Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

She made her skittering, sliding way down the riverbank. Her trainers hit the flat ground at the lip of the water, and she wobbled but recovered.

"Jessie!"

She heard her name, and felt an answering buzz of adrenaline. She paused, then kicked her way on again. Just her brother, not Dad. Away up the slope. Her brother wasn't going to yell at her for wandering off.

It was quiet. Much quieter than up by the camping stove, where Dad's commands were unrelenting. Her ears were full of leaves rustling and rushes of birdsong.

She left the shadow of the trees, the sun making fierce patterns on skin already hot from scrambling. She put a hand up over her eyes to block the glare from the water. She should have brought sunglasses, and thought about going back for them. But she didn't want to risk being seen. Not when being seen meant being inspected for dirt and told to clean herself, lay the table, and put things away.

She moved into the shadows under the bank, her eyes dazzled. There were blue patterns everywhere she looked. A spreading beech tree was above her, and roots arced out of the soil like flattened croquet hoops. Her foot caught on one. She stumbled, her heart jolting as she thought she might fall into the water. The river was dirty in the shadows under the tree, ominous. But she wasn't really close enough to fall in, and she regained her balance.

In front of her was a scooped-out section of earth the shape of a hammock that made her want to nestle in it.

"Jessie!"

Great. It was her dad this time, and closer by. He was using the kind of voice that wanted an answer. But in front of her was the cool earth, and a hiding place.

She stretched one foot down into the hollow, and then the other. She felt immediately cooler, and took a seat on the slightly crumbly soil. She imagined herself as an early villager, sheltering in the woods while Vikings raided her home.

But it wasn't as soft as she'd expected. Ridges of root pressed against her pelvis and back. She squirmed left and right, trying to find a comfortable spot.

Her shorts snagged, and she felt a jab in her leg.

She pushed a hand down to disentangle the cloth from the root, and then felt it crumble in her hand. She lifted it and saw not old wood but flakes of brown, and the bleach-white shapes of freshly exposed bone.

She didn't need her GP father to tell her she was holding a human finger.


CHAPTER ONE

Jonah was halfway up Blissford Hill when he felt the buzz of his phone in the zip pocket on the back of his Lycra. He was standing on the pedals and slogging upward. He considered ignoring it, and then had a vivid image of his mum in hospital. And following that, he had a slightly stomach-turning thought that it might be Michelle. Which was just as irrational as every other time he'd believed it in the last eight months, but he thought it anyway.

He braked with gritted teeth and stopped his grinding climb. He caught his shin on one of the pedals as he jumped down, and was savage by the time he'd rooted his phone out and seen DS Lightman's extension flashing on the screen.

"Ben?" he said, and then moved the phone away from his mouth to mask his heavy breathing.

"Sorry, Chief." Lightman didn't sound it. Never really sounded anything. Michelle had liked to call him Barbie. Exquisitely pretty and emotionless. A lot smarter than Barbie, though, Jonah knew. "Call from DCS Wilkinson. He wants you to postpone your days off to investigate a possible homicide."

Jonah let the DS wait in silence. He looked up at the tree-shadowed top of the hill. It was a slog away, but he wanted the slog. His legs were crying out for it. He squeezed the drop handles of his bike with his free hand and felt the sweat on his palm. He hadn't spent enough time doing this recently.
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