, his tenuous grip on his temper slipping. ‘So why don’t you and the rest of your vigilante heroes take your pathetic patrol and shove it up your arse?’

They glared at each other. Brenner broke first. ‘Come on,’ he said to his cousin, and it almost ended there. But, unable to leave without an attempt to save face, he couldn’t resist one final jibe, ‘Fucking coward,’ he spat as he turned to leave.

That was the point when Ben’s good intentions went out of the window. And so, very nearly, did Carl Brenner.

The fight that followed was short-lived. There were enough men in the pub to jump in before it got too far out of hand, which was probably just as well for Ben. Brenner by himself posed no threat, but as big as he was Ben might have struggled to take on his cousin as well. By the time they were dragged apart a table and several chairs had been smashed, and it would be several weeks before Brenner could look at himself again in a shaving mirror – far less shave – without wincing. Ben himself didn’t emerge unscathed, suffering various cuts and bruises and dislocating one of his knuckles. All of which, he claimed, were well worth it.

But the truly serious damage wouldn’t emerge for several more days.

I wasn’t there when the fight happened. I had cooked a meal for Jenny, who was staying the night, and Manham’s problems had gone from my mind. In fact, I was probably one of the last people to hear about it, as first thing the following morning I went to continue the grim task waiting for me at the mortuary.

Since Lyn Metcalf’s body had been found, Henry had again been standing in for me while I went to the lab. I was doing my best to rush back in time for evening surgery, but the additional workload was taking its toll on him. He was looking tired, even though he’d reduced surgery hours to a bare minimum, running it almost on a skeleton basis when I wasn’t there.

I felt guilty, but at least it wouldn’t be for much longer. Another half-day at the lab and I would have done as much as I could. I was still waiting for most of the test results, but so far Lyn Metcalf’s remains had yielded a similar story to those of Sally Palmer. There had been no real surprises, except the question of why the first victim’s face had been so badly battered while that of the second had been left untouched. Also, with the decomposition less advanced, some of Lyn Metcalf’s fingernails had still remained on the body. They’d been broken and torn, and the forensic lab had found hemp fibres attached to some of them. Rope, in other words. Whatever else had been done to her, it seemed she’d been tied up.

Other than the wound that had opened her throat and the horrific mutilation, Lyn’s injuries had been mainly superficial cuts. Only the one to her throat had left its mark on the bone. Like the one I’d found on Sally Palmer, it had been caused by a large, sharp blade. Probably a hunting knife, and almost certainly the same one, although at this stage there was no way of proving that for certain. But it wasn’t serrated. Which left me no wiser as to why the two women had been killed with one weapon, while another had been used on the dog.

I was still worrying at it as I went into the waiting area after the last patient had left. The evening surgery had been quiet, with barely half the number of patients as normal. Either people were loath to worry about more trivial complaints in the face of the larger tragedy, or there was another, even less palatable reason why so many had decided to avoid their doctor. Or one of them, at least. Requests to see Henry were higher than they had been for years, more and more people apparently preferring to wait rather than see me.

But I was too taken up by Jenny and my work at the lab to worry about it.

Janice was tidying the waiting room when I went in, straightening the mismatched old chairs and restacking the dog-eared magazines.

‘Quiet night,’ I said.

She picked a child’s puzzle off the floor and put it back in the wooden box with the other toys. ‘Better than a room full of sniffles and hypochondriacs.’

‘Fair point.’ I appreciated her tact. She knew as well as I did that my appointment list was shrinking. ‘Where’s Henry?’

‘Having a doze. I think surgery this morning took it out of him a bit. And don’t look like that. It’s not your fault.’

Janice knew I was doing something for the police, if not exactly what. There was no way I could have kept it from her, and no real reason to. She might have liked to gossip, but she knew where to draw the line.

‘Is he OK?’ I asked, concerned.

‘Just tired. Besides, it’s not just the work.’ She gave me a meaningful look. ‘It would have been his anniversary this week.’

I’d forgotten. There had been too much else going on for me to keep track of dates, but Henry always became subdued around this time of year. He never spoke about it, any more than I did when mine came round. But it was there, all the same.

‘It would have been their thirtieth,’ Janice went on, keeping her voice down. ‘Makes it even worse, I suppose. So in a way it’s good that he’s working more. Helps him keep his mind off it.’ Her expression hardened. ‘It’s just a shame that-‘

‘Janice,’ I said, warningly.

‘Well, it is. She didn’t deserve him. And he deserved better.’

The words came out in a rush. She seemed close to tears.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked.

She nodded, smiling tremulously. ‘Sorry. But I just hate seeing him get upset over…’ She broke off. ‘And all this other business. It just wears everybody down.’

She started bustling over the magazines again. I went over and took them off her.

‘Tell you what, why don’t you go home early for once?’

