29

It was difficult to pinpoint where the sound of flies had come from. But I knew it was from the house. The darkened windows stared blindly down at me, offering no help. I went to the nearest and peered through. Inside I could dimly make out a kitchen, but little else. I tried the next. A living room, the dead screen of a television set facing two worn armchairs.

I went to the door, raised my hand to knock again, then let it fall. If anyone had been going to answer they would have. I paused on the step, uncertain what to do.

But I knew what I’d heard. And I knew I couldn’t ignore it. My hand went to the door handle. If it was locked the decision would have been made for me. I turned it.

The door opened.

I hesitated, knowing I shouldn’t even be considering doing this. Then I caught the smell from inside the house. Fetid and faintly sweet, it was an odour I recognized only too well.

I pushed the door fully open onto a dim hallway. The smell was unmistakable now. Dry-mouthed, I took out my phone to call the police. It was no longer a question of jumping at shadows. Something – someone – had died in here. I’d actually started to dial before I realized there was no signal. The Mason house was in a dead zone. I swore, wondering how long I’d been out of touch, if Mackenzie had been trying to reach me.

That gave me another reason to go inside. But even if I hadn’t needed to find a landline, I didn’t have a choice. As little as I wanted to go into the house, there was no way now I could simply walk away.

The smell immediately grew stronger. I stood in the hallway, trying to get a feel for the house. At first glance it seemed superficially tidy, but there was a thick covering of dust over everything.

‘Hello?’ I called.

Nothing. There was a door off to my right. I opened it, found myself in the kitchen I’d seen through the window. Dirty dishes stacked in the sink, food left to congeal and rot on plates. A few fat flies were stirred into life, but not enough to account for the noise I’d heard earlier.

The lounge was similarly untenanted. The same dusty armchairs I’d seen through the window faced the dead television. I couldn’t see a telephone. I came out and made my way to the stairs. The carpet running up them was old and threadbare, the top of them almost invisible in the gloom. I paused at the foot of the stairs, my hand on the banister.

I didn’t want to go up there. But having come this far I couldn’t just leave. There was a light switch at the bottom. I flicked it, and jumped when the bulb popped and went out. Slowly, I made my way up. The smell became more pervasive with every step. And now it was joined by another, something cloying and tarry that pricked at my subconscious. But I didn’t have time to wonder about it now. The stairs ended in another hallway. In the near-darkness I could make out an empty, dingy bathroom, and two other doors. I went to the first, opened it. Inside was a rumpled single bed, standing on unpainted floorboards. I came out and went to the second door. The tarry smell was stronger here as I took hold of the handle. When I turned it the door stuck, and for a second I thought it was locked. Then the resistance suddenly gave way and I pushed it open.

A black cloud of flies buffeted my face. I batted them away, almost gagging at the warm stench from the room. It was a smell I thought I’d become almost accustomed to, but this was overpowering. The flies were becoming less hysterical, beginning to settle again on a shape on the bed. Covering my mouth with my hands, I breathed in short gulps as I approached it.

My first feeling was relief. The body was badly decomposed, and though it was impossible to tell at a glance whether it had been male or female, whoever it was had obviously been dead for some time. Certainly a lot longer than two days. Thank God, I thought, weakly.

The flies covering it stirred irritably as I carefully moved closer. It was getting too dark for them to be active now. If I’d arrived at the house a little later, or lightning hadn’t chosen that moment to disturb them, I might never have heard their tell-tale drone. The window was slightly open, I saw now. Not enough to allow the air in the room to clear, but wide enough for flies attracted by the perfume of decay to enter and lay their eggs.

The body was propped up on pillows, the arms lying limply outside the bedclothes. By the bed was an old wooden cabinet, on which was an empty glass and a motionless alarm clock. Next to them was a man’s watch and a small prescription bottle of pills. It was too dark to read the label, but then another flash of lightning lit up the room. It picked out features like a silent snapshot: faded floral wallpaper, a framed picture above the bed, and in its momentary glare I made out the printing on the bottle. Coproxamol painkillers, for George Mason.

