Cover The Bones
South-east of Didcot
Derek Andrews scratched at his greying beard and squinted against the bright afternoon sunshine.
The wide field had been planted with barley until recently, stubble remaining in the tractor wheel ruts under his boots and grain scattered where it had escaped capture.
A cloudless blue sky cradling a late-summer sun warmed his back while he peered up at the fifty-metre-high steel electricity pylon beside him. The static charge from the structure was tangible, tickling the fine hairs on his bare arms.
Keeping a wary eye on the archaeological magnetometer hanging from canvas straps over his shoulders, he reached around to tug at the collar of his polo shirt to stop it sticking to the back of his neck. Adjusting the bandanna that covered his head and provided some protection from the sun’s glare, he lowered his gaze to his notebook, checked the grid references on the screen in front of him, and grunted under his breath.
‘Fancy a quick drink after work, love?’
He glanced over his shoulder at the voice and smiled as Michelle wandered between the series of tiny yellow flags that poked out from the dirt, her skin bronzed after the previous week’s outdoor work.
‘Who else is going?’ he said, jutting out his hip to take the weight of the magnetometer while he waited for her.
‘Gerry said he might – he isn’t planning on heading back to Reading until tomorrow. Tim, too – and I think Helen might come along. She said she was going to phone her other half and see if he can sort out the kids’ dinner. I figured at least that way we could relax while we share the updates from the weekend.’ Michelle stopped next to him and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she peered at the field boundary. ‘You’d have thought they’d have done this when they finalised the planning application instead of leaving it until the last minute.’
Derek turned his attention to where she looked, running his gaze over the line of heavy plant machinery churning up the soil in the adjacent field. A wide ditch had been carved into the earth over there, the pale grey clay and chalk-heavy soil cast to one side in gigantic piles that baked in the August heat.
‘It was probably too wet in March to get conclusive results. That’s why they opted for a drone survey instead back then, I suppose.’ He swallowed, his tongue scoring the top of his mouth, and he nodded his thanks as Michelle handed him a bottle of water. ‘Anyway, it does us a favour, doesn’t it? Helps us top up the coffers before winter sets in.’
‘True. So, what about that pint?’
‘I think I could be persuaded,’ he said, grinning. He took a swig of the water, then swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘Where’re they planning on going?’
‘Probably the one in the village.’ Michelle shrugged. ‘It’s the nearest, so more convenient for everyone.’
‘Okay.’ Derek held out the water bottle. ‘Thanks.’
‘Put it in your satchel, just in case. I don’t mind driving home after the pub if you want more than one, either. I’ve got an article for the local newspaper to finish writing tonight if I’m going to meet their deadline.’
‘I’d best get a move on, then. How’s it going over there?’
He jerked his chin to where a group of four young archaeologists knelt beside one of the pylons behind his position, their voices just audible over the sweeping calls of larks that swooped and ducked over the field.
‘That anomaly on the readings Tim noticed turned out to be a handful of seventeenth-century nails.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘There were a couple of musket balls nearby, but that was all – nothing to worry about.’
‘I’m not worried,’ he grinned. ‘I’ll bet he’s disappointed though.’
Michelle rolled her eyes. ‘You should never have told him about the Saxon tribe that was based around here. He’s got his hopes up now.’
‘Don’t tell Bill that – he’ll never forgive us if we find something significant now. It’ll completely cock up his project schedule.’
‘True. How much longer are you going to be?’
‘Not long.’ He pointed towards the thick line of trees a few metres away. ‘The cables are going to go under the stream that forms the boundary beneath those, so I’ll map the area beside it before I call it a day. I can pick up the cable route from the other side in the morning.’
‘Okay. See you in a bit.’
She threw a wave over her shoulder and turned away, her long strides easily covering the ground between him and the small group.
Derek turned back to the magnetometer screen, rolled his shoulders to take the weight of the straps, and checked the grid settings.
