THE DEVIL'S DICE
The man clambered into the cave on shaking legs, sucked in a lungful of stale air and stared wide-eyed into the blackness. When the dark mellowed, he shuffled inside and sank onto the seat that a long dead troglodyte had hewn into the cave wall. The familiar coldness seeped through his trousers and into his flesh. The discomfort pleased him.
He fished out his torch and stood it upright, so the light beamed up and bounced onto the glistening floor. Bats hung above him, their tiny feet grasping at the rock, furry bodies tucked into cavities.
The solitude was soothing. No judgemental glances from colleagues. No clients clamouring for his attention like swarms of angry insects. No wife shooting arrows of disappointment his way.
He placed the book by his side. Eased the cake from his pocket, pulled open the crinkly plastic wrapper and took the soft weight in his hand. He hesitated; then brought it to his lips, bit firmly and chewed fast. Another two bites and it was gone.
The air went thick. His throat tightened. He leant back against the cave wall. There wasn't enough oxygen. He gasped. Clamped his eyes shut. An image of his long-dead mother slid into his head. Slumped in her wheelchair, head lolling to one side. And an earlier one – way back when his memories flitted like fish in shining water – smiling down at him and walking on her legs like a normal parent.
He rose. Stumbled to the back of the cave, grasped at the ferns on the wall, fell against them. His stomach clenched and his upper body folded forwards. He was retching, choking.
More snapshots in his head. Kate's face on their honeymoon. Beaming in the light of a foreign island, laughing and raising a glass to sun-chapped lips. He gasped. Air wouldn't come. Drowning. That time in Cornwall, still a child. Beach huts against the bright blue sky and then the waves throwing him down. Dragging him along the sea bed, his terror bitter and astonishing.
He crashed to the cave floor. An image of a childhood cat, orange-furred and ferocious, but loved so much. The cat dead on the lane. Now a girl hanging deep in the Labyrinth, the noose straight and still. Please, not his girl.
A terrible burning, like maggots burrowing into his cheeks. He clawed at his face, nails hacking into skin, gouging into eyes.
Blackness coming in from above and below. The image of his mother again, in bed, both emaciated and swollen. Suffocating. Pleading.
I accelerated up the lane, tyres skidding in the mud, and prayed to the gods of murder investigations. Please bestow upon me the competence to act like a proper detective and not screw up in my new job.
The gods were silent, but my boss's voice boomed from the hands-free phone. "Meg, did you get the details? Body in a cave . . . almond smell . . . philosophy book . . ."
I squinted at the phone, as if that would help. Richard's monologue style of conversation meant he hadn't noticed the bad signal. Had he really said "philosophy"? Our usual deaths were chaotic and drunken, with absolutely no philosophy involved.
Another snatch of Richard's voice. "Scratches on his face . . ." Then the line went dead.
I swerved to avoid a rock and dragged my attention back to the road, which climbed between fields sprinkled with disgruntled-looking sheep and edged with crumbling dry stone walls. A mist of evidence-destroying drizzle hung in the air. As the farmland on the left merged into woods, I saw a couple of police vehicles in a bleak parking area, and the sat nav announced that I'd reached my destination.
I pulled in and took a moment to compose myself. Of course it was terrible that a man was dead, but if he'd had to die, at least he'd done it in an intriguing way, and when I happened to be nearby. I was an Inspector now. I could handle it. Mission "Reinvent Self in Derbyshire" was on track. I took a fortifying breath, climbed from the car, and set off along a corridor marked with blue and white tape.
The path sloped up towards the base of an abandoned quarry. I trudged though the fallen leaves, the mud emphasising my limp and sucking at my feet with an intensity that felt personal. I needed to rethink my fitness regime, which mainly consisted of reading articles in New Scientist about the benefits of exercise. It wasn't cutting it in my chubby mid-thirties.
Through the trees I saw the face of a cliff, tinted pink by the evening light. An area around its base was enclosed by ribbons of tape stretched between rocks and shade-stunted oaks, and a police tent squatted just outside. I walked over and encased my genetic matter in a protective body suit, face mask, overshoes and two pairs of gloves.