‘But I was going to vac up…’

‘I’m sure we can stand to be a health hazard for another day.’

She laughed, more herself again. ‘If you’re sure…’

‘Certain. Do you want a lift?’

‘No! It’s too nice an evening to be sitting in a car.’

I didn’t insist. She only lived a few hundred yards away, and most of that was on the main road. There was a point where being safety conscious became paranoia. Still, I watched through the window as she went down the drive.

When she’d gone I went back to the magazines she’d left and made a token attempt to finish straightening them. A few old copies of the local parish newsletter had found their way into the pile, left by patients too idle to throw them away. I dropped them into the bin, but as I did something on one of their pages caught my eye.

I retrieved it from the waste bin. Sally Palmer’s face smiled brightly out at me. Below her photograph was a small piece about Manham’s ‘celebrity author’, printed a few weeks before she’d been murdered. I hadn’t seen it before, and it was unsettling to find it now, after her death. I started to read it and felt as if the air had been driven from my lungs. I sat down, read it again.

Then I went to phone Mackenzie.

He read the article in silence. He’d been at the mobile incident room when I’d phoned, and when I told him about the newsletter he’d come straight over. The back of his neck and hands were livid with sunburn as he read the story. When he’d finished he closed the paper without expression.

‘So, what do you think?’ I asked.

He rubbed at the peeling and reddened skin on his nose. ‘It could be just coincidence.’

He was being the policeman now, professionally uncommunicative. And he might be right. But I doubted it. I picked up the newsletter and looked at the story again. It was only short, little more than a filler on a quiet news day. The caption read ‘Country life gives wing to local author’s imagination’. The quote that had inspired it was at the end:

Sally Palmer says living in Manham helps her to write her novels. ‘I love being this close to nature. It helps my imagination take flight. It’s the next best thing to having wings,’ says the critically acclaimed writer.

I put the newsletter down. ‘You think it’s a coincidence that someone stuck a pair of swan wings into her back a couple of weeks after she said this?’

Mackenzie showed signs of exasperation. ‘I said it could be. I’m not prepared to say one way or the other just off the back of a flimsy item in a newsletter.’

‘So how else do you explain the mutilation?’

He looked uncomfortable, like a man forced to recite a party line he wasn’t convinced by himself. ‘The psychologists think it might be a suppressed desire for transformation. Giving her angel wings after he’d killed her. They say he could be some religious nut who’s obsessed with a higher state.’

‘What do the psychologists say about the other dead animals? Or what he did to Lyn Metcalf?’

‘They’re not sure about that yet. But even if you’re right, that’ – he gestured at the newsletter – ‘doesn’t explain it either.’

I chose my words carefully. ‘Actually, that was something else I wanted to talk to you about.’

He regarded me cautiously. ‘Go on.’

‘After I called you I looked through Lyn Metcalf’s medical notes. And her husband’s. Did you know they were trying to start a family? They were considering fertility treatments.’

It only took him a second to get it. ‘Baby rabbits. Jesus,’ he breathed.

‘But how would the killer know about that?’

Mackenzie looked at me, debating something. ‘We found a pregnancy testing kit hidden in a drawer in the Metcalfs’ bedroom,’ he said, slowly. ‘There was a receipt in the bag, from the day before she went missing.’

I remembered bumping into her as she came out of the chemist’s. How happy she’d looked. ‘Had it been used?’

‘No. And her husband claimed he didn’t know it was there.’

‘But you don’t buy something like that unless you’re planning to use it. So she must have thought she could be pregnant.’

Mackenzie nodded, his expression grim. ‘And what would a pregnant woman say to someone who’d kidnapped her? “Don’t hurt me, I’m having a baby.”‘ He passed a hand over his face. ‘Christ. I suppose there’s no way of knowing now if she was or not?’

‘Not a chance. Not so early in the term and with the condition the body was in.’

He nodded, unsurprised. ‘If she was, though – or if she only thought she was – then catching this bastard’s going to be even harder than we expected.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it means the mutilations aren’t planned in advance. He’s making it up as he goes along.’ Mackenzie rose to his feet, looking tired. ‘And if he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next, what chance have we got?’

After he’d gone I drove out into the country. I didn’t have any destination in mind, just wanted to get away from Manham for an hour or two. I wasn’t seeing Jenny that evening. We were both surprised by how suddenly things had developed between us, and after the intensity of the last two days we needed some time apart. I think we both wanted breathing space to stand back and consider this unexpected sea change in our lives, and where it might take us. There was an unspoken sense that neither of us wanted to spoil things by going too fast. After all, if this was what we both felt it to be, what was the hurry?

I should have known better than to risk tempting fate.

Before long I found myself on top of a low rise, offering views of the spreading landscape around me. I stopped the car and got out. I sat on a hummock of grass, watching the sun sink towards the waiting marshes. Light blazed golden from the pools and creeks that formed abstract patterns in the reeds. For a while I tried to concentrate on the murders. But it all seemed too far removed from me now. The colours of sky and land slowly deepened towards night, but I felt no compulsion to move.

