Emmaus | Mark Wagstaff | The Piltdown Review

Emmaus

Emmaus

“EMMAUS” is Third Prize winner in our 2018 Fall/Winter Fiction Contest.

“Who has the background noise?”

“My downstairs neighbor.”

He slid the probe from my ear. “What’s French for monkey?”

“Monkey.”

Slowly returning around his cluttered desk, he dabbed at it for support. Grunting, he subsided into his leather chair. A man my age, nearly done. “Do you suffer from short-term memory loss?” His weathered Glasgow accent made every question an accusation.

“I don’t remember, Alec.”

“That’s good. Very good.” His pen wagged at me. “Still got your sense of fun.” He leaned forward, aiming his knuckles. The very likeness of a doctor considering serious matters. “I don’t want you to think it’s all up, Jim. You’re a way off yet from sitting in a chair not knowing if you have pants on. But it’s not surprising.” He let that hang. “You’re no youngster. You start to forget. Make mistakes.”

“I reversed into the Superintendent.”

“Didn’t kill him though.”

“I had no clue he was there, what I’d done.” The video showed a bunch of them chasing my car. That wasn’t the painful part. Alec had been my doctor thirty years. Nothing about me was secret and nothing surprised him. “I was on a shout. Attending a breach of the peace. Some nut marching round his garden with a shotgun, sieg heiling. That’s where I was meant to be. But I wasn’t, Alec. I was fifteen miles away. Eating ice cream.” Choke it off. Men my age don’t cry. “When they found me I had no explanation, none, why I was there. It’s only because of compassion, I’m told, that I’m not facing charges.”

“I’m not saying it’s not unfortunate, Jim.”

“And that other time.” It was a fight to squash the hurt from my voice. “I was meant to take a statement from that woman. I went to the pub. Tried to buy a drink with my badge. Alec, I’m not myself anymore.”

“No need to fret, man.”

“That’s huge, Alec, thanks.” Thirty years on the force. No sickness. No breakdowns. No trouble, just the usual. Now it was better for me to stay home.

I was the last patient he’d see that day. At the window, spring sunshine looked inviting even for old men. Once or twice a year, I had dinner at Alec’s. I had watched his daughters learn table manners, then lose them. Graduate, move away and, occasionally, beam news from elsewhere onto Alec’s old laptop. I had watched Maureen, his wife, go from long blonde hair to clipped silver. From a white coat with pens in the pocket to well-cut, uneventful dresses. I had watched Alec age from boisterous idealist to someone with every right to be satisfied. And he had watched me, from bachelor to husband to widower. To a man who sometimes forgot his dead wife’s name.

He spread his hands, the skin around his mouth too solid now to more than suggest a smile. “What do you want me to tell you?”

“What can I do for this?” I knew he was waiting for me to stop asking, so he could get away to his garden and a whisky and water.

He blew air from his lungs like he’d come to the end of a long, unprofitable journey. “Listening to music you used to like can make you less anxious. Keep active. Stay in touch with the past. Maybe watch some old television shows. Old sports games. The internet holds all our yesteryears.”

“You want me to sing old songs?”

“I want you to not worry.” He heaved himself forward. “You’re not even halfway crackers yet.”

After the incident with the Superintendent I wasn’t allowed to drive. I had to get the bus to the block of flats where I lived since Tamsin, that’s it, Tamsin, my wife, since she died. I hadn’t wanted to keep the house with her half-finished improvement projects. I hadn’t wanted that garden which, to her, was a wild paradise. I hadn’t wanted the ghosts of her prodigious joy and profuse sulking. How ironic, then, that those memories faded like unrecalled dreams.

I could get home on the bus okay and the streets where I lived didn’t surprise me. Like Alec said, not halfway crackers. Yet. What he didn’t grasp, and I found too hard to explain, was for thirty years the work I was proud to do hinged on observation, recall, control of the details. For detectives, there’s a premium on unravelling what we see. As it was, when I got home from Alec’s surgery, I pressed the wrong button in the lift and stared at doors five minutes before guessing I was in the wrong hallway.

Denied duty, each day was the same day. The realization that my friends were all police. The discovery, again, that people I thought still alive were dead. It never concerned me before, that lack of contact outside law enforcement. Especially since my wife, Tamsin, she died, work had made life make sense. Going midnight to dawn on a stakeout. Writing it up, then slap on a tie to recite the words in court. Then a late afternoon murder—who needs friends? Every day now I watched TV in pajamas.

TV had sprouted new channels like cheese breeds mold. Obscure sports got heavy daytime placement. Minority sports. Non-participatory activities that didn’t translate to the local park or waste ground. Show­jumping. Even before I began to forget, I could go months at a stretch without thinking of show­jumping. My perception of equestrian sport was lucrative prizes, valuable assets and easy potential for gambling fixes and fraud.

Stagnating on full pay, I watched costly, gleaming horseflesh rear over planks of wood. The horses looked mostly the same to me. And the spectators, a cloudy mass of expensive coats, eccentric hats and white faces. Starved of work, I got involved. Groaning with the crowd at each fence down. Cheering every clear round. But I couldn’t remember who was leading or what came after, each bout in the sawdust ring a qualifier to a qualifier. What stayed was the riders’ hard jaws and the fever in each horse’s eye.

I considered Alec’s advice. The internet agreed that old songs brought back forgotten times. It didn’t warn those times might be bad. Too many songs, when I remembered which song I was looking for, made me think of my wife and the women before, or possibly during, my marriage. I was never a music fan anyway.

The video sites analyzed my searches. They offered recommendations. Films and TV shows with disapproved humor, plots that only worked without mobile phones, and risible male fashions. I recognized a lot of it. I’d laughed at those jokes and worn those trousers. My sideburns had been mutton chops. But seeing the past couldn’t repay the gradual erosion of now.

One day, I don’t know what day, but clouds thickened and, as the storm broke, the room drowned in dense green light. Like some other occasion I couldn’t remember. Flicking through sports channels, I found a cheap-looking feature about kids at the street level of equestrian action. Shoveling shit in shithole towns to be part of the thing. One cheerful young woman, who lived somewhere that was always raining, cleaned horses while she described her dreams of glory. She said people had the wrong idea. I remember she said that. It wasn’t just rich kids, but kids who loved horses. Her parents were just normal, she said. Top riders had come from normal backgrounds. Like the 1980s. Like Emma-Jane Garside.

