Black Dog: A Cooper & Fry Mysteryby Stephen Booth
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The sudden glare of colors beat painfully on the young woman's eyes as she burst from the back door of the cottage and hurled herself into the brightness. She ran with her bare feet slapping on the stone flags and her hair streaming in red knots from her naked shoulders.
A harsh voice was cut off suddenly when the door slammed behind her, isolating her from the house. As she sprinted the length of the garden, she stirred the dust from a flagged path whose moisture had been sucked out and swallowed by the sun. A scarlet shrub rose trailed halfway across the path and a thorn slit the flesh of her arm as she brushed against it, but she hardly felt the pain.
"Wait!" she called.
But the old wooden garden gate had banged shut on its spring before she could reach it. She threw herself onto the top of the drystone wall, flinging out an arm to clutch at the sleeve of the old man on the other side. He was wearing a woolen jacket despite the heat, and his arm felt stiff and sinewy under the cloth. The young woman scrabbled for a firmer grip, feeling his muscles slide against the bones under her fingers as if she had plunged her hand deep into his body.
Harry Dickinson paused, held back only by the hand that touched his arm, turning his face away from the appeal in his granddaughter's eyes. The only change in his expression was a slight tightening in the creases at the sides of his mouth as his gaze slipped past Helen to the row of stone cottages. The stone walls and the white-mullioned back windows were at last starting to cool in the early evening shade, but the sun still glared low over the slate roofs, bad-tempered and unrelenting.The pupils of Harry's eyes narrowed to expressionless black points until he tilted his head sideways to turn the peak of his cap into the sun.
Helen could smell the impregnated odors of earth and sweat and animals in the wool, overlaid by the familiar scent of old tobacco smoke. "It's no good walking away, you know. You'll have to face it in the end. You can't run away from things forever."
A loud juddering sound made Harry flinch as it passed across the valley behind him. For an hour now the noise had been moving backward and forward over the dense woodland that covered the slope all the way down to the valley bottom. The sound echoed against the opposite hillside like the beating wings of an angry bird, battering the gorse and heather and alarming the sheep scattered on the upper slopes.
"We'll understand," said Helen. "We're your family. If only you'd tell us..."
The old man's right arm was held out at an unnatural angle, creasing the sleeve of his jacket into an ugly concertina of fabric. She knew that Harry felt himself being physically tugged toward the woods along the valley side; his body was tense with the effort of resisting the pull. But emotionally he was being drawn in two directions. The conflicting pressures seemed only to strengthen and toughen him, setting his shoulders rigid and hardening the line of his jaw. His face held no possibility of turning away from whatever he had decided to do.
The sharp edges of the stone wall were digging into her thighs through her shorts, and the skin of the palm on her left hand stung where she had scraped it on the jagged topping stones. There had been a sudden, desperate rush, a moment of overwhelming emotion, and now she didn't know what to say. She felt the impotence of the conventions that surrounded the communication between one adult and another, even when they were members of the same family. She shared with her grandfather an inborn shortage of the words she needed to be able to express her feelings to those closest to her.
"Grandma is very upset," said Helen, "but she'll calm down in a minute. She's worried about you."
Helen had never needed many words before, not with Harry. He had always known exactly what she wanted, had always responded to the message in her eyes, to the shy, adoring smile, to the gleam of sun on a wave of flame-colored hair, and to a small, trusting hand slipped into his own. She was no longer that child, and hadn't been for years. A teacher learned a different way of communicating, a calculated performance that was all surface gloss and scored no marks for feeling. Harry still understood, though. He knew what she wanted him to do now. But it was too hard for him, a thing completely against a lifetime's habit.
Gradually the juddering noise was fading to the edge of audibility, muffled to a dull rattle by the trees and the folds of the land. Its temporary absence released the subtler sounds of the evening -- a current of air stirring the beech trees, a cow moaning for the bull across the valley, a skylark spilling its song over the purple heather. Harry cocked an ear, as if listening for a voice that no one else could hear. It was a voice that deepened the sadness in his eyes but stiffened his back and tautened the clench of his fists and his grip on the loop of worn black leather held in one hand.
"Come back and talk to us. Please?" she said.
