The woman’s wild fearful eyes burrow deep into the pit of night, wayward, unfixed, like the torchlight that seeks her out.
In the wailing madness of his voice, carried on a sharp spluttering coastal breeze - emissary of an early autumn - and with every step he takes across the swatch of grasses and moon-tipped ferns, the future snakes toward her.
“Where are you, loud mouth?” His braying mocking tone grows, chewing on his outrage. “Where are you now, liar?”
“Oh, God. Oh my God,” she stammers, crouching low. Mouth dry, throat on fire.
The monitor offers her one good chance, she thinks.
Her only chance.
Long-range with a loud volume, she hopes her son’s breathing might be heard from the oak’s bough fifteen meters away, hopes he will investigate while she moves off, back to the car. She worries, though, for the static breaks, the sound of wind, the upsetting of her carefully crafted illusion - worries he’ll be nearly on top of her before the breathing is heard…
She shivers, willing herself to focus on Simon’s deep restful sleep, letting it calm her, knowing her son will be down till eight, his habits a mirror of her own.
Only the bough of the tree squeals suddenly, the sound collapsing into something else – lower in tone and drawn out…like a door pushed open…
Her son’s breathing changes, in the room where he sleeps…
She twists, body and face contorted, animal, disbelieving…
Footsteps creak over the warped floorboards in his room, half a mile away. Slowly she rises, jaw slack, staring at the monitor, her focus narrowed, missing the beam of torchlight as it crawls slowly, inexorably, along the grass and up her leg.
As Mark Rucker slowed to enter the field a mile south of St Helen’s Park, it became evident that Pamela Salmon had read his mind. Her head-shaking was visible, even in the twilight, as his lights flared up against her Tyvek, reaching her untidy bunched blonde hair. Rucker felt a vile relief, despite himself.
It was the journalist, then: the headliner. Sarah Holland. Leading something in his mind to shift gears…
“I would say it was probably her,” the coroner told him, once the locus officer had grunted long and hard enough to see the somewhat battered Pajero down the narrow space between a van and her own green Honda. “There’s a driver’s licence. That might mean a ton of press, by the way.”
Rucker nodded, having climbed out, and signed his attendance “Already seen,” he admitted; eyes slipping beyond the coroner’s tall, lean figure to the maroon Explorer parked half way up a hill, and under a line of trees; a coat sleeve flapping from the driver’s open door thanks to the slightest of breezes, a blue-tinged come-hither under the rising light. “Why they pay Hodges the big bucks. Pre-breakfast, I don’t have the stomach for it.”
He took the bodysuit, gloves, and smirk Salmon offered him. “Be’ave,” about covering her views on the matter.
A fellow northerner, who’d moved from Bradford fifteen years before, Salmon’s accent only occasionally reared, unlike his own - as strong as ever since his transfer from Stretford. “Inspector’s getting his money’s worth, any road. More circus than Billy Smart’s.”
“Quite a few clowns, too, I noticed,” Rucker added, aware of the irony as the Tyvek put him to the task, the zip protesting at chin level.
“Speaking of which, where is the lovely Livermore?”
He returned a brief smile, feeling the shift of meaty jowls, envying Salmon the pounds she’d unpacked in the Med. A stride ahead of him, too, turning and leading the way, but the sound of rooks in the oaks and along the tarp - sheltering the SUV’s roof - distracting him. “Welcome back, by the way. Côte d’Azur, wasn’t it?”
“Felt like a busman’s holiday, the number of tourists dropping from heatstroke. People kept saying “out of my comfort zone,” one weeny step from the air con…”
Salmon waited long enough for Rucker to catch her up. Not that it was a contest or anything…
He looked out to the small hard sun whiting the outline of Hastings Castle, willing it to more than brush the sloping common, the blue-greens of ancient woodland, overlaid by a patina of honeycombed mist, carrying its own special kind of cold. Pre-breakfast cold, unless two anti-depressants and a coffee constituted a three-course meal. Knowing the park didn’t help. He’d climbed the highest point before, seeing across rooftops out to sea. Imagining the leap. Knew a few who’d cheer him on, then complain he hadn’t quite made Beachy Head.
Little point today, he thought: the search party below in one corner, biting at the chomp of prurient curiosity, John Flint, the other - reporters looking for more substance from the ex-MP than they’d got from an earlier press release. The one-time politician – having helped to coordinate the initial search party - happy to deliver. He shook at his self-indulgence, hearing the slither of his Tyvek.
“Where’s your colleague, by the way? I would hate having to repeat all my best material.”
“Involved in some muzzy gossip on a call. You know how southerners are…” She gave him a glance, and he wondered if it reflected northern ownership of banter, or if she found it as odd as he did – his partner shielding calls. “Anyway, Livermore in hock, so she’s paying the price.”
Pretty quickly, forensics were in view among the trees: measuring, collecting and recording, all the while; “paper-cuts,” a term that got bandied around, referring both to the overalls and barbed acerbic comments, made to reduce unease and boredom. A few negotiating a Byzantine path through horse shit – a far from easy task, the estate manager having removed the culprits themselves more an hour before.