It’s a balls-ache explaining the gap from one thought to the next. This girl in her waterproof cape, leading horses about, talking cheerful, the rain smacking off her hat. And her words percolated around and around. Scraps of her voice returned, as lightning flashed over the window. Till I googled Emma-Jane Garside, show­jumper.

A shiver of long-term memory as words spilled down the screen. Emma-Jane Garside born 1964 in the arse-end of the East Midlands. By her late teens, with a clutch of rosettes, a future star of British show­jumping. When she calmed down, the blazers said. When she stopped riding so reckless. 1984 at Hickstead, she took her stallion Emmaus foot-perfect through the Devil’s Dyke, jumped clean from the Derby Bank but was denied the trophy on time faults and stood awkwardly with the ribbon winners, not talking to anyone. Enlarging the video showed a slick of mud on her cheek. Either no one bothered to tell her or she didn’t care.

The year after, at twenty-one, she blew it. Emmaus, a tall, black, thunder-faced creature, sailed the jumps like they were nothing. Barely set down a shoe in the Devil’s Dyke and when Garside lunged him to the top of the Derby Bank, stood surveying the crowd like a willful, displeased king. Then Garside lost it. She launched Emmaus from the top of the bank. The Derby Bank stands ten feet six. From that height, this eighteen hands, fourteen hundred pounds of hot-blooded muscle flew through the air, its valuable legs swimming. The commentator screamed—in a show­jump meet, screamed—they’d both be killed. They swooped over the upright rails at the foot of the bank, an impossible feat, before landing at the gallop for a tight turn up the course. Garside rode one-handed while she unstrapped her riding helmet and threw it at the crowd. She unpinned her long black hair. It flapped insolently against her spine as she charged from the ring, the klaxon wailing to confirm her disqualification.

A month later she was dead. Overdosed on amphetamine sulfate to which, the Coroner wrote, Garside was addicted. Emmaus grew violent and unruly. Broke out of his stall, kicked a stable hand bad and was shot. Neither had offspring.

I wrote all that out, the first page of my notes. Local police, who knew their patch, saw no reason to add to her family’s grief. Speed was a commonplace drug, with rural areas under-patrolled and under-reported. They pulled a couple of local dealers and, tracking back, a bloke in Northampton grinding the paste in his cellar. The Coroner’s verdict was Death by Misadventure, in that Garside had willfully ignored the risks of the drug. Videos of her always had RIPs in the comments and abuse from animal rights campaigners at the danger she inflicted on that big black horse. Close-ups showed a short, square-faced young woman with unruly hair and eyes that never met the camera. Drug tests weren’t common back then. Anyway, they tested horses not riders.

As I clicked through each video, bright splinters of memory speared the fog. Memories of the 1980s, before I married, watching Emma-Jane Garside fly her midnight stallion over the rails. I saw the Hickstead ride on TV at the time and, as a young man, wanted a woman like that. Before thirty years of police work blunted my tolerance for madness. I couldn’t remember one day to the next. But I remembered Emma-Jane Garside.

After Garside blew up at Hickstead, her already precarious career was damaged. Most likely she was paranoid, unbalanced. What was missing from the internet was her voice. She gave only perfunctory interviews. Yes and No, shrugs and grunts. I was home on full pay while the Chief Superintendent decided what to do with me, following episodes of forgetfulness that included, apparently, running over his direct report. Forced retirement was likely. A care worker’s cheerful daily visits and, soon, a residential home the horrendous probability. I was bored anyway.

“Who did you say?” Whoever answered the phone in Northampton was properly skeptical.

“Detective Inspector Jim Crawford, Metropolitan Police.” I read that from my warrant card. “I’m calling about a case. In 1985.”

“When?”

“1985. I need to speak with archives or records. Whoever deals with those things.”

“You’re calling from the Metropolitan Police?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll need to make an access request. What’s your interest?”

I used to be good at spinning a line. Calling up provincial detectives and getting them chatty. I had the power of the Met and could remember my own fucking name. “A death. In 1985. The Garside case.”

“Before my time. Make an access request. Someone can help you.”

I dabbled around online, signed up to newspaper archives. Forgot the passwords. Eventually found the story in The Times. Not a full obituary. PROMISING YOUNG SHOW­JUMPER FOUND DEAD. The usual quote about the police “not looking for anyone else.” The signal for suicides and misadventures. Strategic use of “troubled”—the “troubled young competitor.” The signal for drugs. A few lines for a brief life. Warm words for her family attributed to Detective Sergeant Stan Ekins, Northampton CID.

I called a mate at the Met, a bloke with access to pension records. We chatted a bit about his kids, though their names, ages, everything went from my mind. I should have been scared my memory was fading. But I had adrenaline still. “Need a favor, Bob. Rob. I need a favor, Rob. Can you find when a bloke retired from Northampton?”

“Should be able to, Jim. You sure he’s retired?”

“His name’s Stan Ekins. No one under sixty would have that for a moniker. Can you look now?”

“Not right now.”

“When?”

“Jim, what’s this about?” Lads were chatting behind him. Keyboards clicking. People with work to do. “Aren’t you meant to be taking things easy?” He picked his words with forensic care. “Not exactly on duty, are you?”

“It’s someone I worked with. I just . . .” There it was. I’d reached the end of my ability to explain. The effort of saying words and how much I cared who heard them outweighed by the pain of grappling the fog in my head. Already I wasn’t sure why I thought he could help. “It’s okay . . . Rob. I’m just getting in touch with people.”

“What’s the doctor say?”

“He told me to watch old TV shows. I might as well. I already forgot what happens at the end.”

He chuckled. “Jim, I seen your pension numbers. They’ll get you in for a little chat, show you the calculations, shake hands and off you go. None of us wanted this. You’re a well-liked man. Don’t make it worse by going off on some mad safari.”

“Can you find out about Ekins for me?”

“I’ll phone you back.” I know he said that, because I wrote it here in my notes. Wrote everything straight away, before I forgot.

I lived on takeaways because I hated shopping. That crap, toddling round stores with a basket. I was building quite a collection of silver cartons and plastic bags. Rob called just after I ordered Chinese. Ekins left his unflashy career in 1999. Late-fifties and no doubt looking forward to a long, uneventful retirement in north Wales. Which didn’t happen, because in 2004 his car skidded into a tree. Helen, his widow, moved back to Northampton to be near her kids.

