The pub was called the Drovers’ Rest. Its faded sign creaked monotonously back and forth, depicting a flock of sheep and a figure in a smock. The sheep were shown too big, or the shepherd too small, depending how you looked at it. Guy Morgan looked at it for no longer than he had to before he slipped his rucksack from his shoulders and straightened up with a sigh of relief. A number of bicycles were propped against the mellow stone walls. He wasn’t the first to stop for a midday break.
Guy hadn’t walked very far that day but the weather had sapped his strength and made his legs feel as if they were weighted with lead. The dust which had filled his nostrils had parched his throat and given him a raging thirst. It was all the fault of that same wind which played with the pub sign. April is normally a time of squalls and showers and buffeting winds interspersed with spells of sunshine. But this was a variety of the south wind which goes by different names in parts of Europe and is blamed there for any number of ailments from general lassitude to depression. It had no business here at all on the rolling Cotswold hills. It was a child of the desert which had taken the wrong turning and after sweeping across the Mediterranean and Europe, marauded over the English countryside for twenty-four hours as unpredictable and merciless as a Rif tribesman.
High in the sky, birds struggled to maintain their course against its wayward currents. From early morning when he’d set out, Guy had felt himself besieged by it. It had ruffled his hair and puffed its dry warm breath disagreeably into his face. He pushed open the door, glad at the prospect of being free of his tormentor for an hour.
Inside he found himself in a long, low-ceilinged room which ran across the building from one side to the other. It was partitioned by a lath and plaster wall pierced by an opening between massive oak uprights. He guessed that once this had been part of a more formal division of the room into two. Beyond the opening, to the right, the cyclists had taken up residence. They huddled over the tiny tables, quaffing strange-looking liquids, making short work of various high-energy snacks. Guy had nothing against cyclists but tended to avoid them at these often shared halts. They hunted in strung-out packs, human greyhounds, swooping past him crouched over their handlebars in an extremely uncomfortable posture. Their legs and torsos were clad in figure-hugging Lycra and their shins were shaved to glossy smoothness. Some of them affected peaked caps, the peaks turned upward. In their minds they were tackling not just this dusty country track but some Pyrenean col. Guy acknowledged fairly that they, in turn, probably looked on him as a heavy-booted technophobe, as archaic in this millennium year 2000 as the smocked rustic of the inn sign. Guy exchanged a nod with the nearest cyclist and moved away to lean on the bar. The landlord appeared before him and said amiably, ‘Hello, there.’
‘Hello,’ returned Guy. ‘I’ll have a pint and your bar menu, if I may.’
‘You may, indeed.’ The landlord produced a plastic folder.
Guy opened it up and read the list of offerings. It seemed somewhat elaborate for such a traditional-looking establishment in such an out-of-the-way place. Even the Ploughman’s Platter boasted Brie.
‘Haven’t you got any Cheddar?’ he asked.
‘If you want it,’ said the landlord.
‘It doesn’t say so here.’
‘Yes, it does, look, right there.’ A stubby forefinger pointed at the foot of the page where Guy read the words ‘A selection of English cheeses available’.
‘What other English cheeses have you got?’
‘Only Cheddar.’ The landlord added reproachfully, ‘It’s the beginning of the season.’
Guy settled for the Cheddar Ploughman’s and his order was shouted into a back room. The landlord returned to the bar.
‘Walker?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Just taking a break for a couple of days.’
‘All on your own?’
‘A colleague was coming with me but had to cry off.’
‘Oh, right.’ The landlord pursed his lips. ‘How much further are you going?’
‘As far as Bamford and from there I can catch the train back to London.’
‘Ah, London, is it? Well, you might be lucky.’
Guy wasn’t sure what this meant. ‘No trains?’ he ventured.
‘Oh, you’ll catch a train all right, once you get to Bamford. You might get a bit wet before you get there.’
‘It’s been as dry as a bone all morning,’ objected Guy. ‘Just very breezy.’
‘Weather’s changing. It’s already tipping it down in Wales and they’re threatened with floods in Devon. It’s coming this way. I saw it on the telly.’
