Authors: Nina Milton
Tags: #mystery, #mystery fiction, #mystery novel, #england, #british, #medium-boiled, #suspense, #thriller
In the Moors: A Shaman Mystery
Â© 2013 by Nina Milton.
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E-book ISBN: 9780738739359
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For the endurance of Jim.
The detective sergeant arrived
on a squad bike, riding behind a rookie female officer. Not the coolest way to travel, or the safestâfor the final remnants of the rough track, she cut the engine and let the bike roll forward until it came to a natural halt. He slid off the back and tested the squelching ground with his heel.
“Sir?” Gary Abbott, the detective constable that DS Buckley now worked with, loomed out of mist and darkness. The younger man had not zipped his coat, but his hands were rammed into the pockets, pulling it closed against the bitterness. Abbott was a new DC, just out of uniform, and Buckley hadn't jelled with him. Not entirely.
“Not sure sir. White male out there, alone, suspicious behaviour.”
“Where, for God's sake?”
They were miles from the the nearest village. The wetlands were blacked out by the night. Charcoal clouds scuttled across the sky, playing hide and seek with a waning moon. Then he saw it. The swing of a flashlight beam, swaying wildly.
Abbott handed him a pair of night-vision binoculars. Buckley slotted them to his eyes. It was hard to judge distance through the ghostly green glow. There was nothing but the vastness of the Somerset Moors, where gales blew so hard and long that the leafless trees grew at low angles. Reeds and rushes were the natural uprights in this world, unlike the metal spikes holding the police tape, which were sinking into the peat. The blue and white tape flapped in the wind like alien birds; even at this distance Buckley could hear it crack.
He made a steady scan of the cordoned area until he had a sharp picture. A figure loomed, swathed in scarves, bog water halfway to the tops of his rubber boots. He was standing within the forest of bulrushes thick as a man's thumb and as tall as a man's thigh. Through the binoculars, Buckley could clearly see the man was stroking the suede-like top of a bulrush as he stared at the shallow grave.
“He hasn't responded to our presence,” said Abbott. “Not a flicker.”
“What in hell is he doing, middle of the night?” murmured Buckley. “There's nothing out there now the body's been moved.”
“Just a ghoul?” suggested the rookie officer, wrinkling her pretty nose.
“Eh?” said Abbott. There was a touch of fear at the back of the sound.
“Ghoul, Abbott.” Buckley didn't lower the glasses as he spoke. “Misery tourist. Hangs round traffic incidents hoping to get a photo of gore on their phone. But this is no ghoul. Ghouls don't come after dark.” Buckley felt, rather than saw, a movement in the taped area. The suspect was scrabbling in a pocket. A blade caught a glimmering of moonlight. “Ghouls don't carry knives.”
“Knife?” came Abbott's voice. “Okay, he has a weapon. I say let Reece go straight in.”
“Who is Reece?” asked Buckley, but before he received an answer he saw the German shepherd leap upon the man, fastening wolf-teeth through the layers of his sleeve. Buckley heard the snarl and the following cry, high with fright. Man and beast toppled into the reed bed. Mud oozed around them, sucking them down.
The rookie hefted her bike around and turned on the headlight, illuminating the scene.
Buckley snatched the glasses from his eyes. “Who said you could bring a fucking dog? What're you playing at?”
“He could be dangerous, boss.”
“He's drowning in fucking shit, at the moment.”
The handler had whistled his dog away by the time Buckley reached the man. The three officers dragged the suspect free, but it took long seconds to clear his airways. The thin man was babbling incoherently as they brought him to firmer ground. He clung to the bulrush like a talisman.
“Can you tell me your name, sir?” Abbott managed to give an emphasis to the word
that fell just short of derision. Buckley let it go.
The man took a bubbling breath. “Cliff â¦ Houghton.”
“Okay. Mr. Houghton, you are under arrest.” By the time Abbott had finished intoning the caution, they had levered him into the car that stood waiting, up track. Abbott, who could never resist the big gesture, leaned in and snatched the bulrush. “Bloody poof,” he said.
