They were getting closer. She could hear boots squelching in the peat and the crackle of grit and heather being crushed underfoot. Thin beams of light zigzagged across the moorland, picking out little in the driving sleet but keen enough to make her squeeze deeper into the tiny gap she had found. The rough surface of the stones bit into her skin and ripped her kameez. She pulled at the cloth, trying to cover her bare legs, her face burning with shame even as she shivered.
The men were shouting to each other, their words inaudible but weighted with fury. The taller one scrambled onto a nearby rock, his torch flashing within inches of her toes. He never thought to look down, though; never imagined that she might be huddled, with her fist stuffed into her mouth, not six feet from him. He jumped back to the path and swore as his trainers sank into the mud. She watched him walk away, the heaving bulk of his form quickly blotted out by the mist. The voices became less distinct, swallowed up by the wind and the drumming of her pulse.
A long time passed before she dared to unfurl her fingers and hold her hand out, catching drops of sleet and licking her dampened palm to ease her parched throat. She repeated the gesture, but seconds later, she couldn’t remember why she’d done it, and she stared at her arm, baffled. The thrum of her heartbeat was slower now, the pain that had crippled her for days fading into a dull ache that might actually let her sleep. The rock felt warm when she leaned against it. She curled into a ball, feeling her mother run a hand through her hair and hearing Nabila sing the wrong words to an old tune. Reassured, she smiled and closed her eyes.
Taking the clatter of the Land Rover’s engine as her cue, Meg Fielding sparked a match and lit the candles on the kitchen table. Secured to their saucers with Blu-Tack and melted wax, one wobbled and the other wavered, but neither toppled over. She blew out the flame as it began to singe her fingers, and then she adjusted the angle of a fork. Something was still missing.
“Aw, shit! Napkins!”
The turn of a key in the lock threw her into a tizzy. She flung drawers and cupboards open before giving up and tearing off sheets of bargain-basement kitchen roll instead, which didn’t look too bad once she’d folded them into triangles and disguised them further by shoving them beneath the knives. Finally, she slapped a hand on the light switch. She’d sent Sanne a text making her promise to use the front door, and there was puzzlement in Sanne’s voice as she called out, “Anybody home?”
Crouching in front of the oven door, Meg squinted at her reflection and wiped a smear of mint sauce from her forehead before chucking her apron in the vague direction of the washing machine. When she stepped into the hallway, Sanne froze, her coat still hanging off one arm.
“Oh no, what did you do?” She sniffed the air, her gaze straying beyond Meg. “Did you cook? In my kitchen? I thought we’d talked about this.” She sniffed again, and her expression shifted from horrified to curious. “Bloody hell, something smells amazing.”
Meg beamed, not offended in the slightest. It was a few years since she’d almost burned down her own house, but the memory lingered. “It’s roast lamb. Your mum gave me strict instructions, and I’ve followed them to the letter.” She kissed Sanne full on the lips. “Happy almost four-week anniversary. Now go and get your jammies on.”
By the time Sanne came back down, Meg had started carving the leg of lamb. It was difficult to manage the knife whilst surreptitiously ogling Sanne, however, so she gave up on the slicing and devoted her efforts to ogling.
“You do look lovely,” she said, watching Sanne sieve peas by candlelight. Still pink and damp from the shower, Sanne had towel-dried her hair, leaving it spiky all over, and thrown on her pyjamas and bed socks. A month of proper meals, restful sleep, and stress-free cases at work had restored some of the weight she had lost, and the sparkle was back in her eyes. When she smiled, Meg was tempted to swipe everything off the table and simply sit her on top of it.
Caught somewhere between a naughty thought and an absolutely filthy one, Meg blinked and cleared her throat. “Yep? What?”
Sanne eased the knife from Meg’s hand. “Dare I ask?”
“Probably best that you don’t.”
“Do you want me to finish the meat while you do something that doesn’t involve a sharp object?”
“Okay,” Meg said. “I’ll get the spuds out. Your mum told me to roast them in goose fat.”
Sanne’s deft carving paused, the knife suspended motionless in mid-air. “God, I love you,” she said.
Dabbing her lips with kitchen roll, Sanne surveyed the empty dishes. The table looked as if a plague of locusts had ransacked it. The interview she’d led first thing that morning had overrun by several hours, thanks to the suspect’s penchant for going off on fanciful tangents, and her lunch had been sacrificed to a detailed confession encompassing several major acts of terrorism and a murder committed in Denmark. When asked to point out Denmark on a map, he’d stuck his finger on Glasgow. The two Polo Mints she’d found in her coat pocket had only just kept her going on the way home.
“I had too many spuds. I think I might actually pop.” She stretched her pyjamas away from her stomach.
“Can you squeeze pudding in?” Meg asked, beginning to stack the plates.
Sanne snapped the elastic back into place. “I’m assuming that was a rhetorical question.”
As Meg added the final touches to a dessert she’d promised would knock Sanne’s socks off, Sanne wandered into the living room and poked a fresh log into position on the burner. Spring might be just around the corner, but the brutal winter had yet to ease its grip on the Peak District, and she had driven home on roads slick with wet snow.
Leaning back against the sofa, she stretched her toes toward the fire. She had been looking forward to coming home since Meg’s cryptic text. They hadn’t arranged anything specific for their night off together, and she hadn’t even been sure whether they would see each other, so the message had brightened an otherwise frustrating day.
She raised her head as Meg toed the door open and approached the sofa with her hands behind her back.
“Left or right?” Meg asked.
Sanne searched her face for a clue, but Meg’s expression gave nothing away.
“Ooh, good choice. You get more sprinkles.” Meg handed her a glass bowl of butterscotch mousse and plonked herself down on the sofa.
Sanne laughed as she realised what the mousse was. “Angel Delight? You spoil me.”
“It’s Angel Delight with chocolate sprinkles, if you please.” Meg daubed a blob onto Sanne’s nose. “I would’ve made you something fancier, but peeling all those veggies took most of the afternoon.”
“This is perfect.” Sanne savoured her first taste. Angel Delight had been a guilty pleasure since childhood, and given that its preparation involved whipping a packet of powder into milk, even Meg could make it without incident. They ate in silence, their spoons ending up discarded on the coffee table as they observed the time-honoured tradition of cleaning the bowls with their fingers.
Still licking her thumb, Meg lifted her arm to let Sanne tuck into her. “How was your day?” she asked.
“Long. Uneventful.” Sanne took a deep breath and felt every tedious minute of her shift drain away. “But I can live with that for the moment.”
“There’s a lot to be said for uneventful.”
Meg’s arm tightened around Sanne, and her finger traced a thin white scar on the back of Sanne’s hand, one of several that a multiple murderer had left her with. The three-month improvement notice attached to Sanne’s personnel file at the start of that case had two weeks left to run, and she was ticking each day off on her kitchen calendar, if only to remind herself how far she had come since then.
Meg nudged her gently. “Penny for them.”
Sanne squeezed Meg’s hand, wondering how long she’d been quiet. “I was appreciating being happy. Nowt deep or meaningful, really. Just that.”