‘I’ll just have to walk a bit faster, then, won’t I?’ retorted Guy, annoyed by the landlord’s evident satisfaction.
The door opened and another pair of cyclists came in. The landlord abandoned Guy for the newcomers. His parting shot was, ‘You want to get a bike, like them.’
A gum-chewing girl bearing a plate of salad appeared from the back room and looked at Guy with a mixture of doubt and assessment.
‘You the Ploughman’s?’
He took his lunch from her and retreated to a far corner where someone had left a tabloid newspaper. Guy settled down to his lunch, his beer and scandal. As he got to the end of all three, he became aware of a shadow across the printed page and the faint warmth of another human being nearby. His ear caught a noisy intake of breath. He looked up.
The adenoidal girl stood by his table, watching him in a curiously unsettling way. She stretched out a hand to his plate. Her fingernails were bitten short and on the middle finger of her right hand she wore a cheap ring. Instinctively Guy felt himself throw up the defences. He knew her type.
‘You finished?’ she inquired.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Guy told her.
She picked up the plate but instead of moving away, stayed rooted to the spot, the plate held in both hands.
He managed not to snap back that wasn’t it obvious? He confirmed it in as discouraging a voice as he could.
She was impervious to subtle hints. ‘All on your own?’
He’d explained this already to the landlord and he was blowed if he was going to explain it again to this predatory female. He nodded curtly, not giving her the satisfaction of a proper answer which would keep the conversation, such as it was, going.
‘Shame,’ she said. ‘Can’t be much fun all on your own and that. No one to talk to. Where are you staying tonight?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he told her, evading the trap.
‘The Fitzroy Arms in Lower Stovey does rooms,’ she offered.
‘I hope to get a bit further than Lower Stovey.’
‘Pity,’ she said. ‘I live there.’
He was rescued by the landlord who surged up and ordered, ‘Come on, Cheryl, get going. Don’t stand there nattering.’
‘He might have wanted some afters,’ Cheryl defended herself, adding in a sing-song voice addressed to Guy, ‘We’ve got apple pie, lemon lush pie and ice-cream.’
He declined. ‘I’ve got to get on.’
‘Please yourself,’ she said and flounced off towards the kitchen.
The landlord observed, ‘Anything in trousers, that one.’ He lumbered back to his bar.
Guy saw now how empty the place had become. He was the sole visitor. The cyclists had prudently got on their way long since. Glancing guiltily at his wristwatch, he realised he also should have moved before this. He grabbed his rucksack and strode through the door.
Outside there were distinct signs that the landlord’s forecast was to be proved correct. The vexing wind had definitely fallen and a grey rash on the horizon heralded a depression spreading eastward. Already a misting of rain veiled the furthermost hills. Guy set out, refreshed and clinging to an optimistic hope he could keep ahead of the weather.
For twenty minutes he made good progress, even though he was now walking uphill. Then a large fat drop of water landed splat in the dust in front of him. In the past few minutes, the grey mass had raced across the intervening sky. Guy swung his rucksack to the ground and delved in it for his map and waterproof cape. He looked around him. He’d not yet crested the summit but even so, from up here he had a fine view all around. The hills were a subtle patchwork of varying shades of green enlivened by patches of bright yellow under the shadow of the now overhead rainclouds. Sheep and their lambs clustered in ragged white groups under stone walls. His eyes also sought shelter. There was a farm in the distance, he judged at least a mile and a half across the fields, too far. He could turn back to the pub, but it went against the grain to retrace his steps and even more to face the grinning landlord. Never admit defeat.
Guy ran his finger across the dotted line on the map which marked the old drovers’ way. Far removed from the modern ribbons of asphalt which criss-crossed the country, it was no more than a stony track but it ran as straight as a die. Some said it had been laid down by the Romans, who were famous for that sort of thing, as the legions moved northward in their conquest of Britain. What was certain was that as long as the history of the area had been recorded, it had been marked as a drovers’ path. Once traffic had been plentiful: herders driving cattle to the towns for slaughter; country folk going to and from market, driving their flocks of sheep ahead of them and burdened with baskets of farm produce; strings of pack-ponies taking goods to isolated hamlets or bringing the packs of wool to the town. Then the wool industry had dwindled. Many of the markets had vanished or survived in a new form without animals. The drovers’ way was no longer needed. Today it was travelled by ramblers, like Guy, cyclists like those he’d encountered at the pub and horse-riders.
