cover

About the Book

Three years ago, forensics expert David Hunter abandoned his old life after a tragedy nearly destroyed him. Now working as a doctor in a remote Norfolk village, he believes he’s left his past behind.

But then they find what’s left of Sally Palmer …

The body has been savagely mutilated. The police need Hunter’s expertise to find the killer, but he is desperate to remain uninvolved. Then a second woman disappears and the close-knit community that had been Hunter’s refuge becomes a maelstrom of fear and paranoia. No one is exempt from suspicion. Suddenly, there is no place to hide …

Original and terrifying, this startling new British crime thriller has become an international bestseller.

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Read More

About the Author

Also by Simon Beckett

Copyright

THE CHEMISTRY
OF DEATH

Simon Beckett

For Hilary

1

A HUMAN BODY starts to decompose four minutes after death. Once the encapsulation of life, it now undergoes its final metamorphoses. It begins to digest itself. Cells dissolve from the inside out. Tissue turns to liquid, then to gas. No longer animate, the body becomes an immovable feast for other organisms. Bacteria first, then insects. Flies. Eggs are laid, then hatch. The larvae feed on the nutrient-rich broth, and then migrate. They leave the body in orderly fashion, following each other in a neat procession that always heads south. South-east or south-west sometimes, but never north. No-one knows why.

By now the body’s muscle protein has broken down, producing a potent chemical brew. Lethal to vegetation, it kills the grass as the larvae crawl through it, forming an umbilical of death that extends back the way they came. In the right conditions – dry and hot, say, without rain – it can extend for yards, a wavering brown conga-line of fat yellow grubs. It’s a curious sight, and for the curious what could be more natural than to follow this phenomenon back to its source? Which was how the Yates boys found what was left of Sally Palmer.

Neil and Sam came across the maggot trail on the edge of Farnham Wood, where it borders the marsh. It was the second week of July, and already the unnatural summer seemed to have been going on for ever. The heat seemed eternal, leaching the colour from the trees and baking the ground to the hardness of bone. The boys were on their way to Willow Hole, a reed pond that passed as the local swimming pool. They were meeting friends there, and would spend the Sunday afternoon bombing into the tepid green water from an overhanging tree. At least, so they thought.

I see them as bored and listless, drugged by the heat and impatient with each other. Neil, at eleven three years older than his brother, would be walking slightly ahead of Sam to demonstrate his impatience. There’s a stick in his hand, with which he whips the stalks and branches he passes. Sam trudges along behind, sniffing from time to time. Not from a summer cold, but from the hay fever that also reddens his eyes. A mild antihistamine would help him, but at this stage he doesn’t know that. He always sniffs during summer. Always the shadow to his bigger brother, he walks with his head down, which is why he and not his brother notices the maggot trail.

He stops and examines it before shouting Neil back. Neil is reluctant, but Sam has obviously found something. He tries to act unimpressed, but the undulating line of maggots intrigues him just as much as it does his brother. The two of them crouch over the grubs, pushing dark hair out of similar faces and wrinkling their noses at the ammoniac smell. And though neither could later remember whose idea it was to see where they were coming from, I imagine it to be Neil’s. Having walked past the maggots himself, he would be keen to assert his authority once more. So it’s Neil who sets off first, heading towards the yellowed tufts of marsh grass from which the larvae are flowing, and leaving Sam to follow.

Did they notice the smell as they approached? Probably. It would be strong enough to cut through even Sam’s blocked sinuses. And they probably knew what it was. No city boys, these, they would be familiar with the cycle of life and death. The flies, too, would have alerted them, a somnolent buzzing that seemed to fill the heat. But the body they discovered was not the sheep or deer, or even dog, they might have expected. Naked but unrecognizable in the sun, Sally Palmer was full of movement, a rippling infestation that boiled under her skin and erupted from mouth and nose, as well as the other less natural openings in her body. The maggots that spilled from her pooled on the ground before crawling away in the line that now stretched beyond the Yates boys.

I don’t suppose it matters which one broke first, but I think it would be Neil. As ever, Sam would have taken his cue from his big brother, trying to keep up in a race that led them first home, then to the police station.

And then, finally, to me.

As well as a mild sedative, I also gave Sam antihistamine to help his hay fever. By this time, though, he wasn’t the only one to have red eyes. Neil too was still shaken by their discovery, although now he was beginning to recover his juvenile poise. So it was he rather than Sam who told me what had happened, already starting to reduce the raw memory to a more acceptable form, a story to be told and retold. And later, when the tragic events of that preternaturally hot summer had run their course, years later Neil would be telling it still, forever identified as the one whose discovery had started it all.

But it hadn’t. It was just that, until then, we had never realized what was living among us.

2

I CAME TO Manham in the late afternoon of a wet March, three years earlier. I arrived in the train station – little more than a small platform in the middle of nowhere – to find a rainswept landscape that seemed as empty of human life as it was of contour. I stood with my suitcase and took in the surrounding scenery, barely noticing the rain that dripped down the back of my collar. Flat marshland and fens spread out around me, a linear topography broken only by patches of bare woodland as it stretched to the horizon.

