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Tom Belbury died in May and now that summer was over his brother missed him more than ever. Neither of them had married so there was no widow and no children, only the dog Honey. Jim took Honey to live with him, he had always liked her and it was what Tom had wanted. When he knew he hadn’t long to live he worried a lot about Honey, what would happen to her after he was gone, and though Jim assured him repeatedly that he would take her, Tom said it again and again.
‘Haven’t I promised over and over? You want me to put it in writing and get it witnessed? I will if that’s what you want.’
‘No, I trust you. She’s a good dog.’
His trust hadn’t been misplaced. Jim lived in the cottage that had been the brothers’ parents’ home and there Honey went to live with him. She was no beauty, owing her ancestry to an apparent mix of spaniel, basset hound and Jack Russell. Tom used to say she looked like a corgi and everyone knew corgis were the Queen’s dogs, having so to speak the royal seal of approval, but Jim couldn’t see it. Nevertheless, he had grown attached to Honey. Apart from fidelity and affection, she had one great virtue. She was a truffle dog.
Every September, at the beginning of the month, Tom and Honey used to go into one patch of woodland or another in the neighbour-hood of Flagford and hunt for truffles. A lot of people scoffed. They said truffles couldn’t be found in Britain, only in France and Italy, but there was no doubt Honey found them, was rewarded with a lump of meat, and Tom sold the truffles to a famous London restaurant for £200 a pound.
Jim disliked the taste but he liked the idea of £200 and possibly more. He had never been truffle-hunting with Tom but he knew how it was done. This was why a mild and sunny morning in late September found him and Honey in what their neighbours called the posh part of Flagford where Flagford Hall faced Athelstan House across Pump Lane, each amid extensive grounds. They had no interest in these houses or their occupants. They were heading for Old Grimble’s Field which filled the corner between the gardens of Athelstan House and two identical detached houses called Oak Lodge and Marshmead.
Like the Holy Roman Empire which Gibbon said was neither holy, Roman nor an empire, this open space wasn’t a field, nor was Grimble particularly old or really called Grimble. It was an overgrown piece of land, about an acre of what estate agents describe asa corner plot. Due to years of inattention, saplings had grown into trees, shrubs into bushes, roses and privet and dogwood into hedges and trees had doubled in size. Somewhere in the middle of this burgeoning woodland stood a semi-derelict bungalow which had belonged to Grimble’s father, its windows boarded up, its roof slowly shedding its tiles. Tom Belbury had been there truffle-hunting with Honey the year before and pronounced it rich in members of the genus Tuber.
Because Tom carried the rewards for Honey unwrapped in the breast pocket of his leather jacket, he usually smelt of meat that was slightly ‘off’. Jim hadn’t much liked it at the time but now he recalled it with affection. How pleased dear old Tom would be to see him and Honey heading for Old Grimble’s Field in close companionship, following his old pursuit. Perhaps he could see, Jim thought sentimentally, and imagined him looking down from whatever truffle wood in the sky he found himself in.
Honey was the director of operations. Tom used to claim that she was drawn to a particular spot by the presence of truffle flies hovering around the base of a tree, and now she led Jim to a mature tree (a sycamore, he thought it was) where he could see the flies himself.
‘Get digging, girl,’ he said.
The irregular warty lump, about the size of a tennis ball, which Honey unearthed she willingly relinquished in exchange for the cube of sirloin steak Jim took out of a hygienic ziplock bag he had brought with him.
‘This old fungus must weigh a good half-pound,’ he said aloud. ‘Keep on with the good work, Honey.’
Honey kept on. The truffle flies annoyed her and she snapped at the swarms, scattering them and snuffling towards where they had been densest. There she began digging again, fetched out of the rich leaf mould first a much smaller truffle, then one about the size of a large potato and was rewarded once more with pieces of sirloin.
‘There’s a lot more flies buzzing about over there,’ Jim said, pointing to a biggish beech tree which looked a hundred years old. ‘How about moving on?’
