The eighth novel in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series





The mud was everywhere at Pity Wood Farm. It lay in deep troughs under the walls of the house, it surged in wet tides where the cattle had poached the ground into a soup. And it was all over Jamie Ward’s boots, sticky and red, like blobs of damson jam. His steel toe-caps were coated with the stuff, and smears of it had splashed halfway up his denims – long, fat splatters, as if he’d been wading in blood.

Crouching in a corner of the yard, Jamie stared down at the mess and wondered when he’d get a chance to wipe it off. He couldn’t remember if he had a clean pair of jeans back at his parents’ house in Edendale, whether his mother had done his washing this week, or if he’d thrown his dirty clothes behind the bed again, where she wouldn’t find them. She’d been complaining for the past month about the amount of dirt he brought into the house, the number of times she had to clean the filter on the washing machine. He wondered what she’d say about this latest disaster when he got in.

And, as he heard the first police sirens wailing up the valley, it occurred to Jamie to wonder whether he’d actually be going home tonight at all.

‘Damn it, boy. Why didn’t you just cover it up again? It would have been for the best all round.’

Jamie shook his head. You couldn’t just do that, could you? No matter what anyone else said, it wasn’t right, and that was that. He’d done the only thing he possibly could, in the circumstances. He’d done the right thing, so there was nothing to regret.

‘Throw some dirt on it and forget it. There’s no need for all this.’

He felt bad about it, all the same. It was bad for Nikolai and the other blokes. This was a nightmare they didn’t want, and some of them couldn’t afford. Just before Christmas, too, when they needed the money more than ever, he supposed. He was going to be popular, all right.

Jamie felt his muscles beginning to stiffen. The longer he stayed in one spot, the more he felt as though his boots were sinking into the ground. If he stayed here long enough, perhaps the blood-tinted earth would slowly close in and swallow him. His own weight would bury him.

Of course, he knew the mud only looked red because the soil here was clay when you got a few inches down. It was so unusual for this part of Derbyshire that he’d noticed it as soon as he started digging. Clay and mud, tons of crushed brick and corroded iron. It had been a nightmare of a job, almost impossible for his spade to deal with. Jamie’s rational mind told him that the colour was only because of the clay. And if the stuff on his boots looked too red, too dark, too wet … well, that was just his imagination, wasn’t it?

Jamie Ward thought he had plenty of common sense. He was educated, after all – not like most of the other lads on the crew. He would never be a victim of superstition and ignorance. He wasn’t even particularly religious – he didn’t cross himself when they passed a church, or hang a statue of the Virgin Mary over the dashboard of the van, the way Nikolai did.

But this mud was so sticky, and so smelly. It stank as though it had been rotting for centuries. Now, when Jamie finally straightened up, he saw a thick gob slide from his boot on to the ground. It formed a sort of oozing coil, like the dropping of some slimy creature that had been living on the old farm, left to itself when the owners moved out and the cattle disappeared. He pictured something that only came out at night to feed on carrion, scavenging among the ruins of pigsties before slinking back into a dark, damp corner between those abandoned silage bags.

‘Damned fool. Kretyn.’

He remembered the way Nikolai’s fist had gripped his jacket, the feel of the older man’s face pushed against his, rain glistening in his thick eyebrows and on his moustache. Jamie couldn’t believe how angry Nikolai had been, not over something like this. The foreman had tolerated his bungling and his ignorance of the building trade with raucous good humour – until now. Yet suddenly this morning he’d been a different man, a wild thing, dangerously on the verge of violence. And all over a muddy hole.

Jamie swallowed a spurt of bile that hit the back of his throat. He’d been trailing backwards and forwards over this same patch of earth for days now. Shifting stacks of breeze block for the brickies, unloading bags of sand from the lorry, stopping for a quick fag behind the wall. Damn it, his boot prints were all over the place. Anyone who cared to look would see the pattern of his rubber soles, pressed deep in the mud. His eyes followed the criss-crossing trails he’d left, curving in long arcs that stretched twenty yards or more. His tracks were so numerous and extensive that they were probably visible from space like the Great Wall of China, place-marked on Google Earth. They were so distinct that they might as well be the swirls of his fingerprints. Jamie Ward’s signature on the job, perfectly clear and complete.

