There was a broken-down vehicle holding up traffic and Simon was about to turn round and make a detour when his phone rang.
‘Guv – Dave Keys. The station said you were out and about. You anywhere near us?’
Dave was heading up the search team that had sifted through the debris on the bypass. Everything had now been put back and the road reopened; the team was clearing up and should be leaving by the end of the day.
‘I wasn’t but there’s a traffic block so I’m making a detour.’
‘Better come over.’
Simon had pulled off to take the call but now he sped towards the bypass, wondering as he did so about the new DCI. The internal candidate who had made the shortlist was not strong and he prayed it wouldn’t go to him, but he knew nothing about the rest. While he was going to be occupied full-time on the Lowther case – and who knew for how long – the ACC was right, he needed someone at the station to head up CID who would hit the ground running and keep the team and its still fragile morale together. Before she had been taken ill, the Chief had talked to Simon about it. He was sure that she would be gunning for a woman in the job. There were too few in senior positions in the force and Simon, who knew Paula Devenish well and liked her, was fully aware that she sometimes felt beleaguered. Although she herself was based at Bevham HQ, she would appreciate a woman DCI on her side in Lafferton. Did he mind either way? There were two women on the team in CID but both sergeants and the DI were men. Uniform had a bigger female complement. If the DCI was to be a woman, so long as it was one with a strong personality as well as all the other necessary qualities, Simon would be happy, and he knew that to balance his own liking for working alone – not to mention being a maverick occasionally – the new DCI needed to be a team player. It wasn’t going to be the easiest job to come into.
He turned into what was left of the car park at the bottom of the lower slopes, found a space near the forensic vans and got his rubber boots out. The team was on a temporary ledge above him, one of their green tents erected over a section of ground. A couple of them were moving a huge tree branch out of the way, another was stamping the earth down to pack it hard. The usual scene, but he had not expected so many of them still to be there.
Dave Keys watched him climb the last few yards. The ground was very wet and it was not easy to get a proper foothold.
‘What’s that?’ Serrailler nodded at the tent.
Dave shook his head. ‘Take a look. Mind your feet.’
He held one side of the nylon tent up for Simon to duck under. There was barely room for his six foot four and he had to stoop but there was enough light for him to see a hollowed-out area some seven or eight feet long, shallow and marked out with the forensics’ small metal stakes and flags.
It was a grave and it held a skeletal body, entire this time and pushed slightly to one side, the left leg bent.
He stared at it for a moment before backing out again and stretching upright.
‘That wasn’t opened by the force of the storm.’
‘You’re right. A tree root had come up like a tooth out of a socket and when we were checking over this part the corner of the grave was just visible. We almost missed it, but then Lyn Pearson went back – she had a hunch something looked not quite right. Only took a bit of careful scraping away.’
‘Could Harriet Lowther’s body have been buried in it as well? Looks to be a bit of room.’
‘No. Harriet came down with the landslip. She must have been further over there.’ He indicated the gouged-out area of hillside fifty yards or so away to the left.
‘This one might be our Roman soldier then.’
Dave looked blank.
‘It’s OK, I had this theory.’
‘You wouldn’t find Roman remains as near to the surface as this. They sink a long way over time. Often find them when a farmer does some deep ploughing.’
‘You an archaeology buff then, sir?’
‘Nope. Just thinking how much less hassle there’d be if it was a thousand years old, that’s all.’
‘Cold case then.’
‘Stone. But probably still not cold enough. Thanks, Dave. You moving it?’
‘When Lyman’s had his turn. He’s on the way.’
‘We can’t close up here now. Any sense of how wide an area you might have to start trawling through?’
‘We can’t dig up the whole Moor, if that’s what you’re thinking. But in point of fact, this is a pretty self-contained section. Off this level area and you’ve a steep climb for quite a way – nobody’s going to have dug a grave on that incline. We’ll cordon off around here and take it inch by inch, but my guess is there may well not be anything else.’
‘I hope to God you’re right,’ Serrailler said, turning and almost slithering backwards on the churned-up ground.