Honey had no intention of moving on. So might a diamond prospector refuse to abandon the lode where gems worth a fortune had already come to light, until he was sure the seam had been exhausted. Honey sniffed, dug, slapped at the flies with her paws, dug again. No more truffles were foraged and the object which she had unearthed was of no interest to her. It lay exposed on the chestnut-coloured soil, white, fanlike, unmistakeably what it was, a human hand.
Or, rather, the bones of a human hand, flesh, skin, veins, tendons all gone.
‘Oh, my lord, girl,’ said Jim Belbury, ‘whatever have you gone and found?’
As if she understood, Honey stopped digging, sat down and put her head on one side. Jim patted her. He put the three truffles in the plastic bag he had brought with him for that purpose, placed the bag inside his backpack and removed from it his mobile phone. Jim might be an old countryman, once an agricultural labourer and living in a cottage with no bathroom and no main drainage, but still he would no more have gone out without his mobile than would his fifteen-year-old great-nephew. Unaware of the number of Kingsmarkham police station, he dialled 999.
The thing that had come out of the pit lay exposed for them to see, a bunch of bones that looked more than anything like broomsticks, a skull to which scraps of decomposed tissue still adhered, all wrapped in purple cotton. They had been digging for two hours, an operation watched by Jim Belbury and his dog.
‘Man or woman?’ Chief Inspector Wexford asked.
‘Hard to say.’ The pathologist was a young woman who looked like a fifteen-year-old model, thin, tall, pale and other-worldly. ‘I’ll tell you when I’ve taken a closer look.’
‘How long has it been there?’
Carina Laxton eyed Wexford and his sergeant, DS Hannah Goldsmith who had asked the question. ‘And how long have you two been in the Force? Isn’t it about time you knew I can’t give you an immediate answer when a cadaver’s obviously been buried for years?’
‘OK but is it months or decades?’
‘Maybe one decade. What I can tell you is you’re wasting your time taking all these measurements and photographs as if someone put it there last week.’
‘Maybe Mr Belbury can help us there,’ said Wexford. He had decided not to mention the fact that Jim Belbury was trespassing, had probably been trespassing for years. ‘Did your dog ever dig here before?’
‘Not on this spot, no,’ said Jim. ‘Over there where there’s more bigger trees. Can I ask you if you reckon it’s what you call foul play?’
Wexford was tempted to say, well, no, you can’t, but he relented. ‘Someone buried him or her, so you have to–’ he began but Hannah interrupted him.
‘Law-abiding people don’t bury bodies they find lying about, you know,’ she said sharply. ‘Perhaps you should be on your way, Mr Belbury. Thank you, you’ve been very helpful.’
But Jim wasn’t to be dismissed so easily. Finding Wexford sympathetic and everyone else — Hannah, the scene-of-crime officer, the photographers, the pathologist and various policemen — of no account, he began giving the chief inspector details of all the houses and their occupants in the vicinity. ‘That’s Mr Tredown’s place next door and down there’s the Hunters and the Pickfords. Over the other side that’s Mr Borodin. I’ve lived in Flagford all my life. There’s nothing I don’t know.’
‘Then you can tell me who owns this land.’ Wexford extended his arm and waved his hand. ‘Must be at least an acre.’
His politically correct sergeant murmured something about hectares being a more appropriate measurement ‘in the present day’ but no one took much notice of her.
‘An acre and a half,’ said Jim with a glare at Hannah. ‘We don’t have no hectares round here. Them belongs in the Common Market.’ Like many people of his age, Jim still referred in this way to the European Union. ‘Who owns it? Well, Mr Grimble, innit? This here is Old Grimble’s Field.’
Though he might possibly be compounding a felony, seeing that the subterranean fungi in the bag properly belonged to this Grimble, Wexford thanked Jim and offered him a lift home in a police car.
‘And my dog?’ said Jim.
‘And your dog.’