“So you weren’t composing romantic haikus or comparing me to a summer’s day?”
“No, I was thinking that I’m dead snug and content and that you smell nice.”
“I smell like lamb grease and goose fat, San.”
“Don’t forget the artificial butterscotch flavouring.” Sanne cupped the back of Meg’s head and kissed her. The sweetness coating Meg’s lips would have made her squirm in anticipation if she’d had the energy to move. Instead she groaned and slumped against Meg. “It’s no good. I am officially too full and too comfy to ravish you.”
Meg, who’d always been better at drama in school, gasped like a swooning heroine. “Only four weeks and already we’re victims of Bed Death.”
“Oh, fuck off.” Sanne poked a finger into her belly. “There’s no way you want sex right now.”
“Naw.” Meg patted at the sofa until she found the television remote. “Right now I want to find something brainless to stare at while you fall asleep in my arms.”
Sanne yawned. “That does sound lovely. But there’s so much washing up to do.”
Meg pulled a throw rug over them both. “Sod it,” she said. “It’ll keep till morning.”
Sanne woke just before her alarm to a room flooded with bright moonlight. Next to her, Meg was twitching in synch to a dream, but she shifted as if sensing that something had changed, turning to face Sanne, her fitful movements ceasing as she settled back on her pillow.
Sanne switched off the alarm, gifting herself the remaining two minutes beneath the quilt. Barely daring to breathe, she traced with one fingertip the silver light catching the arc of Meg’s cheekbone and the pale throat where Sanne had so often pressed her lips. She had never really watched Meg sleep before, thinking it a sentimental thing, the preserve of proper couples, but although only four weeks had passed since she and Meg had decided to stop buggering around dating other people and simply date each other instead, it felt like a lifetime. A fear of ruining a friendship that had endured since childhood had kept them commitment-phobic for years, but moving into a relationship had been as easy as slipping on a well-worn pair of gloves.
Sanne stifled a laugh at her less-than-romantic simile. Despite their lack of experience in the art of wooing, she and Meg had given it a damn good crack, with exchanges of daft gifts, the undertaking of picturesque walks in the snow, and evenings out in local restaurants they’d always meant to try but never got around to. Five days into their fledgling affair, Meg had declared herself sufficiently smitten and had welcomed Sanne home from work wearing nothing but an old shirt and a smile. It was hardly their first time, but they’d compensated for a six-month separation with an enthusiasm that had yet to wane. The subject of living together had never been broached, and their irregular shift patterns gave them plenty of time apart. Whatever they had now, and however it might be defined, it seemed to be working.
Another check of the clock, and Sanne forced herself to edge out of bed, wincing as her stiff muscles resisted her attempts to sit up. She hobbled into the bathroom with her arms full of running gear, re-emerging minutes later to flick on her head torch, slip out of the front door, and tiptoe over her gravelled drive. Nothing was stirring in the chicken coop until she opened the gate, at which point Git Face the rooster crowed once in preparation and then let out a full-throated salute to the morning and everything in it. Leaving Meg to deal with him, Sanne set off at a sprint, easing down to a steadier pace once her lungs and quads began to burn. Frosty air rushed into her mouth and stung her cheeks. When she glanced up, the summits of the surrounding hills were outlined in moonlight, and Orion’s Belt kept her heading in the right direction.
At the start of February, as soon as the snow had cleared from the valley, she had set herself a goal of running before work at least three times a week. Meg had told her she was bonkers, and Nelson had given it a month, but she’d relished the return to regular exercise, and she couldn’t wait to get onto some of the higher routes.
The kitchen light was on when she got back to the house. Before she had a chance to take out her key, Meg opened the door.
“I throttled the little bastard, and we’re having him for tea.”
Sanne bent double, trying not to laugh as she panted for breath. “No, you didn’t.”
“Maybe not, but I was tempted.” Meg rubbed her bleary eyes and surveyed Sanne’s mud-splattered form. “Congratulations on not snapping an ankle.”
“Thanks. You should come with me one morning.”
“Mornings are for tea, toast, and bacon,” Meg declared, turning the tap on and reaching for a glass. On odd occasions, Sanne had known her to go swimming, but most of her exercise came from hurrying around an Accident and Emergency department for forty-plus hours a week, and she was probably as fit as Sanne. She passed Sanne the glass and steered her toward the hall. “You shower all that crap off. I’ll stick the kettle on.”
Eleanor Stanhope waited for the lift to start moving and then turned to its mirrored wall. A quick adjustment to a hairclip repaired the damage inflicted by the brisk easterly wind, while a dab of lipstick covered a tooth-smeared patch. Having removed her coat and draped it over her arm, she smoothed her jacket and pencil skirt and checked her tights for ladders. It was a daily ritual unwitnessed by anyone in all her years as a detective inspector, and she’d got it timed to a T, standing ready to exit onto the fourth floor mere seconds before the ping signalled the lift’s arrival.
She stepped out into darkness, the start of her day neatly poised between the departure of the domestic staff and the influx of the EDSOP detectives. Unless she was paged during the night, she aimed to hit the office by six a.m., giving herself an hour’s grace to catch up on her e-mails and eat breakfast before the meetings and briefings and phone calls began in earnest. Her role as head of East Derbyshire Special Ops came with few perks, but at least her office had the luxury of its own kettle. She brewed her first mug of coffee and poured muesli into a bowl, topping it with grated apple and natural yoghurt. As the computer did its usual stutter and stall, she kicked off her shoes beneath the desk and managed to eat half the cereal before the system logged her on. Not that she was in any particular hurry: for the first time since late December, the EDSOP caseload was relatively light, as if the post-Christmas chaos had been so exhausting that the local criminal element was taking a break until the clocks went forward and the longer days created better opportunities for misbehaviour. EDSOP worked major crimes—murders, kidnappings, serious and sexual assaults—and the team of nine detectives had been a man down since a near-fatal attack on its only sergeant. Although Duncan Carlyle had assured Eleanor of his intention to return to work, Occupational Health were dragging their feet, and she had little inclination to expedite matters.
She prioritised her overnight e-mails as she listened to the voices drifting through from the open-plan office beyond hers. Sanne Jensen and her partner, Nelson Turay, were often the EDSOP early birds, beating the traffic and using the small kitchen to prepare their breakfast. They were arguing about something now, Sanne’s voice laughter-filled but indignant, in contrast to Nelson’s calm baritone. Sanne shouted across to Fred Aspinall for his adjudication and then invited them both to kiss her arse when she ended up on the losing side.
Eleanor finished her coffee, feeling like a headmistress snooping on unruly charges. She had worked with EDSOP for almost twelve years, and this was the most cohesive team she’d managed, especially with Carlyle away on extended sick leave. After battling through a rough winter, she was hoping for a chance to regroup, perhaps review training needs and see whether she could steer her brightest toward more specialised skills. That reminded her she had to organise further Taser courses, imperative for the team after several recent close calls. Sanne and Nelson were already qualified, along with Mike Hallet and Jay Egerton. Eleanor scanned the list of those remaining and bit the end of her pen when she reached Fred and his partner, George Torren. She’d be amazed if either of them could hit the side of a barn, but as the East Derbyshire diversity policy stated, ageism had no place in the modern police force.
