On a rain-swept hillside, hounds from the local foxhunt discover the body of a well-dressed man. At that exact moment, an anonymous caller reports the same body . . . lying half a mile away.
It’s only the first in a series of baffling clues as Ben Cooper and Diane Fry-partners and rivals on the detective force -plunge into a case involving horses, spectacular wealth, and a mysterious “plague village” where a centuries-old outbreak of Black Death has been transformed into a modern tourist attraction.
As the spring rain falls and the body count rises, Cooper and Fry’s investigation twists back to the recent past. A killer lurks in the shadows there-a killer now hiding in plain sight . . .
Atmospheric and ingenious, packed with suspense and secrets, The Kill Call is an unforgettable thriller from an unforgettable writer.
THE KILL CALL
The 9th novel in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series
This excerpt was taken from http://www.stephen-booth.com and as such may not be the newest available version.
Journal of 1968
In those days, there were always just the three of us. Three bodies close together, down there in the cold, with the water seeping through the concrete floor, and a chill striking deep into flesh and bone. The three of us, crouching in the gloom, waiting for a signal that would never come.
And what a place to wait and watch in. Seven feet high and seven feet wide – it might as well have been a giant coffin. But slam down the lid and blot out the sun, and we’d survive. Oh, yes. For fourteen days, we’d survive. Thinking about all the things we’d hoped for, and the way our lives could be snuffed out, just like that.
One night, Jimmy looked up from his bunk at me and Les, and he said we were like the three little pigs, or the three billy goats gruff. Well, I don’t know about that. Three blind mice, maybe – it would be more fitting. If it all kicked off, the three of us would be as good as blind. Blinded by a million suns. Blind to the people dying.
A few of the details are a bit dim now. Age does that to you. But other things are as bright and stark in my mind as if they’d been burnt there by a lightning flash. Faces and eyes are what I remember most. Faces in the dark. Eyes turned up towards the light. That look in the eyes a second before death.
Yet all we had down there was a miserable six-watt bulb. I don’t think they even make bulbs that small any more, do they? No wonder your sight could get damaged. Then, every ninety minutes, the switch would pop and it went totally dark. Black as a cat in a coal hole. I always hated that. Even now, complete darkness is what frightens me most. You never know what might be coming up right next to you in the dark.
But it’s amazing how you can adapt to it, for a while. With that one little bulb, we could see pretty well in the murk, well enough to read and do what was necessary.
The place was shocking damp, too. I don’t know what they’d done wrong when they built it, but Les said it hadn’t been tanked. Les was our number one, and he might have been right, for once. The water seemed to soak right through the walls from the soil. It was particularly bad in the winter, or after a heavy rain, which happens a mite too often in Derbyshire. Some nights, if it were siling down, it would be all hands to the pump.
And that was the three of us. Me, Les, and poor old Jimmy. Always three, except for the time that we didn’t ever talk about.
A lot of things seem to come in threes, don’t they? The Holy Trinity, the Three Wise Men, the Third World War. There must be something magic about the number. Perhaps it’s to do with the Earth being the third planet from the Sun. Or the fact that we see the world in three dimensions – even if your world happens to be only seven feet wide and seven feet high.
Well, times change so much. The years pass and the world turns, and suddenly no one cares, and no one wants you any more. They take away your friends, your pride, your reason for living. But they can’t ever wipe out your memories. Sometimes, I wish they would. If only they could take away the nightmares, free me from the memory of those damp concrete walls and the icy darkness, and the memory of a face, staring up at the light.
And that’s another funny thing. They say bad luck comes in threes, don’t they? I think I always knew that.
But here’s something I didn’t know. It turns out that people die in threes, too.
March 2009, Tuesday
Old buildings drew Sean Crabbe like a bee to honey. The more neglected they were, the better he liked them. He couldn’t really explain the appeal. It might have been something to do with the history that clung to the walls, the lives of long-dead people written in the dust, their stories forever trapped in cobwebs hanging from broken ceilings.
That was why the old Nissen huts above Birchlow were one of his favourite places. He made his way there whenever he got the chance, bunking off from college or just disappearing on a weekend, when no one cared what he was up to. No one else ever went up to the huts any more – not since the homeless man had died there, wrapped up in a roll of plastic sheeting with empty cans scattered around him, a cold morning light glinting on the last drops of his beer as they dribbled across the floor.
