The Burning by M.R. Hall – Extract

The Burning

ONE

The events of that evening so long ago had condensed over the years into a single scene that he played over and over in his mind. But the passage of time had not caused the images to fade or the exquisite sensations to dim. Not at all. They were as vivid as ever. Exquisite. The word came close to capturing what he had experienced that day, but not quite. There had been so many layers, so many aspects to his ecstasy. Heaven. That’s what it was. Such a simple word, but the only one that would do. The second he had breathed into the depths of his lungs as the life left her eyes had been pure heaven. His blood had turned to light; his body had felt as if it were hovering: quivering and gravity-defying in mid-air. And then he had done it again.

He could feel the stirrings already: the tension tightening the fibres of every muscle; the delicious anticipation like the first touch from his angel. His angel with the full red lips that tasted of honey and wine, his angel whose flesh was as soft as velvet and down. His precious angel: the beginning and now the end of all this.

Reaching the end of the roughly gravelled farm track, he struck out across a field frozen concrete-hard and carpeted with frost, the cold air sharpening his senses until they were as keen as a wild animal’s. The bony knuckles of a solitary, leafless oak clawed at the silver-bright sliver of moon and an infinity of stars sprayed over a tar-black sky. He looked up like a child in wonder. The universe was smiling on him.

At the hedgerow on the far side, he climbed over the stile and made his way along the rutted path that crossed the stretch of woodland sloping down towards the hamlet of Blackstone Ley. As the darkness of the trees closed in around him he caught occasional glimpses of the lights from the scattering of houses below. His fingers tightened around the smooth, polished butt of the shotgun. The only sounds were of his footsteps and the gentle sloshing of diesel coming from the rucksack strapped tightly across his back.

After a quarter of a mile the path dog-legged sharply through a dense stand of birch, widened slightly, then finally delivered him onto the narrow lane at the foot of the hill. He stood for a moment in the shadow of the hedgerow, safely outside the pool of hazy orange light cast by the single street lamp. He glanced left and right.

All was quiet and still. It was time.

TWO

The morphine was supposed  to make her sleep through the night, but for a little over a fortnight now, Clare Ashton had slept for only two hours before waking again at eleven. It was the same pattern each night. As the grandfather clock on the landing beat out its inexorable rhythm, she would lie cold and restless with the dull pain mounting in her chest and spine while her mind flooded with long-forgotten memories as vivid, sometimes more vivid, than the original events themselves. Tiny, irrelevant details – a stain on her sundress, a patch of unshaved stubble on her father’s cheek – would manifest with dazzling clarity. Smells, too: her mother’s scent, the smoke from the woodstove in the living room, the damp wool of her winter coat. The odd thing was, these recollections were only of childhood. Her body, and she was always conscious of her body, was flat-chested and slender-hipped. A boy’s body, her grandmother had once said in gently mocking tones that still rung hurtfully in her ears. A little girl with the body of a boy until she was nearly fourteen years old. The last among her friends to grow breasts. The last to bleed.

Yet in most other important respects she had been first. The first to marry. The first to give birth. The first – and only one among them – to lose a child. And soon, aged only thirty-five, she would be the first to die. Something had gone wrong somewhere along the line. Not something that had happened to her, but something in her make-up; in her wiring. For as far back as her memory stretched she had always felt more than a little off-kilter. As a girl she had found no words to express it. As an adult nearing the end of her life, Clare had found the perfect encapsulation: it was as if she had always been a reluctant visitor to this world. Part of her, she had come to realize, had never wanted to arrive here in the first place. If the prospect of death in two months’ time held any consolation, it was in the hope that she would finally get to meet that reluctant part of herself, and to understand who in fact she really was. And if there was nothing to come, if the lights simply were to extinguish, then none of it mattered anyway. Everything from beginning to end would have been meaningless. A monstrous joke.

It was nearly 11.30 when she heard Philip’s footsteps on the lane and the creak of the gate as he returned from one of his increasingly frequent late-night runs. The closer Clare came to the end, the more restless her husband seemed to become. More often than not he would sleep in the spare room. ‘I didn’t like to disturb you,’ he would explain softly, but it was he who was disturbed, not she. A man who ran marathons and began each day with 200 press-ups was never going to feel comfortable lying next to a dying woman. Who could blame him? Besides, he had students to teach in the morning. A classroom full of bright-eyed private-school teenagers brimming with hope for the future. He was too considerate not to meet them each day with energy and optimism.

