In a remote part of the Peak District stand the Nine Virgins, a stone circle overshadowed by dark legend. As winter closes in, a tenth figure is added - the body of Jenny Weston, the limbs arranged so that she appears to be dancing. Weeks earlier another woman was attacked on the moors. Maggie Crew was found by a local farmer's wife, severely traumatized, her face savagely cut open. Detective Sergeant Diane Fry must unlock the memories trapped in Maggie's mind - quickly. For DC Ben Cooper there are too many questions. Two travellers, sleeping rough near the scene, baffle the detectives with their strange rituals and language. Then there is the Park ranger with a shameful secret. And what of the farmer on whose land the Nine Virgins stand, a desperate man feared by his children?
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Stephen Booth received the Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel of 2000 for his first Ben Cooper/Diane Fry thriller, Black Dog, and won the 1999 Lichfield Prize for an unpublished work of fiction. He has since written two more novels featuring Detectives Cooper and Fry, Dancing with the Virgins and Blood on the Tongue. A newspaper journalist for more than twenty-five years, he now writes full time and lives with his wife in Nottinghamshire, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On the day the first woman died, Mark Roper had radio trouble. At the start of his shift, he had been patrolling in the valley, in the deep dead spot where the gritstone plateau blocked out the signal from the telephone interface point at Bradwell. The silence had been unnerving, even then. It had made him conscious of his isolation in the slowly dying landscape, and it had begun to undermine his confidence and stir up the old uncertainties. But Mark wasn't frightened then. It was only later that he had been frightened.
Normally, this was his favorite time of year -- these few weeks of hesitation before the start of winter. He liked to watch the hills changing color day by day, and the Peak District villages emptying of visitors. But he could tell that today wasn't quite normal. There was a feeling about this particular Sunday that made him uncomfortable to be alone on Ringham Moor. There was something strained and uneasy in the way the trees stirred in the wind, in the way the dry bracken snapped underfoot and the birds fell silent in the middle of the afternoon.
As Mark climbed out of the dead spot, his horizon widened until he could see across to Hartington and the Staffordshire border. But even on his way back across the moor toward Partridge Cross, he could not raise his area ranger. Maybe the radio handset he had picked up from the briefing center that morning was the one with the faulty battery connection. Little things like that could change your life forever.
"Peakland Partridge Three to Peakland Zulu. Owen?"
No matter how many times he tried, his call sign went unanswered.
Earlier in the year, they had been burning the heather on this part of Ringham Moor. An acrid charcoal smell still clung to the vegetation, and it mingled with the sweet, fruity scent of the living flowers as it rose from the ground under Mark's boots. In places, the stems had been left bare and white where the bark had been burned off completely. They showed up in the blackened carpet like tiny bones, like a thousand skeletal fingers poking from the earth.
Mark's father had helped the gamekeepers many times with the swaling, the annual burning of the heather to encourage the growth of fresh shoots for red grouse to feed on. Conditions for burning had to be just right -- the heather dry, but the ground wet enough to prevent the fire spreading down into the peat. You could get so hot controlling the flames that you thought your skin would be burned to a cinder, and if you were standing in the wrong place when the wind blew, you could end up black from head to toe. Sometimes, Mark recalled, his father had smelled like Bonfire Night for days.
The scent of the burned heather brought the presence of his father back to him now. It was a sensation so powerful that the tall figure might have been striding alongside him, swinging his huge, reddened hands, talking of working dogs and trout flies and promising that he would take Mark and his brother on a shoot one day. But he had never carried out his promise. And he hadn't walked with Mark again, not for a long time now.
The impression left as quickly as it had come, leaving Mark clutching desperately at a memory, reaching for an image that dissipated like a wisp of smoke in the wind.
Fumbling at the radio, he tried again. "Peakland Zulu. Can you hear me, Owen? Owen?" But still there was nothing.
As he climbed to the plateau, the weight of Mark's rucksack gradually increased, chafing his skin through the fabric of his red fleece, pulling down his shoulders and pressing on the muscles in his back. Despite the chill, his neck was wet with sweat, and he shivered as he came over a rise and the wind grabbed at him. The shadows of clouds were moving across the landscape below him. Brief patches of sunlight revealed a field dotted with sheep, a narrow stretch of tarmac road, an oak spinney, and the roof of a distant farmhouse. Yet the sight of human habitation only heightened his sense of being alone.