It was my first time in the Broads, my first time in Norfolk. It was spectacularly unfamiliar. I took in the sweeping openness, breathed in the damp, cold air, and felt something, minimally, begin to unwind. Unwelcoming as it might have been, it wasn’t London, and that was enough.

There was no-one to meet me. I hadn’t arranged any transport from the station. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. I’d sold my car, along with everything else, and not given a thought to how I would get to the village. I still wasn’t thinking too clearly, back then. If I’d thought about it at all, with the arrogance of a city-dweller I’d assumed there would be taxis, a shop, something. But there was no taxi rank, not even a phone box. I briefly regretted giving away my mobile, then picked up my suitcase and headed for the road. When I reached it there were just two options, left or right. Without hesitating I took the left. No reason. After a few hundred yards I came across a junction with a faded wooden road sign. It leaned to one side, so that it seemed to be pointing into the wet earth to some point underground. But at least it told me I was heading in the right direction.

The light was fading when I finally reached the village. One or two cars had passed as I’d walked, but none had stopped. Other than those, the first signs of life were a few farms set well back from the road, each isolated from the other. Then ahead of me in the half-light I saw the tower of a church, apparently half-buried in a field. There was a pavement now, narrow and slick with rain but better than the verge and hedgerows I’d been using since leaving the train station. Another bend in the road revealed the village itself, virtually hidden until you stumbled across it.

It wasn’t quite a picture postcard. It was too lived in, too sprawling to fit the image of a rural English village. On the outskirts was a band of pre-war houses, but these soon gave way to stone cottages, their walls pebbled with chunks of flint. They grew progressively older as I drew nearer to the heart of the village, each step taking me further back in history. Varnished with drizzle, they huddled against each other, their lifeless windows reflecting back at me with blank suspicion.

After a while the road became lined with closed shops, behind which more houses ran off into the wet dusk. I passed a school, a pub, and then came to a village green. It was ablaze with daffodils, their yellow trumpets shockingly colourful in the sepia world as they nodded in the rain. Towering over the green, a gigantic old horse chestnut spread its bare black branches. Behind it, surrounded by a graveyard of canted, moss-covered stones, was the Norman church whose tower I’d seen from the road. Like the older cottages, its walls were encrusted with flint; hard, fist-sized stones that defied the elements. But the softer mortar surrounding them was weathered and worn by age, and the church windows and door had subtly warped as the ground it stood on had shifted over the centuries.

I stopped. Further on I could see that the road gave way to more houses. It was obvious that this was pretty much all there was to Manham. Lights were on in some of the windows, but there was no other sign of life. I stood in the rain, unsure which way to go. Then I heard a noise and saw two gardeners at work in the graveyard. Oblivious to the rain and dying light, they were raking and tidying the grass around the old stones. They carried on without looking up as I approached.

‘Can you tell me where the doctor’s surgery is?’ I asked, water dripping down my face.

They both stopped and regarded me, so alike despite the disparity in their ages that they had to be grandfather and grandson. Both faces held the same placid, incurious expression, from which stared calm, cornflower-blue eyes. The older one motioned towards a narrow, tree-lined lane at the far side of the green.

‘Straigh’ up there.’

The accent was another confirmation I was no longer in London, a coiling of vowels that sounded alien to my city ears. I thanked them, but they’d already turned back to their work. I went up the lane, the sound of the rain amplified as it dripped through the overhanging branches. After a while I came to a wide gate barring the entrance to a narrow drive. Fixed to one of the gateposts was a sign saying ‘Bank House’. Beneath it was a brass plaque that said ‘Dr H. Maitland’. Flanked by yews, the drive ran gently uphill through well-kept gardens, then dropped down to the courtyard of an imposing Georgian house. I scraped the mud from my shoes on the worn cast-iron bar set to one side of the front door, then raised the heavy knocker and rapped loudly. I was about to knock again when the door was opened.

A plump, middle-aged woman with immaculate iron-grey hair looked out at me.

‘Yes?’

‘I’m here to see Dr Maitland.’

She frowned. ‘The surgery’s closed. And I’m afraid the doctor isn’t making home visits at the moment.’

‘No … I mean, he’s expecting me.’ That brought no response. I became aware of how bedraggled I must look after an hour’s walk in the rain. ‘I’m here about the post. David Hunter?’

Her face lit up. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize. I thought … Come in, please.’ She stood back to let me in. ‘Goodness, you’re soaked. Have you walked far?’

‘From the station.’

‘The train station? But that’s miles!’ She was already helping me off with my coat. ‘Why didn’t you call to tell us when your train was in? We could have had someone pick you up.’

I didn’t answer. The truth was it hadn’t occurred to me.

‘Come through into the lounge. The fire’s lit in there. No, leave your case,’ she said, turning from hanging up my coat. She smiled. For the first time I noticed the strain evident in her face. What I’d taken earlier for terseness was just fatigue. ‘No-one’ll steal it here.’

She led me into a large, wood-panelled room. An age-worn leather chesterfield faced a fire on which a pile of logs were glowing. The carpet was Persian, old but still beautiful. Surrounding it were bare floorboards burnished to a deep umber. The room smelled appealingly of pine and wood smoke.

