HOME TO ROOST
Jason Berry had started at 6:30, as he did every day: out of bed by 5:45, cup of coffee, cereal, on his bike and away. No need to wash because he had bathed very thoroughly the night before. He bathed very thoroughly every night, lying in the suds, knackered and dreaming, while his mum and his sister watched the telly downstairs. He dreamed of the future –– a future when he could afford a motorbike or even a car; when he could afford some decent clothes; a future when he wouldn't have to live with his mum and his sister; a future when he wouldn't have to work on Guy Granville's farm.
By 7:30, he had almost finished the cleaning. The electric lights were on eighteen hours a day to give maximum laying time, so it was already hot. The hens were housed in rows of metal cages three tiers high, with three or four birds to a cage. Four long alleyways of birds, all shrieking and squalling and pecking. And shitting.
Jason's first job of the day was to remove the bodies, and there were always five or six. They were so bored and cramped and demented that they pecked each other to death. It usually started when one bird was laying an egg, and the other birds pecked around the hole as the egg squeezed out. Jason wondered how they decided which one to attack. But now he was shifting shit.
He trundled the awkward, overloaded shit machine to the trapdoor and pulled the lever to release its load onto the pile below.
It was then he saw the leg, naked and white.
Except for the Argyle pattern sock.
And then it disappeared under the slurry.
Michael Power examined his face in the bathroom mirror: unshaven, eyes blood-shot, skin a pale yellowish-grey — except for his left cheek where a purple and ochre bruise was blooming around broken skin. He had drunk half of a bottle of twenty-five-year-old Ardbeg single malt after he had got home. It was the same age as he was himself and had been a birthday present from his father. He turned to the clock on the windowsill –– 10:15. He would be late, very late.
His phone went "Ping" in his dressing gown pocket.
From Christiane's mobile.
WhatsApp: Photo of Christiane pulling a funny face.
Message Adieu pour toujours.
He had done wrong, and he knew it. Three livid tracks marked where her nails had raked the inside of his left forearm. They stung and wept tiny beads of fluid: infected, inflamed. He put the phone on the edge of the sink and began to wash his arm.
'Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.' A thin coil of blood ran down his arm and dripped into the water.
He started murmuring the prayer again as he reached for a throwaway razor: 'Hail Mary, full of grace . . .'
"Ping". Another photo of Christiane – naked this time and posing coyly for the camera like an old-fashioned glamour model, one hand behind her head and the other covering her sex. He had never seen this image before, and, despite himself, he felt a lurch of desire.
"Ping" Snapchat. A stuttering, juddering video. Police, some dressed in clear plastic over-suits – like a scene from a TV show. He recognised Guy Granville. And the boy – Justin? No - Jason. It was taken at the farm. They were all gathered around a big pile of what must be chicken shit, steaming in the cold morning air.
The camera lurched up to the sky and then zoomed in onto a hand in a transparent plastic glove. The hand-held an ankle. It was covered in muck. It was her ankle.
And the foot wore a sock –– an Argyle pattern sock. His sock.
The phone shot out of his soap-covered hand and ricocheted off the edge of the bath. He dived forward and managed to deflect it away from the toilet bowl but banged his bottom lip on the porcelain. The force of his sideswipe had sent the phone crashing against the tiles and spinning into the bath. Michael bent to retrieve it, and a spot of blood hit the white of the bathtub from where his lip had met his teeth.
He wiped the phone dry on a towel. It still worked, although there were now two diagonal cracks across the screen. He tried to retrieve the video, but it wasn't there –– it had already been deleted.
It was as though it had never happened.
But it had happened: he had seen it.
Detective Chief Inspector James Gawthorpe drove his new Volvo slowly down the narrow lane towards the Granville farm. There had been heavy rain during the night, and he avoided the ruts and potholes of what was more of a track than a road: it would be a shame if he picked up a dent on the Volvo's first outing. He was also determined not to be bullied by the black Audi TT that had been on his tail since the Candovers. He indicated and slowed down — enough, he hoped, to irritate the Audi driver.
He turned left into the entrance of Granville House, its iron gates threaded with bindweed and hanging permanently open on their brick pillars. The Audi accelerated past him, kicking up mud and stones in its wake and James heard a metallic 'ting' as something ricocheted off the rear wing. He had succeeded in irritating the Audi driver — karma.