Buckley watched the reed sail through the night like a lance. He swallowed the urge to tell their suspect that Abbott called everyone a poof.
The guy had seemed sublime for a moment when Buckley first saw him, walking on the water in this bitter place. Close up, covered in mire and eyes layered with terror, Cliff Houghton only looked sad.
Just a ghoul, probably.
I didn't know it,
but Cliff Houghton was already in police custody when I woke with a dreadful sensation at the back of my dry throat. It was too early on Saturday morning, and I had the hangover to prove it.
Ivan was curled into his own hollow, back towards me, head deep in the pillow. I wrapped my body around him like peel round fruit. It had been a deliciously late night, and I was too heavy-eyed to prevent the warm waves pulling me down.
You'll dream, Sabbie, girl, you know you will
, I warned myself.
You always dream of the most horrid things when you slip back into sleep
I dreamt of the snarl of canine teeth, the fast flapping of wings, of being dragged, face down, through mud.
When I woke again, a cold but determined dawn was edging its way through closed curtains. I scribbled down a hazy account of my dream before it was gone forever. Then I pulled on the cosy, stretchy garments that are my garden clothesâthe ones that get washed only when they walk to the washing machine on their ownâand went out to collect the eggs.
At the henhouse door I dropped my empty basket and cried out in raw distress. Slaughter lay at my feet. Saffron, the biggest of my hens, was gone, and Pettitgrain, my favourite, lay in the run, dead from a clean bite to the neck.
The henhouse smelt of gore. Sickness swelled in my stomach, an expansion of loathing for the fox, no doubt now slumbering, replete. My brave cockerel, Cocky Bastard, who must have defended his harem to the last, lay on his side twitching steadily. I picked him up. His body was bloodied and broken. His eyes stared deep into mine. Quickly I broke his neck. The three remaining birds huddled in a corner making low, tense cluckings, as if they were discussing their traumatic night in hushed whispers.
“Sabbie! What's wrong?” Ivan teetered on the bit of paving outside my back door as if there was an invisible line that prevented him entering the working part of the garden. He'd pulled on my dressing gown, a shabby navy towelling affair, and stuffed his bare feet into his shoes. A layer of fresh-grown beard gave his face a dishevelled appeal. His unbrushed hair was the colour, length, and softness of a golden retriever's coat. I could see what had enticed me the previous night, which made for a change; I have this dreadful habit of going off the men I find in my bed.
“I had a dream,” I said. “But Mr. Reynard was long gone by then.”
“These hens belong to you?”
“Ivan, would you stop asking brainless questions?”
“We're in the middle of a town. Whatever is the point in keeping hens?”
I gave him a watery smile. “If the fox hadn't come, you'd've eaten eggs for breakfast and been enchanted with their clucking.”
“This takes some beating.” He picked his way along the clipped grass path. “Can't remember the last time I saw a chicken â¦ or a fox.”
“Stick around until tonight, then. He'll be back for second helpings, no doubt. He thinks he's created a larder here. They're not as wasteful or barbaric as they're painted.”
“Sabbie â¦ ” Ivan pretended to inspect the damage, while slipping an arm around my waist and nuzzling at my neck. “Come back to bed, huh?”
I liked the nuzzling, but it was the sensation round the waist that turned me into marshmallow. I suppose in times gone by, it was the closest the Victorian maiden was ever going to get to an orgasm. A delicious quiver ran through me. It was so tempting, the thought of my squashy duvet and Ivan, with his rough blond chin, tucked beneath it.
“I can't. I must fox-proof this housing before my eleven o'clock client arrives.” I started chivvying Juniper, Ginger, and Melissa to the far end of their run, blocking their return with whatever came to hand. They looked terrified out of what were already very tiny minds. “You poor things,” I told them over the barricade. “You're not going to be giving me eggs for a while, are you?”
I pecked a kiss onto his neck. “Could you give me a hand?”
“You want me to get rid of that fox?”
“What're you talking about?”