‘Please sit down. I’ll tell Dr Maitland you’re here. Would you like a cup of tea?’

It was another sign I was no longer in the city. There it would have been coffee. I thanked her and stared into the fire when she had gone out. After the cold, the heat made me drowsy. Outside the French window it was now completely dark. Rain pattered against the glass. The chesterfield was soft and comfortable. I felt my eyelids begin to droop. I stood up quickly, almost panicking as my head began to nod. All at once I felt exhausted, physically and mentally drained. But the fear of sleep was even greater.

I was still standing in front of the fire when the woman came back. ‘Do you want to come through? Dr Maitland’s in his study.’

I followed her down the hall, shoes creaking on the floorboards. She tapped lightly on a door at the far end, opening it with an easy familiarity without waiting for an answer. She smiled again as she stood back for me to enter.

‘I’ll bring the teas in a few minutes,’ she said, closing the door as she went out.

Inside, a man was sitting at a desk. We regarded each other for a moment. Even sitting down I could see he was tall, with a strong-boned, deeply lined face and a thick head of hair that was not so much grey as cream. But the black eyebrows contradicted any suggestion of weakness, and the eyes beneath them were sharp and alert. They flicked over me, receiving what sort of impression I was unable to say. For the first time I felt faintly disturbed that I wasn’t exactly at my best.

‘Good God, man, you look drenched!’ His voice was a gruff but friendly bark.

‘I walked from the station. There weren’t any taxis.’

He gave a snort. ‘Welcome to wonderful Manham. You should have let me know you were coming a day early. I’d have arranged a lift from the station.’

‘A day early?’ I echoed.

‘That’s right. I wasn’t expecting you till tomorrow.’

For the first time the significance of the closed shops dawned on me. This was a Sunday. I’d not realized how badly skewed my sense of time had become. He pretended not to notice how thrown I was by my gaffe.

‘Never mind, you’re here now. It’ll give you more time to settle in. I’m Henry Maitland. Pleased to meet you.’

He extended his hand without getting up. And it was only then I noticed his chair had wheels on it. I went forward to shake his hand, but not before he’d noticed my hesitation. He smiled, wryly.

‘Now you see why I advertised.’

It had been in the appointments section of The Times, a small notice that was easy to overlook. But for some reason my eyes had fallen on it straight away. A rural medical practice was looking for a GP on a temporary contract. Six months, accommodation provided. It was the location that attracted me as much as anything. Not that I particularly wanted to work in Norfolk, but it would take me away from London. I’d applied without much hope or excitement, so when I’d opened the letter a week later I’d been expecting a polite rejection. Instead I found I’d been offered the job. I had to read the letter twice to take in what it was saying. At another time I might have wondered what the catch was. But at another time I would never have applied for it in the first place.

I wrote back to accept by return of post.

Now I looked at my new employer and belatedly wondered what I’d committed myself to. As if reading my mind, he clapped his hands on his legs.

‘Car accident.’ There was no embarrassment or self-pity. ‘There’s a chance I’ll recover some use in time, but until then I can’t manage by myself. I’ve been using locums for the past year or so, but I’ve had enough of that. A different face from one week to the next; that’s no good for anyone. You’ll learn soon enough they don’t like change around here.’ He reached for a pipe and tobacco on his desk. ‘Mind if I smoke?’

‘Not if you don’t.’

He gave a laugh. ‘Good answer. I’m not one of your patients. Remember that.’

He paused while he held a match to the pipe bowl. ‘So,’ he said, puffing on it. ‘Going to be quite a departure for you after working in a university, isn’t it? And this certainly isn’t London.’ He looked at me over the top of the pipe. I waited for him to ask me to enlarge on my previous career. But he didn’t. ‘Any last-minute doubts, now’s the time to speak up.’

‘No,’ I told him.

He nodded, satisfied. ‘Fair enough. You’ll be staying here for the time being. I’ll get Janice to show you to your room. We can talk more over dinner. Then you can make a start tomorrow. Surgery kicks off at nine.’

‘Can I ask something?’ He raised his eyebrows, waiting. ‘Why did you hire me?’

It had been bothering me. Not enough to make me turn it down, but in a vague way nevertheless.

‘You looked suitable. Good qualifications, excellent references, and ready to come and work out in the middle of nowhere for the pittance I’m offering.’

‘I would have expected an interview first.’

He brushed aside the comment with his pipe, wreathing himself in smoke. ‘Interviews take time. I wanted someone who could start as soon as possible. And I trust my judgement.’

There was a certainty about him I found reassuring. It wasn’t until long afterwards, when there was no longer any doubt that I’d be staying, that he laughingly confided over malt whiskies that I’d been the only applicant.

But right then such an obvious answer never occurred to me. ‘I told you I don’t have much experience in general practice. How can you be sure I’m up to it?’

‘Do you think you are?’

I took a moment to answer, actually considering the question for the first time. I’d come here so far without thinking very much at all. It had been an escape from a place and people it was now too painful to be around any longer. I thought again about how I must look. A day early and soaking wet. Not even sense enough to come in out of the rain.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘There you are then.’ His expression was sharp, but there was an element of amusement. ‘Besides, it’s only a temporary post. And I’ll be keeping an eye on you.’