Dave Keys made a grab for his arm and hauled him up. ‘It’s the rubber soles,’ he said with disapproval.
‘If I’d known I was coming mountaineering I’d have brought my climbing boots.’
He left forensics to their job and drove away. It was just after eleven and he needed to see Sir John Lowther. No one working on the Moor would have alerted the press – it was more than their jobs were worth – but in Serrailler’s experience everyone in the media on crime desks had a sixth sense for this sort of news. Once he had spoken to Lowther, he would call a press conference – always give them something, always keep them in the loop, always be one step ahead of them and never the other way round. Those were his rules when dealing with the media and he had a good relationship with the press office, who mostly went along with him.
He had not been out to Up Starly for a long time. It was one of the most unspoilt of the villages in the countryside around Lafferton, with a pub, the Oak, which his mother had liked. Meriel Serrailler had not been a natural pubgoer, or indeed someone who had had much time for lunch outings of any kind, but she had occasionally come out here with Simon – and Simon only, never Richard, never any friends. It hadn’t been more than two or three times a year but he had loved spending the time with her, loved to have her to himself, away from his father’s sarcastic and often disapproving company. Simon had not been since her death. He did not think he would want to again, but as he turned out of the lane into the village, he saw that the pub, on the other side of the green, was a pub no longer. Its signs had gone and what had been the entrance was now the front door of a private house.
He slowed down. The Oak was now Greenview. A picture came vividly to mind of Meriel, turning round to say something to him over her shoulder as they went in through the pub door. Smiling slightly. She had been wearing a violet-coloured pashmina over her left shoulder. Stylish. Beautiful.
The pub was no longer there, and yet it was still there.
He felt as if some final link with her had been roughly cut off, a link he had not even realised still existed.
He wound down the window and took a deep breath of the mild, damp air. He was not here to remember his mother fondly, or to think about himself and the past. He was here for the job.
The village was compact, the small houses and cottages spread out around the green and down two lanes leading off to east and west. There was a close of pebble-dash council houses and behind them a recreation ground with football posts in place.
A woman walking her dog slowed to peer at him. If he had been a potential burglar, she would have remembered everything about him. He stuck his head out of the window and asked for the Old Mill.
‘I’m … not sure.’
She was sure. He pulled his warrant card out of his inside pocket and flicked it open.
‘Ah, the police. I see. You go down that lane, Binders Lane, to the far end, and it’s on the left. Concealed entrance. I won’t say you can’t miss it because you can.’
She stood watching him until he turned.
How long was it since police had regularly called at the Lowther house? Years. The village must have changed – people had died or moved away, others had arrived, the pub had closed – but Harriet’s disappearance would not have been forgotten and the arrival of the police, even a solitary detective in an unmarked car, must be of interest. It would be round the village by lunchtime.
The Old Mill was exactly that. The fast-flowing stream ran through the garden and under the house. The water rushed towards the old wheel and paddles before emerging at the back of the house, which overlooked the wide mill pool. Simon got out of the car and went over. The recent floods had given a great surge to the stream and the noise it made was like the sound of an incoming tide. He wondered if it ever stopped, and how anyone in the house ever slept.
But the main door was on the other side, and as he went round to it, the noise faded to an agreeable, silky sound. A dark blue Jaguar was parked on the drive. An uneven lawn sloped away from a terrace and a flight of stone steps. The windows were closed and, in the upstairs ones, two or three blinds were half down.
He took a couple of deep breaths. It was a long time since he had been the official bringer of bad news but his stomach had the old knot of apprehension. He had been here so often in his past, as a young constable with the Met and then a uniformed sergeant. You never forgot. They crowded into his mind now. The Jamaican woman in her barricaded tiny ghetto of a flat in a tower block, opening her arms, throwing back her head and letting out a long wail of anguish when he told her about her son who had been stabbed. The Polish family, sitting in white-faced silence, until the grandmother went to a stoop of holy water placed before a picture of the Virgin and crossed herself with it. The woman with a toddler clutching her leg and a couple of boys, huge-eyed, standing behind her on the stairs, who had told Simon, and loudly enough for them to hear every word, that she was glad her waste-of-space husband was dead, he deserved anything he got, serve him right, we’re better off without him, and no, I won’t come and identify him, I never want to see him again, and now bugger off. The man who had walked out of the farmhouse kitchen in which he and his wife, Serrailler and a fellow officer had been standing while the news of his murdered daughter was broken, and had shot himself a few minutes later, for them all to hear and Simon to be the first to reach his body.