The duty sergeant was a bearded man who looked slightly too large for his uniform.
"Sergeant Pearson," he said. "Ben. No evidence trampled. All under control."
I didn't know him, but I recognised the name. According to the (admittedly unreliable) Station grapevine, he was extensively tattooed. Nothing was visible but apparently his torso was completely covered and was the subject of much fascination, which just demonstrated the poor standard of gossip in the Derbyshire force.
"DI Meg Dalton," I said, and looked around the taped area. There was no-one who was obviously dead.
Ben pointed to the cliff. "In the cave house."
A narrow set of steps, smooth and concave through years of use, crawled sideways up the face of the cliff. At the top, about fifteen feet up, a dark, person-sized archway led into the rock.
"There's a house up there, burrowed into the rock? With a corpse in it?"
"Yep," Ben said.
"That's a bit creepy."
Ben squeezed his eyebrows together in a quick frown. "Oh. Have you heard . . . ?" He glanced up at the black entrance to the cave.
"Sorry. I thought you said something else. Never mind. It's not important."
I sighed. "Okay, so what about our iffy body?"
"Pathologist said he died within the last few hours. And SOCO have been up." He nodded towards a white-swathed man peering at what looked like a pile of vomit at the base of the cliff.
"Who's been sick?"
"The dog. Seems to have eaten something nasty."
"That's how they found the body. Bloke lost his dog. Searched everywhere for it. Eventually heard noises up there." Ben thumbed at the gap in the rock. "Climbed up, saw the body, found the dog licking something."
"I hope it wasn't tucking into the corpse?"
"It was a Labrador, so I don't suppose it would have turned it down. But I think it was the plastic wrapper from a cake or something. Looks like it might have been poisoned."
"Is the dog okay? Where's the owner? Has someone taken a statement from him?"
"It's all here for you. They've gone to the vet, but the dog seems fine. Only ate a few crumbs, he thought."
"Interesting location for a body," I said. "I've always been kind-of fascinated by cave houses."
Ben inched towards the cliff and touched the rock. "This area's riddled with caves. Not many of them were ever lived in, of course." He hesitated as if wondering whether to say more, given that a corpse was waiting for my attention.
"I'd better press on," I said, although I wasn't looking forward to getting my bad foot up the stone steps. Besides, there was something unsettling about the black mouth of the cave. "What were you going to say earlier? When I said it was creepy?"
Ben laughed, but it didn't go to his eyes. "Oh, don't worry. I grew up round here. There was a rumour. Nothing important."
"Just silliness. It's supposed to be haunted."
I laughed too, just in case he thought I cared. "Well, I don't suppose our man was killed by a ghost." I imagined pale creatures emerging from the deep and prodding the corpse with long fingers. I forced them from my mind. "I was told the dead man smells of almonds. Cyanide almonds?"
"Yep, slightly. You only really get the almondy smell on a corpse when you open up the stomach." Ben's stance changed to lecture-giving – legs wide apart and chest thrust forward. I hoped he wasn't going to come over all patronising on me. I wasn't even blonde any more – I'd dyed my hair a more intelligent shade of brown, matched to my mum's for authenticity. But I was stuck with being small and having a sympathy-inducing limp.
"Yes. Thanks. I know," I said, a little sharply. "So, do we have a name?"
Ben glanced at his notes. "Peter Hugo Hamilton."
"And he was dead when he was found?"
"That's right. Although I've seen deader."
"Can you be just a little bit dead?"
Ben folded his arms. "If there are no maggots, you're not that dead."
"Okay, I'll have a look." I edged towards the steps and started to climb. A few steps up, I felt a twinge in my ankle. I paused and glanced down. Ben held his arms out awkwardly as if he wanted to lever my bottom upwards, a prospect I didn't relish. I kept going, climbing steadily until I could just peer into the cave. A faint shaft of light hit the back wall but the rest of it was in darkness. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then climbed on up and heaved myself in.