For three weeks it had rained every day. For those past three weeks, daybreak was a gloomy affair. The skies gradually moved from a thick blanket of dingy white clouds to the deepest shade of grey, peaking here and there in ominous black thunderheads. The rain came down hard in rippling sheets, or softly, insidiously; pattering onto land already sodden, into rivers which threatened to break their weakening banks, onto roofs which leaked and dripped and twice collapsed under the sheer weight of water.
Munford Gorge was a local beauty spot nine miles from the West Country town of Abbeyford. A large lake at the bottom of an encircling bracelet of hills, their steep sides comprised equally of moorland and deciduous forest. On a sunny summer’s day, the sandy shore of the lake was swamped with picnicking families, small children running and splashing in the shallow edges of the water, bolder souls venturing out onto the depths on canoes and flotation-devices before their anxious parents called them into shore. On warm summer nights, teenagers built campfires, smoking weed and taking pills, losing their virginity to the lap and swell of the lake waters breaking in wind-ruffled wavelets upon the little beach.
Now, in February, nobody went there. No one save a few hardy walkers, braving the torrential rain, trudging along the shoreline before taking the footpath that led up across the moorland and over the escarpment of the first hill. Now, at midnight, no one went there at all. The wind pushed the surface of the lake into foam-frilled waves which crashed against the wet sand of the banks. Rain poured down relentlessly, hissing against the saturated ground. Puddles became ponds, streams became rivers. Up on the far shore of the lake, as the ground inclined steeply towards the brow of the hill, subterranean groans became louder and louder, until, with a dull roar, a section of the hillside gave way. Mud, rocks and stones rushed downhill in a landslide. The shattered surface of the lake became even more turbulent, as the hillside cascaded into the water.
The rain eased a little, then slackened completely. After the thunder and crash of the last few minutes, the countryside by the lake grew quiet once more, the plink plink of falling drips the only sound to be heard other than the slap of the waves as they broke against new piles of mud and stone where the land had collapsed. Eventually the black clouds above were chased away as the wind strengthened. A thin sliver of moon cast a faint, tremulous radiance over the devastation below it. Even so, there was not enough light to bring a glimmer to the bones that could now be seen, poking out from the tumble of mud, tree-roots and stones that the landslide had brought to the surface.
Old bones were not white. The twisted remnants of what had once been a hand were brown; as brown as the earth that surrounded them. Even if a human observer had been there to watch, they would have seen nothing in the faint light of the moon. The bones stretched forward in darkness, in silent, unseen supplication.
“Okay,” Detective Inspector Mark Olbeck said. “So what about this one?”
He regarded himself in the mirror anxiously. Such was his focus on the suit he was currently modelling, he failed to notice that his companion had slithered from her chair and was engaged in hiding her head underneath a pile of velvet waistcoats.
“Mark,” Kate Redman said, her voice muffled. “It’s a grey suit. It’s nice. It’s as nice as the fifteen other grey suits you’ve tried on. Can we please just pick one now and go and get a coffee or something?”
“Mmm,” said Olbeck, continuing to stare into the mirror. “I don’t know about the lapels, though. I mean, they’re seventies, but are they too seventies? I don’t want to look like an ABBA tribute act or anything.”
Kate, head still buried, suppressed a scream. Then, taking a deep breath, she pushed herself out from under the waistcoats and sat up. “Seriously, I had no idea you were going to be such a girl about this. Can’t you, you know, ask Theo about this? Ask Jeff? Please?”
Olbeck caught her eye in the mirror. “Sorry. Am I being a pain?”
“Yes. Seriously, I know it’s your wedding and all, but…Mark, it’s a suit. It looks great. Please buy it. Please. Then we can go and do something else. Anything else.”
Chuckling, Olbeck turned the collar up and then down again. “Okay. You’ve persuaded me. I’ll buy it.”
“Thank God.” Kate pretended to swoon in relief.