Satisfied he hadn’t strayed from his bearings while chatting with his wife, he looped the headphones over his ears, his brow furrowing in concentration.
He set off at a brisk pace, keeping time with the constant beep emitted by the machine, easing into the familiar routine.
When the National Grid had announced that their nationwide beautification project would extend to other parts of the UK, he and Michelle had kept a weather eye on the contracts awarded to construction companies, pouncing on the opportunity to bid for the second phase of archaeological surveys.
They had narrowly missed out to a competitor from Milton Keynes for the first phase, but their local presence won over the contracts manager for this final check ahead of the cable route being carved through the countryside south of Didcot. Once that was done, the pylons would be torn down, returning the view of the horizon to one not seen since the 1930s.
Derek sighed with relief when he reached the trees.
A mixture of oak and alder provided welcome shade, light dappling on thick foliage that swayed above his head as he paused beside a blackthorn bush.
The thread-like path that lay beyond the brambles was rarely used, according to the farmer whose land bordered the stream, despite it having an access point that emerged beside a twisting B road half a mile away.
Taking a deep breath, relishing the coolness under the trees, he paused at the sound of water bubbling along at a leisurely gait beyond his position.
He could sense the history here, and, despite his words to Michelle, he appreciated Tim’s excitement.
Named after a Saxon chieftain, Hacca’s Brook wound its way between here and the Thames, carving a path through the landscape over centuries. The stream had witnessed the waxing and waning of the Roman invasion, the English Civil War and more, and yet here it was, almost forgotten beneath a tangle of fallen branches and leaf litter.
He found an opening to the path overgrown with long grass and stinging nettles, a pale blue butterfly rising into the air as he kicked a rough track through and lowered the magnetometer once more.
He would complete the required grid layout this afternoon, and, if anything gave him cause for concern, he would flag it and return with the metal detector in the morning.
His heart rate increased as he worked, the thrill of the chase kicking in as he began to sweep the ground.
Yes, Bill McFarlane would be frustrated if they did find something of archaeological significance, but surely the site manager would be swayed by the publicity. If only…
The machine chimed, and Derek’s gaze snapped to the screen.
He froze on the spot.
Something was down there.
He glanced over his shoulder.
The path had curved to the right, following the watercourse, but in his trancelike state, he had drifted off to the left by accident, scuffing against the longer grass without noticing.
Derek cursed loudly. If any of his post-graduate assistants had done the same thing, he would have berated them for sloppiness, but…
This was how the big finds were made.
The ones that made headlines.
Swinging the magnetometer away from his body, he used the toe of his boot to gently prise away an errant bramble, and stooped to take a closer look.
The ground was undisturbed, lush grass carpeting the area so the indentation the specialist equipment had identified was years old, rather than recent.
He couldn’t make out any signs of animal disturbance, and there were no tracks in the thin mud at the fringes of the path either.
Gently, he unclipped the straps and lay the magnetometer on the path a few metres behind the target area, then fished a trowel from his satchel and dropped to a crouch.
After making a series of well-practised cuts to the earth, he lifted out a section of the grass and felt around in the soil. Whatever had caused the alert on the machine was close to the surface, he was sure.
Clenching his jaw, he used the trowel to scrape away a little more of the clay soil, its texture damp now that the sun-dried top layer had been removed, and pushed back the dirt with his fingers.
He blinked in surprise.
A pale green material, similar to that of his polo shirt, emerged from the small indentation he’d created. A strip of cotton perhaps, firmly stuck under the rest of the soil that still covered the area he’d swept with the magnetometer.
He followed the direction of the material to the left, farther away from the stream and into the thicket of brambles that separated his position from the arable field.
Frowning, Derek reached out and pulled back a tangle of ivy.
He lurched backwards with a startled cry.
Reaching up between a sapling’s tentative roots, its pale grey skeletal fingers clawing from the earth, was a hand.
Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin rolled up the sleeves of his pale blue shirt and peered over the top of the pool car.
Beyond the hedgerow that lined the narrow potholed lane, a weather-beaten and dusty collection of machinery had been abandoned in the middle of a barren field, the grubby yellow paintwork of excavators, dump trucks and bulldozers at odds with the lush greenery that bordered the landscape.
The drivers stood beside their vehicles, heads lowered and hands in pockets while they scuffed at stones, occasionally pausing to glance over their shoulders towards a line of trees half a mile away from Mark’s position, then turning back to their colleagues, the occasional shake of a head replacing words that were left unsaid.
Above their heads, a steady line of electricity pylons marched across the field, weaving their way past a pair of enormous barns before disappearing from view.
Mark turned his attention to the vehicles lining the lane, running his eyes over the liveried patrol cars belonging to Thames Valley Police as uniformed officers turned back traffic and created a detour away from the crime scene.
He sighed, aimed his key fob at his borrowed vehicle and walked towards a young constable at the outer cordon.
The blue and white crime scene tape that was stretched between a signposted public footpath and a sycamore trunk lifted in the breeze as he approached, the cool air providing welcome relief from the sweltering heat that had baked the countryside these past two weeks.
‘Afternoon, Sarge.’ The constable – Knowles, according to the name badge over his left pocket – held out a clipboard and a pen. ‘Word just came back – they reckon it’s female, probably buried within the past couple of decades or so.’
‘Christ.’ Mark wrinkled his nose. ‘Definitely not a historical find, then?’
Knowles shook his head. ‘One of the archaeologists confirmed the clothing’s too modern. What’s left of it, anyway.’
‘Is DC West along there?’
‘Yes, Sarge – she got here twenty minutes ago.’
Voices filled the air while he signed his name on the log sheet – shouted instructions tinged with panic from the construction site mixing with the more practised tones of three crime scene investigators. He watched while they unloaded equipment from a nondescript white van parked beside a five-bar wooden gate on the opposite side of the lane, then turned back to Knowles and handed him the clipboard. ‘New to the area, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, Sarge. I finished training six weeks ago.’ The constable noted the time beside Mark’s signature and held up the blue and white tape that blocked access to the public footpath. ‘Follow it along about four hundred metres – you’ll find the inner cordon after that bend you can see from here. There’s a spot there where you can get suited up.’
‘Thank you. And Knowles – keep those details about the victim to yourself for now, all right? Speculation about the circumstances won’t help her, or her family.’
The young constable’s cheeks flushed. ‘Absolutely, Sarge.’
Mark ducked under the tape and hurried along the dirt path.
It was cracked in places down the middle where the sun had broken through the tree canopy and baked the surface, but a thin layer of mud clung to the verges on each side.
To his right, a ribbon of water twisted and edged its way beneath the trees, sunlight sparkling on the surface as the brook bubbled over rocks and fallen branches.
A thick swathe of long grass filled the left side of the path, insects buzzing past his face as he picked up his pace.
There was nothing to suggest the path was well-used before the discovery of the woman’s body.
How long had she lain there?
Detective Constable January West raised her hand in greeting as he rounded the bend, her hair gathered up under a hood attached to the white protective suit she wore.
She excused herself from the group of three similarly clad figures she’d been talking with and made her way over to him, pausing at the second barrier of crime scene tape.
Peering past her, he nodded in greeting to the Home Office pathologist, Gillian Appleworth, who was standing beside the grave site and talking to two colleagues.
‘Hell of a way to start the week, Jan. What do you know so far?’ he asked, wobbling to keep his balance on the uneven ground while he tugged plastic booties over his shoes and then took the sealed bag she held out to him. ‘Thanks.’