Sean had been there on that morning, had found the old derelict lying in his pool of Special Brew, and had walked away to try somewhere else. Next day, he’d watched from the hillside as the police and paramedics made their way to the site. He wondered why they’d sent an ambulance when any fool could see that the man was long since dead.
Some folk said that the place was cursed now, haunted by the ghost of the drunken vagrant. So that was why Sean was always on his own at the old huts. And it was just the way he liked it.
There was one big building that was almost intact, with damp brick walls and corrugated-iron sheets banging in the wind. Its purpose was a mystery to him, but he didn’t really care. There were a few small rooms that might have been offices, a kitchen that still had a filthy sink in it, and a bigger space with a concrete floor and shelves along the walls, like a workshop. He liked the narrow corridors best, the floorboards that had warped from the damp and seemed to move with him as he crossed from room to room, and the peeling paint of the doorways where he could imagine anything waiting behind them to be found.
In a way, whenever he pushed open one of those doors, he was entering a different world, stepping through into the past. He wondered if the past had been a better world than the one he was in right now.
This morning, Sean’s need to escape had been urgent. His BTEC course at the further education college was turning out to be a waste of time, useless for his chances of finding the media career he’d dreamed of. The money he’d saved doing holiday jobs had long since run out. All those hours washing caravans and picking up rubbish hadn’t kept him in course fees for long, and now he owed his parents for a loan to see him through. His girlfriend had dumped him weeks ago, because she said he was mean. If he could call her a girlfriend. Most of the girls thought he was geeky. But, if he was a geek, why wasn’t he cleverer at passing exams and doing assignments?
And, to cap it all, a bunch of kids had mugged him last night outside the pub and nicked his phone. Lucky he didn’t have his iPod with him at the time, but losing the Nokia was a real pain. His parents had shelled out for it, and he couldn’t face telling them that he’d lost it.
It was pity there was no sun, though. A patch of thin, lattice-like wood had been exposed up there in the roof space, and when the sunlight shone through, it cast shadows across the floor. Then Sean could pretend he was a child, avoiding the cracks on the pavement. Here, he could step from light to light, avoiding the dark shadows as if they were traps, holes where evil lurked. Step from light to light, and avoid the shadows. If only life was so easy.
But there was no sun today. Just the rain clattering on the corrugated iron, blowing through the splintered windows, streaming down the walls. He was already wet when he arrived at the huts, and the chill made him shiver inside his parka.
Mouldy, fusty, stale and mildewed. Those were the familiar smells of the hut. If the weather was warm, he could scent an underlying odour of oil or grease, saturated into the concrete from whatever had gone on in here. That smell must have lasted decades. Fifty, sixty years? The buildings must be from about that time. They were so old-fashioned, so last century. It was hard for him to imagine what anyone might have done up here, stuck on an empty hillside in Derbyshire.
Now and then, he smoked a spliff up here at the huts, but he couldn’t afford that now. Instead, he plugged in the earphones of his iPod and selected some Coldplay. A feeling of peace settled over him as he listened to Chris Martin’s plaintive vocals coming in on ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’. He could forget everything else for a while once the music was playing.
Today, though, Sean knew something was different. He tugged out the earphones and stayed completely still, his eyes tightly closed, his ears straining for a sound. The scurrying of a mouse under the floorboards, maybe, or a bird scratching a nest in the roof. But there was no sound.
He squinted at the dust swirling slowly around him, disturbed only by the current of his own breath. The room looked the same as always. Nothing had been moved or disturbed since his last visit. It was always a worry that someone else would find the derelict buildings – another vagrant sleeping rough, a couple of kids finding a place to have sex or take drugs. Or, worst of all, the owner coming to check on his property, or a builder with a plan to demolish it.
Sean closed his eyes, trying to recapture the moment that had been lost. But he finally had to acknowledge that something really was different today. It wasn’t a sound, or anything that looked out of place. It was in the very quality of the mustiness, an underlying odour that was too sweet to be oil or grease. He couldn’t deny the message that was hitting his nostrils.