Occasionally, to the annoyance of all three of these groups, a roaring destructive motorbike blazed its unwelcome trail across the hills. At its widest the drovers’ way was about ten feet across. In parts it narrowed to admit only a pair of walkers in comfort.
Guy opened out the map. The wind, to prove it still had breath in its body, caught it and rattled it in his hands so that he couldn’t read it and it threatened to rip free. He squatted down and spread it on the ground. Another raindrop fell, plumb in the centre of it as he held the paper flat with his palms. The village of Lower Stovey was the nearest hamlet, but that was another good two miles and meant going out of the way. Moreover it was where Cheryl lived. He didn’t know what hours she worked but it was likely the afternoon was her free period and he’d no wish to come across her again. He wondered how she got to and from work and vaguely remembered a small motor scooter parked at the side of the pub.
However, there was another haven. Just over the crest of this rise he’d see lying below him Stovey Woods.
Guy folded the map hurriedly, creasing it, and jammed it back in his rucksack. He slung the straps over his shoulders and pulled the hooded waterproof cape over his head and the pack. The rain was falling faster now, striking malicious pellets against his face and bare legs. The dust puffed up where the drops landed. Slowly the spots blended with adjoining ones as the dry ground slaked its thirst. Soon raindrops would turn to puddles, earth to mud. Guy strode out briskly.
As he topped the rise and started down the other side towards the dark stain the woods made on the landscape, he heard a rumble of thunder. As he’d done when a child, Guy began to count in his head. One — two – three — four — The lightning burst across the sky in a sudden flash which hurt his eyes. Four miles away. He had a brief sensation of heat on his face and he thought, blimey, it must’ve been closer than that!
He began to jog down the hill. Received wisdom was that you shouldn’t shelter under trees when there was lightning about. Guy hoped that meant you shouldn’t shelter under the one tree around in open land. In a wood, surely, the odds against your tree being the one struck had to be in your favour.
The nearer he came to the woods, the more they struck him as a black, impenetrable mass. He felt a twinge of atavistic alarm. The forests had always been places to be feared, the haunt of elves and witches, bandits and wild beasts. Not now, Guy consoled himself. Not in this day and age when we were free from medieval terrors. No elves, no witches, hopefully no muggers and no—
‘Hell’s teeth!’ Guy heard himself exclaim. ‘What the dickens is that?’
Something, some sort of animal, had been lying in the long grass at the edge of the wood. At Guy’s approach it rose up. He thought at first it was a large dog, but the dark outline was all wrong for a dog. Was it a goat? Impossible. No, it was a small deer – a muntjak. He laughed aloud in relief. The muntjak, disturbed by his arrival, trotted away from him, ears laid back, into the woods.
Guy followed it. The track which was the old road ran between trees on either side. This part of the woods was Forestry Commission land. The planting was of pines. To either side of the track was a grassy verge, beyond that a deep ditch before the trees began. Guy scrambled across the ditch to the right and stumbled into the darkness – and dryness – among the regiment of straight, uniform trunks.
Beneath his feet the carpet of pine needles was soft and spongy. The scent of resin was heavy on the air like incense after mass. There was a cathedral stillness, a holding of breath, a waiting for the moment of revelation. There was no sign of the muntjak. He couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear the crunch of his own feet. He couldn’t hear anything except the patter of the raindrops falling on the pine branches.
There was a track among the trunks and he followed it automatically. It was narrow, made by the regular passage of the deer not by man. It twined capriciously, as no Roman road ever did, weaving to the left around this tree, to the right around that one, making him perform manoeuvres he associated with country dances. Occasionally his ear did catch the brief sound of a rustle, not made by the rain, up in the branches overhead. A pigeon, perhaps, or a woodpecker. Like him, the birds kept a silent watch, waiting for the rain to cease and life to begin again as normal.
