Her Final Hour
Winter wrapped its grip around the Oxfordshire countryside, feathering the bare hedgerows of the Berkshire Downs with a dusting of frost, determined to maintain its hold on the hills and valley below.
Will Brennan flexed his hands, and let the leather reins give a little in his grip.
A cold mist blanketed the landscape, creating ghost-like silhouettes of the horse chestnut trees that bordered the training yard, and obscuring the large Georgian farmhouse beyond.
He was losing circulation in the tips of his fingers, despite the weather forecaster on the radio enthusing about the mild start to winter, and despite the thin wool gloves he wore. At least his helmet, covered with a bright green and blue silk cap, stopped some of his body temperature escaping.
Grey light hinted at the approaching sunrise before a cold breeze sent a discarded plastic feed bag tumbling across the concrete. It snagged on the tendrils of an ivy bush that climbed up the side of one of the brick-built stable blocks, fluttering as if to free itself.
The other stable lads called out to each other, swearing as they prepared the horses, their voices muffled by the thick air.
Brennan murmured a greeting to one of them as he passed, a new kid whose name he couldn’t remember, who had the soft facial features of someone who hadn’t yet spent a winter on the Downs, exposed to all its elements. Another year or so and he’d be as ruddy as the rest of them.
Vapour escaped Brennan’s lips, mixing in the air with the heat wafting from the horse’s nostrils, the beast snorting and shaking its head as he led it across ice-covered puddles.
Coffee would have to wait until he returned, and after the horses had been tended to.
At a call from the back of the string, he was given a leg up into the saddle and the horses set off at a brisk pace.
Weak sunlight began to crest the horizon as the string of racing horses entered the lane from the yard, their hooves clattering across the pitted surface while their riders shivered and grumbled.
Not too loudly, though.
After all, MacKenzie Adams was known for choosing a lucky few to ride his horses in races even if, to begin with, those races were at the smaller courses around the United Kingdom.
For many it had been the start of an illustrious career, and Brennan was hungry for the same.
His stomach rumbled loudly, and he cursed the turn of thought. Keeping the weight off was a constant struggle, especially when his girlfriend’s mother insisted on feeding him twice as much as everyone else whenever he was there.
He peered between the horse’s ears, a tight grip on the reins, listening.
At this time of the morning it was unusual to see any traffic, but the lane was narrow with a twisting curve that had spewed out its share of speeding motorcyclists over the summer, touring the Oxfordshire countryside at high speed with little regard for their safety, or that of a horse and its rider.
Half a mile up the hill, they turned onto the gallops through a gap in the bramble hedgerow, and Brennan’s heart rate edged up a notch in anticipation.
From here the view swept over an undulating field, fallow and ready for planting, abandoned hay bales spiky with thick frost. In the distance, clumps of ancient oak and birch trees huddled close within shaded copses.
The hillside swept down through the valley and past the space where the old power station cooling towers had once pierced the horizon, then onwards through the Vale to Oxford.
Years ago, before his time, these had truly been the Berkshire Downs. A flourish of ink, a handshake at local government level, and the boundary had slipped into Oxfordshire.
And on April Fool’s Day, according to his grandfather.
A mud and stone track led across the field to the gallops, and when the horse paused at the bottom of the slope, Brennan loosened the reins before giving him a swift kick that sent the animal trotting towards the open gates.
The lush green grass on either side of the gallops sparkled with frost that reached out to the dirt- and sawdust-layered track, clumps of churned-up earth shadowing a racing line created by yesterday’s training session.
Brennan sniffed, resisting the urge to wipe his nose with the back of his glove. He needed both hands on the reins.
The beast beneath him tended to lose his riders if given half the opportunity, and Brennan had no intention of being the horse’s latest victim. He knew that the rest of the stable lads were running a sweepstake to see how long it would take.
He scowled. They may have been eager to make some money from his misfortune, but he was keener to make MacKenzie Adams sit up and take notice of him.
He glanced over his shoulder to where Adams stood next to a dark-green four-by-four vehicle at the side of the track, binoculars in his right hand, thermos coffee cup in the other, bundled up in a padded jacket and scarf against the elements.
He raised his thumb, and Adams lifted the cup in response.
Brennan turned his attention back to the course and kicked the horse, relishing the sudden power as he leapt into action.
He squinted to see through the swirling mist that cloaked the oval course, and leaned forward as the horse pushed into the first corner, recalling McKenzie’s instructions to him before they had set out from the yard.
