Sarah Bacon drove slowly to Winser Gill farm, not really wanting to see what she was going to find when she got there. She’d had a call to say that the site of the explosion had been reached at last, and that they were bringing up the first of the bodies. Any relief she had felt at Martha surviving the other explosion was rapidly being wiped out by the realisation that at least 2 of those underground in the forest had not been so lucky. As she drove around the final bend before the junction there was a car just disappearing down into the narrow lane to the farm from the other direction. She couldn’t be sure from the angle but it had looked like Superintendent Sean Greene driving. Sarah was a little surprised, but pleased, that he had turned up in person so soon. If he was going to show this level of interest it would make her task of getting adequate resources allocated to their team a lot simpler.
It took a while to get down to the farmyard, the cars were going at almost walking pace down the twisty, rutted lane. It was barely a road, and the overhanging trees cast patches of shade that obscured the deepest of the potholes. Sarah was focusing so hard on not grounding the chassis of her car or running into the back of the car in front that she didn’t pay much attention to the scene that she was driving towards until she had turned into the farmyard. It was filled with a collection of emergency vehicles similar to the one she’d just left at the village, and they were lucky that the yard was wide, relatively flat, and free of the usual farming clutter, so finding a spot to leave her car was easier than it might have been.
As she looked beyond the ambulances and police vehicles she saw that the farm buildings spread out in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. The farmhouse itself was narrow-end on to the lane and was long and narrow. The side facing the road was built in brick on the ground floor, in colour somewhere between antique terracotta and a deep blue-red. The upper storey was hung with Kent-peg tiles of the same mix of shades, the clay weathered and aged. The house was on the far left side of the yard and the front, facing the barns and outhouses, was the same construction as the end that faced the road. Sarah walked to her left and took a brief look at the rear of the house, and notice that it was timber frame with the distinctive shape of a Wealden Hall house. The upper storey was built out about a foot beyond the outer wall of the ground floor, but only at the ends. There was a section in the middle where the outer wall continued straight up from the ground floor. The bottom edge of the roof didn’t curve in to follow suit though, but continued along in a line, so the eaves were deeper in this middle section, which helped to shelter the door that led out onto what had once been a flower garden but was now a tangled mass of brambles and long grass.
On a whim Sarah decided to circle the house to get back to the yard, instead of going back the way she had come. There was a wide brick path that skirted the outside wall, so she didn’t have to risk getting tangled up in the brambles, but the surface was slippery and green with moss so she picked her way with care. As she looked at each window as she passed it, but there was nothing to see of the house interior, blinds were drawn down over all of them. As she rounded the far corner she made a mental note of the other buildings scattered about. Facing the farmhouse was an old barn, dilapidated but looking like attempts had been made to renovate it. On the left, facing the road, was an oast house. Its roundel had windows punched into the walls, as so many had, and had obviously been converted into a house many years ago as the paintwork on the frames was old and flaky. These three buildings made a square, with the road forming the fourth edge, but Sarah could see others behind them and the paving continued around and behind the oast. It looked like there were cattle sheds and the modern roof of an Atcost barn was just visible at the very back. She knew that Japp had looked around and found everything deserted, but he hadn’t been very informative on the type of buildings he’d seen. He probably wouldn’t know an Atcost barn even if he saw the name up on the wall, she thought.
Sarah heard the Super from quite a distance, recognising the clicking sound his heels made on the tarmac of the yard. His penchant for saving money extended to using Blakeys on his shoes, to everyone’s amusement. Realising that her best chance of winning him over was to avoid annoying him at all costs, she rounded the final corner and smiled at him. In fact, she nearly bumped into him as he’d been a lot closer than she’d realised. He took half a step back and looked startled for a second, and at first Sarah thought she’d got off on the wrong foot, as it were, but then he smiled, turned to walk back into the middle of the yard with her, and started to discuss how the investigation was going. At first he seemed completely business-like and professional, listening to her updates on what had happened so far, but as soon as they moved on to the discovery of the bodies in the tunnel Sarah realised that he seemed deeply upset, more than she’d been expecting. It was only reasonable to assume that he’d be sad at the loss of life, and angry that it had happened, but this seemed to be more than that. At one point she wondered if he was going to start crying, and was trying to think what the appropriate response would be, given that he was her superior officer, when he seemed to pull himself together and the moment passed. Still, she thought, she had to check something.
‘Sir, do we know the identities of the deceased yet? Are there any survivors?’
