“A green murder, this one!”
There are times when Jack drives me demented. He may be the best pathologist in the business, but he's emotionally challenged, his development having arrested at puberty. He takes great pride in wearing one of those awful 'NFN' T-shirts under his greens—Normal For Norfolk—probably because he knows how much it irritates me, a Norfolk daughter.
I purse my lips, but I'm forced to play his silly game. “Green?”
“Just one blow to the head with the proverbial blunt instrument, then shoved under the compost heap and left to rot. From dust you came and to dust you shall return. No serial killer, this. IMHO, an impulse murder by someone who panicked, but who disposed of the body in an environmentally friendly manner.”
“Spare me the conjecture and the quotes! Anything else? Anything I can actually use? Material, shape of blunt instrument?”
“Ouch! Tetchy! No need to get your knickers in a twist over this one, Detective Chief Inspector. Should be simple enough to solve, even for you. There's an indentation on the left temple which I'm not yet able to classify, but before you ask, I'm working on it. Let you know, sweetheart, as soon as I do.
“Bearing in mind the heat from the compost and the growth of weeds under the decomposed remains, I estimate he was killed around three months ago. Can't be any more accurate than that. Thirty-four year old male, poor dental care but he had seen a dentist at least once in his life, so should be easy to identify. Plenty of DNA, so no problem for a woman of your calibre.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Any DNA from the perp?”
“'Fraid not, DCI Brooks. No helpful clues from the murderer. Something interesting, though.” His eyes gleamed expectantly.
“It's not a TV game show, Jack. Just tell me.”
He sighed, exaggeratedly. “You're no fun any more. Look.” He held a tiny gem in the palm of his hand. “It's a diamond. Good one, too. I reckon this guy was part of a diamond heist and—”
“—thank you, Jack. Just concentrate on the forensics and leave the detecting to the detectives, will you?”
There are times when it's good to be a detective in Norfolk. Mostly our work is in Norwich or Yarmouth or Thetford, so taking a leisurely drive to a tiny country church out in the fields is like a day off, especially in early summer when that wide, Norfolk sky is azure blue and the air is sweet and fresh.
The rector and his tiny band of church devotees were waiting for me, as arranged. All eight of them looked to be aged about a hundred, what with their walking sticks and grey heads and rheumatic joints, but I noticed a few pairs of ancient male eyes intent upon my legs as I changed from my high heels to a pair of wellies. Not quite dead yet, then.
“Don't get up,” I said to the three adorning the bench against the south wall of the flint-knapped church. “Lovely day, isn't it?”
The stout old bat dressed in a tweed suit despite the sunshine, looked down her nose. “I hardly think a violent death can be described as 'lovely',” she huffed. “It was my Rusty who first alerted us. Naturally I had to take the bone away from him, and I don't think he's quite forgiven me.”
I glanced at the mournful spaniel lying at her feet. It was so fat it could hardly bring itself to raise its head, let alone wag its tail. I bent down to pet it.
“Be careful,” warned the old bat. “He doesn't like strangers.”
I had a feeling it wasn't only the dog who didn't like strangers. Eight pairs of rheumy eyes were regarding me balefully.
Clearly the friendly approach was failing. I adopted what that darned pathologist calls my 'officious voice'. “Rector, can you take me through the events of Thursday?”
He glanced nervously at the old bat, then his eyes switched to his churchwarden, who gave an infinitesimal nod of encouragement. “I—er—Mrs. Trumble here brought it to my attention. She used to be matron of the cottage hospital years ago, so she knows about bones. She recognised it immediately as being human, didn't you, Mabel?”
The old bat graciously inclined her head.
“That's it, really. Horace here—that's Major Wilkins, he's our churchwarden—he said we must call the police, so we did.”
“We didn't touch nuffin'.”
I turned to the new speaker. “And you are?”