There was some kind of clearing up ahead. He made for it out of curiosity, just to see what it was, not to step into it and the rain. On the edge of it, he stopped.
He stood atop a sort of rampart. It dropped steeply and at the bottom, in the clearing, grew a tangle of bramble bushes, nettles, dock, cow parsley and puny saplings of native trees sprung from seeds blown there, carried there on the hide of the deer, excreted in animal droppings, or scattered by the birds. Beyond it rose a corresponding bank, completing the saucerlike depression. Guy, standing by the first line of pines ringing the area, thought it formed a natural amphitheatre. He ought to be looking down at some spectacle, a show. Curious about the nature of the rampart, he scraped at it with the heel of his boot to little purpose. To excavate this would be a major archaeological task. When he got home, he’d look it up in the library. Find out if anyone else had made note of this place, had any theories.
The rain was easing. His curiosity now had overcome his first instinct to keep dry. He began to negotiate his way down the slope. He needed to take care. Underfoot it was loose, unstable. Tree roots poked through forming treacherous snares. Nettles nipped his bare shins spitefully. Brambles reached out and scratched at his unprotected skin. Nature, allying itself against him, driving back the would-be intruder.
The muntjak must have been sheltering here but he hadn’t seen it. Now it saw or smelled him. Without warning, it dashed out of the tangle of undergrowth, sprang up the slope on the further side of the clearing and disappeared among the trees. Startled, even though he now knew what it was, Guy stopped short, slipped, felt the earth give way beneath his foot and fell.
Over and over he tumbled, scrabbling in vain for a handhold, brambles tearing at his flesh, until he came to a stop, on his stomach, face down in the rotting vegetation. It smelled foul from underlying stagnant water which had drained down into the basin. He moved cautiously, a limb at a time, checking for breaks and sprains. Everything seemed OK. He’d been lucky but he’d have a sore back from the rucksack bumping against it on the way down.
He got to his feet and turned to make his way back by the route he’d come. Then he saw that, in his descent, he’d disturbed the tangle of greenery which had been covering the entrance to an animal lair in the side of the bank. Too big, he thought, for the entrance to a rabbit warren. A fox-hole possibly, or even a badger’s entrance to its set. He knelt and scraped away some more debris and peered in. A stale, fetid odour oozed out. He muttered, ‘Faugh!’ and was about to pull back his head when his eye was caught by an object near the mouth of the den.
Guy stared down at it for a moment. Then he picked it up, examined it carefully, uttered a low whistle and put it gently back on the earth. Sitting up, he divested himself of his cape, unslung his rucksack and searched in it until he found his torch. Now he lay down again on his stomach and, heedless of the smarting nettle-stings and protesting bruises, carefully shone the beam of light into the tunnel. The excavation ran back some way between twisting roots before turning to the right but the torchlight clearly picked up a higgledy-piggledy scattering of objects of different shape and size near the entrance.
Guy put down the torch and stretched in his arm as far as it would go, searching with his fingers until they touched something small and dry. His face was pressed against the damp musty soil surrounding the opening. Earth crumbled and fell into his hair and eyes. He was hardly aware of it. Eventually he withdrew every one of the objects he could reach. They were yellowish-brown in colour and appeared to have been there some time. Some were broken. One or two showed signs of having been gnawed, though the teethmarks were old. He had no doubt as to what they were. They were human bones.
Now that he was satisfied he’d retrieved all he could, Guy took out his mobile phone and called 999. ‘No Network Coverage’ the screen informed him obligingly. He cursed softly. He was in a dead spot. An unfortunate phrase, but apt.
He searched in his rucksack for something to wrap the bones in. The only paper he had was his map so he sacrificed that. Then he climbed up the bank, followed the deer track back to the main dirt road, plodded through the trees until he reached the far side of the wood and tried his mobile again. This time he was successful.
‘Which service do you want?’ enquired a voice.
‘Police,’ said Guy. There was nothing an ambulance could do for the owner of the bones.
He was connected with the police. He gave his name, his home address, explained that he was on a walking holiday and he had found human remains, bones, after falling down a slope.
