HE IS WATCHING YOU
He turned off the hill with a sharp right. Dover's historic castle was now directly in front and in the distance. A low-lying mist concealed much of the green hill that it sat on, giving the impression that the ancient fort was floating, like something from a fairy tale.
The first hour of daylight was always his favourite. Even more so now that the United Kingdom was in the grip of an oppressive heat wave. He felt as if he could only truly breathe in these first hours. There was a freshness in the air that could almost be mistaken for a chill. The mist was holding back the power of the sun, but it wouldn't last for long.
The road twisted away and he accelerated. The short row of houses on the nearside of his pickup truck blurred into a grey line that ended suddenly and the surroundings changed to greenery where the trees closed in. The road narrowed. The scent through the open windows changed, too. It was delicious — dewy grass and cut wood. The nearside opened up into fields where sheep grazed with their heads bent. The far side had a metal fence marking the perimeter of the castle grounds. There was a row of thick trees, their ancient trunks scarred and gnarled as if they, too, had battled to keep back the invading hordes. Soon the castle was just a glimpse in the rear-view mirror. Then it was gone completely. The fence ran out, too.
He pushed further into the countryside. It was where he was least anxious. Fewer people was always a good thing, and even when the greenery disappeared momentarily as he crossed above a major road, there was nothing moving on the carriageway below.
The road became twistier. He needed to slow down. The greenery on the right was giving way to a distant view of the English Channel, laid out like a sheet of beaten steel that caught the morning light. The mist was already starting to burn away and he could make out strips of green and blue in the water. He needed to concentrate on the road — he braked for a tight bend. There were cliff-top parking points dotted along this road and he saw his first car of the morning, parked up and facing out over the views, its brake lights showing. He continued on. The road straightened out and the trees were soon gone completely, leaving just fields on either side. He had climbed as high as he could. The road was now flat and the sea constantly visible on his right, beyond the sloping fields and the coast guard building that looked from here as if it was hanging over the edge.
He slowed to turn off onto a farm track. The grass sprouting up from the middle was long enough to brush the underside of his truck. He followed the track for half a mile. An open-sided barn was the first building he came to. It was just as he remembered: the roof had fallen in on one side, and the wood frame and plastic sheets that had once been part of it were now draped over a solid, metal container. The container itself looked lopsided and clumsy now that two of the four paving slabs wedged under the corners looked to have collapsed under its weight. The container was rusty and the sides were slick with moss hanging down from the top. The doors were not visible from the track — they were on the other side, facing the wall of the barn. It was why he had chosen it.
He pulled up and the track's rain-starved surface threw up a plume of dust that he stepped into as he got out of the truck. He turned aside too late to protect his eyes from it. He stood still for a second, his eyes stinging and blinking while the dust settled, and then walked to the back of the pickup and opened the back door of the hard top. The hydraulics hissed as it lifted.
Her body was wrapped in a sheet of plastic, her feet just visible. He could see her blue trainers hanging motionless out of the bottom. They were stained a dark red, one somewhat more than the other. She was heavy. He had chosen a plastic sheet because it made it easier to move her. He still struggled to slide her towards him. When she was close enough, he was able to grasp her around the hips and heave her up onto his shoulder. He couldn't see her face — it was wrapped up tight along with the rest of her. He didn't want her leaking any fluids or shedding any hairs. She was wrapped so tightly that she didn't bend too well over his shoulder and he grunted as he backed away from the truck. The bundle caught on the top of the open boot. He managed to get around it but stumbled a little as he walked towards the container. He lowered her to the ground under the broken roof.
The padlock was stiff. He should have got a bigger one, the key was too small in his gloved hands and he cursed his lack of dexterity. He sucked in deep breaths of air to calm himself. He couldn't take the gloves off, so he just needed to focus. Finally, the key found its place and the lock clicked. He pulled the door to the container open. It was heavy. He hooked the padlock back in the door. The smell hit him all at once and a swarm of flies lifted up. They didn't make for the door though; instead, they just landed right back on the identical-looking roll of plastic that was already in there. The feet sticking out the bottom of this one were bare. He cursed. He remembered that he needed to turn her round. He grimaced at the smell as he leaned forward. He took hold of the plastic and spun the roll. As the head end came around, it shed a number of dark, bloated flies — maggots, too. Disturbed from feasting on the flesh, they writhed on the scuffed metal floor.