Soon, people would be talking about him and pointing at him. Before much longer, he’d be answering questions, endless questions, re-living over and over the moment he was trying to forget. He’d seen the TV cop shows, and he knew they never let you alone once they had you in one of their little interview rooms.

He could hear two sirens now, their yelp and wail teasing playfully against each other, fading and getting louder as the cars took one of the bends in Rakedale, dipping behind stone walls and clumps of trees until they reached the top of the hill and turned into the farm.

Jamie thought back to the morning he’d got out of the van, stretched his legs and stepped on to Pity Wood Farm for the first time. It was strange to think there had been grass growing here when the crew arrived on site. Now the whole gateway was churned up, and the soil either side was bare and exposed. In one corner, a wheel rut from a reversing truck had sliced through his boot prints.

He didn’t remember noticing anything unusual that first time. Well, maybe there had been a slight difference in the level of the ground just here, a low bump that was only noticeable if you happened to be pushing a wheelbarrow load of sand over it. And perhaps the grass had been a bit greener, too – only a tiny bit, if you looked closely. Perhaps the blades had gleamed with faintly unnatural health in the winter sunlight. He wouldn’t have looked twice at the time, and he’d never made anything of it. No one would have done.

But then Nikolai had asked him to start digging a trench for the footings of a new wall. Jamie had dug barely more than a few inches into the ground before the soil changed colour. It had taken him a while to get even that far down, though. There were so many stones to be prised free with the spade and lifted out, not to mention lumps of concrete and long splinters of rusted metal. Without his gloves, his fingers would have been raw by now.

After half an hour, he’d been starting to think that Nik had given him the job as a punishment for something, or just because he was the youngest on the crew and a student at that, the one they called ‘The Professor’. Or maybe it was on account of the fact that he didn’t understand what they were going on about when the blokes started joking around on site, and they were taking advantage of him. Probably there wasn’t going to be a wall here at all. Nobody had ever shown him the plans for the new development, so he couldn’t be sure. But during the last few days Jamie had made his own plans. He reckoned that if he’d bought the farm himself, he’d have kept the old dry-stone wall and turned this bit of ground into a nice patio. All it needed was a few yards of paving, not a fancy brick boundary wall that needed some idiot to dig a trench for twelve-inch footings.

Damn that trench. Just the thought of its moist, slippery sides made Jamie feel like throwing up. If it weren’t for all the other blokes standing around gabbling to each other in Polish, he’d have lost his breakfast ages ago.

Even in his distracted state, Jamie noticed that one or two of the labourers were looking a bit nervous as the police sirens got nearer. No papers, he supposed. Illegal workers. Well, it wasn’t his business, and he bet the cops wouldn’t care either, not today.

Nevertheless, Jamie automatically counted up the men. Nine, all present, but standing behind Nikolai for safety.

And all of the crew were looking in the same direction now – at the cluster of objects Jamie had accidentally uncovered with his spade. There wasn’t much to look at, not really. A strip of plastic sheeting and a scrap of rotted leather. A bulge of cloth, torn and faded, a surprising eggshell blue where patches showed through the dirt. And there had been a faint glint of metal, slick with the dampness of clay, reflecting a glimmer of light and the movement of his spade.

But most of all, he knew they were staring at the only thing worth seeing – that unmistakable object laid out in the mud, like a bird trapped in cement, or an ancient fossil preserved in the clay. It was like a five-limbed sea creature, bony and white.

It was the shape of a human hand.


Detective Sergeant Diane Fry stepped out of her car on to the muddy ground, drew her coat tighter round her shoulders and wiped the rain from her face. All the activity seemed to be taking place on the other side of the track. Uniformed officers setting up cordons, SOCOs climbing into scene suits, a bunch of bystanders gaping like idiots. She looked around with a weary sigh. A week before Christmas, and wouldn’t you know it? A major enquiry in prospect, if she wasn’t mistaken.

Fry slammed the door of her Peugeot, her hands already wet and slipping on the handle. There was only one ray of hope. From the initial reports that had come in to Control, this air air of activity might be misleading. Something quite different was going on here.