“Who are you bringing?” Olbeck asked as they made their way to the exit of the department store. A grey and white striped bag with ribbon handles hung from his arm.
“Are you bringing anyone to the wedding?” Olbeck asked patiently.
“Oh, God, I don’t know,” said Kate. They’d reached the pavement outside by now and both grimaced as the rain hit them. Kate fumbled for her umbrella and Olbeck flipped up the hood of his coat. “Stuart, maybe. If his new girlfriend lets him come.”
“Are you mad?” asked Olbeck. “We’ve sent Stuart his invitation already. He’s bringing his new girlfriend.”
“Oh bollocks,” said Kate. “Oh well. Do I actually have to have an escort? Can’t I come on my own?”
“Yes, of course. I just thought you might like to bring someone along, you know, for company.”
“Well, thanks,” muttered Kate. “I’m sure I’ll manage to scrape someone up. Besides, I know loads of people going. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Mmm.” Olbeck paused at the kerbside, hesitating. The rain was coming down so hard, it was difficult to see across the street. “God, this weather. Has it actually stopped raining this year?”
Kate said nothing, engaged as she was in crossing the road without being hit by flying sheets of water from passing cars, but she agreed with the sentiment. Had there ever been such a wet start to the year?
They made it to the multi-storey car park where they’d both left their cars. They reached Kate’s little Ford first and she fumbled in her handbag for her keys.
“Listen, I need to talk to you about the speech—“ she began, before both her and Olbeck’s mobiles started to ring at the same time. They shared a glance of mutual apprehension before answering their calls.
“Hello, sir—“ Kate heard Olbeck say before she heard a familiar voice on the end of her phone line.
“What’s up, Rav?”
“Oh, hi, Kate. Did I interrupt you?”
“Only doing some shopping. What’s the problem?”
“I’m with the chief now—“Rav began, and as Kate listened, she could hear Olbeck listening to Anderton’s voice on his phone in a rather eerie tandem effect, as both men were clearly calling from the same location.
“I’ll be right there,” Kate heard Olbeck say, just as she was saying, “Fine, Rav, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Olbeck and Kate both terminated their respective calls and turned to one another.
“Here we go again,” sighed Olbeck.
“No rest for the wicked,” agreed Kate. “That was Anderton, yes?”
“Yes. He’s at Munford Gorge, with—“
“Rav,” finished Kate. “They’ve found a body?”
“Yep. That’s it.”
“Right,” said Kate. “So I’m following you, yes? I don’t know the way.”
It was slow going making their way out of Abbeyford. Kate’s windscreen wipers struggled to clear the lashing rain from the glass and, more than once, she lost sight of Olbeck’s car as other vehicles overtook her. Eventually, she managed to find her way to the dual carriageway that ran from Abbeyford towards Bristol. She had a vague idea that Munford Gorge lay on the west side of the town, but where, exactly? She caught sight of Olbeck’s car up ahead, parked in the layby, with yellow hazard lights flashing, and breathed a sigh of relief. She pulled in behind him and tooted her horn.
Once out of the city, the traffic eased a little. Kate saw Olbeck’s yellow indicator begin flashing and a moment later, saw the brown road sign for Munford Gorge. The two cars drove slowly down a smaller road and then turned again into an unsurfaced track that ended in a small car park. It was full of police vehicles, the white vans of the scene of crime officers and the ambulance that would eventually transport the body to the mortuary to await the post mortem examination.
Kate struggled to pull her already wet coat on. The rain hadn’t eased at all – it still fell relentlessly from the sky. Rivulets of muddy water were already flowing across the stony, rutted surface of the car park from the slightly raised ground that lay to its rear. Kate thought of all the trace evidence that was being washed away, even as she and Olbeck made their way to the scene, and frowned. She said as much to her companion.
“I know,” said Olbeck. “But what can we do? Let’s just hope there’s something left.”