It was the environment, not the welfare of people and property, that had led Mark to volunteer as a Peak Park ranger in the first place. Once he had wanted to save the entire world, but in the end he had settled for helping to protect one little bit of it. He had not imagined that he would be called on to tolerate the actions of people who destroyed and defiled the environment, people who had no respect for nature and the lives of animals. It was the most difficult thing he had to learn. Maybe even Owen Fox would never be able to teach him that.
One thing Owen had taught Mark was the importance of good communication; he had told him to stay in touch, always. But this early November day had been the wrong time for Mark to choose for his first solo patrol. Entirely the wrong day to be on his own.
"This is Peakland Partridge Three. Owen? Owen? Where are you?"
And, of course, it had been the wrong day for Jenny Weston, too.
Jenny had been riding a yellow, six-gear Dawes Kokomo. It had one-inch tires, and a wire basket bolted over the rear wheel. It was hired from the Peak Cycle center at Partridge Cross on a three-hour ticket, and Jenny had already ridden nearly five miles to reach the plateau of Ringham Moor.
The moor was littered with prehistoric burial mounds, cairns, and stone circles, some so small or so ruined and overgrown that they were barely visible in the heather and bracken. It was not as well used as the moors to the south and west, Stanton and Harthill, but its tracks were more accessible to a mountain bike, its open spaces more solitary, its face that bit closer to the sky.
Ringham had become one of Jenny's favorite places. There were many reasons that brought her back, needs and compulsions that had worn a track for her bike tires right to the base of the Hammond Tower on Ringham Edge. She carried an impression in her mind of the view down into the valley from the tower -- that steep plummet through the trees onto a litter of rocks at the bottom.
It had been a blustery day, with showers that blew across the hills in squalls, bludgeoning the birches and scattering dead leaves into the heather. There seemed to be little life on the moor. But at the bottom of the track, Jenny had passed a youth wearing a red woolen cap pulled low on his forehead, with large ears that stuck out like table-tennis bats. He had been walking very quickly toward the road and had refused to raise his head to meet her eye as she passed. Jenny had pressed down harder on the pedals, seeking to gain distance from the youth, so that she overexerted herself on the slope and had to stop farther on, gasping from painful lungs as she looked back. The youth had gone, and there was no one else to be seen -- only a fistful of jackdaws drifting against the face of one of the abandoned quarries, and a herd of cattle lying restlessly in a field on the slope below the Virgins.
Jenny had always believed she was safer on a bike. Two wheels and the extra speed gave her the confidence that she could get out of trouble, if she needed to. A woman on her own, in a place like Ringham Moor, ought to think about being careful.
To get to the top of the moor, Jenny had to dismount and wheel the Kokomo up the steepest part of the path. She knew she was almost there when she reached the twisted Heart Stone, twelve feet high, with iron handholds and footholds driven into its sides.
At the top, the sandy track was cyclable, as long as you avoided the exposed rocks in the middle. It crossed a plateau of dark heather and whinberry, with patches of rhododendron on the southern slopes. There were old quarries on two sides, and sharp crags and edges on the east and south, where the plateau fell away into the valleys.
The crossing of the main paths was marked by a wooden sign scrawled with the name of the Nine Virgins and a yellow arrow. Around the sign was an area worn away by many feet. Someone living in the valley had a peacock; its long, drawn-out shriek drifted across the moor before dying away in the wind.
By the time she reached the Virgins, Jenny could feel the perspiration standing out on her forehead. Her Lycra cycling shorts were tighter on her hips and buttocks than they should have been, and the skin of her legs was pink and blotched from the exertion and the chafing of the wind.
She didn't mind the wind, or the cold, or even the exertion. Up here on the moor they helped to blow away the thoughts that would sit in the corners of her mind all the rest of the week, dark and evil-eyed. Nowhere else could she do that; certainly nowhere in Sheffield, where the crowded streets and the traffic only fed her anxieties.
In early November, the weather kept most people off the moor. But she could see that someone was sitting against the trunk of a tree near the stone circle of the Virgins, playing a few notes on a flute, toying with a tune that was vaguely familiar. She couldn't see the musician clearly, but she had an impression of long, fair hair and a multicolored sweater.
Jenny turned the handlebars of the bike away from the Nine Virgins and headed toward a path that ran down through deep bracken. The path turned into a streambed later in the winter, and the ground was scoured to its sandy bottom. Tree roots ran close to the surface, bursting through to form ragged steps in the steepest parts. Beechnuts crunched underfoot and the bracken was head high. It pressed close around her, its brown, dead hands brushing against her legs and rattling on the spokes of her wheels.