Satisfied, he walked back to the new addition. He lifted her so that her trainers pointed at the ground and heaved her back onto his shoulder. He walked her a few paces closer to the container's open door, rested her in a standing position then pushed her in. Her plastic covering slapped against the metal. She rolled so the fronts of her trainers pointed downwards. He spun her round too. It was awkward. The flies that had settled were once again disturbed. They rose as one like a black shadow. When the shadow fell back down it consumed both the women. The flies could sense death, they could sense when it was fresh. He held his breath to step in. He tugged off her trainers, one after the other, then he went back for the thin, outer plastic sheet — the only item that could have caught a fragment of his DNA. A solitary hair or a smear of sweat would be enough. There was thicker plastic underneath and she was wrapped tightly up to her shoulders.
The padlock snapped back shut. He could feel sweat running down his back and his forearms where it would pool into his gloves. Sweat was bad news but it could be managed. He walked back to his truck and sat on the metal boot-lip to catch his breath. After a few minutes he reached further into the truck and dragged out a bin-style incinerator, the sort you could buy in just about any garden centre or home improvement store. It hadn't been used before. The metal was still bright and reflected the low morning sun. He had bought it two months earlier, plenty of time for the shop's CCTV to have wiped itself. He walked it into the side of the barn where the roof was still in place. It looked fragile though: there was a clear dip in the middle and some of the panels looked as if they were only being held up by the spiders' webs that stretched between them. He put the bin down and turned his attention to his paper suit. It was brightest white; he had to squint to look at it as it caught the strengthening sun. He pulled the zipper down and peeled it off, careful to roll it away from his body. He pushed it into the bin, his shoes too. He took the gloves off last, he was careful to pull them off from the fingers not the cuffs. He dropped them into the bin. He had taped a paper sheet flat in the back of his truck that could catch anything that might have fallen from the plastic. He would need to go back for that. He rolled up her outer sheet and laid it in the bin.
He froze. The unmistakeable sound of an engine drifted into the barn and it was getting closer. The wonderful stillness of the morning was broken. He was no longer alone.CHAPTER 2
Ron Beasle leaned forward to peer out over the top of the worn steering wheel. An air-freshener jerked and fidgeted in his peripheral vision. He could see a pickup truck pulled over near the barn. It was new looking, the sort with a hard cover over its flatbed on the rear. It was pointing right at him, the wheels turned at an angle and a man who Ron presumed to be the driver was bent forward, studying something on the bonnet.
'What have we got here then, Tucker?' Ron said. On the cracked leather seat next to him the sandy-coloured spaniel looked out eagerly, his tongue sucked in for just an instant at the sound of his name.
Ron stopped. He killed the engine and the driver's door squeaked as he clambered out, careful to keep Tucker inside. The dog jumped instantly over to the driver's seat, clutching a rubber ball in his mouth. The window steamed up where his nose pressed against it. Ron took a moment next to his bottle-green Land Rover. It was a Series 2 — a classic and Ron's pride and joy. His wife often commented that nobody else was even allowed in it, but the dog seemed to have the run of the thing. Ron couldn't argue. That's what Land Rovers were for, though: muddy fields and muddy dogs.
The man was still bent over the bonnet. He half-turned and straightened up as Ron rolled the sleeves up over his scrawny arms. He checked his shirt was tucked firmly into his jeans.
'Hey!' Ron called out. He walked over to where the man was smiling back at him. 'What brings you up here? You know this is private property, son?'
The man held his smile. 'That's exactly what brings me up here! I work for a construction company. They're at the table looking to take this land on. There's been some discrepancies over the boundaries. I've been asked to come up here and square it up. I'll be honest though, I'm not surprised no one's sure. The boundary isn't clear.'
'It isn't, that's true. But you're well within it here. I've been told that nobody should be up here. I'm here to size the place up for gates. You're lucky we didn't fit them and lock them already or you wouldn't have been able to get out.' He chuckled nervously. It was a bluff. Gates were something they had talked about but there were no definite plans for them yet.
'I'm sure I would have found a way.' The man's smile dropped away a little.
'Not without causing some damage, you wouldn't. How about I take down your name and phone number? That way I can let you know when the gate is up and anybody who wants to get in touch can do so. Who was it you said you work for?'
'I'm not sure I did! But it's McCall's. From what I've been told they're the front-runner to take this place on.'
'And you work on the land acquisition side, do you?'
'I guess that's a pretty good description, yes.
'And your name?'
'Steve. If you need a number you can take McCall's general number. I don't take calls on their behalf.'
'Depends. Are you gonna be up here much longer?'
'I didn't get your name?' the man said.
