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The Dead do Speak
By Patti Battison
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 Patti Battison
All rights reserved.
THIS IS INTERESTING,' said DCI Wells, staring down at the newly-exposed find.
'It can't be human,' said Mia. 'Look at the hand. It's a dummy, it's got to be.'
'No, darling, it's mummified.' Wells rubbed at his jowls. 'Nicely preserved, an' all.'
They were on a long stretch of land about thirty yards wide and effectively detached from the cemetery by a four-foot-tall picket fence; the impressive tower was all that could be seen of St Matthew's church from their point of view.
Wells's intense glance scanned the immediate area: he took in the lush carpet of meadow flowers and tall grasses, their heads buffeted in sequence by a brisk summer breeze that whipped across the exposed space. The River Stratton – a short distance from where they stood – flowed quietly by, its rippled surface catching the sun's rays beautifully.
It was a pretty spot, tranquil and unsullied, apart from a section of approximately twenty-square-yards which had been cleared and tilled quite recently. At the centre of the square was a rectangular hole about four feet deep, its edges piled with the resulting mounds of dark soil and heavy clay.
The right-hand wall of the hole had partially collapsed, exposing one quarter of the body. It lay on its back, the cloth-clad arm rigid and fixed at an angle; its head and the majority of its torso still covered. The hand was the only visible part of the corpse; its leathery skin pulled taut and blackened, giving it a strangely synthetic appearance.
The two gravediggers had retrieved their spades and were now standing in shocked silence beside the vicar, whose richly-coloured vestments lent a sense of the absurd to the grisly scene.
DCI Wells approached them. 'Why were you digging here?' he asked.
It was the vicar who answered. 'We've run out of space,' he said, gesturing beyond the fence towards the gravestones. 'This stretch is actually part of the cemetery, but it's been flooded a couple of times and the powers-that-be thought it wise to abandon it. No money for flood defences, you see.'
'So why use it now?'
The vicar gave a dramatic shrug, arms outstretched, heavy cassock billowing with the effort. 'When my congregation was told no more burials would be allowed at St Matthew's, all hell broke loose. They're sods at taking no for an answer. So we applied to have this bit reopened – the last flood was quite a few years ago now – and our application was granted.' He nodded towards the river. 'We're hoping to have some sort of barrier built between here and the bank, make the place a bit more secure. Not that the council are going to be throwing money at us. We'll be raising it ourselves ... God willing.'
'How many years has this section been cordoned off?' asked Wells.
The vicar gave a discreet sigh. 'Look, I don't want to appear rude, but I really need to inform the police....'
'I should've said, vicar, we are the police.' Wells produced his warrant card. 'Detective Chief Inspector Paul Wells, Larchborough CID.'
'And I'm his detective sergeant,' said Mia, reaching for her card before remembering she'd left it at home.
The vicar gave her an astonished look. 'You're a police office? I'd no idea.'
Wells said, 'Would you answer the question, Mr ...?'
'Fisher. Charles Fisher. Charlie, as a rule.' All signs of that confident actor from the graveside were now gone. The vicar was dithering, in serious need of a prompt. 'Sorry, what was the question again?'
'How long has this bit been cordoned off?'
Fisher thought for a moment, his Bible clutched close to his chest. He gave another shrug. 'Sorry, can't tell you offhand.'
'Find out,' said Wells. 'Quick as you can.'
One of the gravediggers edged forward, spade held aloft. 'Shall we finish the job?'
'No, mate, you can leave it to us.' Wells pulled a face at Reverend Fisher. 'There'll be no funeral taking place here, vicar. This is a crime scene now. You'd better make other arrangements.'
Fisher was almost as tall as the DCI's six-foot-five, and heavily muscled too; but he seemed to shrink before their eyes, his amiable features crumbling into a tortured grimace.
'I see ... right ... OK ...' he mumbled, fingers beating out a tattoo on the Bible as his thoughts raced. He turned his apologetic stare towards Mia. 'Not quite what we had in mind for today, Miss Harvey.'
'Not quite, no,' she said, still scanning the hole, her professional curiosity fired up.
Reverend Fisher cast a withering glance at the corpse, as though reprimanding it for blasting a hole through his schedule. 'What should I do now, Chief Inspector?'
'Find me that information,' said Wells.
'No, I mean about the burial. Can it go ahead a bit further along?'
'Not until we've cleared the site.'
'How long will that take?'
'God knows, but the sooner you let us get on, the sooner we'll be out of your way.'
Fisher glared at the DCI, seemed about to parry the sharp words with a few of his own. 'I'll be in my office at the front of the church,' he said, turning on his heel. Then, hovering tentatively by the hole for a moment, he made a swift sign of the cross and marched away, the gravediggers following.
'You can bugger off an' all,' the DCI told Mia.