“God help us all,” she muttered, and added their names to the schedule.
A glance at the Majors whiteboard told Meg all she needed to know about the previous night’s shift. Of the nine cubicles, five were blocked by patients waiting for beds on the Medical Assessment Unit, and one by a patient who needed transferring to Urology at St. Margaret’s. They had all breached the four-hour “admit or discharge” target, and the computer screens were blazing with red warnings. The breach manager, usually full of vigour and ready to do battle, appeared to be on the verge of tears, her designer jacket removed and her blouse untucked. If she’d carried a handkerchief, she would probably have been waving it.
“Welcome to another day in paradise.” Liz, the nurse whose shifts often ran alongside Meg’s, flung her arms wide to encompass the carnage. Behind a curtain, someone vomited, and a doctor so fresh-faced he looked shiny rushed toward Resus clutching a sheaf of printouts.
Meg stared after him. “Please tell me he’s not been researching on Wikipedia again.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Liz said. “And Donovan’s in there with him today, so we should be able to avoid another clinical incident.”
“Terrific.” Meg grimaced at the prospect of the chief consultant pecking her head for fourteen hours. Donovan had forgotten to mention he would be on duty when he’d phoned and persuaded her to work a long day. She tapped the board with a tongue depressor. “Who’ve we got in Three?”
“Rubina Begum. Thirty-eight-year-old, pseudo-unconscious with a bit of a temp. Brought in on an amber standby by a crew barely out of nappies.”
“God love ’em.” Meg’s mood brightened as she snapped on a pair of gloves and collected the ambulance paperwork. “By ’eck, according to this she’s comatose. We’d better fast-bleep Anaesthetics.”
Liz headed in the opposite direction. “You know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Yeah, so I’ve been told.” Meg drew back the cubicle’s curtain to find two people sitting beside the bed: a Pakistani man she assumed to be the patient’s husband and a tear-streaked lad of no more than eight. “Morning, all. I’m Dr. Fielding. Is this your wife, sir?”
The man nodded slowly.
She turned to the lad. “And your mum?”
The lad sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “She won’t wake up,” he said.
Meg crouched in front of him. “I think she will, and I’m sure she’s going to be fine. What’s your name?”
“Mohammed.” He straightened, emboldened by her attention. “And I’m seven and a half.”
“Wow, that’s really old. I bet you’re dead clever.” She looked across to his dad. “Do you speak English, sir?”
A shake of his head and a reluctant “so-so” gesture told her that she’d correctly identified Mohammed as the translator.
“I don’t want to miss school,” Mohammed said. Still in his pyjamas and slippers, he kicked against his chair.
Meg checked her watch, wondering how quickly she could revive, diagnose, and discharge his mum. “In that case, I’d better get cracking, eh?”
She pushed to her feet and surveyed her patient. A small, overweight woman, Rubina Begum was swaddled beneath two coats, and her eyelashes flickered when Meg lowered the bed’s railing. With the exception of a mild temperature, her observations were normal, and she was no more unconscious than her son.
“Rubina.” Meg shook her shoulder. “Will you open your eyes for me, please?”
Rubina screwed them closed instead, prompting a renewed bout of sniffles from Mohammed. Meg had never understood the willingness of some people to inflict distress on their own children, and it never failed to piss her off. Switching tactics, she pressed hard on the bony arc of Rubina’s upper eye socket, maintaining the painful stimulus until Rubina tried to bat her hand away.
“Okay, that’s encouraging,” Meg said, loosening her grip.
Seeing his mum’s miraculous recovery, Mohammed clambered onto the bed beside her. She blinked as if roused from a deep sleep and wrapped an arm around him, murmuring in Urdu, which he automatically translated for Meg.
“She says her back and her belly hurt.”
Now almost certain that Mohammed would make his first class, Meg rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a plastic sample pot. “Can you ask her to have a wee in this for me?”
Mohammed giggled and turned pink. “You’re a funny sort of doctor,” he said.
“I didn’t do nothing. I don’t know why I’m here, and I’m not saying nothing.” Seamus Thompson drew a figurative line beneath his statement by rocking back in his chair and folding his arms. Immediately overbalancing, he thumped his legs down and made a grab for the table.
“That’s fine, Seamus.” Sanne took her time replacing the lid on her pen. “We’ll go next door and carry on chatting to your brother. Remind me what he had to say about all this, Detective Turay?”
Nelson flipped to the correct page in his notepad and selected a choice line. “‘Seamus was the one what had the hammer, and he done knocked that bloke’s teeth in even after I told him not to.’”
Indignation made Seamus’s eyes bulge, and his mouth dropped open to reveal a tongue bar bearing the legend “Male Slut.” Ignoring his solicitor’s attempts to placate him, he pushed at the table, sending his cup of water flying. “Did our Daragh tell you he stamped on the bloke’s hands? Broke all his bones and laughed about it?”
“No,” Sanne said. “Somewhat surprisingly, he left that bit out.” She ignored the solicitor’s scowl; it wasn’t her fault his client had fallen for such a rudimentary ploy. These days most of the scrotes across the table in Interview One were well versed in the “no comment” drill, but Seamus and Daragh had obviously needed to watch more reality TV before they’d decided to put someone in the ITU for the sake of twenty-one quid and a crap mobile phone.
“Would you like to make a proper statement?” she asked. “Then we can have you tucked up in your cell by teatime.”
Seamus wobbled his tongue bar between his teeth, considering the offer. “Do I have to write it?”
“No,” Sanne said, well aware of his illiteracy. “I’ll guide you through it and write it for you. Your solicitor will check it, and you can sign it.”
“All right. Where do I start?”
“At the beginning.”
That was the only cue he needed. “Well, see, it was all our Daragh’s fault…”
It took more than two hours to untangle his testimony and wheedle out the pertinent points. As Nelson finally closed the door on Seamus and his solicitor, Sanne rocked her head from side to side, listening to the crunch of her vertebrae.
“What kind of genetic evil produced two of those?” Nelson asked.
“I think they’re actually triplets,” Sanne said. “Only, Paddy chooses to use his powers for good.”
Nelson threw up his hands. “Do they have even a drop of Irish blood in them?”
“Nope. Apparently, their parents were so fond of Guinness, they named their brood in its honour.”
“You made that up.”
“I did not. I have it written down somewhere. Paddy told me the other day while you were in the loo.”
Nelson’s shoulders dropped as he began to laugh. “That would explain a lot.”
“Aye.” Sanne gathered her paperwork. “We can get the file off to the CPS first thing. I can’t see them having a prob—”
A terse knock interrupted her. George pushed his head around the door.
“Boss wants us all in the briefing room. A hiker’s called in a body up near Stryder Clough. First uniforms on scene have flagged it to us.”
“Aw, bloody hell,” Nelson said.