The old gardener’s back may well have been bad, but that wasn’t the reason he hadn’t been in the village lately. I remembered what Tom Mason had said in the churchyard when I’d asked him where his grandfather was. Still in bed. I wondered how long ago old George had died. And what it said about Manham that no-one had noticed his absence.

I was careful not to touch anything as I turned to leave. This had more of the makings of a domestic tragedy than a crime scene, but I didn’t want to disturb anything more than I already had. Someone else would have to determine what he’d died of and try to fathom his grandson’s reason for not reporting it. It was hardly the action of a sane mind, but then grief was a strange thing. He wouldn’t be the first person to prefer denial.

As I went into the hall the tarry smell hit me again. And now, with the door open, there was just enough light for me to see the thick black smears along the edges of its frame. A strip of wadded-up newspaper, coated with the same material, still clung to the bottom of the door. I remembered the resistance when I’d first tried to open it. When I lightly touched the black stuff my fingers came away sticky.

It was bitumen.

And all at once I knew what had been trying to surface from my subconscious since that morning. Among the scent of flowers and cut grass in the churchyard had been another faint odour. I’d been too distracted to spare it much thought, but now I realized what it had been. Bitumen, clinging to either Mason or his tools after he’d used it to try and seal his grandfather’s bedroom.

The same substance I’d found in the knife cut in Sally Palmer’s vertebra.

I tried to calm down, to think this through. It seemed inconceivable that Tom Mason was the killer. He seemed too placid, too uncomplicated to be capable of planning the atrocities, let alone carry them out.

But we’d known all along that the killer had been hiding in plain sight. Mason had done that all right, patiently working in the churchyard or on the village green, blending into the background so effectively that no-one ever really noticed him. Always in his grandfather’s shadow, a softly spoken man who never made an impression.

Except he’d made one now.

I told myself I was jumping to conclusions. Until a few minutes ago I’d been convinced Carl Brenner was the killer. But Mason fitted the profile just as well. And Brenner didn’t keep the decomposing body of his grandfather in the house. Or try to mask the smell with the same material that had been embedded in a dead woman’s neck.

My hands were shaking as I took my phone out to call Mackenzie, forgetting that there was no reception. I swore and hurried downstairs. But as much as he needed to know what I’d found, I couldn’t leave until I’d made sure Jenny wasn’t here. I tore through the darkened house, opening every door to check inside. None of them held any sign of life, nor even a telephone I could use.

I ran out to the Land Rover, trying my mobile again in case some atmospheric fluke allowed a signal. It was still dead. A gust of thunder boomed overhead as I started the car. It was fully dark now, and raindrops were starting to burst on my windscreen. The yard wasn’t big enough to turn the car round so I began to back up. As I did the headlights swept across the trees opposite, and for an instant there was a small, answering flash.

If the car hadn’t been an automatic I would have stalled it as I stamped on the brake. I stared into the woods where the flash had appeared. But whatever had been caught in the headlights was invisible now. Mouth dry, I slowly edged forwards, turning the wheel back towards it. As the beam swung over the trees, something deep within them gleamed again.

It was the luminous yellow rectangle of a car registration plate.

I saw now that the track I’d driven up didn’t stop at the yard but continued on into the woods. Although it was heavily overgrown it still looked used. But whatever was parked up it was too far away to see. If not for that momentary reflection I would never have known anything was there.

I needed to contact Mackenzie, but the track beckoned me. This was private land, several miles from where either of the bodies had been found. It wouldn’t have been searched. And there had to be a reason for a car to be there. I hesitated, torn between two impossible choices. Then I rammed the Land Rover into drive and set off up the track.

Almost immediately I was forced to slow down as the branches closed in. I switched off my headlights, not wanting to broadcast my approach any more than I already had, but without them it was impossible to see. When I turned them back on the track seemed to disappear beyond their beam. The rain was drumming down now. I flicked on the wipers and peered through the smeared glass as the car bounced along the uneven track. My headlights again picked out the bright smudge of the registration plate, a beacon of brightness in the gloom. Then I could make out the vehicle itself. Not a car, but a van.

