Turn to Dust
The crows should have alerted him.
Ducking and wheeling across a bleak late spring sky, the birds cawed and cackled as they swooped upon the muddy undulating landscape before rising to the air once more.
They seemed distracted, hesitant to leave the field in pursuit of the tractor that rumbled over the adjacent land, dragging a seed drill in its wake. Back and forth, back and forth, following the furrows left behind from the plough only weeks before.
A cold wind whipped across the field, shaking the hedgerows and threatening to tear the ripening buds from a cluster of hazel shrubs that hunkered under a canopy of birch. A second blast of air shoved against the metal five-bar gate, rattling the chain looped between the frame and a wooden post.
Luke Martin blew into his hands and wished he’d worn an extra pair of socks.
Instead, the damp mud oozed around his calf-length rubber boots and chilled his toes, and every breath he took was expelled in a cloud of condensation.
His fingers fared little better.
The thermal-lined gloves he’d purchased had promised on the label to protect his extremities from temperatures down to five below zero Centigrade, but he reckoned now that the claim was overambitious.
He became aware of a vehicle approaching, the purr of the engine running under the crackle and snap of branches and woodland detritus disappearing under its wheels.
Luke turned away from the field to see a battered four-by-four round the corner in the single track.
Its roof caught on low-hanging tendrils of ash and oak while the vehicle rocked from side to side, the suspension groaning under duress.
Sunlight reflected off its dirt-streaked windscreen, obliterating the driver’s features, but not the way his hands gripped the steering wheel.
Gesturing to a grass-covered verge to the right of the gate, Luke walked around to the side of his own car as the four-by-four creaked to a standstill moments before the ratchet of the handbrake reached him, almost as an afterthought.
The driver swung his door open and swore as his boots met the soggy earth.
Tugging his woollen hat over his ears to protect his balding skull, Luke moved around to the front of the four-by-four and stuck out his hand.
‘Maybe Sonia was right,’ he said. ‘Maybe we should have taken up golf instead. That’s what most blokes our age do.’
‘It’d still be bloody freezing.’ Tom Coker took the outstretched hand in a tight grip, then glared at the mud smeared along the side of the vehicle. He jerked his chin at Luke’s car. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘About fifteen minutes. Traffic was lighter than I thought.’
‘Had a look yet?’
‘It doesn’t look too boggy. Hard going, but not waterlogged like I thought it’d be.’
‘That’s something, at least. Let’s get a move on. The longer we stand around here talking, the colder we’re going to get.’
Luke wandered back to his car, popped open the boot lid, and eyed the equipment laid out on a tarpaulin to protect the carpeted lining.
He lifted out the shovel first – an ancient tool passed down to his father by his grandfather, and now his. Since moving to the smaller house in Seal six months ago, he was using it for his hobby rather than tending a vegetable patch any more, and he remembered why when his back twinged as he straightened.
‘Come on, old man,’ said Coker. ‘Dennis said he wants to prep this field tomorrow, so we need to get a move on.’
Luke glanced over his shoulder. ‘Any problem with the contract?’
‘None at all – if we find anything, he takes a thirty per cent cut and the rest is ours.’
‘Sweet.’ He tugged the metal detector out from its swaddling of blankets, and shut the car boot. ‘Is this the only field we can use?’
‘For now. We’ll get another go at it towards the end of September after the harvest, and he said there might be another field nearer to the house on the other side of the woods we can take a look at as well.’
‘Let’s go, then.’
Luke fumbled the chain as he looped it away from the gate, his numb fingers clumsy while his thoughts turned to the flask of hot coffee Sonia had packed alongside two tuna salad sandwiches she’d insisted he take with him. The flask and food remained in the car, and would do so until mid-morning.
Losing track of time was one of the reasons he enjoyed metal detecting.
‘Have there been any finds near here?’ he said as he fastened the gate back in place and stumbled across the furrows alongside Coker.
‘Not on Dennis’s land, but then I don’t think he’s ever had anyone take a look. There were a couple of thirteenth-century brooches found a few miles away three years ago. And lots of musket balls.’
Luke groaned. ‘Always the bloody musket balls.’
‘I remember when you used to get excited about those.’
‘That was before I hit double figures. Honestly, if Charles I’s lot wasted that much ammunition during the Civil War, it’s no wonder they lost to Cromwell’s army. They obviously couldn’t shoot straight for shit.’
His friend snorted, then stopped and surveyed the landscape before them. ‘It’d be so quiet out here, if it wasn’t for those bloody birds. Dennis reckons he can’t even hear the A20 unless the wind’s blowing in this direction.’
Luke squinted against the cold chill that snapped at his coat collar, then inhaled the rich earthy air. ‘Beats being at work, too.’
‘You busy at the moment?’
He wrinkled his nose. ‘In between contracts. I spent yesterday sending out quotes, and a couple of those should come through in the next week or two. You?’
‘Skiving. I was meant to be rendering a house over at Sevenoaks this morning, but I sent two of the lads instead. Okay, shall we split up?’
Luke turned his attention to the rolling landscape, the noise from the tractor carrying over the hedgerow.