‘As soon as Gillian got here she called in a forensic archaeologist and an anthropologist – we can’t risk excavating the grave until they’ve got a full record of what’s here.’ She paused while he dragged the protective suit over his suit trousers and zipped it up to his neck. ‘It’s not ancient, that’s for sure, and given the sort of clothing that they’ve uncovered so far, they think it’s female. Off the record, of course, until they get the remains out of there and back to the lab.’
Mark pulled the hood up over his hair, snapped gloves over his hands, and entered the crime scene.
‘Jasper’s got a demarcated route set along this side.’ Jan pointed to a series of pegs set into the dirt to the right of the path as she led the way. ‘We can get to within a metre or so of the grave along here. They can’t risk us getting any closer at the moment – they’re still searching the ground either side of it for evidence.’
He followed her mutely, eyeing the pile of stinging nettles and brambles that had been cut away and laid farther up the path, away from where Jasper Smith stood next to a mound of earth, his head bowed while he watched his team work.
Beside the grave, three CSI technicians grappled with a temporary white tent, ready to place it over the gaping hole and protect it from the elements.
Jasper took a step back as Mark and Jan approached, lowered his tablet computer and scratched his head. ‘I’ll never get used to wearing these suits in this heat.’
‘Then I’ll try not to keep you from your work for too long.’ Mark jerked his chin at the grave. ‘Jan mentioned the grave was well-hidden.’
‘Considering it’s not even a metre deep, yes.’
Mark craned his neck to see the overgrown path snaking between the trees alongside the stream, narrowing as it headed east from their position.
The route seemed forgotten, abandoned – just as Jan had said.
‘Dug in a hurry, perhaps,’ he said, turning back to the CSI lead. ‘So, was this footpath used more often at one time, I wonder?’
‘There’s an old faded wooden signpost at the far end that’s pretty rotten and some of these trees blocking the path have been here a while.’ Jasper shuffled in his protective suit until Mark could see his tablet screen, then flicked through the photographs. ‘The grave itself is shallow but sheltered under the trees, so over time the leaf litter built up and covered it even more. If the project survey team hadn’t been assessing the area for the cable route, the grave might never have been discovered. Add to the fact that the path looks more or less abandoned – you can see the vegetation’s grown over it as well. I looked at the route on a satellite image – it doesn’t link up to any of the more popular walking routes nearby, either.’
‘There aren’t that many houses around here,’ Jan said. She pointed through the thick foliage to the field where the construction vehicles and their drivers idled. ‘The farmer that owns this land told uniform he never used the path, which goes some way to explain why none of the hedgerows have been cut back this side, and the land on the other side of the stream is privately owned. Again, the family that live there say they keep a small flock of sheep in the field, and never use the path – in fact, they were surprised to hear it was through here. The wife said she thought the field was just bordered by the stream.’
Mark grimaced as the images on the screen changed to close-ups of the contents of the grave, the twisted skeleton visible amongst the soft dirt and knotted tree roots as the specialists worked methodically to uncover its final resting place.
‘We’ll speak to the other property owners in the area as soon as we can, then.’ He shivered and turned his gaze from the screen to watch the work in progress. ‘Who’s the tall bloke at the far end, Jasper?’
‘Robert Kerridge – he’s the forensic anthropologist that Gillian called as soon as she realised what we’ve got here, and the man crouching in the trench at the moment is Hayden Bridges, a forensic archaeologist from Banbury.’
‘Kennedy’s going to have a heart attack when he sees what they charge.’
The CSI lead grimaced. ‘I hope they both live up to their reputations, then.’
Beside Mark, Jan used the heel of her hand to wipe away a bead of sweat between her eyebrows, the protective suit crackling with the movement. ‘Do you want to speak to the project archaeologist who found her, Sarge?’
‘Might as well – and then we’re going to have to speak to Kennedy about wrangling some extra manpower to start going through the missing persons database as soon as we have more information about her.’ He sighed. ‘Whoever she is, she was someone’s daughter, perhaps someone’s mother. We owe it to them to find out what happened to her, and why she ended up here.’
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