“I've got an old air rifle in my attic.” His mouth stretched into a smirk, clearly interpreting my perplexed look as admiration. “I could pop over and pick it up.”
“Why would you need an air gun?”
“You said it yourself. He might fancy a return trip tonight. I'd be waiting for him.”
“Oh, Ivan.” I doubted that Mr. Reynard realized how much hate he engendered. “All he's doing is getting on with living. Just popping into Pizza Hut.”
“You don't want him taken out?”
“What's this âtaken out' stuff? This is Somerset, not the hood!” I didn't tell him that I already had a plan in my head, to leave Pettitgrain's body by the back hedge. I hoped this would stop him coming closer and scaring my remaining flock. Even more secretly, I thought of it as the animal's due; he'd made his killing, fair and square, thanks to my negligence. He deserved at least one more trip to the take-away. “You're an investment consultant. You shouldn't be touting a gun.” I grinned. “Might scare the punters.”
Ivan raised his arms, wide of his body, as if in defence, and shrugged. “Okay, forget I mentioned it. I'd be way out of practice, anyway. No, forget it.”
I'd met Ivan a week ago, in a bar so crowded that all I had to do to become acquainted was turn around on the spot and join in his mates' conversation. I'm good at bloke chat; I held my own against big, bad boys most of my childhood
. We swapped mobile numbers, and he rang a couple of days ago. We met at Surf, the only club in Bridgwater that comes near to being cool. After an hour of trying to hear what the other was saying, we both admitted there was no point tiptoeing around the central issue. Fussy as ever, I'd worked harder on getting to know how good he was in bed than probing his personality.
Don't think for one moment that I'm after a permanent man in my life. I'm not even after a steady flow of temporary men. And don't worry, I'm careful, in all the various ways you want to imagine. I've been partying most nights since the age of fourteenâthat's half my entire life filled with partiesâuntil I gave it up for self-sufficiency a couple of years ago. But I don't want to forget how to do it altogether.
I worked at the hen house solidly until past ten. The hens were exploring their upgraded accommodation as I left them. I hoped Ivan would be making me breakfast, but he was sound asleep in my bed, curled into his previous rounded heap, clutching my polar bear hot water bottle.
I didn't know whether to be amused or irritated.
I took a shower, dried, smeared a single drop of rose oil between my breasts, and spent a few minutes brushing out the tangles where my hair curls and kinks as it falls to my waist. I pulled a black dress over my body. I wear no underwear when workingâit's too constrictingâand nothing on my feet. I do wear earrings, though, usually long, complicated structures. In my opinion, this is what earlobes are for. I hitched a belt around my waist, from which dangled the tools of my trade â¦ the buckskin bag of talismans, a bean rattle, and my wand of yew.
I went downstairs into the therapy room, where I conduct my business. I moved around it, setting everything in order and giving the surface areas a damp-dust. I lit the church candle on the low circle of table at the centre of the room and watched the flame flicker and strengthen. The wall candles I would light later. I put the same match to the fragile underside of a small sprig of dried sage. The
misty smoke rose up from the incense dish. I carried the dish around the room, wafting the curl of smoke with a blackbird feather, making sure each corner was cleansed. I could feel the heavy hem of my dress brush my bare ankles as I moved, and this strengthened my mood, making me feel empowered and calm. I took a deep inhalation of the smoke just for the joy of it and left the sage on the table to burn itself out.
At each corner of the room, where the north, south, east, and west of the outside world converged with this inner one, I stood to ask the spirits for their blessing. Then I settled on a floor cushion for a few moments, centring my thoughts, clearing my head. My other preoccupationsâIvan in my bed, the sorry huddle of hens in the gardenâwere not important now. The only relevance was my client, and how I could be of help to him.
The door bell sang its gentle wind-chime call. As I passed the clock in the hall, I registered that it was indeed on the dot of eleven. I hadn't put Cliff Houghton down as a good timekeeperâhe'd been fifteen minutes late his first time.
