The Proto-Haunted Cottage
Some time later that morning, I was woken by a loud rumbling sound. I looked out of the window and saw a large mechanical digger being driven into the garden. I made myself decent and dashed outside. Prudence was organising a work crew.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh good, you’re awake. We were just about to start the drilling to break up the concrete.”
“You’re going to dig up the pond?”
“How else are we going to get to the body?”
“Is Felix okay with this?”
“I have full authority to make decisions on Felix’s behalf. Besides, it’s doing him a favour. I’m sure the dumb blonde would prefer a swimming pool to a dirty, lifeless pond.”
“How do you know it’s lifeless? There might be fish in it.”
“There weren’t. We pumped out all the water into the drainage ditch at the bottom of the garden. Nothing but green slime.”
“Hello Father,” interrupted a voice I recognised. It was the spokesman from the pub.
“Hello. What are you doing here?”
“I’m the foreman and this is my crew. I’ll be operating the digger. One of my lads is about to break up the concrete with a pneumatic drill. It’s going to get very noisy so you’d better go inside.”
“Okay. Thanks. I know we met in the pub but I don’t know your name.”
He offered his hand and I shook it.
“It’s lucky you just happened to be free to work on this,” I commented.
“Actually we’re supposed to be doing a job just up the road. But your lady friend made a compelling argument for us to come here for the day. I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Whatever happens, I’ll have quite a story to tell my grandchildren.”
The lady friend in question had her smartphone in her hand and was leaning over the pond.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Documenting every stage of recovering Emily’s remains. I don’t want a scumbag defence lawyer to be able to claim that someone manipulated the scene for any reason.”
I looked into the green, slime-covered concrete shell of the empty pond. It was pierced in the centre by the copper pipe which fed the fountain.
“Let’s go inside and let them get on with the job,” said Prudence. “After they’ve broken up the bottom of the pond with a pneumatic drill, I’ll take some more photographs. Then Dennis can remove the lumps of concrete with his digger.”
I made some sandwiches and ate them while watching from my bedroom, although there wasn’t much to see. The noise was pretty loud despite the double glazing. Eventually the drilling stopped and Dennis summoned Prudence to take more pictures. Then he started removing the broken concrete with his digger.
Just after noon, Dennis announced that the concrete base of the pond had been removed, leaving clear earth. Prudence took some more pictures.
“Why don’t you and your crew take a break for lunch,” she said. “Father O’Malley and I can handle the next part.”
“Sure. When do you want us back?” asked Dennis.
“I guess it will take us about half an hour. Anytime after that.”
Prudence disappeared into the cottage and reappeared holding a bundle of garden canes. “Picked these up at a garden centre. They should do the job.”
“What job is that?”
Prudence handed me the canes then climbed down into the bottomless pond. “Pass me the canes and I’ll show you.” Prudence selected a cane and pushed it gently into the compacted soil. It slid in quite easily. She repeated the process with several canes then suddenly shouted, “Eureka. I’ve found something.”
“What are you doing?”
“This is how they find bodies after an avalanche. I’ve hit something solid about six inches down. Now I need to map the outline so that Dennis can dig away the soil around it without disturbing it.”
Working steadily but carefully, Prudence mapped the outline of the object under the soil, slowly revealing what could well be a child’s body. Meanwhile, Dennis’s team started drifting back from their lunch breaks.
“What’s that?” asked Dennis, on seeing the canes.
“There’s a solid object about six inches down. Does that outline look like a child’s body to you?” Prudence replied.
“Yes, it does!”
Prudence held out a hand and, grasping it, I helped her out of the pond.
“What I want you to do now is excavate the earth around the canes without disturbing them. Go about eighteen inches down if you can.”
“I can do that,” said Dennis.
Prudence took some more photographs first, then Dennis started excavating around the outline, adding the soil to the pile of broken concrete littering the garden. Prudence was the one to call a halt, taking photographs of the eerily coffin-shaped mound of soil.
“Now, two at a time, I want you to go down there and gently brush the soil away from on top of the body with your hands,” Prudence instructed the workmen. “Emily said she’s wrapped in plastic. It’s imperative that you do not touch the plastic with your bare hands because you might contaminate evidence. So I want you to wear these.” She brandished a box of single-use latex gloves.
Dennis and another guy were the first volunteers. They climbed down into the pond and donned the latex gloves.
“Can we remove the canes?” asked Dennis.
“Yes, they were only there to guide your digging.”
The men removed the canes then, tentatively at first, brushed the soil away from the top of the heap.
“How did you know to do all this?” I asked Prudence.
“I’ve read a lot of evidence collection reports. You wouldn’t imagine the amount of evidence that has to be discarded because it’s been badly collected.”
A man whose name I didn’t know was the first to call out that he’d found something. A tiny corner of black polythene was now exposed. Prudence took a picture then the two men resumed. Progress was faster now that they knew what they were looking for and how deep it was. Even so, it was left to a second shift to complete the exposure of the black polythene
“Do you want us to lift the body out?” asked Dennis.
“No, this is where we call in the forensic specialists,” said Prudence. “I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s the body of a child.”
It may have been my imagination but I thought I could make out the features of Emily’s face where the polythene had been wrapped tightly round her head.
“You and your team have done an excellent job and I’ll make sure they get a nice bonus from my brother,” said Prudence. “They can leave if they want or they can stay and watch.”
Prudence then used her smartphone as a phone for a change, dialling a number she had already programmed into its memory.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Prudence Roscoe. I’m overseeing some work at my brother’s country cottage in Coombe Ottery. We’ve uncovered a body, probably that of a young girl who went missing twenty years ago. You need to send uniformed officers to secure the scene and a forensic team to secure the evidence.” She then gave details of the property and how to reach it.
Most of the Dennis’s team elected to stay, including Dennis himself. Prudence and I served them refreshments while we waited. Twenty minutes we heard a car pull up at the front of the cottage and Prudence and I went round to greet it. A uniformed officer, who was probably still a teenager, got out of the car and approached us.
“Fuck!” whispered Prudence. “They sent a chocolate cop.”
“A what?” I asked.
“A Police Community Service Officer. They’re like Christmas Tree decorations - look pretty but totally useless.”
“I understand you’ve found a body,” said the PCSO.
“That’s right,” said Prudence. “It was under the garden pond. Follow me.” Prudence led the PCSO to the back garden with me bringing up the rear. “Down there,” said Prudence, pointing to the black polythene.”
“I’d better go down and have a look,” said the PCSO, making to clamber down. “Make sure there’s really a body inside.”
“Stop!” said both Prudence and I.
“If you touch that polythene, you could destroy evidence that Walter raped and murdered Emily,” I said.
“You never said he raped Emily,” said Dennis. “I’ll kill the bastard.”