He pressed a button on his desk. A buzzer rang distantly somewhere in the house. ‘Dinner’s usually around eight, patients permitting. You can relax till then. Did you bring your luggage or is it being sent on?’

‘I brought it with me. I left it with your wife.’

He looked startled, then gave an oddly embarrassed smile. ‘Janice is my housekeeper,’ he said. ‘I’m a widower.’

The warmth of the room seemed to close in on me. I nodded.

‘So am I.’

That was how I came to be the doctor at Manham. And how, three years later, I came to be one of the first to hear what the Yates boys had discovered in Farnham Wood. Of course, no-one knew who it was, not straight away. Given its evident condition the boys couldn’t even say if the body was that of a man or a woman. Once back in the familiarity of their home, they weren’t even sure if it had been naked or not. At one point Sam had even said it had wings, before lapsing into uncertainty and silence, but Neil just looked blank. Whatever they had seen had overwhelmed any terms of reference they were familiar with, and now memory was baulking at recalling it. All they could agree on was that it was human, and dead. And while their description of the abundant sea of maggots implied wounds, I knew only too well the tricks the dead can play. There was no reason to think the worst.

Not then.

So their mother’s conviction was all the stranger. Linda Yates sat with her arm around her subdued youngest son, huddled against her while he half-heartedly watched the garishly coloured TV in their small lounge. Their father, a farm worker, was still at work. She’d called me after the boys had run home, breathless and hysterical. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon, there was no such thing as off-duty in a place as small and isolated as Manham.

We were still waiting for the police to arrive. They clearly saw no reason to rush, but I felt obliged to stay. I’d given Sam the sedative, so mild as to be almost a placebo, and reluctantly heard the story recounted by his brother. I’d tried not to listen. I knew well enough what they would have seen.

It wasn’t anything I needed reminding of.

The lounge window was wide open, but no breeze came through to cool the room. Outside was dazzlingly bright, bleached to whiteness by the afternoon sun.

‘It’s Sally Palmer,’ Linda Yates said, out of the blue.

I looked at her in surprise. Sally Palmer lived alone on a small farm just outside the village. An attractive woman in her thirties, she’d moved to Manham a few years before me after inheriting the farm from her uncle. She still kept a few goats, and the blood-tie made her less of an outsider than she might otherwise have been; certainly less than I was, even now. But the fact she made her living as a writer set her apart, and made most of her neighbours regard her with a mixture of awe and suspicion.

I hadn’t heard any talk of her being missing. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because I had a dream about her.’

It wasn’t the answer I expected. I looked at the boys. Sam, calmer now, didn’t seem to be listening. But Neil was looking at his mother, and I knew whatever was said here would be spread around the village the moment he got out of the house. She took my silence as scepticism.

‘She was standing at a bus stop, crying. I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t say anything. Then I looked down the road, and when I turned back she was gone.’

I didn’t know what to say.

‘You have dreams for a reason,’ she went on. ‘That’s what this was.’

‘Come on, Linda, we don’t know who it is yet. It could be anyone.’

She gave me a look that said I was wrong, but she wasn’t going to argue. I was glad when the knock came on the door, announcing the arrival of the police.

There were two of them, both solid examples of rural constabulary. The older man was florid-faced, and periodically punctuated his conversation with a jovial wink. It seemed out of place under the circumstances.

‘So, you think you’ve found a body, do you?’ he announced cheerily, shooting me a look, as if to include me in an adult joke that was over the boys’ heads. While Sam huddled against his mother, Neil mumbled responses to his questions, cowed by the uniformed authority in their home.

It didn’t take long. The older police officer flipped his book closed. ‘Right, we’d better go and take a look. Which one of you boys is going to show us where it was?’

Sam burrowed his head into his mother. Neil said nothing, but his face paled. Talking was one thing. Going back there was another. Their mother turned to me, worried.

‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ I said. In fact, I thought it was a lousy one. But I’d dealt with the police enough to know diplomacy was usually better than confrontation.

‘So how are we supposed to find it when neither of us know the area?’ he demanded.

‘I’ve got a map in the car. I can show you where to go.’

The policeman didn’t try to hide his displeasure. We went outside, squinting in the sudden brightness. The house was the end one of a row of small stone cottages. Our cars were parked in the lane. I took the map out of my Land Rover and opened it on the bonnet. The sun glanced off the battered metal, making it hot to the touch.

‘It’s about three miles away. You’ll have to park up and cut across the marsh to the woods. From what they said the body should be somewhere round here.’

I pointed to an area on the map. The policeman grunted.

‘I’ve got a better idea. If you don’t want one of the boys to take us, why don’t you?’ He gave me a tight smile. ‘You seem to know your way around.’

I could see by his face that I wasn’t going to have any choice. I told them to follow me and set off. The inside of the old Land Rover smelled of hot plastic. I wound both windows down as far as they would go. The steering wheel burned my hands as I gripped it. When I saw how white my knuckles were, I made myself relax.

The roads were narrow and meandering, but it wasn’t far. I parked in a rutted semicircle of baked earth, the passenger door brushing against the yellowed hedge. The police car bumped to a halt behind me. The two officers climbed out, the older one hitching up his trousers over his gut. The younger, sunburned and with a shaving rash, hung back a little.