Beyond the dip, the Hammond Tower stood at the top of the slope. It was prominent on the horizon, tall and built of gray stone, but serving no apparent purpose. A walled-up doorway faced a flight of roughly cut steps and a steep drop off Ringham Edge. Fallen leaves filled a wide hollow between the tower and the rock outcrops called the Cat Stones.
Jenny sat for a while on a broken ledge at the base of the tower, staring at the view across the dale, waiting for her breathing to slow down, but feeling the chill beginning to creep over her skin. She shouldn't stay long, or her muscles would stiffen.
Down in the valley, she could see the farm, with a field full of cows, a cluster of gritstone buildings and a bigger, newer shed with a dark green steel roof. A track ran past the farm, and she studied it carefully for figures walking by the gate and heading up toward the tower. But there was no one today.
As she stood up to retrieve her bike, she noticed a crevice in the stones of the tower that had been crammed with crumpled drink cans and cigarette packets. Jenny shook her head in irritation but did nothing about the litter. It was a job for the rangers who patrolled the moor.
A few minutes later, she had reached the stone circle again. The Nine Virgins were only about four feet high, and they stood in a clearing of flattened and eroded grass between clumps of birch and oaks. Fifteen yards from the circle was a single stone on its own, an outlier -- the stone that they called the Fiddler. According to the legend, nine village maidens had been caught dancing on the Sabbath and had been turned to stone for their sin. The fiddler who played for them had suffered the same fate. Now the single stone looked lonely and isolated, condemned forever to stand outside the circle.
Jenny stopped the bike and wiped her palms on a tissue. The hills were already misting into gray over the banks of bracken, but the clouds broke and allowed a trickle of sun onto the moor. There was no sound but the wind whispering across the heather. There was no one to be seen now; she was alone. And it was perfectly safe on a bike -- as long as you didn't get a puncture.
She dismounted and struggled to turn her bike upside down to inspect the back tire. Immediately she saw the glitter of a sliver of glass. It had slit a gaping wound in the rubber tread and gone straight through to puncture the inner tube. She pulled the glass free, flinching at the sharp edges, and listened to the last gasp of escaping air. The tire looked peculiarly lifeless as it hung from the wheel, the soft gray skin of its collapsed tube protruding under the rim.
Jenny knew what a hassle it was to get the tire off the back wheel, repair it and replace it, and she was already reaching that state of tiredness where everything felt like a major task. But there was nothing else for it. Sighing, she flipped the quick-release lever and dropped the wheel on the ground. The forks of the bike pointed into the air in an undignified posture, like a dead animal on its back.
She was reminded of a photograph that had been taken at the height of the panic over foot-and-mouth disease. It had shown a slaughtered British Holstein, a huge animal with its stomach bloated, its vast udder shiny and leaking a dribble of milk, and its four stiff legs pointing ludicrously to the sky. The cow had been waiting its turn to be rolled into an incinerator. Its photograph had been on the front of leaflets that Jenny had helped to distribute, and she had seen it so many times that the details had stayed with her ever since, along with other images of things that had been done to animals.
Automatically, she patted the pouch she wore around her waist to make sure it was still there. Soon, she would have to decide what to do with what it contained.
Jenny shivered. The weather had changed, and the evening would be cold. The feathery stems of cotton grass created patches of golden mist close to the ground. They hovered just above the heather, moving in the wind like live creatures stirring in their nests.
It was the noise of the wind in Jenny's ears that covered the soft sound of footsteps until the walker was only a few feet behind her.
In half an hour, Mark was due to go off duty. Owen had given him exact instructions for his first solo patrol -- a pass across the face of Ringham and a descent into the valley on the far side, where the moor turned into farmland. There he was to take a look at the walls and stiles and signposts for recent damage, and have a scout around for the worst of the litter left by hikers.
On the way back, he should have a glance at the Nine Virgins to see that the ancient monument was no more scarred than usual; have a word, perhaps, with any campers foolhardy enough to have pitched their tents in the woods. Mark couldn't imagine why anybody would want to camp on the moor at any time of the year, let alone in November. But still they did it. And they were breaking the law when they did.
Near the top of the track he noticed a crumpled Coke can, dropped by some careless visitor. Muttering angrily, he picked it up and slipped it under the flap of his rucksack, where it joined a small pile of chocolate bar wrappers, aluminum ring pulls and an empty Marlboro packet and some cigarette ends he had found near the Hammond Tower, to be disposed of later. Mark couldn't tolerate the attitude that made people think it was OK to scatter the environment with litter. They thought their own convenience was more important.
If he had his way, Mark would ban these people completely from the national...
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Book Description London: Harper Collins, 2001., 2001. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 2326949
Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0002326949