“Yeah.” George held the door for them, his expression unusually grim. “The unis are saying it’s a child.”
The van juddered as the officer behind the wheel pulled out of a curve and misjudged the gradient. He dropped a gear, smoothing the ride, and Sanne eased her grip on the seat in front. All around her, the Peaks were beginning to gain height, their earthy brown slopes newly exposed by the recent thaw. Here and there, snowdrifts remained in shadowed gullies, but the sun shone on clear summits, the night’s fall dispatched within hours. It was a perfect day for hiking, clear and crisp, with a breeze keen enough to keep people moving. Had Sanne not been on shift she would probably have gone up there herself, taking advantage of the weather window after so many weeks of poor visibility and freezing conditions. Some unfortunate sod who’d done just that was now a witness in a murder investigation, however, with his 999 call a jumble of location details stammered between retching. Black Gate Farm, the access point he had managed to identify, sat off a rough track a couple of miles before Sanne’s cottage, and she knew this stretch of the Snake Pass like the back of her hand.
She began to fasten her coat, and her colleagues followed suit. With Mike Hallet busy in court, and Scotty and Jay out on unrelated door-to-door enquiries, there were six left from EDSOP, along with two uniformed officers to relieve those already at the scene. Eleanor ended a phone call and turned side-on in her seat to address them.
“The farmer, Ron Stanton, has offered to drive us as far up Stryder Clough as he can manage. He estimates a mile and a half hike from the drop-off point to the scene. The chopper is otherwise engaged for at least the next hour, but SOCO are hoping to commandeer it to bring in their kit and personnel. As we’ll be on scene first, we’ll make a start on the preliminaries. I need two of you to stay at the farm to get statements from the hiker and his wife.”
Fred’s hand shot up so fast that Sanne heard the click of his arthritic shoulder. All of EDSOP kept boots and wet-weather gear in their lockers, a sensible precaution given the semi-rural nature of their patch, but some were far more capable of a strenuous hike than others.
“I’ve got terrible blisters from last night’s salsa,” he said. “It’s that Martha. She runs me ragged.” He began to untie his laces, preparing to prove his point, but a chorus of dissent, and George slapping his hands, stopped him.
Eleanor raised her voice above the outcry. “Thank you, Fred. George can stay back to assist.”
“Next right, mate. Just after the tree line,” Sanne called to the driver. He waved to acknowledge her, spotting the turn in good time and easing the van off the Snake.
The cluster of stone buildings came into view after a bone-jolting crawl along a track more suited to four-wheel drives. To the frantic accompaniment of barking from the farm dogs in the yard, Sanne released her seat belt, keen to stand on terra firma and breathe something other than diesel fumes. She recognised Ron Stanton as he came over to greet Eleanor. Rarely seen without his flat cap and Barbour jacket, he was something of an institution in the area, a good-humoured man whom everyone wanted on their side in a pub quiz. Although in his early sixties, he was still lithe and fit enough to manage 250 hectares of land, winning prizes for the meat and sausage he supplied to Meg’s local butcher in Rowlee.
From the doorway of the main house, his wife Trudy watched the team disembark from the van, and then clapped her hands to silence the collies and disappeared back inside.
“The Landie’s fuelled and ready to go,” Ron said. “Yon hiker and his missus are in the living room. It’s a bloody shame what’s gone on up at Greave, and you folks are welcome to co-opt anything you need for as long as it takes.”
“We appreciate that, Mr. Stanton,” Eleanor said.
He tipped his cap at her. “Ron, please. Oh, how do, Sanne? Here, let me get that for you.” He strode across and took Sanne’s rucksack before she had a chance to shoulder it. “Those girls of yours laying yet?”
“Not yet. It’s still a bit dark for them.” She fell into step with him as he led the way to his Land Rover. “I have high hopes, though.”
“That’s the spirit. I’ll ask Trude to leave a dozen out for you if I remember.” Ever the gentleman, he boosted her into the back of the Landie, where she shuffled onto the bench seat beside Nelson.
“I promise I’ll share my eggs with you,” she whispered to him.
The engine noise and the roughness of the ride curtailed any further conversation, and Sanne could only catch flashes of Stryder Clough through the canvas shell covering the rear compartment. She had run a similar route on occasion, following a lower path close to the clough’s central stream and then joining the Pennine Way just beyond Greave Stones. Sitting proud at the top of the clough, the stones were ideal for picnics and scrambling, offering an excellent vantage point on a clear day, or shelter from the elements if the weather turned. She could only imagine the horror of finding a body hidden among them, although her imagination had ample source material thanks to two of her recent cases. Closing her eyes, she leaned into Nelson and felt his brief, reassuring grip on her forearm. They were approaching the two-year anniversary of their EDSOP partnership; by now, what he didn’t know about her, he could probably hazard a good guess at.
A sudden lurch and dip brought the Land Rover to a halt.
“That’s about as close as I can get you,” Ron said, leaving the engine to idle and jumping down from the driver’s seat. Sunlight flooded into the rear compartment when he unfastened the canvas flaps. Half blinded by the brightness, Sanne welcomed his guiding hand as she climbed out onto the plateau of stony ground that marked the end of the track. “You can join the path just there,” he told her, aware of her familiarity with the area. “See? If I weren’t so damn busy, I’d come with you.”
“We’ll be fine. Thanks.” She hefted her rucksack and adjusted its straps. It was an old one she’d found stuffed into her own Landie, and Eleanor had filled it with logbooks, forensic clothing and markers, and recording equipment. She set off at a nod from Eleanor, leading without being asked and picking her way through the heather until she reached the narrow trail.
“One of these days I’ll come up here when we’re not on a case,” Nelson said, taking in the view with wide eyes. “Bring Abeni and the girls, pack a lunch, and run wild.”
Sanne smiled, the hills and fresh air irresistible despite the circumstances. “You should. They’d love it. Meg and I used to spend all our summer holidays outdoors, riding our bikes on the back field. Our mums wouldn’t see us till we were hungry, and we’d have given our eyeteeth to get as far as the Peaks. There was none of this buggering about on Facebook or PlayStations.”
“Tumblr,” Nelson said. “I think that’s where the cool kids are these days. Or is it Imgur?”
Sanne crossed her eyes at him. “Not being at all cool, I have no idea what you’ve just said.” She slowed to gauge the best stepping stones as the path veered to the opposite side of the stream. Her first choice wobbled and capsized beneath her boot. “You can swim, right?”
Nelson looked dubious. “Yes, but I hate getting my feet wet.”
“I suggest you avoid that one, then.” She chose another and hopped across, waiting on the bank until everyone else joined her. “It’s not far now,” she told them. Looking up, she caught her first glimpse of the stern grey rocks, and she walked on without hesitation. Having assumed the role of guide and pacesetter, she couldn’t shirk either responsibility even if she’d wanted to. She fixed her eyes on the path again, concentrating on where she put her feet and not what she was heading toward.