‘There’s a track across the marsh,’ I told them. ‘It’ll take you to the woods. Just keep following it. It can’t be more than a few hundred yards.’

The older policeman wiped the sweat from his head. The armpits of his white shirt were dark and wet. An acrid waft came from him. He squinted at the distant wood, shaking his head.

‘It’s too hot for this. Don’t suppose you want to show us where you think it is?’

He sounded half-hopeful, half-mocking.

‘Once you reach the woods your guess is as good as mine,’ I told him. ‘Just keep an eye out for maggots.’

The younger one laughed, but stopped when the other looked at him balefully.

‘Shouldn’t you let a scene of crime team do this?’ I said.

He snorted. ‘They’ll not thank us for calling them out for a rotting deer. That’s all it usually is.’

‘The boys didn’t think so.’

‘Well, I think I’d rather see it for myself, if you don’t mind.’ He motioned to the younger man. ‘Come on, let’s get this over with.’

I watched the two of them clamber through a gap in the hedge and make their way towards the woods. He hadn’t asked me to wait, and I couldn’t see any point in staying. I’d brought them as far as I could; the rest was up to them.

But I didn’t move. I went back to the Land Rover and took a bottle of water from under my seat. Tepid, but my mouth was dry. I put my sunglasses on and leaned against the dusty green wing, facing towards the woods where the police officers were heading. The flatness of the marsh had already swallowed them from sight. The heat gave the air a steamy, metallic taint, full of the hum and chirrup of insects. A pair of dragonflies danced past. I took another drink of water and looked at my watch. There was no surgery today, but I had better things to do than stand around on a roadside waiting to see what two rural policemen found. They were probably right. It could have just been a dead animal the boys had seen. Imagination and panic had done the rest.

I still didn’t move.

A while later I saw the two figures heading back. Their white shirts bobbed against the bleached grass stalks. Even before they’d reached me I could see the pallor of their faces. The younger one had a wet stain of vomit on his front that he seemed unaware of. Wordlessly, I handed him the bottle of water. He took it gratefully.

The older one wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘Can’t get a bloody signal out here,’ he muttered as he went to their car. He was trying for his earlier gruffness, but not quite making it.

‘It wasn’t a deer then,’ I said.

He gave me a bleak look. ‘I don’t think we need keep you any longer.’

He waited until I was in the Land Rover before he made his call. As I drove away he was still on the radio. The younger police officer was staring at his feet, the bottle of water dangling from his hand.

I headed back to the surgery. Thoughts were buzzing away in my head, but I’d erected a screen, keeping them out like flies behind mesh. I kept my mind blank by an effort of will, but the flies were still whispering their message to my subconscious. The road leading back into the village and the surgery came up. My hand went to the indicator and then stopped. Without thinking about it, I made a decision that would echo down the weeks to come, one that would change my own life as well as that of others.

I went straight on. Heading for Sally Palmer’s farm.

3

THE FARM WAS bordered by trees on one side and marshland on the others. The Land Rover threw up dust as it jolted along the rutted track that led to it. I parked on the uneven cobblestones that were all that was left of the courtyard and got out. A tall corrugated-metal barn shimmered in the heat. The farmhouse itself was painted white, peeling and fading now, but still blindingly bright in the sun. Bright green window boxes were fixed either side of the front door, the only shot of colour in a bleached-out world.

Usually, if Sally was in, her Border collie Bess would set off barking before you had chance to knock. Not today, though. There was no sign of life through the windows, either, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. I went to the door and knocked. Now I was here my reason for coming seemed pretty stupid. I stared out towards the horizon as I waited, trying to think of what I should say if she answered. I supposed I could always tell her the truth, but that would make me look as irrational as Linda Yates. And she might misconstrue it, take the reason for my visit as something more than a nagging disquiet I couldn’t explain.

Sally and I had, if not exactly a history, then at least something more than a casual acquaintance. There had been a time when we’d seen quite a lot of each other. Not too surprising, really: as outsiders who’d both moved to the village from London, we had our past metropolitan lives in common. Plus she was around my age, and the outgoing sort who made friends easily. And attractive. I’d enjoyed the few times we’d met in the pub for drinks.

But that was as far as it had gone. When I began to sense she might want more I backed off. She’d seemed puzzled at first, but as things had never really had a chance to develop between us there had been no ill feeling or embarrassment. When we bumped into each other we still chatted easily enough, but that was all.

I’d made sure of that.

I knocked on her door again. I remember I actually felt relieved when she didn’t open it. She was obviously out, which meant I wouldn’t have to explain why I was there. Come to that, I didn’t even know myself. I wasn’t superstitious, and unlike Linda Yates I didn’t believe in premonitions. Except she hadn’t said it had been a premonition, not exactly. Just a dream. And I knew all about how seductive dreams can be. Seductive and treacherous.

I turned away from the door, and the direction in which my thoughts had started to travel. It was just as well she wasn’t here, I thought, annoyed with myself. What the hell had I been thinking of? Just because some hiker or birdwatcher had died was no reason to let my imagination run away with me.