The new voice, tinny and a little weary, asked where he was. He told it, Stovey Woods, or just outside.
‘And these bones, sir,’ said the voice. ‘You just fell over them, you say?’
‘No,’ corrected Guy. ‘I said I fell over. I disturbed the nettles covering the entrance to the burrow in my fall.’
‘Burrow?’ said the voice. ‘Most likely animal bones, then, sir, don’t you think?’
‘No, I don’t think,’ said Guy. ‘If I thought that, I wouldn’t have rung you.’
‘People often think they’ve found human bones,’ said the voice. ‘But it’s nearly always animal, a fox’s dinner. Are they very small, like a rabbit?’
‘No!’ snapped Guy. He was beginning to think this the most irritatingly complacent voice he’d ever listened to. ‘Some are damaged and some are incomplete, a lot are missing. But they include a clavicle, parts of two ribs, three or four vertebrae, a badly-chewed tibia and an entire mandible with most of the teeth still in it. Some of the teeth show dental work. That should be helpful to you. Unfortunately, the rest of the skull is missing. Of course, there might be more further back in the tunnel.’
There was a silence. He thought he could hear the person at the other end talking to someone. A new voice came on, deeper, more authoritative. It, at least, wasn’t smug. It was suspicious.
‘This is on the level, sir?’
‘Absolutely!’ Guy was finding it difficult to control his frustration. ‘All I’m asking you is, what do you want me to do? Bring the bones in to the nearest police station or wait until you can get someone out here? I don’t know how you’ll get here,’ he added. ‘I’m on the old drovers’ way.’
‘We can get there, but you’ll understand we don’t want to be brought all the way out there on a wild-goose chase. Not accusing you of anything, sir, but you could be mistaken. This dental work, as you describe it, might just be discoloration. Old bones go a funny colour. So is there any other thing which makes you think these are definitely human?’
‘Why do I think they’re human?’ howled Guy. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? Because I recognise them!’
‘Not many people could do that, sir. Why’re you so sure?’
‘Because,’ said Guy, breathing heavily, ‘because I am a doctor!’
‘This is it,’ said Alan Markby, trying not to sound as dismayed as he felt.
Beside him in the car, Meredith Mitchell shuffled the estate agent’s brochures and found the one she sought.
‘Former vicarage,’ she read aloud. ‘Early nineteenth century. Five bedrooms, three reception, stone-flagged kitchen. Outbuildings. In need of some restoration work.’
They both peered through the windscreen at the house.
‘A lot of restoration,’ she said doubtfully.
‘Nice big garden,’ he pointed out.
They clambered out of the car and opened the creaking gate. A path which had been gravelled, but was now almost entirely overgrown with weeds and pitted with rain-filled depressions, led to a front door curiously scarred as if someone or something had been kicking or scraping at it. Markby pressed the bell-push.
In response a furious barking broke out from inside the house. There was the sound of scrabbling claws on parquet and a woman’s voice. Some sort of tussle seemed to be in progress. Eventually a door inside slammed and to an accompaniment of laboured breathing, the front door creaked open.
The woman who appeared before them was tall even wearing flat walking shoes over dark woollen tights. Her untidy grey hair was nearly shoulder-length and her angular features devoid of make-up. She did, however, sport jewellery in the form of dangling earrings which looked home-made, each a grape-cluster of coloured glass beads.
She placed a hand on the doorframe to support herself and, fixing Markby with a direct look, gasped, ‘It’s Roger.’
‘No, it’s, I mean, I’m Alan Markby,’ he replied, taken aback. ‘I rang to arrange a viewing.’
‘Yes, I know that’s who you are!’ she retorted. She’d got her breath back now and took her hand from the doorframe. ‘I meant my dog, Roger. He makes a racket but he’s a silly old thing really. Wouldn’t do any harm. Likes visitors but jumps up at them. Not everyone likes it. So I’ve shut him in there.’ She pointed at what looked like the door of a cloakroom.
On cue, from behind it, came a lugubrious howl.
‘Roger doesn’t like being left out of things,’ said his mistress. ‘Are you coming in?’
