“Ring a ring o’ roses,” sang Daisy for the fifth time. “A pocket full of posies. Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.” She subsided thankfully into the rocking chair while Oliver and Miranda flung themselves on the floor and rolled around squealing. Actually, Oliver had anticipated the dénouement as usual and dropped at the first “atishoo.”
“Now that’s enough of that, twins,” said Nurse severely. “I’m afraid we’re getting a little overexcited, Mummy. It’ll end in tears, you mark my words.”
“Now that they’re so active, they need the exercise, and it’s rained too hard to go out in the garden for days.”
“Not proper June weather at all!” She sounded as if it was Daisy’s fault.
Nana, who was even more apt to get overexcited than the toddlers and had had to be tied to a table-leg, whined mournfully.
“Nana play,” Miranda commanded, going over to the little dog and hugging her. Nana frantically licked her face.
“Now come away at once, Miss Miranda! You’ll get germs.”
“Nonsense,” said Daisy. “I was kissed by dogs every day of my childhood and here I am, healthy as a horse.” She looked round as the door opened. “What is it, Elsie?”
The parlourmaid bobbed a sketchy curtsy. “It’s Sergeant Tring on the telephone, madam. The master would like a word with you.”
“Thank you. I’ll come down. I’ll be back in a minute, babies.”
“Mama go,” Miranda observed dispassionately.
“Mama!” her brother shrieked.
“I’ll be right back, Oliver. I’ve got to go and talk to Daddy.”
“Dada!” Oliver rushed after her and had to be detached from her leg by Bertha, the nurserymaid.
Hastily closing the door, Daisy heard Nurse Gilpin mutter, “I knew it. It never does to spoil them.”
She hurried downstairs, filled with foreboding. When Alec rang up in the middle of the day, it invariably meant a disruption of their plans. Not that plans were ever anything but tentative when one’s husband was a detective chief inspector at Scotland Yard, liable to be called to the outer reaches of the kingdom at a moment’s notice.
She picked up the “daffodil” stand, sat down on the chair by the hall table, and put the receiver to her ear. “Tom?”
“Afternoon, Mrs. Fletcher. How’s my godson?”
“Screaming for Dada. Healthy lungs! But I assume he won’t be seeing him for a while?”
“The chief’ll have to tell you about that. Can you hold on half a mo, please, he’s on another telephone.”
“Of course. How is Mrs. Tring?”
“Blooming.” DS Tring adored his wife, a large woman though not as large as Tom. That didn’t stop his having a wonderful way with female servants when he needed to extract information. “And Miss Miranda?”
“Likewise. Her vocabulary grows by leaps and bounds. Not quite up to yours yet.”
“I’ll have to look to my laurels.”
Daisy pictured his luxuriant moustache twitching as he grinned. “Belinda’s pretty good, too. It’s her school sports day on Saturday. Oh no, don’t tell me—”
“There’s no way of knowing, Mrs. Fletcher. Here’s the chief.”
“Alec? Darling, you’re not going to miss Bel’s sports day, are you?”
“I hope not. If we haven’t made an arrest by then, I might be able to sneak away for the afternoon. Epping can’t be more than forty miles from Saffron Walden.”
“You’re only going to Epping? I was afraid it might be Northumberland.”
“You always are, love. I can’t think why.”
“Because it’s so far away. But Epping—You’ll come home for the night, then?”
“Yes, but don’t wait dinner for me.”
“Don’t half the murderers in London bury bodies in Epping Forest?”
“It’s often been considered a convenient spot.” Alec sounded amused.
“If that’s where you’re going, don’t forget to take Wellington boots. It’s still belting down.”
“The forecast’s for a clearing trend tonight. Let’s hope they’re right for once.”
Daisy jumped to the obvious conclusion. “So you are going to dig up a body in Epping Forest?”
“Three of them. For a start. I’m only telling you because there’s no conceivable way you can get yourself mixed up in this case.”
“Of course not! But do be careful, darling. I’d hate for the fourth body to be you.”
“No fear of that, love. I must run.”
“Should I tell Mrs. Dobson to leave something out for you?”
