BONES IN THE RIVER
Book Two in the Lakes crime thriller trilogy with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston
Here’s your chance to try BONES IN THE RIVER before you decide to buy. It will take you less than ten minutes, so not a huge chunk out of your day.
Driving on a country road late at night,
you hit a child.
There are no witnesses.
You have everything to lose.
What do you do?
The traditional Appleby Horse Fair hosts the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.
The sudden influx of more than 40,000 visitors into the small Lakeland town has always caused its share of problems, with strained relations between off-comers and locals.
But it’s also known as a good time to settle old scores.
This year, the Fair brings with it with the discovery of two bodies near the River Eden—one very recent and another a long time buried.
As CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston search for answers, old secrets are revealed, old wounds are reopened, and tensions threaten to erupt into violence.
While someone much closer to home is trying to get away with murder…
PART ONE – Tuesday night/Wednesday morning
His eyes drifted from the road only for a second.
That was all it took.
One moment he was driving up the winding valley, the stark blaze of his headlights making the dewed grass seem frosted in the darkness. No streetlamps out here, no white lines—no taxis, either, or maybe he would have called one.
Not that he was over the limit, by any means but, over the course of a leisurely evening’s dinner with friends, perhaps he’d had one more than he ought. One more than was sensible, for a man in his position.
Enough to cushion his reactions so that, when he caught the flash of movement at the side of the road, he was just a fraction slower than he might have been.
He jerked the wheel, the shock of it a jolt to the chest.
And then came another jolt, as the nearside wheels rode up and over, as some thing thudded against the underside of the car.
Later, he would be ashamed that his first instant thought was annoyance at the damage to his vehicle.
He stamped on the brakes and staggered from the driver’s seat. His breath came harsh in the still night. Using the flashlight on his phone, he edged back along the tarmac strip. During the day, the dark surface absorbed heat. Come nightfall, he knew sheep liked to lie on it. As he scanned the verges, he tried to persuade himself that what he’d hit was merely a sheep, or perhaps a badger.
Right up until he saw it, lying crushed on the deserted road.
A child’s bicycle.
High over Mallerstang, out of the peat bogs on Black Fell Moss, the River Eden rises. Once she was in Westmorland. Now she has one foot in the Yorkshire Dales, another in Cumbria, holding the front line and shaping the border.
Born as Red Gill Beck, she toboggans the steep valley side, rips and stumbles, blossoms into Hell Gill Beck. With a bellow, she launches over Hell Gill Force to tumble into Ais Gill Beck. Their twinned spirits trip and twine, combine, to become the Eden.
And as the Eden, she broadens, settles. Slinking alongside the cut of road and railway as if hoping for cover, she roams restless across the valley floor. Stealing from the fields at every turn, snatching at trees that dare to dangle their fingers beneath the surface of her skin. She soothes stones smooth, juggles boulders just for giggles.
At Water Yat, she skirts the Gypsy encampment widely, as if not liking to intrude. They have brought their buckets and kettles down to her but she has plenty to share. Early summer rains have left her fat and full-blooded.
Without judgement, she accepts the offered body, wraps him tight and holds on. No Charon’s hand upon the tiller to guide him. No coin under his tongue.
Night water black, she bears him downward. Onward toward Kirkby Stephen, she is unaware of her might, delighted as she is by the company and careless in that delight. Like a kitten toying with a butterfly, she has no understanding of delicacy, the fragility of flesh and bone.
At Stenkrith Falls she whirls him through the gorge in a froth of excitement. A wild ride, snapping bites from the rock over which she roils.
Though his slack limbs flail to her rhythm, he fails to laugh. She gathers him closer, binding him, shrouding him, over and colder. Under a shot-down moon, reflected back from the rippled surface of his grave.
Afterwards, he couldn’t remember the rest of the drive home. On some level he registered that it passed without further incident. He steered and braked, changed gear, accelerated when the road ahead dictated. And he knew, had he been stopped, they would have taken one look and demanded he give a sample, just to find out what else was in his blood.