The difference was in the smell.
It had been raining for six hours by the time they found the body. Since the early hours of the morning, sheets of water had been swirling into the valley, soaking the corpse and the ground around it. Pools of water had gathered in the hollows of the fields below Longstone Moor, and a new stream had formed between two hawthorns, washing their roots bare of earth.
Detective Sergeant Diane Fry wiped the rain from her face and cursed under her breath as she watched the medical examiner and an assistant turn the body on to its side. Rivulets of blood-soaked water streamed off the sleeves of a green coat the victim was wearing. A crime-scene photographer crouched under the edge of the body tent to capture the moment. Big, fat drops bounced off his paper suit, ricocheting like bullets.
Shivering, Fry made a mental note to find out the manufacturer of the victim’s coat. Her own jacket was barely shower proof, and it would never have withstood the amount of rain that had fallen during the night. Her shoulders already felt damp, though she’d been standing in the field no more than ten minutes. If she didn’t get back to her car soon, her clothes would be sticking to her all day, with no chance of a hot shower for hours yet. She’d be unpopular back at the office, too. No one liked sharing their nice, warm working space with a drowned rat.
‘Haven’t we got any cover up here yet?’ she said. ‘Where’s the mobile control unit?’
‘On its way, Sarge. It’s a difficult spot to get to.’
‘Tell me about it.’
She’d left her Peugeot way back somewhere in a muddy gateway, two fields off at least. Her trek to reach the scene had been across hundreds of yards of damp, scrubby grass, dodging sheep droppings, hoping not to twist an ankle in the treacherous holes that opened up everywhere in this kind of area. The remains of old lead mines, she’d been told. The legacy of thousands of years of men burrowing into the hills like rabbits.
And then, when she arrived, she’d discovered a delay by the first officers attending the call to get a body tent up. The FOAs’ vehicle had been short of the required equipment. What a surprise.
An officer standing nearby in a yellow jacket looked at the sky to the west and said something about the rain easing off a bit. He said it with that tone of voice that a countryman used, pretending to be so wise about the ways of the weather. But that was one thing Fry had learned about the Peak District during her time in Derbyshire – there was nothing predictable about the weather.
‘Could you find something more useful to do than pretending to be Michael Fish?’ said Fry.
‘Yes, Sarge. I expect so.’
Fry watched him walk back towards the gateway to direct an arriving vehicle. Even if the officer was right, it was already too late. She felt sure about that. There was a limit to how much water even a limestone landscape could absorb, and this crime scene wouldn’t take much more of a soaking.
Continuous heavy rain did an effective job of destroying physical evidence at an exposed crime scene like this one. And exposed was the right word. She was standing in the middle of a field of rough, short-cropped grass, with no real shelter in sight except a distant dry-stone wall. Right now, she would be glad to huddle behind that wall, even if it meant sharing with the sheep she could see standing hunched and miserable at the far end of the field.
Crime-scene examiners put their faith in the theory that anyone present at a crime scene took traces away from it, and left traces behind. It was called Locard’s Principle. But, in this case, one half of Locard had been rendered practically worthless by the weather. During the past few hours, blood had been washed away, fingerprints soaked off, shoe marks obliterated. Whatever traces an attacker might have left behind were dissolving into the soil, his unique DNA absorbed into the landscape.
Fry took a step back and felt something soft and squishy slide under her heel. Damn it. If only traces of these bloody sheep disappeared from the landscape so quickly.
For a moment, she gazed across the valley towards Longstone Moor. According to the map, the nearest villages of any size were Birchlow and Eyam. But if they were ever visible from here, she’d chosen the wrong day to enjoy the view. Grey clouds hung so low over the hills that they seemed to be resting on the trees. A dense mist of rain swept across the part of the valley where Eyam was supposed to be.
Fry already hated the sound of Eyam. That was because she’d been corrected about its pronunciation. It was supposed to be said ‘Eem’, they told her – not ‘I-am’, which was the way only tourists pronounced it. Well, sod that. She felt inclined to say it the wrong way for the rest of the day, just to show that she was a tourist, at heart. Yes – deep down, she was just a visitor passing through, taking a break from civilization to study the ways of primitive hill folk.
