An anonymous phone call reveals a horrifying secret. But can it be murder if there isn't a body?Father Joseph Kümmel is not just a deeply religious and spiritual man. He's the leader of a closed religious community at Hilltop Farm — one which kills members who want to leave.When someone manages to get messages to DCI Jack Culverhouse and DS Wendy Knight about the goings-on at Hilltop Farm, they begin to uncover a web of dark deception and murderous intent. With a distinct lack of evidence and a community distrustful of the police, they’re left fighting against the odds.The stakes are raised when their attempts to charge Father Joseph are blocked by higher powers. Will they be able to uncover the truth in time to stop his plans for a far more sinister fate for the residents of Hilltop Farm?
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Books in the Knight and Culverhouse series so far:
1. Too Close for Comfort
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4. Rough Justice
5. In Too Deep
6. In the Name of the Father
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Isabella Martin stood rooted to the spot as Father Joseph Kümmel’s eyes bore into hers. For a while, he said no words. He didn’t need to.
She’d been considering her escape from Hilltop Farm for some time. Recently she’d made the grave mistake of voicing her doubts to another member of the community. She’d thought she could trust her, considered her a friend. But now she was standing in front of the man who’d started this, who’d brought them all here, and expected her to repent for her sins.
‘Isabella, do you ever plan your own death?’ the man said, his deep Germanic tones rumbling as he spoke.
The farmhouse smelt damp and musty, as it always did at this time of year. The room felt oppressive, little light sneaking in through the small, high windows. Although she stood alone, facing the seated Father Joseph across his desk, she felt a thousand eyes upon her. The building was known as the chapel, although Isabella had long since rejected it as such in her mind. To her, it was now just another farmhouse. In any case, it felt more like a crypt than a chapel.
She swallowed, her mouth dry, struggling for something to say.
‘No... No, I don’t.’
Father Joseph smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile, but the knowing twinkle of a parent whose child has just told them they’re going to be an astronaut when they grow up.
‘Do you not find that odd? After all, let’s face it: you’re going to die. We all are. Do you not think it important to plan ahead and take control over that event?’
Isabella clenched her teeth. Control was something she’d lacked for a long time, something she’d gradually come to realise she was missing. And here was the man she held responsible, urging her to take control, telling her it was within her power. Had she been wrong all along? Had Father Joseph been guiding her nobly, the only resistance coming from within herself?
‘It... It’s not something I’ve ever thought about,’ she said, desperate to gauge Father Joseph’s mood and thoughts from the look in his eyes.
‘Do you not think it is time to think about it?’ he said, cocking his head slightly to one side. He stayed silent, looking at her. Isabella could tell he was going to say no more and felt compelled to speak next.
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
Father Joseph smiled again.
‘Child, you have a strong character. A strength of will. It is that strength of will that compelled you to express your doubts, to consider leaving the community. Do you see now that you were misguided in that sentiment?’
Isabella nodded, unable to express any words. She tried to work out whether he was angry or empathetic, but couldn’t.
‘You are not to blame, Isabella,’ he said, as if reading her mind and wanting to answer her question. ‘It is perfectly natural for someone as strong willed as you to doubt. But you are also well aware of what dark forces have planted that doubt, are you not?’
She nodded again. The word wasn’t one that was ever spoken within the community. No matter how removed Isabella had felt from this place recently, she still felt a cold shiver down her spine whenever she even considered it.
‘Which is why it is time for you to take control, Isabella. You are in charge of your own destiny. You make every decision in your life through free will. It is your free will that brought you here, that put you under the wing of God’s love. You are a person in control. Do you want those dark forces to consume you from within, to take that control away from you?’
Isabella shook her head, slowly at first.
‘Then you must take the ultimate control,’ he said, sliding a coffee mug across the desk towards her with the tips of his fingers. ‘You must make the decision. Take the step that most people will never have the strength of character to take.’
Isabella looked down at the coffee mug. It looked like any cup of coffee, except there was no steam. She looked back up at Father Joseph, seeing that his eyes had never left hers.
‘I... I can’t,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘It is not you speaking, Isabella. You want to take control. You want to make this choice.’
‘No... No. I don’t. I can’t,’ she said, her voice faltering.
Father Joseph clenched his jaw. Isabella heard two footsteps to her side. She turned her head and saw the faint but familiar frame of Nelson, one of Father Joseph’s closest confidants. His eyes were milky and tense, his black skin still disguised in the shadows. She caught a glint of light that flashed below and just to the left of Nelson. It was only for a moment, but enough to make her realise that he was holding a gun in his right hand.
Isabella looked back at the coffee mug.