Helen had never heard that voice. She had often tried, staring intently up at her grandfather's face, watching his expression change, not daring to ask what it was he heard but straining her own ears, desperate to catch an elusive echo. Like most men who had worked underground, Harry spent as much of his time as he could outside in the open air. As she stood at his side, Helen had learned to hear the sounds of the woods and the sky, the tiny movements in the grass, the shifting of the direction of the wind, the splash of a fish in a stream. But she had never heard what her grandfather heard. She had grown up to believe it was something uniquely to do with being a man.
"If you don't want to talk to Grandma, won't you tell me about it, Granddad?"
And then the noise began to grow steadily louder again, clattering toward them as it followed the invisible line of the road that meandered along the valley bottom. It drew nearer and nearer across the rocky slopes of Raven's Side, skirting a sudden eruption of black basalt cliff and veering north once more toward the village until it was almost overhead. The din was enough to drown out normal speech. But it was then that Harry chose to speak, raising his voice defiantly against the clattering and roaring that beat down on him from the sky.
"Noisy bastards," he said.
The helicopter banked, its blue sides flickering in the fragmented shadows of its blades. A figure could be seen, leaning forward in the cabin to stare at the ground. The lettering on his door read POLICE.
"They're looking for that girl that's gone missing," said Helen, her voice scattered and blown away by the roar. "The Mount girl."
"Aye, well. Do they have to make so much row about it?"
Harry cleared his throat noisily, sucking the phlegm onto the top of his tongue. Then he pursed his thin lips and spat into a clump of yellow ragwort growing by the gate.
As if taking offense, the helicopter moved suddenly away from the edge of the village, sliding toward a row of tall conifers that grew in the grounds of a large white house. The pitch of the noise changed and altered shape as it passed the house, tracing the outline of the roofs and chimneys like an echo locator sounding the depths of an ocean trench.
"At least it'll wake that lot up as well."
"There's nowt more to be said. Not just now."
Helen sighed, her brain crowding with thoughts she couldn't express and feelings she couldn't communicate. The old man only grimaced as his arm was stretched at an even sharper angle.
"Have to go, love," he said. "Jess'll pull me arm off, else."
Helen shook her head but dropped her hand and let him go. A thin trickle of blood ran down her arm from the scratch made by the thorn. It glittered thickly on her pink skin, clotting and drying fast in the warm sun. She watched as her grandfather set off down the hillside toward the woods at the foot of the cliffs. Jess, his black Labrador, led the way along the familiar path, tugging eagerly at the end of her lead, impatient to be allowed to run free when they reached the stream.
No, you couldn't run away from things forever, thought Helen. But you could always bugger off and walk the dog for a bit.
Down on the lower slopes of the hill, Ben Cooper was sweating. The perspiration ran in streams through the fine hairs on his chest and formed a sticky sheen on the muscles of his stomach. The sides and back of his T-shirt were already soaked, and his scalp prickled uncomfortably.
No breeze had yet found its way through the trees to cool the lingering heat of the afternoon sun. Each clearing was a little sun trap, funnelling the heat and raising the temperature on the ground into the eighties. Even a few feet into the woods the humidity was enough to make his whole body itch, and tiny black flies swarmed from under the trees in irritating clouds, attracted by the smell of his sweat.
Every man in the line was equipped with a wooden pole to sift through the long grass and push aside the dense swathes of bracken and brambles. The bruised foliage released a damp, green smell, and Cooper's brown fell boots were stained dark to an inch above the soles. His pole came out of the undergrowth thick with burrs and with small caterpillars and insects clinging to its length. Every few minutes he had to stop to knock them off against the ground or on the bole of a tree. All along the line were the sounds of men doing the same, the thumps and taps punctuating their muttered complaints and sporadic bursts of conversation.
Cooper found that walking with his head down made his neck ache after a while. So when the line stopped for a minute to allow someone in the center the time to search a patch of dense bramble, he took the chance to raise his head and look up, above the line of the trees. He found himself gazing at the side of Win Low across the valley. Up there, on the bare, rocky outcrops they called the Witches, it would be so much cooler. There would be a fresh wind easing its way from the west, a wind that always seemed to come all the way from the Welsh mountains and across the Cheshire plain.
For the last two hours he had been wishing that he had used his common sense and brought a hat to keep the sun off his head. For once, he was jealous of his uniformed colleagues down the line, with their dark peaked caps pulled over their eyes and their starburst badges glittering in the sunlight. Being in CID had its disadvantages sometimes.
"Bloody hell, what a waste of effort."