Of the two of them, it was Philip who had always been the selfless one, the coper, the one who had kept up the daily routines in the bleak months after they lost Susie. Without Philip’s strength Clare was certain she wouldn’t have lasted one year, let alone ten. Sometimes she pictured him as a widower, alone in the house, quiet and stoical, his hair cut shorter as it slowly turned grey, his body even leaner and harder as he doused his inevitable guilt at surviving her with an ever more punishing exercise regime. There would be women, of course, but she couldn’t imagine him falling in love again. He had already done that twice in his life and each time it had brought him nothing but unhappiness. No, despite his best intentions the women he let into his bed would never possess him as she had done, and it would trouble him deeply that he couldn’t give the devotion they craved.

Perhaps when he was old, when she had become nothing more than a faded photograph, he might let down his defences again and lay himself open, but by then he would be a stranger about whom, imagining him now, she found it hard to care. That was another thing she had noticed about dying: it was making her selfish. As her life force diminished so did her capacity for empathy. With a little luck, by the time she reached the end, the process would be complete. It would be a small blessing, but a blessing nonetheless, to be allowed to die without pity for those left behind.

Clare closed her eyes and tried to banish a procession of uninvited mental images of her nursery school in the small village on the Welsh borders where she had grown up. She had loathed the place and all but erased it from her mind, yet here was the outdoor sandpit with its weathered boards and plastic buckets and spades; now the grey lumps of Plasticine stored in a biscuit tin and the red-and-white chequered apron with her name embroidered across the chest; now the tightly crammed coat pegs, the beanbags in the reading corner. And here came Miss Allsop, or at least her fat calves and ankles stuffed into heavy brown shoes. Her smell: sour milk and face cream. ‘Which book shall we read today?’

Miss Allsop’s voice cut through her tiny child’s body, demanding and judgemental.

Clare slipped in and out of a shallow doze with the childhood memories still unbanished, trapped inside the emotions of a fearful four-year-old. Monsters and other unknowable horrors lurked around each corner. Miss Allsop led her along the corridor and into her office. She produced scissors from her cardigan pocket. ‘Now give me your fingers, Clare.’ She jolted awake. Her heart was racing. Her pyjama top was glued to her body with sweat. The dark was frightening her. ‘Philip? Philip?’ she called out faintly, hoping that if he had left his door ajar he might hear her. There was no reply.

She called louder and was met with the implacable silence of a still and empty house.

A sensation of rising panic began to overwhelm her, but the stubborn quietness of the night was interrupted by the distant sound of a siren; no, several sirens. They were drawing closer, heading into the village from the Thornbury Road. She reached for the lamp at her bedside, and fighting the pain, forced herself to her feet and limped stiffly to the window. She drew back the curtain and lifted the blackout blind to see a column of flames on the far side of the three acres of common around which the dozen or so houses of Blackstone Ley were randomly arranged. The lights from numerous flashlights were converging from several directions. She dimly made out excited voices and wondered if the villagers were having a bonfire, but for what? New Year? Wasn’t it three days too early for that?

There was a sudden and violent explosion. A spectacular fireball erupted just to the left of the burning house. The rolling flames surged upwards and lit up the entire common, exposing a small crowd of horrified onlookers whose hands flew simultaneously to the exposed skin of their faces. Seconds later, Clare felt an intense wave of radiant heat travel through the cold glass and in the same moment realized that it was Kelly and Ed’s house that was alight, and that the explosion must have been the large tank of propane gas that stood alongside it in the garden. She thought of Kelly and the three children and wondered if they had escaped the inferno. Then of Philip. Had she seen him among those on the common? She hoped he hadn’t tried anything heroic. It would be just like him. Please, no. Not now. Not like this. She pressed her face to the pane, praying for a glimpse of him. She waited and waited, growing more and more desperate, until at last she saw him captured in the headlights of a fire engine. Thank God. He was standing absolutely still: tall, lean, strong, staring into the flames. Even as the fire crew busied themselves all around him, he remained unmoving. Clare could read his thoughts as if they were her own: he was seeing their own lost child among the flames. Their Susie. And after ten long years, he was wondering if this place might at last be about to give up its secrets.

THREE

A shroud of dense fog had settled over the Wye Valley on Christmas Eve and for several days now, Jenny Cooper had been able to see no further than the far side of the lane. Even the usually raucous crows that nested in the crown of the vast oak in the next-door meadow had sunk into subdued silence. The only sound in this isolated corner a mile up the hill from the village of Tintern was that of her axe as she worked her way through the pile of logs, mechanically splitting one round of wood after another. Each strike issued a report that rang out like a warning shot into the gloom. It was a sound of defiance that mirrored her mood.