She recalled the stories one of the other members of the community had told her. Legend was that those who transgress are sometimes made to prove their devotion to the community and to Father Joseph. Long before Isabella had come to the farm, a male member of the community was apparently handed a gun by Father Joseph and told to kill one of the two of them. The man had lifted the gun to his own temple and pulled the trigger, only to find the gun hadn’t been loaded. From that point on, having proven his devotion, the man had lived the life of a king. Isabella didn’t know his name, or what had ultimately happened to him, nor did she know anyone who’d ever met him. But the story remained powerful, indelible on her consciousness.
Was this what was happening here? Was this simply a harmless mug of cold coffee, intended to be a make-or-break moment for her? Either way, she now knew what the alternative was. She glanced back at Nelson, herself almost able to feel the cold steel of the gun.
She extended her arm, her elbow popping as she did so, and took hold of the coffee cup. Slowly, she lifted it to her lips and drank.
It was definitely coffee, she knew that much. Cold coffee. Knowing the taste would be unpleasant, and only wanting to experience it once, she slugged back the mug’s contents in one.
Within seconds of putting the mug down, she could feel the butterflies in her chest and throat. Her neck tightened as she began to gasp for breath. Time seemed to slow, her legs buckling from under her as her stomach began to heave, her body shivering as it began to convulse. Without warning, she vomited, the stream of liquid splattering across the concrete floor of the farmhouse, masking the sound of her losing control of her bowel and bladder.
Gradually, everything faded, became black.
Jack Culverhouse sat in the armchair in his living room, as he had all night, looking at the clock. It was almost nine-thirty in the morning and he ought to be at work, but work could wait.
He’d just handed a big case over to the Crown Prosecution Service. It was the attempted murder of an investigative journalist who’d been about to expose a local political scandal and cover-up. He figured he was due a break. Besides which, he’d just seen his thirteen-year-old daughter for the first time in almost nine years, having tried to track her down all over the world before finding out she’d been living in the same county the whole time.
His wife, Helen, had disappeared with Emily in the dead of night all those years ago and had only recently come back on the scene. He had no idea why — she’d become a completely different person and now seemed hell bent on causing arguments and frustration. She’d led him a merry dance, right across Europe, trying to track her down and see his daughter again. But, through it all, Emily had been living with Helen’s parents barely a few miles up the road. Helen’d had almost as little contact with her as Jack had.
When Emily had got in touch with him yesterday evening, it had been the last thing he’d expected. He’d been to see her that week at the skatepark near where she’d been living, hoping to catch a glimpse of her but not intending on speaking to her. That had all changed as soon as he saw her.
The welcome he got had been less than enthusiastic. Although Emily had recognised him immediately, she’d made it crystal clear that she had no desire to see him or spend any time with him.
But that seemed to have been a momentary flash in the pan.
He’d called her back as soon as he received her text just before eight o’clock the previous evening. She sounded cut up, devastated. It was clear to Jack that the shock of seeing him again had made her react in the way she had, and he forgave her. Of course he did; she was his daughter.
She didn’t say much when she got to his place; she’d just wanted to go straight to bed. She seemed exhausted — more worn down than worn out — and Jack had more than enough good sense not to force the issue. As much as he wanted to see Emily as his little girl in pigtails, those days were over. And he hadn’t seen nearly half as many of them as he would’ve liked. Now, she was a teenager. She had her own ideas, her own direction. Her own life.
He’d opened the door to the spare room, just a few inches, around half an hour after she’d closed the door and gone to bed. It didn’t seem right having her sleep in her old bedroom. Besides which, he’d long since moved everything of hers into the loft. All that was in there now were boxes and stored furniture.
The first thing that struck him was how different she looked sleeping to how she did when she was awake. He would’ve said she looked just fine when she was awake, but only seeing the peaceful, serene look on her face as she slept had made him realise the pain and anguish she must be feeling in her waking hours. He wanted more than anything to walk over and cradle her, feel like the protective father. But he knew he couldn’t. This had to be done one step at a time.
The miniature clock on the mantelpiece gave one small, tinny gong to signal it was exactly half past nine. He’d been awake for well over twenty-four hours — almost twenty-eight — but he didn’t feel tired.
He looked at the glass of whisky on the table next to him, still untouched from last night, and registered the sound of movement upstairs. A few seconds later, he heard the noise of Emily’s footsteps on the stairs, getting louder as she made her way down and opened the door to the living room.
Jack looked at her.
Emily lifted her chin momentarily, as if to acknowledge him without saying a word. Her dark hair was tied back, part of her fringe hanging lank over one cheekbone, a black hoody coming down almost to her knees.
