‘There was a trail. I’m no tracker, but there were marks made by some shoes that didn’t look like they matched those of anyone else from Glen Bart.’ At my questioning glance, Gareth elaborated further. ‘We all wear wellies or steel-capped boots. These looked…’ He shrugged. ‘I dunno. Smart.’
‘You could tell that from the footprints?’
‘It had been raining so there was quite a lot of mud. One of the prints had a logo on it. Some kind of weird squiggle.’ He stood up and walked to a nearby mirror, then breathed on it before drawing the logo in the steam. I squinted. It looked oddly familiar but I couldn’t place it. ‘We’ve had quite a few problems in the past with sheep rustling. Only one animal seemed to be missing but that didn’t mean whoever took it wouldn’t be back for more.’
‘Sheep rustling? That’s still a thing?’
‘You’d be surprised,’ he answered grimly. ‘Anyway, I tracked the footprints for a mile or so up an embankment and onto Dead Man’s Hill. It’s called that because it’s not far from the cemetery.’ His expression took on a morose cast. ‘Or that used to be the reason.’ He sighed heavily. ‘The first thing I saw didn’t make any sense. I thought it was a stick at first. But when I got closer there were some … bits attached to it.’ He looked green. ‘Flesh,’ he whispered. ‘Blood. I think it was a rib. I still didn’t have any reason to believe it was human. In fact, I wondered if a dog might have got hold of the sheep somehow. Old man Jones at the other end of town has a bloody husky which … never mind.’
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more but I’d promised Winter. ‘So you kept on going?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I wish to God I hadn’t. I really do. It wasn’t much further before there was more blood. A lot more blood. When I saw the hand, I knew for sure that this wasn’t about the sheep.’
I swallowed. ‘It was … dismembered?’
‘And chewed. At least three of the fingers had definite bite marks.’ He looked at me. ‘They didn’t look like they’d been caused by an animal.’
‘You think they were human?’
He was so quiet I had to strain to hear him. ‘I do.’ His voice cracked. ‘Just beyond the hand there was a head. The eyes…’ He shook his head, the horror too great to put into words. ‘And the smell was horrific. I’ve dealt with dead animals before, it comes as part of my job. But this was something different. It feels like the reek of it is still caught in my nostrils. Decaying and sickly sweet.’ He stared at me. ‘I don’t know if it will ever go away.’
That was interesting. I knew from the files that Benjamin Alberts had been missing for less than five hours before his body was discovered. Even with the little I knew about forensic pathology, it didn’t seem possible that he could have already smelled that badly. Unless Gareth had magnified it in his mind because of the trauma of what he’d seen.
‘For a second, I couldn’t move,’ he told me. ‘It felt like an hour but it was probably only a minute or two. Then I turned and ran back down to the farm and called the police. They did the rest.’
‘I’m so sorry it was you who found him,’ I said softly.
He avoided my gaze. ‘I keep thinking I shouldn’t be feeling like this. After all, I’m fine. I didn’t get hurt. I didn’t know the guy who was killed.’ He pressed the base of his palms against his temples as if he could drive out the images of what he’d seen by sheer physical force. ‘But I can’t get it out of my head. It’s always there. I don’t know what to do. Can’t you help me? If you’re a witch, maybe you can make me forget. There must be some potion or herbs you can give me which will make all this go away.’
There were certainly herbs that could dull the sensation of memory. They were a weak salve at best, however; once they wore off, the returning trauma was often worse than before. And runes wouldn’t help. Not here.
‘There’s no magic spell,’ I told him honestly. ‘But I do know someone who might be able to help. Just give me a few moments.’
I slid my phone out of my pocket and stepped away from him. There was a heaving grunt from a man straining to lift a set of weights so I moved further towards the door.
‘Hey Iqbal,’ I said, once he answered.
‘Ivy, baby! How’s it hanging?’
‘Not too bad. How’s that thesis?’
He sounded smug. ‘I’ve managed to get an extension. I told my supervisor that my grandmother had died.’
‘Didn’t she pass away a few years ago?’
‘You’re thinking of the time I skipped lectures for a fortnight and told everyone she’d been attacked by a shark while surfing in Australia. She’s still very much alive. More’s the pity. She keeps trying to throw girls my way. She can’t wait for me to settle down and have a gazillion kids. And she makes me wear these horrid knitted jumpers all year round. I swear she must think I’m ten-stone heavier than I am. They’re always massive. And I reckon she makes a special effort to buy wool that is specially itchy.’
‘How terrible for you.’
‘I know, right?’ I could almost hear him grinning. ‘Anyway, I’m going to assume because of the late hour that this is not a social call. You want my help again, right?’
‘I do. Not for myself this time, though, so no karaoke requests.’
‘But the last one went so well! If it hadn’t been for that night, you and sexy Raphael Winter would never have got it together. How is he doing? Have you set a date yet?’
I snorted. ‘Hardly. Listen, do you still have the number for that counsellor woman?’
‘Julia? The pneumatic kisser?’
‘That’s the one.’ Iqbal might have found her a bit overly energetic but she was damned good at her job. And I was sure I’d heard she had moved up to Scotland. ‘I could do with getting in touch with her.’
Iqbal dropped all his joking. ‘Why? Is everything alright?’
‘Like I said, it’s not for me.’
‘Hang on a minute.’ I waited a few beats before he came back on the line and reeled off a phone number.
‘No problemo. Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Yeah, yeah. Although…’ I paused. I’d trust Iqbal with my life but what I was about to say made me feel like an idiot.
‘Well, I’m with Winter on a job. Things are pretty awkward between us. I think he likes me and I know I like him. But how do I broach the subject without scaring him off? I’m not with the Order and I’m not technically his partner any more, so there’s no real reason why we can’t be together. You’re a guy. Should I wait for him to make a move? What if he doesn’t?’
‘This is Ivy, right? Ivy Wilde? The woman who does whatever she wants when she wants?’
‘You really do like him.’ Iqbal’s voice was full of wonder. ‘When have you bothered this much about a guy before?’
I coughed. Raphael Winter had sneaked into my head and, with his typical tenacity, he wasn’t letting go. ‘Never mind.’
‘Ivy Wilde, are you in love?’
‘Let’s talk about something else.’
‘Is there anything else?’
‘No.’ I hesitated. ‘Actually, wait, there is something.’ I told him about the vial Belinda Battenapple wore around her neck. ‘Do you know what it is?’
‘No. I can look it up, if you want.’
‘I’d appreciate it.’
‘I’ll do what I can and get back to you.’ There was a beat. ‘Ivy, are you sure you’re alright? You sound … different.’
I shrugged. ‘I’m fine. I’d better go.’
‘Look after yourself.’
‘Always. Cheerio, Iqqy.’
I jabbed in the number for Julia, whose last name completely escaped me. When she answered with a purr, it was clear she’d been expecting someone very different. I hastily re-introduced myself and outlined Gareth’s problems without telling her any real specifics.