Jenny’s fingers ached with cold inside the tough leather work gloves that were made for a man. There had been none in the hardware store cut for a woman. No one imagined feminine hands wielding heavy tools or hauling firewood in a hoar frost. She prised another frozen log off the shrinking pile that had been dumped in a heap at the side of the cottage, struck it with her heavy, wedge-shaped maul, and tossed the two halves into the high-sided barrow. It was one of several jobs Michael had promised to do. He was going to have it all split and stacked in the dry before Christmas. But as with most of his promises, he had failed to make good on it.

Jenny hadn’t seen him in nearly two weeks – he claimed his boss had demanded that he work over the holidays. In fact, she had seen him only a handful of times since October, when the small airline for which he worked as a pilot had beaten off the competition to secure a lucrative freight contract. Now, when Michael wasn’t ferrying wealthy clients around the country, he was transporting consignments of pharmaceuticals from Geneva and Zurich to the secure depot at Bristol International Airport. Weight for weight, his cargo was more valuable than gold, he had told her. With £50 million worth of product on board a small aircraft, the clients insisted on the most highly qualified pilots. Having flown RAF Tornadoes from the age of nineteen until he was forty, Michael was considered the safest pair of hands in the company.

What neither Michael’s bosses nor their Swiss clients knew, however, was that he had started seeing a therapist to deal with the combat stress that still plagued him with regular nightmares. It had been Jenny’s suggestion, and to her great surprise he had agreed without objection. He hadn’t talked much to her about his sessions, but since the process had got underway Jenny had noticed that, even more than usual, he tended to avoid situations that left him alone with his thoughts. She could only assume that was why he had agreed to work between Christmas and New Year despite knowing it would mean her spending the holiday alone: the quiet days when the world stood still left the troubled mind nowhere to escape from itself.

She reached for another log, set it on the chopping block and channelled her frustration into a powerful swing of the axe. It was just her luck that as soon as she had begun to feel at peace with herself Michael had started to turn inwards and become difficult. Still, if after all they had weathered he could continue to provoke such powerful and tangled feelings in her, she supposed that must mean that somewhere in amongst them there was something approximating love.

The blood ran hotter through her veins and at last reached her frozen fingertips as she hacked through a stubborn, knotted log that resisted repeated blows. Days and weeks of dammed-up anger exploded from her muscles. Michael was hard enough to forgive, but her son, Ross, had taken off to Morocco for the entire university vacation without even calling by to wish her a happy Christmas. Things had been complicated between them since the previous summer, when he had nearly lost his life. He had dropped several hints that he was planning to ‘talk’ with her at the end of his university term. Jenny had allowed herself to believe this might be it, the reconciliation she had been longing for, but Ross had found another girlfriend (she had lost count of how many there had been in recent months) and his phone calls had dried up.

She was surrounded by men who couldn’t cope with their feelings. She always had been. It felt like her cruel destiny.

The work was cathartic. She filled the barrow to the top and hauled it down to the old stone shed at the end of the garden by the stream that had once housed the mill workings that gave her isolated property its name: Melin Bach, Welsh for ‘Little Mill’. She set two wide planks on bricks to keep the damp from seeping through the dirt floor, arranged the logs on top then returned for a second load. Crunching over the hard ground, her breath billowing in icy clouds, she felt a small surge of elation at being tough enough to look after herself. Who needed a man if you could chop your own wood?

An hour slipped past in a steady rhythm of splitting, loading and stacking. The comfortable exertion calmed her racing mind until at last her thoughts were entirely absorbed by the task at hand. She was more than halfway through the pile and determined to use the remaining daylight to work her way to the bottom when she heard the sound of a car crawling up the hill from Tintern. The cautiousness of its progress told her that it didn’t belong to a local. The two other properties accessed by the loop of lane on which Melin Bach stood were owned by farming families whose social circle was tightly drawn. Over many centuries they had become as deeply woven into the fabric of the valley as its Saxon hedgerows and medieval stone walls. When strangers came, it was not for them.

Jenny buried her axe in the block and wiped the sweat from her forehead as the car drew up outside the front gate. She walked around to the front of the house as the driver stepped out of a black Toyota. He was a young man, thirty-five or thereabouts, and tall, with short, slightly tousled blond hair. He wore a dark wool coat over a business suit and sober tie.

He came to the far side of the gate. ‘Mrs Cooper?’

‘Yes.’ She approached cautiously, noticing his wide green eyes that tracked her unblinkingly as she made her way towards him along the flagstone path.

‘Detective Inspector Gabriel Ryan. Gloucestershire CID. You’re the coroner, right?’

‘I am,’ she said, relieved that it was a professional visit and nothing to do with Michael. Having a pilot for a boyfriend had left her fearful of unannounced visits – she was always at least partly prepared for a representative of the company arriving to inform her that there had been a regrettable accident.