A gust of wind blew a spatter of rain in her eyes. That was one thing you could say for a city. Any city, anywhere. There was always a building within reach where you could get out of the rain. In the Peak District, the weather would always catch you exposed and vulnerable. It could bake you one minute, and drown you the next. It was like some big conspiracy, nature combining with the remains of ancient lead mines that lurked under your feet to trip you up.
When Fry turned away from the view, she found the crime-scene manager, Wayne Abbott, standing in front of her, as if he’d materialized out of the rain. He was a damp ghost, glistening in his white scene suit as if he was formed of ectoplasm.
‘There doesn’t seem to be much physical evidence in the immediate area around the body,’ he said, when he’d got her attention.
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘And I can’t even see where the approach route might have been. We’ll probably have to do a fingertip search over the whole field.’
‘How many people on the ground would we need for that?’
‘I don’t know. It’s big field.’
‘Thanks a lot.’
Fry could imagine the arguments about overtime payments and the hours spent frowning over the duty rota. Luckily, she could pass that problem up to her DI, Paul Hitchens.
The information so far was too scanty for her liking. A sighting of the body had been called in by the air support unit at nine forty-five a.m., a sharp-eyed observer on board Oscar Hotel 88 spotting the motionless figure as the helicopter passed overhead en route to a surveillance task. The zoom facility on his video camera had confirmed the worst. Paramedics had attended, along with uniforms from Bakewell, the observer keeping up a running commentary to guide units to the location. With death confirmed, the duty DC had been called out, and gradually the incident had begun to move up the chain. Her DI, Paul Hitchens, would be on scene shortly, and he would become the officer in charge.
But Fry could see that this was already looking like a difficult one. According to the control room, there were no overnight mispers, not so much as a stressed teenager who’d stayed out all night to wind up Mum and Dad. Neighbouring forces weren’t any help, either. She’d held out hopes of Sheffield , who usually had a bunch of drunks gone AWOL, even on a wet Monday night in March. But no such luck.
So there was going to be a lot of work to do getting a story on the victim, even with a quick ID. If this did turn out to be a murder enquiry, the first forty-eight hours were absolutely crucial.
Fry shivered again as a trickle of water ran down her neck. And it didn’t help much when Mother Nature decided to spend the first six of those forty-eight hours re-enacting the Great Flood.
A miserable figure was making his way across the field, slithering on the grass and dodging strips of wet crime-scene tape flapping around him in the wind. Detective Constable Gavin Murfin wasn’t cut out for country treks, either. But, in his case, it was for a different reason. No matter how many memos did the rounds from management about the fitness of officers, Murfin had been unable to lose any weight. Recently, Fry had noticed that he’d compromised by taking his belt in a notch, which had succeeded only in producing an unsightly roll of spare flesh that hung over his waistband.
Murfin had a comfort-eating problem, and Fry could relate to that. If only he didn’t leave so many crumbs in her car.
‘Gavin. How are things back at the office?’
‘In chaos. Have you seen that Branagh woman? She’s empire-building already.’
Fry shrugged. ‘That’s the name of the game at senior management level.’
‘God save me from promotion, then.’
‘I don’t think you need God’s help, Gavin.’
Murfin shrugged. ‘I notice you’ve been doing your best to keep out of her way. So I don’t suppose you’re exactly her number one fan, either.’
Fry didn’t answer. She still had some instinct for diplomatic silence.
Murfin pulled a face as he took in the fields and the distant stone walls.
‘Witnesses are going to be a bit thin on the ground, Diane.’
‘Yes.’ Fry eyed the sheep suspiciously. ‘There are plenty of those things, though.’
Murfin nodded. ‘Sheep see a lot of things. You’d be surprised. One day, some clever bugger at Ripley will come up with a scheme for surveillance sheep. Imagine them wandering about with miniature video cameras strapped to their heads, like hundreds of little woolly PCSOs.’
She tried to picture some of E Division’s community support officers with the faces of sheep. But her imagination failed her.
‘The mind boggles,’ she said.
‘A bit of boggling now and then never did anyone any harm, in my opinion.’
Fry sighed. ‘Where is everyone, Gavin?’
