The Drowning Ground is the debut mystery by James Marrison set in a tranquil English town and focused on Detective Chief Inspector Guillermo Downes (available August 25, 2015).
For two decades after being forced to leave his native Argentina, Detective Chief Inspector Guillermo Downes has sought tranquility in the orderly life of the English Cotswolds. But violence can strike just as suddenly in the countryside as it can in Buenos Aires.
When the body of wealthy landowner Frank Hurst is found with a pitchfork through his neck, it brings back disturbing memories of former mysteries. Hurst's wife drowned in their swimming pool-an official accident, though many villagers have their doubts. And what about the two young girls who were abducted years before, with some possible links to Hurst that were never proven?
It's something truly terrible to make someone disappear,'' Downes tells his partner. Because the family never know, you see.” Years ago he had promised the vanished girls' mothers to find their daughters, and as the ripples from Hurst's death spread through the village, there is fresh hope that he might finally make good on that promise, no matter what it costs the community or himself.
Carefully tucked out of view so that it did not ruin the garden’s neat symmetry, Frank Hurst’s swimming pool was positioned to one side of a raised patio. It was completely surrounded by a tall wooden fence. The sound of our footsteps echoed loudly around the pool’s edges as we stepped between a number of blood-stained towels, which were curled up along the granite. Two medics were standing above the body, and when they saw us they moved away so we could have a better look at her. The sun shimmered on the water. A bird called out shrilly and unexpectedly from the fields beyond. It was a hopeless sound somehow.
The housekeeper had managed to pull Sarah Hurst to the shallow end before running inside for the phone. She was face up. The tips of her slender fingers brushed the water as if she were pointing at it. The pages of her magazine fluttered slightly in the wind beneath a deckchair.
Briefly, I looked away. The swimming pool was deep and solid-looking. It was an antique, and it was set away from the house, as if there were something indecent about having a swimming pool there at all. A strong smell of lavender came from a number of borders running along the far side of the fence. Powell had been a smoker back then, and he had lit one as he stared long and hard at the blood coiling on the surface of the pool.
There was a mosaic of a marlin being caught worked into the blue tiles. I started to walk closer to the edge, where there was a large red stain, possibly from Mrs Hurst’s having slipped and hit her head.
From beyond the trees, a big car screeched to a halt in the gravel, and within seconds we glimpsed a shadow as Frank Hurst came sprinting across the wide sweep of lawn. Powell stood in his way, barring the gate. Hurst was well muscled and built like a rangy middleweight, and I had to help Powell hold him back when he got his first glimpse of his wife’s body lying on the patio beside the pool. Sandy hair cut short. Grey eyes and a moustache severely trimmed along the horrified curve of his mouth.
I told Powell to get hold of Brewin and left him by the swimming pool; then I led Hurst back towards the house. There was a smell of freshly cut grass. A light shimmer of heat brushed along the walls of an old shed. It was hot even under the shade of the beech trees. A raised stone platform led to some French windows, which gave a perfect view of the lawn slipping off into the distance below. I led Hurst up the stone stairs and through the French windows to the living room, closing the curtains so he wouldn’t have to watch them taking his wife’s body across the lawn to the ambulance.
His daughter at some point had come back from school and was with the housekeeper; I could hear her trying to comfort her from deep within the house. A clock struck far off as night slowly fell outside. I asked my questions, and Hurst promptly, and without any hesitation at all, answered them. It was late by the time I left Dashwood Manor. Instead of making Hurst let me out the front door, I simply slipped through the French windows of the living room and headed out across the lawn.
It was still warm. I weaved my way past a large gas barbecue and some garden chairs, which stood stacked high under a green tarpaulin, and then made my way down the sloping lawn. Before I left the garden, I turned to see the house once more.
There was a light on upstairs. Hurst’s daughter Rebecca was framed in the yellow light of her bedroom window. She had been about fifteen or sixteen back then. She was pretty, with long black hair and very blue eyes. She was staring at the water of the swimming pool, and when she saw me looking up at her she smiled sweetly. Then she turned away. But you could tell that she’d been crying.