One of the officers guarding the scene met them at the spot where the path became less distinct, the clough giving way to peat hags and groughs undulating across the hilltop. He waited while they donned their Tyvek suits, masks, and booties, no doubt aware that his entire uniform would have to be sacrificed to SOCO for analysis.
“The vic’s round here,” he said. “We’ve been keeping to one path.”
Eleanor nodded and gestured for him to lead on. They passed the flat table-like rock where Sanne and Meg had once shared lunch, soaking wet after a deluge but too happy with the views and homemade cake to care about their sodden socks, and Sanne was half-smiling at the memory when she noticed the foot. A small, frail thing, it protruded from between two stones, its toes almost submerged in the peat. She heard Chris O’Brien swear and Nelson draw in a sharp breath as they spotted it as well.
“Sanne, could you pass me the camera, please?” Eleanor asked. “Are you okay doing the video?”
“Fine.” Sanne gave Nelson the rucksack to hold and withdrew both pieces of kit from its depths. She moved forward when Eleanor did, panning the camcorder in a wide arc and then narrowing its focus to a gap beneath one of the stones. The body revealed itself in increments: a tattered heel, a skinny leg, and a bottom bared by a crumpled-up dress.
“Fucking hell,” Eleanor said, and the click of her camera ceased.
Ignoring Eleanor, Sanne squatted so low that her nose almost touched the peat, coming face-to-face with a young girl, her eyes half-lidded and her expression tranquil. This close, Sanne could see it wasn’t a dress that she was wearing but a short, brightly coloured tunic with gold brocade decorating its purple cloth, missing the loose trousers that would have matched it. For some unfathomable reason the responding officers hadn’t thought to mention that the girl was Asian, probably either Pakistani or Bengali, but Eleanor was already on the phone, breaking the news to the brass.
“Damn,” Nelson said, stooping at Sanne’s side. “What on earth is she doing all the way out here?”
Sanne lowered the camcorder. “I think that might be the sixty-four thousand quid question,” she said.
“Yes, sir, I’m aware of that.” The peat was too wet for Eleanor to pace on, but that didn’t stop her trying. Water gathered around her booties as they sank into the spongy layer, spilling over her bootlaces whenever she stayed still for too long. “I’m planning to call in a community liaison.”
The wind forced her to hold the phone close, which aimed Detective Chief Inspector Litton’s nervous breakdown directly into her ear.
“This is all we fucking need, with everything that’s gone on in South Yorks,” he said, his voice verging on a whine. “I don’t want our force tarred with the same brush, and I won’t have it said that we’ve wilfully neglected our duty.”
“No, sir.” Eleanor watched a grouse dart for cover as Nelson strayed into its territory, and she wished she could heed its “g’back” warning cry. Like several other police forces in England, South Yorkshire stood accused of ignoring evidence linking gangs of men to the sexual exploitation of young girls. That the men were mostly from ethnic minorities and their victims white had reignited racial tensions in the affected areas and raised suspicions that the police had been burying the cases for fear of appearing racist. The resulting media fallout had been considerable, and the issue was unlikely to fade from the headlines any time soon.
“Initial thoughts?” The snap of Litton’s question startled Eleanor. She turned to face the stones again, finding less to distract her in their impassive mass.
“She’s young,” she said. “Perhaps thirteen or fourteen. No obvious cause of death. Her only visible injuries are minor and probably due to her being barefoot. The lower half of her clothing is missing, and her position suggests she may have hidden herself in the rocks rather than been concealed there by a third party.”
“So we could be looking at rape not murder?” Litton sounded moderately cheered by the prospect, and Eleanor had to dig her nails into her palm to keep the anger from her response.
“It’s impossible to say, sir. The body is still in situ. We’ll know more after the PM.”
“Yes, well, I expect to be kept apprised of any developments.”
“Of course, sir.”
He ended the call, and she dropped the phone into her pocket as if it had dirtied her fingers. Her team—well aware whom she’d been talking to—looked pensive as she approached. They weren’t stupid; they all understood the implications for the department should one foot be set wrong on such a case.
“DCI Litton wishes us luck with the investigation,” she said.
Nelson huffed in outright disbelief, and Sanne busied herself scratching peat from her eyebrow. Above them, the beat of rotor blades announced the impending arrival of SOCO.
“Now or never for your footage, Sanne,” Eleanor shouted over the helicopter’s din.
Sanne gave her a thumbs-up. “I’ve got loads already, and we took more photos.”
Her enthusiasm made Eleanor smile. Sanne was in her element on the moors, but the hike and the increasing wind chill already had Eleanor craving a hot bath and a generous dram of Scotch. She couldn’t feel her toes, her eyes were watering, and her nose kept running. While she appreciated the grandeur of the Peaks, she preferred to view them from the comfort of her car as she drove past. On the positive side, at least she wouldn’t end up with second-degree sunburn this time around. “Do you want to stay and chat to SOCO?” she asked.
“Aye, so long as they don’t try to chase me off with a big stick. I’ll see if Nelson will keep me company. Safety in numbers and all that.” Sanne shielded her eyes from the downdraught. “Are you on the next flight out?”
“That’s the plan. Get what you can from them and brief me ASAP. Phone or e-mail is fine if you’re late back.”
“No worries, boss.” Sanne grimaced as if realising what she’d just said. “Well, maybe a few, eh?”
Still clad head to foot in forensic coveralls, but well beyond SOCO’s newly established perimeter, Sanne used a thin crease on the flank of a suitable rock to boost herself upward. The gritstone bit a hole in her nitrile gloves and shredded the skin of her fingertip, but she managed to wriggle to the summit, where she found her balance and turned in a slow circle.
“Are you joining me?” she shouted down to Nelson, who stood squinting at her in the glare of the dipping sun. He briefly considered her proposition before nodding and starting to follow her route.
“Promise you won’t laugh if I split my kecks?” he said, self-conscious as ever about the snug fit of his Tyvek suit.
“I promise I’ll try.” She held out a hand and helped him up, keeping a firm grip on him until he’d found his sea legs in the strengthening wind.
“Right,” he said, once assured that his suit had survived intact. “What am I looking at?”
“For the most part, the summit of Brabyn’s Tor. And that’s the Pennine Way.” Sanne nodded toward the only visible path. “From here it crosses the summit for about a mile before dropping down to the Smithy River. If you followed it south instead, it would dip to the Snake and then climb again toward Corvenden.”
He grunted in recognition. “Bit of déjà vu about this, isn’t there?”
“Yeah.” She kept her eyes fixed on the horizon as a blush of pink began to highlight the dusting of clouds. She hadn’t been anywhere near Corvenden Edge or Laddaw Rocks since the abduction case of the previous summer, and she didn’t want to look at them now, though they were little more than a smudge in the distance. She hated that the actions of one man had tainted an entire area for her, but what had happened there was still too raw, and she wasn’t sure when, if ever, she would be able to go back.
“Do you think this is a copycat, San?”