‘Oh, am I not enough for you?’
‘What about Hurst , and Irvine ? Where are they?’
‘It’s the price of success.’
Fry didn’t need to ask any more. Sunday had been E Division’s strike day. Not a total withdrawal of labour in protest at their latest pay deal, as some officers would have liked, but a pre-planned operation targeting known criminals. Search warrants had been executed in various parts of the division. Arrests were made for assault, theft, burglary, going equipped, supplying Class-A drugs, and money laundering. Officers had recovered drugs, cigarettes, and a large amount of cash. Not a bad haul for the day, and the chiefs were happy. Intelligence-led, proactive policing at its best. But the consequent mountain of paperwork was horrendous. There were so many stages that followed from an arrest – prisoner handling, interviews, witness statements, case-file preparation …
‘And Ben Cooper –’ said Murfin.
‘Yes, I know. He’s got himself a cushy job.’
Murfin nodded casually at the body tent. Apart from the coat, about all that could be seen of the victim was a pair of muddy brown brogues that almost protruded from the tent into the rain.
‘We’ve got cars out trying to locate a vehicle,’ he said. ‘Reckon he must have got himself out here somehow, mustn’t he? He isn’t a hiker, not in those shoes.’
‘No luck so far?’
‘It’ll be parked up in a lay-by somewhere. Unless he was brought out here by someone else, of course.’
‘By his killer. Right.’
Fry didn’t answer. One of the other downsides of policing a rural area was the lack of CCTV cameras. One of the many downsides. If she’d still been working back in Birmingham, or any other city, they’d have caught the victim’s car on half a dozen cameras as it passed from A to B, registered his number plate at a car-park entry barrier, and probably got a nice, clear shot of him walking along the pavement to wherever he’d been going. And then they could have scanned the CCTV footage for possible suspects, grabbed images of a face from the screen for identification.
But out here? Unless their victim had been idiot enough to go more than ten miles an hour over the limit on a stretch of the A6 where the speed cameras were actually operating, his movements might as well have been invisible.
‘If someone else took his car,’ said Murfin, ‘they might have dumped it and torched it by now.’
‘If they have, it’ll turn up somewhere.’
Murfin was wrestling with a decrepit Ordnance Survey map. Normally, he swore by his sat-nav, and never took driving instructions from anyone but TomTom, or his wife. That wasn’t much use when you’d left your car two fields away, though Fry knew that Wayne Abbott had a GPS device to map the location of a crime scene precisely.
‘We’re somewhere about here,’ said Murfin, stabbing a finger at a square of damp plastic. ‘Longstone Moor that way, the nearest village is Birchlow, over there. A few more villages across the valley. And a load of quarries all around us, some of them still in use. There’s a big mill down in that dip. Not textiles, it processes stone from the quarries.’
‘A tricky area, then?’
Murfin shrugged. ‘The lads are checking any pull-ins on the A623 or this back road over here between the villages. But, as you can see, there are quite a few unmade lanes and farm tracks in this area. So it could take a while, unless some helpful punter phones in.’
‘The victim’s shoes are muddy, so he could have walked some distance, at least.’
‘Eyam at the furthest, I’d say,’ suggested Murfin, pronouncing the ‘Eem’ correctly. ‘There’s a car park that tourists use, near the museum. I’ve asked for a check on any that have outstayed their parking tickets. He’s been dead for an hour or two, right?’
‘Three hours, according to the ME.’
‘He might be due for a fine, then. Poor bugger. That’s the last thing he needs.’
‘That’s not really funny, Gavin.’
‘Oh, I thought those were tears of unrestrained hilarity running down your face. Maybe it’s just the rain, after all.’
The officer nearby was listening to a call on his radio, and became suddenly alert. Fry looked at him expectantly.
‘What’s the news?’
‘Not good, Sergeant. The control room says a 999 call was received about twenty minutes ago.’ The officer pointed towards a distant stone building. ‘A unit has been despatched to the old agricultural research centre, about half a mile away in that direction. They thought we’d like to know. There’s been a report of another corpse.’
Fry cursed quietly, squinting against the downpour.
‘I’ve heard about showers of frogs,’ she said. ‘But I’ve never heard of it raining bodies.’