Powell was waiting for me in the car in the gravelled driveway at the front. The ambulance was gone. It was the end of a long, dry summer, and even then, in the growing dark, it was almost as if you could feel the plants waiting for that first thick black drop of rain. Everything was quiet and still. I got in the car and slammed the door, breaking the silence, and we started the drive back to the station.
Part One: 5 Years Later
Graves arrived in Moreton-in-Marsh on the 9.53 train from Oxford. He was surprised to see that it was actually quite busy, and there was a market in full swing. Trellises were laid out all along the centre in uneven but well-spaced lines. Extra plastic chairs, which looked like they must have been commandeered from the village hall, had been placed near the bus stop, and there were three coaches parked along the side of the road. The market seemed to sell just about everything: cheap jewellery, watches, leather goods and bin bags. Brooms. Hats. Bath rugs. Jams. Bags. Cards. Sports clothes were pinned up on hangers with fluorescent signs covered in felt-tip marker: TWO FOR ONE. EVERYTHING FOR A POUND. THREE FOR ONE. SALE!
He threaded his way through the crowds with his luggage, losing his temper a little towards the end of the street as people struggled to get past him, eager to get to the stalls. He heard snatches of conversation as he went by. The accent was different here. Thicker. Friendlier-sounding. Less distant.
He crossed the road quickly. The front door to the police station led to a small waiting room, where a hefty but alert duty sergeant was waiting on the other side of a desk protected by a glass partition. Graves left his bags underneath a bench, and a few minutes later a friendly-looking constable walked in and introduced himself as Burton. A set of heavy keys jangled from the constable’s belt as he moved towards the door and pushed it open, allowing Graves to go first. Burton blew his nose loudly into a handkerchief as they walked along a brightly lit but windowless corridor.
‘Thought it might be a good idea to show you around before you get settled into work,’ Burton said. ‘If that’s all right, sir. I see you’ve left your bags out there. You got a place fixed up already, have you?’
‘No, not yet. I’m at the hotel up the road. The Manor, I think it’s called.’
‘Oh, the Manor House,’ Burton said, impressed.
‘Well, it’s only for a few days, until I find a flat or a room or something. And it was the only one,’ Graves said a little defensively. ‘I don’t suppose you know anywhere? I didn’t really have time to look before I came.’
‘No, ’fraid not. Always worth asking around, though,’ he said. ‘One of the lads might have a spare room. Or you can put a notice up in the canteen.’
They walked down the corridor. Along the blue walls were notices pinned on red felt, and to the left a long window looked into the main room of the station itself. As they walked past it, Graves heard the muted murmur of activity through the glass and glimpsed a few figures huddled over computers through the grey blinds.
Burton did not seem to be in any hurry. He led Graves along another corridor and then almost reverently pushed open the door to a small but cosy-looking canteen. Inside, a burly man in a rumpled suit was sitting over the remains of his breakfast and flipping through the pages of a tabloid. It was all very neat and quiet here. Not at all like his old station.
‘Who’s this, then, Morris?’ the man called out over his newspaper.
Burton introduced him.
The man looked at him appraisingly before going back to his paper. But then he seemed to change his mind and put the paper down. ‘Graves,’ he said. ‘We were expecting you today.’
‘So you’ll be old Len’s replacement.’
‘Powell,’ he said impatiently. ‘Len Powell.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Graves said.
The man looked at him with an expression that was hard to read but may well have been concern. Then he smoothed the paper in front of him – indifferent again.
‘I’m supposed to be meeting my new chief inspector this morning,’ Graves said to Burton as they walked out. ‘I was rather hoping that he’d be here to meet me.’
‘No, he’ll be in later,’ Burton said in an offhand way. ‘He’s off out somewhere as usual. He tends to keep his own hours, and only shows up or phones in when he feels like he has to.’ He shrugged. ‘Drives her highness mad,’ Burton said, looking furtively towards the main room. ‘But she has to put up with it and lump it. You’ll find out why if you’re here long enough.’