‘He’s racing at Newbury on Saturday, so give him a gentle workout. The last thing we want is an injury.’
The problem was, Empire of the Sun – or Onyx, as he was known in the stables – didn’t understand the concept of a gentle workout.
It was why MacKenzie had sent him out ahead of the rest of the string, given it was common knowledge that any hint of another horse in front of him would send Onyx into race mode. The trainer always joked that the animal possessed two speeds – fast, and faster.
The horse’s withers tensed as his shoulder muscles trembled, and Brennan felt the power beneath the sleek black coat. The temptation teased him as they entered the first straight. It would be so easy to loosen the reins further and let the horse fly over the soft earth.
Almost as if Onyx could read his mind, the horse surged forward, straining at the bit between his teeth.
Common sense prevailed, and, with some reluctance, Brennan kept a tight grip and eased the animal back to a slower pace as they approached the next sweeping corner.
Onyx tensed, and Brennan dug his heels into the stirrups at the sudden deceleration in speed, confused.
He stood and peered between the horse’s ears, and then saw what was spooking the animal.
To the left of the track, under the white metal railing that the horses followed along the gallops, was a discarded bundle of rags.
‘It’s nothing, you idiot. Get on with it.’
He dug his heels in and urged the horse forward.
Onyx reared up and twisted to the right without slowing down, without giving Brennan a chance to correct his position or slow his trajectory as he was catapulted into the air, the reins snapping from his grip.
He had a swirling view of green grass and grey sky tumbling over one another, and then hit the ground.
Seconds later, winded, Brennan rolled over and lay on the dirt, staring at the swirling mist. He wiggled his toes and fingers, slowly working his way along his limbs until he was sure no bones were broken, and then eased into a sitting position.
Onyx stood on the far side of the track, peering down his nose at him.
‘Dickhead.’ Brennan brushed off his jodhpurs and stomped across to the horse, snatching up the reins before it decided to take off without him.
The mist blanketed his position from the start of the training oval and, if he could remount, no-one would know and he’d still have a chance of a race at the weekend.
Except the horse refused to cooperate.
Onyx whinnied, then sidestepped, turning his rear to the course.
‘Bloody hell. Move, will you?’
Brennan tugged at the reins, and then glanced over his shoulder.
Under the soles of his boots, the ground began to tremble a moment before the thunder of hooves reached him.
‘Come on. Please.’
He used all his weight to turn the horse, pushing against his flanks in an attempt to get Onyx to do as he was told for once, and then collapsed against him, sweat pooling under his arms.
‘Right now, I hate you.’
He sighed, and then raised his gaze to the horse’s head, expecting a knowing sideways look from the animal.
Instead, Onyx was staring at the bundle of rags under the railing on the inner side of the course, his ears flat, his hooves planted firmly on the turf, the whites of his eyes glaring in the winter light.
Brennan kept hold of the reins and moved in front of the horse. He opened his mouth to urge him forward, and then stopped as he drew closer to the discarded clothing and realised why the horse was so scared.
Blood had congealed in her hair, the dull red glistening as a beetle wandered across her forehead.
Her hands had been tied behind her, her pink lace knickers twisted around her left ankle, and her blank stare watched the clouds, accusation in the milky film that blurred her eyes.
Brennan let the reins fall, the horse forgotten, and dropped to his knees.
A moment later, he vomited over the lush turf.
Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin forced the car door shut and cursed under his breath as a biting wind whipped at the hem of his waterproof coat.
He squinted against the weak sunlight that bathed the landscape with a bleached grey while Detective Constable Jan West eased herself from the passenger door and staggered backwards, surprise on her face.
‘Bloody hell, Sarge.’ She gathered her black leather handbag from the back seat and slung it over one shoulder, buttoned up her padded jacket, and then fell into step beside him. ‘I’d have thought the horses would’ve been running backwards in this wind.’
‘At least it’s cleared the air so we can see what we’re doing.’
He ran his gaze over the mist that had receded from the Downs and now clung to the streams that criss-crossed the countryside, and shivered.
Eight jockeys with their enormous horses milled about at the gate Mark had driven through, the animals stomping hooves at the ground, impatient. The sweet aroma of fresh horse dung wafted on the air, reminding him of holidays in the countryside with his daughters when they were younger.
Turning his attention to the plateau where they’d parked, he spotted an ambulance close to one of the patrol cars that had been manoeuvred onto the gallops, both vehicles blocking access to the course, the emergency vehicles’ bright livery a stark contrast to the bleak countryside.