It was parked next to a low, tree-shrouded building.

I stopped the car. When I turned off the headlights everything outside vanished. I rummaged in the glove box for the torch, praying that the batteries still worked. A yellow beam sputtered into life when I turned it on. My pulse thudded in my ears as I opened the car door and quickly shone the torch around. No-one leaped out; its beam revealed only trees. Through them I could make out the solid blackness of the lake. The rain soaked me, drowning out any noise as I went to the back of the Land Rover and took out the heavy socket spanner from the toolbox. Reassured only slightly by its weight, I started towards the building.

The van parked outside was old and rusty. The back doors were fastened with a piece of string. When I untied it they swung open with a creak. Inside was a collection of gardening equipment: spades, forks, even a wheelbarrow. I looked at the spool of wire it also held and thought that Carl Brenner had told his brother the truth. The snare that had injured Scott hadn’t been one of his.

Neither had any of the others.

As I was turning away the torch beam fell on something else. Lying on top of a collection of tools was a clasp knife. It hadn’t been folded up, and the exposed blade was serrated like a miniature saw. It was crusted with black.

I knew I was looking at the weapon that had killed Sally Palmer’s dog.

I jumped as there was a sudden flash of lightning. The thunder followed almost immediately, a raging bellow that shook the air. I checked my phone again, not really expecting there to be a signal. There wasn’t. Leaving the van I went towards the low building, and felt something snag my thigh. I looked down to see a rusty wire fence running through the undergrowth. Hanging from it were dozens of dark objects. At first I couldn’t make out what they were, then I shone the torch on the nearest shapes and saw a gleam of bone. The bodies of small birds and animals had been hung on the wire and left to rot.

Dozens of them.

The rain was drumming through the trees as I picked my way along the wire fence. After a few yards it simply stopped, the strands lying curled and broken in the grass. I stepped over them, continued to circle the building. It was a squat, featureless block, without doors or windows. In places its concrete walls had spalled away to reveal a skeleton of reinforcing rods. But it was only when I reached the far side and saw the deep-set door and single, narrow window that I understood what this place was. It was an old air-raid bunker. I knew quite a few country houses had them, little more than latter-day follies built at the start of the Second World War, most of them never used.

But someone had found a use for this one.

Moving as quietly as I could, I went to the door. It was steel, rusted to a dull red. I expected it to be locked, but it swung open when I pushed.

A waft of musty air greeted me. I stepped inside, my heart thudding. The torch revealed a single room, empty except for dead leaves curled on the floor. I shone the light around the bare walls, and then the beam fell on a second door, hidden away almost invisibly in a corner.

A noise behind me made me spin around in time to see the outer door swinging shut. I made a grab for it, but not in time. The bang was shockingly loud. As its echoes died I knew I’d just announced my arrival to anyone inside.

But there was nothing to do but go on. No longer worried about keeping quiet, I went to the second door. When I opened it I was looking at the top of a narrow flight of steps. Above them a feeble light bulb cast a sickly illumination.

I turned off the torch and started down.

The air was stale and fetid. I recognized the flavours of death in it, tried to shut my mind to what that might mean. The steps bent away, doubling back on themselves. After one final turn I emerged into a long, low cellar. It seemed much bigger than the concrete structure above, as though the shelter had been built on older foundations. The far end disappeared into darkness. A light bulb hung low over a workbench, its weak glow revealing a bewildering profusion of shapes and shadows.

I stood transfixed by the sight in front of me.

The entire ceiling was hung with animal and bird corpses. Foxes, rabbits, ducks, all suspended like some macabre exhibit. Many of them had rotted to mummified skin and bone, while others showed more recent putrefaction. All were mutilated. Lacking heads or limbs, they swung with hypnotic slowness in time to some faint draught.

