Beneath These Stones

Beneath These Stones

Audiobook(MP3 on CD)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781531869571
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

'Sorry to be a bit on the late side,' said George Biddock. 'I had to go and visit my old auntie. She's over ninety, you know. Bit deaf and legs not too good, but wonderful bright.'

    'I understand,' said Meredith Mitchell, glancing obviously at her wristwatch. 'Yes, a marvellous age. I did tell you, Mr Biddock, I had to catch a train this morning.'

    'Well, off you go then, my duck,' returned George amiably, 'and get your train.' He made catching trains sound like an eccentric hobby. 'I got your little drawing here and all my measurements.' To prove it, he took it from his pocket, much crumpled and with curious marks in blue pencil all over it.

    They were standing by the front door of Meredith's end-of-terrace cottage. George sucked his teeth and gazed appraisingly at the frontage in a professional manner as he tucked the plan back in his pocket. Meredith suspected there it would remain until the job was finished. She gazed speculatively at George and wondered whether engaging Mr Biddock to build a small porch had been the right decision.

    The builder was a local man. Bamford people, when they heard someone wanted a small job done, invariably advised, 'You need George Biddock for that.'

    The idea that someone might not ask George was seen as an affront to local pride. When Meredith had mentioned to her neighbour, Mrs Crouch, that she was thinking of having a small porch added to her modest house, she was, predictably, recommended to get hold of George.

    'He'll fix that up for you in no time.' What wasmore, Mrs Crouch had George's phone number written in wax crayon on a laminated cardboard owl in her kitchen. After that the die was cast. George Biddock it had to be.

    So it had come about that Meredith had arranged to arrive late at her Foreign Office desk today in order to wait for George. There were last-minute details to settle before she went off to catch the London train and George set about constructing the porch. He had delivered the wood and some bags of cement the evening before on an elderly rattling truck. The wood lay in unsawn lengths at the side of the path. The cement bags were decently shrouded in a plastic sheet.

    The porch had seemed like a very good idea. The hall was draughty. A porch would, Meredith hoped, lead to lower heating bills. Moreover, anyone standing at the front door in inclement weather got wet through. Meredith, after getting soaked while hunting for her key throughout the winter, had decided that enough was enough and come spring, something would have to be done.

    George had received the commission with the words, 'Ah, Doris Crouch said you was wanting a rustic porch.' So it was a good job I asked him, thought Meredith, realising bush telegraph had got there before her.

    To be fair, he had seemed to know what she was talking about and his price was reasonable. At the same time, she was fully aware it was necessary to get things quite clear at the outset or George would build what he thought was suitable, not what she wanted. But now, for the first time, a real niggle of doubt as to his overall reliability assailed her. It was kind of George to visit an aged aunt. George was on the wrong side of sixty himself and Meredith wasn't surprised to learn Auntie was a nonagenarian. On the other hand, she hoped Auntie wasn't going to prove the standard excuse for late arrival or outright nonappearance. Still, he was here now, a tall gangling figure wearing an ancient suit over a ragged knitted sweater. The jacket sleeves stopped well short of his wrists and his huge gnarled hands dangled in a sinister fashion by his sides. A greasy flat cap crowned his balding head. A stub of pencil protruded from behind one ear, an unlit crushed cigarette from behind the other.

    'I'll leave you to it, then,' she said.

    'Ah,' said George absently. As far as he was concerned she was dismissed. To hang around now would be to get under his feet was the unspoken hint.

    Meredith backed her car out of the garage and prepared to drive to the station. On a last impulse, she lowered the window and called out, 'I gave you my office number, didn't I? You will ring up if there's a problem?'

    'Little job like that?' returned George. 'Be a doddle. Off you go. Doris Crouch will have seen me get here and got the kettle on.'

    Oh dear. Meredith let the window up again, shutting out George and whatever work practices he observed. She'd hired him and couldn't unhire him. Anyway, she hadn't time to argue.

    As it was, being late set an immediate problem. The station car park was full. She had to drive on to a bumpy grass verge at the far end of it and leave the car there. Technically the verge was within the precincts of the car park and covered by her parking permit, but it didn't improve her mood to swing her legs out of the front seat and feel her high heels sink into the mud.

    Perhaps getting George along to build a porch really had little to do with wet weather, but a lot to do with Meredith's general feeling of late. Life wasn't going the way she wanted and she told herself she ought to get a grip on things. It all had to do with Alan, of course. Alan and his proposal of marriage. The proposal she'd turned down. A refusal he, in turn, had accepted with a kind of obstinate calm, as if he were sure, in time, she'd change her mind.

