This story contains adult content and is only suitable for persons over the age of 18.
When local businessman Charles ‘Buster’ Bill is found mutilated in the local woods, the Suffolk police are extremely concerned there is a maniac on the loose. Lateral thinking private detective who consults for the local constabulary, JOHN HANDFUL, thinks differently. His own investigation soon reveals that at the heart of the man’s death lies a devastating secret and by the time Handful realises what it is he might just have made himself the next target.
The police were waiting for me outside my office in the shape of WPC Melanie Softly.
“Good morning,” I said politely. “Have you been waiting long?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said officiously. “DI Silver asked me to come and collect you.”
“Couldn’t he have phoned me on my mobile?” I asked.
“He can’t get a signal in the heart of Oxmarket Woods.”
“Okay,” I shrugged. “Let’s go then, shall we?”
WPC Softly is never the most social of women, which could have something to do with her low regard for people and even lower expectations. Most life is a mystery. I knew she was briefly married and had a young son who was looked after by her parents when she was at work. She didn’t hide the fact that she was bisexual, but it was never open for discussion. I suspected there had been women in her life that got under her skin and into her heart, but nowadays and she was a closed book focusing on her work and her child and was only happy when she was with the latter.
She drove out of Oxmarket on her gears which I found tiring. It did not take long to reach Oxmarket woods and we were met at a crossroads by Sergeant Pat Higgins on a motorcycle, and we followed him down a twisting secondary road. The wood stretched away all round, heavy with leaves and mournful looking in the grey damp morning.
Round the bend, we came to a row of two cars and a van, parked. Sergeant Higgins stopped and dismounted and the WPC and I got out.
“Morning, John,” Higgins said to me after removing his helmet. Giving me his usual derisive grin.
“Morning, Pat,” I said. “What’s is this all about?”
He looked at me without haste and the grin if anything widened. “Walk this way and I’ll show you.”
Sergeant Higgins was DI Silver’s right-hand man at the local police station. He derived a conclusion very quickly and I had not seen anyone with faster physical reactions. Over six foot, judo and wrestling were his hobbies, and along with the regular throws and holds, he had been taught some dirty tricks. His calm demeanour bore no relation to how he could handle himself in a dangerous situation. I was glad I had him on my side and not against me.
A sandstone arch marked the entrance to the woods. A signpost pointed out several walking trails. The red trail took an hour and covered approximately two miles. The purple is shorter but it took in an Iron Age Fort. The woods were close to the edge of the cliff and the noise of breaking waves and the breeze rustling through the trees was quite exhilarating.
Fallen leaves were piled like snowdrifts along the ditches and the breeze had shaken droplets from the branches. This was ancient woodland and I could smell the damp earth, rotting boles and mould: a cavalcade of smells. Occasionally, between the trees, I glimpsed a railing fence that marked the cliff-edge.
I walked past Sergeant Higgins, left the footpath and climbed up a small slope. At the top of the ridge, there was a knoll formed by three trees. The view of Oxmarket was uninterrupted. I knelt on the grass, feeling the wetness of the early morning in the earth soak through to my trousers and the elbows of my jacket. The path was visible for a hundred metres in either direction.
A sudden burst of sunshine broke through the early morning mist. Sergeant Higgins had followed me up the slope.
“Someone used this to watch people,” I explained. “See how the grass is crushed. Somebody lay on their stomach with their elbows here.”
Even as I uttered the words my gaze was snagged by what looked like a dog whistle caught in a mesh of brambles a dozen metres away. I rose to my feet.
“Have you got any latex gloves?” I asked the Sergeant.
He handed me a pair and I quickly pulled them on. I then closed the gap between the thorny branches until my fingers closed around the whistle.
“Do you think it is significant?” Sergeant Higgins said, holding out a transparent evidence bag for me to drop the whistle into.
“No idea,” I said truthfully. “Not until I’ve seen the crime scene.”
“You’d better brace yourself for that,” he told me.
“Is it that bad?” I pressed.
He didn’t answer, he just said, “This way.”
I followed him to the place in the woods which is locally known as the ‘Ogre Tree.’ It stood there with its outstretched branches, beneath which the monochrome landscape of the landscape was slowly emerging through the wisps of the morning mists. The fields on the cliffs were divided by hedges and patches of evergreen scrub. Twisting trails of beech trees followed the stream that dissected the woods like an artery supplying the beating heart of the North Sea.
This area was sealed off by blue and white police tape. Spotlights had been set up around an adjacent barn. The weathered wood whitewashed by the brightness.
More police tape sealed off the farm track. Vehicle tyre prints were being photographed and cast in plaster. At the end of the track was a narrow lane, blocked in both directions by police cars and vans.
Makeshift barriers and a checkpoint had been erected. I had to give my name to a young WPC I hadn’t seen before holding a clipboard before we picked our way along the track. I reached the barn and looked across a field to the crime scene.
Duckboards covered the rest of the journey, white plastic stepping stones, led to the base of the tree, fifty metres away. The blades of a plough had created a teardrop shape around the trunk.
Police photographers were gathering evidence, vying for space with the forensic team around a large white tent. I expected Kira would be in there. Leading from the front. I hadn’t heard her leave and I did wonder where she had gone when I woke up. She had left a note saying, “See you later.” I didn’t expect it to be this soon.
She was the local Home Office pathologist who had taken over from the previous pathologist who was now serving a life sentence for committing three brutal murders. It was, in that case, we had first come into contact with each other, and in the beginning, she had viewed me with a deep and pervading suspicion. Gradually, though, things had changed between us when she caught a glimpse of the person I actually was. She saw what my cases meant to me, how consumed I became with them. Those were the same qualities that had driven a wedge between me and Kimberley Ashlyn Gere but Kira it had been different.
Yet, I still couldn’t say for certain whether we were in an official relationship or not. I liked her a lot. We had slept together on quite a few occasions. I found her extremely attractive, interesting and challenging, but it always felt like she was hovering on the cusp of commitment, never willing to make the final step. Her need to protect her reputation, fighting off whatever vultures were currently circling, and my willingness to take risks, to skirt the very edges of the law in a way she loathed, cast long shadows. In my most cynical moments, her reluctance to fully acknowledge what we were doing looked a little like an escape plan – if this went badly for me, she could just turn around and leave, her reputation intact, her job unaffected.
Suddenly a familiar face emerging from the group in white overalls shook me from my reverie as he walked towards me. “Morning, John.”
“Morning, Paul,” I said. “What have you got?”
“A mutilated body,” the detective inspector replied.
“Who found him?”
“Some boys. It’s usually some boys who find bodies.”
“Do you know how he died?”
“You’d better take a look yourself.”
“Any idea who it is?”
“We haven’t been able to identify him yet,” he said.