Winter 1963: two children have disappeared off the streets of Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezing day in December, another child goes missing: thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from the isolated Derbyshire hamlet of Scardale, a self-contained, insular community that distrusts the outside world. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he’d have found in the anonymity of the inner city, an outcome which reverberates down the years.
Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge, and which threatens the very foundations of his existence. Catherine is forced to reinvestigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down.
A Greek tragedy in modern England, A Place of Execution is a taut psychological suspense thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multilayered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know. A monstrous tale of deception, the technique of the telling is the greatest deception of all.
Wednesday, 11 th December 1963. 7.53 p.m.
‘Help me. You’ve got to help me.’ The woman’s voice quavered on the edge of tears. The duty constable who had picked up the phone heard a hiccuping gulp, as if the caller was struggling to speak.
‘That’s what we’re here for, madam,’ PC Ron Swindells said stolidly. He’d worked in Buxton man and boy for the best part of fifteen years and for the last five, he’d found it hard to shake off a sense that he was reliving the first ten. There was, he reckoned, nothing new under the sun. It was a view that would be irrevocably shattered by the events that were about to unfold around him, but for the moment, he was content to trot out the formula that had served him well until now. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked, his rich bass voice gently impersonal.
‘Alison,’ the woman gasped. ‘My Alison’s not come home.’
‘Alison’s your lass, is she?’ PC Swindells asked, his voice deliberately calm, attempting to reassure the woman.
‘She went straight out with the dog when she came in after school. And she’s not come home.’ The sharp edge of hysteria forced the woman’s voice higher.
Swindells glanced automatically at the clock. Seven minutes before eight. The woman was right to be worried. The girl must have been out of the house near on four hours, and that was no joke at this time of year. ̵#8216;Could she have gone to visit friends, on the spur of the moment, like?’ he asked, knowing already that would have been her first port of call before she lifted the telephone.
‘I’ve knocked every door in the village. She’s missing, I’m telling you. Something’s happened to my Alison.’ Now the woman was breaking down, her words choking out in the intervals between sobs. Swindells thought he heard the rumble of another voice in the background.
Village, the woman had said. ‘Where exactly are you calling from, madam?’ he asked.
There was the sound of muffled conversation, then a clear masculine voice came on the line, the unmistakable southern accent brisk with authority. ‘This is Philip Hawkin from the manor house in Scardale,’ he said.
‘I see, sir,’ Swindells said cautiously. While the information didn’t exactly change anything, it did make the policeman slightly wary, conscious that Scardale was off his beat in more ways than the obvious. Scardale wasn’t just a different world from the bustling market town where Swindells lived and worked; it had the reputation of being a law unto itself. For such a call to come from Scardale, something well out of the ordinary must have happened.
The caller’s voice dropped in pitch, giving the impression that he was talking man to man with Swindells. ‘You must excuse my wife. She’s rather upset. So emotional, women, don’t you find? Look, Officer, I’m sure no harm has come to Alison, but my wife insisted on giving you a call. I’m sure she’ll turn up any minute now, and the last thing I want is to waste your time.’
‘If you’ll just give me some details, sir, ‘ the stolid Swindells said, pulling his pad closer to him.
Detective Inspector George Bennett should have been at home long since. It was almost eight o’clock, well beyond the hour when senior detectives were expected to be at their desks. By rights, he should have been in his armchair stretching his long legs in front of a blazing coal fire, dinner inside him and Coronation Street on the television opposite. Then, while Anne cleared away the dishes and washed up, he’d nip out for a pint and a chat in the lounge bar of the Duke of York or the Baker’s Arms. There was no quicker way to get the feel of a place than through bar-room conversation. And he needed that head start more than any of his colleagues, being an incomer of less than six months’ standing. He knew the locals didn’t trust him with much of their gossip, but gradually, they were beginning to treat him like part of the furniture, forgiving and forgetting that his father and grandfather had supped in a different part of the shire.
He glanced at his watch. He’d be lucky to get to the pub tonight. Not that he counted that a great hardship. George wasn’t a drinking man. If he hadn’t been obliged by his professional responsibilities to keep his finger firmly on the pulse of the town, he wouldn’t have entered a pub from one week to the next. He’d much rather have taken Anne dancing to one of the new beat groups that regularly played at the Pavilion Gardens, or to the Opera House to see a film. Or simply stayed at home. Three months married, and George still couldn’t quite believe Anne had agreed to spend the rest of her life with him. It was a miracle that sustained him through the worst times in the job. So far, those had come from tedium rather than the heinous nature of the crimes he encountered. The events of the coming seven months would put that miracle to a tougher test.