For the first time since the accident I felt as if the future had opened up for me. I was finally able to look ahead rather than to the past. I thought about Jenny, and about Kara and Alice, searching myself for any trace of guilt, any sense of betrayal. There was none. Only anticipation. The pain of absence was still there, and always would be. But now there was also an acceptance. My wife and daughter were dead, and I couldn’t bring them back. For a long time I’d been dead as well. Now, unexpectedly, I’d come alive again.

I sat watching the sun set until it was no more than a bright sliver on the horizon, the marsh landscape a uniform dark matt that soaked up the light. When I finally got up, stiff and aching after sitting for so long, I realized I didn’t need any more time to think things through. And I didn’t want to wait till the next day before I saw Jenny again. I reached for my phone to call her, but it wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in the Land Rover either. I remembered putting it on my desk when Mackenzie came, and with my mind on other things I must have walked out without it.

I almost didn’t bother going to get it. But I didn’t want to turn up unannounced on Jenny’s doorstep. Just because I’d resolved my own issues didn’t necessarily mean that she had as well. And besides, I was still the village doctor. Manham might have its reservations about me at the moment, but I couldn’t bring myself to be out of touch. And so, when I reached the village, I headed to the surgery for my phone.

The streetlights came on as I drove along the main street. Just before I reached the police trailer in the square I saw a group of men standing in the spill of light from one. One of Scarsdale’s vigilante patrols, I guessed. They stared at me as I went past, their faces suspicious in the sickly yellow glare.

Leaving them behind, I turned off the main street and up the long drive leading to Henry’s. The car tyres crunched on the gravel, my headlights splashing on the front of the house as I mounted the rise and dropped down the slope. The windows were dark, which didn’t surprise me because Henry usually went to bed early. Not wanting to wake him, rather than use the front door I went round the back to let myself directly into the surgery.

I’d taken out my keys to unlock the French doors to my office before I noticed that the door to the kitchen stood open. If the light had been on I might have thought nothing of it. But the kitchen was in darkness, and I knew Henry would never have gone to bed without locking up.

I went across and looked inside. Nothing seemed disturbed. I started to reach for the light switch, but checked myself. Some instinct told me something was wrong. I briefly considered phoning the police. But what could I tell them? For all I knew Henry might just have forgotten to close the door after going out into the garden. My stock in the village was low enough as it was without word getting out that I’d made a fool of myself.

Instead, I went into the hallway. ‘Henry?” I called, loud enough to be heard if he was up and about, not loud enough to wake him.

There was no reply. His study was at the far end of the hallway, around the corner. Unable to shake the idea that I was overreacting, I set off towards it. The door was slightly ajar, revealing that the light was on inside. I paused, listening for some sign of life or movement. But the thump of my own heart drowned out any lesser sounds. I put my hand on the door and started to push it open.

Suddenly it was wrenched from my hand. I was knocked aside as a bulky shadow burst from the room. Winded, I lunged for it and felt a waft of air pass in front of me. My hand clutched coarse, greasy cloth and then something crashed into my face. I staggered back as the figure bolted into the kitchen. By the time I reached it the back door was swinging back against its hinges. Without thinking I set off to go after him. And then I remembered Henry.

Pausing only long enough to close and bolt the door to the garden, I ran back to his study. As I reached it the hall lights came on.

‘David? What the hell’s going on?’

Henry was pushing himself down the hallway from his bedroom, looking dishevelled and startled.

‘Someone was in here. They ran out when I disturbed them.’

Reaction was setting in now, the aftermath of adrenalin making me shaky. I went into the study. With relief I saw that the steel cabinet was still locked. Whoever had been in here hadn’t got into our drug store, at least. Then I noticed the glass case where Henry kept his collection of medicinal relics. The doors were thrown open, the objects and bottles inside scattered.

Henry swore and started towards it. ‘Don’t touch anything. The police will want to check for fingerprints,’ I warned. ‘Any idea what might have been taken?’

He was peering uncertainly at the mess. ‘I’m not sure…’

But even as he spoke I noticed one obvious absence. As long as I’d worked here there had been an antiquated bottle gathering dust on the top shelf, its green glass vertically ribbed in the long-outmoded warning for poison. Now it was gone.

Until then I thought the intruder had been looking for drugs. Even Manham had its share of addicts. But I doubted even the most desperate junkie would have taken a bottle of chloroform.

I was brought back by an exclamation from Henry.

‘My God, David, are you all right?’

He was staring at my chest. I was about to ask what he meant, but then I saw for myself. I remembered the waft of air I’d felt as I’d grabbed at the intruder in the hallway. Now I understood what it was.

The front of my shirt had been slashed open.

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