Barry had been a cemetery groundskeeper for the last six years. As a child he’d wanted to be a cowboy, only there was no need for them in the heart of the English Lake District. Instead, he’d settled on being a self-employed landscape gardener until the permanent position of groundskeeper had come up, offering a fixed wage, no more worrying about making enough to pay the bills. It had taken some getting used to, but he’d managed.
He took a bite of the cheese and pickle sandwich he’d got up early to make for his dinner and couldn’t help but wonder what the world was coming to when bodies that should be left in peace were being exhumed. The papers were full of terrible stories and the TV news wasn’t much better, which was why he didn’t buy them or watch the news on TV. Life was hard, occasionally cruel, but on the whole it was good.
His wife worked nightshift at the local nursing home; he’d often be leaving for work as she walked through the front door. Which was probably why they were still married after twenty years: they didn’t see enough of each other to ever have the time to dislike one another. She was off work this weekend and he was looking forward to spending some quality time with her. They were going to go to Manchester for some shopping and to drink some of those fancy cocktails she liked so much.
He finished the last of his sandwich and tipped the crumbs from the crisp packet into his mouth. Far better to have eaten his dinner now, before the exhumation. He might not have an appetite later when he would need all the energy he could muster. He drained the last dregs of tea from the cracked Costa mug someone had bought him in the Secret Santa last year. Rinsing it under the tap, he left it to drain and dried his hands on the rough tea towel that was as crusty as the bread he’d just consumed.
Leaving the small wooden hut that doubled as the office and staff room, he began the walk towards the hill. The heat from the sun felt good on his face. It was a shame it didn’t warm the chill that had formed around his heart at the thought of what he was about to do next. He let out a sigh. He’d never known anyone have their grave exhumed. It was unheard of, especially around here. It was the kind of thing that happened on television, not a quiet cemetery in the middle of the Lake District. Still, it made for an interesting afternoon for him. It was going to be fascinating watching those crime scene investigators working around the burial site and taking photos of everything that was happening.
There was already a small welcoming committee standing around the grave waiting for him and he felt a twinge of guilt for thinking about his belly and holding things up. One of the guys wearing a black fleece jacket with ‘CSI’ emblazoned across the back of it was still faffing around with the camera around his neck, so this made him feel better.
Barry nodded at Jason, who tapped his watch and rolled his eyes at him. Normally he’d have told him to bugger off, but it didn’t seem right today, not in front of these police people; it might sound disrespectful, and that wasn’t him. He had the utmost respect for the people he buried and for their families, always polite and ready to answer any questions they may have for him. Lifting his hand, he waved at Jason, who climbed into the cab of the digger. Jason was better at operating the machine than he was; Barry preferred digging with a spade. Harder work, but so much more precise.
The guy in the black fleece photographed the mound of soil they were all gathered around. Florence Wright, the woman in the grave, had only been buried eight weeks ago so the soil hadn’t been levelled. She didn’t even have a headstone yet. Barry gave the signal and Jason brought the heavy arm of the digger down and began to scoop up buckets of soil, depositing them into another pile on the overgrown grave next door. Good job that family only visited once a year; he wouldn’t like to see his gran’s final resting place being made a mess of like this.
After a few minutes, Barry saw a glimpse of wood through the soil and waved his hands, shouting, ‘Whoa, whoa lad.’
The arm of the digger stopped mid-air and a hushed silence fell around them as everyone gathered around to look down into the grave. Barry glanced down then stepped back. They were lucky this was a fresh one. The coffin was relatively new, so would be in good condition. He wasn’t too sure about the body inside it. He didn’t like to give much thought to what lay inside the holes he’d dug once the coffins were down there. It freaked him out. When he’d first started working here he’d had terrible nightmares which woke him in the night. Eventually, his wife had dragged him to the doctor’s for some sleeping tablets, told him she couldn’t take the tossing and turning on her nights off work. He’d done as he was told, got his pills and took them every night, suppressing his dreams about being buried alive in one of the graves he’d dug, unable to claw his way out.