I wrenched my eyes away and looked around the cellar. More images clamoured for my attention. A desk lamp stood on a workbench, aimed into an empty corner of the cellar. Picked out by its harsh light was a rope, one end trailing, the other tied to a metal ring. On the workbench itself was a selection of old tools and vices, given a hideous new significance in this setting. And then I saw an object that seemed even more obscenely out of place.

Draped over a chair, its front an intricate patterning of lace fleurs-de-lis, was an ornate wedding dress. It was soaked in blood.

The sight of it brought me out of my shock. ‘Jenny!’ I shouted.

From the shadows at the far end of the cellar there was an answering movement. A figure slowly emerged, and then George Mason’s grandson moved into the light.

He wore the same harmless expression as always. But there seemed nothing harmless about him now. He was a big man, I realized, taller and broader than me. His jeans and combat jacket were stained with blood.

He wouldn’t look directly at me, shifting his eyes instead between my chest and shoulders. His hands were empty, but I could see there was a knife sheath hanging under his stained jacket.

I gripped the socket spanner. ‘Where is she?’ My voice was cracked.

‘You shouldn’t be down here, Dr Hunter.’ He sounded apologetic. As he spoke he was unhurriedly reaching towards the knife sheath. He seemed as surprised as I was when he discovered it was empty.

I took a step towards him. ‘What have you done to her?’

He was looking on the floor around him as if expecting to see the lost knife. ‘Who?’

I turned the desk lamp so its light struck him. He raised a hand to shield his eyes. And as the light spilled into the corners behind him, I saw a naked shape half-hidden behind a wall.

My breath caught in my throat.

‘Don’t,’ Mason said, squinting against the light.

I ran at him then. I raised the spanner, aiming to swing it into that docile face with all my strength, and as I did my arm snagged the animals hanging from the low ceiling. I was engulfed in a reeking avalanche of fur and feathers. Choking, I swept them aside in time to see Mason lunging at me. I tried to duck, but he was grabbing for the spanner. I still had the torch in my other hand. I swung it at him, catching him a glancing blow on his head. He yelled and lashed out, and I tumbled backwards, the spanner and torch flying from my hands to clatter to the floor. I fell against the workbench, and a spasm of fire shot through my back as it struck the corner of a vice.

The breath exploded from me as Mason’s shoulder rammed into my stomach. I felt myself being bent backwards, the vice still digging into my spine. I looked into his face, and saw his placid blue eyes still untroubled as he eased his forearm up to my throat and began to push. I managed to wrench free one of my hands, tried to pull his forearm off my throat. He shifted slightly, leaning more of his weight on it, and reached for something on the workbench. I heard metal scrape on wood as he tried to take a chisel from a wooden block. I grabbed hold of his arm, but that left my throat unprotected. He gazed down at me as he increased the pressure, still groping for the chisel. Sparks of light were appearing in my vision. He glanced towards the chisel, and as he did I saw movement beyond him.

It was Jenny. She was moving with agonizing slowness towards what looked like a pile of feathers lying on the floor. As she struggled to pull something from beneath it, I forced myself to stare into Mason’s calm face rather than at whatever she was doing. I tried to bring my knee into his groin but we were too close. Instead I raked my shoe down his shin. He gave a grunt, and I felt the weight on my throat ease fractionally. But from beside us there was a thud as the block containing the chisels fell over. I watched as Mason’s fingers scrabbled like thick spiders’ legs, tugging one of the chisels free inch by inch despite my hand pulling at his arm. A flicker of movement caught my eye. On the edge of my vision I saw Jenny trying to stand up. She was kneeling, leaning against the wall as she clutched something in front of her.

Then Mason had pulled one of the chisels from the block. Now instead of trying to hold his arm back I was struggling to push it away. I felt a growing panic as I realized how strong he was. My arm started to shake as he forced the chisel steadily nearer. Sweat dripped from his face onto mine, but other than that there was no sign of exertion in the bland features above me. He wore the same expression of gentle concentration as when he tended his plants.

