At that time of the morning the roads were clear of traffic even though the holiday season was about to hit its peak, and at first Waters drove quickly. In the half-light, a roe deer had crossed the road ahead of him as he passed through the woods of the Royal estate near Snettingham, and moments after that a cock pheasant had launched itself up from the roadside and into his speeding path, the bird’s long tail brushing the windscreen inches from his face. After that he had slowed a little, just enough to make sure he arrived in one piece.
The call from Detective Chief Inspector Alison Reeve had woken him at 05.29 – the digits were imprinted on his memory and he had the feeling he was never going to forget them. Reeve herself had said it after giving him all the information she had so far – she had said, ‘Well, this is it, Chris. Apart from the two uniformed officers from Hunston, you’ll be first on the scene. As soon as DI Terek gets in, we’ll be sending other people up, depending on what you think is required, but that won’t be for at least an hour…’
Depending on what he thought was required, depending on his assessment of the situation. For an hour, maybe more, he would be in control of a crime scene for the first time, in command of it. Reeve had continued, ‘…you remember everything that needs to be done? Want me to run through it?’ No, ma’am, he’d said politely, and she hadn’t insisted.
When he reached the edge of the town, he dropped his speed to the legal limit. Already there were a few people on the pavements, some carrying newspapers or loaves of bread as if they were in France and not here on the East Anglian coast, but the heatwave had lasted for almost a month, so it wasn’t hard to imagine now that you were on the Costa del Norfolk. The people were in shorts, sandals and T shirts, enjoying the cool of the morning, holidaying, idling the time away, with no idea what was waiting for him not a mile from the centre of this small seaside town.
The turning was on the left, immediately after the traffic lights, at the corner with the only amusement arcade. The little land train that takes visitors the three quarters of a mile out to the beach was parked up at its mock station, and when Waters slowed again for the first speed bump he could see the elderly driver in his Victorian railway cap, polishing the brass bell that signalled arrivals and departures. Without a doubt, it was the same driver as it had been when he and Clare stayed here on the Pinehills caravan site more than three years ago, stayed in the caravan, which was, and still is, up here on the right, the third turning…
He shook his head a little to get his thoughts straight, and fixed his eyes back on the gravel track between the caravans. Of all the places in all the world, this had happened here. He could see the site office buildings ahead, and there were two cars. He thought about pulling in and seeing if Shirley Salmon, who still owned the place as far as he knew, was here and aware of what was taking place, and then decided against it – check with the uniformed officers first. The priority was always to get control of the crime scene.
If indeed it was a crime. People die of natural causes and that can happen as easily in the countryside as indoors. Or it might be a suicide, and for some reason those often do take place outside. All he knew for certain was that a woman’s body had been found on the edge of the pinewoods, close to a busy public footpath. Two uniformed officers from Hunston had arrived, confirmed that this was no hoax call – it had come from a dog-walker, naturally – and then the matter had reached the duty desk at Kings Lake Central.
The track, by now more sand than gravel, took a turn to the left. Waters drove past the small café that sells ice-creams and tea, plastic buckets and spades, little windmills and paper flags for sandcastles, and then, at the far end, where the track becomes a footpath, he could see the patrol car.
A small, elderly woman with two pedigree pugs on a single lead came towards him as he made his way along the footpath; it was narrow here and he stood aside for her. She said crossly, ‘You can’t get through. The police have closed it off.’
Waters said, ‘Yes, I know. I-’
‘They wouldn’t say why. They should at least tell you why. Especially if it’s going to be all day like they just told me. And we don’t know where else we’re going to go for a walk, do we girls?’
He looked down at the dogs. One was breathing so heavily its own demise might soon need investigating, and the other stared up at him. It had crossed eyes, the first dog he’d ever seen with such an affliction.
The woman said, ‘So you’ll have to turn around. You can’t get through.’
Having been sent back herself, she was plainly determined that no one else was going along the footpath.
Waters said, ‘I’m actually with the police…’
She looked dubious, so then he had to take out his ID card and she checked it.
‘Well, alright. Is it going to be closed all day?’
‘I couldn’t say, not until I’ve been up and had a look for myself.’
‘A look at what? What’s happened?’
‘I’m afraid that I really can’t discuss it. But-’
‘And do you get to decide? Are you in charge? You don’t look old enough.’
There was no point in carrying this on. Waters gave her a vacuous smile and waited. The woman turned away, took two or three steps and then turned again. She said with more menace than one might have expected, ‘Just don’t forget.’
‘Forget what, madam?’
‘Who pays your wages.’
He watched her go then, still muttering to herself and the girls, and wondered how things might have gone differently if she had met his old boss on this footpath.