'What? Oh no, sir.'
'Oh yes, sir. You've been given compassionate leave and you're taking it.'
'But the body....'
'You've just buried your mother, darling. You need time to get over it.'
'I'll only get depressed at home, sir. This is just what I need ... help take my mind off everything.'
Wells let out a long breath. 'One of these days you'll do as you're bloody told,' he muttered, ruffling his hair as he weighed up his options. 'OK, but the moment it all gets too much, you take yourself off home. Understood?'
Mia could have kissed that corpse. Thanks to John or Jane Doe down there she could put off having to cope with her newly-acquired orphan status for a while. No doubt she'd be storing up all kinds of problems for the future – her mother's death had hit her harder than she could ever have imagined – but any excuse to delay the grieving process was to be grabbed with both hands.
'Shall I get the scene secured, sir?'
'I'll do it,' said Wells, already turning on his mobile phone. 'And hopefully we can get John Lloyd to retrieve the body.'
Mia frowned. 'I thought he'd retired.'
'Semi-retired – wants more time to study Sanskrit or some such crap. But if I know John, he'll be champing at the bit to get his hands on this one.'
Mia turned back to the corpse, surveyed the small section of desiccated flesh on view while the DCI scrolled through his numbers list for Silver Street Police Station.
'Why do you think the body didn't decay, sir?'
'Haven't the foggiest. That's why we need John.' Wells depressed the call button and grinned. 'Exciting, ain't it?'
'I wonder how the funeral's going,' pondered Detective Constable Jack Turnbull.
He was waiting with his colleague, Detective Inspector Nick Ford, in the corridor outside courtroom number one at Larchborough Crown Court. They were there to give evidence in a rape case involving a music teacher from the local comprehensive and one of his more nubile female pupils. The fifteen-year-old in question was beautifully formed – and highly knowledgeable in the art of seduction (as well as piano playing) according to the testimonies given that morning by a number of men whose lives and marriages had been terminally ruined by their association with the girl.
According to Nick, if she put half as much energy into her studies as she directed towards her flourishing sex life then a place at one of Britain's top universities would be hers for the taking. In fact, both detectives were of the opinion that the schoolteacher was the real victim in this case, but they were batting for the prosecution so would need to keep shtum on that particular point.
Nick tossed aside his crumpled newspaper – he'd finished the crossword, read everything on the sports pages, had even consulted the horoscopes – and offered Jack a jaded shrug.
'She'll be dancing on the grave by now.'
'Oh nice one,' Jack said, tutting.
'What?' said Nick, all wide-eyed innocence. 'Mia couldn't stand going to that nursing home every week. Can't say I blame her either. Talk about land of the zombies....'
Jack gave a pronounced wince. 'You missed your vocation, mate. You'd have gone all the way in the caring services.'
'Whatever.' Nick consulted his wristwatch. A mere three minutes had dragged by since the last time he'd looked. 'It must be our turn soon ... please.'
They fell silent, took to watching the steady stream of humanity passing before them: sharp-suited solicitors; uniformed police officers; pompous court officials; tremulous witnesses; a fair selection of society's drop-outs, most of whom sported that season's must-have items: the over-sized hooded top and matching electronic tag. Sit here long enough, Nick thought, and you'd catch a glimpse of Big Foot being chased by a yeti.
'Shall I fetch another coffee?' Jack asked.
'Only if you fancy caffeine poisoning.'
Just then the imposing door of the courtroom creaked open and an usher appeared. 'Court's adjourned,' she said. 'All those for Regina versus Fairbrother reconvene here at two o'clock.'
'Fucking great,' Nick hissed. 'It'll take all day at this rate.'
'At least lunch'll be on expenses,' said Jack, who always looked for the silver lining.
The detectives chose a cosy curry house in a side street near the courts where the food was tasty but cheap and the watery lager cheaper still. Forty-five minutes later, duly fortified, they decided on a bit of retail therapy and were about to sidle into River Island when a scuffle started outside the HMV store opposite.
It would seem that a bungled theft was in progress. A couple of hefty youths clutching large holdalls were struggling with two store assistants, both of whom were determined to keep the thieves on the premises.
A furious battle raged in the doorway for several moments before spilling out on to the street, scattering passersby with its violent undertones and the foul language issuing from the robbers' indignant mouths. Then one of the youths produced a knife, his crazed look proclaiming that he'd like nothing better than to use it.
As Jack followed Nick's haphazard path through the lunchtime traffic the youth with the knife broke free and hurtled past the shoppers, knocking a couple of them flying and dropping his bag in the process. Nick sprinted after him, keeping to the empty gutters, his determined glare never leaving his quarry's heaving back.
Jack was left to tackle the second youth still being held by the shop assistant. 'You're nicked,' he said, feeling in his pockets for warrant card and handcuffs.