The PC next to Ben Cooper was from Matlock section, a middle-aged rural beat manager who had once had aspirations to join the Operational Support Task Force in Chesterfield. But the Task Force was deployed farther along the hillside, below the Mount itself, while PC Garnett found himself alongside an Edendale detective in a makeshift search group which included a couple of National Park Rangers. Garnett wore his blue overalls with more comfort than style, and he had been swinging his pole with such ferocity as he walked that his colleagues had gradually moved farther away to protect their shins.
"You reckon so?"
"Aye, certain," said Garnett. "They say the lass has run off with some boyfriend."
"I don't know," said Cooper. "I've not heard that. It wasn't in the briefing. Just that she was missing."
"Huh. Missing my arse. Mark my words, she'll be off shagging some spotty youth somewhere. Fifteen years old, what do you expect these days?"
"Maybe you're right. We have to go through the motions all the same."
"Mind you, if one of my two did it, I'd murder'em all right."
Garnett thrashed at a small elder sapling so hard that the stem snapped in two, the tender young branches collapsing to the ground and leaking a tiny trickle of sticky sap. Then he trod on the broken stem and crushed it into the grass with his police issue boot. Cooper hoped that, if there were any fragile evidence to be found in the woods, he would see it before Garnett reached it.
Then he looked at the PC and smiled suddenly, recognizing that the man had no harm in him. He might be a middle-aged dad whose ambitions were withering as his waistline expanded, but he had no harm in him at all. Cooper could almost sense the ordinary little niggles that teemed in Garnett's mind, from his disappearing hairline to the recurring ache at the base of his spine and the size of his telephone bill.
"Just be thankful for the overtime," he said. "We could all do with a bit of that."
"Ah yes, you're right there, lad. Too right. It takes something like this to get the fingers of those tightfisted bastards off the purse strings these days, doesn't it?"
"It's the budget cuts."
"Budgets!" Garnett said the word like a curse, and they both paused for a moment to listen to its sound, shaking their heads as if it symbolized the end of everything they had known.
"Accountants, you can keep 'em," said Garnett. "We're not coppers to them anymore, just a load of figures on a sheet of paper. It's all flashy operations and clear-up rates. There's no room for old-style coppers these days."
He threw a bitter glance along the hillside toward where the Task Force squad was beating its way through the scrubland beyond a row of Lombardy poplars like a set of dark spikes dropped into the landscape.
"Of course, you'll know all about that, lad. You're different. A chip off the old block, they reckon. Good for you. Wish you luck, though."
Cooper had only just returned from a fortnight's summer leave. On his first day back on duty he had been thrown straight into the search for Laura Vernon, fifteen years old and missing from home since Saturday night. They were looking for a girl with short dark hair dyed red, wearing a silver nose stud, five foot six inches tall, mature for her age. Failing that, they were looking for her clothes -- black denims, a red short-sleeved cotton T-shirt, a white sports bra, blue bikini pants, blue ankle socks, a pair of Reeboks, size five, slim fit. Nobody thought it necessary to point our that if they found her clothes, they were also looking for a body.
"This lass, though. She's miles away, if you ask me," said Garnett. "Run off with the boyfriend. Some yob on a motorbike from Manchester, maybe. That's what teenage girls get up to these days. The schools teach them about contraceptives before they're twelve, so what can you expect? Course, the parents never have a clue. Not parents like this lot, anyway. They don't know the kids exist half the time."
Cooper's legs were still aching from the rock climbing he had done on the sheer, terrifying faces of the Cuillin Hills of Skye. His friends Oscar and Rakesh were members of the Edendale Mountain Rescue Team and could never get enough of the mountains. Just now, though, he could really have done with a quiet day behind his desk at Division, making a few phone calls maybe, catching up on what had been happening during the last fortnight, getting up to date with the gossip. Anything but clambering up and down another hillside.
But he knew this area well -- he was himself from a village a few miles down the valley. Most of the men recruited for the search parties were from the section stations or even from out of the division. A few of them were city boys. On the hills around here they would be falling down old mine shafts in their dozens without someone to tell them which way was up and which was down.
And, of course, PC Garnett could well be right. It had happened so often -- youngsters bored with life in the villages of the Peak District, attracted by the glamour and excitement of the big cities. And very likely there was a boyfriend, too -- no doubt someone the parents found unsuitable. According to the initial reports, the Vernons claimed there had been no trouble at home, no family rows, no reason at all for Laura to walk out. But didn't parents always say that? So much could remain misunderstood among families or never even suspected. Especially if they were a family who didn't have the time or the inclination to talk to each other much.