“No, I’ll pick up a bite to eat somewhere. Coming, Tom!” He said good-bye and rang off.
Daisy hung up. Three bodies! Assuming they had all been killed by the same person—a madman? Or perhaps a member of an East End gang? There would be a lot of pressure on the police to arrest someone before another murder followed. Not that Alec didn’t always clear up his cases as quickly as possible.
Still, today was Wednesday. It didn’t seem likely that he would be finished by Saturday, or even free to take an afternoon off. Poor Belinda! Though happy at school, she was so looking forward to seeing them. She would have to make do with her stepmother. Luckily she was used to Daddy disappearing at unpredictable intervals. She had been a detective’s daughter much longer than Daisy had been a detective’s wife. The twins had yet to learn.
But if Daisy had married a man considered suitable by her mother, the Dowager Lady Dalrymple, no doubt he would have gone off huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ all over the country, and spent much of the rest of his time stridin’ across his acres taking potshots at rabbits and pigeons.
She went back to the nursery. The twins rushed to her, jabbering. They really needed more exercise, but a glance at the window showed no sign of the promised clearing. A nice noisy game would do. One look at Nurse Gilpin’s face told her that was a battle she didn’t want to fight.
“We’ll play something quieter now. Bertha, would you untie Nana, please?”
“Yes’m.” The nurserymaid went to help Miranda, who got there first.
Daisy sat cross-legged on the floor, to Mrs. Gilpin’s manifest disapproval—but then, she disapproved of practically everything Daisy did in her nursery. “Oliver, come and sit with Mummy.”
Oliver promptly scrambled up into the rocking chair and sat there looking pleased with himself, babbling nonsense syllables. But when both Miranda and Nana sat neatly and expectantly on the floor in front of Daisy, he clambered down and joined them.
“Clap handies all together,” warbled Daisy, suiting action to the words. “Clap hands away. This is the way we exercise upon a rainy day.”
* * *
Escaping central London just before the start of the rush-hour, the police car crossed the industrial wasteland of the Lea Valley, bleaker than ever in still-pouring rain. The contrast with the lush green of Epping Forest was startling. The rain brightened the varied shades of the fresh foliage and washed the dust and soot of the nearby city off the grass.
The driver was a uniformed constable, PC Stock, a pal of Ernie Piper’s. A Londoner, he knew the lanes, footpaths, and bridle paths of the Forest like the back of his hand, according to Piper. He had grown up in Walthamstow and misspent many happy hours of his youth playing truant in the woods and streams.
Alec had no intention of wandering about in the rain looking for the informal burial ground. The Essex detective from whom he was taking over the case, disgruntled no doubt, had given the vaguest of directions: “Broad Wood, towards the middle, you can’t miss it.” Broad Wood appeared on the map to cover nearly two hundred acres, with no defined boundaries. With Stock’s assistance, they had a better chance of finding the right spot without fighting through thickets of brambles and hawthorn and holly on the way.
Tom, sitting next to Alec in the back seat, said with a gusty sigh, “Me and the missus used to come out here weekends and bank holidays when we were courting.”
“Not in weather like this, I bet, Sarge,” said Piper from the front seat.
“It was always sunny back then, lad.”
“Back before the Ice Age, that’d be?”
“Don’t you let the missus hear you say that if you ever want to taste her steak and kidney pud again!”
“Oh, Sarge, please, Sarge, you’re not going to tell on me, are you?”
“Watch it, laddie. Too cheeky by half, you are.”
He was lucky to have a team so well attuned to each other, Alec thought. Besides being pleasant to work with, it made them work together more efficiently. Ernie Piper, neat in his blue serge, was shaping up nicely and might be encouraged to take his sergeant’s exams soon. Tring, an awe-inspiring mountain in tan and yellow checks, didn’t aspire to rise above his present rank. He was extremely good at what he did but not sufficiently imaginative to take the lead in a major case.
And it sounded as if they had a major case on their hands. Three bodies—though as yet he had no reason to believe they were associated in anything but proximity.