That night, however, the thought of Anne at home, knitting in front of the television while she waited for him to return, was far more of a temptation than any pint of bitter. George tore a half-sheet of paper off his scratch pad, placed it among the papers he’d been reading to mark his place, and firmly closed the file, slipping it into his desk drawer. He stubbed out his Gold Leaf cigarette then emptied his ashtray into the bin by his desk, always his last act before he reached for his trench coat and, self-consciously, the wide-brimmed trilby that always made him feel faintly silly. Anne loved it; she was always telling him it made him look like James Stewart. He couldn’t see it himself. Just because he had a long face and floppy blond hair didn’t make him a film star. He shrugged into the coat, noting that it fitted almost too snugly now, thanks to the quilted lining Anne had made him buy. In spite of the slight straining across his broad cricketer’s shoulders, he knew he’d be glad of it as soon as he stepped into the station yard and the teeth of the biting wind that always seemed to be whipping down from the moors through the streets of Buxton.
Taking a last look around his office to check he’d left nothing lying around that the cleaner’s eyes shouldn’t see, he closed the door behind him. A quick glance showed him there was nobody left in the CID room, so he turned back to indulge a moment’s vanity. ‘Detective Inspector G. D. Bennett’ incised in white letters on a small black plastic plaque. It was some-thing to be proud of, he thought. Not yet thirty, and a DI already. It had been worth every tedious minute of the three years of endless cramming for the law degree that had eased him on to the fast track, one of the first ever graduates to make it to the new accelerated promotion stream in the Derbyshire force. Now, seven years from swearing his oath of allegiance, he was the youngest plain-clothes inspector the county force had ever promoted.
There was no one about to see the lapse of dignity, so he took the stairs at a run. His momentum carried him through the swing doors into the uniformed squad room. Three heads turned sharply as he entered. For a moment, George couldn’t think why it was so quiet. Then he remembered. Half the town would be at the memorial service for the recently assassinated President Kennedy, a special Mass open to all denominations. The town had claimed the murdered leader as an adopted native son. After all, JFK had practically been there only months before his death, visiting his sister’s grave a handful of miles away in Edensor in the grounds of Chatsworth House. The fact that one of the nurses who had helped surgeons in the fruitless fight for the president’s life in a Dallas hospital was a Buxton woman had only strengthened the connection in the eyes of the locals.
‘All quiet, then, Sergeant?’ he asked.
Bob Lucas, the duty sergeant, frowned and raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. He glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand. ‘We were until five minutes ago, sir.’ He straightened up. ‘It’s probably summat and nowt,’ he said. ‘A pound to a penny it’ll be sorted before I even get there.’
‘Anything interesting?’ George asked, keeping his voice light. The last thing he wanted was for Bob Lucas to think he was the kind of CID man who treated uniforms as if they were the monkeys and he the organ grinder.
‘Missing lass,’ Lucas said, proffering the sheet of paper. ‘PC Swindells just took the call. They rang here direct, not through the emergency switchboard.’
George tried to picture Scardale on his mental map of the area. ‘Do we have a local man there, Sergeant?’ he stalled.
‘No need. It’s barely a hamlet. Ten houses at the most. No, Scardale’s covered by Peter Grundy at Longnor. He’s only two miles away. But the mother obviously thought this was too important for Peter.’
‘And you think?’ George was cautious.
‘I think I’d better take the area car out to Scardale and have a word with Mrs Hawkin, sir. I’ll pick up Peter on the way.’ As he spoke, Lucas reached for his cap and straightened it on hair that was almost as black and glossy as his boots. His ruddy cheeks looked as if he had a pair of Ping-Pong balls tucked inside his mouth. Combined with glittering dark eyes and straight black eyebrows, they gave him the look of a painted ventriloquist’s dummy. But George had already found out that Bob Lucas was the last person to let anyone else put words in his mouth. He knew that if he asked a question of Lucas, he’d get a straight answer.
‘Would you mind if I came along?R#8217; George asked.
Peter Grundy replaced the phone softly in its cradle. He rubbed his thumb along a jaw sandpaper-rough with the day’s stubble. He was thirty-two years old that night in December 1963. Photographs show a fresh-faced man with a narrow jaw and a short, sharp nose accentuated by an almost military haircut. Even smiling, as he was in holiday snaps with his children, his eyes seemed watchful.
Two calls in the space of ten minutes had broken the routine peace of an evening in front of the TV with his wife Meg, the children bathed and in bed. It wasn’t that he hadn’t taken the first call seriously. When old Ma Lomas, the eyes and ears of Scardale, took the trouble to subject her arthritis to the biting cold by leaving the comfort of her cottage for the phone box on the village green, he had to pay attention. But he’d thought he could wait till eight o’clock and the end of the programme before he did anything about it. After all, Ma might be dressing up the reason for her call as concern over a missing schoolgirl, but Grundy wasn’t so sure it wasn’t just an excuse to stir things up for the lass’s mother. He’d heard the talk and knew there were a few in Scardale as thought Ruth Carter had been a bit quick to jump the broomstick with Philip Hawkin, even if he had been the first man to put roses in her cheeks since her Roy had died.
