This Burning Man the world forgot that the long, torpid summer had reached September. The sun stood high in the smoggy sky. Small pinnacles of cumulonimbus rose out of a scattering of cloud, stained black beneath, faint rumbles of thunder in their bellies. The day was unbearably close and hot. Even approaching six o’clock it was sufficiently powerful to give Barry Wills a headache beneath the sweaty crop of straying red hair. Wills looked at the Minnis and the bonfire rising from the earth, Mitch Blamire and Dickie Cartwright working away at its construction.
“I hate the countryside,” he said to no-one in particular. “It smells. The people are weird. There’s muck everywhere. What makes this lot tick, Liddle? You’re supposed to know them. You tell me that.”
The six-strong team of CID detectives stared at Justin mournfully. The day was not going well.
“They like to keep themselves to themselves, sir,” he replied weakly. He felt uncomfortably hot in the uniform. And useless too. These men thought they knew what they were looking for. His presence was unimportant, unwanted. None of them guessed that it was his note that had brought them out on the promise of hard evidence against Sara and Alison. And, Justin reasoned, would keep them in Beulah long enough to provide him the back-up he needed. Wills was essentially stupid. Too stupid to realise just that all the important Beulah files were missing, except those that pointed a faint, suspicious finger at Marjorie Tyler’s narcotic predilections. Justin wanted a swift resolution. The open ticket to Marseilles burned a hole in his pocket. If Burning Man went well, and luck was on his side, he would be sitting on the train at seven the following morning, leaving this worn-out life behind, like a snake shedding its skin.
But that depended upon Wills sticking around. And, more than anything, Alison being saved. They’d been to the house and she was out. No-one had seen her since the night before. It was possible she’d decided she couldn’t face another Burning Man in Beulah. Something about the idea was unconvincing, however. Alison was, above all, bold. Given the opportunity she would, he judged, face Marjorie Tyler down as certainly tonight as she did on the morning after Beth Jukes’ death.
Ringing through his head, like an alarm bell refusing to be quiet, was the grim, relentless suspicion that his search for Alison and the intended sacrifice were focused upon the same target. He wondered, for one brief, fateful moment, if he dare tell Wills of his fears. Of Burning Man, and what had happened the previous year. Inwardly he could hear the CID man’s laughter. Nothing would send them speeding down Vipers Hill, back to civilisation, more swiftly.
He watched Wills light a cigarette and stare miserably at the tail-end of the cricket match on the green. Beulah was playing a friendly against Sellindge. Once again, they were getting thrashed.
“Had enough of this,” Wills grunted. “Some bastard’s been wasting my time. Wait’ll I get my hands on him.”
“Sir…” Justin tried not to sound too desperate. “Just because we haven’t found anything yet, it doesn’t mean something won’t turn up.”
“Really?” The detective’s face was the very picture of sarcastic disbelief. Justin realised that he found Barry Wills a very unpleasant man indeed. “And you’re the expert in these things, are you, Liddle? You know about CID work?”
“No, sir, I just…”
The other CID men glowered at him.
“We turned over the Harrison woman. We turned over the Fenways’ house, not that anyone knows where Madame Fenway is. Don’t suppose you can help there, can you, boy?”
“No,” Justin answered coldly.
“Well, we found nothing. No drugs. No evidence. Nothing. If I didn’t have these tip-offs and the fact of those accounts to the contrary, I’d really think those two were a couple of nice middle class women with a fancy line in mail order. For Christ’s sake, maybe they are. Maybe we are being fed a pup here. What do you think, Liddle?”
Justin shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. I’m just a village plod.”
“And not that for much longer,” one of the CID men noted. “What’s next? Postie?”
A low rumble of laughter ran between them. Justin looked at the pub. A gaggle of figures were sunning themselves on the table at the front. “You could always have a beer. Good beer in the Green Man I’m told.”
There was, he thought, a certain inevitability in conversations involving policemen and pubs. One of the DCs looked at Wills hopefully and said, “No harm in a beer is there, sir? Not if you stand us down.”