I was halfway back to the Land Rover when I stopped. There was something bothering me, but until I turned around again I didn’t know what it was. It still took me a few moments before I realized. It was the window boxes. The plants in them were brown and dead.

Sally would never let them get that way.

I went back. The soil in the boxes was baked hard. No-one had watered them for days. Perhaps longer. I knocked on the door, called her name. When there was no answer I tried the handle.

It wasn’t locked. It was possible she’d got out of the habit of locking her door since she’d lived here. But she was from a city, like me, and old habits died hard. The door stuck as I opened it, caught on the mound of envelopes that lay behind. They slithered in a mini-avalanche as I pushed my way in and stepped over them into the kitchen. It was as I remembered: cheerful lemon walls, solid rustic furniture and a few touches that showed she hadn’t been able to leave behind all traces of the city – an electric juicer, stainless-steel espresso maker and large, well-stocked wine-rack.

Other than the build-up of post, at first glance there was nothing wrong. But the house had a musty, unaired smell, overlaid with the sweet scent of decaying fruit. It came from an earthenware bowl on the old pine dresser, a still-life memento mori of blackened bananas, apples and oranges furred white with mould. Dead flowers, now unrecognizable, hung limply over a vase on the table. A drawer by the sink was half-open, as if she’d been disturbed as she was about to take something from it. I automatically went to close it, but left it as it was.

She could be on holiday, I told myself. Or been too busy to bother throwing out old fruit and flowers. There were any number of possible explanations. But I think at that point, like Linda Yates, I knew.

I considered checking the rest of the house, but decided against it. Already I was starting to think of it as a potential crime scene, and I knew better than to risk contaminating any evidence. Instead I went back outside. Sally’s goats were in a paddock around the back. One glance confirmed that something was badly wrong. A few were still standing, emaciated and feeble, but most were lying prone, either unconscious or dead. They’d almost stripped the paddock of grass, and when I went to the water trough it was bone dry. A hose was lying nearby, obviously used to fill it. I hung it over the edge of the trough and followed the other end back to a standpipe. As water spluttered into the metal trough one or two of the goats tottered over and began to drink.

I would get the vet over here, just as soon as I’d called the police. I took out my phone but there was no signal. Reception around Manham was notoriously patchy, which made mobile phones unpredictable at the best of times. I moved further from the paddock and saw the signal bars stutter into life. I was about to dial when I noticed a small, dark shape half-hidden behind a rusting plough. With a tense, oddly certain feeling of what it would be, I went over.

The body of Bess, Sally’s Border collie, lay in the dry grass. It looked tiny, its fur dusty and matted. I batted away the flies that left it to inspect my fresher meat and turned away. But not before I’d seen how the dog’s head had been almost severed.

The heat seemed suddenly to have intensified. My legs automatically took me back to the Land Rover. I resisted the urge to get in and drive away. Instead, putting it between me and the house, I continued with my call. As I waited for the police to answer I stared at the far green smudge of the woods I’d just come from.

Not again. Not here.

I realized a tinny voice was coming from the phone. I turned away from both the distant wood and the house.

‘I want to report a missing person,’ I said.

The police inspector was a squat, pugnacious man called Mackenzie. Perhaps a year or two older than me, the first thing I noticed about him were his abnormally large shoulders. The lower part of his body seemed out of proportion in comparison; short legs tapered to absurdly dainty feet. It would have given him the appearance of a cartoon bodybuilder if not for the blurring line of his gut, and a threatening aura of impatience that made it impossible to take him anything less than seriously.

I’d waited by the car while Mackenzie and a plain-clothed sergeant had gone to look at the dog. They’d seemed unhurried, almost unconcerned as they strolled over. But the fact that a chief inspector from the Major Investigation Team was here instead of uniformed officers was a sign this was being taken seriously.

He’d come back over to me while the sergeant had gone inside the house to check the rooms. ‘So tell me again why you came.’

He smelled of aftershave and sweat, and, faintly, of mint. His sunburned scalp flamed through his thinning red hair, but if he felt any discomfort at standing out in the sun he didn’t show it.

‘I was near by. I thought I’d call round.’

‘Social call, was it?’

‘I just wanted to make sure she was all right.’

I wasn’t going to bring Linda Yates into it unless I had to. As her doctor I had to suppose she’d told me what she had in confidence, and I didn’t think a policeman would put much stock in a dream anyway. I should have known better myself. Except that, irrational or not, Sally wasn’t here.

‘When was the last time you saw Miss Palmer?’ Mackenzie asked.

I thought back. ‘Not for a couple of weeks.’

‘Can you narrow it down more than that?’

‘I remember seeing her in the pub for the summer barbecue about two weeks ago. She was there then.’

‘With you?’

‘No. But we spoke.’ Briefly. Hi, how are you? Fine, see you later. Hardly meaningful, as last words go. If that’s what they were, I reminded myself. But I no longer had any doubt.

‘And after not seeing her since then you suddenly decided to come round today.’

‘I’d just heard a body had been found. I wanted to check that she was all right.’

‘What makes you so sure the body is a woman’s?’

‘I’m not. But I didn’t think it would hurt to make sure Sally was OK.’