In fact, everyone was waiting with barely restrained anxiety for a verdict on the age of the body that had been unearthed. If it was recent, the entire division was in for a ruined holiday. If they were lucky, it could prove to be a historic burial, the remains of a medieval graveyard disturbed by the construction work. And then they could hand it over to the archaeologists and drive off home with a cheery wave and shouts of ‘Have a good Christmas.’

All right, that was probably too much to hope for. But even a decade or two on the bones would be good news. At least they could take their time making enquiries. Victims who’d been missing for ten or twenty years would wait a little while longer for their identity to be established.

Besides, what family wanted a knock on the door over Christmas and a police officer standing on the step to inform them that their missing loved one had been found in a shallow grave in some godforsaken spot at the back of beyond? That sort of thing could ruin Christmas for ever.

She called to a uniformed officer in a yellow high-vis jacket. ‘Is DC Murfin here somewhere, do you know?’

‘Yes, Sergeant. Shall I fetch him?’


Yes, Christmas. In Fry’s experience, there were already far too many families who were unable to regard it as a time for gladness and joy. This time of year had a nasty tendency to bring back memories for people. Recollections of happier times, of opportunities lost, of friends and relatives who had passed on to celebrate Christmas in a better place.

No, the festive season wasn’t all about peace and goodwill, not these days. Anyone in the emergency services could tell you that. Christmas didn’t make much difference to the lives of all those poor, pathetic and dysfunctional people who cluttered up the police stations and courts from one month to the next.

A few days ago, two men wearing Santa Claus outfits had raided a building society in Chesterfield. They’d been carrying baseball bats inside their fur-fringed sleeves, and a customer had ended up in hospital with a fractured skull when he got in their way. The suicide and domestic violence rates jumped at this time of year, the number of road accident victims multiplied, and the streets of Edendale were full of brawling drunks. The cells at West Street were never fuller, the hospitals were over-stretched, and hosing out the divisional vans was a full-time job. Lots of ho, ho, ho.

But perhaps she was just a bit jaundiced in her view. Personally, she hadn’t celebrated Christmas for over a decade. Not in a paper hat and cracker, turkey and mistletoe sort of way. There had never been a decorated spruce tree standing in the corner of her damp little flat in Grosvenor Avenue, no tinsel over the mantelpiece, no Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio on Christmas morning. She was lucky if she had a present to unwrap – at least, one that she hadn’t sent to herself for appearance sake. What was there to celebrate?

DC Gavin Murfin appeared at her side, teetering dangerously on the edge of the mud. The bottom four inches of his trouser legs were rolled up to reveal a pair of green paisley socks and a strip of deathly white flesh. Fry looked away, feeling suddenly queasy. On balance, the sight of a partially decomposed corpse might be preferable.

‘Do you think there’ll be any overtime on this one, boss?’ asked Murfin as they approached a PVC body tent erected over the makeshift grave.

‘You’re already rostered for duty over Christmas anyway, aren’t you, Gavin?’

Murfin looked crestfallen.

‘Damn, you’re right. I’d forgotten.’

Fry heard the dismay in his voice, but felt no pity. ‘If it’s a historic burial, you could be the officer in charge for a while.’

‘Great. That’s just … great.’

‘Most DCs would appreciate that kind of opportunity,’ said Fry.

‘It makes a change from processing nominals, I suppose.’

Reluctantly, Fry smiled. Ah, nominals. The official name for the area’s most prolific criminals – the repeat offenders, all those individuals the law makers called ‘recidivists’. They came into custody at regular intervals, might even get a short prison sentence if they were unlucky. But, before long, they were back out there on the litter-ridden streets of the Cavendish Estate – or ‘the community’, as it was known in the criminal justice system. Edendale’s nominals would be celebrating Christmas, all right. No one wanted them cluttering up the custody suite.

Murfin was silent for a moment as they watched the medical examiner directing a SOCO where to uncover vital parts of the body. The exposed edge of a bone here, a bit of decomposed flesh there.

‘Diane, do you mean there are people who’d prefer to attend a postmortem than be at home carving the turkey?’ asked Murfin.

‘There isn’t much difference, is there?’