Rucker waved his hand as they reached the vehicle, sending a protesting rook from crackling tarp into frost blue sky - wondering briefly if one of its kin might have been the same as witnessed two weeks before, pecking at the hand of Harry Strachan…
Salmon detouring the tape, however, up to a further slope and beneath a thickened canopy of oaks and evergreens. The body, hidden from view two hundred meters further on, reduced to a shadowy mass inside an illuminated tent.
Rucker all but wheezed, looking down from where they’d come. “She could have driven this.”
“Maybe someone pulled over before she did…” Salmon nodded to the second gate midway along, where the Explorer would have entered – a gravelled pit stop for farm equipment and maintenance vehicles. “Didn’t want tracks…Victim sees the car pull over; assailant has a gun or offers to show her something.”
Rucker nodded. “Maybe a local farm or maintenance worker,” he said. “Someone who knows the lie of the land. You’ve given it some thought.”
“Scottish noir consumed on holiday. Leave the place, and pretty soon you’re pining for a good juicy murder.” Salmon glanced at the tent, checking herself. “Nothing like this, though.”
“Something to look out for, anyway. Also half a dozen Stonestile homes, Sandrock Hall’s neighbours, a couple of businesses and a land manager. Don’t get me started on the five ponds and the stream…”
“Done the homework yourself, I see. Well, anyway, while Brady and his crack team of technicians ensure no stone goes unturned down below…”
She pulled at the knot securing the tent’s entrance, shifting the flap, waiting while Rucker toiled with indecision. For the imaginative impulse she knew gripped him on occasion to recede - one that might read the small bluish-white hand as a stem growth from which the dark presence of the body grew; to fancy a remaining violence in the warm, clotted air. Rucker’s first inch and whisper – “Christ” - goading her on; fact, like an incantation, warding off the last residual suspicion of something uncanny. “First indicators suggest ligature strangulation.”
He glanced at her. “First indicators?”
“Messy around the sides, see?” She pointed to the victim’s neck from the nape, a dirty mauve abrasion there the width of a rope. Other marks resembling grooves and scratches left by fingernails. “Of course, brain damage through hypoxia is notoriously hard.”
“Meaning a lengthy report?”
Her mouth formed a moue, considering. “Weeks, maybe?” Rucker hoped the single bulb blanched his treading dog-shit look, but she quibbled: “The pathologist wrote her first paper on ischaemic nerve change – you’re in the right place, Inspector.”
“You mentioned an alternative?”
Salmon nodded. “A gift-wrapped chokehold is a possibility. Heavier on the right, see?”
“And that’s not all…” Salmon indicated the victim’s dark blue T-shirt, the smooth line of vertebrae rising beneath the tight dry cloth, the unscathed hems of her jeans.
“And see the hair, too? It was heavy weather last night. Even so, I’d still estimate body exposure at forty-eight hours.”
Rucker inched closer, thinking on the call Monday evening: a local having heard a single muffled cry around six-thirty. No overheard conversations, no sighting. It had been a call to action for all that, following the father’s call around two hours later, having tried unsuccessfully to reach his daughter when they’d arrived at her cottage, late afternoon – only breathing and scraping down the end of the line, he’d said; a line which had then been cut…
“It rained last night, didn’t it? The search was called off early.”
“Seven fifteen to eight-thirty, Met Office reckons,” the coroner confirmed. “H & M not known for their miraculous properties, she should be drenched…”
Rucker nodded slowly. The search party - of police and public, fifteen strong - had returned less than an hour before, the body uncovered by a stout middle-aged woman, in wellingtons and beanie hat, and a stride that had evolved through one civil service institution after another. She’d given her statement, then been allowed back to her group, bathed in muted glory.
Crouching down, Rucker did a quick appraisal. Quick and sequential, preventing emotion and doubt. The way Sarah Holland was - here and now - being her last communication. An unspoken conveyance of an injustice, which he needed to understand. These hours, the more vivid - their tattered issue, he knew, would play in his mind during the lingering drowsy sweats of the afternoon.
Mostly on her front, hand caught in a shallow bed of henbit, like a fear of letting go. Right arm and shoulder wrenched back slightly. Had the killer’s motives been to check her pockets, or something darker? Perhaps the neighbour had disturbed him. Ninety-nine per cent likelihood of a male attacker. Women rarely strangle. And wasn’t strangulation about control? The question was had he also meant to kill her? Had he faced doubt – not wanting to think about her body rotting away undiscovered – accounting for his return?
Little mud. No foxes, either: a blessing for the parents. Just the occasional peck on her cheek…
“So definitely killed two nights ago?”
“It’s probable. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’d lain in a ditch, or under cover during rainfall.”
“Then dragged out…”
The drag accounting for the lost shoe, Rucker noted. One sensible one: not coming back from anywhere special…no undercover in a local night club, then. Though not expecting to make the journey up into the woods, either… Her lips plum-coloured, parched against long dewy blades of grass, mauve tongue protruding between teeth; eyelids drooping over, blood vessels broken.