‘What’s your relationship?’

‘Friends, I suppose.’

‘Close?’

‘Not really.’

‘You sleeping with her?’

‘No.’

‘Been sleeping with her?’

I wanted to tell him to mind his own business. But that’s what he was doing. Privacy didn’t count for much in these situations, I knew that well enough.

‘No.’

He stared at me without saying anything. I looked back at him. After a moment he took a packet of mints from his pocket. As he unhurriedly put one in his mouth I noticed the odd-shaped mole on his neck.

He put the mints back without offering me one. ‘So you weren’t in a relationship with her? Just good friends, is that it?’

‘We knew each other, that’s all.’

‘But you still felt compelled to come out to see if she was all right. No-one else.’

‘She lives out here by herself. It’s pretty isolated even by our standards.’

‘Why didn’t you phone her?’

That stopped me. ‘It didn’t occur to me.’

‘Does she have a mobile?’ I told him she did. ‘Do you have her number?’

It was in my phone memory. I scrolled to it, knowing what he was going to ask and feeling stupid for not having thought of it myself.

‘Shall I ring it?’ I offered, before he could say anything.

‘Why don’t you?’

I could feel him watching me as I waited for the connection to be made. I wondered what I would say if she answered. But I didn’t really think she would.

The bedroom window opened in the house. The police sergeant leaned out.

‘Sir, there’s a phone ringing in a handbag.’

We could hear it faintly from behind him, a tinkling electronic tune. I rang off. In the house the notes stopped. Mackenzie nodded to him. ‘All right, it was just us. Carry on.’

The sergeant disappeared. Mackenzie rubbed his chin. ‘Doesn’t prove anything,’ he said.

I didn’t answer.

He sighed. ‘Christ, this bloody heat.’ It was the first sign he’d given that it bothered him. ‘Come on, let’s get out of the sun.’

We went to stand in the shadow of the house.

‘Do you know of any family?’ he asked. ‘Anyone who might know where Miss Palmer is?’

‘Not really. She inherited this place, but as far as I know she doesn’t have any more family in the area.’

‘How about friends? Apart from yourself.’

There might have been a barb there, but it was difficult to tell. ‘She knew people in the village. But I don’t know of anyone in particular.’

‘Boyfriends?’ he asked, watching for my reaction.

‘I wouldn’t know. Sorry.’

He grunted, looking at his watch.

‘So what happens next?’ I asked. ‘Will you check if the DNA from the body matches a sample from the house?’

He regarded me. ‘You seem to know a lot about it.’

I could feel my face reddening. ‘Not really.’

I was glad when he didn’t pursue it. ‘We don’t know this is a crime scene yet anyway. We’ve got a woman who may or may not be missing, that’s all. There’s nothing to link her to the body that’s been found.’

‘What about the dog?’

‘Could have been killed by another animal.’

‘From what I could see the wound in its throat looks like a cut, not a tear. It was made by a sharp edge.’

Again he gave me that appraising look, and I kicked myself for saying too much. I was a doctor now. Nothing else. ‘I’ll see what the forensic boys say,’ he told me. ‘But even if it was, she could have killed it herself.’

‘You don’t really think that.’

He seemed about to retort, then thought better of it. ‘No. No, I don’t. But I’m not going to jump to conclusions, either.’

The house door opened. The sergeant emerged, giving a shake of his head. ‘Nothing. But the lights had been left on in the hallway and lounge.’

Mackenzie nodded, as if that were what he’d expected. He turned to me. ‘We’ll not keep you any longer, Dr Hunter. Someone’ll be around to get your statement. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk about this to anyone.’

‘Of course not.’ I tried not to feel annoyed that he’d even asked. He was turning away, speaking with the sergeant. I started to go, then hesitated.

‘Just one thing,’ I said. He glanced at me, irritably. ‘That mole on your neck. It’s probably nothing, but it might not hurt to get it checked out.’

I left them staring after me as I went back to the car.

I drove back to the village feeling numbed. The road cut past Manham Water, the shallow lake or ‘broad’ that each year lost a little more of itself to the encroaching reedbeds. Its surface was mirror still, fragmented only by a flight of geese that descended onto it. Neither the lake nor the choked creeks and dykes that cut through the marshes to it were navigable, and with no river close to the village Manham was bypassed by the boat and tourist traffic that descended on the rest of the Broads during summer. Although only a few miles separated it from its neighbours, it seemed to belong to a different part of Norfolk, older and less hospitable. Surrounded by woodland, bog-like fens and poorly drained marshland, it was a literal as well as figurative backwater. Apart from the occasional birdwatcher the village was left to itself, sinking further into its isolation like an antisocial old man.

Perversely, this evening Manham looked almost cheery in the sunshine. The flowerbeds in the church and village green were like punches of colour, so bright they hurt. They were one of Manham’s few sources of pride, scrupulously maintained by old George Mason and his grandson Tom, the two gardeners I’d met when I’d first arrived. On the edge of the green, even the Martyr’s Stone had been garlanded with flowers by the local schoolchildren. It was an annual event, decorating the old millstone where in the sixteenth century a woman had supposedly been stoned to death by her neighbours. The story went that she’d cured an infant of some palsy, only to be accused of witchcraft. Henry joked that only Manham could martyr someone for doing a good turn, and claimed there was a lesson there for both of us.