“Honestly?” She looked up at him. “I haven’t a clue. From the state of the vic’s feet I would say she’d been running, and it seems obvious she hid herself, but surely she’s too young for someone not to have missed her? If she’d been up here with a group or her family, they’d have reported in by now, but local police and Mountain Rescue haven’t been alerted. Besides which…” She hesitated, not wanting to offend him.
“Besides which, what?”
She decided to dive right in. “Well, you don’t see many ethnic minorities in the Peaks. I’ve been running and hiking around here for years, and the vast majority of the people I meet are white. I could count on one hand the number of Asians I’ve seen, and they’re never in traditional dress. Maybe in summer, having a picnic by the river, but never on the tops in crappy weather.”
“Huh. So I’m a statistical anomaly, am I?” He sounded intrigued.
“That you are.”
“I suppose it must be, but either way, I think we can rule out an abduction during a day trip.”
“Okay.” He scanned around, paying particular attention to a steep outcropping. “Any caves nearby?”
“No. The closest are those at Laddaw, but our vic would never have made it this far. Oh shit, I’ll tell you what there is, though!” She shook her head at her own ineptitude and began to climb down. “There’s a bloody road!”
Nelson spun in a three-sixty. “Where? I can’t see one.”
“You won’t. It’s a couple of miles north, over the lip of the hill. It connects up with the Snake eventually, but no one uses it much anymore except for local access. You can still get through to Sheffield that way, though, if you’re idiot enough to try.”
Nelson bounded back to the peat, ignoring the splash of black water that hit his suit. “Or if you want to avoid mobile speed cameras, police patrols, and anyone else who might remember you.”
“Exactly.” She weaved through the rocks until she could see Ted Ulverston, the Scene of Crime Officer who had worked their last major case and who had politely but firmly shooed them away from the girl’s body.
“We’re nowhere near finished yet,” he called, spotting their approach.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I just wanted to pinch a couple of head torches, if you have any to spare.”
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Why? Are you going potholing?”
“Not a bloody chance, but the sun’s setting, and we’ve decided to toot around while you do your forensic thing.” She wasn’t usually one for subterfuge, but she didn’t want SOCO tagging along when there might not be anything to justify the trek.
“Whatever floats your boat.” Ted rummaged in a holdall and brought out a pair of torches. “I’ll give you a shout when we’re ready to move her.”
“Cheers, Ted.” The kit safely stashed, Sanne slung her rucksack over her shoulder. “We’ll keep to the Pennine Way and bag or mark anything that looks like a recent discard,” she told Nelson. “If she was out here in daylight, there’s a chance she found the path.”
“Aren’t you going to tell the boss about the road?” Nelson’s question held just the hint of a tease. Sanne was nothing if not by the book.
“I think she’s got enough on her plate, and it’d take ages for anyone to drive over and meet us there.” She puffed out her chest and held her head high. “I am seizing the initiative, Nelson. The boss made it my New Year’s resolution.”
“In which case, lead on.”
The swish of the curtain prompted Meg’s seventeen-year-old patient to unplug her mobile from the wall and abandon the text she was in the middle of composing. Levi Collins had come to the hospital via ambulance with a half-hour history of abdominal pain that she hadn’t attempted to self-medicate, and she swung her legs nervously as she awaited Meg’s verdict. Meg spent a few seconds admiring her leopard-print onesie and fake UGG boots, standard local dress for a trip to the A&E, though the full-length tail was a novel touch.
“Well?” Levi asked. “Am I up the duff?”
“No. Your pregnancy test was negative.” Ignoring Levi’s triumphant whoop, Meg handed her a leaflet detailing various contraceptive choices. “Try to find something in there that suits you, eh?”
Levi stashed the leaflet in her bag. “What’s up with me, then?”
“You have a UTI.”
The colour drained from Levi’s face. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Is it chlamydia? God, me mam’ll kill me.”
“UTI, not STI. You have a urinary tract infection. They’re very common, and yours will clear up fine with a short course of antibiotics.”
“Thank fuck for that.” Levi toyed with her phone, as if the urge to update her status was too strong to bear. “Me mam says I’m dyspeptic.”
“What, you’re prone to indigestion?”
“No, I can’t spell for shit.”
“Ah, right.” Meg bit her lip, trying not to laugh. “Okay, well, here are your antibiotics, and here’s a leaflet that might help prevent another infection. Will you be able to read it?”
Levi plucked it from Meg’s fingers. “Course I will. I’m not thick, y’know.” She slid from the bed and untangled her tail from the railing. “Ta, Doc.”
Meg jotted a note on Levi’s chart, watching her wander into the X-ray department and then out again in search of the Majors exit.
“We should put trimethoprim in the bloody water supply,” she said to Liz, as the tail vanished around a corner. “That’s my fourth UTI of the day.”
Liz rubbed her eyes as if she couldn’t quite believe what she’d just seen. “I bet that one was your favourite, though.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Hers didn’t come with a fake coma like Mrs. Begum’s.”
“Let’s call it a tie.” Liz proffered two charts. “Pick one. Belly ache with—you’ve guessed it—dysuria in Three, or drunk and doubly incontinent in Six.”
“Please kill me…”
Meg was reaching for Six when she heard Asif call her name. She waved him over. “Saved by my favourite F2! Everything okay?” she asked.
Asif was a Foundation Year Two doctor who would be fully qualified in a matter of months, and he had flourished in A&E once he’d realised that 99.5% of his patients weren’t suddenly going to drop dead on him. His expression was unusually troubled, however, and he ushered Meg farther away from the cubicle he’d just left.
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but I don’t really know what to do.”
She read the cover of his patient’s notes. “Anca Miklos. What’s that? Czech? Polish?”
“Romanian. Her husband brought her in with scalds to both hands. He claims she dropped a pan of boiling water, but the history seems off, and she’s not saying much at all.”
“Does she speak English?”
“If she does, she’s choosing not to. The translation service is swamped, and her husband is pushing for her to be discharged.”
“Right.” Meg snapped the notes closed. She hated bullies, and a long, frustrating shift had her itching for a battle. “How big is this chap?”
“About six two and well built. Why?” Asif’s voice rose on the question.
She clapped him on the shoulder. “Go and grab Security in case he gets feisty, and I’ll see you in there.”
He went to find help, leaving Meg to enter the cubicle alone. The young woman on the bed tensed as Meg drew back the curtain, while the man at her side continued to eat a bag of crisps, stuffing them in by the fistful and crunching loudly.
“I’m Dr. Fielding.” She deliberately positioned herself between Anca and her husband. “I’d like to examine your hands, Anca, if that’s all right with you?”
She might as well have spoken to a statue. Unable to seek guidance or permission, Anca froze, her mouth falling open and her breath coming in rapid pants. She tried to see around Meg, and Meg sensed rather than heard the man get to his feet.
“We are ready to go,” he said, standing close enough to Meg to make her flinch. Taking that as capitulation, he uttered a stream of Romanian, punctuated by gestures that needed no explanation. Anca nodded quickly, struggling to untie her gown with her bandaged fingers.
“No.” Meg put a hand on her arm, stilling her efforts, and turned to her husband. “You can go, but Anca stays here. She needs to see a burns specialist. If you interfere with her treatment, I will contact the police. Do you understand me?”