Wills ran a hand through his sweaty scalp and licked his lips. “Never any harm in a beer, son. Best suggestion you’ve made all year, Liddle. Though not for you. Can’t have men in uniform drinking, can we?”
“Certainly not,” Justin said, looking suitable shocked. “And anyway, I’d like to fish around if you don’t mind…”
But no-one was listening. The gaggle of detectives was walking at an eager pace across the Minnis, eyes fixed collectively on the bar. Justin tried to collect his thoughts, scanned the cricket match and saw Miles Fenway there, sitting it out on the batsmen’s bench. Miles had been dragged from the game when Wills and his crew had descended on Priory House. He was already out, caught on a miserable hit which Justin had witnessed during the first over of the match. Miles had arrived back at the house from his business trip just as Wills’ team arrived. His response to the CID visit ranged from wide-eyed disbelief to mute fury. He was as much in the dark about Alison’s absence as anyone. Justin thought about Alison’s husband, swallowed hard, and walked around the perimeter of the pitch.
Miles looked up wearily from the bench. “No more stupid questions. Please.”
He gave a wry smile. “You can call me Miles, old chap. I think we’re… close enough for that.”
Justin felt deeply confused. There was something about Miles he liked, a lot. This should not have been surprising. Alison felt the same way. It didn’t make things any easier.
He sat down on the bench and stared at the bunch of plain clothes men hunched over two tables at the front of the Green Man. “I guess that’s right. Miles.”
“There. That wasn’t hard now, was it?”
“Look,” Justin said. “This is pretty awkward for me. As it is for you I’m sure. But it’s important we talk.”
“Is it?” Miles seemed genuinely foxed on that point. “Try to see things from my point of view, Justin. You lot have been all over my house looking for evidence my wife is some kind of drug dealer. And manifestly failing to find it. You don’t know where she is. I don’t know where she is. And now her summer boyfriend is sitting next to me going on about I don’t know what… Why is it important?”
He shook his head. “Tell me something new. Sometimes… she does this. I’ve known her a lot longer than you. Ali’s complicated. Sometimes she just needs to be on her own.”
“I take your word on that. And I’m not asking out of self-interest. Alison and I are over.”
Miles laughed. “Of course you’re over. You don’t think I’d be talking to you if you weren’t, do you?”
“No,” Justin answered, wondering how he could be so stupid.
“You’re yesterday’s man, Justin. In a sense you always were. Everything that’s happened here, in Beulah, with Ali and her life. All this has been about finding herself. Finding some cure. And I think we’re almost there. I think she’s coming round. Maybe she’s gone away because that’s part of the process too. I don’t know. Ali’s strong, you know. She has to be.”
She always said Miles was naïve. Justin was shocked to see it for himself. “There could be another explanation.”
Miles picked up a spare cricket ball, tossed it up and down in his hand, watching the desultory game slipping towards inevitable defeat. “Such as what? She really is a drug dealer and she’s on the run? What about Sara? I don’t see her fleeing.”
“She’s not a drug dealer. Not knowingly, Miles. But things are a touch more complicated than you think. Those CID blokes aren’t completely in the dark. More to the point, I think Ali could be in danger.”
The word had some magic property. Miles dropped the ball. “Danger? What kind of danger?”
“I think…” Where was it possible to begin without sounding ridiculous? “I think she saw something last year. At Burning Man. I think some people believe she’s got ambitions in the village. Ambitions that could threaten someone like Marjorie Tyler. I’d just like to know where she is. That’s all. And where Marjorie is for that matter. I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find hide nor hair of her.”
Miles stared at him and Justin tried to convince himself there was nothing idiotic in the gaze. Alison always said Miles was a genius at money and an ingénue at everything else. Justin hoped, prayed, this was only true up to a point.
“This is that murder nonsense again, isn’t it? That ridiculous notion she got into her head about someone being inside the fire. For Christ’s sake, Justin, I was here for Burning Man. Don’t you think I’d have noticed?”
“Were you sober? Were you looking? I talked to her about that. She was in a different position to the rest of you. And she found something. A finger bone.”