The assistant – believing his heroics were no longer required now that the cavalry had arrived – let go of his catch. And his relieved sigh became a gasp as the thief threw his heavy bag at Jack's face, knocking the detective off his feet.
Jack was trying to straighten up when the youth's fist connected with the top of his head, plunging his senses into a quagmire of agony which deepened considerably after a second punch to his upturned chin.
The robber grabbed Jack's lapel and pulled him upright, continued to jab at his face, the frazzled detective powerless to stop him. Jack was aware of a strong alcoholic stench, could sense the youth's spiralling anger. He knew that he needed to block the punches but couldn't quite work out how to do it; that first hit had left him severely disorientated.
The fast-growing crowd kept to a safe distance, their faces showing shock and excitement in equal measure, not one of them tempted to intervene.
Jack tasted iron and, managing to twist slightly to the left, spat a load of bloody saliva at the pavement, noting with surprise a number of red patches already there. Was that his blood? He was frightened. He was going to get seriously hurt unless he upped his game. How though? The youth still had hold of his jacket, pulling him off balance, making it impossible for him to retaliate.
The attack was relentless, and the yob seemed invincible as Jack's half-hearted lunges kept missing their target. And that's when the detective got lucky. The youth suddenly let go of the lapel and grabbed Jack's shirt instead, but with way too much aggression. As a number of buttons were ripped from the material, Jack – who in any other situation would have cried real tears for the demise of his favourite designer shirt – found himself free to move for the first time since the beating began.
Taking advantage of the unexpected lull Jack kicked out, aiming for his opponent's genitals, but connecting with his thigh instead. It was enough to shock the yob for the vital second it took Jack's fist to find his leering features. The right hook was ineffectual, hardly finding any purchase, and Jack was trying to line up another when Nick appeared at his shoulder.
As Nick shoved his handcuffed captive inside the store, throwing the youth's retrieved holdall in there after him, Jack's assailant made a valiant move to escape. The DI was too nifty on his feet though. Before the yob could get away Nick was on him, grabbing his arms and holding them at an impossible angle behind his back.
'Jack, give us your cuffs,' he hollered, almost pulling the thief's arms out of their sockets as he attempted to break free.
The young detective merely stood there, his bloodied expression unreadable.
'Jack, throw us your fucking cuffs.'
This time the words registered and Jack managed to free them from his pocket before everything went black and nothing hurt any more.
By late afternoon scene-of-crime officers had erected a tent over the hole, keeping their discovery safe from prying camera lenses. DCI Wells knew that once the story broke, the local media would be out in force and the notion disturbed him; the positioning of the body and the openness of its surroundings would offer plenty of assistance to those intrepid reporters. Wells would be seeking publicity soon enough, but he wanted to be calling the shots when the time came. He needed complete control or the investigation could quickly become a farce.
It was essential that the body be removed to a more secure location as soon as was possible and, after calling for officers to secure the scene, Wells had set about tracking down John Lloyd, Larchborough's most revered pathologist.
'Fascinating,' Lloyd murmured, taking his first look into the partially-dug grave.
'Knew you'd like it,' said Wells. 'Otherwise I'd never have disturbed you.'
The pathologist had been searching for his golf ball in the rough (the second time that day) when Wells's call came through on his mobile, so he'd been more than willing to abandon the game even before the DCI had made him aware of the unusual condition of the body. He stood now in rapt wonder, like a small boy in Santa's workshop.
'Think you'll be able to get it out?' asked Wells.
'It's been years since I've done this sort of work,' said Lloyd, patting his thickening waistline. 'That body'll need careful handling. Not as robust as it looks. But, yes, I'll manage.'
'How long, do you reckon?'
'To dig it out?' Lloyd pursed his lips. 'Hard to say. There'll be all manner of evidence in that soil. Wouldn't want to ruin any of it.'
'I've every faith in you,' Wells assured him.
Mia was at a gate in the fence, chatting with the forensics team, all of whom had an eye on the tent, eager to start their duties. And the minute the men left the tent, they descended en masse.
The pathologist trudged across to Mia, his smile sympathetic. 'Paul's told me about your mother, dear. I'm terribly sorry for your loss.'
'She's dying to know why the body didn't decay,' said Wells. 'Any ideas, John?'
Lloyd gave a noncommittal shrug. 'Bacteria in a dead body need a certain set of conditions to be present before the decaying process can begin, Paul. Now, excessive heat prevents those conditions from occurring and that's why mummification is usually confined to hot dry countries.' He gave a sudden chuckle. 'When is our climate ever hot and dry for more than five minutes, eh?'
Excerpted from The Dead do Speak by Patti Battison. Copyright © 2012 Patti Battison. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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