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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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BOOK: Cold Coffin
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Dreamtime ended abruptly not long after she arrived for work on Thursday morning. The report of a suspicious death came in. The body of a man had been found in the woods near Little Bedham on land adjoining the Croptech site. Not Sir Noah Kimberley, though, which scotched Kate’s immediate thought. The man had been recognized by one of the attending police officers as Dr. Gavin Trent, a senior scientist at Croptech. Sir Noah’s deputy, Kate remembered Richard telling her. Very highly strung, a bag of nerves. Maybe, the thought crossed her mind, he had good reason to be nervous.

On a sudden decision Kate reached for the phone and asked for Sergeant Boulter at the Chipping Bassett station.

“Heard about this man Trent, Tim?” she asked.

“Just this minute, guv. Looks a bit peculiar, doesn’t it, what with the bossman having skedaddled the other day?”

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, so I’d like us to be in on this from the start. Get to the scene right away, will you, and I’ll meet you there. Is there a wife to be informed?”

“No, he wasn’t married. He was known as a real loner. Lived by himself in a cottage about half a mile from where the body was found.”

“Better get someone onto tracing his next of kin, then.”

Fourteen miles in nineteen minutes. No delighting in the glorious Cotswold landscape this time. At Little Bedham, a short distance along a lost lane that meandered through beechwoods, Kate came across a uniformed officer standing guard by a gated entrance to a woodland track.

“Morning, Constable. Is Sergeant Boulter here yet?”

“Arrived a few minutes ago, ma’am.” He swung back the five-barred gate for her. “If you’ll just follow the track. It’s not too rough.”

She bumped her car a further hundred yards and came to a clearing where two other police cars were drawn up. Sitting in the back of one of them were a young man and a girl. Their faces looked shocked and pale.

“Who’re they?” she enquired of another uniformed PC.

“They found the body, ma’am. Honeymooners, I gather, staying at the Unicorn Inn. They were out for a morning stroll through the woods, and ...”

Kate walked over and gave them a sympathetic smile through the car’s open window.

“I’m Detective Chief Inspector Maddox. I just want to go and take a look at things, then we’ll have a chat. I won’t keep you any longer than I have to.”

The dead man lay on the bank of a small pond that was ringed with saplings of oak and ash. The clothing—jeans and a thick-knit sweater— was sodden. Sergeant Boulter was crouched down on his haunches, examining the body but not touching it. He straightened at Kate’s approach.

“Well, Tim?”

“Drowned is my guess, guv. But the thing that makes it fishy is that when he was found by that young couple he’d already been dragged clear of the water.”

“Can we be sure that he didn’t struggle out himself, and then collapse?”

“No way. You can see signs here that he was dragged out as a dead weight.”

“You’re right, Tim. The clothing is only just beginning to dry, so it must have happened quite recently. And look there, a footprint that’s still damp. It could have been made by the young man who found the body, of course. Did you happen to notice if he’s wearing boots?”

“Trainers, I’m pretty sure.”

“Then the footprint was made by our mystery man. We’d better protect it.” Kate unzipped her shoulderbag and took from it a silk scarf, which she spread out over the damp marks left by patterned ridges from the sole of a man-size boot. “I wonder who he was, Tim?”

“A mugger who killed Trent for his money?”

“But his wallet is still on him. Would a mugger have bothered to put it back? Let’s have it out and take a look.”

Boulter removed the wallet from the dead man’s hip pocket, touching only one corner. It contained several banknotes, a driving licence and a couple of credit cards.

“Not a mugger, then,” said Kate. “Whoever pulled him out, why did they just leave him without informing us? Was it someone passing by who didn’t want to get involved with the police? Or is the explanation more sinister?”

“Ah, the doc’s arrived,” said Boulter, looking up. “He might be able to tell us something useful.”

Kate pulled a face. “Not if he can help it, he won’t.”

The police surgeon and the Detective Chief Inspector were not sympatico. Short, self-important male; tall, self-confident female. Neither missed a chance, within the bounds of protocol, to score off the other.

“Good morning, Dr. Meddowes,” Kate said heartily as he walked up to them a minute later.

“Oh, it’s you!” He gave her a sour look. “Rather a come-down for you, Chief Inspector, to be attending a simple accident case.”

“Accident?”

“That’s what I was told.”

“We have a dead man, doctor. At least, I imagine your expert findings will confirm the fact that he’s dead. The precise cause of death is something we still have to establish.”

“What do you suspect?”

“Oh, I shall keep an open mind and allow the evidence to speak for itself.”

No reply to that. Chalk up one point, Kate.

The doctor put his findings succinctly; reluctant to help the jumped-up female, but too professionally honest to hold back from saying anything that he believed was pertinent.

“Dead. Cause of death., drowning. He was in the water for some hours, judging from the wrinkling of the skin on his hands. Probably overnight.”

“Really?” queried Kate in surprise. “But it’s obvious he’s only been out of the water a short while.”

The doctor shrugged. “Didn’t whoever found him pull him out?”

“Not so. He was found exactly like this.”

“Hmm? I note there are some abrasions and slight bruising on the back of his neck.” He tugged down the neckband of the sweater for her to see better. “I wonder how they got there.”

Situated where they were, it was difficult to believe the injuries had been accidentally sustained. Kate felt a sharpening of her senses, a conviction that this was a case of unlawful killing.

“As if,” she hazarded, “he was knocked on the head and thrown into the water?”

“Isn’t that a matter for you to decide, Chief Inspector? Or are you
elevating
me to the CID?”

Okay, that evens the score, Kate.
She gave Boulter a glare for daring to grin.

When Dr. Meddowes had departed, Kate took another look at the body. Gavin Trent had been a thin, lanky man, aged somewhere around forty. His hair, now darkened by the water, would be a greying mid-brown and had begun to recede. A small moustache had been grown to conceal, she guessed, his weak mouth.

“This is where he was pulled out, Tim, but not necessarily where he went in. There’s a bit of current flowing through this pond, so the body could have drifted. Let’s have a look around.”

Kate beckoned forward a uniformed PC to stand guard over the body. Then she and Boulter skirted the edge of the pond, examining the ground, taking care not to trample on any possible evidence. Slightly more than halfway round they came to a spot where there were signs of the grass and bracken having been trampled upon recently. Nowhere else around the perimeter was there any kind of disturbance.

“It looks as if this is the place, Tim,” she said, returning to the spot. “But nothing suggests that a violent struggle took place here. So
was
he hit over the head and thrown in unconscious? Or ... it might even be possible that ...”

Boulter cocked an enquiring eye. He’d learned by now to treat his chief’s sudden darts of inspiration seriously.

“Let’s try this for size,” Kate said. “Trent walked to this spot voluntarily —or perhaps under threat—then he was taken by surprise and pushed in. When he began to thrash about and no doubt make a lot of noise, his attacker prodded him from the bank with something and held his head under the water. That could account for the scratches and bruising on his neck.”

“You’d think he could have fought back, though, or just swam out of reach?”

“Suppose the water here is deep and he couldn’t swim. A nonswimmer would flounder in panic. Check out both those points, Tim.”

“Right,” he said.

Kate cast an eye a little farther afield, looking for evidence to support her theory. A few moments later she spotted it, half-hidden in bracken—a length of dead branch. Going closer, she saw it was ten feet long and both ends, where they’d been snapped off, had rough, splintery surfaces.

“How about this? It didn’t get here by itself. The trees around here are all saplings and couldn’t have shed a branch this thick. And see where some side twigs have been stripped off, as if preparing it for the job. That suggests premeditation.”

“A bit farfetched, guv, surely? Isn’t it more likely that the branch was brought here by some kids?”

“Maybe, but it’s still worth looking into. Get the two ends bagged, and when the Scenes of Crime chaps turn up, tell them to take it away for forensic examination.”

“Even if it was like you suggest, guv, any blood would have been washed off by the water.”

“There still might be some flakes of skin trapped there.”

“Huh! When are we ever that lucky?”

“Don’t be such a Jeremiah. Now, I want to establish who pulled the victim out of the water. And why. From what the doctor said, it’s clear that it happened some hours after Trent’s death. I’m going to talk to the young couple who found the body now, and see if they can shed some light. What’s their name?”

“Er ... Carver. Mike and Jenny.”

Kate returned to the patrol car and got into the front passenger seat, twisting round to talk to the Carvers. They were over their first horror by now and she could sense stirrings of excitement in them. What a story to beef up their honeymoon! No more than twenty-one, either of them, they sat close together with their hands tightly clasped; it would take a crowbar to separate them.

“All I want at the moment,” Kate said, “is to get a general picture. You will be required to make a full statement, of course, but that can be done at a police station. So will you tell me about this morning. You’re staying at the Unicorn Inn, I understand, and you set out for a walk after breakfast. What made you come this way?”

“Well ... nothing. I mean, we’ve been a couple of times before.”

“It’s so pretty,” the girl said. “With the sun shining through the branches and everything.”

“Did you see anyone else in the wood?”

“We did hear a dog barking,” she volunteered after a moment. “Sort of as if it was excited. That was just a few minutes before we ... we found that poor man.”

“Was the barking coming from this direction?”

They consulted each other with their eyes. “Hard to say, really,” Mike answered. “Yes, I think so. It ... it
was
an accident, wasn’t it?”

“That’s what I have to establish. That’s why anything you can tell me might be useful. Anything at all. Did you see anyone else after you left the hotel and started on your walk?”

Further non-verbal exchanges, then Mike said, “There was a man driving a tractor in a field. He waved to us. And I remember now ... there was another man, walking with his dog. He went into the woods just ahead of us, so we took a different path.”

Descriptions of things seen through a rosy romantic haze were not usually very informative. The man had been of medium height, medium build, wearing ... well, ordinary clothes. The dog? Not small. Not big, either. Sort of medium, and brown ... ish.

“The man had his trousers pushed into his boots,” Jenny recalled suddenly. “You know, those green wellies.”

As a clue, it didn’t amount to a lot. Not a big clue, not small. Sort of medium.

“When you found the body, did you touch it in any way?” Kate asked them.

She sensed hesitation. A flutter of fear. Mike muttered, “I could see he must be dead, really, but I did ... well, just feel him to be sure. I touched his cheek, and it was absolutely cold. Shouldn’t I have done?”

“Yes, of course, don’t worry. But that was all—you just touched him? You didn’t move him at all?”

“Oh no!” they chorused firmly. “We left him, and ran to find a phone somewhere. But we’d only just reached the road when a police car happened to come along and we waved at it to stop.”

Kate thanked them and left the car, beckoning to Sergeant Boulter. “We have to trace a man who walked in the woods with his dog this morning. He was wearing green wellies. Get onto it, will you, Tim. There’s a tractor working in the fields over there, and the driver might be able to help.”

* * * *

The nick at Aston Pringle was the most suitable to use as her temporary HQ. It was the nearest one with decent facilities. Unlike many of the local police stations in the division, it was purpose-built. Comfortable, convenient, with smart cream paintwork and carpeting on the floors. Yet it was soulless. Sorting out which of the available rooms she could best use, Kate had a sudden nostalgic vision of the small station in South-East London to which she’d been assigned as a probationer WPC after completing her training at police college. It was on the corner of a street, in a building that had once been a small fur warehouse, and a camphory smell still lingered. There’d even been a station cat, a ginger kitten which had wandered in one cold night, wet through and half-starved. The excuse for keeping her was the totally non-existent evidence of mice under the floorboards, and the stray had grown plump and complacent, pampered by everyone. Even the toughest thief-taker in the nick, a sergeant with a voice like gravel, had once been spotted by Kate feeding the cat scraps of raw liver that he’d brought along wrapped in kitchen foil.

At the start of a murder case one never knew what might be involved. Hopefully, it could be resolved quickly, but it might blow up into a widespread investigation. Kate was on the phone to divisional headquarters, organizing an office manager for the Incident Room, when Boulter turned up. He’d brought in a man for questioning, whom he’d left downstairs with the custody officer while he came to find Kate and fill her in.

“Name of George Jessop, guv. Caretaker and handyman at Croptech. Lives alone in a bungalow within the firm’s grounds. Been in the job two-and-a-half years. He’s a taciturn sort of character, keeps himself to himself. When I challenged him straight out he admitted to finding the body, but insists that he had nothing to do with Trent’s death.”

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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