Except, the man who stood on my doorstep was not Cliff. This chap was tall, but without the lankiness that characterized my client. He carried a considerable amount of weight, but mostly, I suspected, in hard muscle. His hair was mousy brown, chopped short over his head, a centimetre or so longer than the bog-standard crewâprobably just coming up to his next clipping. He had a few years on my client; he wasn't thirty-something anymore. His suit had the crumpled appearance of quality wool worn day after dayâa suit for the job. His face was uneven and battered, with the hint of a previously broken nose.
“You have her.”
He raised his hand as if to wave at me. I almost waved back, until I realized he was showing me ID. “Detective Sergeant Buckley. I wonder if I could take a moment or two of your time?”
I gave him a polite smile. “I'm sorry. I'm about to see someone with an appointment.” I gazed along my side path, looking towards the street in the hope that said appointee would appear and prove me right.
“Would the client in question be Clifford Houghton?”
Now the man had my full attention. I thought for a few seconds before I answered with a stiff nod.
“Mr. Houghton is helping us with our enquiries at the moment. He'll have to remake his appointment.”
I don't know much about the workings of our great British police force, and what I do know is mostly gleaned from watching telly, but I presumed detective sergeants don't pop round just to let you know your client will be late.
I stepped back from the door and the man slid past me. His body language was deferential but assertive at the same time, no mean feat.
The therapy room was primed for work and its appearance has been known to faze unexpected guests, so I guided him to the far end of the kitchen and offered him a seat on my sofa. After the briefest of pauses, he took it.
“Tea? Coffee? Herbal? Water?”
“That would be kind. Coffee, black, one sugar, please. It's been a long morning.”
I put the kettle on the stove. “Is Mr. Houghton a witness to some-
I thought my question showed a pertinent understanding of police procedure, but it got short shrift.
“I'm afraid I can't go into that.”
“He's not in some sort of trouble, is he?”
“I can't answer that, either.”
“What can you tell me, then?”
“Nothing, I'm afraid, Miss Dare. I'm not here to answer your questions, I'm here to ask my own.”
I made one mug of instant coffee with sugar and one mug of Barleycup tea and set them down before pulling a high stool from under my breakfast bar and leaning against it. I liked this arrangementâI was now looking down at DS Buckley. “Don't worry, I can guess. You want me to help with your enquiries too.”
“I hope you'll be able to fill in some details about Mr. Houghton. And possibly do us a small favour.”
“Why don't I like the sound of that?”
“I don't know, Miss Dare, bearing in mind that the police endeavour at all times to uphold the rule of law and defend the innocent.”
“Cliff Houghton looked pretty innocent to me.”
“How well do you know him?”
“This would have been his second session. I saw him last Saturday for a ground-working consultation, and today we were planning to start work properly.”
“Uh-huh.” DS Buckley gave a minimal nod and sipped his coffee. “That would be â¦ psychotherapy sessions?”
“Is that what Cliff told you?” I waited for the almost imperceptible nod of the head before adding, “That's about it, yes.”
“Let me just restate that, Miss Dare. He was coming to you for psychotherapy.”
“Listen, could you cut down on the âMiss Dares'? I don't recognise myself. Call me Sabbie, everyone does.”
For the first time, I spotted a whisper of a genuine smile. “Pleased to meet you, Sabbie,” said DS Buckley. He held out a hand, empty of ID, and I slid off my stool and shook it. “I'm Reynard.”
A charming tinge of pink emerged over his cheekbones. “My frie
nds call me Rey.”
“No, no,” I protested. “I wasn't mocking your name! It's just I was visited by a fox during the night, and your name is so â¦
.” I realized right then that I'd never be able to think of him as anything but Rey from that moment on.
“You were visited by a fox?”
“My hens were.”
I hadn't, until that second, noticed we were still touching, the handshake frozen in time. But I did notice it, clearly, as Ivan, finally shaved and dressed in last night's clothesâwhite jeans and a dashing shirt of crushed bilberry silkâwalked into the kitchen. Foolishly, I pulled my hand away as if this Rey/ray was capable of dispensing electric shocks.
“Ivan,” I said, “this is Detective Sergeant Buckley.” My voice squeaked at the edges.