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The white-rimed undergrowth crackled and the grass crunched underfoot. In the moonlight, shapes loomed up on either side, threatening. The murderer paused, listening, but all was quiet. He then turned and crept from the scene, leaving the victim on the ground, staring silently and sightlessly through the branches at the stars.
Adam Sarjeant glanced over his shoulder at the creeping mist. Through it, the trees were vague outlines, giants moving noiselessly towards him.
‘Mog,’ he called. ‘We can’t go on much longer in this, can we?’
His employer pushed back lank dark hair and looked up from the paving slab he was lining up. ‘No. Just bring the tarp over and we’ll cover it all. With any luck it’ll be better tomorrow.’
Adam turned away from the new swimming pool he and Mog had been landscaping towards the covered pile of materials at the edge of the lawn. Beyond a wall, the house swam eerily like a great half-timbered ship. There was rustle over to his right, and a figure burst through the hedge.
‘’Ere, Adam! Mog!’
‘Johnny?’ Mog stood up. ‘What is it?’
‘Bleedin’ body, innit? Fuckin’ ʼell.’ Johnny suddenly bent double, his stringy grey pony tail swinging forward over his shoulder.
‘Johnny?’ Adam ran towards him. ‘Are you all right? What do you mean a body?’
Johnny lifted his head. ‘’Course I’m not bleedin’ all right. Call the cops.’
Mog arrived at Adam’s side. They looked at each other.
‘Had we better check?’ said Mog.
‘It’s a bleedin’ woman, I tell yer. Dead as a dodo. Call the cops.’ He sat down suddenly on the ground, his head in his hands.
Mog pulled out his phone and pushed buttons, while Adam ineffectually patted Johnny’s shoulder.
‘Yeah,’ he heard Mog saying. ‘No, I’m just working on the garden. The caretaker, he found it. Dark House, Dark Lane, between Steeple Cross and Keeper’s Cob.’
‘They say to stay here.’ Mog looked nervously towards the gap in the hedge where Johnny had burst through. ‘Where is it, Johnny?’
‘Just outside the grotto. They won’t make me go back, will they?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Adam. ‘They might.’
‘Did they say how long they’d be?’ asked Adam.
‘No, and let’s face it, this house isn’t exactly on a major road, is it?’ Mog felt in his pocket for his tobacco. ‘Want a rollie, Johnny?’
‘Yeah. Ta.’ Johnny looked up and watched as Mog rolled two slim cigarettes.
‘It’s going to be dark soon,’ said Adam. ‘Have we got a torch, Mog?’
‘Don’t know. Might have in the van.’
‘Shall I go and see? If I walk about at the front the security light will come on and the police might see it.’
Mog nodded, leaning down to light Johnny’s cigarette.
Adam walked towards the gate in the hedge which led to the lawns at the back of the house and made for the drive at the side. The security lights came on and he walked to the gateway to see if he could see anything coming, but the lane, narrow as a cart track, twisted away in both directions, shrouded in unbroken mist.
He fetched the big wind-up torch from the van and went back to Mog and Johnny.
‘You know, I don’t suppose we actually need to stay out here. I’m sure we could go in to the house.’
‘Haven’t got the key.’ Johnny shook his head.
‘But I thought you were the caretaker?’ said Mog.
‘Yeah, well. Just here to keep an eye on things. The cleaner’s got a key. Missis calls ʼer and me when she’s coming down and the cleaner comes and gives the place a once over. I just locks and unlocks the gates.’
‘We could sit in the van,’ suggested Adam.
Mog nodded. ‘Come on, Johnny. We can all squeeze in.’
But as they approached the van, they heard an engine and within seconds a police car had pulled up in the lane.
‘You reported finding a body?’ The first uniform climbed out of the driver’s seat.
‘Yes,’ they said together.
‘That was quick,’ said Adam.
‘Diverted from traffic.’ The other uniform came up. ‘We were near the turn off on the Canterbury Road. Better take a look.’
‘I can’t go back,’ whined Johnny.
‘You found it, did you, sir?’ First Uniform looked Johnny up and down. ‘Point me in the right direction.’
‘You’d never find it,’ said Adam, with a sigh. ‘We’ll show you where the grotto is and you can take it from there.’
‘Grotto? Bloody Father Christmas got here early?’ said Second Uniform. Adam and Mog just looked at him.
‘Come on, Johnny,’ said Mog.
Adam led the way back to the hedge and pointed through at the Victorian stone grotto.
‘Johnny has to come through the grotto from his place,’ he explained.
The Uniforms peered in to the grotto, with its mock bridge and tumbling “ruins”, planted with a variety of ferns.
‘Bit weird,’ sniffed First Uniform.
‘’S’artistic,’ muttered Johnny.
‘So where’s this body, then?’ asked Second Uniform, swinging his torch across the empty space.
‘Other side of the bridge.’ Johnny turned his back. ‘I don’t want to see it.’
‘All right, sir, all right. You stay here.’ Second Uniform stepped into the grotto, leaving First Uniform with Adam, Mog and Johnny.
‘Ain’t you going?’ said Johnny.
‘No, he’s got to look after us,’ said Mog.
‘Quite right, sir. Now,’ First Uniform got out his notebook. ‘Can I have your names and addresses, please?’
He had just finished writing them down when Second Uniform reappeared talking into a radio.
‘Better go and have a look, Steve,’ he said, as he ended the call. ‘I’ll stay here.’
First Uniform went through into the grotto and turned on his own torch.
‘Now, sir,’ said Second Uniform. ‘Did you touch anything?’
Johnny looked as though he was going to be sick. ‘No, I fuckin’ didn’t!’
‘And you don’t know the deceased?’
‘So she’s not one of the family who live here?’
‘No. Oh gawd, I’d better tell ʼer, ʼadn’t I?’
‘He means Mrs Watson, one of the owners,’ said Mog.
Second Uniform swung towards the house. ‘She not in?’
‘She’ll be in London,’ said Adam. ‘She’s not here that much.’
‘So you look after the place?’
‘Johnny does. We’re just landscaping round the new swimming pool.’
Second Uniform’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. ‘Strewth! And she’s not here much?’
Adam and Mog both shook their heads.
‘Enjoys ʼaving things done about the place,’ contributed Johnny. ‘It’s ʼer ʼobby, like.’
First Uniform came back through the grotto. ‘I can hear the cars,’ he said. ‘You go, I’ll stay here.’
After a moment a group of men rounded the side of the house and came across the garden.
The first man stopped in front of them.
‘Oh, no, Adam, not you,’ said Chief Detective Inspector Connell.