‘What now?’ The voice in his ear startled him. He stared at the woman with the camera, wondering if she was addressing him or asking a general question. He certainly didn’t know what now. Jason had jumped out of the cab. It was him who answered.
‘Well, someone is going to have to get down in that hole, clear the rest of the soil and put the straps around the coffin. Seeing as how I’ve used up all my skill in getting the soil out without breaking the coffin in half, it looks as if that’s a job for you, Barry, lad.’
Barry stared at him in horror. He wasn’t about to jump down into someone’s grave. Sleeping tablets or not, that was going to give him nightmares for sure. Jason stood opposite him with his arms crossed, staring at him. Barry realised that the CSI team had stopped what they were doing and were also staring at him. Shaking his head, he muttered ‘Christ’s sake’ and jumped down into the grave, holding out his hand for Jason to pass him the spade.
Once he had cleared the rest of the soil around the coffin, Jason passed him the straps to secure around it then helped him back out of the hole. He hadn’t realised how much he’d been sweating; his forehead was damp with beads of perspiration and his hair wet. All he could smell was the earthy, coppery smell from the soil tinged with an underlying darker, sweeter odour that wasn’t familiar and it made him feel sick. He was so glad he wasn’t the one who had to open the coffin and examine the poor old woman’s remains; he wouldn’t be a pathologist for any amount of money in the world. The thought of having to cut into dead bodies made him shudder. He looked over to where the private ambulance was parked up on the small road as near to the gravesite as it could get. Two undertakers got out and pulled the trolley from the back. They would transport the coffin to the hospital mortuary, so the body of Florence Wright could be examined.
He watched as Jason used the heavy machine to lift the coffin from the grave. It had been raining heavily the past few days and a waterfall of rainwater cascaded down from inside of it. He’d always imagined that coffins would be watertight. The price they cost they bloody well should be, he smiled to himself as the undertakers, now in protective suits and gloves, guided the casket down towards their waiting trolley.
Barry glanced down into the empty grave and gasped, his eyes suddenly wide and alert; there was something else down there. Moving closer to the edge, he stood staring as a wave of hot bile filled the back of his throat. He wobbled as he tried to stop his legs from giving way underneath him. Finally finding his voice, he yelled so loud that everyone stopped what they were doing, and all turned to stare at him. He pointed down into the grave.
‘She’s… she’s fallen out; she’s not inside the coffin.’
Jason clambered out of the cab and strode towards him, closely followed by the CSIs, an environmental health officer, the priest from Florence’s local church and the two undertakers, until all of them were standing in a circle staring down into the dark, sodden grave. There, poking through the soil, a pair of mottled green and blue legs were clearly visible, the remains of a torn pair of tights still clinging to parts of them. Higher up, a hand with green-painted fingernails and half a face were also partially exposed; one milky, glazed eye with long eyelashes stared up at the sky.
‘How did that happen?’ said one of the undertakers, his voice much higher pitched than normal as the flash of a camera illuminated the body.
Jason could only shake his head. ‘Is that even possible? I mean, how did she get under the soil?’
A member of the CSI team ran over to the coffin, still dangling in the air, and knocked on the bottom of it. ‘She didn’t, it’s solid. The bottom hasn’t come away at all. Could it be… another body?’
Barry felt his stomach lurch. How the hell had a body got into this grave? He’d dug this one himself: prepared the hole and shored up the sides ready for the burial. There hadn’t been a body in the grave when he’d finished. He’d even been the one to fill it back in because lazy bastard Jason had thrown a sickie. But he hadn’t noticed anything amiss. Wouldn’t he have noticed another body down there?
One of the CSIs was talking urgently into the radio clipped to his shirt as the other one walked towards him and Jason.
‘Thanks, guys, we’ll take it from here. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to step away. This is a crime scene now.’