‘Bit early for a teenager to be up, isn’t it? I was expecting peace and quiet until well after lunch.’
Emily seemed unsure how to respond at first, but eventually gave a half-forced smile.
‘What’s for breakfast?’ she said, pushing the stray bit of fringe back over her ear, the ends of her fingers barely visible past the end of the hoody’s long black sleeves.
Her eyes fell on Jack’s whisky glass.
‘That’s from last night,’ he said. ‘I poured it before you texted me. I just haven’t thrown it away yet.’
Emily nodded. Jack couldn’t tell whether she believed him or not. In any case, what did it matter? Was he not allowed to drink whisky in his own home? Or had Helen and her parents fed Emily stories about Jack being some sort of stereotypical drink-driven detective? He didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
‘What would you like?’ he said. ‘I can rustle up a mean scrambled eggs on toast.’
‘Sounds good,’ she said, without any hint of tone whatsoever.
The eggy mixture cracked and sizzled as he moved it around the pan with a wooden spatula. He was aware of Emily sitting at his kitchen table behind him, hands wrapped around a mug of milky coffee.
‘I hope the milk’s still alright. I have mine black, so I don’t tend to use it much. Mind you, I’ve put a splash in the eggs, too, so at least we’ll both get it. Good job I’ve got two bathrooms.’
He turned slightly to look at Emily. She didn’t seem to register him speaking at all. Instead, she just looked down into her mug of coffee.
The eggs cooked, Jack spooned them onto two slices of toast and slid one over to her.
He took a mouthful and then asked the question he’d wanted to ask her ever since last night.
‘So. What brings you here?’
Emily shrugged, not taking her eyes from the mug. Jack could see her black nail polish was slightly chipped, the nails bitten back as far as they’d go.
‘Problems with Nan and Grandad?’ he asked.
She shuffled in her chair and let out what sounded like half a sigh.
He took another mouthful of scrambled egg.
‘How often do you see your mum?’
‘I must admit, she didn’t tell me much about you,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even see her until quite recently, when she knocked at my door. I don’t know where she’d been.’ He took a sip of coffee. ‘Do you remember the house at all?’
Emily shook her head. He felt relieved that he wouldn’t get any backlash for moving all her stuff into the loft.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Bits of it. I remember the living room wallpaper. You haven’t decorated.’
Jack smiled. ‘Does that surprise you?’
She shook her head again.
‘I honestly had no idea where you were. All I knew is your mum had left and taken you with her. I heard something on the grapevine later on about Spain. I tried to find you. I even booked a flight out there, but I couldn’t find you,’ he said, not mentioning the fact that he’d not actually got on the plane. ‘Emily, look, I don’t know what your mother and your grandparents have said. I know it won’t have been nice stuff. I know how things work in the heat of the moment. But I... I just wanted to say thank you. For coming here. For coming to see for yourself that I’m not such a bad bloke after all.’
Emily put her knife and fork on her plate and pushed her chair backwards.
‘Can I go now?’
Jack looked down at her breakfast. ‘You haven’t finished yet. There’s still half of it on your plate.’
‘I’ve got places to be,’ she said, getting up and walking into the hall. Jack stood and watched her pick up her rucksack, sling it over her shoulder and open the front door.
‘Will I see you later?’
‘I’ll text you,’ she said, closing the door behind her.
James Aston looked again at the image on his mobile phone. He’d transferred them from his computer before leaving the house, just in case he needed them. He blinked twice, squinting to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. The images were never of particularly good quality, but that was the way they had to be. Getting any closer would raise suspicions. But as fuzzy and indistinct as the wording itself was, the message was clear.
He’d been waiting to see something like this for a long time: something hard, concrete. Something that could finally blow the lid on everything. Something that could bring his family back to him.
Again, he looked at the photograph. He needed to make sure. He needed to be certain. Sure, some of the letters were difficult to tell apart — was that an A or an E? — but that was all more or less irrelevant. It was obvious what it said. Would anyone else see the same message he was seeing? He didn’t know, but he had to take the risk. It was now or never.
Before he could even think about what he was doing, he was striding towards the phone box. A thousand thoughts flooded through his mind. Was this an emergency? Probably not, he thought. After all, there wouldn’t be a whole lot they could do right now. The damage had been done. 101, the non-emergency number, would be the most sensible option. He lifted the handset, then paused for a moment. If what the message had said was real, lives could be at stake. It was down to him to act. He dialled 999, the emergency number.