Blue and white striped tape had been stretched behind the vehicles, reiterating the restricted access now imposed.
In front of the cordon two more patrol cars had been manoeuvred off the track and onto the verge, the occupants speaking to each of the horse riders in turn, notebooks out and brows furrowed as witness statements were taken.
Mark strode across the soft turf towards the nearest police constable, a familiar face from the local station.
‘Everyone else here?’
PC John Newton blew on his hands, and then pointed across the gallops to where several vehicles had been corralled in one corner.
Mark recognised the crime scene investigators’ vehicles. Three white-suited figures milled about near the railing in the opposite corner, heads bowed. Next to their van, a grey panel van had been parked facing the cordon, its dark colouring almost fading into the landscape. The mortuary team wouldn’t be allowed to leave until the CSIs were satisfied the victim’s body could be removed. He shook his head at the forced indignity.
‘What can you tell us?’
‘The first jockey in the training string found her,’ said Newton. ‘They all got up here at seven o’clock, just as it was getting light. That’s the trainer over there, MacKenzie Adams.’
‘Is that his vehicle?’
‘Yes. The victim is Jessica Marley, nineteen years old. Lives in Harton Wick and attends the agricultural college nearby. Has a part-time job at the Farriers Arms in the village.’
Mark frowned. ‘You know who she is already?’
‘One of the other lads told us her name. The one who found her wasn’t coherent when we tried to speak with him. Poor bugger’s in shock.’
‘I’ll bet he is.’ Mark peered across to the CSI team. ‘How long have they been here?’
‘About an hour. The pathologist is over there with them. She declared the victim deceased at 8.05 and then stayed. Said she wants to learn as much as possible here before doing the post mortem.’
The police constable tugged at his vest pocket and pulled out a notebook. ‘Just as well one of the jockeys identified her. We found nothing on her – no handbag, no mobile phone, no purse. We’ve been helping the CSIs to check the surrounding hedgerows but have come up empty so far. We’ve got four people on the far side of the gallops over there continuing the search.’
‘Good. Where’s the lad who found her?’
Newton jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘William Brennan. He’s in the back of the ambulance. He was hoping to race at Newbury this weekend. Can’t see how he’s going to manage it now.’
‘What did the other lad say – the one who recognised her – when you interviewed him?’
‘Paul Hitchens. He said he last saw Jessica at the Farriers at eight o’clock last night. He said it was unusual for him to stay that late the night before a training ride but William was catching up with friends he hadn’t seen for a while and they lost track of time. Jessica and another girl, Cheryl, were working on the bar with the owner, Noah Collins, so she wasn’t due to leave until they’d cleared up after closing.’
‘Have the parents been notified?’
Newton’s mouth twisted. ‘Yes, about half an hour ago. There’s a patrol car there now, and a Family Liaison Officer has been arranged.’
‘All right, thanks. Jan – let’s go and have a look, shall we?’
He turned to see the horse trainer striding towards him, his expression determined.
‘MacKenzie Adams. You are?’
‘Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin.’
‘I need to get these horses back to the yard,’ said Adams. ‘They have to be fed, and standing around like this is doing them no good at all, especially the one that was spooked by the girl’s body.’
Mark looked towards the horse to which Adams gestured, a large black beast whose ears twitched back and forth and who seemed more interested in the goings on around it than nervous.
He turned back to Adams and narrowed his eyes at him. ‘You can move your horses once my team have finished taking statements from the riders, not before. We’re dealing with the death of a young woman, and that takes precedence over the horses. They can eat the grass, can’t they?’
‘Detective, these horses were supposed to run three furlongs this morning. Four of them have races at the weekend, and I have owners to report to. When will the gallops be reopened?’
‘When I say so.’ He tapped West on the arm. ‘Let’s go and hear what Gillian has to say.’
He stomped ahead and tried to ignore the biting wind that assaulted his ears, wishing he had a hat to ward off the chill. He settled for shoving his hands in his coat pockets.
‘What the hell is a furlong, Jan?’
‘About a third of a mile.’
‘Got it. Keen on horse racing, are you?’
‘Can’t stand it, but my grandfather used to watch the racing on television on Saturday afternoons and have a bit of a flutter, so I suppose I picked up the jargon.’
They reached the taped-off cordon and scrawled their names across a page clamped to a clipboard guarded by a uniformed constable, and then, once they’d donned protective bootees to cover their own footwear, Mark led the way towards the vehicles parked at the far end of the course.