'Ron.' Ron rubbed at his white beard, still trying to size the man up. There was something not quite right about him. Certainly he didn't seem comfortable with their conversation.
'Well, thanks, Ron. And, no, I don't reckon I will be up here much longer. I just stopped to have another look at the map here. The boundaries marked on here definitely aren't right. I think they've overestimated. I need to drive the boundary, best I can, and then I'll be out of your hair. I reckon thirty minutes. That's going to be okay, right?'
'Thirty minutes. You'd have to be going some to get a gate measured up, delivered and stuck in the ground in that time right?' He smiled again, but it didn't seem natural to Ron.
'Well, okay. But it will be done by the end of the day. You should tell your people — McCall's — that they may be at the negotiating table but they aren't the only people there. This is still privately owned land. You can't just be coming on here.'
'I will pass that message back, Ron. But if I can just get my work done today I won't be needing to come back anyway. I guess they figure that they want to know exactly what they're bidding for. That makes sense, doesn't it?'
Ron shrugged. He turned and walked to the Land Rover. He still had a question though. 'What is it? Six in the morning? You made an early start, didn't you?'
'And it was just gone five when I left home. I've got two sites to do after this one. I'm self-employed technically, so I work job-and-knock. The earlier I start, the earlier I finish. I've never been one to lie in.'
Ron considered it. It made sense; he was an early riser himself and had once worked on the same principle. 'Well, you're lucky I didn't come up with the police. I thought I would come and speak to you first. The next time you're on here, I will have to get them involved.'
'Understood. Like I said, I won't need to be on here again. I'm just doing what I've been asked.'
'You and me both, Steve.'
'At least I know getting here early makes no difference. I didn't think I would be bothering anyone at this time of day.'
'Well, I'm not one for lying in bed either. I run a gun club — clay pigeon, just up the way. I have to set up this morning. The old man who owns this land was a good friend of mine, a fine shot too. He died real recent. I just want to be sure that the family he left behind don't have any problems. That means no travellers on the site, no rubbish to clear and no one sniffing around before they've done what they need to do to get the deeds.'
'Loud and clear, Ron. I don't get told the history of the land or any plans for it. I'm just the bloke reporting back.'
'Well, he was a good friend. A hard-working man all his life. All he wanted was for his estate to be passed on. That's all any man wants for his family. I said I would make sure it happened and that's what I'm going to do.'
'Understood. Obviously McCall's aren't aware you're keeping an eye on the place.'
'Oh, no one knows, son. It's just a promise me and the wife made to a man on his deathbed. I'd rather keep it that way.'
Steve held his hands up. 'Well that I can understand. Sounds like he was a lucky man to have a friend like you.' He started folding up the large piece of paper.
Ron had one foot on the Land Rover's step but let his eyes lift beyond the man's truck and into the barn. Something in there had been moved. Something was different. 'Have you been in the barn?' His foot thumped back onto the ground. Movement caught his eye; Tucker was back at the window. He ignored him and made for the barn.
'The what?' Steve pulled open the door on the passenger side of his truck and put the folded-up piece of paper on the seat. He sounded disinterested.
Ron persisted. 'The barn? There was a pallet tied up against the side. Someone tried to break into the container before. I don't know why — there's nothing in there — but it costs money if they damage it getting in.'
'The container? No. I have no business with the container. The cost of removing it maybe.'
Ron walked into the barn. 'What the hell? Where did this come from?' He could see a new-looking bin that had been pushed out of sight. There were drag marks in the dust on the floor. They looked fresh. He tugged off the lid and looked inside. There was a white all-in-one suit inside. He had used them plenty of times before when he was working with crop sprayers or when he was decorating. He lifted it out. It was a large size and it looked brand new. There was a plastic sheet and a black sack underneath it that had been tied shut.
'Has there been any work going on, on site? That looks like something a workman might wear?' Steve said. He had moved to the back of his truck. He was closer to Ron now. His casual demeanour had dropped away a little bit. He rested on the back of his truck, both his hands pushed behind his back. 'There'll be asbestos all round this place. Maybe somebody's been thinking about removing it already,' he lifted his eyes to the roof.
'Not that I know about,' Ron said. He moved towards the back of the container and paused at the door. He rattled a chunky padlock. He stepped back out so he could see Steve by his truck.
But Steve was closer still — in the barn, just a step away with his hands in his pockets now. 'What's the matter?' he said.
'You see this? This weren't here the last time.' Ron held the lock and bent to inspect it. 'I put my own on here. Have you messed with this? Did you put this on here?'