The Moth Catcher
The seventh book in the Vera Stanhope series, 2015
Lizzie Redhead listened. In the prison it was never quiet. Not even now in the middle of the night. The other women in her room stirred, snuffling like animals in their sleep. No cells here. Dormitories that reminded her of school. No privacy. No darkness, either. A gleam from the corridor outside shone through the crack under the door, and though this was a low-security establishment there were spotlights at the walls and the gate, and the curtains were thin. Footsteps in the corridor outside. A screw checking that lass on suicide-watch. Two in the morning.
Lizzie worked in the prison farm, so she had access to fresh air and enough exercise to keep her fit, but that didn’t mean she slept well. She’d never needed much sleep. She’d always believed she didn’t belong to her parents; had decided when she was quite small that she was a foundling child, secretly adopted. What did they have in common after all? She had too much energy and a very low boredom threshold. Annie and Sam were soft and gentle, big on squidgy hugs and soppy kisses. Lizzie saw herself as hard and metallic. As an adult she’d chosen men like her. Flinty. Flint on flint made fire. Jason Crow had set her alight.
In a week she’d be released, and she was making plans. She’d become healthy in prison. She’d realized there were better ways to get her kicks than booze and drugs. Jason had taught her that too, though she hadn’t believed him at the time. She knew, from all he’d told her, that she was lucky to have ended up in an open institution.
In prison her entertainment was simple. She visited the library and joined the writers’ group. She had stories to tell and she needed to find the right words. In the library she’d found a book published by the
She’d been a cutter when she was a teenager, slicing into her arm with a razor, high on the smell of metal and blood. She still occasionally harboured dreams of steel, sharp blades, blood oozing in perfectly round drops from clean cuts. Her mother had never noticed. Lizzie had always been good at hiding her secrets. Now she was hiding Jason Crow’s secrets too. She was haunted by them, but she waited for the time that they might be useful to her.
Percy steered the Mini down the lane from The Lamb towards the bungalow he shared with his daughter. On the passenger seat beside him sat Madge, a Border-cross and the best dog he’d ever had. She’d win prizes at the trials, if Percy could be arsed to train her properly. Percy’s sight wasn’t so good these days, so he drove with his nose to the windscreen peering at the road ahead. His daughter said he should stop driving, but hadn’t done anything about it. She liked the two hours of peace his time in The Lamb gave her. Besides, the lane didn’t go anywhere except the big house and those fancy barn conversions, and at this time of day those people were all drinking too. Susan, his daughter, went in to clean for them, and she said the recycling bin was full of bottles every week. Major and Mrs C from the big house were away visiting their son in Australia, so they wouldn’t be driving down the lane. There was nothing else to hit, and the car could find its own way home.
Percy found that his mind was wandering. The beer was strong and he’d been persuaded to take a third pint from one of the youngsters who’d moved into the village. He was late. Susan would be waiting for him, her eye on the clock and his tea in the oven. She liked the washing up done and the kitchen all clean and tidy before the start of
The lane ran along the bottom of the valley. On each side the hills rose steeply, first to fields quartered with drystone walls where sheep grazed and then to open moorland. Close to the road there were trees, a narrow strip of woodland, with primroses now and the green spears that would turn into bluebells. New leaves just starting and the low sun throwing shadows across the road. He was retired, but he’d always earned his living on farms and could turn his hand to anything. He’d liked sheep-work best and this was his favourite time of year. Lambs on the hill and the scent of summer on the way. The sun starting to get a bit of heat in it.
The third pint was sitting uncomfortably on his bladder. That was something else Susan nagged him to go to the doctor about. He was up to the toilet several times a night. Sometimes he got caught short when he was out, pissing himself like a bairn just out of nappies. There was no fun in getting old, no matter what he said to the kids in the pub about having the perfect life.
Then he saw the boy’s face, half-hidden by cow parsley. The eyes were open and the pale hair drifted in the ditch water like weed. They’d had a dry spell, so the ditch was less than half-full. Most of the face was above the water line. It was unmarked. No lines, no wounds. This was a young man, and he looked as if he’d just gone to sleep. He was wearing a woollen jersey and a waxed jacket, and the clothes that weren’t lying in the mud at the bottom of the ditch looked clean and dry. Percy wasn’t appalled by death. He’d killed beasts and he’d seen dead people. He’d just been too young to serve in the war, but when he was a child it hadn’t been unusual for people to die at home. Now people mocked health-and-safety laws, but there’d been more accidents at work then too. Farm machinery without guards or brakes, foolish men showing off. And he’d been holding his wife’s hand when she slipped away. It was a shock to see the boy lying here and it sobered him up, but he didn’t want to vomit.
He looked at the face more carefully and took a moment to remember when he’d last seen it. Last week in the lounge of The Lamb. Eating one of Gloria’s steak pies. Alone. He’d asked his mate Matty who the boy was, but Matty had no curiosity and didn’t bother answering. And Percy had seen the boy again, more recently. Yesterday morning, strolling down the road towards the village. Percy had been up on the hill walking Madge and had meant to ask Susan about him. Susan was more nebby than he was and she knew all the gossip.
Percy walked back to the car and took the mobile phone out of the glove compartment. All around him blackbirds were singing fit to burst. It was that time of year. The time for marking territories and breeding. He always missed his dead wife most in the spring. Not just the friendship, but the sex.
Susan had given the phone to him so that she could keep track of him. She’d called him earlier this evening to remind him he should be on his way home, and that was why he’d headed straight to the car from the pub, without going to the Gents first. It didn’t do to cross his daughter. He’d never used the phone before, but Susan had talked him through it when she gave it to him. The figures were big, so he could read them easily. His first call was to the bungalow. Susan had a temper on her; she could chuck his tea in the bin if he was late, and now that he was sober he was hungry. Then 999. The person on the other end of the line told him to stay where he was. Percy found a bar of chocolate in his jacket pocket and he waited. Doing what he was told for once.
He’d been expecting a police car or an ambulance. No siren. There was no rush after all; the bloke was quite clearly dead and cold. Percy had been thinking about it. At first he’d assumed some sort of accident. But if the lad had been knocked into the ditch by a car he’d have been lying on top of the vegetation, not hidden underneath it. The same would be true if the man had been taken ill. He might be walking on the verge to keep out of the way of a car or a tractor, but he wouldn’t be that close to the ditch. Percy had come to the conclusion the bloke had been put there. Hidden. Even a walker in the lane wouldn’t have seen the body unless he’d scrambled through the undergrowth like Percy, who’d been trying to retain a bit of his dignity by getting away from the road. Then he heard a vehicle, ...