As his vision was hemmed in by the reach of the car’s lights, so his mind felt cornered. Tucked in tight and hiding from the horror and the shame of what he’d done. It railed against reality, denied it, and wove a different tale.
He recognised, dimly, that what he should have done was step up for it. Call it in and wait, stalwart, for the lights and uniforms to arrive, for suspicion and interrogations. But somewhere at the back of his brain, the part that coiled and slithered with all the baser instincts, a primeval will to survive kicked in.
It flooded his system with adrenaline, pushed into his bloodstream so hard it made his temples pound. He couldn’t stop his hands from shaking, no matter how hard he clenched his fingers around the steering wheel. Or how much he tried forcing himself to adopt a coolly logical approach.
He knew there were no obvious signs of collision on the car. He’d had his wits about him enough to check, back there on the road. Bit of a scuff on the bumper but nothing that would stand out—certainly not on the grainy footage of the traffic cameras before he got back home. Not that there were many between here and there.
He’d put on gloves before he touched anything—always kept disposable ones in the glove box in case they ran out at the diesel pump. The ground was too dry to take impressions of his shoes. There might have been a bit of a skid mark when he anchored on, but the gritty surface of the road, half crumbling, wouldn’t yield much by way of a tread pattern. Besides, his tyres were a common brand in an equally common size.
The steel band around his skull began to ease a little.
By the time he hit the motorway and turned north, the worst of his initial panic had subsided. As long as he didn’t examine it too closely, it would remain beneath the surface—for now, at any rate. He rehearsed what he’d say when asked how his evening had gone. Very pleasant, as it goes. Nice to catch up. Shame I couldn’t have stayed over—perhaps had something to drink…
And that set the cycle off again. Weakness, disaster, guilt, despair.
Not if they didn’t catch him. Not if they didn’t even suspect for a moment that he was involved.
And especially not if they couldn’t prove anything.
Before he knew it, he’d passed the first countdown marker for his junction. He flicked his indicator on, even though his was the lone vehicle on this side of the carriageway. Realised, as he did so, that such an action marked him out as trying just a little too hard. He cancelled it.
From there it was but a few minutes to home, rolling through empty streets without needing to pause. He was steadier now, lent a certain perspective by distance, if nothing else.
He hit the remote for the electric garage door when he was halfway along his cul-de-sac, knowing that he’d just be pulling onto the driveway as it reached the height of its travel. Straight in without the need to brake. Normally, such slick timing gave him a sense of satisfaction. Tonight, that was strangely absent.
When he’d lowered the door again behind him, he sat for a moment with the car ticking over as if he contemplated…giving in. Leave the door to the house closed and the engine running. But, he knew that a modern car with its catalytic converter—especially on a well-warmed engine—meant the build-up of carbon monoxide in the exhaust fumes would make for a slow and desperate way to go.
He twitched, and twisted the key decisively. The engine died away into silence, replaced by the occasional soft ping as components cooled and settled at their own pace.
Still, it took effort to push open the driver’s door, swing his feet out of the car and stand. Maybe he was just putting off what came next.
On a hook by the door were his coveralls. He slipped them on over his clothes, lifted down an inspection lamp and plugged it in, donned fresh gloves. An old yoga mat provided a little cushioning against the bare concrete floor but still he grunted as he got to his knees. Playing the light underneath the front wheel arch revealed an area dark and sticky, peppered with insects, gravel, and dirt.
He hunted through the bucket of car cleaning products Susanne was always buying, found one that claimed to shift splattered bugs and spots of tar. He sprayed liberally under the bodywork, left it to soak in while he checked further back under the floor-pan, inch by inch.
At the jacking point just forward of the rear wheel, he found a tuft of what might have been bloodied hair. He’d never been a squeamish man but that made him jerk back with a muttered curse.
And, when he reached to disentangle and remove it, he noticed his hands were shaking again.
It was another hour before he cleared away and went inside. He washed in the downstairs loo, told himself it was to avoid waking Susanne rather than because there was no mirror over the sink. He recognised the self-deception for what it was—a form of self-protection.