“I’m telling you this as a favor.” Rob stiffened his voice. “You stay put and get better. Expect a call from the Chief Super’s office. He’ll want to see you next week.”

“You got an address for Mrs. Ekins?”

“Jesus. Don’t you get it when someone says sit down and shut up?”

When Tamsin died I wanted to rewind life to before I met her. Bachelor again, place of my own and no strings. But living with her was like two chemicals reacting. We fused and were changed and couldn’t be disaggregated. I wasn’t a lad-about-town anymore. I was a bloke whose wife died. The street where I lived became so familiar, when I left for work each day I didn’t see it. But now, going outside after a week indoors, I recognized nothing. The shops weren’t shops anymore. They were performances by trained rats, to scare passers-by. The buildings were moving, shifted by gears from below. The people weren’t the same as before. They were a new kind of people. I had to stop one to ask directions. He stared as though I appalled and amused him. Like a carcass washed clean on the beach.

Somehow I made it to Euston and onto the train. Everyone helped me along, so I’d be someone else’s problem. I couldn’t remember if I’d been to Northampton before. I didn’t write down much of the journey, but the sense of space, huge fields, the distant horizon. Chipped gray hills that could have been hundreds of miles away. Not real-seeming. A slick façade.

Northampton was drab and tiring. Wide flat roads, tidy trees. An arbitrary spot that had grown from a moment’s weakness. I got a cab to the address Rob grudgingly gave me, the driver’s chat about traffic and immigrants made a routine lullaby. Time was, I would have been all over the windows. Checking every street and doorway for a gesture, a glance that jarred, a manner that seemed too easy. But those streets were strange, the same strangeness I felt in streets I used to know. It hunkered me in the back of the cab. It made me a liar, where once I’d been watchful of lies.

“This is you, mate,” said the driver, as we pulled into Collingtree. “Nice round here.”

I didn’t argue. The neat, tall-hedged cul-de-sacs, lined with bungalows built deep and wide to keep rooflines low, was exactly the landscape teenage runaways sweat to escape from. I dumped a big note in his hand. “Stay lucky.”

The middle-aged woman who answered the door had an angry mouth and inflexible gaze that heightened the noise around her. Music, TV, teenage voices.

“Detective Inspector Jim Crawford. Metropolitan Police.”

Maybe her kids had done a bit and she practiced that unimpressed look for when police knocked at her door. She glared over my shoulder, perhaps checking windows across the street. “London police?”

“Can I come in?”

“Why?”

My badge was hollow. I had no orders, no backup. “Do you know Mrs. Helen Ekins?”

A slight twitch, left eye. “My mom? What about her?”

“I’d like to speak with the lady. If she’s home.” The words didn’t come from conscious thought. They popped fresh as a can from a coin slot.

“What do you mean, if she’s home?” Mrs. Ekins’ daughter filled the doorway with maternal certainty. “Where else do you think she’d be?”

From the bright-lit rear of the house, a young kid shouted at her. A scrappy adolescent girl in clothes that looked like pajamas. She stopped moving when she saw me, but her mouth kept working. “Mom. I said where’s my Vans? Mom?”

That twitch responded to the girl’s voice, though the woman kept staring at me. “Why do you need to speak with my mother?”

“Mom. I’m going. Like, now.”

To confirm it, a car roared into the street, braking fiercely behind me. Loud, throaty engine. Some pimped-up hatch, by the sound.

“Great.” The girl flung her arms in a tough shape. “I’ll go like a fucking tramp.”

Through the tantrum and noise of the car, the woman’s eyes never left my face. “Seems odd. A London policeman out here. Wanting to speak with an elderly lady.”

An indeterminate time had passed since the cab ride. The doorstep, the woman’s face, became the content of my day. I checked my notebook to remind myself why I was there. “It’s about Detective Sergeant Ekins. One of his investigations.”

When I looked up, two mop-haired boys jammed the hallway, fighting over something. The girl, now in a hoodie and jeans, dug by her mother and me with steel-tipped elbows. She snarled, “People just fucking stand there.”

The hatch was electric blue. Metallic finish, sports tires and sunroof. The lad at the wheel had the sides of his head shaved and a gelled pompadour. Beige leather jacket like some ’80s fly boy. Grinning, perfect teeth. The girl sauntered to the passenger side without speaking. Soon as her door closed the car took off, leaving a boom and blue smoke chafing the breeze. Time was, I’d have got the plate.

The boys in the hallway scuffled, kicking each other with sock feet. From back in the house, an old woman’s voice called, “Jane. What was that noise?”

“Can I just get a moment with the lady?” My nudge towards the door easily thwarted.

“Not without approval from Northampton police. You could be any nutter.”

I lurched backwards as she slammed the door.

I walked to the corner, baffled. My phone said it was late afternoon, nearly evening. Among high hedges, dusk became night. There must have been times I’d been made to look stupid. But I felt irrelevant. Lacking in tactics. I rattled about, but those piddly roads all looked the same. Overgrown bungalow houses with skips and caravans, cars on the gravel, vertical blinds, white cladding. An autumn place, any time of year.

I walked along some country lane. Among whispering hedges, I felt every shiver of leaves in the gutter. I wrote that down, light failing so fast I could barely read my own words. A few cars sped by, breaking the limit. Locals, they knew there was no traffic.

A hotel took shape from the shadows. An off-motorway, dormitory place. An automatic choice for perfunctory nights between towns. I walked through the car park, forcing myself to identify hatches, sedans, tall off-roaders. To try to remember what they were called. The cases I worked where this or that car was the proof or the doubt. Cars I drove. The car I reversed into some bloke who shouldn’t have stood there. My wife’s trophy car, her violet Hillman Avenger. She had it when we got married. Still had it when her freaky brain choked on its own blood. I wrote that down.

The hotel splayed from a central pagoda with the straight lines of a geriatric home. The reception area was squat and glassy, with a carpet that looked like bricks. The young lad at the desk, an obvious local, seemed more concerned than welcoming. I told him, “I need a room. Just the one night.”

He busied his hand through his hair a few times, letting each floppy lock fall plum into place.

“Excuse me. I need a room.”

“You don’t have a reservation?” Strangled-sounding, like he was trying not to laugh.

“No. I just got here. I need a room.”

He tapped his keyboard. “Reg number?”

“I don’t have a car.”

“You walk here or something?”