They reached the lakeside and walked towards the bustle of activity at the far end of the lake. Kate spotted Rav and waved. She was still unused to seeing him back at work. The thought made her smile; she was so pleased that he’d managed to make it back. Rav had been terribly injured in the course of duty two years ago, and Kate knew he’d sometimes wondered whether he would be able to come back at all.
SOCO had already erected the white tent that hid the body from public view; not that there was any public to screen it from – the hissing rain meant that the only people here were professionally involved. Kate, Rav and Olbeck ducked through the entrance flap of the tent and straightened up. Kate’s eyes immediately went to the tall figure of Detective Chief Inspector Anderton, who stood looking down at the body. Her first feeling was one of surprise. She’d expected to see a body but here, amidst the tumbled earth, was just a sad collection of bones. For a moment, she was reminded of something else, something quite innocuous, but the exact memory eluded her. Then it came to her: a trip to London and to the British Museum, looking at the exhibition of the body found in the peat bog, thousands of years old and still perfectly preserved.
Anderton looked up as they approached. “Morning,” he said. “Something slightly out of the ordinary here.”
Olbeck crouched down to look more closely. “This is old. Isn’t it? We’re talking years, here.”
“Mmm.” Anderton made a noise of assent. “I would have thought so.”
Kate recollected her first impression. “I suppose it is a suspicious death, sir? It’s not actually an archaeological find?”
Anderton looked at her briefly and smiled. “I admit the thought did cross my mind, Kate. It’s not as if this area isn’t thick with historical artefacts – and bones. But, look here—“ He crouched down beside Olbeck, pointing, and Rav and Kate leant forward to see. “Look here.” His pointing finger indicated a fine metal chain around the base of the skull, too clogged with mud to make out any fine details. “That’s modern jewellery. Twentieth century, at least. No, I think we’re definitely looking at a job for the team.”
Kate ran her gaze over the rest of the body, what she could see of it. Half of the torso was still buried in mud. Now she was closer, she could see slimy scraps of cloth adhering to some of the bones. Was it a man or a woman? An adult at least, she thought, with an inner shiver of something like relief.
“Excuse me, please.” They all turned at the sound of the voice. A burly middle-aged man stood behind them, white-suited.
Anderton raised his eyebrows as he rose to his feet. “And you are?”
“Ivor Gatkiss. Pathologist.”
“Oh right.” Anderton made a sweeping gesture with his arm towards the rest of his team. “All right, guys, move back. Let the doc get to work.”
They reconvened by the entrance to the tent, nobody suggesting moving outside into the pouring rain. Kate could already see water beginning to trickle under the edges of the tent, running towards the slight hollow in which the skeleton rested. The techs would have to work fast to preserve the scene, she thought. A drop of water fell on the exposed skin on the back of her neck and made her shiver.
“Right,” said Anderton. “Now, there’s not a lot we can do with this one until we know a bit more about the body. There’s no point going back and pulling MISPER records until we know when he or she died, who they might possibly be… you get my drift. Someone needs to stay to see if the techs can give us anything immediate to go on. You never know, there might a wallet or a handbag buried underneath that lot.” He gestured to the sea of mud that surrounded the bones. “Always think positively. So, who’s going to stay?”
There was a moment’s silence. Kate could feel her own reluctance echoed in both Rav and Olbeck’s demeanour. The tent was cold and draughty and her feet were starting to become uncomfortably wet.
“I’ll stay,” Rav said, after the silence stretched on for an uncomfortable minute too long.
“Oh, no, don’t worry. I’ll do it,” said Kate immediately. Rav still looked so frail she couldn’t bear to think of him standing about in this miserable place.
“Well done, Kate,” said Anderton, who had clearly been thinking along similar lines. Kate smiled a little, warmed by his approval.
“Thanks,” Rav said gratefully. She said goodbye to the three of them and watched them leave. At least I’m in the dry, she told herself, trying to make the best of it. Another drip fell on the back of her neck and she shivered again.
