It was a windy September night of moonlight and flying cloud. The leafy oak wood to the north of the ancient burial ground roared and hissed like a high tide over shingle. The flat shelf of land half way up the hillside which contained the archaeological excavation was deserted.
A car with doused headlights climbed a steep grassy track and stopped in a flat area of wheel-churned mud that the archaeologists used for parking their vehicles. Pete Ford and Jim Cooke, two experienced nighthawks, climbed out and looked around. Satisfied that they were the only people abroad at two o'clock in the morning, they fitted their head torches, took their metal detectors and spades from the vehicle and set off into the cleared area of the archaeological dig.
"Olly never said it was such a big site," Pete remarked in surprise. "We're not gonna do it all in a couple of hours."
"I'm not happy about this place," Jim grumbled. "There's all kinds of weird tales about it."
"Strange tales never hurt anyone," Pete replied curtly.
"But that Ludd's Castle's just up the hill." Jim glanced apprehensively up the moon-washed hillside to the east. "They say it's the entrance to hell! There was a bloke took stones from up there and he died right after!"
"Don't worry about it, mate," Pete tried to sound as reassuring as he could. "It's all just idle gossip!" He forced a laugh, not wanting to reveal that he too felt a little unnerved. "Just think of all the amazing stuff we're gonna find up here tonight, with no one on earth to stop us!"
As soon as they began quartering the site Jim became engrossed in his metal detecting and began to relax. They started digging holes, which yielded bracelets, rings, brooches and a gold torque, which they hurriedly prised from among the skeletal remains. They were jubilant.
"Didn't I tell you?" Pete said excitedly. "They're quality Iron Age grave goods! We should have got here earlier!"
They dug more holes, heaping their finds at the edge of the site. They were so preoccupied it was a few moments before they realised they were no longer alone. A new note had been added to the voice of the wind in the oak wood: an eerie hollow moaning that seemed to encircle them, like a coil of energy.
Jim glanced up. Whatever it was that he saw made him drop his metal detector in terror. Something – he couldn't comprehend what it was – towered over them in the moonlight. The thing radiated a sense of violent hostility and menace. Jim screamed. Pete turned and saw it too.
"Jesus!" he blurted out. "Jesus save us!"
The moaning intensified, its pitch modulating to a spine-shuddering howl. Speechless, Jim backed away in terror.
The two nighthawks panicked, dropped their metal detectors, abandoned their collection of grave goods and fled for their car...
But they couldn’t escape. They had no sooner reached their vehicle than the creature was upon them again.
Jim was paralysed with fear. Pete pushed him into the passenger's seat, then leaped behind the wheel, swung the car around and drove away frantically, hurling the vehicle down the track and on to the narrow lane that ran past the bottom of the hill.
Jim was hysterical."We shouldn't have come! This place is cursed! We've woke a demon! WE SHOULDN'T HAVE COME!"
"Shut up!" Pete yelled. "I've got to concentrate!"
The terrifying creature suddenly appeared in front of them, in the middle of the lane.
Pete slammed on the brakes, but lost control of the vehicle on the loose gravel surface. The skidding car careered from the lane and crashed into woodland. Moments later it burst into flames.
* * *
Detective Sergeant Ray Blackshaw, fifty-four years old and with the highly-toned musculature of a lifelong fell walker, snatched up his bedside phone and lay back on his pillow. He listened in silence for half a minute, then grunted confirmation.
"Right, I'll be there. Will you contact DC Lumb? Tell him I'll pick him up in twenty minutes."
"What time is it, Ray?" Denise, his wife, asked sleepily as he rang off.
"Quarter to four. Go back to sleep."
"Least I can do is make you some toast."
She left him to dress, put on her robe and went downstairs.
Ten minutes later he was on his way to the door, putting on his Berghaus all-weather jacket as he went.
"See you tonight, love."
She caught him up in the doorway with a thermos flask of tea. He smiled at her tenderly, then kissed her on the cheek.
"Thanks, love. How would I cope?"
"Ring me if you're going to be late." She said the same thing every day.
He gave his usual reply. "I'll let you know what's happening."