“Yes. I walked here. That’s why I need a room.” From habit, I showed him my warrant card. Always used to do the trick. “That’s me. That picture. I’m in your delightful town and fetched up here.”

He watched me like he’d have to play the good sport. “Detective Inspector Crawford,” he read slowly. “Will this be charged to your employer?”

“Yes. You can invoice Scotland Yard.”

He gave a tight, prissy smile. “I’ll need a card number. For room service.”

The room was gloomy but better than a ditch. I made a cup of tea, took a shower, ordered a club sandwich, delivered by a pale woman with a lip ring and tattoos blinking from her shirt cuffs. Hunting my wallet to give her a tip, I asked was she local.

She glanced at the black window. “Pretty much.” A voice grained with angry shyness.

“I know people in the village. Down there. Ekins. They have a daughter about your age.”

She moved to the door. “You don’t need to bother. It’s on your card.”

I found my wallet, her face quivering at the note I pulled out. “You know them? Ekins the name is. They got the old mother there too. The girl’s about your age.”

She was out the door, slamming it like a punch.

The sandwich was barely generous, but I was hungry and ate quickly while trying to figure the over-complex TV. My interest in world or local or any events had become hemmed by forgetting. Some faces looked familiar. Some locations had a sheen of recognition. But each time I watched the news it was like hearing gossip from a town I visited every ten years, whose activities were of limited value.

Whoever knocked, I told to wait. It’s not my style to be sat on the bed, scoffing sandwiches from a tray. When I got to my feet and said come in, I thought it was the oik from reception, then realized this man was older. Though with the same wipe-clean suit and gassy hair. Slick and tense, he could have been a dealer of stolen jewelry.

“Mr. Crawford?”

“And you are?”

“Brian Hinch. I’m manager here.” He gandered the room, satisfied it was part of his empire. “You have a moment, Mr. Crawford?” He closed the door with absurd gentleness, like it was three in the morning.

Being businesslike I muted the TV. Or would have done if I pressed the right button on the remote. The channel changed to a sci-fi show. Knobby-head figures pointing hairdryers at each other.

We watched it a second, then he said, “I’m sorry. It’s a serious matter. There’s been a complaint.”

“Isn’t that your department?”

His fingers were at his cuffs, tweaking non-existent buttons. “One of my staff told me they felt intimidated by you. They felt your behavior wasn’t appropriate.” His voice left a damp stain on the air.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“My member of staff said you referred inappropriately to their age. You offered them money.”

Already just a vague moment on the conveyor to being forgotten. “That waitress?” I gawped at him. “I only asked if she knew a local girl. I was giving her a tip.”

He made some uncomfortable noise. “She got the impression you expected something.”

“I expected her to take my money. Are you sure about this?”

He managed a look of genteel shock. “We take all feedback seriously.”

“Feedback?” TV noise filled each shifty moment. I was confused why he looked like a lost dog. “So that’s settled? You got feedback?”

“Please understand.” He forced his voice louder. “My member of staff is unsettled by this.” A clammy hand ran through his hair, disarranging it. “I may have to take steps.”

That was a long, fruitless day and I knew I’d wake in the morning marooned at the arse-end of nowhere. I’d discovered nothing and forgotten more. “I’m really quite tired, Mr. Dench.”

“Hinch.”

“Why don’t we just sleep on it. Tell her that.”

“Can I say you’ll give an apology?”

“I’m tired, Mr. Hinch. Tomorrow, eh?”

He fingered the doorknob. “I’m not sure I can control what happens next.”

“I know just how you feel.”

Forgetting was exhausting. I made notes, watched bad TV. Next thing, breakfast news told me someone I never heard of died.

Then a fist on the door with more weight than Brian Hinch.

Staggering from the trough I’d made of the blankets, the wardrobe mirror showed a gray-stubbled, creased old man. I could hardly stand or catch my breath.

Pounding at the door went on and a voice that wasn’t shouting, but spoke with a firm decision I instinctively recognized. Without time for a piss, I opened the door on the morning-fresh sight of a brushed and ironed pair, itching like hives to get in. They hustled by me, eyes everywhere. They showed their credentials.

“Detective Sergeant Eliza Fenn. This is my partner, Detective Constable Martin Stark. Northampton CID.” Stark was checking the bathroom. A tidy kid, I guessed part of some graduate intake to raise the local IQ. Fenn was the one to watch. Busy eyes and a scarred left temple. Those eyes processed my crumpled state. “I understand that you’re,” a theatrical glance at her notebook, “Detective Inspector Jim Crawford. From London. See your badge please.”

Badge, like we were American. I fished my warrant card from my balled-up jacket. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Detective Sergeant?”

“We had a complaint from one of the staff.” A twang of needles and bruises. Proper copper.

“Can I say I’m surprised that’s a matter for the detective branch?”

Fenn and Stark shared a glance. Fenn scowled. “Well of course it’s not. More a nice coincidence.”

Stark nodded, eager to please his boss. “We’d have found a reason.”

“We’ve got a reason.” Fenn was solid. I bet she posted good clear-up. “Detective Inspector Crawford. These are informal questions. I’d be obliged if you answer as fully as possible. Why are you in Northampton?”

I knew the game. Unimpressed locals, hating the city boy. “I like country air.”

“We did our homework.” Her skin was blotchy. Her teeth uneven and sharp. “We know you’re on sick leave from the Met. After several unfortunate incidents. We know you don’t have family or connections here. When I ask, ‘Why are you in Northampton?’ I’m really asking, why did you visit an address in Collingtree yesterday afternoon? You know what I’m talking about. Feel free to share.”

She must have learned from the old boys, not the charm school stuff they do now. Stark knew that, he was twitching. But I wasn’t in the mood for scalp hunters. “I have a medical condition. Quite possibly early-onset dementia. I’m finding short-term memory an increasing challenge. That’s why I’m stood down from active duty. My doctor advised I should fill my days with meaningful activity. Travel. Stimulates the mind.”

“In Northampton?” Stark was showing off, catching the ball for the boss. Scary to think what the ones who failed the exam were like.

Fenn’s menace was more reassuring. “Detective Inspector. When I say, ‘Visited an address in Collingtree’, which, so you’re clear, is twelve minutes’ walk from here, I’m really saying, what’s your interest in Helen Ekins? Or her late husband, Detective Sergeant Stan Ekins? You see I gave you a chance there and you didn’t take it?”