The work inside the tent went on. Kate watched, shifting from numb foot to numb foot, wondering whether there was really any point her being there. She stared at the brown bones protruding from the earth, wondering who they belonged to. The jewellery suggested that the body was female, but not necessarily. How long had it been here? Could it conceivably be a natural death? But then, how had the body been buried? Kate mused, pacing up and down and stamping her feet.
After half an hour, she moved over to where Doctor Gatkiss was still examining the body.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” said Kate. She was tired of standing about silently.
Doctor Gatkiss looked up and just as quickly looked down again. “No, I don’t think we have. I haven’t been working at the labs that long.” He had a quiet voice and a shy manner that Kate found rather endearing.
“Are you Andrew’s replacement? Sorry, Doctor Stanton’s replacement, I mean?”
Doctor Gatkiss nodded, with another quick look at her, before turning back to his work.
“How’s he getting on?” Kate persisted. She knew Andrew had taken a bit of a career swerve, leaving the pathology labs for a stint on a team with Medicin Sans Frontieres, working in Sierra Leone to try and halt the current Ebola epidemic. Kate and Stanton’s relationship was long since over but she couldn’t help still worrying about him a little. Kate had finally – reluctantly – joined Facebook and occasionally saw a picture from Andrew’s timeline; smiling children in African villages, happy faces under intensely blue skies, but nothing more than that.
“I – I think he’s fine. I’m sorry, detective, would you mind – I just have to concentrate—“
“Of course. Sorry.” Kate stepped back and let the doctor get back to work. She pushed her cold hands deeper into the pockets of her coat and felt a faint buzz under her fingertips. Her mobile phone, set to vibrate. Clearly it was Anderton or Olbeck wanting an update. She groped for her phone, grabbing it just as it fell silent. Kate pulled it from her pocket and looked at the screen to see who she’d missed.
Doctor Gatkiss concluded his examination and got to his feet, ineffectually trying to brush the mud from the knees of his protective suit. He turned to see Kate staring at her mobile phone screen as if turned to stone, finally frozen into immobility by the biting cold.
“Detective?” he asked tentatively. “Detective?”
Kate gave a start and snapped back to attention. She put the phone back in her pocket and turned her gaze on him, forcing a rictus smile. “I’m so sorry. You wanted me?”
She could see that Doctor Gatkiss had an inkling that her full attention was not immediately on him, but he obviously decided to speak anyway. “I’ve finished the preliminary examination. I’m afraid that I can’t give you any firm indication on cause of death yet. I believe the body to be that of a young woman, possibly late teens, early twenties, but there will need to be a post mortem before I can give you any other information.” Kate nodded, unsurprised. Doctor Gatkiss continued. “You may actually need the services of a specialist forensic anthropologist. These remains have been here for years. Most probably decades.”
“Right,” Kate said. The small part of her mind that was always focused on her work came to the fore, leaving the rest of her brain in utter turmoil. “Thanks very much. We’ll speak later, I’m sure.”
She watched the pathologist leave the tent, the movement of the entrance flap momentarily showing the driving rain that still continued to pour down outside. Kate stared blindly after him for a moment and then turned back. She conferred briefly with the senior investigating officer, Stephen Smithfield, going through the motions, working on autopilot. Then she left the tent herself, slogging back to her car through the mud and the rain, head down, almost oblivious to the discomfort.
Once she was in the driving seat, her wet coat flung into the back of the car, the engine running and the heater turned up to full, Kate drew her phone from her pocket again and stared at it. She hadn’t been mistaken, then. She hadn’t hallucinated it. Mary Redman, the screen said, showing the telephone number from which the call had been missed. Kate looked at her mother’s name, the words blurring a little as her hand shook. She hadn’t spoken to her mother in almost five years. She looked at the name a moment longer and then tossed the phone in the back seat, clamping her teeth together as she put the car in gear and prepared to drive away.