“Oh, I'm sorry,” said the rector. “Let me introduce us. I've already mentioned Mrs Trumble and Major Wilkins.” He moved round the group from left to right, starting with the recent speaker. “This is George Adams—he was our butcher when we had a butcher's shop in the village. Sadly, it's long gone now. Adrian Harkness, retired schoolmaster. Olivia and Eric Bunn—the Bunns have farmed here for generations. Maurice Catchpole—he was the bank manager until the local branch closed. That was in 1982. And I'm the Reverend Clark Gable. I've been here forty years.”
With a supreme effort, I kept my face straight. “Did any of you know the victim?”
There was a pause, and again that fleeting glance between them. Adrian Harkness, the schoolmaster, spoke up. “Oh yes, we all knew Vincent. One of my pupils, and a very troubled soul, I'm sorry to say.”
I raised my eyebrows.
He continued, “He came to church regularly, with his grandmother. He was in the choir, when we had a choir. That was when there were rather more people in church than there are today. Vincent lived with his grandmother after his parents were killed in a car crash when he was eight. Terrible tragedy.” He shook his head dolefully, and the others adopted similar expressions of sorrow. “I'm afraid young Vincent got into trouble with you police. Nothing serious, just a bit of shoplifting and joyriding, but it finished his grandma. She died soon after, and that was the last we saw of Vincent. He was taken into care, and none of us have seen him from that day to this.”
“You didn't follow him up, keep in touch?” I addressed the rector.
An expression of guilt flitted across his face. He gazed at the ground.
Mrs Trumble rode to his rescue. “The rector can't be expected to follow up every child that moves away. He's kept very busy looking after his flock.”
All eight nodded solemnly, like one of those Chinese dolls.
“How big is your flock, Father?”
This time it was Eric Bunn who rushed to his aid. “It's not so big now, of course. This is an estate church, built in the fifteenth century for the farm workers. That's why it's in a field, a mile and a half outside the village. Nowadays, the estate is managed by the farmer—that's our son, James—and one other man. Times have changed. So now there's just the eight of us in Clark's 'flock', as you put it.”
“It's very peaceful,” I remarked, listening to the bird song and the lowing of the cattle in the next field. “Can any of you think of a reason why Vincent might have come back here?”
Again, that surreptitious glance. Major Wilkins spoke up. “We have no idea.”
“It would be feasible to imagine that he came to meet somebody. Why else would he show up in a remote place like this?”
George Adams growled, “He were a bad lot, that lad. 'Spect he came to meet a drug dealer or suffin'.”
“A drug dealer? Here?” I endeavoured to keep the incredulity from my voice. “Sounds like you had experience of young Vincent?”
His already florid complexion turned a darker shade of puce. “Stole from me, he did. Used him as a butcher's boy, to deliver meat an' that, but the buggar pocketed the cash. I ain't got no time for the likes of him.”
Little Mrs Bunn, one of those elderly beige types who generally blend in with the background, nodded a little too fervently. “Vincent wasn't very nice. He bullied poor James at school, didn't he, Adrian?”
“I had to keep the boy under control,” the schoolmaster admitted. “Very disruptive element in class. To be honest, I was glad when he left. Not that I didn't feel sorry for him,” he hastened to add, “coping with all those deaths, but I had the other children to consider. I had a duty to them.”
I was about to enquire whether Mrs Trumble had known the victim, when she volunteered with another look down that long nose, “Dreadful boy. Vicious streak in him. Unkind to animals. Do you know, I once caught him throwing stones at a cat. I'm not ashamed to say I think he deserved all he got.”
She glared at me with an expression of such defiance that I backed off, turning instead to the final member of the group, former bank manager Maurice Catchpole. “And you, Mr Catchpole? Did you know Vincent?”
There was just a hint of hesitation before he replied, “Only slightly, I'm afraid. Boys like that don't use banks!” He laughed, nervously. “I met him that time when he vandalised the church, but that's all.”
“Vandalised the church?”
“It wasn't much,” the rector said. “Damaged a few hymn books and left empty crisp packets and cigarette ash on the high altar. That's all.”
