Authors: J.L. Merrow
To the members of Verulam Writers’ Circle, for all their constructive criticism, good-natured ribbing and general encouragement over a drink or two—cheers!
And, as always, with thanks to my wonderful friends Jo and Pen. You know I couldn’t do it without you.
Whatever it was I was following, it was dead ahead. Calling to me, tugging at my mind. I fought my way through prickly hawthorn and incongruously festive holly, a minor annoyance as it clutched at my padded jacket. When I reached a clearing I broke into a run. Melanie’s face was seared in my mind, and I thought, please, God, let it not be her. Let it be some drunk’s alcohol stash…
I already knew it wasn’t. There was the stench of guilt about this one, turning my stomach even as it dragged me nearer. Guilt and violence—and death.
I reached a thicket, dropped to my hands and knees and crawled in. Twigs scratched my face, caught in my hair. Damp soaked through the knees of my jeans, the chill reaching to my bones, numbing my core. There was barely any light to see by, but I didn’t need any, my questing fingers meeting cold, waxy flesh. I fumbled to be certain and found I was holding her hand.
For a moment, I was six years old again, with the little girl in the park.
But when you’re twenty-nine and you find a body, you don’t get to go blubbing for your mother.
It started with a phone call, as these things usually do. I haven’t exactly got an office, more like a stack of files in a cardboard box that I hand over to my accountant once a quarter, and the answer phone’s on the blink, so if anyone wants to get in touch with me, they have to call my mobile.
I was out in one of the villages when he rang. There are a lot of villages around St Albans, most of them filled up with people who commute into London to work and keep the house prices sky-high. In between, you get the green belt made up of pony farms and golf courses, plus the odd actual working farm tucked in, with small herds of placid cows looking like refugees from the nineteenth century as they chomp on the grass and idly wonder what happened to the neighbourhood.
I was fitting some new kitchen taps for Mrs. B., who made great coffee and liked to chat. I always had to be careful I didn’t go over time there. It wasn’t easy when I knew the next call was to Mrs. L., a sour-faced old biddy who always watched me like a hawk in case I made off with the teaspoons or did something unspeakable to her pet poodle.
I put down my spanner and dug my mobile out of my pocket. “Paretski Plumbing,” I answered in my jaunty “trade” voice, flashing Mrs. B. an apologetic smile. She dimpled.
“Tom? Dave Southgate. Got a little job for you.”
“Oh, yeah? Blocked toilet down at the station? Must be all those doughnuts you lot eat.” I wasn’t talking about the place you catch a train from. Dave Southgate is one of our boys in blue—or he would be, if he still wore a uniform. And when he rang, the job was never all that little, though I lived in hope.
“I wish. No—young lady by the name of Melanie Porter. Last seen going off to meet person or persons unknown three days ago—
you believe her useless yob of a hoodie boyfriend, who I personally wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw his drugs stash. We’ve received information suggesting we have a look for the young lady in the woods up by Brock’s Hollow.”
“I do have a proper job to do, you know.” Even I could hear the resignation in my voice.
“Cheers, Tom, I owe you. We’re up on Nomansland Common. Up past Devil’s Dyke—you know the area? Combing through the woodland, the usual drill. How soon can you get up here?”
I looked at my watch. “About ten minutes—I’m only down the road, as it happens. Just need to finish up.” And I’d have to ring Mrs. L. and apologise for the no-show, but that’d be more a pleasure than a duty.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket and finished tightening up the taps. Opened the supply pipes and turned the taps on and off to prove they worked. “There you go,” I said, wiping my hands on an old rag. “All sorted.”
“That’s lovely. Sure you wouldn’t like to stay for another coffee?” She gave me a winning smile, and the dimples deepened. “I’ve got some Belgian chocolate biccies.”
“Sorry, Mrs. B.,” I said regretfully. “Duty calls.”
I first met Dave Southgate around three years ago. A kiddie went missing in Verulamium Park, and they put out an appeal on local radio for help finding the little lad. He was only three. I tracked him down under a bush right next to the main road, crying his little heart out and clutching a half-eaten loaf of bread he’d taken to feed the ducks.
Obviously, me being a single gay man who’d managed to find a missing toddler, it wasn’t just as simple as handing the kid over and receiving the effusive thanks of a grateful police force. There were a lot of searching questions about just how I’d known where to look. Eventually, I managed to convince Sergeant Southgate, as he then was, I just had this knack of finding stuff. Or people, as it might be. Since then, he’s called me in a few times to look for things—burglars’ loot, hidden drugs—and bodies.
It’s a bit hard to explain, but I can’t just find any old thing. I’m not some bloody database on the location of everything in the world. It’s only certain types of things. And usually, there has to be some strong emotion involved. So lost things are almost always impossible, because if you’d been feeling that strongly about the thing at the time, chances are you wouldn’t have lost it, would you? Hidden things, on the other hand, call out to me. All the guilt and shame and sneakiness involved in the hiding acts as a kind of beacon. And I can often tell from the feeling just what sort of thing it is that’s hidden.
I mean, say you buried a suitcase in your garden. I’d have a pretty good idea before I dug it up whether it’d contain your collection of hard-core porn, letters from a lover, or the body of your dead baby.
Bodies, actually, are the classic one. I have to be close enough physically—although there’s tricks I can do to help, I’ll get on to those later—but once I’m there, it’s like they’re howling at me.
The first one I found, I thought she really was howling.
