|This is what Sophia's looking at, until...|
'...and I love TV, but I don't want to watch it every day!' Sophia put on a spurt.
If only Alan would take the hint. Moving to Gloucestershire was supposed to be the start of her blame-free existence. He should have vanished from her new life months ago. Instead here he was, still tagging along behind and refusing every command, kind word and firm refusal. Despite all the danger and her obvious lack of interest, nothing could squash his puppyish adoration. What was wrong with the man? He stuck like human chewing gum.
I'm running out of options. The only thing left is for me to get nasty. Really nasty.
The track ahead was a bony limestone spine, rising almost vertically. Kicking on, scrabbling forward, clawing at the path in a fever of excitement she left her unwanted minder for dead. For dead...
The cold, clean air burned her face. She dragged it in like vodka.
'I'm serious!' Alan's voice rose, a long way below her now, and insubstantial as cigarette smoke.
Sophia stopped, stuck her hands on her hips and screwed round to face him.
Every day, he held her back somehow. Today, he was stopping her from sprinting for the summit. He was still ten yards behind, and wheezing like an asthmatic ferret. It was too irritating to watch him labour up the slope, so she scanned the horizon instead. On this perfect morning the atmosphere was gin-clear all the way to Hay Bluff, sixty miles away.
A snail could get there and back before Alan's caught his breath.
This was a day to feel the lust for life powering through your veins. Life was too short for promises. Sophia wanted to make the break, and get on.
She tensed and dropped her gaze. It caught on Gloucester, down in the vale of the Severn. From here, the city's confusion of buildings was a dark smudge on the countryside. It was a necessary evil—as vital, ugly and inescapable as the feelings Sophia kept locked away inside. She pivoted, her trainers scribing perfect circles in the damp, grey grit. Down in the city, the heaving mass of humanity would soon climb onto the treadmill of a new day, running around in the same old circles, in the same old way. Digging her toes into the ground she scuffed hard, destroying the neat marks.
'I’m serious,' Alan repeated, his voice struggling up to her. 'You're beautiful.'
'I'm trouble, you mean,' she ground away at the divots, guiltily wishing it was his face. 'Especially for a man like you. If you think I'm falling for that old line, forget it. It's only the thrill of the forbidden you're after.'
'How many times do I have to tell you?' He caught her by the arm. She narrowed her eyes in silent threat. Releasing her, he flung up his hands in a gesture of peace.
'Nobody,' the pulse pounded in her voice, 'does that to me anymore.'
'All right... all right....' He backed off, his voice oily with understanding. 'I just want you to know I don't care about...all that. Your past, I mean. This is a new start. For both of us.'
Sophia felt sick. It should be easy to storm away, and end all this. Instead, she rubbed her hand up and down over the place where his fingers bit her skin. A breeze rippled through the trees, high on the viewpoint above them. Drops of water suspended from the twigs after the previous night's storm came pattering down, with the sound of a million footsteps giving chase.
'...and I’m going to start by improving my personal best,' a stranger's voice growled out of Sophia's mouth, 'Race you to the top!'
Gone in a flurry of wet grit, she reached the viewpoint in time to watch Gloucester cathedral blanch with a blow from the rising sun. Then Alan's pale face bobbed into sight, and her view was eclipsed.
She checked her watch. 'Now I'm ready to go home.'
'You don't want to run any more?' He sounded half-dead.
Home was one of those words like 'mother' and 'loyalty' that never felt good any more. 'Nope. I've done my time. All I'm heading for now is a shower.'
'Can I play?'
It was hard not to groan, and almost as hard just to give his shoulder a playful punch rather than aim a haymaker at his jaw. 'No.'
He usually begged, but this time he looked distracted. His gaze went over her shoulder, across to the far side of the lookout point.
'There's a car parked over there.'
There was no point in looking round. 'This is the County's dogging hotspot. Of course there's a car parked over there.'
'But it's obviously been here overnight, Soph. Who in their right mind leaves a motor like that, in a place like this?'
'Nobody in their right minds comes here at all, except in broad daylight,' How could a guy in Alan's profession be so innocent?
He wasn't listening. He was heading for the vehicle, and gaining speed as he got closer.
'You don't abandon a class vehicle like this in a place like the Barrow Wake, Soph. It must be hot.'
There was nothing for it but to follow him, closing the distance between them as fast as possible.
'It looks pretty cold to me.' This place seemed deserted, but only an idiot would shout. For the last eighteen months, she'd been more alert than ever to the fact there were always eyes to see, and ears to hear.
'It's unlocked,' he called, already opening the driver's door. He was all enthusiasm and movement until he leaned over the back of the driver's seat. Then he went rigid.
'What is it?'
'You don't want to know, Soph.'
Pulling the sleeve of his new tracksuit top over his hand, he ran it across every surface he might have touched. That meant only one thing. Big trouble.
'It's a body.'
Alan's face was corrugated cardboard, but there was no point worrying about details if he was going to be caught in the act. Sophia saw her chance to scare him off for good. Taking him by the arm, she pulled him away from the car. 'Okay. I'll take it from here. Go.'
'I can't leave you on your own—not with this!'
'I'll be fine. You know that. You've got to go. What would it look like, you reporting this before you've clocked in at Brackenridge Central for the first time? They'll think you're a right smart-arse, trying to show them up. And being found with me....get going. Don't look back.'