He glanced over at her as she shivered, smiling at the calf-length boots she wore and envious of the thick woollen scarf she’d tucked into her collar.
His own leather boots sank into the soft layers of dirt comprising the exercise route for the horses, the plastic coverings making progress slippery and every step kicking up a thin layer of mud that stuck to the hems of his trousers.
‘Bet you’re glad you moved out of the boat before the winter now,’ said West, as she pushed her hair from her face. ‘It would have been bloody freezing in this weather.’
‘It was too small, anyway. At least renting a house I could get the rest of my stuff out of storage.’
His estranged wife had been more amenable than he thought he’d deserved, even storing the last of his belongings in the single garage at the house he’d once shared with her while he organised the move, but a sense of melancholy seized him at the finality of renting his own place.
They passed the ambulance, its back doors open and the two crew members speaking with another police constable.
Mark noticed the lonely figure sitting on one of the stretchers, the man’s shoulders hunched as he stared blankly at the floor.
‘We’ll try to talk to the jockey on the way back,’ he said.
They fell silent, Jan easily keeping up with his pace.
As they drew closer to the far end of the gallops, he could see two figures idling next to one of the vans while several others milled about, and recognised the plain paintwork of the vehicle that would be used to convey the victim to the mortuary once the crime scene had been processed.
Approaching the end of the straight line, Mark moved closer to the rail and checked the position of the crouched figure in protective clothing at the apex of the curve ahead.
‘So, the jockey must’ve lined up here to take the corner,’ he said. ‘The grass is long on the inside of the railing, so even with the extra height being on the back of the horse, he wouldn’t have seen her.’
Jan paused next to him, following his line of sight. ‘Why there, I wonder?’
Mark didn’t reply, but began walking towards the bulkier member of the CSI team, and raised his hand.
‘Got a minute, Jasper?’
‘Detective.’ Jasper Smith lowered his mask and scuffed his way through the grass to join them, his breath clouding in front of a short dark beard. ‘We wondered when we might see you. Do you want a word with Gillian too, while she’s still here?’
‘If you don’t mind.’
‘Follow me.’ The technician led them across a demarcated path that avoided a number of coloured markers set out on the ground.
As they moved past, Mark ran his gaze over the team as they worked. Their movements were meticulous, each and every suspect item bagged and recorded in the event of being required for future evidence purposes.
‘Any sign of drag marks?’
‘Nothing, no.’ Jasper sighed. ‘And no tyre marks over this side. Anything that we could’ve taken a sample from near the gate was obliterated by the horses and the trainer’s four-by-four. You’ve seen the mud over there – it’s a quagmire.’
The CSI technician paused a few metres from where the body lay.
Mark could make out a shock of blonde hair matted with a dark thick substance that glistened in the morning sun, the young woman’s face a mottled blue, her lips parted as if in surprise or shock.
She wore a long woollen skirt, thick jumper, and leather jacket, her legs bare. Flat black shoes covered her feet, and Mark’s lip curled at the pink knickers that hung down around one of her ankles.
‘What about footprints?’
‘Hers, obviously, and perhaps a second set. We’ve taken what samples we can from the area but don’t hold your breath. That long grass softened the tread.’
Mark peered at the prone figure. ‘Heavier than her?’
‘Hard to say. If you don’t mind, I’ll get back to my team. We need to get as much as we can before the weather turns again,’ said Jasper. ‘You’ll get our report by the end of the week.’
Mark nodded his thanks, then turned his attention to the Home Office pathologist, who was striding across the churned dirt and pulling the paper mask from her face as the two mortuary workers carrying a stretcher followed in her wake.
Grey eyes flashed, and then she exhaled as a weariness crossed her features. ‘Before you ask, there’s a blunt trauma wound to the back of the head. I’ll confirm once I’ve had a chance to do the post mortem in the morning whether that was what killed her.’
Mark watched as the two mortuary workers carefully placed the young woman’s body into a large plastic bag.
‘Any sign of sexual interference, given the knickers?’
‘Hard to say at this point. I’ll let you know after the post mortem.’
Mark ran his gaze over the length of the gallops to the gate that led through to the field beyond, and then back to the pathetic bundle that was now being gently lifted into the back of the van.
West’s voice cut through his thoughts.
‘What are you thinking, Sarge?’
‘No sign of any tyre treads. If she walked here, then maybe she knew her killer.’
"Mark Turpin is a welcome addition to the ranks of fictional detectives!"
Peter Robinson, bestselling author of the DCI Banks series