Behind my smile was a need for calculation that wasn’t happening then. I knew as well as anyone that telling the truth to police was a delicate business. But my capacity to give things a beneficial twist had diminished somewhat from my heyday. A blameless, open pitch was the best I could do. “I’m using my time to research noteworthy cases. Might make a book of it maybe. The inside story, people go for that.”

My hunch was Fenn had been lied to. At work, at home, since the day she was born. Her sharp, shallow breath, restless fingers, that gleaming scar seemed steeped in disbelief. Little boy Stark would absorb any toss. His stance, his gestures, infected with customer service. Fenn was the boot in the spine after dark. Her ringless fingers described tight circles. “You’re writing a book on old cases?”

I polished a smile. “Quite a market. True crime.”

“You know that Detective Sergeant Ekins died in sad circumstances?”

“RTA I believe. Tragic.”

Fenn scrubbed her nose with her fist.

Stark said, “You interested in a particular case?”

She barked like a cobra. “I doubt the Detective Inspector is writing Stan Ekins’ life story.” Close-to, her skin was mazed with old acne and chicken pox pits. “I suggest, Detective Inspector Crawford, that if you want to study the history of Northamptonshire Police you make a request to Wootton Hall in the usual manner. I also suggest you don’t contact, visit or harass the widows of deceased officers. Especially being so close to your pension. Shall I write that down so you remember?”

Before I could get a word out, she had my notebook from the bed. “You’ve made your point, Detective Sergeant.” My voice too shrill, too airy. “Harassment cuts both ways. You can’t touch that without a warrant.”

“I’m not taking it.” She cracked the book against the air. “This is police property.”

“I’m a police officer.”

“Detective Sergeant.” Stark tapped his watch. “We should go to the briefing.”

No doubt if we’d been alone Fenn would’ve pushed harder. Of course she dropped my notebook and, swooping to pick it up, thumbed back the elastic. For a second, it gaped in her hand, her practiced eyes trawling the page. Fenn laid down the book, all sour emotion. “Good luck with that.”

Stark opened the door. Fenn swept out, the cheap wood rattling behind her.

It’s desperate, when a man used to hard thinking can’t think anymore. Alec, my doctor, he’d make some joke that at least I could still dress myself. Soaked in his own medication, he wouldn’t recognize the need to pre-empt, to ease ahead by robust deception, was central to who I was. Faced with the self-righteous Fenn, routine lies weren’t enough. That she cornered me exposed the stupor consuming me like gangrene.

Fenn would be on the phone to Scotland Yard, where no doubt she had contacts in slight but crucial positions. The expected call from the Chief Super’s office would acquire a less civil tone. I wouldn’t oblige by waiting my fate in a fucking cheapjack motel.

With the widow Ekins off-limits, that meant legwork. Options were limited. The Coroner from back then would be dead, their records locked tight. I had to get back to basics. Took longer than I’d admit, puzzling at my phone till I knew where I was going. Too risky to ask the receptionist for a map.

I called a cab, the controller’s inadequate English weirdly cementing his assurance that everything would be fine. Given that I had to use the room service menu to find the name of the hotel, his vagueness about my destination held a sense of complementary amnesia. When he asked did I want a cab back, I said no.

The manager bloke—my notes said Hinch—bobbed around reception, itchy as an accomplice. No doubt Fenn bought his trust with some titbits about me. Trying for some swagger I realized, later than I should have done, I’d been in the same clothes twenty-four hours and hadn’t washed. I’d thought about taking a shower, then forgot. The receptionist dropped my key like I palmed her a snake. Apparently I told her the Metropolitan Police were paying. That I’d get bollocked for that hardly mattered.

Hinch intercepted me at the door. Beyond the glass, another gray day spread unflattering light on parked cars and topiary that from the air perhaps resembled a heart, something sweet and undemanding. “If you have a moment. Detective Inspector.”

“I have a cab, Mr. Hutch. If you’re looking for feedback, the bed was pleasantly firm and the lights worked.”

“You agreed.” His scent loomed at me. “You should speak with my member of staff. To say sorry. Detective Sergeant Fenn is keen you should do that.”

A fat black Merc slid to a stop on the fire access. The driver waved at the sliding doors like he recognized my shadow. “Thanks for the offer, but I need to get going.” If he got grabby, I’d give him a bounce with my knuckles.

Inside his spray-on suit, some turbulence troubled Hinch. Not a physical man, I reckoned, but caught by some incongruity between his ersatz power, disdain for me and fear of Eliza Fenn. The waitress would give him grief if I didn’t appease her and I was sure Fenn was vindictive enough, if I walked without her instructions getting obeyed. Outside, the driver was flapping his paw. “Really,” Hinch tried to lever some weight on his voice, “it’s best all round you say sorry.” Not even a threat. Just wet eyes.

“No. Not today.” As I moved, his fingers made a diffident bid for attention, splayed to show their moist undersides. His authority so scant it scattered on the sour breeze that filled reception when the glass doors rolled to release me.

The cab driver yelled, “You are Crawford, yes?” Smiling fit to bust.

We took a long drive north to nowhere. Through Wellingborough, Irthlingborough, places no one heard of. The driver yakked at his phone the whole time. Checking mine heightened the disjuncture that, while I pursued my investigation, others made plans for me. A bloke I worked with had a tip that things were occurring. He’d heard my name in conversations. A missed call and a message from the Chief Superintendent—in reality from his assistant Marie—hoping earnestly that I was well and would contact by return, to arrange an informal chat with God’s own likeness.

An informal chat sounded nice. Two blokes talking golf. He could show off his swing and I could admire his trophies. As the lousy countryside pottered by, I messaged Marie that I’d taken a few days away—just a few days—and soon as I got back to London, I’d be glad of a coffee from her boss’s novelty mug. Marie wasn’t efficient, especially, but she was cheerful. She had heart. Of course she messaged back that she hoped I enjoyed my holiday, because she couldn’t imagine going away for any reason but fun. Only fair to tell me, she said, that someone down the food chain took a call from Northampton CID. It all sounds a bit crackers, said Marie.

The driver shouted something.

“What?”

He scrunched around to point from the passenger side. “Stanwick Lakes.”

“Isn’t it. What?”

“Big fishing, eh? Big carp.” Both hands off the wheel to show me. “Very good dinner. Horse riding too. Very fine.”

“Horse riding?”