That had been the last time. Now this. Before, the news he had brought had always been of a recent death. This was very different. Yet he wondered if, essentially, it would be any different at all.
‘They always know,’ his army friend Harry had once said. He had several times been to the homes of men killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘They know the minute they open the door to you – no, before that, the minute they see your shadow through the glass. They always know.’
Simon rang the bell of the Old Mill, wondering if Sir John Lowther would see him and know.
But it was a middle-aged woman who opened the door. The housekeeper. He gave his name and stepped into a large, rather dark hall. There was an empty feel about the house, as if it were somehow hollow inside. It smelled of polished furniture and cleanliness.
He only waited a moment.
‘Simon – how nice to see you … but I hope nothing is wrong with your sister?’
‘Cat – we’ve a hospice trustees meeting at two o’clock. Is she all right?’
‘Ah … yes, thank you, Cat’s fine. I’m sure she’ll be there.’
‘That’s a relief. I have a lot of time for Dr Deerbon. Please, follow me.’
He was a tall man, stooped, with thinning grey hair and anxious, deep-set eyes.
He led the way into his study, a long room overlooking the side of the garden away from the mill. The desk was set about with papers in neatly ordered piles, an open laptop, a small Georgian clock.
‘Can I offer you a cup of coffee? Mrs Mangan will be making some for me any moment.’
He was oblivious to the reason for Serrailler’s visit. They did not always know.
‘Thank you.’ Sitting down with coffee might help.
He watched Lowther leave the room and, as he did so, caught sight of two photographs on the bureau. One was of a pretty woman with hair coiled up behind her head, marked eyebrows, a pleasing smile. The other, next to it, was of a young girl of fourteen or fifteen, with the same eyebrows, a high forehead, smiling slightly but with her lips firmly together. Because, Simon thought, she was self-conscious about the brace on her teeth.
Sir John came back, talking about coffee as he did so, but although Simon had looked away he had not done so quite quickly enough. Lowther followed his gaze. And then, as he glanced between the photograph of his daughter and Simon, he knew – the split second when he knew was clear on his face. It was as if a curtain had dropped down over his welcoming expression, replacing it with a terrible blankness and he seemed to go not pale, but grey, the lines around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes deepened, the flesh sagged. A brisk man in his early seventies had been replaced by an old one.
‘You’ve found something,’ he said.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
Lowther sat down slowly in the desk chair. For a moment he stared ahead of him, but then straightened his back and turned. As he did so, the door opened on the housekeeper bringing their coffee, so that they had to wait until she had set it down, though as she did so, Simon saw her glance at Lowther with a flash of concern. But she said nothing.
‘Tell me, please.’
The coffee pot and cups stood untouched on the desk between them.
Simon told him. Lowther did not interrupt, and did not look at him, but at a point somewhere above the fireplace. It was quickly said and then there was silence.
Simon poured coffee for them both. Handed Lowther his. He took it, but did not speak until he had drunk half the cup quickly. Then he said, ‘I’m grateful to you for speaking directly, Simon. For telling the full story.’
‘There is never any point in not doing so.’
‘No. I won’t ask if you are absolutely certain because you have indicated that you are and you would not be here –’
‘I have to be guided by the pathologist. He has no doubts at all.’
For a second, Lowther’s face crumpled, and as he bent his head, Simon thought he was going to cry. He always felt helpless in the face of other people’s tears. But, instead, the man walked across to the bureau and looked not at Harriet’s photograph but at that of his wife.
‘I never thought I would thank God that Eve died. But at this moment I do.’
‘I understand you.’