‘Sorry to trouble you at Christmas,’ Ryan said. ‘Christmas was three days ago.’

‘If you say so.’ He shrugged his narrow shoulders and gave a hint of a smile. Up close he looked tired, with dark shadows beneath his eyes. A day’s stubble darkened his sharply defined jaw.

Jenny unfastened the iron gate and let him through. ‘I tried to call, but could only get your voicemail.’ ‘No signal. You didn’t think to try the landline?’

‘Sorry.’ He glanced over at the wheelbarrow and the axe sunk into the chopping block alongside it. Jenny watched him adjusting the mental picture he would have formed of a woman with the title ‘Her Majesty’s Coroner for the Severn Vale District’.

‘I’m guessing you’ve not come all this way to tell me good news,’ Jenny said.

‘Afraid not,’ Ryan answered.

Jenny nodded. She wanted a moment to ready herself, to erect her defences before talking shop again.

‘You look like you might have been up all night,’ Jenny said. ‘Can I get you some coffee?’

‘Please,’ Ryan said. ‘I could do with it.’

She started around the side of the cottage to the back door, stepping past the remains of the wood pile. Ryan followed, tip-toeing over the partially frozen mud in his city shoes.

‘You live all the way out here alone?’ he inquired. ‘Some of the time,’ Jenny said, and left it at that.

Ryan sat at the small pine table in the warm, cramped kitchen while Jenny made coffee on the oil-fired range that dated back to the 1950s. From the corner of her eye she watched him glance at the old Welsh dresser and worn quarry tiles with what seemed to be mild amusement. She guessed he had never been a country-dweller.

‘I had what the magazines call a “dream kitchen” once,’ Jenny said. ‘I’ve never felt more uncomfortable in a room.’

‘I like it. It’s cosy.’

‘I’ll believe you.’

She brought the steel pot to the pine table along with two cups and a jug of milk. ‘OK. Tell me the worst.’

‘You must have heard the news this morning?’ ‘Only snatches. I try to avoid it if I can.’

‘There was a house fire. A place called Blackstone Ley – it’s over the river, near Thornbury.’

Jenny did remember a fragment of news bulletin reporting a fire, but at the mention of children she had mentally stopped her ears, as if anticipating that before too long it would become her problem. She sensed that her holiday was about to come to a premature end.

‘Stepdad and two kids were killed,’ Ryan continued. ‘One girl of fourteen and the other eleven. He also had a child of three – a boy – whom we think he murdered and disposed of elsewhere before setting light to the house. Only the mother survived. She works behind a bar in Bristol. Came home to a smoking ruin.’ He hesitated. ‘I’ve just spent the morning with her.’

Whom. Jenny adjusted her assessment of Ryan. His precise grammar suggested he was a graduate. For reasons she couldn’t justify, she trusted graduate detectives less than their unschooled colleagues. Perhaps because they were cleverer at disguising their motives.

‘You say the father started the fire?’

‘Looks that way.’ He reached into his pocket and brought out his phone. ‘You have got Wi-Fi, right?’

Jenny gave a tolerant nod. ‘Password?’

‘What would I need one of those for?’

He tapped the screen and handed her the phone. ‘The father’s name was Edward Morgan. He was known as Ed. You’re looking at his Facebook page. The last entry was made at 11.30 last night.’

Jenny looked at a photograph of a smiling Ed carrying his three-year-old son on his shoulders through a snow-covered field. He was a big man in his thirties, bearded with broad shoulders and thick brown hair that covered his ears. The date was 21 December – a week ago to the day. The comment said ‘Me and Robbie off to make a snowman up Tump field!’ Above it was another comment, text only, dated 27 December, posted at 11.28 p.m.

For Kelly.

Robbie is gone but you will never find him. We are all at peace now, but you will be in living hell, which is all a whore like you deserves.

Jenny handed the phone back across the table to Ryan while at the same time fending off mental images of girls trapped inside a burning house. Hardened as she had become to violent tragedy during her six years as a coroner, there were still cases that hit her like a fist in the heart. This was already one of them.

‘Kelly is who – his wife?’

‘Long-term partner. They weren’t married but had been together nearly ten years.’

‘What’s the family’s history?’

‘I can give you the few bits and pieces I picked up this morning. She moved up from London in her early twenties with a three-year-old and a baby. Met Ed a couple of years later, settled down, then eventually had the boy by him. She’s as confused as everyone else is shocked.’