“Yes.” He breezed by a couple of trucks. “Rent a horse. Ride like a king.”

These lakes went on for miles, chaining together small, blurry towns that were all the same. A new housing patch, a dash of shops, an Indian takeaway. Water one side, grass the other, for miles. As for the people in those thrown-down scraps, a safe bet some were crooks. All those smart motors and split-level extensions. They didn’t get that growing oats.

Last place we passed was Eaglethorpe. I wrote that down when he stopped the car. There were road signs for London via the A1(M). He pulled onto a verge where two little lanes joined between fields. Turned and asked was I happy.

“What d’you mean?”

“It’s very far here. Far from anywhere.”

“It’s Northamptonshire not the Serengeti.” Talking loud felt good. To make disturbance among the chattering wheat.

“It’s just ten miles to Peterborough. I can take you there very quick.” He gestured at his GPS. “That would be good. Busy there.”

“I told you where I want to go. Is this it or shall I walk the rest?”

He gave one of those Eastern shrugs that absolve a man from involvement and we drove another couple of miles, where the farms broke down to a patchwork of meadows and dank woods. He stopped where a slanted tree made a scrubby rim to the road. “The GPS says that driveway.”

“And you’d rather not go there?”

“Thank you.” He pointed at the meter. Lucky my card still had credit. I hadn’t a clue what was left.

I stood beneath the tree as he sped off, trailing his hand from the window in a lax salute. I waited some minutes, no other car came by. Small, insistent sounds jostled around me. Branches creaked, then sudden bird wings. A shiver through the grass. Something rummaging the leaf litter. Acts that happened yesterday and tomorrow. That would happen if I wasn’t there. I crossed to the driveway.

A board nailed on a ruptured crossbar was stripped by wind and cracked with frost. EVERFIELDS STUD AND STABLES, the once rich paint faded to grubby shadow. The image of a horse weathered and decayed as a caveman’s drawing. I made a note of the number, just in case.

Hedges leaned onto the road, maimed and splintered where vehicles scraped them aside. A few cigarette butts flung about and crisp packets bleached white and fragile as old, unexpected bones. A crow strutting ahead of me turned to stare before taking flight, indifferent and unhindered. In dense, gelatinous silence, I could believe that a gas released or whispering beam had neutralized everyone, but forgotten me, a man on a road in a place without purpose. Alone with the air, the liquid sun, the empty roar where my memories used to be. I checked my phone. Another message from Marie. Her girlish, skeptical voice said DS Fenn wanted to speak with me. Urgent, she said. Some garbled tripe about danger. I deleted it because, if I kept it, I’d forget it was there.

Took pictures at the top of the lane, which seemed a useful thing to do. The farmhouse, a large and maybe grand place once, had weeds to the door, stained render and those piles of rusted machine parts that are our countryside totems. A pair of shipping containers parked in a field looked like they fell from the sky. Edging around the perimeter, I smelled the horses before I saw them. What my wife, my wife Tamsin, on rare days out, used to call “that healthy stink.” “Breathe it in,” she’d squeal, dropping the windows of her Avenger. “Suck it down, it’s doing you good.” Always, she’d laugh beyond the point it was funny. Odd, it’s that laugh I remember.

At the back of the farmhouse, the stable yard had been lengthened with brick newbuild and tinplate shacks. Inching up alongside the fence, I reckoned about twenty horses. I could hear them neighing, shuffling in hay, the occasional shoe against wood. Noting what I could while staying nimble for cameras, I crept by the schooling pound with its tidy silica surface and into the neat, hosed-down yard. A commotion from one of the stalls suggested a touchy animal getting a stranger’s scent which, as I should have expected, set off a dog somewhere on the site.

Trying to cover my back, I scrambled for the side of the stable block, the dog’s bark raising agitated snorts along the stalls. My breath came loud and a gust of wind brought a shower of noise from the trees. Something confident and decisive nudged my back.

“I got two barrels. Two ounces in both. One’s enough but I like to make certain. Do you prefer cremation or dog meat?”

Swallowed hard, fear dancing hell in my chest. “I’m a police officer.”

“In that case turn round so I shoot your guts.”

A rasping voice from a face that stayed out all weathers. Under his floppy felt hat, ginger-gray hair straggled down into furry whiskers. Seamy tweed and outsize trousers hugged his lardy body. He pushed a twenty-eight bore at my stomach.

“You want to see my ID?”

“Not as much as you want to show it.”

Slow, the way we’re trained to, I got my card. “See? Detective Inspector Jim Crawford. Metropolitan Police.”

“And what’s London want with our piece of heaven?”

“You putting that thing down?”

“No. You could be anyone. Flash me a bloody card. You buy crap like that off the web.”

“Like you buy guns?”

“This keeps rats down. What’s your little badge do?”

If I’d thought through a plan for the day, I couldn’t recall it. “Perhaps you can help me.”

“I’m not feeling I want to.”

“Norris.” The voice across the stable yard had a crackle of static that made me and the gun dog tighten. He kept the gun in my belly, but his conscious calculation was tracking the voice.

“Norris. What’s that you got?” A middle-aged bloke in waxed jacket and green trousers drew a hollow knock from the concrete with his tall riding boots. He smelled of cigarettes and something I could only think was the back of a butcher’s shop. A rare, abiding smell. “Well.” The gun seemed to amuse him. “That’s quite a rabbit you’ve bagged there.”

“In the yard, sir.” Norris became the eager sentry, reporting to his officer. “Never seen him before. We don’t want mischief with the horses.”

“Indeed we don’t.” The stocky man looked at me, but spoke to his underling. “Has he given an account of himself?”

“Reckons he’s a policeman. From London.”

The square, predictable face of a country doctor or dealer in covetable, artisan goods. Thick, side-parted sandy hair, probably the same since schooldays. Still hankering for schooldays, maybe, in his delighted lips and pensile brow. “Well well.” He beamed. “You have proof of this extraordinary assertion?”

“Yes. If you tell your dog to get his stick out my gut.”

The man pouted. “Wee bit tetchy. Put up your gun, Norris.”

“You say so, sir.”

“I do, Norris.” The intense grin ripened his cheeks. “Because I think this odd fish is your basic blowhard.” He studied my warrant card, tutting and smirking, while Norris poked around like an army of dread strangers was ready to pounce. “Well, Mr. Crawford.” The hand that hit my shoulder packed a bundle of hard knuckles. “Perhaps you could explain why you didn’t call ahead? This creeping about gives an unseemly impression.”