Stock turned into a narrow lane, not much more than a cart-track, no different, as far as Alec could tell from half a dozen they had passed. It was gravelled but not paved, with grass growing down the middle between the ruts. Stock took a right-hand branch. “This should do it, sir. Yes, look, there’s a bloke waiting for us.”
A constable in a shiny uniform cape stood on the verge waving at them. Stock pulled up beside him with rather more verve than strictly necessary, splashing mud on the man’s already muddy boots.
He didn’t even glance down, apparently already too sodden to notice. He stepped over to the rear window and stooped to look in as Alec rolled it down a couple of inches.
“DCI Fletcher,” he announced himself. “Which way from here?”
With a sloppy salute, the man said in the flat tones of Essex, “PC Elliot, sir. Sorry, sir, this is as close as you can drive. You’ll ’ave to walk from here.” Rain dripped from his helmet and must be dripping down the back of his neck, if not streaming down the sides, too.
Stock twisted to say over his shoulder, “There’s a ride—a bridleway—just a hundred yards farther on, sir. It’s wide enough to drive, easy.”
“Curves off in the wrong direction. ’Sides, like as not you’d get stuck in the mud. And the brook’s up. There’s a footpath here, sir. I’ll show you the way.”
“We’ll walk,” said Alec, closing the window and opening the door. He settled his trilby more firmly on his head, turned up the collar of his mac, and started to get out.
“Hold on, Chief!” Ernie Piper was behind the car already, reaching into the boot for their umbrellas and Wellingtons. “You don’t want to get out till you’ve got these on. Knee-deep in mud before we even get into the Forest.” A thoroughgoing city-dweller, he sounded disgusted, and had come prepared, having put on his boots while still in the car. He squelched round to hand Alec his.
Pulling them on, Alec said, “Stock, we’ll go ahead. You’d better drive on a little and pull the car off the road, out of the way, though I don’t imagine this road sees much traffic in this sort of weather.”
“You don’t want me to stay with the car, sir?”
“No, you can follow us, if you think you can find the way.”
“I’ll find you, sir, don’t you worry.”
The footpath was less muddy than the lane, being carpeted with last year’s fallen leaves on top of a thick mulch of the leaves of centuries. Epping Forest had been a Royal hunting preserve, never set to the plough, though local villagers had always been allowed to coppice the trees. When the City of London took it over in the middle of the nineteenth century, the coppicing had been stopped. As a result the older hornbeams, beeches, and oaks were strange creatures with short, thick boles sprouting branches like Struwwelpeter’s hair.
Between these had grown up an underlayer of their offspring mixed with hawthorn, holly, and service tree. A carpet of bluebells suggested that the sky had come down to earth, leaving a grey gloom above. Squirrels dashed up trees to chitter at the invaders, but the birds were too busy feeding nestlings to fall silent as they passed, in spite of the warning screech of a jay.
On fine weekends and holidays, well served by omnibuses and several tube stations, the Forest swarmed with escapees from the city. These tended to stick to the established trails and clearings, leaving much of the rest a practically impenetrable tangle of vegetation.
Squishing along the footpath on the heels of the local constable, Alec eyed the dripping jungle on either side with deep misgivings.
“Strewth!” said Tom, behind him. “How did anyone manage to lug three bodies off the beaten path through that lot?”
“And find enough clear ground to bury ’em!” Piper added from the rear.
“I imagine it was a dog that found the first grave, Elliot?” Alec asked.
“That’s what I heard, sir. A Mr. Webster’s Jack Russell.”
“It’d take a Jack Russell to get in there,” Tom muttered.
“Presumably Webster went to see what his dog had found,” Alec pointed out, “and the local coppers, too. The site must be accessible, though perhaps not to someone of your size.”
“That’s all right, Chief. I’ll stay on the path and you can tell me all about it later.”
“There’s plenty of room, sir,” said Elliot. Tom sighed. “It’s not in the thickest part—stands to reason or they couldn’t’ve buried them—and a lot got trampled down when we was searching.”
Alec echoed Tom’s sigh. It was inevitable, nothing more than he had expected, but he wondered how many clues had disappeared into the leaf-mould. The local detectives who so resented the Yard being called in seldom considered the difficulties of coming to a case where evidence had already been mishandled or lost, witnesses antagonised, suspects alarmed.