And still, those bloody crows. Caw, caw, caw.
‘I think I’m going to head down there. Looks as if it has a slight rise, then an indentation marked on the Ordnance Survey map I took a look at before you turned up. It might yield something. What about you?’
Coker pointed to the hedgerow separating the barren field with the one where the farmer worked. ‘I’ll start there. There’s a ditch system that runs parallel to the boundary. It could be an old trackway or something, so it’s worth checking out.’
Luke bumped his fist against his friend’s outstretched hand. ‘Be lucky. Break in a couple of hours?’
Pulling the headphones up over his head and adjusting the pads over his ears, he switched on the machine and listened to its beeps and whirrs as it nestled into the setting he programmed. Satisfied he was ready, he began to march towards his intended search area, sweeping the metal detector in front of his feet as he walked.
It’d be sod’s law if he missed a find in his hurry to reach the contoured land he had set his mind on.
The world contracted around him as he worked, the movement of the metal detector right to left and back almost trance-inducing. Any worries about work deserted him while he focused on what he was hearing.
He moved without purpose, simply staring at the tufts of long grass that were poking through the earth in a last-ditch attempt to claim it before barley seedlings took over for the summer months.
After a few minutes, he raised his gaze to his left to see Coker with his back to him, intent on his own progress. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but a competitiveness rose in Luke’s chest as he turned back to his work.
He wanted to be the one who found it.
Sonia joked that it was his vain hope of paying off a chunk of the mortgage before their son left home. Of course, his chances were slim – but a man could dream, couldn’t he?
The birds grew louder as he approached the rise in the field.
He could hear them over the beeps and squeaks in his headphones.
Luke scowled at the top of the incline, and then stopped.
The field rolled down towards a boundary that Luke knew bordered a stream – it was another of his and Coker’s targets for the day’s exploring in the hope they’d find traces of a Civil War encampment that was rumoured to have been in the area.
The crows had clustered together – a murder, he recalled – halfway between his position and the boundary. They bickered and called to each other as two or three birds at a time rose into the air, then dived back and noisily shoved their way back into the centre of the flock.
He pushed his headphones off his head, looping them over the back of his neck, and frowned.
He couldn’t see what was causing so much interest for the crows because whatever it was lay in a smaller indentation in the field.
Intrigued, Luke wandered over to where the birds gathered, ignoring their indignant squawks as he drew closer, sending them into the air once more.
The crows landed a few paces away, dark beady eyes watching him, daring him.
A pale-pink form lay stretched out between the furrows caused by the tractor’s wheel ruts, muddy tyre tracks creating a zig-zag pattern that reflected his unsteady progress.
Luke frowned as the form became a shape, and then the shape became the outline of a man.
A naked man.
‘Are you all right, mate?’ He kept his voice jovial, despite the spike in his heart rate.
What was he? Drunk?
He’d have to be, out here exposed to the elements, except––
Luke stopped, then swallowed.
Throat dry, a bitter acidic taste on the back of his tongue, the reality caught up with his brain.
The man wasn’t drunk.
His whole body lay contorted within the brown soil, his arms at unnatural angles. His legs – Jesus, what had happened to his legs? – were disproportionate in size to his torso, and mud splashed over his skin as if he’d tripped over without trying to break his fall.
And his face––
Luke turned away, stomach churning, and saw then what the crows had been doing.
The man’s eyes were staring at him from another furrow, accusing, bloodied and torn.
And at his feet, all around Luke’s frozen toes encased in his useless thermal socks and rubber boots, were teeth.
Lots and lots of teeth.
A bleak sky laden with rain enshrouded the splashes of light that flashed through the thick canopy of trees above the potholed woodland track.
Detective Inspector Kay Hunter held on to the strap above the passenger window of the mud-splattered pool car, the springs in the worn seat squeaking with every bump as the vehicle rocked from side to side.
Beside her, Detective Sergeant Ian Barnes clenched his jaw and cursed under his breath when a branch twisted and smacked against the windscreen, his hands gripping the steering wheel.
‘Should’ve nicked one of the Land Rovers from Traffic,’ he said.
She held her breath as the car went through a deep puddle, and wondered whether she should raise her feet off the floor in case water began to pool under the door seal.
Barnes accelerated, the mud relinquishing the car with a thick suck of reluctance, and then the trees thinned out, exposing an area of broken ground.
A line of cars were parked haphazardly alongside a bramble hedgerow bisected by a metal five-bar gate, and Kay spotted two patrol cars emblazoned with the Kent Police logo beside a dark-coloured van.
She opened the car door, swung her legs out and reached for a pair of wellington boots she’d thrown behind the passenger seat when Barnes had collected her from home half an hour ago.
Barnes was doing the same, replacing his leather lace-up shoes with a battered pair of boots. He turned to her once done.
‘As I ever will be.’
The wind caught her hair as she rose from her seat and slammed the car door. Peering over the roof, she spotted two white-suited figures moving from the van to the gate, one carrying a silver-coloured metal suitcase.
Beside one of the patrol cars, three men hovered as a police constable spoke with them.