‘He called her a whore—’

‘She’s a pretty woman, but she insists she’s always been faithful. Often as not, in my experience, it’s all in the guy’s head. Some just have the jealous gene, imagine things that aren’t there.’

‘Have you got a photo?’

‘Of Kelly? Sure.’

Another couple of taps on the phone brought up Kelly Hart’s profile page. The picture she had chosen of herself showed her dressed in denim shorts and a bikini top standing barefoot on the beach. She was petite, dark-haired, full-lipped and olive skinned. Beautiful, but not in a provocative way. Her expression was almost demure, as if she’d been a reluctant subject for the camera.

Jenny found herself impatient for more of Kelly’s story. ‘You said she’s from London? How did she end up in this part of the world?’

‘From what I can make out the girls’ father – his name’s Molyneux – worked as some sort of security guard or bouncer type in a West End casino. But according to Kelly he made most of his money dealing coke to the punters. He got four years just before their youngest was born. Kelly wanted a clean break. She stayed with friends near Bristol, found a bar job, then got offered a council house in Blackstone Ley. It’s a bit out of the way, but I guess she thought it would be good for the kids.’

Jenny looked again at Kelly’s picture. She seemed too exotic to have chosen to live in a small hamlet in South Gloucestershire.

‘I know it’s unusual,’ Ryan said, ‘but I get the feeling that there was a year or two after Molyneux was put away when she blew with the wind. Could have ended up anywhere. Just so happened she fetched up on our patch.’

‘What about him – Ed?’

‘Local boy. Worked part-time for the Forestry and put in a few shifts each week up at Fairmeadows Farm near Sharpness.’

‘Why do I know that name?’ Jenny asked. ‘Fairmeadows? You’ll have seen the lorries – all the happy-looking animals painted on the sides. It’s not exactly a farm, though – more of an abattoir and rendering plant.’

‘Ah,’ Jenny said. The smiling father in the photograph transformed into a man with a butcher’s knife and blood up to his elbows. ‘Ed worked as a slaughterman, then slaughtered his family.’

‘That seems to be about the length of it.’ Ryan finished his coffee, then looked at her with what appeared to be sympathy. ‘It’s a shitty case and my super wants it off our hands sooner than I’d consider decent. He aims to dump the file on you tomorrow.’

‘So you’ve come to give me a friendly warning?’ Jenny said doubtfully.

‘No. I thought you might want to look at the house before we bulldoze it. If we leave now, we might manage half an hour before dark.’

‘Is there anything to see?’

‘Not much, but at least we’ll have given you fair opportunity.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s all my super wanted. Between you and me, I’m not his greatest admirer.’ He stood up from the table with an air of finality. ‘Thanks for the coffee.’ He turned to the door.

‘Hold on,’ Jenny said. ‘You’re right. I ought to have a look at the place.’

Ryan nodded his approval. ‘I’ll wait in the car.’

FOUR

Jenny drove close behind Ryan through the thickening fog, their two cars the only vehicles on the road winding through the wooded trough of the Wye Gorge. It occurred to her that she was repeating a pattern: during each of the six Christmas holidays in her time as coroner, she had dealt with either a suicide or a homicide. The cracks in fragile minds tended to work open when the hours of darkness far outnumbered those of light.

She had expected the fog to disperse a little as they emerged from the forest and arrived on more open ground alongside the Severn Estuary at Chepstow, but as they crawled the final mile towards the old Severn Bridge it seemed to grow thicker still. Not a breath of wind blew in from the Bristol Channel. Jenny’s senses searched for anchors, a familiar landmark with which to orientate herself in the claustrophobic gloom, but with every passing yard her field of vision grew smaller, until all she could see ahead of her were the two red dabs of Ryan’s tail lights appearing and then disappearing again into the grey murk.

Minutes seemed to pass before they arrived at the roundabout just shy of the bridge. Her relief at reaching the mid-point of the journey was short-lived – a dull orange glow sharpened into illuminated letters on an electronic sign as they approached their intended exit: BRIDGE CLOSED.

Now they would have to follow a diversion to the new Severn Crossing along a ten-mile stretch of empty motorway that passed over the Magor flats. Staying as close to Ryan’s rear bumper as she dared, Jenny fought against a rising sensation of anxiety that was tightening the muscles beneath her ribcage. ‘Toughen up, Jenny,’ she said out loud to herself. She was supposed to have left behind the symptoms that had dogged her for so many years. No panic attacks for a year or more. No medication; only a little wine to lighten her mood at the end of a long day. She told herself she should have stayed at home. Most coroners would not have dreamt of visiting a scene of death – the legal requirement to view a body in situ had been abolished more than thirty years ago – but despite having every excuse not to, Jenny had never quite managed to quell a compulsion to take the feel of a scene of death herself.