Then the phone had rung again, bringing a scowl to his wife’s face and dragging him out of his comfortable armchair into the chilly hall. This time, he couldn’t ignore the summons. Sergeant Lucas from Buxton knew about the missing girl, and he was on his way. As if it wasn’t bad enough having Buxton boots tramping all over his ground, he was bringing the Professor with him. It was the first time Grundy or any of his colleagues had ever had to work with somebody that had been to university, and he knew from the gossip on his occasional visits to the sub-division in Buxton that they were none of them comfortable with the idea. He hadn’t been slow to join the mutterings about the university of life being the best teacher for a copper. These graduates – you couldn’t send them out of a Saturday night on to Buxton marketplace. They’d never have seen a pub fight in all their born days, never mind know how to deal with one. As far as Grundy could make out, the only good thing that could be said about DI Bennett was that he could turn a handy bat at cricket. And that wasn’t reason enough for Grundy to be happy about him arriving on his patch to upset his carefully nurtured contacts.
With a sigh, he buttoned up his shirt collar. He pulled on his tunic jacket, straightened his cap on his head and picked up his overcoat. He stuck his head round the living room door, a conciliatory smile fastened nervously on his face. ‘I’ve to go to Scardale,’ he said.
‘Shh,’ his wife admonished him crossly. ‘It’s getting to the exciting bit.’
‘Alison Carter’s gone missing,’ he added, spitefully closing the living room door behind him and hurrying down the hall before she could react. And react she would, he knew only too well. A missing child in Scardale was far too close to home for Longnor not to feel a chill wind on its neck.
George Bennett followed Sergeant Lucas out to the yard where the cars were parked. He’d have far preferred to travel in his own car, a stylish black Ford Corsair as new as his promotion, but protocol demanded he climb into the passenger seat of the liveried Rover and let Lucas drive. As they turned south on the main road through the market square, George tried to stifle the prickle of excitement that had stirred in him when he had heard the words, ‘missing lass’. Chances were, as Lucas had rightly pointed out, that it would all come to nothing. More than ninety-five per cent of cases of children reported missing ended in reunion before bedtime, or at worst, before breakfast.
But sometimes, it was a different story. Sometimes, a missing child stayed missing long enough for the certainty to grow that he or she would never come home. Occasionally, that was from choice. More often, it was because the child was dead and the question for the police then became how long it would take them to find a body.
And sometimes, they seemed to vanish as cleanly as if the earth had opened up and gulped them down.
There had been two cases like that within the last six months, both of them less than thirty miles away from Scardale. George always made a careful note of bulletins from outside forces as well as other Derbyshire divisions, and he had paid particular attention to these two missing persons cases because they were just close enough that the children might fetch up on his patch. Dead or alive.
First had been Pauline Catherine Reade. Dark-haired and hazel-eyed, sixteen years old, a trainee confectioner from Gorton, Manchester. Slim build, about five feet tall, wearing a pink and gold dress and a pale-blue coat. Just before eight on Friday, 12th July, she had walked out of the terraced house where she lived with her parents and her younger brother to go to a twist dance. She was never seen again. There had been no trouble at home or at work. She had no boyfriend to fall out with. She had no money to run away with, even if she’d wanted to. The area had been extensively searched and three local reservoirs drained, all without a trace of Pauline. Manchester police had followed up every report of a sighting, but none had led them to the vanished girl.
The second missing child appeared to have nothing in common with Pauline Reade apart from the inexplicable, almost magical nature of his disappearance. John Kilbride, 12 years old, 4ft 10 ins tall with a slim build, dark-brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He was wearing a grey check sports jacket, long grey flannel trousers, a white shirt and black, chisel-toed shoes. According to one of the Lancashire detectives George knew from cricket, he wasn’t a bright lad, but a pleasant and obliging one. John went to the cinema with some friends on Saturday after-noon, the day after Kennedy died in Dallas. Afterwards, he left them, saying he was going down to the marketplace in Ashton-under-Lyne, where he often earned threepence making tea for the stallholders. The last anyone saw of him, he was leaning against a salvage bin around half past five.
The resulting hunt had been given a last desperate boost only the day before when a local businessman had offered a £100 reward. But nothing appeared to have come of it. That same colleague had remarked to George only the previous Saturday at a police dance, that John Kilbride and Pauline Reade would have left more traces if they’d been abducted by little green men in a flying saucer.