‘Now that you mention it. Not the way I do it, anyway. And the company might be better in the mortuary – especially since we have to visit the in-laws at Alfreton on Boxing Day.’

Fry peered over the tape into the grave. The hole was gradually getting bigger, even as she watched. The hand that had been exposed by the workman looked fairly fresh. But the torso that was now being painstakingly revealed seemed to be badly decayed.

A cold case, or a warm one? Fry was unashamedly ambitious – she wanted the next move up the promotion ladder, and for that she needed cases to her credit. Successful cases, airtight prosecutions that led to convictions. Clear-ups, not cock-ups. It would be PDR time in April, the annual round of dreaded staff appraisals. She had to file something away that she could point to as a recent triumph, evidence of her outstanding skill and expertise, proof of her ability to manage an enquiry to a successful outcome, blah, blah, blah. Senior management believed it if it was down on paper, typed on an official form. Would Pity Wood Farm give her that case?

‘OK, let’s move these people back behind the cordon. What are they all doing here anyway?’

‘They’re witnesses, Sergeant.’

‘All of them?’

‘So it seems.’

‘Well, get their names and addresses and put them somewhere out of the way, for God’s sake.’

‘They don’t seem to speak English.’

‘Oh, Jesus.’

Rain had begun to fall again – big, fat drops splattering on to the roof her car and pitting the already treacherously soft ground. Around her, uniformed and paper-suited figures speeded up their actions, as if suddenly instilled with a new-found sense of urgency. Within a few minutes, they were all sheltering against the walls of the farmhouse or sitting in their vehicles.

And it was only then that Fry really noticed Pity Wood Farm for the first time. Until this moment, she’d been concentrating on the ground, trying to keep her footing in the slippery mud that was coating her shoes and trickling in between her toes. But she looked up, and she saw it in all its glory.

She was confronted by a collection of ancient outbuildings leaning at various angles, their roofs sagging, doors hanging loosely on their hinges. By some curious law of physics, the doors all seemed to tilt at the opposite angle to the walls, as if they were leaning to compensate for a bend. Some doorways had been blocked up, windows were filled in, steps had been left going nowhere. Mud ran right up to the walls of the outbuildings, and right up to the door of the farmhouse itself. From the evidence, Fry thought it probably continued inside the house, too. The exterior was grimy and flecked with dirt, a bird’s nest trailed from a broken gutter. Piles of rubbish were strewn across the dead grass of what might once have been garden. Was this really a farm?

‘Who else is here, Gavin?’ she asked, in despair.

‘The DI’s on his way,’ said Murfin. ‘But in the meantime, it’s you and me, boss.’

‘DC Cooper?’

‘Ben? He’s on a rest day. We don’t know where he is.’

‘Strange,’ said Fry. ‘This is exactly his sort of place.’


Crouching uncomfortably, Detective Constable Ben Cooper studied the withered object carefully. In all his years with Derbyshire Constabulary, including seven in CID, he’d never seen anything quite like this. There had been plenty of dead bodies – some of them long dead, others nice and fresh. And some of them perhaps not quite dead, after all. But this?

The flesh had shrivelled away from the fingers, leaving them thin but not quite skeletal. The fact that there was still a layer of leathery skin shrunk tight to the fingers somehow made it worse than if he was just looking at bones. The result was that the hand appeared to have been shrink-wrapped in a film of wrinkled, yellow plastic. The thumb was bent strangely out of shape, too, as though it had been broken and never re-set. The severed wrist was ragged, and the tattered skin looked as though it had been sealed with some kind of sticky substance.

He straightened up, easing the painful muscles in his back. He’d been playing squash this morning, and his opponent had smashed the ball into his kidneys when he was out of position recovering a drop-shot. You could never trust police officers not to get you in the back.

‘The hand of glory,’ he said. ‘They’re very rare these days.’


‘Very rare. Not rare like steak, but rare as in very unusual. There aren’t many of them about.’

Cooper had the suspicion that he was babbling, spouting nonsense. He did it just because there was a silence that had to be filled. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. Not even the first time today.

He looked at his companion, unsure of her reaction because of the silence. ‘What do you think of it, then?’

‘It’s gross.’


‘Like, totally yucky.’

Cooper nodded. ‘Yes, I suppose it is.’