The path they were on at one point ran near the swollen stream Elliot had warned of. Brown and turbulent it raced down the slope towards the Lea.
“Good job your pal didn’t try to drive us through that,” Tom remarked to Piper. “We’d’ve been stuck for a month of Sundays, if it didn’t wash us down to the Thames.”
“Don’t like the look of it myself,” Piper agreed.
Constable Stock caught up with them in time to hear this. “It’ll go down fast soon as this rain stops,” he said, sounding a bit resentful.
“It’s not coming down as hard,” Tom said peaceably.
What could be seen of the sky through the trees was now light grey instead of dark grey. Leaves still dripped and occasional cascades descended on them, but as they emerged into a grassy glade, it was obvious that the worst was over.
A wide ride, more cart-track than bridleway, entered the clearing at an angle to their path. Muddy ruts filled with water suggested that it was occasionally used by vehicles. The ruts crossed the clearing and ran into the woods opposite. The footpath petered out, as if, having brought its followers to the glade, it abandoned them to decide for themselves which way to go.
“That way.” Elliot pointed at a caped constable standing on the edge of what looked like an unbroken wall of greenery.
They altered course to trudge in his direction.
“Blimey,” said Tom, at Alec’s side, “I’d’ve left the perishing dog to find its own way home.”
“It can’t be as bad as it looks from here. Someone had already lugged three bodies through, remember.”
“ ’Less they came from the other side,” Piper suggested.
“Nah,” said Elliot, “Inspector Gant reckons it’d be impossible.”
“Ah,” said Tom, at his most inscrutable.
They reached the cross-track. Alec stopped to study the ruts.
“Horse and cart,” said Tom, “not a motor vehicle. The most recent, at any rate.”
“Yes, a heavy one. And we won’t get much more than that after all this rain.”
“You reckon it’s how the bodies were brought here, Chief?” Piper asked.
“More likely than that someone carried ’em one by one over his shoulder from the lane,” Tom responded. “That’s quite a way.”
“But let’s not jump to conclusions. The cart may have nothing to do with the case. We don’t even know whether the three burials took place at or near the same time. The report I was given was singularly uninformative.”
“They didn’t, sir,” said Elliot. “What I heard is, the doc says the one the dog found is not too old, maybe a week or thereabouts. Then the one they found when they started searching, that’s more like a few months. After that, they started looking for more and they found a sort of dip, like, where the ground had settled, but they hadn’t hardly started digging—just enough to be sure there really was a body, when the chief constable heard about it and called in the Yard, sir, so they stopped.”
The mild irritation Alec had been feeling about the inadequate report blossomed into fury. This was essential information that he should have been given by the detective in charge, not by a uniformed constable who happened to know. Naturally DI Gant was annoyed at having the case taken from him, but such unprofessional conduct was inexcusable. At least, he’d better have an excellent excuse, such as having dropped dead on the spot.
Elliot was not to blame. With difficulty keeping his voice even, Alec thanked the man. Tom, well acquainted with both protocol and his chief, shot him a shrewd glance, but the constable just looked pleased with himself.
“Piper, follow the tracks in both directions. See if there’s anything else they can tell us, and get any measurements you can.”
The stretch of grass from the ruts to the waiting constable showed nothing more than the trampling of a great many police boots. Beyond him the trampling continued, with broken branches and crushed shrubs thoroughly obliterating any marks the murderer might have left.
With a sigh, Alec acknowledged to himself that the past few days of torrential rain probably had destroyed anything useful long before Detective Inspector Gant arrived on the scene.
They followed the trail, winding between trees for twenty yards or so. It ended at a fallen beech, one of the once-coppiced monsters, stretched out like a stranded giant squid. It couldn’t have been downed more than a year or two ago because some branches were still putting out new growth, reaching upwards. Where the shallow root system had torn out of the earth, the soil was disturbed. Seeds of many different plants had sprouted, grasses, bracken, rosebay willowherb, and some small shrubs.
Amid this evidence of vigorous life gaped three ominous trenches.
Copyright © 2011 by Carola Dunn