‘It doesn’t look likely that anyone has survived, no. An explosion as powerful as that in such a confined space – it would be a miracle if anyone survived it.’ He looked like his composure was about to crack again, and Sarah was wondering if she could keep hers. She realised that she’d been hoping for just such a miracle, especially after Martha had been found alive. She already knew that it had been the Green Watch from the station in Ashford who had been on duty that morning, and the names of all the crew who had been underground at the time of the explosion. It had been the only topic of conversation among the fire crews at the village site once they’d got Martha out safely. Every time any of them had stepped away from the search in the rubble for a moment she’d spotted them huddling together and asking if there was any news yet. They must have known how unlikely it was anyone would survive, and yet they had carried on hoping.
Sarah started as she thought of the families who were going to be affected by this, the press were going to be all over it and they needed to let them know the worst before a journalist go there first. This was going to hit the national news and they ought to be prepared.
‘It’s been taken care of, DI Bacon. I’ve sent Family Liaison Officers to each of the families. It was my first priority as soon as I had the names of those who were underground at the time of the blast. We’ll have to hold a press conference, sooner rather than later, but up until now we’ve been holding them off with the fact that we didn’t know anything for sure. They do like to sniff out any uncertainty though, which is why I’m here. So I can look them in the eye when they ask their stupidly intrusive questions.’
Sarah nodded, impressed that he was willing to put himself between the investigation team and the press. This seemed to be a good time to speak up about needing a bigger team and more resources. After she’d made her case he almost sucked air in over his teeth, in the manner beloved of car mechanics everywhere just before they tell you your head gasket has blown and that the repairs are probably going to cost you more than your car is worth, but he just stopped himself and nodded instead. Maybe the leopard isn’t ready to change his spots just yet, Sarah thought. Still, he hadn’t reacted as if she’d asked for the Crown jewels, not quite anyway. He thought for a second and asked who she’d want on her team. Fortunately she’d already considered this and reeled off a list of names, including Nathan McKeown, Sarah Nickerson and Patrick Spencer. She’d worked with all of them from time to time and knew she could trust them to be thorough and diligent, but that they also had the skill to pick up on the unexpected and fleeting little details that might be what led to the breaking of the case. Which is what she told Greene. What she didn’t tell him was that she could also trust them to let her know if anyone was trying to sabotage the case, even if it was someone very senior, and after Sarah Nickerson’s conversation with Border Control that was something she felt might be important.
‘Ah yes, Sgt Nickerson, or Coat as she is known to her friends. Oh, come on, Bacon, you don’t really think I’m not aware of all the station gossip and the nicknames you call each other, do you? I make it my business to know, especially if it might lead to disputes between officers. Luckily Sgt Nickerson doesn’t seem to mind being known as “All fur coat and no knickers” but that doesn’t necessarily mean I approve.’
Sarah Bacon had to get over her discomfort at Greene’s knowledge of station banter quickly as he had already moved on.
‘So you’ve left her looking after things in Rolvenden Layne, have you? I suppose it’s all routine for the moment until any evidence is uncovered?’
‘Yes, Sir. At least, it’s routine apart from needing to talk to the pub landlord, Stevie Kilner, again. We had a call from Patrick Spencer just before I left for here. He tried to throw suspicion on Martha’s brother, but when Japp caught up with Arthur at the hospital he wasn’t acting suspiciously at all, so now we’re thinking we should be looking at Mr Kilner instead. Sgt Nickerson is more than capable of interviewing him, Sir.’
Greene frowned. Sarah wasn’t surprised, everything they were uncovering so far was just leading to yet more mystery. It was enough to make you wish for just one solid answer, so at least you’d know you were on the right track.
‘Well, I trust your judgement on personnel, Bacon, and there’s no doubt that this investigation is going to need more resources, but we mustn’t forget that Scotland yard sent DI Japp down here to look into these things. No doubt he’ll want to have a say. Just make sure you keep me fully informed. If I’m going to have to find the budget for this investigation I’ll want to know how it’s going, any potential hiccups, anything at all, do you understand?’
With that he broke off abruptly, and strode over to the farmhouse entrance, leaving Sarah Bacon to follow or not as she liked. Well, she thought, that was unexpectedly painless. She was halfway to the open door behind Greene when everyone still outside turned towards the house and went very quiet, and the first of the stretchers carrying the body of one of the dead fire crew was carried out to one of the waiting ambulances.