He continued up the avenue of ancient beech trees to a circular driveway in front of the house. It was already littered with police vehicles and he manoeuvred carefully onto a patch of grass in the middle until his bonnet nuzzled a plinth on which stood a statue of Pan. It was green with lichen and moss where it wasn't white with pigeon poo.
There was just enough space between his Volvo and a white SUV for Gawthorpe to squeeze out. He unwound himself with an involuntary grunt, reached inside for his leather shoulder bag, closed the door and inspected the rear wing for damage. A tiny dent and the glint of bare metal disfigured the pristine, maroon paintwork.
Michael felt the Audi bottom on what was probably a flint as he took a left off the track and pulled abruptly on the handbrake. The wheels locked, and the car slid forward before coming to a stop on the slick, wet grass. In front of him was an ancient five-bar gate, tied shut by a loop of orange bailer twine. Having left the engine rumbling, he went to open the gate, but it was heavy and had sunk on its hinges. He had to lift it and pull backwards to open it but slipped onto his backside and half-winded himself.
Looking up from the ground at the grey, scudding clouds, he suddenly felt very young and very alone; he was cold and wet, and he wanted someone to give him a cuddle and tell him everything would be all right. But it wasn't all right, and there was no one to cuddle him. And it would never be all right: not ever again.
He pulled himself up the gate and onto his feet before sliding into the driver's seat, his trousers wet and cold and slithery on the skin of his buttocks. The bridleway led through a copse that bordered the Granville farm, and the recent rain meant that the girls of the local horsey set had churned it to a quagmire. Taking care not to spin the wheels, he eased the car along in second gear and turned into a clearing.
He parked so that nobody could see the car from the road and then retrieved his wellingtons from the boot. He had got the left one on and was trying to get his right foot into the other when he remembered the sock on her foot, her dead foot, sticking up out of the shit. There had been two socks, Argyle pattern. Where was the other one? The police would trace them back to him.
His stomach lurched. Who had got her phone? Who had sent those messages?
Not Christiane. Not if she was . . . Not if she was dead.
Whoever sent the messages thought Michael had killed her. And if they thought it was him, then others would too. His heart was hammering so fast and so hard that he could see his shirt move to its rhythm. People his age did have heart attacks: in the Hampshire Chronicle last week, young bloke playing football, no warning . . .
He forced himself to take a breath, but his mouth was so dry that his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He reached inside the car for the bottle of water he always kept in the side of the door, but it was empty, and he remembered that Christiane had drunk from it last night when he drove her back to the farm. She must have finished it.
His bowels were turning over, and he knew he had to empty them before he could carry on. As he squatted, miserable and scared, he heard the faint sound of voices from the direction of the farm. He must find out what was happening.
James saw the location of the murder when he turned past the old, open-fronted barn and looked down into the shallow valley and the woods beyond. Two long, steel-clad buildings lay side by side below him, green with moss and algae. They were raised on piles to accommodate the slope of the land and the activity was concentrated around the front of the nearest of them. Arc lights had been set up to illuminate the scene and figures in blue, plastic suits were busy taking photographs as others with spades delicately removed bucket-loads of greenish muck from the large pile of greenish muck that lay under the overhanging floor.
James followed the yellow and black police tape that led down the muddy, steeply sloping path and then formed a barrier in front of the crime scene. A uniformed sergeant stood, watching the activity from the periphery. He looked up and, seeing James, he raised a hand in welcome and made towards him, smiling. James recognised the face from a course he had run at the Hamble Police Training Centre. He also remembered that he hadn't taken to the face's owner. What was his name?
'Chief Inspector Gawthorpe?'
'Welcome to the funny farm. We've met before - Hamble - interrogation course, last year. Keith Burgess - Sergeant at Basingstoke.'
Burgess offered his hand and James shook it.
'We’re up to our proverbials in the brown stuff.'
Burgess opened his arm out, presenting the crime scene as though he were a stage magician. James turned in time to see one of the SOCOs pulling back a fold of solidified manure to reveal the face of the principal player.
'They dropped her through the trap.' Burgess pointed up to the rectangular hole in the underneath of the chicken house floor. 'Head first.' Two male SOCOs in their masks and anonymous plastic suits held her upside down by the ankles and behind her knees in order to maintain the position in which she had been uncovered. Another was busy taking photographs.