Recognised it, accepted it, and tried to move on.
Upstairs, he undressed in the dark and slid into bed beside Susanne. She stirred briefly, made a snuffle of sound and went quiet again. He willed himself to relax but sleep was impossible.
Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the flash of movement, heard the thump and clatter. He even imagined a startled cry and couldn’t recollect if it was real or simply his imagination.
Morning was a long time coming.
Normally, he slept through Susanne’s first alarm but he was already staring at the ceiling when her phone began its irritating bleat, buzzing across the bedside table like a wasp in a Coke tin. She reached out groggily and swiped the snooze option, as she always did.
He contemplated getting up then but stayed rigid alongside her, careful not to break his usual pattern. Only when her alarm sounded again and she slouched into the en suite shower did he get out of bed. He timed his movements so they didn’t meet face-to-face until he walked into the kitchen, showered and dressed. She was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar.
Susanne spoke without looking up from the homework she was marking, pen in one hand, coffee mug in the other.
“Thought you were planning to get all that done last night, eh?”
“I was. Then I realised just how little effort Year Five had put into this assignment, thought ‘sod it,’ opened a bottle of cheap red and fell asleep in front of the telly.” Her smile was wry. “How was your evening?”
He helped himself to coffee, glad of the excuse to have his back to her. “Oh, you know, very pleasant, as it happens. Nice to catch up. It was a shame I couldn’t have—”
Her sudden exclamation made him stiffen and whirl. She’d slopped the dregs of her coffee over the papers. He grabbed a tea towel, helped stem the tide and blot out the worst of the stains.
“Thanks, love.” She let out an annoyed breath. “So much for me looking all professional as new Deputy Head.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. Back when I was at school, the English teacher would send back my homework covered in fag ash and cat hair half the time.”
“Well, those days are long gone.” She dabbed a kiss on his cheek. “We don’t write with chalk on slate anymore, either.”
“Yeah, yeah. Very funny.”
He finished his coffee standing with his back to the sink while she scurried round gathering books, bag, and keys. He followed her to the front door to wave her off. She was still distracted by her own clumsiness, for which he was grateful, but as she blipped the locks on her four-by-four she seemed to register the otherwise empty driveway and her gaze sharpened.
“Where’s your car?”
He jerked his head to the garage. “Put it away.”
She frowned. “I wouldn’t have thought it was worth it by the time you got back. Must have been a late one.”
“It was a bit, I s’pose. But…old habits.”
He saw her shrug it off, her mind already on the day ahead. She gave him another distracted peck on the chin and climbed into the driver’s seat. He heard the voice of the local radio disc jockey boom out before the engine fired. She gave him a last brisk wave as she reversed off the driveway.
After she was gone, he stepped back, closed the door and sagged against the wall just inside.
How do people do it? How do they act normal and live with what they’ve done, day after day?
He made another careful check around the car before he set off for work himself. For once, the morning playlist on Classic FM on the way in failed to soothe him.
In the main car park, he left his vehicle nose to the wall, just in case there was something he’d missed, strode quickly into the office and hung his jacket on the back of the door. The day was already warm and looked like being warmer still before lunchtime.
The phone on his desk began to ring before his computer had a chance to fire up. The hesitation before he reached for the receiver was momentary but he was aware of it, even so.
As he picked up, he injected as much authority into his voice as he could manage.
“Good morning, Head CSI Chris Blenkinship. What can I do for you?”
Uniquely placed to monitor the investigation and tamper with the evidence, will Blenkinship get away with what he's done? Or will the skills of CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston get the better of him? And how?
Meanwhile thousands of Gypsies and Travellers are arriving in nearby Appleby-in-Westmorland for the annual Horse Fair, an event that dates back to the 1600s. Arguments about who is responsible for this death, when it is discovered, will undoubtedly cause friction.
And when another body is discovered, the accusations will really start to fly...
Enjoyed these opening chapters? Buy BONES IN THE RIVER now—a story to linger over (125,000+ words in eBook, 450 pages in paperback).