Barnes joined her. ‘Witnesses. Hughes said two of them were metal detecting – one of them found the body. The other bloke must be the farmer who owns the land.’
‘Let’s have a quick chat with them first, and then go and see what Harriet’s lot are doing. Is Lucas here yet?’
‘His car is over there – behind the tractor.’
‘Okay. We’ll catch him in a moment. Who was first on scene?’
‘Ben Allen, from Tonbridge. He was on a routine patrol when the call came through from the farmer, and nearest to the scene.’
On cue, Ben emerged from the driver’s seat of the second vehicle, murmuring an update into the radio clipped to his vest. He nodded when he saw Kay and Barnes heading towards him, and ended the call.
‘Morning, Ben. Everything under control?’
‘It’s a quiet one – no-one around here, apart from these three.’ He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to where his colleague had corralled the witnesses. ‘Lucas got here fifteen minutes ago, and already confirmed life extinct. Not that there was much doubt of that.’
‘We heard it’s the body of a man,’ said Kay. ‘Unknown to the farmer, is he?’
‘Not much of a body left, to be honest, guv. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Ben wrinkled his nose.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He’s all deformed. And naked.’ The police constable shook his head. ‘It’s a strange one.’
‘Can you introduce us?’
Kay followed him across the slippery mud to where the three men huddled at the side of the patrol car, almost as if they were trying to put as much distance as possible between them and what lay in the field.
Introductions made, the two uniformed officers excused themselves and wandered over to the gate.
Kay turned her attention to the farmer. ‘Mr Maitland, I apologise – you may have answered similar questions from my colleagues, but we have to learn as much as possible about what’s happened here. How long have you farmed this land?’
Maitland took a shaking drag from the cigarette held between his finger and thumb, and then squinted at her. ‘Me personally, about thirty years. It’s been in the family for a couple of hundred.’
‘What do you farm?’
‘Crops, mainly. Barley, wheat. The wife’s got me trying lavender this year for the first time. Not sure how that’ll work out.’
‘When was the last time you’d been in that field, prior to this morning?’ said Barnes.
‘Last week. Tuesday. I was turning over the soil ready for the seed drill. It was due to be planted tomorrow.’
The farmer broke off, his face glum as he stared at the makeshift cordon of blue and white police tape.
Kay turned to the two men beside him. ‘Which one of you found the body?’
‘That was me,’ said Luke.
‘Are you all right?’
The man shrugged. ‘Do you know who he is?’
‘Not yet. Did you recognise him?’
‘No. I’ve never seen him before. Well, as far as I could tell. His face was all smashed in, and––’
He stopped, covering his mouth with his hand.
Kay reached out for his arm. ‘Take your time. It’s okay. I know this is hard.’
‘The crows had had a go at him, I think. I saw them when I first got here at half eight. I wondered why they weren’t following the seed drill in the other field like they usually would.’
‘Did you touch anything?’
‘God, no. I yelled across the field to Tom, told him to stay back and that there was a dead body, and we got out of there. We put the metal detectors and stuff in the cars, and then went over to tell Dennis. We called triple nine after that.’
‘Dennis, did you enter the field with the body in?’ said Kay.
‘No. Figured you lot wouldn’t thank me for that.’
‘Good. All right, we’ve got your statements so you’re good to go. Luke – if you need to, speak to your GP about what you’ve seen, okay? Don’t bottle it up.’
He nodded, and then sloped back to his car alongside Tom and the farmer, all three men murmuring under their breath.
‘Want to take a look now?’ said Barnes.
‘Yes, come on.’
They wandered over to the gate, and Kay greeted the police officer who handed a clipboard to them.
‘Thanks.’ She scrawled her signature across the crime scene entry record.
Barnes lifted up the tape and she ducked underneath, her gaze already taking in the second cordon that had been erected close to where the man’s body had been found.
A group of white-suited CSI technicians crouched in a broken semicircle, each of them working methodically to record any evidence that would help to work out why the man had been killed and how he had died.
The Home Office pathologist, Lucas Anderson, stood outside the cordon, his head bowed as he watched.
‘Lucas,’ said Barnes.
‘Morning,’ he said, the paper suit crinkling as he held out his hand. ‘Death has been declared. I’ll complete the paperwork when I get back to my car so they can move him once Harriet’s lot have finished, but it’s unusual.’
‘Cause of death?’ said Kay.
Lucas pursed his lips. ‘You know I don’t like to posit assumptions, Hunter.’
‘Come on, just your initial thoughts. Please.’
At that moment, one of the CSIs stood and moved to the side, and Kay got a clear view of the dead man.
‘Different, isn’t it?
‘What happened to him?’
‘Good question,’ said Lucas. ‘Look, I won’t give my official opinion on cause of death until I’ve completed the post mortem––’
‘But you do have an opinion,’ said Barnes. ‘What is it?’
‘The only time I’ve seen vaguely similar injuries like those to his legs is from suicides. Specifically, people who have jumped from buildings.’
Barnes squinted at him. ‘He’s in the middle of a field, Lucas.’
‘I know. I said it was unusual, didn’t I?’
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