    Which she was not going to do, she had told herself countless times, whilst travelling, showering, washing up, cleaning her teeth, ostensibly dealing with official business. In fact, in the course of every activity you could name off the top of your head. Such resolve should have left her at peace. It had left her instead in a state of high dissatisfaction. She blamed his attitude for making her feel a worm and belligerent at one and the same time. Hence the decision to brush up her lifestyle.

    The porch wasn't the only thing decided on to this end. She'd got far too careless about clothes and general appearance. She'd never been a fashion plate and never would, although she was tall enough to be a professional model. But she was a plain Jane, as she'd been told often during her childhood. 'Lucky Meredith has got a good brain!' some kindly aunt had once said in her hearing. 'Because she's never going to set the world on fire with her face.'

    Reflecting on this in adulthood, Meredith thought that it would be very difficult to set anything on fire with your face. The remark hadn't particularly hurt her feelings at the time, and hadn't worried her later. On the other hand, she'd told her reflection in the bedroom mirror only yesterday, there's no excuse for going about looking, as the same aunt would have put it, as if you'd been dragged through a hedge backwards.

    Having had a little more time this morning to get ready, therefore, she'd spent it on her appearance. She wore a new rust-coloured business suit and had styled her bobbed brown hair with care. The shoes were fairly new, too, but now both heels were ringed with a mud collar. No time to wipe it off. The train was approaching. Meredith locked the car, hitched up the tight skirt and, briefcase in hand, sprinted at admirable speed in the heels across the car park. She made it through the station entrance and arrived on the platform as the doors of the train hissed open. She jumped on and fell into the nearest seat.

    One advantage of travelling later in the day was lack of fellow passengers. Instead of being jammed in a sweating ill-tempered crowd, she had a choice of seats in a carriage only dotted with other travellers. On the opposite side of the aisle a man sat reading his paper, although he took time off from that to have a good stare at her legs. Meredith wriggled the skirt back down as far as it would go, which wasn't very far. Two women conversed further along. A teenager with headphones clamped to his ears twitched and bobbed his head in a world of his own at the far end. She put her briefcase on the seat and searched her bag for a tissue to clean up the shoes. The train doors hissed shut and they moved out of the station. Before it had progressed very far down the line, however, and before picking up any real speed, it slowed again and came to a stop. Meredith, shoe in one hand and tissue in the other, peered out of the window.

    They were just short of a disused Victorian viaduct of modest proportions, surrounded by woodland. The embankment rose steeply to either side of the tracks, overgrown with nettles, mostly blackened from the winter frosts but with a few bright green shoots pushing through. There were brambles, and young elderberry seedlings mingled with last year's straggling bare branches of buddleia, that plant that loves to insert itself into unlikely nooks and crannies and has an affinity with railways, often choosing to sprout up in the narrow space between parallel tracks. That was just coming into leaf. Amongst and beyond these, assorted spindly trees and bushes crawled in a tangled mass to the top of the embankment. But right in front ...

    Meredith's heart gave a startled hop. Right opposite, staring her malevolently in the eye, was a large green frog.

    Bright emerald in colour, with bulging black eyes and made of some kind of soft furry pile cloth, it dangled from the lowest branch of a nearby birch, apparently caught by an attached strap. Meredith realised it was one of the popular kind of backpack shaped in comic animal form. She couldn't think what it was doing here. It looked clean, dry, undamaged. Brand-new, in fact. Sadly, people did dump their rubbish in the countryside. Supermarket trolleys, old bedsteads and sundry black plastic bags turned up in the unlikeliest spots. But this grotesque creature, with its expression which was both amusing and just a little threatening, didn't qualify as junk. Meredith frowned.

    The man across the aisle put down his newspaper and seeing that his travelling companion was staring intently through the window, observed, 'They'll be working on the new track. We were held up yesterday at the same time. They'll let us through in a minute.'

    'Yes,' said Meredith absently. At another time she might have fretted at the delay to a day already beginning behind schedule. At this rate, she wouldn't appear at her desk until lunchtime. But distracted by the frog's pop-eyed gaze, she gave the man's words little attention. He shrugged and taking out his mobile phone, began to communicate news of his predicament to anyone who might be interested and probably to several who weren't.

    'Hullo, Roger? I'll be in a little late ...'

    She was now able to distinguish the chaotic jungle of growth in better detail as her eyes became accustomed to the shady bank. Further up, there looked to be a kind of path beaten through the vegetation, though who would want to climb down here she couldn't imagine. Unless, of course, intrepid blackberry gatherers had been attracted last autumn to the brambles, undeterred by trains roaring past.