It was back when we lived in London. She wasn’t anyone I knew. I think Mum knew her mum a bit, but that was all. She was too young to have played with me, and certainly too young to have played with my sister. She was only four, you see, when it happened. Just wandered off in the park, I guess, met a man who seemed really friendly…do I have to spell it out for you? He’d hidden her under some bushes, right in a patch of nettles. Must have been wearing gloves, I suppose. I had shorts on when I found her, and I got covered in stings.
But she was crying, at least I thought she was, and I knew I couldn’t leave her there. So I crept in after her, calling out, “Don’t cry—it’s all right.”
Of course, it wasn’t all right. Not for her, and not for her poor mum and dad. For them, I expect it was never all right again. She stopped crying as soon as I found her, so maybe she found some peace. I don’t know. I thought she was asleep, but she was so cold. I tried to drag her out, but I was worried I’d hurt her, so in the end, I left her there and ran and got my mum.
And then things got very grown up, very fast.
Anyway. Hidden things. Lost things, sometimes. And water, funnily enough. I’ve never really understood that one.
I rubbed my hip as I walked over the rough grassland of the Common to the edge of a scrubby patch of woodland, where I could see Dave and a couple of police dogs with their handlers. I broke my pelvis badly when I was seventeen—got hit by a car and spent months recovering—and it aches whenever the weather turns cold and damp. Which, this being Britain, it does quite a lot, especially in November. Maybe I’d move to Florida when I retired.
Maybe a passing porker would be able to fly me there.
“All right, Dave?” I called out when I got to where they were standing, grim-faced.
Dave’s face broke into a relieved almost-smile, although the men with the dogs cast me sceptical glances. Dave was a big bloke, by which I mean a bit too fond of beer and takeaways. He was tall compared to my five foot eight, but probably only average compared to everyone else. I don’t mind. In fact, it’s pretty handy for a plumber, being small—especially when you’re working in one of those new, shoebox-sized houses they throw up everywhere these days, with the sort of bathrooms where you step out of the bath to find you’ve got one foot in the toilet.
“Tom. Good to see you.” Dave took a deep breath. “Right. Melanie Porter. She’s a twenty-three-year-old estate agent, works down in the village. Boyfriend, as I said, a bit on the dodgy side. He’s got previous for drugs, petty crime—that sort of thing. Supposed to have settled down since he met the young lady—at least, he’s stayed out of trouble for nearly a year now. His story is she got a call Saturday night and told him she had to go out. They had a blazing row about it—we’ve got the neighbour’s corroboration for that—and she left, and he hasn’t seen her since. Or, depending which theory you subscribe to, he bludgeoned her to death and disposed of the body sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning.”
“So why do you think she’s here?” I nodded over at the trees.
“Anonymous tip-off. Said if we want to find Melanie, we’re to look around here.” He scratched his nose. Somebody really ought to buy him some nose-hair clippers for Christmas, I thought, distracted for a moment by the bushy growths that sprouted unchecked from his nostrils. “Be pretty convenient for him, if he did do it. They lived just over there, in a council flat.” Dave inclined his head towards the Dyke Hill estate, an unlovely but functional collection of houses and flats for the less-well-off of the village.
“Right, let’s get started, then,” I suggested. The longer I stayed out here, the worse my hip would ache. And I still had Mrs. L.’s blocked drain hanging over me, metaphorically speaking. “Have you got anything for me?”
It doesn’t always work, but sometimes a picture of the person I’m looking for will help. Dave handed me a snapshot, taken on a sunny day down by the river. Melanie Porter was a pretty girl, although she’d never make the cover of
, or even
. She had a roundish face, chestnut hair and large, blue eyes. Her smile was a little crooked, which gave her a sympathetic air.
Suddenly I didn’t want to find her. She looked like the sort of girl you hoped your brother would marry.
“There’s this too.” Dave handed me a carrier bag with a cardigan in it. “She was wearing it at work, the day she disappeared.”
“I’m not a bloody sniffer dog.” I took it anyway, in case it had some vibes for me. I pointedly didn’t sniff it. I didn’t feel any vibes, either. It was just a plain, slightly bobbly cardie.
“Oh, bloody hell—how did he find out about this?” I looked up from the photo to see Dave glaring at a tall, blond figure striding our way across the common. The new guy was big in a totally different way to Dave—his shoulders were broad, his legs were long and lean, and the bulk of his chest wasn’t all due to the bodywarmer he was wearing over a thick sweater. Well, it was a bit nippy up here, as I was finding to my cost. I gave my hip another rub.
There was something vaguely familiar about the bloke. “Who is he?”
“Private bloody investigator. Hired by our girl’s mum and dad. Private bloody pain in the bum, if you ask me. Ex-copper, couldn’t hack it, so left to go private.” He gave me a speculative look. “Course, you might get on all right with him. He’s one of your lot, not that you’d know it to look at him.”
“What, a plumber?” I asked innocently.
“Piss off. And he’s not a bloody psychic either. He’s queer, all right? And if I catch you two canoodling on police time, I’m taking pictures and bunging them on the Internet.”
“I’ll try and control my raging homo desires,” I said as dryly as I could. “I’ve managed to keep my hands off you all these years, haven’t I?” I added to wind him up.
Dave shuddered. I wasn’t offended. I was too busy fighting off a shudder myself. Dave’s a great bloke, and I love him dearly, but not like that. Dear God,
I had to admit I wouldn’t mind a bit of canoodling where the PI was concerned. Dave’s comment about his sexuality had piqued my interest, no doubt about it. As he approached, the sense of familiarity deepened, and I wondered if I’d seen him around somewhere. I was fairly sure we’d never hooked up or anything embarrassing like that. This guy was way out of my league—with a body like that, and a square-jawed, classically handsome face above it, he could take his pick, and he looked like he knew it too.