Towards three o'clock the wind that had tugged all night at the shutters became possessed of a demon. Connie Barton poked her husband in mid-snore and continued prodding until he growled in protest.
'Somethun's blown loose,' she muttered. 'Best see to't afore it gets torn off.'
Ned groaned but dutifully swung his feet to the floor. ''Taint none of our shutters,' he claimed, cocking his head to listen. Through the customary creaks and moans of the old farmhouse this dull thudding made an alien sound. 'It'll be Hoad's stable door. Nowt to do wi'us.'
All the same he knew he'd be allowed no rest until the thing was fixed. He lumbered downstairs, shrugged on his market-day overcoat and sat down to pull on his boots.
The stable stood midway between the two dwellings, both Hoad's properties - although the older farmhouse came with Ned's job as livestock manager. He would have ignored this overnight demand, except that dry fodder stored in the stable touched on his cattle interest. But by Sod's Law he knew that the minute he'd fixed the slamming door and regained his bed's warmth there'd be a call to attend Red Rose's calving. Best take a look in the byre while he was at it, and check the baby alarm set up there so's he'd be sure to have notice of the beast's increased restlessness. Not that he'd likely hear her movements above the noise of the storm.
Stepping out into the gale activated the yard lights' sensor. They made a difference, these modern-day devices. What usually let you down now was human error, labourers not being the steady folk of his younger days. Some lazy bugger couldn't latch a door right on this occasion. And the Hoads were playing at gentry with their ears buried deep in their duvets, passing on the effort to some other poor sod. 'Meaning me,' he grumbled as he stumbled out, and the wind gusted the words back in his throat.
His thinning hair was whipped into a grey quiff. It was a wind to lean on. Overhead black tatters of cloud streaked over themoon's gibbous face, strobing cold light across the rooftops like a kids' disco. He'd been right about the stable. Not a single farmyard noise wasn't intimately distinguishable after the thirty-eight years of his working here.
The timber door, swollen with rain, became heavy and there were times it took a good shove to drive it home. But for five days until this night's cloudburst the weather had been dry with the wind rising to gale force. In the downpour someone just hadn't bothered with the bolts. With the battering the place was taking, he'd need to drop the bar across besides.
He looked around for it, decided it must be inside, propped against the wall. Only it wasn't. He reached for the light switch, found it already at ON, but the stable in darkness. More bad maintenance. Nobody bothered since the horses had gone. He tried the switch several times before blundering across to feel for the nearest hanging bulb. His hand met jagged edges of glass. He swore as his fingers came away sticky with blood.
There was a storm lantern on the work bench. At least nobody had removed the matches for their fags. Ned lit the lantern, raised the wick and turned to look for the heavy timber bar. That was when he saw the straw bales dragged into the shape of a crescent and the woman stretched out on it like a heathen sacrifice. Naked but for a coarse dark net spread over her chest.
She had to be unconscious. Any sleepwalker would be wakened by that repeated thudding of the door. He felt a dull beat of shock but, his mind still full of concern for the heifer, he acted from habit, struggling to free himself of his overcoat. Unwilling to disturb her but fearful for hypothermia, he went across to cover her.
It wasn't a coarse net stretched over her upper body. The glistening, dark tracks were drying blood. The face - he had to look away - was mottled and distorted, the tongue protruding. He lifted his head, gulping suddenly for air at the sickly smell of the abattoir.
Connie, who had rapidly exchanged her nightdress for a tweed skirt and sweater, filled a large kettle for unlimited cups of tea.Routinely fixed to the familiar, she could barely take in what her husband had gabbled as he rushed in to dial from the kitchen. She noticed blankly that in shock he'd forgotten the new mobile phone in his coat pocket. For that matter, he'd lost his coat too.
'I'll have to wait there till the police come,' he said. 'I've tried the Manor number but there's no reply. You'd best have another go. Hang on till they decide to answer.'
Connie stood petrified with the instrument in her hand. 'Someone dead? But who?' she asked in bewilderment. 'What'll I tell Mr Hoad? He'll want to know who's out there in his stable.'
It took thirteen minutes from phoning for the first police to turn up. They were uniformed constables in a motorway patrol car. On arriving, one stayed in the warmth of the driving seat, chewing. The other, burly and stolid, was sceptical. 'You say there's no proper light, sir. Maybe what you saw was a bundle of rags. Or some kids been making a guy for their bonfire on the fifth. You stay out here with my colleague, while I take a look with my torch.'