    Suddenly, in a movement which gave her quite a jolt, a large black shape lifted from the ground and burst out of the trees to flap away over the viaduct. She stilled her nerves. Just a crow which had been foraging about on the ground. There must be pickings down there for carrion eaters. Dead birds, mice, the remains of a fox's kill, perhaps. Meredith felt a stir of unease nevertheless. It was that frog, those lifeless shiny protuberant eyes, the bizarre nature of the thing. And what the dickens was it doing there at all? She pressed her nose against the window and squinted furiously.

    'Hullo, James, I'm stuck in a train ...'

    That man was going to work through his address book. Meredith wrenched her gaze from the frog and finished cleaning up her shoes. She got up and made her way to a rubbish receptacle and got rid of the muddy tissues. When she returned to her seat, the man opposite was disturbing the morning routine of someone called Cathy.

    Meredith returned to her study of the frog. Just then, the train lurched into movement and the frog, caught by the movement of air, swayed, giving the impression it waved farewell with its token green plush arms (or front legs, if one wanted to be pedantic).

    'Goodbye to you, too,' murmured Meredith unwarily. The man opposite tucked away the phone and glanced across at her. He picked up his paper and retired behind it again. If you travel by train in Britain, he was probably thinking, you're going to meet the occasional potty one. The young woman across the aisle didn't fit the usual pattern of travelling nutter, but you never knew.

    Slowly they rocked down the track, beneath the looming arch of the old viaduct, into shadow, out into the sunshine again. The workmen in their fluorescent orange jackets were standing back from the track, leaning on their shovels. They watched the train pass with little interest. It picked up speed and soon they were rattling along, swaying, as the driver tried to make up some of the lost time. The green frog slipped down into the recesses of Meredith's memory and lodged there, temporarily forgotten.

'Sorry to be so late,' Meredith apologised to Gerald with whom she was obliged to share a roomy office. 'Has anyone wanted me?'

    'No,' said Gerald cheerfully. 'But since you're here, I'm taking an early lunch. Coming along?'

    Meredith thought of the canteen and shook her head. 'I had a late breakfast and I've got an apple and a bag of peanuts in my case.'

    'Planning a trip to the zoo? That's the sort of food they feed the chimps.'

    'You say the nicest things, Gerald.'

    'I need a proper lunch,' he retorted. 'I like a cooked meal in the middle of the day.'

    'What's the matter? Doesn't your mother feed you?'

    That was an unkind crack and in revenge for the one he'd made about her lunch. Gerald, at the age of thirty-nine, lived with a doting and possessive mother who, it was obvious to all beholders, fed him very well.

    'If I don't eat properly,' said Gerald, 'I can't concentrate. I think they've got macaroni cheese down there today!' He trotted away happily.

    Meredith opened her case, took out the apple and set it neatly on her desk. Then she sat staring at the telephone. She hadn't seen Alan since the previous weekend and neither had rung the other. That could mean no more than he was busy. She could lift the phone. Lift it now and ring him at Regional HQ. Just a couple of words. Just to say hullo. But a strange reluctance stayed her hand. There had been a subtle change in the nature of her relationship with Alan. An invisible line drawn somewhere in both their minds had been crossed. It could be expressed more simply and brutally: he was a rejected suitor, behaving decently in the circumstances. She was eaten up with guilt because she'd made him unhappy.

    Of course, both had declared they could go on as before, until such time as they might discuss the topic again — A chance would be a fine thing, chum! said a disagreeable little voice in Meredith's head at this juncture. Who says he'll ask you again? Why should he? Anyway you don't want him to, do you? — but it wasn't as simple as that. How could it be?

    Meredith moved her gaze to contemplate the apple instead, and wondered what would have become of the human race if Eve had turned down Adam. No, the other way round, if Adam had turned down Eve. Because it was Eve who picked the apple, wasn't it, and tempted poor old weak-willed Adam. Heh! I bet Adam needed no urging. Why was it always the woman's fault? Why should she feel it was her fault? Because her refusal had hurt Alan, she told herself. That was something she wouldn't have wanted and had known she couldn't avoid. Obstinate in this as she was in other things, she'd still clung to a decision worked out with much heart-searching and what at the time she'd liked to think was honesty, even courage. As time passed, she was less sure about either of the last two.

    'I just don't know if I did the right thing,' she told the apple.

    Good job Gerald wasn't here. The merest hint was always enough to set Gerald asking questions. Perhaps Gerald ought to have been a policeman, like Alan. Gerald, once on the scent, wasn't easily shaken off. For that reason, she'd remained doggedly bright and cheery here at work over the last few weeks. Well, she might fool Gerald, but she didn't fool herself. Meredith sighed. She had been a fool, she supposed, to imagine that things could just go on as they were. That they, she and Alan, could just go on. Superficially, they had, of course. But there was no denying there was a certain underlying awkwardness between them now.