His offer gratefully accepted, he and Hannah moved away, heading for the road where police vehicles were parked along the pavement. It became, within a short distance, Flagford High Street, a somewhat too picturesque village centre where stood the thirteenth-century church, a post office and general store, a shop which sold mosaic tabletops, another purveying lime-flower honey and mulberry conserve, and a number of flint-walled cottages, one thatched and another with its own bell tower.
Wexford, in the car, said to Hannah that, for all the times he had been to Flagford, he couldn’t remember noticing that piece of land before.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever been here before, guv,’ said Hannah.
He had grown accustomed to her calling him that and supposed she had originally got it off the television. The Bill, probably. Not that he liked it, while admitting it was current usage, but the trouble was all his officers had learnt it from her and now no one kept to the old ‘sir’. Burden would know who owned that land. He had a relative living in Flagford, his first wife’s cousin, Wexford thought it was.
‘There’s not much to be done,’ Hannah was saying, ‘until we know how long that body’s been there.’
‘Let’s hope Carina will know by later today.’
‘Meanwhile I could find out more about this Grimble and if he owns the old house on it.’
‘Right, but let me talk to Mr Burden first.’
Hannah directed one of her looks at him. She was a beautiful young woman, black-haired, white-skinned, with large brown eyes which softened into a quite disproportionate pitying sorrow combined with a desire to reproach him gently whenever he committed the solecism of using terms or styles she thought obsolete. ‘Mister Burden, oh, come,’ her glance said while the perfect lips stayed closed. Their relative ranks made reproach impossible but glances were free. As Wexford himself might have said, a cat may look at a king.
It was a gentle sunny day, what weather forecasters were starting to call ‘quiet’ weather, the temperature high for September, all the leaves still on the trees and most of them still green. Summer flowers in pots and urns and window boxes still bloomed on and on, more luxuriantly than in August. Frosts were due, frosts would normally have come by now but none had. If this was global warming, and Wexford thought it must be, it disguised its awful face under a mask of mild innocence. The sky had become the milky blue of midsummer covered with tiny white puffs of cloud.
He called Burden a moment after he got into the police station but the inspector’s voicemail told him he was occupied in an interview room. That would be his interview with Darrel Fincher, the teenager found with a knife on him. You could predict, without hearing a word of their conversation, what the boy would say: that he carried the knife for protection, that going home from school or going out in the evening he wouldn’t feel safe without a knife. It was ‘all them Somalis’, he would say. They were everywhere and they all had knives. That was what they called dark-skinned people these days, ‘them Somalis’ as they had once indiscriminately called Asians ‘them Pakis’. Wexford turned his thoughts to the Flagford corpse. With luck, it wouldn’t have been there for more than a year or two and would turn out to be that chap he could remember going missing a while back after a ram raid on a jeweller’s or the old woman who lived alone in a Forby cottage. After failing to visit her for three months her daughter had remembered her existence but on going there had found her apparently long gone. One of them it would most likely be. Strange, he thought, that death and subsequent decay wipe away age and sex and every distinguishing feature so that nothing is left but bones and a rag or two. And a hand, unearthed by an enthusiastic mongrel. How comforting it must have been when men and women (or women and men, as Hannah would say) believed that the body is but a sheath for the spirit which, at the point of death, flies away to some afterlife or paradise. It would hardly matter to you then, if your faith were strong enough, that you met your death from the blade of a knife, a bludgeon or because your heart gave its final beat in the natural course of things.
He came down to earth from these post-mortem reflections when his office door opened and Burden walked in. ‘That bit of land at Flagford where the dog-walker found a body? Of course I know who owns it. Everybody knows.’
‘I don’t,’ said Wexford. ‘And what d’you mean, everybody knows? It’s not the Tower of London, it’s not Harrods.’
‘I mean this guy it belongs to tells everyone how hard done by he is by the planning people. His name’s Grimble, John Grimble. He’s even had a piece about himself in the Courier. He’s obsessed. His father died — well, his stepfather it was — and left him the bungalow and the land it’s on and ever since he’s been trying to get planning permission to build houses on it. He thinks he’s been badly treated — that’s an understatement — because they’ll let him build one but not more.’
‘Where does he live?’