I'd never seen a heaving bosom until then. Mabel Trumble was a picture of righteous indignation. “Nearly set the church on fire with his smoking. You're much too forgiving, Clark.”
“Seventy times seven, Mabel. Let us not forget our Lord's wonderful words.”
“Clark,” she gushed, “you're a model for us all. We're so fortunate to have you as our rector and friend, guiding us in the way we should go.”
They nodded in unison. What a nauseating bunch of geriatric hypocrites! I was beginning to feel the need to throw up. Instead, I asked casually, “Where would I find the nearest jeweller?”
They looked confused by the abrupt change of topic, but were suddenly anxious to please.
“There's one in Norwich—”
“Try Castle Mall.”
“The antiques man in the market—”
“Maurice makes it. He's a brilliant jeweller, aren't you, Maurice?”
“Only a hobby,” Maurice Catchpole demurred. “I'm not a professional.”
“But he does lovely work.” Olivia Bunn struggled to unfasten the crucifix around her neck.
I examined it with interest. “That's beautiful. I love that single diamond in the centre.”
“Maurice's trademark,” Olivia told me, as proud as if she fashioned the jewellery herself. “We all have some little piece with a diamond.”
Indeed? I rummaged in my briefcase and withdrew the diamond found at the scene of the crime. I showed it to Maurice Catchpole. “Is this one of yours?”
His eyes widened in alarm. “Where did you find that?”
“Underneath the body. I think what happened was this.” All eyes were upon me. “Vincent arranged to meet someone he knew from the past, perhaps one of you. There was an argument which threatened to develop into a fight. Whoever met with Vincent swung at him with whatever came to hand, happened to catch him on the temple and killed him—a lucky blow. The perpetrator panicked and hid the body in the nearest spot, the compost heap, but in so doing, lost a diamond. Now, are you going to tell me who killed Vincent, or am I going to have to take you all into custody and charge you as accessories?”
There was a collective gasp. The tired faces seemed to crumple, but stalwart Mabel Trumble spoke out. “You're very clever, Detective Chief Inspector. We didn't expect you to work it out so quickly. The truth is, we're all in it together and none of us will tell you who struck the fatal blow. You see, that young man terrorised this area for years. He made all our lives a misery. We tried to help him, but he was non-responsive. We thanked God when Vincent was taken into care. We were all here clearing the churchyard when he suddenly reappeared. He started again, threatening and abusing us. I'm afraid it dragged up all those painful memories, and we couldn't face it, not at our time of life. One of us lashed out, and unfortunately he died.”
“Why didn't you call the police, if it was an accident?”
The rector said apologetically, “We panicked. We thought if no one knew he was here, no one would come looking for him, so we buried him under the compost. We held a little service over him and I said a prayer. Then, when nothing happened, it was if it had all gone away—until Rusty found the bone. Then we knew we must tell the authorities.”
“Don't leave home,” I warned, as I climbed back into my car. “I haven't decided yet how to charge you, but I'll be back.”
“Easy-peasy,” I boasted, as I sailed into the home I share with my husband. I gave him a triumphant peck on the cheek. “Solved it in an hour, but I don't think there'll be a case to answer. Self-defence.”
I didn't notice the sombre look on his face. He held me tight. “Sweetheart, there may be a problem.”
“While you were enjoying a jolly in the country, a guy called James Bunn came into the station. He's a local farmer. He told us about a village paedophile ring; church, primary school, butcher's shop, bank. Guess where it is?”
“No!” I whispered. “Not those harmless old fools? Please tell me it's not them?”
Jack nodded. “Afraid so. And apparently one of the most hapless victims was a very good looking young boy by the name of Vincent, who came back to confront them...”
I shuddered. “I'll have them all, even though the schoolmaster actually murdered him.”
“How do you know that?”
“He had a white band on his ring finger where he'd removed his ring. And he uses a walking stick with a brass top in the shape of a dog's head.”
My husband, the best pathologist in the business, nodded slowly. “That fits. Go get 'em, cowgirl.”
So I did.