    Meredith pushed aside the apple and with it the vexed topic. She had spent enough time worrying at it like a terrier with some toy. She turned her attention resolutely to her in-tray.

Even as Meredith made her decision to leave calling Alan until later, gypsy Danny Smith was beginning a cautious descent through the wooded cover of the railway embankment to visit his rabbit snares.

    Danny was in his early forties, though he looked older. He had travelled the stretch of road running parallel to the railway line for years. All his life, in fact. His parents had travelled this part of the country before him and now he, his wife and children appeared at six-monthly intervals and parked the trailer in the same field on Hazelwood Farm for five or six weeks at a time.

    That arrangement also dated back untold years. His parents had camped there with the agreement of old man Franklin and now Danny and his family camped there with the tacit say-so of the old man's son, Hugh. Danny's elder sons, both married with families of their own, travelled other roads and no longer came to the farm. Normally travelling people weren't welcome on private land, but the farmer's family made an exception of the Smiths who, in any case, were not wandering hippies, but true Romanies. Danny carried a traveller's pass to prove it. The pass would have allowed the Smiths on to established gypsy sites, but Danny had little use for those. Even the idea of being organised to that extent filled him with horror and incomprehension.

    His married sons, on the other hand, largely at the urging of their wives, seemed to head from one approved site to the next. Danny saw this as a kind of betrayal of their upbringing. The next step would be a house. They would end up rejecting not only their freedom but a way of life which the gypsies had led in Europe since the Middle Ages, when they'd arrived on their long migration from India, preceded, legend had it, by their king on a white horse and with a band playing.

    Apart from the freedom, another advantage to pitching camp at Hazelwood was that the farm offered casual labour and a chance to earn a bit of money. Danny did a fair day's work for his reward, cash only, of course, paid daily.

    The warren on the bank here dated back centuries, Danny reckoned. Perhaps it had been here nearly as long as the gypsies had. Rabbits, too, had arrived in England only in the early Middle Ages. He knew this because Simon Franklin, who was a scholar, had told him. Then they were a gentleman's meat. Later they became a poor man's dish. Now, few ate them at all, excepting Danny and his kind and older country folk, despite the fact that they were a clean meat and good eating.

    Some of the old workings had been abandoned, others were still in use both by rabbits and other creatures taking advantage of the excavations. The indefatigable rabbits tunnelled out fresh passages and added to the subterranean maze. The whole bank was riddled with holes like a Swiss cheese. The tree roots held the earth together. Without them, given a few winter storms, the whole lot would've subsided into a spongy mess.

    Rabbits had their ways and Danny knew most of them. Once an animal left its burrow it didn't just run anywhere. It was a territorial little creature and made for its habitual foraging areas travelling by familiar paths. Once you'd worked out where the rabbits ran, you stood a fair chance of catching one or two overnight. Rabbits liked to feed in the early dawn and at twilight. Then, at a hint of danger, they would scamper away, the light-coloured fur on the underside of their tails a warning in the gloom to fellow browsers.

    He scrambled and slid down the bank, following the faint track between the clumps of trees and bushes. As he neared the bottom, he could see the bright glitter of the railway line. He'd watched the stationary train from above and waited until it rattled away before making his own move. He was aware that in the eyes of authority he was breaking the law in several ways by being here, but that was not the only reason for his discretion. Like the wild creatures whose ways he knew so well, Danny had an innate dislike of being observed. Sitting up there on a tree stump, he'd wondered what it must be like to be carried around at speed, hurtling towards distant destinations, the passing landscape just a blur. He'd never been on a train. Wouldn't have fancied the idea, sealed up in a tin can and borne along without control. Danny frowned, not at the glitter of track, but at an alien smudge of garish emerald among the natural shades of brown, grey and spring green around him.

    He stopped. Now his senses picked up a faint nuance of some recent disturbance. Something out of place. Something wrong. He turned his head from side to side, peering into the undergrowth with his quick dark eyes. He sniffed at the air. All was quiet. But now his skin prickled. Unease had become a physical thing, almost tangible as if he could indeed have stretched out his hand and felt it. Go away. Leave this place, said all these indications taken together.

    He almost turned, but it wasn't the first time he'd been here, and the previous evening, when he'd set the snares, there'd been nothing wrong. Perhaps it was the train which had disturbed things, that clanking metal monster from an outside world. Anyway, he was curious about that green object down there.