She swung him around, and sent him on his way downslope with a satisfying thump between the shoulder blades.
Once past the bland gatekeeper who answered her emergency call, the police were very...nice. Sophia wasn't used to applying that four letter word to the law. She didn't like to spoil the novelty.
When they arrived to fill the viewpoint with their noise, they wrapped her in a foil sheet and tried to put her in an ambulance. To be shut in something like that was a step too far for Sophia. She agreed to sit on the vehicle's tailboard, but being surrounded by all those chemical smells was horrible. It got worse. A pretty Police Community Service Officer was put on empathy detail. Sophia's brightest smile couldn't shut her up. Then the radio fixed to the woman's shoulder burst into life.
Sophia exploded with a curse that thinned the officer’s lips.
'Sorry...but that thing frightened me to death!"
'It's all right, Miss Hope! Don’t worry! You're safe!' When the girl patted her kindly instead of reaching for a charge sheet, Sophia relaxed a fraction.
'And you're in luck, too,.' The PCSO tried a diversion. 'Detective Inspector Joshua Miller is going to be doing your interview. He's gorgeous.'
Sophia’s smile almost turned genuine. This was going to be easy, after all. She knew what handsome men were like. They always kept one eye on their reflection, and the other on their watch. They never let anything get in the way of their next hot date, least of all their work. A few snuffly, indistinct comments to this DI Miller, and she'd be off the hook.
On a map, the Barrow Wake was barely a mile away from Josh Miller's new home. He would have walked, but the last time he tried that there was trouble. The press suggested his reluctance to drive was a comment on policing cuts, and Josh was hauled before a committee convened by the Chief Constable.
Today he took his Ducati, just to annoy them all. It wasn't as though the man found dead at the beauty spot would care.
'And neither will any witnesses,' he told his dog. Lucky watched the ritual of Josh strapping on his body armour without comment.
Leaving Lucky to sleep off his breakfast, Josh rode down into the valley, then powered his motorbike up the torture of Crickley Hill. Sweeping around The Air Balloon pub, he rode the tail of the Cotswold ridge to the Cowley roundabout. Then he took the return stretch as far as the viewpoint, and all at an average speed of exactly seventy mph.
It was as satisfying as walking a Derby winner around the Epsom course. Josh was still scowling as he trickled the Ducati along the lane and into the Barrow Wake parking area. Three police cars, a cat's cradle of incident tape and an ambulance were already in place. With a grimace of distaste he brought the bike to a halt beside the nearest police car. A uniformed officer walked up to meet him.
'Loey? Shouldn't your shift have finished by now?'
'I'll be off home in a minute. I got a lift up here in case I could add anything useful. Fact is, Ratty and I clipped a guy with the patrol car last night.'
Josh took off his crash helmet and dug his fingers through his hair. 'Tell me it wasn't our dead body.'
Loey shrugged. 'Not unless he goes dogging disguised as a Welsh rugby fan.'
That was a relief. Police involvement had a snowball effect on tragedy. Josh stripped off his gloves, and dropped them into the helmet. 'Is your Welshman going to sue?'
'Dunno. The speed he got away from us, across the road and over the fence opposite, I don't reckon there was much wrong with him.'
'Didn't you stop to find out?'
'Course we did. But on a miserable night, and with us being on call, there was only so much we could do.'
'Write it up as an incident. In full.' Josh gazed pointedly at the sergeant.
'Already done. Chapter and verse, sir.'
Josh gave a nod of acknowledgement while scanning the confusion of people milling around the parking spot. Some were in uniforms, others in white coveralls.
'One. They've got her in the ambulance, sir. '
Josh guessed what was going on back there. The crew were probably still bringing the witness down from hysteria. It was marvellous stuff, that happy gas.
He lodged his helmet on the Ducati's handlebars, and strolled over to the abandoned Mercedes.
'Nice car,' he said to the photographer. She moved aside to let him see the nasty secret hidden inside.
Josh braced himself to see the type of corpse found in places where nothing worse than the thrill of illicit sex took its toll on those old enough to know better. He got a shock. The dead man was fully dressed. He lay on his right side, across the back seat. His knees were drawn up, and he might have been asleep--if it hadn't been for the big and bloody mass where his head should have been.
This was a shabby, sad discovery, unworthy of a place where Victorian quarry workers once uncovered a priceless Roman burial hoard.
Josh dug his hands into his pockets and stared out over the Severn vale. There were plenty of people here to take notes, measurements and pictures for him. They recorded the facts, in the expectation Josh would find the solution.
He knew he'd come up with an answer eventually. That was his job. But how anyone could actually bring themselves to take that final, irrevocable decision to strike the killer blow...it was something Josh would never understand.
'Miss Hope says she's okay for questions, sir.' Loey announced.
His voice brought Josh back to the present. 'Who?'
'The witness, sir. She's waiting for you.'
'Okay. I'm on it.'
Josh stopped at the side of the ambulance to get his thoughts in order. Bodies, he could handle. The first ones he saw made such a hole in his heart, all the ones since then slipped straight through.
Witnesses were a different matter. Every one he interviewed after an unexplained death left an indelible mark. The tears, the confusion, the incoherent, ever-changing stories. He gritted his teeth and prepared to meet a blotchy-faced dimwit. When he rounded the ambulance, he was ready to trowel on the sympathy.
Sophia Hope's unbelievable smile made him drop that idea like a clumsy plasterer.
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