They stepped dubiously over the threshold. Roger whined and scratched at the door which held him prisoner. It rattled on its hinges.
‘Too big for me now,’ said the woman.
‘The house? Roger, the dog?’ Meredith whispered wickedly in Alan’s ear.
He mimed her to silence but the other woman hadn’t overheard.
‘Can’t afford to keep the damn place up. That’s why I’m selling and why it’s going cheap.’
Markby, mindful of the price, tried to hide his scepticism by asking politely, ‘You are Mrs Scott?’
‘Of course I am. But you wouldn’t know, would you? I might be the housekeeper. Well, I’m not!’ She gave a surprisingly deep bellow of laughter.
Markby caught Meredith’s eye again and they exchanged furtive grins. Mrs Scott was leading the way, her long, drooping skirts swaying. She wore a hand-knitted sweater. Markby wondered if it had been created without benefit of a knitting pattern. He was no expert on such matters but there was an air of bizarre improvisation about the garment. It was banded in strata of rose-pink, navy-blue and orange. In places the colour ended mid-line and the next colour began as if that was the point at which the knitter had run out of wool. Back and front sections were square and the sleeves stitched on clumsily raglan-style. They were tubular and cuffless. With that and the bead earrings she was certainly colourful.
‘This is the main reception room,’ Mrs Scott said, throwing open a door. She stood aside for them to enter.
It was a spacious room with attractive mouldings round the ceiling but it didn’t appear to have been decorated in years. The door paint was yellowish, perhaps once white, and round the handle dark and greasy. Its panels were scratched, too. Dust lay thick. Some quite nice antique silver on a table was black with neglect. An old sofa bulged in all the wrong places, a little like Mrs Scott herself, and strands of coarse shiny horse-hair escaped from holes in the fabric. Dog hairs clung to everything. Roger had left his mark. There was an insidious musty smell, a little like rising dough mixed with wet wool.
‘You have central heating,’ remarked Alan. He was staring at a huge ancient radiator with misgiving.
‘We’ve got it, but it doesn’t work,’ said Mrs Scott honestly. ‘Needs a new boiler.’
The other rooms were in pretty much the same state. A small dingy retreat called grandiosely by Mrs Scott ‘the study’, was crammed with dusty Victorian furniture, some of which looked as though it might have been brought from elsewhere in the house to be stored there. Meredith, always curious to examine books, had sidled off to peer into a huge glass-fronted oak bookcase crammed with leather-bound volumes. Markby scanned the spines briefly over her stooped form. They appeared to be mostly works of theology. The bottom shelf, however, was given over to a set of the Victoria County History and a fat tome entitled Man and Myth: The Legacy of Prehistory. On the far wall an ebony and brass crucifix loomed above an oak desk. On the desk lay an appointments diary white with dust and an old briar pipe resting on a worn tobacco pouch. There was still a faint odour of pipesmoke in the room, absorbed by the furnishings over many years. He felt a prickle run up his spine as if a ghostly hand had touched it. Good Lord, he thought, it’s the same. It’s just the same.
‘You don’t use this room much now?’ he heard himself ask.
‘It’s as he left it,’ was Mrs Scott’s reply.
Alan Markby said, ‘Yes, it is.’ He was aware of the sudden, surprised look Meredith turned on him. He should have explained to her before they came. Now explanations would have to wait.
The kitchen was huge, a cavern of a place, with the old range still in place, pitted and rusted, alongside a fat-spattered gas cooker. Upstairs, someone had made an effort to brighten up the master bedroom with liberal amounts of sky-blue paint and very little talent with the brush.
‘Nice room, this one,’ said Mrs Scott. ‘Got a good view of Stovey Woods. Come and see.’
They followed her to a sash window which she pushed up with an effort. ‘Bit stuck, most of them are.’
They peered out. They could see the road which led through the village, winding towards the distant dark mass of the the wood.
‘We’re a dead end,’ said Mrs Scott. ‘No through traffic. Nice quiet village, this. No one comes here who hasn’t got business here. It’s popular with the second-homes crowd. When they’re not here, you hardly see a car. Well, I’m blowed. That makes me a liar, doesn’t it?’
