DANCING ON THE GRAVE
Book One of the Lakes crime thriller trilogy with CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston
A sniper with a mission, a CSI with something to prove, a young cop with nothing to lose, and a young girl with a terrifying obsession. The calm of the English countryside is about to be shattered.
AUDIO ASIN: B07RRD9MHD
It is a bad day to die…a perfect one to kill.
The sniper lies in cover towards the upper northeastern edge of the valley. His right eye is up close behind the ten-power scope attached to the receiver of the rifle. He is watching a massacre as it unfolds below him.
Between heartbeats, he tightens his forefinger round the trigger.
As he does so, the killer jerks back, a pink mist spraying from his torso. Lifeless limbs flail as he sprawls into the long grass. The crack of the report reaches the sniper’s ears a fraction of a second later. He flinches. He checks the scope, knowing the target is down. Knowing the kill is good.
Knowing, too, that he did not fire the shot…
It was Grace’s habit to approach death the same way she approached life, with calm deliberation and an open mind. And while others might mistake that detachment for coldness, she reserved her compassion for more private moments.
She knew she would weep over the scene of carnage laid out before her, but it would be later, alone. Not now. Wailing at the graveside helped nobody, least of all the departed.
So she paused a little way back from the body and waited for the signs of death to speak to her, as she knew they would. First in half-caught whispers then louder, more stridently. Grace was patient, and three years as a Crime Scene Investigator had made her a good listener.
She stood easy, with the strap of the Canon digital camera over her shoulder, her head tilted to tune out the raised voices behind her. The farmer, arguing with the pair of uniforms who’d been first on scene. The bereaved, shouting for retribution.
And she stood motionless, casting a long shadow. It was still early enough for the sun to be climbing steeply and the dew sparked and shimmered on the spider webs in the grass at her feet. Ever since her childhood Grace had loved the ethereal light at this time of day.
Around her, the flies had already begun to feast. Blowflies—always the first to gather—drawn by the irresistible scent of blood, thick in the air. Grace hardly noticed. There were six corpses lying in the field. She’d studied each in turn but only one arrested her attention.
It was different from the others, not least in the manner of its death. The body lay stretched out on one side with the head thrown back, the teeth bared in defiance. Beneath one outflung limb Grace could see the blackened circle of the undoubtedly fatal gunshot wound to the chest, although at this stage she took nothing at face value.
“What a waste,” she murmured.
“Come on, Grace,” said a voice behind her. “It’s only a dog.”
She turned, found the younger of the two uniformed PCs at her elbow, Danny Robertshaw, cradling the farmer’s confiscated shotgun. When she didn’t respond he waved his free hand towards the other bodies. “And look at the number of lambs it savaged. Had it coming, if you ask me.”
“Perhaps.” Born in the country, Grace well knew the usual response towards any dog caught worrying livestock. Although, ‘worrying’ was putting it mildly. “But if it’s so clear-cut Daniel, why did you need me?”
Robertshaw coloured, a ruddy flush that stained a neck still raw from the morning’s hasty shave. He ducked closer, lowering his voice.
“Because of them two.” His eyes shifted to the couple. “They were screaming blue murder when they rang it in.” He shrugged unhappily. “Turns out they’ve got some clout.”
“And since when has Cumbria Constabulary been operating a two-tier policing system?” Grace asked lightly. “One law for the locals and another for the incomers, is it?”
He wouldn’t meet her gaze, suddenly fascinated by a hangnail at the side of his thumb. “You know how it is, Grace. You, of all people.”
Do I? She tried not to let that sting, instead asked, “You’ll be sure to take a sample of the spare cartridges for comparison, won’t you?”
“For what it’s worth,” the young policeman grunted. “But old Know-It-All Airey reckons the shotgun’s not been fired for days.”
Grace paused in the act of retrieving an evidence bag from her kit, eyebrow raised. He flushed again. “I’ve nothing against hobby bobbies as a rule,” he said in a rush. “We need ’em when things are tight. It’s just Airey who winds me up. Wrong temperament for the job.”