He drove away from his detached stone-built Victorian property, trying not to think about the hours ahead of him. He liked to start each day with an uncluttered mind – it would become crowded with thoughts soon enough. To retain clarity he had to start off empty and deal with each notion as it arrived. He imagined his mind as a jail, with his thoughts as prisoners, only setting them free when they had served their purpose.
He enjoyed driving the unmarked Volvo Estate. He considered it to be his personal vehicle and hated parting with it when he took annual leave, knowing some other officer, like an unwelcome guest, would be driving it. The Volvo had room for more gear than the Astras – and Ray liked to be prepared. In winter he carried snowchains, a sleeping bag and a mountain tent. All year round he made room for extra waterproofs, waders, wellingtons, spare socks and walking boots.
He carried idiosyncratic items, such as a landing net for scooping floating items of evidence from canals and rivers and infrared night-vision binoculars for covert surveillance in areas without streetlights. He had a range of different torches and rucksacks and a county-wide collection of large-scale maps.
He always carried his Penang lawyer – his favourite walking stick – plus a Makila and a Scottish Kebbie. No matter where he went in the Volvo, he felt he was prepared for just about anything – with the exception of coping with his cocky young partner.
* * *
Detective Constable Martin Lumb, lank-haired and lean, watched TV with the sound off in the living room of his two-bedroomed semi while he waited for Ray to pick him up. Although he respected his senior colleague, he was not enjoying working with him. He frequently found the older man's methods laborious and baffling and his offbeat interests incomprehensible.
At thirty years of age Martin was a devotee of the world of technology, which he was convinced was the most important single factor in future police work. Ray, on the other hand, hated technology, preferring to rely on his ‘good old-fashioned powers of deduction’. Martin felt their differences were more obstacles than assets. What Ray felt remained a mystery.
But it wasn't just Ray that made him unhappy. His career disappointed him these days. He believed passionately in the value of his work, but more and more he was having to deal with bottom-rung dysfunctionals: drug abusers, drunks, out-of-control kids, petty
thieves and the increasing prevalence of domestic violence, especially among the poor. Uniforms bore the brunt of it, but he saw enough to depress him. Belief in the rule of law was one thing – it had attracted him to the job in the first place – but to be a daily witness to what he felt was the implosion of society was an experience he found increasingly hard to bear.
Was this his lot for the next twenty-five years? Surely not. There had to be something else. He had to move into more challenging work. But his provincial location held him back. If only he could crack a major case he would be noticed. That was his ticket to a more fulfilling life.
Ray was pulling up on the road outside. If his senior partner suffered from gloomy
thoughts, he never let on. When they were out on a particularly sordid case Ray would simply say "don't let it get to you". But it did. Increasingly. When Ray was a young cop things weren't quite so extreme. The ugliness and routine violence had crept in slowly. He'd had time to adjust. And Ray had always been able to escape into the wild moorland landscapes that formed the backdrop to their daily lives. But, as a more urban creature, he himself found them dark and forbidding.
With an effort Martin suppressed his despair. He grabbed his mobile and shouted up the stairs: "I'm off now, Abby. Ray's just arrived. Ring you later."
The bedroom door opened and Abby, his twenty-five-year-old hairdresser wife, leaned over the banisters in her pyjamas. "Will we have time to go for a drink tonight?"
"Haven't a clue. I'll get us a takeaway. Chinese or Indian?"
She blew him a kiss, then he was gone.
* * *
"All right, Martin?" was Ray's habitual greeting as the detective constable got into the passenger's seat.
"We on a major drugs bust?" Martin asked hopefully. "Terrorists hijacked a Ryanair jet? All they would say at HQ was it's an incident."
Ray explained as he drove west out of town. "You've met Jack Boothroyd?"
Martin's heart sank "Once. Unfortunately. I thought he was full of shit."
Ray laughed. "He's seen something weird."
"Seen it or made it up?"
"Probably a bit of both. He rang emergency services at half-past three saying there were guys on fire running around in his wood."
"What kind of hooch is he brewing in his cow shed?"