Barry felt himself being tugged backwards and turned to see Jason pulling him away towards the path. The undertakers and environmental health officer followed quickly behind them until they all stood huddled next to the silver van with blacked-out windows belonging to the undertakers. All of them turned to watch, their eyes drawn towards the grave and the coffin suspended in mid-air above it.
Dark clouds rolled over the sun, and Barry didn’t think he’d ever felt so cold.
Elizabeth Adams tucked the silver, chin-length hair that normally hid the scar on the side of her forehead behind her ears and wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve. Strong arms grabbed her as a foot slipped around the back of her leg and she felt herself falling through the air, landing on the gym mat with a loud ‘Agh’. Her assailant towered above her with a grin on his face. He held out his hand, and she took it as he pulled her to her feet.
‘That was sneaky, and you know it.’
‘You left yourself wide open. It was an opportunity and I took it.’
She wanted to give him the finger but managed to restrain herself. He was right: she’d taken her eyes off him for a moment and he’d got the advantage. She knew the golden rule: never take your eyes off your opponent. It was a reminder to be alert at all times and one she shouldn’t have needed. To say she was annoyed with herself was an understatement; it could have been anyone. Just because she was in the church hall where the self-defence classes were held didn’t matter. She knew better; an attack could happen anywhere at any time, even in your own home. She stopped herself before the memories could come flooding back.
‘Yes, I did. Well done.’
He saluted her and walked over to the crowd of newbies who were huddled in the corner staring open-mouthed at her. She could tell they were hoping that Phil, who was over six foot tall and had muscles Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of, wouldn’t pick one of them for his next victim. A phone vibrated on the windowsill and she glanced sideways, knowing it would be hers; it always was, no matter how many times she was supposed to be off duty, she never really was. This was her weekend off and she’d had every intention of spending her Saturday doing nothing but drinking tea and reading, but then the guilt had kicked in: she’d missed her evening class, so had decided to get out of the house and come to the Saturday lunchtime one. Although not necessary for everyone, human interaction and an attempt at some kind of social life, for her, was something she knew she had to force herself to do. Striding towards the window, she picked up her phone.
‘This is the Force Incident Manager. We have a serious problem. Someone’s found a body in a grave that shouldn’t be there.’
She shook her head. When didn’t the police have a problem?
‘What’s the address? I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
As she listened, she grabbed a pen off the windowsill and was about to scribble the details down on the back of her hand when she stopped: there was no need. She knew this address well, although she hadn’t been there for quite some time.
As she said goodbye and ended the call, a loud shout behind her made her jump. Turning around she saw that Phil was now towering over one of the newbies who was lying on the gym mat clutching at his stomach and groaning. She smiled to herself. She’d been there before many times. It hurt like hell when you winded yourself by landing heavily in an unexpected move. That guy wouldn’t forget that in a hurry, or the laughter coming from the others around him. It would make or break him; he’d either get up and start again to prove he wasn’t a pushover, or he’d hide at the back until the self-defence class was finished. She hoped he stuck it out; he looked as if he needed all the help he could get.
She grabbed her water bottle and car keys from the window ledge, turning to wave at Phil, who nodded in return. He was a nice guy and he worked her hard now, but he’d taken his time and never pushed her too far in the early days when she’d plucked up the courage to walk in and sign herself up to join the class. He never asked questions and she never told him why she was there, although he probably recognised her from the newspapers. Everyone did, eventually, even though she’d cut her long, blonde hair and asked the hairdresser to turn it ash grey to make herself look older and blend in. Now it seemed everyone wanted to be grey. The only time in her life she’d been a leader in the fashion world, she chuckled to herself.