Fearful of what I couldn’t remember, I glared like I marked him already. “You got a name?”

“Well of course. No need for dramatics. I’m Hugo Garside. I own this.” He pointed at the stables. “And this.” He waved toward the house. “Oh, and all that.” His gesture brought meadows and distant woods to the cradle of his strong right arm. “There’s a couple more houses out there. Horses are my thing. Spot of farming. But mainly horses.” Up close, his aroma sharpened. “You really haven’t told me why you’re here.”

Twitchy, I blustered, “Does the name Emma-Jane Garside ring any bells?”

“Cousin Em?” A shrewd smile overtook his good humor. “Really. That was long ago.”

“1985.”

“I do know the date.” He looked to the house again. Stretched his arms like they ached. “Norris. Would you tell Mrs. Ford to get the kettle on.”

Norris glowered from his thicket of whiskers. “You alright left with him?”

Garside appraised me. “He doesn’t bite.” When the old bastard staggered off, shaking his gun like a flag, Garside pushed his face at mine. “You really do have a fucking nerve, creeping around like some cheapjack Sherlock Holmes. If you spook those horses I’ll personally have you canned. Come on.”

“Where to?”

“You want your fucking money’s worth don’t you?” Garside had the decisive stride of the man that owns whatever’s beneath his feet. He kept me close through the stable yard and around the outdoor schooling ring. When he stopped to take a call, I jotted some quick reminders in my notebook, listening to his anger distilled into cut-glass monosyllables. He saw me paying attention and finished the call. “How official is this fishing trip of yours?”

“I haven’t gone AWOL if that’s what you mean. My superiors know where I am.”

“Of course that’s not what I mean.”

I saw now that his wax jacket was roomy enough for a gun pocket. “I enjoy show­jumping. Your cousin was quite the talent.”

“Personally I thought her style a little louche.” He struck across a meadow towards some trees that hung on a ridge, the leering outriders of thickets beyond.

The ground tested me, its dips and hummocks an unsuspected, brutal challenge. To keep pace with him I strove wildly, my calf muscles stung with cold, dense pain. I couldn’t keep it out my voice. “I heard your cousin came from an ordinary background.”

His laughter drove crows from the covert. “Is your background ordinary, Mr. Crawford?”

“I’d say so, Mr. Garside. Not many millionaires join the police. How many horses you say you have here?”

“A labor of love, I assure you.” So superior, the troublesome earth seemed to kneel before him. “Cousin Em wasn’t a Harriet or Arabella, if that’s what you mean. Those rather tiresome girls dripping vowels and rosettes. Her side of the tribe had to work for the moolah and she was positively taciturn, which was a blessing. It was when she talked that trouble started. After you.”

Trying to show a detective’s mistrustful sneer, I ducked beneath the tree branch which he so gallantly held for me. Ready for tricks, I drew my fists. All the violence I could muster.

He let the branch fall behind him with a thick, discursive thud. Between layered trees, dim, pigmented light sketched shapes of hunters circling through twisted limbs. “Down there.”

From a big brew of nettles a slanted gravestone rose to the filthy light.

“Close as you like. She’s dead.”

A few words had been chipped on the stone, but weather and moss had smoothed them to mere suggestions. “Why here?” Unexpected anger flung me at him, toe to toe. “Why is she here?”

“Use your noggin, old chum. Suicides aren’t buried in holy ground. Not back then, anyway. Besides, she was often up here. Cooling off from her tantrums.”

It was peaceful and, even with my defective imagination, I could see how, in summer, dappled sun might stir the place to romance. That didn’t make it less disgusting. “This even legal, planting her here?”

Scorn made his fleshy face armor. “You mean you don’t know? That bloody horse is down there too.” He booted flat the nettles and ryegrass clambering over her grave. Through the broken stems, large, discolored bones lapped against the crumbling heap of earth. Reminded me of a skeleton boat, dredged from the pit. “Nice tribute, don’t you think?”

“What I think,” struggling to keep my voice just and proficient, “my colleagues in Northampton would be very interested in this. They might take a different view than Stan Ekins and whoever else you bought off back then.”

“Bought off, Crawford?” Garside kicked the murky bones. “What a febrile chap you are. Aside from anything else, I was twenty-odd then. Could barely pay my overdraft, never mind ‘buy off’ coppers. Shame for Ekins, though. Dodgy brakes, I heard. And him with so much to live for.”

On his home patch, Garside knew every trail and pitfall for miles. I had no backup, no probable cause. No luxury to ignore him. “Mr. Garside.” I stepped around the grave, putting distance between us. The horse bones were vast. Even then, they retained some fearsome potential. “I’m suspicious by nature, you get me? So what I’m starting to think is whether some crime has been executed here. And how much you know about it.”

Intimate in its arrogance, that laugh dropped like a block of ice. “For God sake, Crawford. You can’t be jealous thirty years after the fact. I fucked her. You didn’t. Bad show.”

I tensed.

His hand filled with what looked like a Walther. A workman’s gun. “Crawford. I have a schedule. A spread like this doesn’t run itself. Horses are high outlay, tight margin. If you were less stupid we could have talked over tea. Mrs. Ford makes excellent sponge cake.”

The gas spat the bullet, breaking the swampy air. Nimble with fear, I tumbled through the undergrowth. The bullet kissed a tree and chased its echo into the brambles. Sliding, dazed, I churned at bracken that slashed my legs. His commotion slackened. He knew the forest.

Choking, I struck warily over moss-thickened rocks, furious at myself. Garside was off to my left, a purposeful shadow among silver birches. A track gleamed through the gulley below and I broke, skating across slick leaves, falling to the foot of the slope with a rattle of stones, teeth wedged in my arm to stifle the shock of landing. The rasping silence that followed convinced me Garside heard and his next ambush wouldn’t fail.

Beyond the track I slid further down, the hilly landscape dented with pits like the pocked face of a giant. So torn and stung, I couldn’t feel pain. I had no memory of a time without it.

Something shifted through the air. Damp earth, sap and sweet decay buckled against the harsh stench. A pervasive, embracing smog. Carcasses, blood, simmering flesh. Swilling between the trees. The smell of death. Sickened, attentive, I smashed through briars. White, rectangular shapes emerged through the haze. Disease hung in faded light. Nausea beat me. I doubled down to spew. Burning agony slung me headfirst at the dirt.