"I agree it might be a waste of time, but we have to follow it up."
Martin sighed. He could have had another three hours kip. Already he knew it was going to be another depressing day.
* * *
By the time Ray and Martin were within ten minutes' drive of their destination, the first signs of daylight had begun to creep up from the eastern horizon and the darkness of the night hours was imperceptibly changing to a world of monochrome grey. They turned off the ‘A’ road and entered a network of narrow lanes. A signpost indicated that the village of Stone Clough was three miles distant.
They were approaching Jack Boothroyd's farm, which lay a mile west of Stone Clough, when Ray spotted the farmer talking with two rough-looking characters in his stackyard. A mud-spattered pickup was pulled in, with caged ferrets and nets in the back. Jack leaned against the driver's door of his ageing Fiat panel van, laughing with the two hunters. The farmer was no doubt having fun entertaining his audience, Ray thought, with incandescent tales from the wee small hours. When the detectives arrived in the stackyard the two hunters promptly drove off down a field track, with a shouted promise to Jack to "get you a brace by dinner time."
As soon as they got out of the Volvo, Ray noticed Martin hang back. He knew his young colleague disliked Jack Boothroyd, but your witnesses couldn't all be celebrity lookalikes. Okay, Jack wasn’t a very pleasant guy, a cruel misogynist with a complete absence of personal hygiene. But his tales were a window into his character, and as a detective, you were paid to hear them.
Ray was saddened that Martin seemed to lack curiosity. Anyone who possessed curiosity – which, to Ray, was a synonym for life – would at least look around the farmyard,
note the old stone byres and barn, and marvel at the abilities of long-dead men who could raise such massive lintels and lay the cobbled surface so no puddles formed in even the wettest weather. But Martin wasn't interested. Ray noticed his partner already had his mobile in his hand, reassured by the world of technology if not by people.
"Morning, Jack. Got a rabbit problem?" Ray laughed.
"Mornin' to you, Ray. Long time no visit." The farmer pushed back his grease-stained cap with a grimy hand. "Makes me think Stone Clough must be a law-abiding parish."
Ray smiled. There was an edge to Jack's humour that he enjoyed. It was the product of the independent mindset that prevailed among the area's hill farmers. Most of the older folk had it, to a greater or less extent. Justice too was a local matter, meted out without much recourse to the police. Times here had always been hard, like the men who lived through them. Such men had for centuries made their own rules, which acted as a unifying force in their ancient communities. They dispensed their own tough punishments on transgressors, the police mostly considered an irrelevance. The fact that Jack had called them was unusual, even if only as a break in tradition.
"Tell me about last night, Jack," Ray began. "I hear you had a bit of excitement."
Jack was eager to relate his tale. "Dogs were barking fit to wake the spirit of human kindness. I thought I had a gang of sheep rustlers from Pen Crags, but when I looked out
the landing window I saw the fire. Larches by the lane were going up like tinder."
"What time was this?"
"Half-three. Hall clock chimed the half hour as I was on the phone."
Ray was pleased to see that his partner had put away his mobile and begun taking notes. That was good, it would make the report writing easier... for Martin.
"What could you see from the window?" Ray asked.
"I thought I could see the shape of a vehicle agin the flames, so I said I wanted fire, police and ambulance," Jack stated earnestly. "There was two feIlas got out – I could see 'em agin the fire – and they started running away. But then they began waving their arms and running all over, like they'd gone crazy. I opened the window thinking they was being shot at, but I never heard no gunfire. I went over in the van, but I couldn't see the two fellas. Then the fire engine came and hooked up to the trough line and had the fire out in half an hour. They found the two fellas dead as last Sunday's roast beef."
"Did anyone move the bodies?" Ray asked when Jack's tale seemed to be finished.
Jack shook his head. "They're lying in the larches, just where they fell."
"They didn't get clear of the trees then?"
"Nope. But they'd have got out if they hadn't run back into the wood."
Ray was lost for a moment. "I don't follow you, Jack."
Jack's weather-worn features underwent a strange metamorphosis, taking on a cast
of childlike amazement. The detectives noticed the change with surprise.