As a civilian attached to the police, Grace stayed out of station politics as much as she was able, but the superior, swaggering attitude of volunteer Special Constable Jim Airey had reached her ears, even so. A bully, who abused his position to throw his weight around—and there was certainly plenty of that.
Nevertheless, his day job as a butcher’s assistant hardened him to the sight of blood and bone. He hadn’t flinched at today’s scene, and she knew he was often sent to the nastier smashes on the motorway that snaked up the eastern border of the county, revelling in his own unshockable reputation.
Without comment, Grace nudged the shotgun upwards and, mindful where she put her face, sniffed the end of the barrels. Oil and metal and dust, overlaid with the faint ammonia smell of manure.
“Mm, in this instance I would agree with him.” She bagged the gun. “But we should still follow procedure, don’t you think? You’d better ask Mr Airey to make a perimeter sweep.” Her voice was grave even as her lips twitched. “Cast his expert eye over the scene, as it were.”
Robertshaw let his eyes roam the sizeable length of dry stone wall that bordered the field, at his colleague’s generous girth as the man stood with feet arrogantly apart, between the owners of the dog and the field gate as though to prevent their escape.
The youngster grinned, suddenly not looking old enough to drive, never mind put on the uniform. He reminded her of the cheeky little boy with skinned knees he’d been back when she used to babysit him as a teenager.
“Right you are, Grace.”
Grace unshouldered her camera, began quartering the view from the body. It was standard practice at any crime scene, allowing the victim’s position to be precisely located long after the scene was cleared.
In this case, the view was of the squat lime-washed tower of All Saints Church peering through the trees to the south—the only visible part of Orton village itself. To the northeast, the road climbed towards the Scar, an expanse of windswept limestone pavement populated mainly by the hardy local sheep.
“Excuse me, but how much longer is this going to take?”
She turned, saw the couple who’d called in the death of their dog approaching. They were late middle-age, dressed in casually expensive clothes that to Grace’s eye indicated a long and comfortable association with money.
It was the man who’d spoken. Tall, wiry, he had the whippy build of a long-distance runner, staring her down over a hawk-like nose. His voice was clipped with impatience and something that Grace recognised as unease.
“I’m going as fast as is prudent,” she said pleasantly, and glanced at the returning Robertshaw. “I assume we have someone with authorised Firearms experience on their way out to this one, Daniel? You could ask the control room to divert an ARV if there are any in the area.”
Several of the Cumbria force motorway patrol cars doubled as Armed Response Vehicles. Considering most of the Traffic boys seemed to think they were the next Lewis Hamilton in waiting, the chances were one could be on-scene without delay.
“Better than that.” Robertshaw was smiling broadly. “They’re sending down that new hotshot DC to show us how they train ’em in the big city.”
“Surely it isn’t necessary to keep us here all morning?” The woman nodded to the bagged shotgun the young PC still cradled under his arm, and slid her eyes meaningfully to the farmer, sitting on a mud-splattered quad bike only a few metres away. “We all know who killed poor Ben.”
The farmer glared at that. He was a big thickset man, leaning with his elbows on the quad’s fuel tank as he watched the scene play out. His reddened hands dangled loosely to reveal cracked knuckles misshapen by decades of hard work in all weather. Crouched sideways on the seat behind him, tongue lolling, was a wall-eyed Border collie.
“I didn’t shoot ’im,” the farmer said, gruff but without rancour. “Not that I wouldn’t ’ave done, mind. Losing this many lambs at one go, it takes the profit right out of the year. ’Course I would ’ave shot ’im, if I’d got ’ere sooner. But somebody beat me to it, and tha’s a fact.”
The woman let out a pinched breath, her lips hardening into a narrow line. Grace recalled a teacher at her long-ago boarding school with a mouth like that.
“Regardless of who shot poor Ben”—the man forced a thin smile—“it’s clear what happened here. I’m prepared to make full restitution.”
Ah, you’ve changed your tune. Grace saw Robertshaw stiffen as though a bribe had been offered.