Miles’ face was immobile, unreadable. “Did you see it? This finger bone? I just thought…” He hated to admit it. “Oh, all right. I thought she was barking again.”
“She said it disappeared. Someone took it from the house. But who?”
Miles’ head dropped forward. He glowered at the dry earth and said, vehemently, “Shit…”
“Come with me.”
They got up from the bench and walked the few yards across the green towards Priory House. Miles cast a glance back at the pub. “Your friends are going.”
“What?” Justin turned and saw the detectives heading for the car park. “Damn.”
“I thought they could help. I pulled a very stupid trick to get them here. Otherwise I’m on my own if something happens.”
They walked up the drive. “You mean you tipped them off about something? That’s why they’ve been going through the drawers in my house? Turning over poor old Sara too?”
Miles could be smart too, he thought. “Partly. Sorry. But I had my reasons. And they didn’t take much pushing. There’s not time now, Miles, but I have to tell you Alison was in trouble before today. Badly.”
The back door was open. Another Beulah habit Justin had tried to curtail. Why did no-one lock their doors? More importantly, why did no-one ever get burgled?
“That can wait,” Miles said grimly, and led the way into the study. He stood before a big antique desk, opened the roll-up front and pulled out a tiny drawer of paper clips and elastic bands. Behind it was another compartment. Miles reached in and extracted an envelope.
He gave it to Justin. “I don’t know why I kept this. I should have just thrown it away.”
Justin opened it. Inside, on a small mat of white cotton wool, was a bone, charred and still stained with ash. “I don’t understand.”
“No,” Miles interrupted, and sounded a little sour. “I imagine you don’t. I didn’t until Sara let on. She was obsessed with this thing. It was as if everything started with it.”
They stared at the bone. The more they looked at it, the more it resembled a human artefact.
“God, I’m a bloody moron,” Miles said bitterly. “I thought it was part of the problem. I thought if I took it away we could go back to normal. I didn’t believe her.” He gazed miserably at Justin. “And you did, didn’t you? All along. That was what she needed, more than anything. Someone who believed. What an idiot I’ve been.”
“It’s just…” Justin wondered if Miles were about to break down completely. “You have to pull yourself together, Miles. We don’t have time for this. Something’s wrong. We need to find Alison.”
“You really think Marjorie’s involved?” Miles asked.
“Probably,” Justin replied cautiously. “Oh dammit. I know. I just can’t prove anything. And where the hell is she? I’ve looked everywhere.”
Miles looked outside. The cricket match was over. The light was failing. Most of the players had dispersed. No-one was working on the bonfire any more, which seemed smaller than last year’s. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Where is everyone?”
Justin followed his gaze onto the deserted Minnis. “What do you mean?”
“Last year… I was a bit pissed, but there seemed to be so many people. It was a party, for God’s sake. And now look.”
The two men gazed at the Minnis. It was virtually deserted. There were more people around of a good summer evening than seemed to have turned out for Burning Man.
“Bugger.” Justin cursed himself for being so stupid. They were right. He was a lousy copper. “Why the hell didn’t I think of that? What an idiot?”
Miles peered at him, baffled. “How do you mean?”
“They’re not going to do it outside the pub, in front of everyone. Not this year. They know I’m around. They know people are sniffing.”
Miles blinked and looked slow again. “You’ve lost me.”
“There’s nothing in the rules that says they have to use that bonfire. It’s just there to fool us. They’re all somewhere else.”
It came back to him. Naked bodies flying through the night. The clearing beyond the White Horse.
“In Sterning Wood. Where else?”
Miles rose from the desk and took down the long wooden case from the wall, opened it and gently withdrew the Purdey. Justin felt the temperature of the room descend several degrees. “No,” he said firmly. “No guns, Miles. They’re not needed.”
“Aren’t they?” There was a hard, unthinking fury in Miles Fenway’s eyes.
Miles looked intently into his face. “She’s my wife, old boy. My wife. No-one lays a finger on her again.”
(c) David Hewson 2012