A sharp and unexpected noise startled her. It was only the phone ringing through the loudspeakers, but her heart beat harder as she fumbled for the answer button located in the centre of the steering wheel.

‘Hello?’

‘Is that you, Mrs Cooper?’ It took Jenny a moment to register that the voice belonged to Alison. Her officer had been signed off sick since her accident the previous summer. They hadn’t spoken since early December, after Alison’s last visit to the consultant neurologist who had brought her back from the dead. She sounded excited, as if she had important news.

‘Alison. How are you?’ Jenny said, covering her surprise. ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’

‘No. It was a complete pain. Couldn’t wait for it to be over.’ Alison had woken from a month-long coma the previous summer minus many of her former inhibitions. ‘I could have murdered my daughter and her partner by Boxing Day. You think old married couples snipe at each other – try sharing your flat with a couple of lesbians.’ Her frontal lobe  – the part of the brain that controlled appropriate social responses – had had a shard of bone driven through it. On the plus side, Alison seemed untroubled by the fact that a portion of her skull had been replaced by a metal plate. Nor did she seem to regret that she had nearly killed herself by deliberately driving into the path of a car that had been aiming itself at Jenny. In fact, as far as Jenny had been able to tell, the whole horrific incident remained a gaping blank in her memory.

‘Sorry about the call from DI Ryan,’ Jenny said. ‘He was given your number by his super. He can’t have known you were off work.’

‘Oh, he knows all right. Sam Abbott and I are old mates – we were at training college together. I expect he thought I’d be interested. I was also a DS on the original Blackstone Ley case back when he was just a humble inspector.’

Jenny was confused. ‘Which case was this?’

‘You remember – the four-year-old girl who disappeared. Susie Ashton. About ten years ago.’

Ashton. Jenny repeated the name to herself. Blackstone Ley. The village had sounded vaguely familiar when Ryan first mentioned it, but she hadn’t known why. But now she put it together with the name Susie Ashton a host of images flooded into her mind: a small, fair-haired girl with pigtails and big, trusting eyes. Dignified, well-spoken parents hounded on their doorstep by slavering journalists. Daily speculation that had grown more and more prurient and grotesque. Jenny had been working for the local authority as a child-protection lawyer at the time and the case had hit a nerve. As she recalled, the mother had left the child playing in the front garden by herself for only a few minutes, during which time she had vanished forever. She remembered the outrage and indignation that had focused on the quiet, unremarkable woman. After the initial round of sympathy, the newspapers had turned, hinting through increasingly vicious innuendo that she was involved in the murder of her innocent child.

‘I do remember her. Yes. I just hadn’t put it all together,’ Jenny said.

‘We never found the bastard,’ Alison said, ‘but I bet we have now. That’s why he’s done it – guilt. I met Ed Morgan, interviewed him three times. Always played the clueless country boy. He was out in the forest at the time, he said – by himself, of course. No alibi. I hate to think what he did to those girls before he set fire to the place.’ She paused, then abruptly changed tack – another symptom of the head injury. ‘I’ve got a driving test tomorrow morning. With any luck, I’ll have my licence back by lunchtime.’

‘Right. Good luck with that,’ Jenny said distractedly, scarcely noticing Ryan’s lights fading altogether from her view. Her thoughts were suddenly focused on the realization that she was dealing with far more than a suicidal man who had taken his family with him. The Gloucestershire police had been castigated for their failure to solve the Susie Ashton case; Blackstone Ley held bad memories and the potential for many ugly column inches. It wouldn’t have been Superintendent Abbott’s decision alone to close the criminal investigation and pass the file as quickly as he could to the coroner: she had no doubt that it could only have been done with the chief constable’s approval.

‘You know what that means, don’t you?’ Alison said. Jenny didn’t answer.

‘Are you still there, Mrs Cooper?’

‘Yes?’

‘I can come back to work.’ Jenny only half registered her words. ‘I can’t wait. You know your life’s come to a dead end when you end up playing internet bloody bingo all day.’ ‘Oh. Right . . .’ Jenny floundered, finally realizing what Alison had said. ‘We should talk about this. You might need to have an assessment.’

‘Sod that, Mrs Cooper. There’s nothing wrong with me. You’re my employer – it’s up to you whether you think I’m fit for purpose. If I’m no use, you can kick me out again.’

Jenny struggled for an answer. ‘What are we – Wednesday? Why don’t you come in Friday morning? We’ll talk then.’

‘I’ll be there at nine. You know the locals were all lying for each other?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Jenny had lost her thread, still absorbed with thoughts of the chief constable.