The man’s nostrils flared, and he clenched his fists. Meg stayed exactly where she was. Fuck him. If he hit her, that would just make it easier for the police to remove him, and it wouldn’t be the first punch she’d ever taken. She managed not to react as his stance gradually relaxed, though the adrenaline coursing through her was making her legs shake.
Switching to a charm offensive, he smiled, oblivious to the blobs of crisp stuck between his teeth. “No police. Is not necessary. See?” He took Anca’s right hand, presenting it to Meg; if he heard the whimper his touch provoked, he chose to ignore it. “You look. I will go like you say.” Stroking Anca’s cheek with his free hand, he spoke to her in a gentle tone. When Anca responded by nodding, he kissed her in obvious approval and stepped away from the bedside.
“You take good care,” he told Meg. “One hour. Then I come back for her.”
Meg checked her watch. “Shut the curtain behind you.” She waited until his footsteps faded. Anca was staring at the gap he had left in the curtain as if expecting him to leap through and grab her by the throat.
“Hey,” Meg said quietly. “He’s not there. He’s not—” She touched Anca’s chin, encouraging her to make eye contact. “Do you speak any English?”
“No English,” Anca whispered. “No English.”
“That’s fine. We can get around that.” Meg took out her mobile and hit the app that had saved the department a small fortune in translator fees over the past few years. She selected Romanian from the drop-down box and typed her first question: May I examine your hands?
For a long moment she wondered whether Anca could even read, but then a tentative nod gave her the consent she sought. After donning a pair of gloves, she removed the burn dressings. It was immediately apparent why Asif had requested her opinion. Large blisters had formed across the dorsa of both hands, and each finger was red-raw where the skin had sloughed. The palms were just as badly damaged, with no sign of a splash pattern to support the history of a dropped pan. The injuries were more consistent with someone taking Anca’s wrists and forcing her hands into boiling water.
“Jesus.” Meg ripped off her gloves and flung them in the bin. She wanted to run after the husband and slam his smug face into something hard until it knocked a confession out. Instead she typed: Did someone do this to you? Did someone hurt you?
“No.” Anca’s denial was instantaneous. “No, no, no.”
“You’re safe here. Aw, hell…” Meg typed out the reassurance, adding: I promise he won’t hurt you again.
“No.” Anca closed her eyes, sending tears streaming down her cheeks. “No, no.”
Meg stuck her head out of the curtain. “Asif, get me an ETA on a translator, and I need Security to stop that bloke from coming back in here.”
“Okay, I’ll sort it,” Asif said.
“What pain relief has she had?”
“Brufen and co-codamol. He wouldn’t let me cannulate her.”
“Fucking arsehole. Shake down Liz for the drugs key and grab me ten of morphine, will you?” She collected an IV tray and returned to the cubicle, where she typed out another message for Anca: I’m going to put a little needle in your arm and give you a lot of good drugs through it. They’ll take the pain away. Is that okay?
Anca read the screen carefully. Then she looked at Meg and held out her arm.
In an attempt to reach the road before dusk, Sanne had pushed the pace hard, almost jogging along an easy paved stretch of the Pennine Way and then cursing as the slabs of stone abruptly switched to wet peat and rocky obstacles. Having found no litter and only two sets of fresh footprints, which probably belonged to the couple who’d discovered the body, she and Nelson hadn’t needed to stop for long.
On the ridge of the hill, the wind was whipping the vegetation into submission, the slender stems of cottongrass bowed horizontal by the onslaught. Sanne pulled on the woolly hat she knew made her look ridiculous, and watched the final arc of the sun sink below the horizon. She heard the rasp of Nelson’s breath as he caught up with her, and she let him tug her hat straight. The sun had snatched down the scant warmth of day, making him shiver and scan the barren moors as if for some kind of refuge.
“Our garden faces west,” he said at length, now staring ahead. “Did I tell you I’d put a little pond in at the bottom?”
“Yes,” Sanne said, unsure where he was going with this but wary of his tone. “You also confessed to pinching frogspawn from the park.”
“Ah, so I did. Well, Nemy is obsessed with sitting there to watch the sun go down. She says it sets the water on fire.”
“That’s very poetic for a ten-year-old.”
His smile was faint, almost an afterthought. “She reads a lot. She has more books than space on her shelves.”
“Good for her.” Sanne had been the same growing up, and her mum had always found the money for books, even if they were dog-eared second-hand ones from the charity shops. Being sent to her room had never worked as a punishment, as it was merely quiet time away from Keeley and Michael, where her dad couldn’t belt her and she could read to her heart’s content.
Nelson rubbed a hand across his face, and the troubled gesture jerked her back to the present.
“What the hell was she doing out here, San?” he said. “Hardly any clothes on, and no shoes. She was such a tiny mite, barely bigger than Nemy. How bad must things have been for her that running alone into this was the better option?”
“I don’t know. Pretty damn awful, at a guess.” Sanne could have kicked herself for not being more mindful of his reaction. Since setting off, she had devoted all her attention to their destination, leaving him to follow in her footsteps. Without needing to concentrate on the route, he had evidently been dwelling on the case. She touched his arm and felt the tension stiffening his body. Neither of them was stupid or naive enough to have overlooked the potential significance of the victim’s missing clothing.
“Are you going to be all right to work this one?” she asked.
“I’ll be fine.”
He caught her eye as he answered, and her nod effectively drew a line under the conversation. Returning to practicalities, she indicated a dull grey strip on the opposite hillside, so obviously engineered that it stood prominent even in the failing light. “See that? That’s Old Road.”
Using the head torches to illuminate the steep descent, they picked their way down the hill and crossed Smithy River at the only bridge. Nelson eyed the remaining steep embankment in the manner of a knackered hero compelled to go mano a mano with the villain of the piece.
“Who put that there?” he asked in a passable imitation of a teenager’s whine.
“Wicked, isn’t it?” Sanne tried not to sound too cheerful. Her knees and hips far preferred going up to along or down. “Five minutes, mate, and it’ll be all over. I promise.”
It was rush hour, according to her watch, but no traffic had passed while they’d had the road in sight, and on reaching it, she felt safe enough to stand in its centre and gather her bearings. Facing back toward the river, she pointed west.
“The road starts just after Hawdale village, four or five miles from the end of the motorway. There’s a couple of farms thattaway, and a sailing club at Smithy Reservoir. I think there might be another farm somewhere farther east, but nothing else until the road reconnects to the Snake.”
“No crash barriers or fencing on this stretch,” Nelson said. “I wonder how far it’s open for.”
“I’m not sure. The council have really let the maintenance slide. Given our vic’s location, I think it’d be sensible to focus on this immediate area, for now at least.” Sanne corrected the angle of her torch and stopped on the verge of teetering into a pothole. “It’d be easier if we could say she definitely used the bridge, but the river’s shallow enough to ford in several places, and her chances of finding the Pennine Way were slim to none if she was running around in the dark.”