A car had appeared as she spoke and not just any car. This was a marked police vehicle. It cruised past as if uncertain where it was going. Markby leaned out as far as he could and watched it wend its way towards the wood.
‘What do the cops want, do you think?’ asked Mrs Scott. ‘Someone loosing off a shotgun in the woods, may be? Haven’t heard ’em. Would only be after pigeons, anyway. Nothing for the police to worry about. Bit of deer poaching?’
‘Alan?’ Meredith touched his arm.
He pulled in his head regretfully. ‘What? Oh, yes, could be anything. Well, is there anything else we should see, Mrs Scott?’
‘Only the downstairs cloaks where Roger is.’
‘We’ll give that a miss,’ Markby said hastily. ‘Would it be in order to look round the garden?’
‘Help yourself.’ She clearly didn’t intend to accompany them.
As they strolled down the path between abandoned flower-beds and overgrown vegetable patches, Meredith asked the question which had been hovering on her lips since the study.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d been in that house before?’
He hesitated. ‘It was a long time ago. It was still a vicarage then and I had reason to call on the incumbent. Police business, you know, routine stuff.’
‘Was that Mr Scott, by any chance?’
‘What? Oh, no. It was a chap called Pattinson.’
‘Is that why you wanted us to view it? Because you knew it already? Why didn’t you say?’
‘I don’t – didn’t know the place. I wasn’t shown over it back then. I was shown straight into the vicar’s study and after I’d spoken to him, I left. I didn’t even see into the other rooms.’ He added, ‘It’s in a bit of a state, I know.’
She did her best to put an optimistic gloss on it. ‘It’s a beautiful big drawing room. Expensive to heat, though. Did it look better, smarter, when you saw it years ago?’
‘I told you, I only saw the entrance hall and the study. It looked all right. Not that I was paying much attention then. I’m pretty sure that bookcase and the desk in the study were there then, and the crucifix, but polished up and clean.’
‘She’s a nice woman, batty but nice.’
Markby stopped and turned towards her. Her face was hidden by her ruffled brown hair. She’d pushed her hands into her jeans pockets and was idly manoeuvring a broken piece of ornamental edging with the toe of her trainer. He caught her lightly by her upper arms. ‘Don’t pretend. You make me feel guilty. It was a mistake coming, all right? I know you don’t like it. Just say so.’
‘Well, I – oh, all right.’ She tossed back her hair, slipped her arms free and began to number off the points on her fingers. ‘The heating’s broken, the windows stick and I wouldn’t lose my money if I bet there was something wrong with the plumbing. Against that, it has large rooms, some lovely period features like the mouldings, and the garden is your dream, I know that. But,’ she sighed. ‘The village does look a teeny bit, well, dead. I’m sorry. Perhaps you’d love the place. I wish I could tell you that I did. But I don’t. You did ask,’ she finished defensively.
She reached out to squeeze his hand reassuringly. ‘We’ll find the right house if we keep looking.’
‘And then we’ll get married?’
‘Then we’ll get married. I’m not backing out, Alan.’ She was looking up at him anxiously under the heavy fringe of hair.
‘OK,’ he said, kissing her. ‘Just so I’m sure. It’s not me, it’s the house.’
‘It’s not you. The house is like Dracula’s weekend retreat.’
He laughed and they set off back towards the gate.
‘I wonder what that squad car was up to?’ Markby mused.
‘Nothing for you to worry yourself over, Superintendent. Do you think Mrs Scott knows you’re a copper?’
‘I didn’t tell her when I rang. I don’t go round announcing myself. Hey, I’m a policeman! It doesn’t go down well.’
They got back in the car.
‘We could,’ Markby said tentatively, ‘just drive down to the woods and take a look.’
‘At the woods or at whatever has taken the police down there?’
‘Go on,’ she said resignedly. ‘You won’t rest until you know. But count me out. I’ll go and take a look at the church, if it’s open. I’ll wait there for you, anyway. Pick me up on your way back from your busman’s holiday.’