And now a missing girl on his patch. He stared out of the window at the moonlit fields lining the Ashbourne road, their rough pasture crusted with hoarfrost, the dry-stone walls that separated them almost luminous in the silvery light. A thin cloud crossed the moon and in spite of his warm coat, George shivered at the thought of being without shelter on a night like this in so inhospitable a landscape.
Faintly disgusted with himself for allowing his eagerness for a big case to overwhelm the concern for the girl and her family that should have been all that was on his mind, George turned abruptly to Bob Lucas and said, ‘Tell me about Scardale.’ He took out his cigarettes and offered one to the sergeant, who shook his head.
‘I won’t, thanks, sir. I’m trying to cut down. Scardale’s what you might call the land that time forgot,’ he said. In the short spurt of light from George’s match, Lucas’s face looked grim.
‘How do you mean?’
‘It’s like the Middle Ages down there. There’s only one road in and out and it comes to a dead end by the telephone box on the village green. There’s the big house, the manor, which is where we’re headed. There’s about a dozen other cottages and the farm buildings. No pub, no shop, no post office. Mr Hawkin, he’s what you might call the squire. He owns every house in Scardale, plus the farm, plus all the land a mile in all directions. Everybody that lives there is his tenant and his employee. It’s like he owns them an’ all.’ The sergeant slowed to turn right off the main road on to the narrow lane that led up past the quarry. ‘There’s only three surnames in the place, I reckon. You’re either a Lomas, a Crowther or a Carter.’
Not, George noticed, a Hawkin. He filed the inconsistency away for later inspection. ‘Surely people must leave, to get married, to get work?’
‘Oh aye, people leave,’ Lucas said. ‘But they’re always Scardale through and through. They never lose it. And every generation, one or two people do marry out. It’s the only way to avoid wedding your cousins. But often as not, them as have married into Scardale come out a few years later looking for a divorce. Funny thing is, they always leave the kids behind them.’ He cast a quick glance at George, almost to see how he was taking it.
George inhaled his cigarette and kept his own counsel for a moment. He’d heard of places like this, he’d just never actually been in one. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be part of a world so self-contained, so limited, where everything about your past, present and future must be information shared with an entire community. ‘It’s hard to believe a place like that could exist so close to the town. What is it? Seven miles?’
‘Eight,’ Lucas said. ‘It’s historical. Look at the pitch of these roads.’ He pointed up at the sharp left turn into the village of Earl Sterndale where the houses built by the quarry company to house their workers huddled along the hillside like a rugby scrum. ‘Before we had cars with decent engines and proper tarmac roads, it could take you the best part of a day to get from Scardale to Buxton in the winter. That’s when the track wasn’t blocked with snowdrifts. Folk had to rely on their own. Some places around here, they just never got out of the habit.
‘Take this lass, Alison. Even with the school bus, it probably takes her the best part of an hour to get to and from school every day. The county have been trying to get parents to agree to sending children like her as boarders Monday to Friday, to save them the journey. But places like Scardale, they just flat refuse. They don’t see it as the county trying to help them. They think it’s the authorities trying to take their children off them. There’s no reasoning with them.’
The car swung through a series of sharp bends and began to climb a steep ridge, the engine straining as Lucas changed down through the gears. George opened the quarterlight and flicked the remains of his cigarette on to the verge. A draught of frosty air tinged with smoke from a coal fire caught at his throat and he hastily closed the window. ‘And yet Mrs Hawkin wasn’t slow to call us in.’
‘According to PC Swindells, she’d knocked every door in Scardale first, though,’ Lucas said drily. ‘Don’t take me wrong. It’s not that they’re hostile to the police. They’re just . . . not very forthcoming, that’s all. They’ll want Alison found. So they’ll put up with us.’
The car breasted the rise and began the long descent into the village of Longnor. The limestone buildings crouched like sleeping sheep, dirty white in the moonlight, with plumes of smoke rising from every chimney in sight. At the crossroads in the centre of the village, George could see the unmistakable outline of a uniformed officer, stamping his feet on the ground to keep them warm.
‘That’ll be Peter Grundy,’ Lucas said. ‘He could have waited indoors.’
‘Maybe he’s impatient to find out what’s happening. It is his patch, after all.’
Lucas grunted. ‘More likely his missus giving him earache about having to go out of an evening.’
He braked a little too hard and the car slewed into the kerb. PC Peter Grundy stooped to see who was in the passenger seat, then climbed into the back of the car. ‘Evening, Sarge,’ he said. ‘Sir,’ he added, inclining his head towards George. ‘I don’t like the sound of this at all.’