Without warning he wrenched the opposite way, tearing his arm free. I clutched at it as he raised the chisel above my head, knowing I couldn’t stop him. Suddenly he screamed and arched backwards. The arm that had pinned my throat was gone. I looked up to see Jenny swaying unsteadily behind him, naked and covered in blood. She was holding a huge-bladed knife, but it dropped from her fingers even as I looked. As it rang onto the floor Mason roared and swung his arm against her.

She fell bonelessly. I threw myself at him. We landed in a heap, and he cried out again. He pushed me off, tried to crawl away, and I saw the spreading stain of blood on his back. He was trying to reach the knife. I scrabbled over him, and as I did my foot kicked something hard. I looked down, saw the socket spanner. As Mason grabbed for the knife I snatched the spanner up and brought it down onto the stab wound in his back. He howled, and as he turned to face me I swung it at his head.

The impact hurt my hand. Mason dropped without a sound. I raised the spanner to hit him again but there was no need. Gasping, I waited until I was sure he wasn’t going to move again, and then went to Jenny. She was lying where she’d fallen. I gently turned her over, feeling my heart miss when I saw the blood. She had cuts all over her body, some tiny, others deep slashes. The one in her cheek was almost to the bone, and when I saw what Mason had done to her foot I wanted to club him again. I almost cried with relief when I felt the pulse in her throat. It was weak and irregular, but she was alive.

‘Jenny, Jenny, it’s me, it’s David.’

Her eyes fluttered open. ‘… David…’ It came out as a whisper, and I felt my relief turn to ice when I caught the sweet chemical odour of her breath. Ketoacidosis. Her body had started to break down its own fats, producing toxic levels of ketones in her blood. She needed insulin, fast.

And I didn’t have any with me.

‘Don’t talk,’ I said, stupidly, because her eyes were already closing again. Whatever strength she’d found to stab Mason had been exhausted. The pulse in her throat seemed even weaker than before. Oh God, not now, don’t do this now.

Ignoring the pain that flared through my back and throat, I picked her up. I was shocked at how light she felt. She weighed nothing at all. Mason still hadn’t moved, but I could hear his rasping breaths as I carried her to the steps. Upstairs I kicked open the door and stumbled out into the trees. The rain was driving down now but it felt clean after the abomination of the cellar. Jenny’s head lolled as I bundled her into the passenger seat of the Land Rover. I had to fasten the seat belt to keep her from falling over, then reached into the back for the blanket I kept as part of my emergency kit and draped it over her. I started the engine, scraping the side of Mason’s van and snapping branches as I turned around and roared back down the track.

I drove as fast as I dared. Jenny had been two full days without any insulin, subjected to God only knew what, and had obviously lost blood as well. She needed emergency treatment, but the nearest hospital was miles away, too far to risk driving in her condition. Tortured by the thought that I’d had the insulin actually in my hands at the surgery, I desperately ran through my options. There weren’t many. Jenny might be already slipping into a coma. If she wasn’t stabilized soon she would die.

Then I remembered the ambulance and paramedics Mackenzie had on standby for the raid on the old windmill. There was a chance they were still there. I reached for my phone, ready to call for help as soon as there was a signal. It wasn’t in my pocket. Frantically, I searched the others. It wasn’t there either. I fought down panic as I realized it must have fallen out during the struggle in the cellar. My mind stalled with indecision. Go back or go on? Come on, decide! Abruptly, I jammed my foot on the accelerator. Going back to look for it would have wasted too much time.

Time Jenny didn’t have.

I reached the end of the track and shot the Land Rover out into the road. There was insulin at the surgery. Back there I could at least start treating her while an ambulance was still on its way. I put my foot down, peering through the windscreen into the night as the wipers struggled to clear it of the water sheeting down. Even with the headlamps on full beam it was raining so heavily I could only see a few yards ahead. I risked a glance at Jenny, saw enough to make me grip the wheel and go even faster.

It seemed to take an age to make it back to Manham. Then the village was on me in a rush, suddenly leaping out of the rain. The roads were deserted in the storm, the press that had clogged the streets earlier nowhere in sight. I considered stopping at the police trailer that was still parked by the green, but immediately dismissed it. There was no time for explanations, and right now the priority was getting insulin for Jenny.