It wasn’t exactly a technical assessment – but accurate, all the same. There were many occasions when a police officer in E Division might want to use it. A Saturday night on drunk patrol, for example. Another body lying in the gutter on the High Street? I’m not touching that, Control – it’s yucky. Yes, that would work.

But today was his rest day, and he’d volunteered to take his eldest niece out for the day, since the Christmas holidays had started. So he had an obligation to be interesting and informative. Volunteered? Was that really the right word? His recollection was that he’d happened to be hanging around at Bridge End Farm chatting to his brother Matt, when Amy had kidnapped him. But he’d never prove that in court. He had no evidence.

‘The “hand of glory” supposedly comes from an executed criminal and was cut off the body while the corpse was still hanging from the gibbet,’ said Cooper, reading from the guide book.

‘There’s a recipe here,’ said Amy, interrupting him. She was eleven now, and strangely adult in some ways. Cooper was starting to feel sorry for the teachers at Amy’s new school. She could be merciless if you were boring her.

‘A what, Amy?’

‘A recipe.’

‘Like Delia Smith? That sort of recipe?’

‘I suppose. “The recipe for the preparation of a hand of glory is simple,” it says.’

Cooper looked down at his niece, surprised by the sudden change in her tone. Now she was interested. It was yucky just to stand and look at a preserved hand, but learning how to preserve one yourself – now that was cool. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised.

‘“Squeeze the blood out of the hand. Embalm it in a shroud and steep it in a solution of saltpetre, salt and pepper for two weeks. Then dry in the sun.” What’s saltpetre, Uncle Ben?’

‘Erm … I’m not sure.’

Amy snorted gently. ‘“The other essential item is a candle made from hanged man’s fat, wax and Lapland sesame.” What’s Lapland sesame?’

‘Erm …’

‘Sesame seeds from Lapland, obviously.’ She frowned. ‘Do sesame plants grow in Lapland?’

‘I, er …’

‘Never mind.’

‘I know how the hand of glory was used,’ said Cooper desperately. ‘You fixed candles between the fingers of the hand, and then you lit them when you broke into a house.’

‘When you did what?’

‘Well, it was used by burglars. According to the legends, it made them invisible. It was also supposed to prevent the owners of the house from waking up.’

There was a final bit on the little interpretative panel that he didn’t bother reading out. Wicks for the candles were made from locks of hair dipped in grease from the murderer’s body and the fat of an old tom cat, then consecrated by saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. Ah, the old Lord’s Prayer backwards – that always worked, didn’t it?

They moved on through the museum. Cooper glanced out of the window, and saw that it was still raining. He didn’t mind Edendale in the rain, but Amy objected to getting wet. And since it was the start of her Christmas holidays, and only his rest day, she got to say what they did and where they went. And that didn’t involve going out in the rain, thanks.

In the centre of town, Victoria Park had been taken over for a Victorian Christmas Market. These things seemed to be very popular, judging by the crowds coming into town. There was a smell of roasting chestnuts in the air, and the sound of a fairground organ. And there was an innovation for Edendale this year – a Continental market, where stalls sold French bread and German sausages. Some of the stallholders spoke with foreign accents and might even be French or German. You never knew these days.

In the evenings, mime artists, stilt walkers and clowns would mingle with the crowds, and Santa would turn up on his sleigh at exactly the same time every night. A couple of weeks earlier, a local TV presenter had been brought in to switch on the lights, but the headline act on the main stage tomorrow would be an Abba tribute band.

They stopped by a costume display. The rough trousers and leather knee-pads of a lead miner, the gowns and bonnets of an elegant lady.

‘So how are you liking school, Amy?’ he said, aware of an unfamiliar silence developing.

‘It’s so cliquey. They’re all goths or emos. Or chavs.’

‘Chavs, eh?’

‘They’re so stupid. There aren’t any real people, Uncle Ben.’

‘Would you rather be at home, or at school?’

‘Well, home is all right. I like being around the farm and the animals. But Mum and Dad are so immature sometimes.’

‘Oh, are they?’

‘They only think about money and possessions – they’re very materialistic. I can’t believe they never stop and think about serious subjects now and then.’