The eyes were half open; her face whiten and smeared, her short, dark hair clinging to her head like a swimming cap, slick with muck and water. In life she had clearly been pretty, if not beautiful.
She wore a short, black skirt that had ridden up to the top of her thighs and a white blouse under a black bolero jacket. There was what appeared to be blood in her hair and on the blouse. And there was a sock on her left foot, an Argyle pattern sock. Unusual in that the predominant colour was electric blue. Not an obvious choice to go with the rest of the outfit.
James looked to a group beyond the focus of activity and set apart in their own pen of black and yellow tape. A woman constable was holding a teenage boy, his head buried into her shoulder. Next to them stood a middle-aged man in an ancient waxed jacket. He had turned away and was in the process of lighting a cigarette. The WPC looked up and met James's gaze, the green of her eyes heightened by the darkness of her skin. Like James, she was unusually tall.
'The boy is Jason Berry,’ said Burgess, 'he found the body when he was cleaning out the birds at about seven-thirty. Rang us straight away.' For the first time James became aware of the background noise coming from the long sheds: the muffled sound of thousands of chickens.
'The bloke sparking-up is Guy Granville. He owns the farm.'
'And the constable?'
‘Pandi. Josna Pandi. Only been at Basingstoke a couple of months. Won't be with us long — she's on the "The Police High Potential Development Scheme". If James had been looking at Burgess, he was sure he would have been curling his lip. 'Got everything, that one: young, female, black — well, Asian. Not white anyway. Got a degree. Can't fail.’ He paused, ‘Good-looking - if you like that sort of thing.'
'And you don't?' James turned to Burgess and looked him in the eye. Burgess knew he was being challenged, but he held James’s gaze.
‘No, not my cup of Darjeeling, sir.’
Michael had forced himself to go slowly through the thicket in an attempt to avoid the brambles and the thorn bushes that snagged at his clothes. He would have to replace his suit. In fact, he should destroy it, burn it - it was something else he may have to explain. A particularly vicious trailing bramble raked his ear and his hand came away bloodied. But he needed to see what was happening, so he carried on –– stumbling through the undergrowth. He had played here as a child, building camps in the woods with the other boys and trying to avoid Allie Cousins, the Granvilles' gamekeeper. That was before Michael's dad had bought up most of Hugh Granville's land and began to build. An estate of large and very desirable houses - Powers Court, now overlooked the farm.
He could now see bright lights through the trees and he could hear the thin crackle of police radios, but he needed to get nearer still if he was to get a proper view of what was going on. He forced his way past a holly bush and stumbled forward down a low bank into a waterlogged ditch that was choked with decaying vegetation.
He pulled himself out using an exposed tree root, his trousers sticking coldly to his legs like a second, uncomfortable skin, but he carried on, cautious now that he could hear individual voices and make out the odd word. He stopped: the undergrowth was becoming less dense and, ahead, he could see the remains of the rusting barbed wire fence that was the boundary between the woods and the farm.
He was standing by a tree, a low-growing willow. It was the last proper tree before the copse became scrub and bushes. He began to climb, trying to avoid too much noise and movement until he was about ten feet up. Standing uncomfortably on two branches and bracing himself against the trunk, he looked out. He was about fifty yards away, but everything seemed surprisingly close. He could see Granville and his wife, the boy, uniformed police and anonymous figures in plastic suits. They parted for a moment to reveal a gurney and the shape of a body under a plastic sheet.
The reality of the young girl’s body and the proximity of death gave Josna pause for thought. She should be excited to be part of a murder investigation: this is why she had left her job with Goldman-Sachs. This is what she had given up the fat salary for; the smart suits, the smart friends. This is why she had said goodbye to the house in Primrose Hill. She had wanted to do something worthwhile, to make a difference, but now all she felt was an acute awareness of her own mortality and a terrible, empty pointlessness.
Josna turned away and felt a hand take hers. It was Jason. She turned to look at him, but he was preoccupied. ‘Look’, he said and pointed beyond the fence that bordered the farmland. At first, she couldn't see anything but then caught a flash of white. It was a shirt. There was a man in one of the trees. She dropped Jason’s hand and began to run through the tussocky grass.