‘At Blackstone Ley. Keep up. Someone there knew about Ed Morgan, I’d bet my life on it.’ Alison rang off abruptly without a goodbye.

Ryan’s lights had vanished. Jenny found herself alone, floating in white space with no idea what lay ahead.

*****

The fog hung heavily all the way along to Magor and over the river, then, for no discernible reason, began to disperse as Jenny made her way north-east along the southern shore of the estuary, allowing her glimpses of the fields beyond the hedgerows that lined the network of lanes linking the farms and villages of South Gloucestershire. She drove through the deserted market town of Thornbury and headed a further five miles through frozen countryside. She was only thirty minutes from the centre of Bristol, but this was a landscape, sparsely dotted with stone cottages and Georgian farmhouses, that hadn’t altered in decades. A piece of old England suspended in time.

A left turn off the main road took her a little over a mile over a hill and down a steep lane into the tiny village – if it could be called that – of Blackstone Ley. A dozen or so houses were positioned haphazardly around the outside of several acres of rough common set at the foot of a densely wooded hillside. Some were quaint cottages, others were twentieth-century additions. A squat medieval church with a square Norman tower stood at the far end. Denuded of the families of agricultural labourers who at one time would have worked the surrounding land, the community was now too small to sustain a pub or a shop. Continuing around the edge of the common, Jenny spotted a cluster of cars and vans next to the burned-out shell of a two-storey house. Alongside them stood a large bright-yellow caterpillar-tracked vehicle with a three-pronged metal claw at the end of a long hydraulic arm. As she drew closer, she saw Ryan emerge from a group of detectives and forensics officers dressed in their distinctive blue paper overalls. He waved her over, directing her to park her Land Rover on the verge behind his Toyota.

Ryan came up to meet her as she stepped out from the comfort of her car into the piercing cold. ‘Got here just in time. Held them off for you. They’re just about to lift the human remains if you’re interested.’

‘Thanks. That’ll be a treat.’

Ryan glanced over his shoulder. ‘Hold on a moment.’ Jenny followed his gaze and saw two female police officers, one in uniform, the other in plain clothes, with a slightly built woman huddled in a bright-pink hooded anorak. They were leading her away from the house towards a squad car.

‘Is that the mother?’

Ryan nodded. ‘They wanted her to confirm a few things about the layout. She volunteered.’

Kelly Hart’s face was hidden beneath her hood. Her hands were clasped tight under her folded arms. She wore jeans that hugged slender legs and pink trainers that matched her coat. The women police officers shepherded her into the back seat of the car and drove her away. As they passed, Jenny briefly caught sight of Kelly’s face as she pulled down her hood and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She was unusually pretty, even in the depths of grief.

Ryan led the way through the parked vehicles and past police officers who were sharing a joke with three men Jenny recognized as local undertakers.

‘Where’s the mother staying?’ Jenny asked.

‘They’ve got her a flat in Bristol,’ Ryan said. ‘We’re trying to keep the press off her back for now. You know what those vultures are like.’

They arrived at the front of the house. There was an open gateway in a low brick wall and a short, concrete slab path leading to the ruin. Only the rear and right-hand walls still stood; both were stained black with soot. Three white plastic sheets weighted down with orange cones were arranged in a row on the churned-up patch of lawn at the left side of the house. Nearby was a pile of scorched metal wreckage.

‘Sure you want to see them?’ Ryan asked.

‘Maybe I’ll wait,’ Jenny said, the acrid smell of charred timber catching in the back of her throat.

She peered at the heap of bricks and tiles, then picked her way across the muddy garden, passing the plastic sheets covering what she guessed were nothing more than blackened skeletons.

‘Big place for a council house,’ Jenny remarked.

‘Not bad at all,’ Ryan said. ‘But you’d have to stick living next to those woods. I wouldn’t sleep at night.’

Jenny pointed to the heap of metal. ‘What was that – a gas tank?’

‘For the central heating. Set too close to the property. Went off like a bomb, witnesses said.’

Jenny’s eyes travelled over the unkempt garden. A child’s ride-on tractor lay on its side next to a rusting swing. A deflated football was decaying in a clump of weeds. Glancing back at the side wall of the house she noticed several large, rectangular, light-coloured patches on the brickwork. She stepped closer, realizing that the discolouration had been caused by chemicals used to scrub off graffiti.

‘Have you seen this?’

Ryan wandered over and joined her. ‘What do you know about it?’

Ryan shrugged. ‘First time I’ve seen it.’

The outlines of the crudely daubed letters remained ghosted in the pits of the bricks: FUCK OFF NIGGERS.