    Danny carried on down the path and approached it. He saw it was some kind of bag swinging from a branch. Right daft-looking thing it was, made out like a frog. He glanced round, still alert for the slightest movement, ears sharpened, seeking the owner of the bag. But there was no one.

    He lifted it down. It was heavy, filled with what proved to be books. Danny lifted one out and stared at it puzzled. He wasn't illiterate, but his schooling had been patchy, and he hadn't progressed much beyond the first reading primer. Pretty well any word with more than one syllable floored him. Zilpah, his wife, was a dab hand at the reading so it didn't matter. She was even teaching the kids. He had sent his children to local schools during the longer stays around the area, but the kids hadn't taken to schooling and he didn't blame them. If Zilpah could teach them reading and writing, he didn't see what more a school could do. The reckoning, now — what they called arithmetic — that came natural. If you couldn't add up, you were done for when bargaining. Danny might be slow to make out his letters but when it came to working out the value of a pile of scrap, he had a mind like a calculator.

    He opened the book with care and reverence because it was a rare thing in his hands and probably worth money. It had a picture in it of a fellow in a tin suit sat up on a horse. A ruddy strong horse it've needed to be to carry that load. History, that's what it was. As he made to close it up, the front cover fell open and he saw that someone had printed a name inside. Danny's lips moved as he worked it out. Tam-my Frank-lin. Tammy Franklin, Hugh Franklin's little girl. Danny gave a low whistle. He didn't know what the bag was doing here, but it ought to be returned to the farm and he'd take it up there later on that day. He slung it over his shoulder meantime, to join the grimy canvas sack already there, and turned back to the path. He began to pick his way towards the location of the snares.

    He had heard the clatter of wings earlier as the crow flew up but now he became aware of another sound, the frantic buzzing of flies in a feeding frenzy. In the countryside, it was the sound of death.

    Danny paused, wariness replaced by alarm. Possibly flies had found a rabbit taken in one of his snares. But that wouldn't attract them in such number. Only one thing did that. Blood. Some creature lay dead among the bushes and he didn't for one moment suppose it was a rabbit.

    He sidled forward along the faint track between brambles until his eye caught a patch of blue. By now he was fearful and had to fight the overwhelming urge to retreat. Curiosity pressed him on. He moved a little closer, hooked aside a trailing bramble with the stick he carried, and saw at last a sprawled shape lying on a patch of crushed undergrowth and knew then what had attracted the flies.

    No ordinary carrion this. It was a body and it was human.

    A woman lay there, a woman with long fair hair escaping from some kind of big clasp. She lay on her back with her knees twisted to one side, and wore blue jeans, a green shirt, a pair of low-heeled walking shoes. The front of the green shirt below the breastbone was a seething mass of flies. Danny, revolted, threw his stick at them. They rose in a protesting mass from the blood on which they'd been feasting. He felt nauseous. The desire to flee became overpowering, but reason made him stand where he was while he worked out what would be the best thing to do. This kill was man's work and other men would soon take interest in it.

    He must have left footprints as he made his way down the track, so soft after recent rain. When the police came, as they would in due course, they would find those prints and seek out who had made them. Danny's brown eyes flickered over the terrain around and beyond the huddled shape. There was much trampled earth, broken brambles, crushed ground-level plants not only around the body, but leading back in a trail to the road above. That told its own story and Danny frowned. The body had been dragged here.

    At this point, Danny felt a brief spurt of relief followed by puzzlement. Having found Tammy's schoolbag, he'd feared for a moment it would prove to be young Tammy lying there. But since this clearly was an adult, what was the bag doing here? He knew he would have to go and report his grisly find. But not the bag. It would be as well not to report the bag but to return it to the child quietly, saying nothing to anyone else. Danny didn't like having anything to do with authority in any form and was reluctant to admit the necessity of doing so now. He would do what he must, but he saw no reason to involve Tammy or Hazelwood Farm.

    The coppers, when he told them, might be inclined to disbelieve him. They'd certainly ask a load of questions. Danny steeled himself to approach close enough to look at her face. It was distorted in death but, with sinking heart, he recognised her even so.

    He swore softly to himself and wiped the back of his hand nervously across his mouth. This made things doubly difficult. He knew now the farm couldn't be left out of it. The added weight of the bag of books on his shoulders was another complication. His heart felt heavier than the combined bags. He could report the body to the police—or go up to the farm and tell Hugh Franklin the dreadful news. Danny didn't relish that task. But he owed the Franklin family. He owed it to them to tell them himself and not leave something like this to uncaring strangers in uniform.

    Heavy-hearted, he turned and set off up the leaf-strewn path.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews