Authors: Ewart Hutton
DS Glyn Capaldi, exiled to the big empty middle of Wales to atone for past sins in Cardiff, is called in to investigate a human skeleton that has been uncovered during the excavations for a wind farm in a remote valley. The body is missing its head and its hands. Identity erasure or a ritual killing? Glyn’s assertion that there must be a local connection is overruled by his superiors. They believe that the body has been transported and dumped, a theory that gains support when additional bodies start to pile up. But Capaldi is unconvinced, and sets out to prove that there is someone within the local community capable of achieving the levels of cold and manipulative brutality that have been demonstrated.
Boy had my life turned glamorous since my ejection from Cardiff. Not too many cops get to start off their day trying to chase down a character who is castrating ram lambs, and end it in the company of a mutilated corpse. At that precise moment, however, I was still at the crappy midpoint of that day. And lost.
It didn’t help that I knew exactly where I was lost. Pinpoint stuff. The satnav was telling me that I was deep smack bang in the middle of a conifer forest in Mid Wales. I could almost smell the resin coming off the satnav screen. The problem was that I was on a logging trail that didn’t exist. It didn’t surprise me. I had had enough experience of forestry tracks by now to know that they were a constantly shape-shifting and mutating phenomenon.
‘Sergeant, someone’s nicked a bulldozer.’
I had taken the call in a moment of reckless altruism. Helping out my local colleagues. And, admittedly, to take a break from my sheep-molesting case, which was going nowhere, and giving me the blues. A Forestry Commission operative had called in to report that they had had some plant stolen. Chainsaws, I figured, protective clothing, brush-cutters, a generator at most.
I hadn’t thought big enough.
I met the guy in a large clearing where the logging tracks forked off and wound up the hill. We were both working on a Sunday, although he looked less happy about it than I was. It was voluntary on my part. I had found even the routine drudgery of updating my investigation reports preferable to the stretched-out grey static numbness that constituted the Sabbath in these parts. The prospect of chasing down a lost bulldozer had seemed positively radiant for a while.
From where we stood, I could see that rain and trucks had turned the surface into a superfine slurry of light-grey mud. Stripped branches from fir trees were strewn along the side of the tracks, as if a religious procession had suddenly taken fright and bolted off, leaving their devotional foliage behind.
‘Is this where it was taken from?’ I asked, making a professional show of casing the surroundings.
‘No, it was further up. On a spur. We were using it to clear a new trail.’
‘When did you last see it?’
No one had reported a bulldozer ripping up the streets of any of the neighbouring villages. ‘Are you sure it isn’t still up there?’ I asked.
He gave me a hurt look.
‘Okay,’ I relented, ‘I’ll go up and check it out.’
He gave me directions. ‘Don’t you want a description?’ he shouted after me as I headed for my car.
I didn’t need one. I knew it would be yellow and big, with shiny stainless-steel hydraulic shafts, and that it would smell of diesel and rust and that grim, grey, heavy clay that had never been meant to be turned over into the light of day. I also knew, in my heart of hearts, as I started my engine, that I would get lost. I always did in these places. It was the same, I reckoned, with the bulldozer. It hadn’t been stolen. It had just got lost. It had succumbed to the weirdness that were forestry tracks.
I got out of the car now. The drizzle was as fine as a mist. The silence was total. No birds. I looked out into the thick, dark, matted mass of Sitka Spruce, or whatever the fuck kind of trees they were. The perspectives were tight and mesmeric. Strange and creepy. I wasn’t cut out for this. Lost in Pig Wales. A real country policeman wouldn’t get lost. He would find missing bulldozers, deliver lambs, and have his own pet collie. Me, I still needed buildings and corners, streetlights, signs that announced where I was.
I kicked a stone out over the edge of the track and incanted a curse on DCS Jack Galbraith. It worked to break the spell. I heard the sound of an engine approaching.
It was the Forestry Commission guy in his crew-cab pickup. ‘Where the hell did you get to?’ he shouted, leaning out of his window. ‘I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour.’
‘I must have missed the turning,’ I confessed.
‘Your people have been trying to get in touch with you.’
He let me try his radio. But the weirdness had got to it too. An earful of feedback and static.
‘It could be important. I’m going to have to go down the hill to call in,’ I told him, climbing back into my car.
‘What about my bulldozer?’ he shouted after me.
‘I’ll be back,’ I lied. It was time to cut altruism adrift.
Perhaps, I prayed as I drove, they were calling in to say that they had nailed my man. So that I could forget about him and the veterinary equivalent of pincer pliers that he was using to crimp the
of Badger Face Welsh Mountain tup lambs. The bastard was selective. Just that one breed, no others. And he could get close to them. He obviously knew his way around sheep, and how to handle them. I was supposed to be the good guy and they ran away from me.
I pulled off the road as soon as the signal bars on my mobile phone showed a flicker of life. I looked at the skyline. Clouds thickening and greying-up in the south-west. I never used to do this in the city. There, weather was something that trailed on in, after the television news. Out here, I had discovered that it was useful to know what degree of wetness to expect.
I called in: ‘DS Glyn Capaldi. Someone’s been trying to reach me.’
‘Sergeant Capaldi . . .’ the dispatcher gasped. But it wasn’t hero-worship, as I was soon to learn. It was excitement. She was making her first real dead-corpse transmission. ‘Detective Chief Inspector Jones wanted us to get a message through to you.’ She took in a deep, savouring breath. ‘There’s a possibility that human remains have been discovered. He would like you to get to the site as soon as possible, and he will call you there. I’ll inform him that you are on your way now, shall I, sir?’
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ I said, trying to rein her in before she cut me off in her eagerness to get back to Bryn Jones. ‘You’d better tell me where I’m supposed to be going.’
‘Sorry, sir. It’s Cwm Cesty Nant—’
‘Sweetheart,’ I cut in over her big moment, as gently as I could, ‘could you just give me the coordinates, my satnav system doesn’t speak Welsh yet.’
It was the construction site for a wind farm. Not that far from Dinas. I turned off the main road into a small, level-bottomed valley, with the ubiquitous tufts of forestry plantation on the surrounding hills looking like a fungal disease. The river was shallow and wide, and looked grander than it was. The fields were peppered with moraine boulders, and the occasional sprawl of waste from old lead workings.
The track ran up a narrow cwm that curved round on itself, cutting off my view of the valley. It was of recent construction, crushed stone, professionally laid and rolled, with proper culverts and drainage. Around another bend the cwm widened and levelled out onto a small, marshy plateau below the main ridge. I had arrived at the construction site. Temporary buildings on jacks, parked cars, a couple of crew-carrier pickups with the company logo, and diggers, rollers and earthmovers standing idle. For a whimsical moment, I wondered whether my lost bulldozer could have run away from home to take up with this circus.
I drove up slowly, aiming for the knot of people and the marked police car parked above the site huts. I assessed as I got closer. Earth and stone pushed into low mounds from where they were excavating for roadways and turbine bases. Piles of fresh stone and drainage pipes waiting to go down. A lot of mud and a lot of dirty water, standing and running.
The two uniform cops were talking to a couple of civilians beside the roughly rectangular outline of one of the base excavations. One of the civilians, I noted, trying not to be surprised, was unmistakeably female. The remainder of the onlookers, all site workers by the look of them, were congregated on my side of the police car.
The big uniform with the bolt-on Stalin moustache, Emrys Hughes, was the local sergeant, an old-school up-country cop, who resented what he had taken to be my intrusion onto his parish. The fact that I had never had any choice in the matter hadn’t cut any ice. I recognized his sidekick, a young constable, but couldn’t put a name on him.
Emrys turned away from the two civilians and made a show of watching my approach. Not quite tapping his feet, but definitely playing a man whose patience was being stretched. He bent his head and whispered something to his partner. Both then made a point of staring at me and grinning.
They shouldn’t have. Now I was going to have to overcompensate.
I got out of the car and looked slowly around, not focusing on anything. Letting the message sink in that I was not coming to Emrys. He shrugged wearily for the sake of his audience, and sauntered over with his sidekick. ‘You took your time.’
I ignored the barb. ‘Why haven’t you taped the site off ?’
He pulled a quizzical face and half spun around, as if to make sure that I was really addressing him. He spread his hands expansively. ‘Where does the site end and the mud pile begin? You tell me.’
He had a point. The excavators had been hard at work; the entire area was a mess of churned soil and broken stone.
But this was political now. ‘You . . .?’ I pointed at his sidekick.
It took him a moment to realize it was a question. ‘Constable Friel, Sarge,’ he answered, looking at Hughes for support, some of the humour draining.
‘Go and get the incident tape.’ I turned to Emrys. ‘And you, Sergeant Hughes, are going to show me what we’ve got here.’
He stared me out for a moment. Technically, we ranked equal, but we both knew that I was the one who had been called in to do the thinking. He shrugged and led off towards the civilian couple. I approached them with my warrant card held out. ‘Detective Sergeant Capaldi,’ I introduced myself. The man took a pace forward. I held up my hand to stop him speaking. ‘Sorry, sir, I just need a moment on this.’
I wanted to read it myself. Before anyone else’s viewpoint and opinions impinged. It took me a couple of beats to focus on it, create an outline, trying to distinguish it from its surroundings. The bones were a nasty grey-green colour, the chest cavity full of earth, gravel and root filaments, the unexcavated legs still under their cover of damp soil and course grass.
For a moment it looked more like the thorax of a giant crayfish than anything human. Then I realized why. The head was missing. No skull. That’s what had thrown me. I knelt down to get closer. No trace of the smell of putrefaction, but I hadn’t expected it, skeletonization was too far advanced. The body was slightly twisted, the arm that was uncovered was minus a hand. I scanned around carefully. To the side was a pile of material the digger had excavated. The skull and the missing hand had probably been scooped-up with that. I took some close-up photographs with my digital camera.
I stood up and smiled at the man now, nodding, giving him his cue.
‘I’m Jeff Talbot. I’m the site engineer.’ He had a South Wales accent, and looked vaguely familiar. He was medium height, skinny, with an angular face and a worried expression that was accentuated by the high forehead and receding hairline. He was wearing a dark-blue quilted jacket, and, like the rest of the site crew, a yellow high-visibility tabard over it.
I stole a glance at the woman. She was prettier than I had first thought, and smiled when my eyes caught hers. She was also tall, but carried herself slightly stooped, as if to avoid drawing attention. I registered blonde hair, full cheeks, and that she was built in such a way that the duffel coat couldn’t quite hide the curves. She didn’t look at all shaken or disturbed to be standing beside a headless corpse.
‘Has anyone touched it?’ I asked him.
He shook his head gravely. ‘Only to brush the surface debris off. To confirm what it was. Then we stopped everything and called you people.’
‘Can I speak to the digger driver?’
‘That was me. I was excavating this base.’ He reacted to my surprise. ‘We’re short-handed, we were working on a Sunday to try to keep up to schedule.’ He looked sheepish. I expect he was breaking some sort of local by-law or clause in the planning permission. I decided not to arrest him.
‘Did you see the skull?’
‘No. But I might have picked that up in the cut before.’ He nodded at the pile of excavated material. ‘It could be in there. We didn’t think we should touch anything.’
I nodded my appreciation. ‘It was the right decision. And you did well not to do any more damage.’
‘It was luck. The light was right for me, I just managed to see it before I crushed it.’
I looked around carefully, but it was useless, the entire periphery resembled an opencast mine. ‘Tell me something. I know it’s difficult, but I want you to think back to just before you uncovered this section. Was there anything on the surface? Mounding? A depression? Any kind of marker?’
He thought hard, his face tight with concentration. When he eventually shook his head it was like a small spring being released. ‘No. I’m sorry. If there was anything out of the ordinary, I didn’t notice it,’ he said apologetically.
‘You said you stopped when you realized what it was.’
I looked down at the remains again. I was still getting a huge insect’s carapace. ‘It’s hard to tell.’
He looked puzzled. Wondering what I was getting at.
‘That it’s human,’ I clarified.
‘I just saw bones at first. I wasn’t sure whether they were animal or human, but I knew they would have to be checked out. Tessa confirmed that they were human.’
I looked at the woman. She smiled, amused at my expression of surprise.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Jeff said, flustered, ‘I should have introduced you. This is Dr MacLean.’
‘Doctor.’ I nodded at her, trying to pull back my composure.
She grinned. ‘Don’t get too excited, Sergeant. I’m not a medical doctor. I won’t be able to help you out on any forensic technicalities.’ She was Scottish, a touch of east-coast inflexion in the accent.
‘Dr MacLean’s an archaeologist,’ Jeff explained, ‘she’s working on a dig farther up on the ridge of the hill. I asked her to come down. In case this was in any way connected to what she’s working on.’
‘We’ve discovered a medieval grave site,’ she elaborated. ‘Jeff wondered whether this body could have anything to do with ours.’