‘Why that, I wonder?’ Jenny said.

‘Kelly’s ex-husband was a black guy. The daughters took after him in looks. People round here don’t get about much.’ ‘The family must have reported it. There has to be a record somewhere.’

‘I’ll look into it,’ Ryan said, glancing back over his shoulder at his restless colleagues, now anxious to get the job done and go home to their families.

‘I need someone to take a picture. This is evidence.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Ryan said, as if hoping she might change her mind.

‘You’re not knocking anything down till it’s done.’

He looked at her as if he were about to give her some words of advice, then seemed to change his mind. He headed back to the gate, calling out to ask if the photographer was still there.

Jenny already knew his problem. Somewhere there’d be an entry on a file that said Kelly and her family had been racially harassed, and the chances were the police would have done nothing meaningful about it. It was the sort of nugget that would make for news copy of just the kind they were hoping to avoid, which made it even more important that she herself didn’t overlook it.

She walked around to the rear of the house and found a long stretch of lawn, a little wider than the house, that backed onto woodland covering the hillside rising up behind this side of the common. Jenny registered for the first time that the three sides of the property that didn’t face onto the road were bordered by a head-high post-and-wire fence with a single strand of barbed wire running along the top. She recognized it as the type of fence that the Forestry Commission erected to keep deer from newly planted saplings, except that to her knowledge Forestry fences didn’t tend to incorporate barbed wire.

Jenny turned at the sound of voices and saw Ryan giving instructions to a police photographer, telling him to make sure he got clear shots of the faded graffiti.

Leaving him to it, Ryan came and joined her.

‘Certain you don’t want to look at the bodies? Last chance. They’re about to go in the van.’

‘I’ll leave it till the morgue,’ Jenny said, preferring to avoid any disturbing sights that could wait until another day.

Ryan called over to his colleagues out in the lane. The undertakers pulled on facemasks and, carrying a pair of hand-held stretchers, went with two forensics officers to gather up the remains.

‘What do you make of this fence?’ Jenny said, turning her back on the scene. ‘And if he’s gone to all that trouble, why does it only run around three sides?’

‘I think it went along the front, too,’ Ryan said. ‘The fire crew must have ripped it down.’

‘Looks like Ed Morgan might have put it up himself – got the tall posts from Forestry supplies. You said he worked for them.’

‘That’s right,’ Ryan said vaguely. He glanced at his watch. ‘Seen enough yet? There are a lot of impatient people out there.’

‘Do you think it’s anything to do with that graffiti? Could Ed have been trying to keep someone out?’

‘More likely trying to keep his daughters in,’ Ryan said. ‘We are talking about a family annihilator. Controlling types, aren’t they?’

‘Do you know if he had a lot of locks on the doors? Was the place hard to get out of?’

Ryan gave a tired smile. ‘You’re wondering could they have been trapped inside? Maybe Ed didn’t do it after all?’

‘Why is that funny?’

‘Aside from his goodbye note and the fact that his three-year-old son is still unaccounted for, nothing at all.’

Jenny felt herself blush. Ryan had made her feel foolish.

He continued: ‘Our forensics people are saying both girls had been shot through the chest with a twelve-bore shotgun. The back of Ed’s skull was blown off and the gun – the metal part of it, at least – was found next to what was left of him. I can tell you now – he’s been licensed to own a shotgun and hunting rifle all his adult life. I doubt there was a day went by that Ed Morgan didn’t kill something, but this time –’ Ryan glanced over at the undertakers loading the stretchers into their black van marked ‘Private Ambulance’ – ‘this time he took it to the next level.’

Jenny felt a rush of icy wind against her face. The first hint of breeze in days. ‘Were there any witnesses?’

‘Plenty to the fire. A few others. You’ll get their statements tomorrow.’

‘Susie Ashton was taken from her garden, wasn’t she?’ Ryan met Jenny’s gaze. ‘I wouldn’t know. Before my time.

Aren’t you getting cold? I am.’ He started back towards the front of the house. ‘I’ll see if the photographer can’t email you those pictures before he goes.’

The dull afternoon light was fading to grey. The breeze, now picking up to a light wind, carried a whiff of coal smoke from a neighbour’s chimney. Somewhere up in the woods Jenny heard a dog barking and men’s voices – officers combing the countryside for Robbie Morgan’s tiny body. There was something about the scene – a feel, nothing she could put into words – that told her she should try to remember it. She reached out her phone, called up the video camera and swept it slowly across the garden and hillside behind, keeping it rolling as she followed Ryan back to the road.


Excerpted from The Burning by M.R. Hall. Copyright © 2014 by M.R. Hall.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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