But there were other factors in this case. Laura had taken no clothes with her, very little money, no possessions of any kind. And initial inquiries had brought a sighting of her talking to a young man on Saturday night, at the edge of the expanse of hillside scrub and woodland known as the Baulk.
Once he got out on the hill below the village of Moorhay, Cooper had remembered that he had even been to Laura Vernon's home once. It was the big white house they called the Mount, which stood somewhere above the search party, hidden behind the trees on its own spur of land. It was a former mine owner's house, big and pretentious, with formally laid out grounds full of rhododendrons and azaleas, and with a stunning view over the valley from the terrace. Cooper had been invited to the Mount for the eighteenth birthday party of a classmate, a lad everyone at the old Edendale High School knew had well-off parents even before they were given the tour of the big house. That hadn't been the Vernons but the people before them -- they had been local people, the family of a man who had inherited a string of small petrol stations scattered throughout the Peak. The business had expanded from Edendale and its surrounding villages, beyond the borders of Derbyshire, in fact, into South Yorkshire and the fringes of the cities.
Eventually, of course, he had sold out to one of the larger companies, cashed in, and moved away to somewhere better. Abroad, they said. The South of France and Italy were popular guesses.
The Mount had stood empty then for some time, waiting out the recession. Photographs of its elegant facade featured regularly in the adverts of upmarket estate agents in glossy county magazines. The village people would sit in the doctor's waiting room, pointing out to each other the multiplicity of bathrooms, wondering what a utility was, and shaking their heads in astonishment at the number of noughts in the asking price. Then the Vernons had moved into the Mount. No one knew where they had come from or what Mr. Vernon did, except that he was "in business." He drove off every day in his Jaguar XJS in the direction of Sheffield, sometimes staying away from home for days on end. Was he another one just pausing for a while in the Peak while he booked his ticket to Tuscany?
"You'll be glad of the extra cash, too, though, won't you? Just been on holiday?" said Garnett.
"Scotland," said Cooper.
"Bloody hell. Scotland? It's just the Peak District, but with a bit more water, isn't it? Can't see the point of that, myself. Me, I want a bit of sun and sand when I go on leave. Not to mention the cheap booze, eh? I like Ibiza. There's loads of English pubs and casinos and stuff. A few bottles of sangria, a paella, and a go on the fruit machines. You can't beat it, that's what I say. Besides, the wife'd divorce me if I suggested anything else. She's on about the Maldives next year. I don't even know where it is."
"Somewhere east of Ibiza, I think," said Cooper. "But you'd like it."
The line was moving forward again, and Cooper waved away a cloud of flies from his face. Sun and sand and cheap booze were far from his mind. Even during his fortnight on Skye, his thoughts had kept slipping away from the rock face, back to the promotion interviews that were coming up, now just a few days away. There would soon be a detective sergeant's job available at E Division. DS Osborne had been on sick leave for weeks now, and it was said that he would go the usual way -- early retirement on health grounds, another pension to be paid for from the creaking police authority budget. Ben Cooper thought he was the natural successor to Osborne. Ten years in the force, and five in CID, and he had more local knowledge than most of the rest of his shift put together. The sergeant's job was what he wanted and needed. More -- it was what his family wanted. Cooper thought of his mother and the desperately hopeful look in her eye when he came home from work, the question as often unspoken as asked out loud. He thought about her many times a day, every time he saw someone ill or old. He thought of her seemingly endless pain and grief, and the one thing she thought might ease it. He ached to give her what she longed for, just this once.
The line of men were deep into the trees again now, the canopy over them muffling the noise of the police helicopter that was still moving along the valley, sweeping the woods with its thermal imaging camera. The sudden transition from glaring sun to deep shade made it difficult to make out the details of the undergrowth below the trees. In places there could have been an entire SAS platoon lying concealed in the chest-high bracken and willow herb, waiting for some bobby in blue overalls to stumble into them armed with nothing but a slug-encrusted pole.
A pheasant clattered in alarm and took off somewhere nearby. From farther away, there was another sound. The trees were too thick to tell which direction it came from or exactly how far away it was. But it was the sound of a dog, and it barked just once.
Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Booth
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