The woman’s body lay face down inside the ancient stone circle, her long pale coat almost glowing in the early morning gloom. What colour was it? White? Yellow? DCI Shand moved closer, stopping at the edge of the circle. As the first detective at the scene, he had to take his time to observe and appraise.
His eyes were drawn to the woman. He’d never seen a dead body before. Not in the field. He’d lectured about them, he’d studied countless pictures, he’d taken raw recruits through every nuance of crime scene protocol. But that was all theory. This was the real thing. Only his second day in CID and already he had his first murder.
And it had to be murder. The way she lay there – arms down by her side, legs straight, clothes unruffled, her head turned slightly to one side so that her left cheek was resting on the grass. She’d been arranged. Was her head pointing towards the rising sun?
He looked up at the heavy blanket of cloud – no help there, not even the merest hint of where the sun might be. Perhaps he was being influenced by the situation. Everything about the location screamed ritual. A body laid out inside a stone circle. It had to be significant, didn’t it?
But if so, shouldn’t she be at its centre? Why position her to one side?
He ran his eye around the stones – more than a dozen of them, irregularly shaped, equally spaced, their heights ranging from four to six feet. The circle stretched to maybe forty feet in diameter. The body was about ten feet from the far side.
He shivered. There was something eerie about the scene. Everything so quiet. Nothing moving for miles around. The stones crowded around the body like silent mourners. The far side of the valley patchworked in shades of twilight grey, mist and smoke rising up from the valley floor. The smell of autumn everywhere – damp rotting leaves and wood smoke.
He looked across the field towards the road on his left. Was that the way she’d come? Up the winding road from the village on foot? Or had someone driven her here, pulled off onto that chalk track, and dumped her?
He turned back to the circle. He could see the slight outline of footprints on the grass, little more than rectangles written in the dew. They scuffed a braided path between the outer stones and the body. One set of tracks would belong to the girl who’d found her, another to the uniformed officer who’d called it in. Maybe they’d get lucky and find a third, but he doubted it. The dew was light, and probably formed only a few hours before dawn.
He shivered again, pulling his jacket tighter in a vain attempt to keep out the cold. Where was SOCO? He’d expected the Scene of Crimes team to be on site when he arrived, handing out gloves and white coats, and sealing off the crime scene.
He shouted to the lone policeman who was over on the chalk track talking to the girl who’d found the body. “Scene of Crimes are on their way, aren’t they?”
“Yes, sir. They should be here any minute.”
Shand checked his watch, shuffled his feet, peered at the road, listened. He’d never been any good at waiting. There was a dead body yards away, valuable time ebbing away…
He stared at the body. What if she wasn’t dead? The girl had probably never seen a dead body before. The constable was barely out of his teens. Wouldn’t it be judicious to have a look himself?
He pulled on a pair of latex gloves and entered the circle, tracing a path well away from the footprints, each step slow and deliberate, his head bent scanning the ground. Whatever happened he was not going to compromise the crime scene.
A yard away now. He could see a darkened patch of matted hair on the back of the woman’s head. It didn’t look fresh. And, looking closer, her body appeared to be laid out on a slight mound. Was that why they’d chosen this site? Was it some kind of altar?
He bent down to touch the woman’s neck. No pulse that he could feel through the gloves. He checked her fingers, applying the slightest of pressure. They were stiff. Rigor had set in. He tried the wrist. Rigor there too. And at the elbow, though not the shoulder. Five to nine hours, by his somewhat rusty reckoning, which made time of death somewhere between eleven and four last night.
He took another look at the woman’s fingers. The nails were manicured. No cracks, no blood, no signs of defensive wounds. And nothing obvious under the nails.
No signs of sexual interference either. The hemline of the woman’s coat ran arrow-straight along the backs of her knees. And her coat was spotless. No blood, no dirt or grass stains, barely even a crease. It could have come straight from a shop window.
He leaned farther over the body to examine her face. Late thirties, early forties. No bruising, no cuts, make-up unsmudged. And her eyes were closed. The killer, perhaps? Someone who didn’t want the victim to stare at them while they arranged the body?
The sound of a car broke his concentration – the first real noise he’d heard for minutes. He looked up. Three cars had pulled off the road, and were bumping along the rough chalk track that passed within thirty yards of the circle. Shand rose quickly. What had he been thinking? He should have blocked the track off, had a word with the constable about finding an alternative car park while he determined the extent of the crime scene.
“Hey,” he shouted.
That’s when it happened. Something tightened around his right ankle. Something that felt like fingers and gripped like a hand. He jumped, a startled cry rising from his throat, but the fingers held firm. He looked down, panic-stricken. The woman had to be dead, he’d felt the rigor in her hands!
Time froze. He stared in disbelief. A hand had risen out of the ground beneath the body. At first he couldn’t take it in. He felt slow and befuddled. Where had the hand come from?
And then time catapulted the scene into needle-sharp clarity. There was someone alive down there. Someone buried beneath the corpse.
“Quick!” he shouted, waving frantically at the newcomers, his voice unnaturally shrill. “Over here! They’re buried alive!”
He bent down, broke the person’s grip, pulled back their fingers, wanting to squeeze that hand, give comfort, but not having the time. “We’re coming,” he said, throwing himself to the ground. “Hang on!”
And then he was digging, scrabbling wildly at the earth. How long had they been down there? How could they breathe?
He freed the hand to the elbow. Pulled hard. The body wouldn’t budge. He shouted to the others to hurry. Car doors slammed, people ran. “Help me move the corpse!” He thrust his hands under the dead woman’s shoulders, swung her off the mound, then dived back, ripping at the clods of turf that covered the grave.
Turf flew in all directions – and dirt – everyone on hands and knees, clawing at the ground. No shovels, no tools, no time. The earth soft to the touch. Another hand discovered, an arm, a leg. Soft flesh, feet kicking wildly, a frantic search for a face. Shand’s fingers found something smooth and flat – a box? The person’s head was encased in a cardboard box!
He swept the soil back, fast choppy strokes, dug his hands down and along the sides. People were pulling from the other side, easing the person out by the legs. A head appeared. A woman, middle-aged, red-faced and gasping.