“We have a duty to investigate, sir,” he said, aiming for stern but quailing under the couple’s withering stare.
The woman had drawn breath to launch into some stinging tirade when they heard the sound of an engine approaching at speed. Grace caught a glimpse of something bright blue and sporty as it braked to a showy halt by the gateway.
“New bloke,” Robertshaw muttered.
“Well,” the woman said. “Now we might actually get somewhere.”
Grace turned away, glad of something to refocus their attention, then paused, mentally backtracking.
What hotshot new DC? She frowned after Robertshaw’s departing figure, but her attention was already back on the body of the dog.
“Since it patently wasn’t the farmer who shot you,” she murmured, “let’s hope this city boy is all he’s cracked up to be…”
Detective Constable Nick Weston was in a vile temper and drove accordingly.
His car usually responded to being pushed hard. The Subaru was his weakness, a sop to the last remnants of the boy racer in him. Much as he knew the WRX model wasn’t helping him integrate into the hierarchy at his latest posting, he couldn’t bring himself to part with it.
Might have to, soon, though.
For once, even thrashing down the motorway failed to lighten his black mood. He’d covered the eighteen miles of M6 from Penrith down to Tebay in a shade over eleven minutes, rarely dropping below a hundred. Good job none of the miserable lot from Traffic were patrolling that stretch or they’d have nicked him for it.
But maybe he was being taken seriously at last. The uniformed sergeant who’d found him skulking over paperwork in the CID office at the Hunter Lane station said the shout was a suspicious death out near Orton, a possible shooting, that the on-scene CSI was calling for an expert assist.
“Everybody else’s out,” she’d said, her flat tone making it clear he was her last resort, “but you used to be with the shoot ’em up boys, didn’t you, detective constable?”
“Used to be.”
She raised a cynical eyebrow at this reticence. “Well then, I thought it might be right up your street—you being a city lad.” She sniffed. “Saw enough gun crime down there in Manchester and London, didn’t you?”
Nick attempted to shake off his misery as he got to his feet. “Right, I’m on my way.” He’d tried what he hoped was a placatory smile. “And…thanks. Wendy, isn’t it?”
That earned him another sniff. “I think ‘sergeant’ will do just fine.”
Still, it was good to know that the two years Nick had spent with Armed Response had some ongoing benefit after all, even if he’d let his Firearms ticket lapse when he moved up out of uniform. Perhaps something might actually be salvaged from this disastrous career cul-de-sac.
Now, Nick almost missed the gateway to the field where this supposed shooting had taken place. He’d been accelerating up the long climb out of Orton village and had to brake hard when he spotted the marked-up Ford Focus sitting half-hidden behind some galumphing great pickup truck on the verge.
“What the hell are they playing at?” Nick muttered. Surely by now this unknown CSI should have arranged some marker for the investigation team?
When Nick joined the force, Scenes Of Crime Officers—he couldn’t get used to calling them CSIs—came from the ranks. They had years of experience at the sharp end of policing. Not like these bloody amateurs. A quick day-release college course and they thought they were God’s gift to forensic science.
He left the Subaru as far off the road as he could, paused at the unguarded gateway to note with irritation the presence of three obvious civilians in the middle of the field. The vicious headache that had plagued him all morning returned to pulse behind his right eye.
How incompetent are these yokels?
Scowling, he struck out across the grass. Within a dozen paces, the bottom three inches of his trousers were soaked through, which meant a dry cleaning bill on top of everything else. The realisation made him glower at the young uniform who approached, balancing a bagged-up shotgun under his arm.
“Who d’you think you are, sunshine—Wyatt Earp?” Nick demanded, just low enough not to carry to the people nearby. He nodded curtly to the gun without breaking stride. “That the possible murder weapon? Well, don’t carry it around like some bloody trophy! Get it locked away before this becomes a multiple homicide.”
“But…it already is.”
“What?” Nick thought he caught something crafty in the other’s voice, but a glance at his face revealed only blankness. “How many?”