Water broke across my face, duping me back to life. Searing pain scorched my leg. Death was all I knew.

Garside threw down the empty bucket. “Still with us, Mr. Crawford? Careless. You triggered one of our security devices”

My leg was bloodied, mauled. I retched.

“It’s not personal.” Garside’s drawl mingled with steam sliding down the walls. “Trespassers all get the treatment.”

“You set mantraps?” Trembling, my jagged breath broke.

“Defending my interests.”

“It’s a criminal offense . . .”

“Please. That attitude got you here.”

The white-tiled room fugged with dense, noxious warmth. Other side of the wall chains clanked, a whine like gas through pipes. Men shouted.

“What is this?”

“Take the tour. You earned it.”

He dragged me to the next room. Carcasses moved on pullies, dripping blood through runs already caked and slimy. Hissing bones rose from boiling vats, streaked with remnant flesh. Lively pink meat churned through corkscrew compactors. Nailed along one wall, a row of skulls. Stretched, grinning, their vast nostrils pluming steam, their comical front teeth contentedly bashful. The tang of putrid meat sank through my skin. Men hauling the bodies wore masks.

“The horse.” Garside held my shoulders. “Beauty without vanity. I love horses more than I’ll ever love people. Working creatures, not pets. When they can’t give any more, they give this.”

I gagged on the rank air. “These are not all from here?”

“Of course not. It’s criminally costly to dispose of a horse. We help stables all over the country to make a small something off redundant stock.”

My crushed leg couldn’t hold. I gripped his arm. “Garside. What’s done with this meat?”

“Hard-working families deserve a good meal, don’t you think?”

“Beef. You sell it as beef don’t you? That’s a serious crime.”

“But not wrong.”

He pressed my shoulders. I fell to the greasy floor.

“I doubt Cousin Em would appreciate you traipsing up here to see her. She loathed those little gymkhana girls, hounding her for advice. Poor Em. She could never relate to this side of the yard. Even though it paid for her drugs. But that bloody horse of hers. He really was something. Emmaus.” The clean lines of the gun stiffened his fingers. “Humane killer. That’s the way.”

Supplement to case report

Detective Sergeant Eliza Fenn investigating officer

The purpose of this sup­ple­ment is to pro­vide addi­tion­al con­text­ual in­for­ma­tion to the findings set out in the main case report. As noted in the transcript of my interview with Detective Chief Inspector Saqeel Malik, I was concerned for D.I. Crawford’s state of health after speaking with him at the Collingtree Hotel. I assessed from his attitude and behavior that D.I. Crawford was unlikely to be cooperative if questioned further about his intentions in visiting Northamptonshire. It was this which prompted me to seek a trace on D.I. Crawford’s phone using client software installed by the Metropolitan Police. I accept that I did not comply with procedure when procuring the trace and that a separate investigation is ongoing in relation to my actions in this regard.

The trace indicated that D.I. Crawford was in the vicinity of Eaglethorpe. Given what I had seen from the notebook laying open in his room at the hotel, it seemed plausible that he would head for Everfields Stud and Stables. D.I. Crawford’s previous actions in Collingtree suggested interest in the death of show­jump rider Emma-Jane Garside, who lived and trained at Everfields until her presumed suicide by amphetamine overdose in 1985. The investigation by my predecessors at that time found no evidence of foul play and I am not aware of any new evidence to challenge that conclusion.

On arrival in the vicinity of Eaglethorpe, my colleague D.C. Martin Stark and I entered the premises known as Everfields. I reiterate here, as I did in my interview with D.C.I. Malik, that D.C. Stark accompanied me as a junior officer. The decision to enter the premises was mine alone.

I accept that I should have telephoned ahead or otherwise made myself known to the owner of Everfields and my decision not to do so is being reviewed as part of the ongoing investigation.

Rather than approach the house, I interpreted the trace to indicate that D.I. Crawford’s phone was some distance further east. I suggested to D.C. Stark that we should search the woods as I judged that D.I. Crawford was in an unpredictable state of mind and could, perhaps, have believed himself to be investigating a live case.

While following a trail through the woods, D.C. Stark found a black police issue notebook, which I ascertained belonged to D.I. Crawford and was the same notebook I had seen in his room at the Collingtree Hotel. When I examined the notebook for indications to D.I. Crawford’s whereabouts, the scale of his memory impairment became apparent. The notebook also confirmed that he was in the area to seek information about the death of Emma-Jane Garside. This accorded with his previous attempt to harass the widow of the late D.S. Ekins. It seemed plausible that D.I. Crawford’s psychological issues had made him obsessive about Emma-Jane Garside, in that he might believe, for example, that her death had been suspicious.

Aside from the notebook, we found no evidence that D.I. Crawford was in the vicinity. His phone had been traced to that area, but we did not locate the phone. At the time of making this report, D.I. Crawford’s whereabouts remain unknown and a missing persons operation is underway.

As noted elsewhere, it was while in the woods that D.C. Stark and I met Mr. Hugo Garside, the owner of Everfields. Mr. Garside addressed us in a somewhat abrupt manner and did not moderate his language when shown our police identification. However, I accept that my language in responding to Mr. Garside was unbecoming of a police officer and I have apologized to him.

I noted that Mr. Garside had a fresh cut to his right hand and that his coat, a traditional waterproof type, had recent staining which I believed to be blood. Mr. Garside said that he had snagged his hand on a thorn bush while chasing what he termed ‘gyppos’ out from the woods. He went on to assert that the police do nothing to help landowners protect their property.

We left the woods accompanied by Mr. Garside. In response to questions, he told us that he had never heard of D.I. Crawford. When I showed him the notebook, Mr. Garside speculated that it had been stolen by persons unknown and dumped in the woods. Mr. Garside asserted that littering was rife. Mr. Garside escorted us to the public highway and we left the premises.

I have not attempted to re-enter Mr. Garside’s property subsequently, despite his accusations to that effect.

As an observation, it seemed to me that the woods at Everfields had a somewhat strange odor. I grew up in the countryside and I am accustomed to agricultural matters. However those woods had a distinct, organic smell which put me in mind of a rendering process. It is highly unlikely that operating odors from the slaughterhouse at Peterborough would be evident so far west.

I mentioned this later to D.C. Stark. However, he could not recall anything out of the ordinary.  

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