Cooper found himself trailing after his niece, as if he was the child demanding attention. It was supposed to be the other way round, but it never seemed to work like that in reality.

‘Well, they’re very busy looking after you and Josie,’ he said. ‘And they have to try to make sure the farm makes enough money to support the whole family. It’s very hard work, you know.’

Amy didn’t seem to hear. He could see that she was thinking about something again. It was very unnerving the way she did that, switched to auto pilot while her brain concentrated on some totally different subject. Perhaps she was already learning to multi-task, practising that skill all women claimed to have.

‘It’s just like Draco Malfoy, in that shop in Knockturn Alley,’ she said.

Cooper frowned, stumped again by the turn of the conversation. ‘Is it?’

His brain turned over, trying to pin down the reference. It was humiliating to find that his brain worked so much more slowly than Amy’s but he was finding it more and more difficult to keep up with his nieces’ interests these days. Their lives seemed to change so quickly, the pop stars they liked being different from one week to the next. Even the language they used evolved so rapidly that it left him behind.

‘Wait a minute – Draco Malfoy, did you say? That’s Harry Potter.’

‘Of course it’s Harry Potter.’ Amy could barely conceal the contempt in her voice. ‘It’s in The Chamber of Secrets. Draco Malfoy finds a hand of glory when he’s in the shop with his father. “Best friend of thieves and plunderers,” that’s what the shopkeeper says.’

‘“Best friend of thieves and plunderers.” OK, that would make sense.’

‘So it’s magic,’ said Amy.

‘Yes, of course. What did you think it was?’

‘I thought it was for real. Well, it’s in the museum, isn’t it? All this other stuff is for real – the costumes and the tools, and the old furniture.’


‘But the hand of glory isn’t real – it’s magic.’

‘It’s a genuine hand,’ said Cooper defensively. ‘A hand that belonged to a real person once.’

‘But it’s still magic. Magic is make-believe. Harry Potter is made up. It’s fiction, Uncle Ben.’

‘The fact is,’ said Cooper, treading cautiously, ‘people in the past believed those things were for real. They didn’t know that magic was just something out of stories like Harry Potter. They actually thought it worked, in real life. The hand of glory, all kinds of stuff.’

They got to the door of the museum and looked out on to the street. There were fewer umbrellas being carried by the pedestrians now, so the rain must be easing.

‘People can be really weird, can’t they?’ said Amy. ‘They believe in such stupid things.’


The old man’s dreams were worse during the day. He drifted in and out of consciousness, hardly aware of his surroundings, pressed down into the darkness of sleep by a great weight. At times, he wasn’t even sure he was still alive, it felt so impossible to wake up. It was so difficult, so far beyond his strength.

Our dawns and dusks are numbered. They’ll steal our land next, and our hills. I always thought the place would last for ever, but now I don’t care. I wouldn’t pass on the curse. It’ll die with me, and none too soon. It will an’ all.

Dark filth, cruel brutes. Coming to my home for their evil purposes, stealing away my life. Our life. They turned up in their white vans, and they went away again. Dark, some of them. Speaking in tongues. They might as well have had the number stamped on their foreheads. Them and their minions, traipsing all over the shop. A load of rammel in the sheds, I don’t know what …

Words and phrases repeated in his head, meaningless yet desperately important, the only thing that mattered.

For he that is dead. For he that is dead.

Aye, it were silin’ down again. That morning, he was fast on, so I didn’t waken him. He’d only be lorping around the house, the old dosser. Yammering about his mad ideas. Sacrilege and superstition, damnation and desecration.

The night before, they’d all been popped-up again. I thought I’d go scranny if they didn’t stop. Look, he’s a wick ’un, I said. I told you he was a wick ’un.

The old man opened his eyes for a moment, aware of movement and light, but sank back into sleep before his brain could focus.

But he was sickly, and always was. Weak in the head, and sick in the body. Sound, me. I’m sound, I always said. But him, he was badly. I never cottoned on how badly. But it makes no odds now, does it? It’s all for the best, in the end.

For he that is dead.

For he that is dead.

For he that is dead is freed from sin.


Copyright Stephen Booth 2007



DYING TO SIN is published in the UK by HarperCollins in hardback at £12.99




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