“I think at the last count it was half a dozen,” the young policeman said, stony. “Grace—er, CSI McColl—will be able to confirm the numbers.”
He nodded towards a lone figure, camera in hand, who seemed to be wandering aimlessly at the far side of the field, with little thought to her responsibility for this organisational shambles.
McColl. Nick had heard the name, recalled occasional glimpses in the corridors of Hunter Lane of the tall superior redhead with her nose in the air. He was conspicuously excluded from the usual jungle telegraph but he’d heard about her, even so.
In certain circles, it seemed she was almost as unpopular as he was. And if her performance here was anything to go by, he could understand why.
He sighed, ran a frustrated hand through his hair and tried a sympathetic smile that was woodenly met.
“Look, I’m sorry I jumped down your throat. Looks like it’s going to be a bad day for all of us. What’s your name?”
“All right, Danny. Take a minute. Keep it together and get the job done, OK?”
The young policeman nodded, ducking his head and scurrying away.
Nick strode across the field, almost brushing aside the couple who stepped forwards—pompously, he felt—to intercept him.
“Well?” he snapped as soon as he was close enough to the CSI not to shout. “What’s all this about?”
Her only response was a single raised eyebrow. She waited for Nick to reach her before she replied, which only annoyed him further.
“Good morning,” she said pointedly. Her voice had a drawl that instantly put his back up. “Clearly they don’t teach you any people-skills down there in sunny Manchester.”
Nick’s head came up, eyes glittering. “And clearly they don’t teach you crime scene procedure up here in sunny Cumbria.”
She put her head on one side as if considering whether to take offence or not. “You’re very rude, Mr Weston,” she said then, as if voicing a remote observation.
“And you’re very sloppy, Ms McColl.” He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, looked about him. “Where’s the rest of your team? Why isn’t this whole area cordoned off? Where’s your protective gear and your common approach path?” He fixed her with a glare that served him well in Interview. “You don’t seem to be treating this as a proper investigation.”
Nick heard the words coming out of his own mouth like they were being spoken by someone else, and gave an inward groan. How to win friends and influence people. Taking his anger out on her would only make his job worse.
Crime scene technicians like Grace McColl were the first response to any incident, and frequently led the initial stages of the investigation, giving it direction and focus. Antagonise them and you could find yourself sent off down a total blind alley, just for the hell of it. As if he hadn’t already come up against enough resistance…
“Well,” she said, finally matching her tone to his, icy, “if you are all they’ve sent me, it looks like nobody else is treating this as a proper investigation either, are they?”
He opened his mouth again—to apologise this time—but she had already looked away.
“Now,” she said blandly, “if we’ve quite finished banging our egos together, would you care to take a look at the remains?”
Touché. He paused, frowning, still trying to feel his way into a reluctant apology, but then he caught the flicker in her face and realised his hesitation might be mistaken for a weak stomach.
“Lead the way.”
She inclined her head, almost regal, and moved on ahead of him. She was only a few inches below his own six-foot-two which made her tall for a woman, and she moved like a racehorse, all smooth-gaited co-ordination and long muscles.
He felt the usual twinge of conscience that always nagged him when he had cause to admire another woman. He shrugged it aside and made an attempt at solidarity.
“Do we have an ID on the victim?”
The CSI glanced back over her shoulder, frowning again. The action caused a little dent to appear between her eyebrows.
“According to those two, his name was Ben.” She indicated the couple he’d ignored with a cool slide of her eyes. Nick had initially thought they were pale brown, but now he realised they were hazel, flecked through with green and chestnut and gold.
“How old was he?”
She’d turned away but he saw one elegant shoulder lift briefly. “Difficult to say.” Because he couldn’t see her face, the pity in her voice seemed more apparent. “Only a youngster, though.”
Oh, God, every copper’s nightmare. Her casual attitude to the scene rose up again to anger Nick. “A child?”
She stepped smartly aside, so that he found himself staring at the stretched-out body of a black-and-tan German Shepherd.
“Of course not,” she said. “He’s a dog.”
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