As she left the church hall she scanned the car park, making sure there was no one around. It made her angry that she was now so aware and conscious about her safety. Only a few years ago it would never have entered her head: she’d always been so sure of herself. She clicked the fob and the lights on her black BMW X1 blinked in response: not too flashy but it had made her feel safe when she’d taken it for a test drive. It was solid, yet fast if she needed it to be. Climbing in, habit made her turn her head and check the back seat was empty; the constant fear that someone might be hiding in it sometimes made living her life impossible. Breathing out a sigh of relief at the sight of her gym bag and empty coffee cup, she started the car. The cemetery was less than ten minutes away.
Detective Sergeant Josh Walker got out of the unmarked Ford Focus and stared at the sight in front of him with his mouth open. He turned to his colleague, Detective Constable Sam Thomas, pointed to the dirt-covered coffin dangling mid-air and whispered, ‘Well there’s something you don’t see every day.’ She shook her head, speechless. Josh lifted his hand, waving at Claire and Carl, the two CSIs who’d had the privilege of documenting what should have been a straightforward grave exhumation. Claire waved back, while Carl nodded and pointed at his protective suit. Josh realised he was telling him to get suited and booted, so he walked around to the boot of the car where he kept a supply of the essentials needed to enter a serious crime scene. Sam followed and the pair of them began to open the plastic packets and dress in the protective clothing.
Josh tugged on some protective shoe covers along with a pair of rubber gloves and headed towards the scene that had been cordoned off with blue and white crime scene tape. He ducked under it, turning to see if Sam was behind him, but she was still by the car, talking to someone on her phone. He smiled to himself: she was a little too squeamish sometimes for this job, but as they had been the only two left in the office, he’d had no choice but to bring her along.
‘So tell me how a body can end up in a grave underneath a coffin. Are you sure it didn’t fall out of it?’ Josh said, catching up with Carl and walking alongside him towards the grave.
Carl rolled his eyes at him. ‘Yes, I’m bloody sure. What do you take me for, Josh? I’m not an idiot; the coffin is new. It’s rock solid. There’s no way she’s come out of there.’
Josh walked along the metal plates that had been put down along the grass verge to lead a path to the open grave without contaminating the scene. ‘Maybe the rain washed the body from another grave into this one? That storm was terrible; it poured for days.’
‘And maybe you watch too many horror films, Josh. There’s no way that’s happened, it’s impossible.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Because the grave has four solid walls. It didn’t give way when it was dug out and the coffin removed. It’s a perfect, oblong hole in the ground. The only way it got there was because someone put it there.’
Josh had reached the gravesite. Stepping forward he peered down into the grave.
‘Bollocks, I hate it when you’re right, Carl.’
Carl laughed. ‘I know you do, but it doesn’t take a hotshot DS to figure this one out. Sorry to take away some of your glory. You do, however, have a chance to redeem yourself. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who the body belongs to and how it got there.’
Josh felt the beginning of a headache set in. Jodie was going to go mad; friends of hers were celebrating their wedding anniversary, and they were supposed to be going to the meal tonight. This was going to be a long one. There was no way he was going to be clocking off work on time. Unzipping his suit, he reached inside his trouser pocket to find his phone. He’d better ring her now and get it over with: there was no point making her wait until last minute. He stared down at the partially buried body; his eyes widened as he felt his stomach churn. The victim was a girl, judging by the torn tights and the lurid green nail varnish he could see on the two fingers that were sticking through the soil. From what he could make out of her somewhat crushed face, she didn’t look much older than nineteen or twenty. Around the same age as his younger sister. He shuddered; too young to be dead. Questions he couldn’t answer were flowing through his mind, the most pressing, who are you, and how the hell did you get down there?
‘What’s wrong?’ Jodie’s voice shouted down the mobile clamped to his ear and he pulled the phone away a little, so she didn’t deafen him.
‘You only ever ring me during the day if you’re going to be late home or if you want something. So, what’s wrong?’
He paused for a moment wondering if she was right. Did he only ever ring when it was bad news? He stepped away from the grave. It didn’t seem right to have his angr. . .
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