Martha reached the house, expecting to see Japp poking around the debris of the ruined building. She wasn’t expecting to see bits of what looked like rolled up turf and a complete lack of Detective Inspector. A quick look around confirmed her initial thought – he had disappeared, seemingly as completely as the Smiths. She felt panicked, what on earth could have happened now? Trying to ignore the sudden sick feeling in her stomach she took some deep breaths to calm herself down and looked around more carefully, to see if there was anything she’d missed, anything that might show that Japp was safe and well and simply elsewhere.
The pathway, its camouflage, and what remained of the footprints on it showed that he’d clearly been on to something, although where he had gone was another matter. She quickly ruled out him going back to the car by himself. He’d seemed more than happy to wait until she’d finished clearing the fallen tree, besides, she didn’t think he was the careless sort to go running off and leave freshly discovered evidence unattended. She had a quick look at the path they’d arrived by – the overnight rain had erased all traces of any previous footprints and she saw just theirs made as they entered the clearing -none going back the other way.
She glanced at her phone and confirmed that she did have a phone signal here, the house being just that little bit higher than the rest of the forest. Assuming whichever network he used had similar coverage, he was unlikely to have wandered off to find somewhere to call the station for forensics. Even if had, he would have headed further up the hill. The crest was within sight, just a few yards away along the central fire road through the forest: nowhere to get lost between here and there.
Martha called the station and updated them on the latest mystery, nodding as she was instructed to wait there until the arrival of Forensics from HQ. Fortunately this time there was no need for incredibly detailed directions, they remembered their way from last time.
It was going to be a while before any detectives arrived as the police station wasn’t in the nearest town, but was right over on the far side of the borough. Forensics may well take even longer, as the roads around County HQ were notoriously grid-locked at this time of day. With that in mind Martha took out her phone and started to take pictures, taking care to not wander inside the house, or disturb the places where it looked like Japp had been particularly interested in the ground.
Martha jumped as she heard the familiar voice of Detective Inspector Bacon behind, calling her name – she really hadn’t expected anyone to turn up so soon. ‘PCSO Farquharson, what on earth do you think you are doing contaminating my crime scene?’ She turned around warily and looked a little guilty, maybe she had strayed closer than she’d intended.
‘How do you know Japp has disappeared anyway? Couldn’t he have just driven back down the fire access road?’ Ah. This was going to be tricky, thought Martha. Picking her words with care she explained that they hadn’t driven right up to the house from the main forest entrance, but had parked in the hospital overflow car park and walked from one of the other paths.
‘Why on earth did you do that?’
‘Because it was the closest way in to the forest from the Country Store, and the shortest walk to the house.’
‘But you didn’t need to walk at all, it would have been quicker to drive around a little further and straight here – and what on earth had you been doing at the Country Store anyway?’
Martha could feel herself turning slightly pink and mumbling slightly, ‘I took the DI there for walking gear so he wouldn’t ruin his suit, ma’am.’
DI Bacon just stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds until a smile spread across her face. ‘Which he wouldn’t have needed if you’d driven here. This was you taking the piss out of him again because he’s from London, wasn’t it? I heard about that stunt you all pulled with the cider on his first night here. Well let’s hope that getting himself a bit muddy and lost in the forest is all that has happened to our esteemed London colleague.’
Relief washed over Martha as she realised that the DI had landed on a plausible explanation for her behaviour, and that her real motives were going to go undiscovered. ‘Yes, ma’am, sorry, ma’am, I know I was winding him up about not being dressed for the country, but he would have needed the gear anyway if he was crawling all over the ground like I think he was.’
DI Bacon paid close attention as Martha pointed out her discoveries and showed her the photographs she had taken. Her eye was good, that much was clear, and she seemed genuinely anxious to find Japp safe and well. Sarah Bacon realised that if one of her investigative officers had been first on the scene they may not have noticed all that Martha had. Her observational skills were excellent and she’d noticed things that only someone with a deep knowledge of the natural world could have spotted from such a short search.
It was obvious, to Martha, that Japp had clambered around a fair bit in his efforts to stay off the path that he’d discovered. She showed DI Bacon the scuff marks where he’d knocked moss off some of the mounds of debris, and some mud that had fallen off his boots, which came from the start of their walk here. It was different to the mud by the house, apparently. Sarah would have to take her word for that, mud looked like mud to her, but no doubt the forensic team could confirm Martha’s suspicions, so she made a note to ask them to take samples and analyse them.
They both puzzled over the path and its camouflage. After inspecting the nearest section they came to the same conclusions that Japp had. A lot of effort had gone in to hiding that path, and that hadn’t been done on a whim. Or recently. The footprints had been brushed out in something of a hurry, Sarah thought. If it had been done with the same care as covering the path up there’d have been nothing for them to find. Which made her wonder – if you were going to cover the footprints anyway then why bother brushing them out? If you didn’t have time to brush out the footprints properly, how come there was enough time to replace the camouflage so effectively that it wasn’t spotted when the Smiths’ disappearance was being investigated?
This case was getting stranger by the minute, and DI Bacon needed to pass all this further up the chain of command. She glanced again at Martha who was losing the ability to hide just how worried she was at Japp’s disappearance. Well, that made two of them who were worried, you don’t just lose a fellow police officer. Sarah sighed, and made the call to her Superintendent. He could break the news to the Chief Superintendent, if the grapevine hadn’t already informed him. She looked grim as she thought of the probable fallout from the latest development.