“An odd place to come out without notifying someone. Even for someone living quite close. Reckless.” Giving him a meaningful look. Oh yes, another epithet used against him…
Pulling on the gloves, Rucker carefully reached for a key ring that had fallen from an inside pocket: “No Bullshitters Allowed,” embossed in white letters below a red triangular road sign, a strike through a walking man.
House keys attached; car keys still in the car, perhaps. She wasn’t going to be any great length of time.
He gently patted the pockets. No phone. Thinking: five ponds, one stream; shaking his head. Finally, looking carefully over the scene once again before rising with a grunt, exiting the tent and exhaling heavily.
Once Salmon had re-secured the entrance they retraced steps back to the SUV. The driver’s door of the Explorer partially open, Rucker could still detect the lingering presence of coffee and baby oil on the seats, tiny hand smears on a heater-warmed dashboard. On the passenger seat, the familiar banner of The Chronicle - a local tabloid light on news, full of editorial.
“The second suspicious death in a month,” the coroner remarked. “The other one, I recall, was a chokehold. We’ll be calling it murder mile. Two, anyway.”
Rucker tried not to think about it - the image making an unwelcome return, anyway. Strachan, a stone’s throw from the area, strangled on his own back porch – body slumped in a deck chair. A break-in, one story said. Not a clean area. Hastings a drugs town, full of H.
And then there was the lay-off of its workers at the local logistics firm, leaving the community a hotspot for depression and criminality.
Opportunists, drug-users and loan sharks moving in faster than families could move out. But then, the lock on Strachan’s front door hadn’t been broken, and Strachan himself had a colourful history which included suspicion of manslaughter, wrote True Crime…
“I didn’t think Sarah Holland had a baby,” he said, rising from the car’s interior and turning to meet Salmon’s gaze. “A four-year-old, the news suggested…”
Salmon offered an equivocating nod, before responding: “Use oil with my son,” she confessed, “and he’s five years old.”
“Transitions always difficult, then?”
“Wish fulfilment, I reckon,” she explained. “This bloody thing…” She turned her wrist, presenting her watch through the see-through glove. “Cartier. You can’t enjoy it when they’re five - it’s a bloody rod.” She shook her head but didn’t seem too miserable about it. “Found a baby monitor over there, too. Carrying that, I imagine.”
Salmon nodded. “Foot of the tree.”
“That key ring suggests a healthy dose of cynicism, doesn’t it?” he said eventually, hoping to convince himself. “Whether against life in general, or men in particular, hard to say. Added to the personal issues: not reckless. So, the question is, why come up here alone?”
“Led by someone with a lot of charisma?”
“That your Scottish noir talking?”
A slow nod. “Maybe.”
He turned his attention back to the car, opening the Explorer’s glove compartment, fingering through a series of documents: old bank statements, logbook, map. A Christina Rossetti, warped and mottled by the damp air, pages falling open halfway along, a small cellophane packet of white powder tucked against its spine. Another surprise; another sign of aberrant recklessness.
“What kept you?”
DS Gill Hall grimaced, offering a sideways nod down to the road, the reporter and her camera-wielding cohort in plain view at the far edge of the checkpoint. Livermore, with first attending, a little further on: no point in over-manning, a favourite refrain.
“Got off lightly, then,” Rucker remarked. He could see what had happened: the Corsa pulling up early, Hall having expressed many a doubt over the car’s suspension, and facing some rough ground and thick mud ahead. Both walking the rest, with press attention as punishment.
Hall wiped a damp nose on tissue, a small pinkish sun coupled with the half-moon of her lips marginally above the Tyvek. “Not that he cares much: big fat pension barely weeks away…”
Rucker nodded, labouring a smile. “Already outside pissing in.”
“Meaning the misdemeanours are easier to overlook.” She looked down the hill, then chanced a direct look at Rucker. “Think there are many like that?”
“I’m hardly the best judge,” Rucker returned casually, removing his gloves, taking a couple of steps further down the hill. “The rules change, though, and we’re hardly the most adaptive species on the planet, I’d say.”
“Police or people?”
He gestured vaguely up the hill, eyes fixed firmly to the ground. “You ought to take a look,” he said. “A few pointers for when Hodges asks.”
“My starter for ten, you mean?”
Briefly, Rucker turned towards her, working the smile once again; eyes evasive, though, checking the trees in the distance - much as when Hodges had told him to prepare for a new partner six weeks before. “For your own good, Mark, not being viewed as the outsider here.” Only he was, wasn’t he? A northerner, for one thing, a possible medical case for those who knew, and a partner - benefactor even - to a cop still viewed by many as corrupt.
“The journalist looks like she’s been strangled. Coke in a wrap. Salmon’s back on point duty, topping up her tan under canvas.”
“Nothing to the grilling she’d get below, I should imagine,” Hall observed behind him.
“I’ll be praying for a little Dale rain in that case,” he offered as a parting remark, restarting the long traipse down. “Ought to dampen their spirits a little.”