I didn’t feel like going home, so I headed for the surgery. I often went there, even when I didn’t have to. At times my cottage could feel lonely, whereas at the big house there was always at least the illusion of work, if nothing else. I let myself into the back door that led into the self-contained clinic. An old conservatory, dense and humid with plants that Janice lovingly tended, served as a reception and waiting room. Part of the ground floor had been converted into Henry’s private living quarters. But that was at the other end of the house, which was more than big enough to accommodate all of us. I’d taken over his old consulting room, and as I closed the door behind me the scent of old wood and beeswax was calming. Even though I’d been using it almost every day since I’d arrived it was still more a distillation of Henry’s personality than mine, with its old hunting oil, roll-top desk and leather-seated captain’s chair. The bookshelves were filled with his old medical books and journals, as well as less obvious subjects for a village GP. There were texts by Kant and Nietzsche, and an entire shelf given over to psychology – one of Henry’s hobby-horses. My only contribution to the room was the computer monitor that hummed quietly on the desk, an innovation Henry had disgruntledly acquiesced to after months of persuasion.

He never had recovered enough to return to work full-time. Like his wheelchair, my temporary contract had developed into something more permanent. It had been first extended, then changed into a partnership when it became apparent that he would no longer be able to run the practice solo. Even the old Land Rover Defender I now drove had once been his. It was a battered old automatic, bought after the car crash that had left him a paraplegic and killed his wife Diana. Buying it had been a statement of intent, when he still clung to the hope of being able to drive – and walk – again. But he never had. Or ever would, the doctors had assured him. ‘Idiots. Put someone in a white coat and they think they’re God,’ he’d scoffed.

Eventually, though, even Henry had to accept that they were right. And so I’d inherited not just the Land Rover, but bit by bit most of the practice as well. We’d split the workload more or less equally to begin with, but increasingly more and more of it had been left to me. That didn’t stop him remaining ‘the proper doctor’ in most people’s eyes, but I’d given up minding long ago. I was still a newcomer as far as Manham was concerned, and probably always would be.

Now, in the late-afternoon heat, I tried visiting a few medical websites, but my heart wasn’t in it. I stood up and went to open the French windows. The fan on my desk whirred, noisily stirring the turgid air without cooling it. Even with the windows open, the difference was purely psychological. I stared out across the neatly tended garden. Like everything else it was parched; shrubs and grass almost visibly withering in the heat. The lake ran right up to the garden’s border, with only a low embankment as protection from the inevitable winter flooding. Moored to a small jetty was Henry’s old dinghy. It was little more than a glorified rowing boat, but Manham Water wasn’t deep enough for anything else. It was hardly the Solent, and there were still areas that were too shallow or clogged with reeds to venture into, but both of us enjoyed going out on it even so.

There was no chance of raising a sail today, though. The lake was so still there was no movement at all. From this angle there was only a scribble of distant reeds separating it from the sky. All was flatness and water, an emptiness that, depending on your mood, could be either restful or desolate.

I didn’t find it restful now.

‘Thought I heard you.’

I turned as Henry wheeled himself into the room. ‘Just sorting out a few things,’ I said, pulling my thoughts back from where they’d wandered.

‘Like a bloody oven in here,’ he muttered, stopping in front of the fan. Except for the non-use of his legs he looked the picture of health; creamy-white hair over a tanned face and keen dark eyes.

‘So what’s this about the Yates boys finding a body? Janice was full of it when she brought my lunch.’

Most Sundays Janice would deliver a covered plate with whatever she’d cooked for herself. Henry insisted he was capable of cooking Sunday lunch himself, but I noticed he rarely put up much of a struggle. Janice was a good cook, and I suspected her feelings for Henry went beyond those of housekeeper. Unmarried herself, I guessed her disapproval of his late wife stemmed mainly from jealousy, although she’d hinted more than once at some old scandal. I’d made it clear I didn’t want to know. Even if Henry’s marriage hadn’t been the idyllic affair he now seemed to recall, I’d no interest in raking over the bones of gossip.

But I wasn’t surprised that Janice knew about the body. Half the village would be buzzing with the news by now.

‘Over by Farnham Wood,’ I told him.

‘Some birdwatcher, probably. Yomping around with a backpack in this heat.’

‘Probably.’

His dark eyebrows went up at my tone. ‘What, then? Don’t tell me we might have a murder? That’d liven things up a bit!’ His smile faded when I didn’t join in. ‘Something tells me I shouldn’t joke about it.’

I told him about my visit to Sally Palmer’s house, hoping talking about it might make it seem less of a possibility. It didn’t.

‘Good Christ,’ Henry said heavily, when I’d finished. ‘And the police think it might be her?’

‘They didn’t say one way or the other. I don’t suppose they can, yet.’

‘God, what a bloody thing to happen.’

‘It might not be her.’

‘No, of course not,’ he agreed. But I could see he didn’t believe it any more than I did. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I could do with a drink.’

‘Thanks, but I’ll give it a miss.’

‘Saving yourself for the Lamb later?’