Graves spent the rest of the morning organizing his desk, familiarizing himself with the workings of the station and adding a long list of telephone numbers to the contacts in his mobile. At one he found himself back in the canteen. He was joined almost immediately by two men of about his own age who introduced themselves as Edward Irwin and Robert Douglas and placed their trays in front of his. Irwin was narrow-shouldered and slender, with a huge and apparently insatiable appetite. Douglas was more athletic-looking and had a breezy, almost flippant way of talking. He looked at Irwin with a resigned astonishment as Irwin demolished his first course; then he puffed out his cheeks and breathed out again before motioning to the empty plate. Irwin took a long sip of his Coke. When Graves told them who he was going to be working with, there was a short silence. Irwin pushed the tray out in front of him and smoothed back his hair. He smiled broadly while Douglas leant forward in his chair.
Graves tenderly speared a potato with his fork and waited.
‘Shotgun,’ Douglas said finally.
‘Shotgun. You’re going to be working with Shotgun.’
‘Downes, of course.’ Irwin laughed and lowered his voice. ‘That’s what we call him ’round here. Not to his face, mind.’
‘Strange nickname,’ Graves said quietly, not liking it all that much. ‘What did he do? Shoot someone?’ he added a little nervously.
Douglas shrugged. ‘Don’t know,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘He could have.’ He laughed. ‘You wouldn’t know with ’im. Not in a million years. Keeps himself to himself and there’s no telling. Not like most of them ’round here,’ he said loudly, looking around the canteen. ‘But that’s what we call him. For as long as I can remember anyway.’
‘You reckon he’ll last long?’ Irwin said, peering at Graves.
‘Hard to tell,’ Douglas said and smiled again.
‘Last?’ Graves said.
‘You’re his third since Len got sick,’ Irwin announced. ‘And Len’s only been sick for … what is it? Two months now, is it?’
‘He got rid of them,’ Graves said. ‘But why?’
Irwin shrugged. ‘Pretty good lads as well. Good laugh that Mark fella was anyway, wasn’t he?’
‘Oh, he was all right,’ Douglas said without enthusiasm.
‘I didn’t know,’ Graves said quietly and immediately on edge. ‘No one told me.’ He put his fork down on his plate. Suddenly not hungry. Almost straightaway he started to think of Oxford. Of course, the super must have known when he had called him into his office. This wasn’t a lifeline at all.
When Graves’s superintendent back in Oxford had told him that he would be working with another senior officer, elsewhere, in just two weeks’ time, he had been waiting for it. All the same, the news had surprised him, because it had happened so fast. Officially they couldn’t get rid of him. He hadn’t done anything wrong. The contemptuous backward glances of his old colleagues in Oxford had lost none of their sting as he remembered the long walk back to his desk from the super’s office.
Graves smiled despite himself and shook his head. His own exile had been handled so smoothly that you couldn’t help but admire it in a way. If this Downes got rid of him as well, then … well, it was all over, wasn’t it? He’d probably be looking at demotion at the very least, or they’d find another way to get him out.
‘Okay,’ Graves said, deciding suddenly to try the direct approach, ‘is there anything I should know, so that I don’t end up like the other two?’
There was a pause. Irwin leant back in his chair and seemed to study him. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘he’s quite formal. Polite. But he can go absolutely bananas when he feels like it … he’s … I don’t know. Keeps to himself, like I said. Never comes in here much,’ he said, looking at the small queue by the till. ‘And he used to be famous.’
‘Famous?’ Graves said.
‘Oh, come off it,’ Douglas said. ‘Hardly. Well known maybe.’
‘Up in London,’ Irwin said. ‘But that was before he came here, of course.’
‘But you must know already,’ Douglas said, ‘that he’s not from around here, right?’
‘Well, I did hear something,’ Graves said.
‘He’s from over in South America somewhere,’ Douglas said vaguely. ‘He’s an Argie, ain’t he,’ he said without malice. ‘One of them Argies.’
‘Yes, yes, Argentina,’ Douglas said impatiently.
‘But how on earth did he end up here? Here in –’
‘The middle of nowhere, you mean,’ Douglas said, but he did not seem remotely offended. ‘No idea.’
‘He can be a sly old bugger when he feels like it.’ Irwin reached for his jacket on the back of his chair. ‘You know what that lot are like. Just look at that Maradona fella.’