He took just seconds to confirm what Ned had claimed and return sickly outside. He moved away to use his car radio, but his voice was blown back to Ned. 'Body of a woman, Sergeant. Violent, yes. Starkers. You want Hoad's Manor Farm, Fordham. Take the A413 to Bramall's roundabout then left and left again. There's a sign by the entrance. Got a picture of a cow on it.'
He listened for instructions, grunted acknowledgement and returned with the driver. 'I'm to stay and guard the site. You'd both better get inside out of this gale.'
There was no more rest to be had that night with all the comings and goings. A white Land Rover and two unmarked cars brought more police, followed by the van with all their scientific paraphernalia and white-overalled Scenes of Crime Officers.
Connie had eventually abandoned the phone. 'Their line's gone dead,' she explained. 'It'll be the wind, see.' But when Ned offered to walk over to the Hoads' house and let them know, he was prevented.
'Sound sleepers are they?' a plain-clothes sergeant enquireddryly. He had a point. Even if the gale and the banging stable door hadn't roused them, the alien invasion of flashing blue lights must have done.
'Maybe they're away?' The man's round, blue eyes seemed to be probing him. He had a flat, puppet's face with a sharp, questing nose; made Ned think of that Pinocchio cartoon by Disney.
'They'd have let me know,' Ned assured the detective. 'Would've left instructions, see?'
Shortly after that the centre of interest moved from stable to Manor house. That was when finally the idea reached the Bartons that the body wasn't some travelling woman's, but someone they knew well enough. After the final vans and most police cars had left, a burly middle-aged detective arrived and reluctantly broke the full news to them. His craggy face was sombre.
'There's been a tragedy up at the house,' he said shortly. It seemed to have shaken even him.
'A killing. Counting the one in the stable, there's four of them altogether.'
By now some news of that kind was inescapable. Barton closed his eyes. 'The Hoads.'
'Four? Oh no! Not the kiddies too!' Connie whispered.
He nodded. 'So. It means that we'll need your help to fill us in on the family. But get some rest for now and I'll be back to talk to you about eleven.' He looked at his watch. 'That gives you just four hours. I must insist you don't get in touch with anyone outside for the moment.'
'Rest?' Barton queried bitterly. 'I've got my beasts to see to. Byre man's overdue and milking should be starting. There'll be no time for tattling.' He plunged out of the house, a leather jacket protecting his head against sleeting rain that dropped like a steel shutter.
A crime of such enormity couldn't stay long under wraps. By midday increased activity at the morgue entrance alerted hospital staff. Phones buzzed. The press started to gather, roistering for details.
Earlier, Superintendent Mike Yeadings had been roused fromhis bed by his sergeant's call, and he informed him he'd attend in person. He drank his coffee scalding at the kitchen door, staring through darkness at the wrecked garden. Trees leant over the lawn littered with broken branches. The last brave October roses were stripped from the pergola and flower borders looked trampled in a stampede.
A demon night. And other demons had been let loose on human lives: the slaughter of an entire family as they slept. Or two slept, one vainly defended and one fled, half-naked, into the wild dark.
Major crime was his everyday concern, and violent death a part of it. But in Thames Valley, the UK's largest provincial force, murder made up a moderate statistic. Twenty-eight cases, he reckoned, in a bad year. But now - four in a night, and two of them children. A bloody massacre: surely the work of a madman.
He nodded to his wife who stood silent, understanding, walked blindly past his own two children, collected coat, car keys, and left with his head down, too conscious of little Sally in her nightdress staring out at the chaos of their garden, her blunt, puppyish Down's Syndrome face gone square with the effort not to cry. He wanted to stay on, help her stake up the battered dahlias, show her that disasters could be lived through, overcome. Up to a point.
What he found at Hoad's Manor Farm denied this. And it had been left to him to break the full horror to the Barton couple, standing stricken in their cottage, trying to believe that normal life could go on from where it was yesterday.
He looked at his watch, nodded to them, arranged to return after eleven.
The team was to meet at 8.50 a.m. Grim-faced, Yeadings went out again, into a drenched morning still streaked with the crimson of a bloody dawn.
THE EDGE. Copyright © 2006 by Clare Curzon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.