The house was in darkness as I roared down the drive. I had enough presence of mind to park at one side, leaving room for the ambulance to get right up to the door, then jumped out and ran around to the passenger side. Jenny’s breathing was rapid and shallow, but she began to stir as I lifted her out and carried her through the rain.

‘David…?’ Her voice was still a whisper.

‘It’s all right, we’re at the surgery. Just hang on.’

But she didn’t seem to hear me. She began to struggle feebly, her eyes unfocused and frightened. ‘No! No!’

‘It’s me, Jenny, you’re all right.’

‘Don’t let him get me!’

‘He won’t get you, I promise.’

But she was already slipping away again. I hammered on the door, unable to hold her and unlock it at the same time. After an eternity a light came on in the hallway. I barged inside as soon as Henry started to open the door.

‘Get an ambulance!’

He hurriedly wheeled himself out of the way, his face startled. ‘David, what…?’

I was already rushing down the hallway. ‘She’s going into diabetic coma, we need an ambulance now! Tell them the police might still have one on standby!’

I kicked open the door to Henry’s office as he made the call from the hallway. Jenny didn’t stir when I lay her on the couch. Under the mask of blood her face was white. The pulse in her throat fluttered weakly. Please. Please hold on. This was a desperation measure at best. She might have already suffered kidney and liver damage, and her heart could fail at any time if she wasn’t treated soon. As well as insulin she needed salts and intravenous fluids to flush out the toxins that were poisoning her. I couldn’t do any of that here. All I could do was hope the insulin kept her alive long enough for the ambulance to get her to hospital.

I tore open the fridge, fumbling in my haste as Henry pushed himself in.

‘I’ll get it. You find a syringe,’ he instructed.

The framed photographs on top of the steel drugs cabinet rattled as I flung open the doors and rooted on the shelves for the syringes.

‘What about the ambulance?’

‘On its way. Here, you’re in no state for this. Let me,’ Henry said, peremptorily, holding out his hand for the syringe. I didn’t argue. ‘What in God’s name is going on?’ he asked, stabbing the needle through the seal.

‘It was Tom Mason. He was keeping her out at an old air-raid shelter near the house.’ I felt my heart twist at the sight of Jenny’s unmoving form. ‘He killed Sally Palmer and Lyn Metcalf.’

‘George Mason’s grandson?’ Henry said incredulously. ‘You’re not serious!’

‘He tried to kill me as well.’

‘Christ! Where is he now?’

‘Jenny stabbed him.’

‘You mean he’s dead?’

‘Perhaps. I don’t know.’

Right then I didn’t care. I watched in an agony of impatience as Henry frowned over the syringe.

‘Blast! The needle’s blocked; it’s not filling. Get me another, quick.’

I wanted to shout at him as I turned back to the drugs cabinet. The doors had swung to, and I wrenched them open so hard that one of the photographs standing on top fell over. I barely gave it a glance, but as I snatched up the syringes something belatedly registered.

I looked again, not at the picture that had fallen but the one next to it. It was the wedding photograph of Henry and his wife. I’d seen it any number of times, been moved by the captured moment of happiness. But that wasn’t why I stared now.

Henry’s wife was wearing a dress exactly like the one I’d seen in Mason’s cellar.

I told myself I was imagining it. But the design, with its ornate panel of lace fleurs-de-lis on the front, was too distinctive to mistake. They were identical. No, not identical, I realized.

It was the same dress.

‘Henry-‘ I began, then gasped at a sudden pain in my leg. I looked down to see Henry pushing himself away from me, an empty syringe in his hand.

‘I’m sorry, David. I truly am,’ he said, regarding me with a curious mix of sadness and resignation.

‘What…’ I started to say, but the words wouldn’t form. Everything was starting to recede, the room around me growing indistinct. I sank down onto the floor, feeling suddenly weightless. As I lost my grip on the world, my last sight was an impossible one, of Henry standing up from the wheelchair and walking towards me.

Then he and everything else disappeared into blackness.

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