‘Cheating bastard,’ Douglas said automatically.
Well, actually, Graves thought, he didn’t know what they were like at all, and he had never had the slightest interest in football. Not even during the World Cup. Argentina: he tried to conjure up some kind of mental image, but his mind remained almost completely blank. Aside from the Falkland Islands and a few stray chords of tango from a film he had forgotten, there wasn’t much at all.
After lunch, he was at his desk once more, familiarizing himself with timetables, duty rosters, expenses forms and punching in more phone numbers, including the coroner’s office in Cheltenham, the victim support unit, hospitals and the forensic laboratory. At 4.00, he was still waiting to meet his new DCI. In the absence of anything more to do, he slid along past his own desk, until he was behind the desk in front of his.
It was cluttered with files and papers, and there was an old Styrofoam cup half filled with strong-looking black coffee. Most of the desks had a scattering of personal items pinned to the sides of the panelled walls or to the shelves. The desk opposite his own had no such bits and pieces. Or at least it didn’t seem that way at first. Graves began to look more closely. Pinned neatly to the partition between the desks was a photo. The picture was in colour and quite large, and looked like it had once been the front page of an old magazine. A lithe and unmistakably foreign football player wearing a red-and-white shirt and black shorts was jumping with a great deal of grace over another player’s outstretched legs. His eyes were fixed intently on the ball at his feet. The pitch itself seemed to be covered in white confetti, and streamers covered the touchline. Around the pitch was a seething cauldron of caged violence. Half the fans were gleefully spinning their shirts in the air above them, while standing before them was a line of tough-looking policemen carrying guns. Hanging on to the top of the tall metal fence that separated them was a lean, young man. His legs swung nonchalantly from the ten-foot drop on either side. Smoke from flares was everywhere. Reddish flames pushed liquidly outwards, spraying the shoulders of the crowd with sparks.
The headline was in the same shade of dark red as the stripes on the player’s shirt, and there were a few other headlines at the side of the page in yellow. They were all written in Spanish. Graves tried to read them as best he could. He tried to say the words out loud but stumbled over them. La revancha esperada, or something like that. Whatever that meant. He tried again. It sounded even worse this time around.
‘“The anticipated rematch”,’ came a quiet voice from behind him.
Graves closed his eyes for a second, wincing like the defender in the picture, and then turned around. The man looked amused. He motioned to the picture and pointed with his index finger at the headline.
‘That’s what it means.’ His finger moved down towards the striker. ‘And this player here. You know who he is?’ he said hopefully. ‘You recognize him maybe?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Graves said.
‘That’s Enzo Francescoli. The Prince, they call him. He won five league titles and the Copa Libertadores in 1996 for River Plate football club,’ he said, and nodded in deep satisfaction.
‘Oh,’ Graves said. ‘Right.’ He tried to look suitably impressed. ‘The Copa –’
‘Libertadores,’ the man finished for him.
Graves looked at him. The first thing he noticed was the scar. It began at the very top of his forehead and ran deep and white almost straight beneath his thick but closely cropped black hair. Must have needed a lot of stitches, Graves thought, trying not to look at it and wondering how he’d got it. He was very brown despite the cold. He was around forty or forty-one years old and taller than Graves by a couple of inches, which put him at six foot one.
He pointed to the picture again. ‘You see this,’ he said, touching a flag that looked like it had been made of enough sheets to supply a small hospital. On it was written Los Borrachos del Tablón. ‘Barra brava. Hooligans,’ he said with the faintest trace of what could have been fondness in his voice.
With some regret, he turned away from the picture and stared directly at Graves. In a moment his expression had changed to one of businesslike neutrality. There was a distant and detached look in his eye. It happened so quickly that Graves had the sudden feeling that he was gazing at a mask.
The man put out his hand. ‘I’m Downes,’ he said.
Copyright © 2015 James Marrison.
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James Marrison is a journalist with a Master's degree in history, specializing in American Secret Intelligence, from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Marrison was a regular contributor to Bizarre magazine in the UK, where he wrote about true crime, and he also wrote for an English language newspaper in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he now lives. The Drowning Ground is his first novel.