Nelson paced a few steps, his light picking out a crumbling stone wall and forcing a bleat from a startled sheep. “How about we split and try walking twenty minutes in opposite directions?” he suggested. “Factoring in time for a cursory search, we should be able to cover a good half-mile.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Sanne glanced at her mobile. “I’ve got bugger-all signal. Call me on the radio if you find anything.”
“Or if I trip over my own feet and wind up in a bog?” He didn’t sound at all fazed by the prospect. He put his torch beneath his chin and stuck his tongue out. “I’m going to scare the pants off the locals, aren’t I?”
“I hope not. Most of the farmers carry shotguns.”
“Bloody hell.” He instantly lowered his light. “Please come quick if you hear a bang.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just try not to creep up on any more sheep.”
He gave a cub’s honour salute. “East or west? Do you have a preference?”
“East? I think it climbs a bit in this direction, and I know your poor legs are tired.”
“Thank you kindly,” he said, not rising to the bait. “I make it ten past five. Shall we stop and turn back at half-past?”
“Yep.” Suddenly unsure whether Eleanor would approve of their going-solo strategy, Sanne decided to put some sort of safety measure in place. “Buzz me after ten?”
Her worries assuaged, she started out, the crunch of Nelson’s footsteps muted almost at once by the wind and by the road’s curve. Moving her head slowly from side to side, she used her torch to scan the road and its verges but saw little except rough vegetation, more potholes, and the occasional sheep. The clear sky threatened an early frost, but she didn’t feel cold, just an edgy excitement that combined nerves and anticipation into one jittery package. When her radio vibrated, it sent her pulse rocketing.
“Checking in as requested,” Nelson said. “Are you having more luck than I am?”
“Nope.” She kept walking, hoping to burn off the excess adrenaline by tackling the incline in front of her. “I’m probably having less.”
“Great. See you in a bit.”
She settled the radio on her belt and dug in for the climb, reaching the top without breaking a sweat. She stopped there to gauge the next stretch of road, which continued level for two hundred yards before hurtling around a hairpin bend. It was the sort of corner that killed bikers on the Snake: a fast approach into a sharp turn that was easy to misjudge. She’d had her fair share of near misses in the years she’d owned her cottage, most of them on her way home from fourteen-hour shifts.
The rumble of an approaching vehicle forced her off the road and into a thicket of grass and bracken. Keen to avoid being delayed by questions, she extinguished her torch and ducked low, scribbling down the number plate of the Range Rover as it passed. Its driver tore around the corner with a scant touch of the brakes, his confidence suggesting he was local to the area. By the time Sanne reached the bend, his rear lights were a pinprick in the distance, and they disappeared when he turned onto a side road without indicating. She recorded the road’s approximate location and tucked her notebook back into her pocket.
With five minutes still to go, she adopted a more cautious position, sticking close to the soft verge on the left so as not to get minced by another speeding four-by-four. A sturdy crash barrier protected the opposite side, to prevent drivers from careering toward the river should they skid. Her attention was so focused on the road that she didn’t see the carcass until she slipped in it.
Her left foot slid out at an angle, and she dropped to her other knee to avoid falling onto her arse. Congealed blood and loops of bowel were gathered around her boot. She stared at the gore, unable to fathom its origin for the time it took her brain to kick into gear.
“Fucking hell,” she whispered, quickly identifying fleece and hooves and a curved horn. “It’s just a fucking sheep.”
She pushed upright again and followed a faint smear that terminated six inches shy of the road’s dividing line. Two distinct skid marks started twenty yards before the smear, the sharp braking consistent with a driver whipping around the corner and only seeing the hazard once it was too late to swerve.
Having carefully tracked to the end of the blackened lines, Sanne listened for traffic and then crouched on the tarmac. Orange, white, and blackened glass glittered in her torchlight, while several other fragments of debris, including the remains of the sheep, appeared to have been swept or dragged onto the verge. A metal screw rolled out from beneath her finger when she lifted a large section of silver plastic. Both looked as if they’d come from the vehicle’s bumper, which would have been completely wrecked by such an impact, but she couldn’t find the rest of it.
“Why would you only take half of it with you?” she murmured, her curiosity piqued. She could understand the driver clearing the road for the sake of other motorists or just to unblock it for themselves, but making the effort to remove a random piece, irreparable and covered in sheep splatter, seemed less logical. She walked along the verge again, pushing the bracken aside with her boots to ensure she wasn’t mistaken. Then she keyed Nelson’s code into her radio.
“Hey,” she said to his weary greeting. “I might have something here.” As she spoke, an incongruous splash of colour caught her eye. She released the talk button and wrestled a glove onto one hand. The sheep’s entrails slithered apart when she delved into them, allowing her a tenuous hold on the yellow shard of plastic embedded in a soft sliver of organ. She swiped away a blood clot to reveal a “B” and a single straight line at the beginning of the number plate’s second letter. Excitement banished her uncertainty, and she buzzed Nelson again. “I think I know where and how our vic escaped,” she said.
In the time it took Nelson to reach Sanne’s location, she had formulated a convincing sequence of events and taken the plunge by requesting assistance from SOCO.
“Hmm.” Nelson had stooped to examine the glass, and he drew the sound out, piling on the agony as she waited for his verdict. He walked back toward her, giving the crash site a wide berth. “How long did SOCO say they’d be?”
She felt a smile twitch at the corner of her lips. While she didn’t need his validation, she always preferred to have it.
“At least an hour. They’re still in the process of removing the vic, but Ted’s getting someone to us ASAP.”
Nelson displayed a cube of glass on the palm of his gloved hand. “Tinted rear window?” He passed it to her, and she turned it in her fingers. Unlike the jagged, random chunks of headlight and indicator glass, it bore the familiar square shape of shattered safety glass, the type often found in the clothing and hair of people involved in side-impact collisions.
“For argument’s sake, let’s assume the driver’s a bloke,” she said. “He stops to clear up the mess, collecting anything that might ID his car. Meanwhile the vic snatches the opportunity to break a window and run.”
Nelson picked up the thread. “She heads downhill, toward the river. She might’ve seen the farms they’d passed, or perhaps it’s just instinct to run down and not up.”
Sanne spun around, picturing the child, unsteady and panicked, barefoot and already freezing as she tried to outrun her captor. “He must’ve heard the window smash and been right behind her.” She swallowed and cleared her throat. Imagining such terror had made her voice catch. “So she crossed the river and went back up onto the moors, where it’s easier to hide. If it was dark, that would’ve helped her to slip out of sight.”
“He’d already hurt her by then,” Nelson said quietly.
Sanne nodded. She couldn’t think of any other reason for the girl to be missing half her clothing. “Most likely. Enough that she was desperate to get away from him. Maybe he was taking her to Sheffield, or maybe he’d just planned to kill her and dump her body out here.”
Nelson kicked at the edge of the nearest pothole. “He left her out here anyway.”
“Yeah,” Sanne said, gazing across the vast black expanse of moorland. “But if he’d had his way, no one would ever have found her.”