A man answered his call. James froze for a moment, unsure of what to say. There was so much he wanted to say, but he had to keep it brief and to the point. Anything else, and they’d think he was a crackpot. No-one in their right mind would believe the whole story, not at first. Not even the police.
‘Hello, police emergency.’ the voice at the other end of the phone said.
‘Uh, yes,’ James replied, eventually. ‘Hi. Uh, there’s a dead body. Someone’s been murdered.’
Wendy curled a nostril in disgust at the state of the coffee mugs, and rifled through the cupboard to try and find one that could pass as almost clean. She needed to get another one of her own, with her name plastered over it. The last one had gone walkabout, as did everything else in the office sooner or later, and she hadn’t got round to replacing it yet.
Eventually, she found one that didn’t look too bad. She ran the hot tap until it was scalding, squirted a good quarter of a cup of washing-up liquid into the mug and scrubbed at it with a handful of scrunched-up paper towels. She rinsed it with the boiling water and sat it in the sink for a minute or so, hoping the steaming liquid would kill off the rest of the germs lurking in the porcelain.
The major incident room was quieter than usual — even quieter than it would usually be following the closure of any large case — and Wendy put this down to Jack Culverhouse’s absence. She didn’t know if he’d booked a holiday. She doubted it. But then again she tried to block out a lot of what he said. It wasn’t that she disrespected her boss; she just needed to try and keep her sanity occasionally.
‘Righto,’ Steve Wing said into the phone, raising his hand to stop Wendy as she walked past. ‘I’ll pass it on. Cheers. Bye.’
Wendy looked at Steve, waiting for him to tell her what he wanted.
‘A report of a body,’ he said. ‘The caller reckons it’s a murder.’
‘Good job we don’t need to pay pathologists, isn’t it?’ Wendy joked. ‘What did they discover at the scene?’
‘Uh, nothing,’ Steve replied.
‘What do you mean nothing?’
‘Nothing. The first responders can’t get in. They’re calling for backup.’
‘What, backup from CID?’ Wendy said, raising her voice.
‘Well, no, uniform are waiting for more of their own, but there’s only one reason the owners would deny access, isn’t there? If they’re trying to hide evidence or whatever, we’ll need CID on the scene sharpish.
Wendy narrowed her eyes. ‘Are you serious? What if it’s a hoax? Uniform just want to call CID out on a whim?’ She considered how lucky Steve was that Culverhouse wasn’t around to have this conversation with him. ‘Where is it, anyway?’
‘That’s the thing,’ Steve replied. ‘It’s at Hilltop Farm.’
The name rang a bell. Most local people knew of Hilltop Farm. There were stories about it being some sort of hippy commune or home to a religious group. But the farm had never fallen across the police’s radar, as far as Wendy knew. It was just another idiosyncrasy that made up the quirky fabric of the Mildenheath area.
‘And they’re denying access?’ Wendy asked.
‘Yep. Something about only allowing people in if they’re part of the Kingdom of God. The first responders said they’re allowed to enter private land if they believe someone’s committed a crime. Their response was that it’s not private land; it’s God’s land.’
Wendy sighed. ‘Sounds like fun. Get the DCI on the phone and tell him. He’ll make a call on it.’
‘Tried that,’ Steve replied. ‘Got no reply, so I sent a text.’
Wendy shook her head. She was often tempted to make a move away from Mildenheath and join a police force that operated in the same way as the rest of the country. Policing in Mildenheath was often a law unto itself. That was something that was changing, but not quickly enough for Wendy’s liking. That a Detective Chief Inspector could just ignore phone calls and not turn up for work would be unthinkable elsewhere. Proper procedures would have to be put in place, rules followed. But not here. She’d had something of a change of heart in recent months, wondering if perhaps Jack Culverhouse wasn’t such a bad bloke after all. That was quickly starting to change again.
‘Looks like you’re in charge for the moment,’ Steve added.
‘Me? I’m a DS, Steve. The same as you.’
‘Yeah, but you’re more... Well, you’re more senior. In a way, I mean.’
‘More senior?’ Wendy asked. ‘Is that meant to mean old?’
‘Well no, obviously not,’ Steve replied, adding that he was well aware he had a good few years on her. ‘But you’re kind of his right-hand woman, aren’t you? His second-in-command.’
Wendy raised her eyebrows. ‘Steve, if this is your way of getting out of making decisions, you can stick it up your arse. If you want us to attend the scene, we can attend the scene. But I’ll be buggered if I’m going to be the one to make that decision.’
Steve looked at her and smiled. She knew exactly what he was thinking. Never mind being Jack Culverhouse’s right-hand woman; she was starting to become him.
Wendy spotted Jack Culverhouse’s car parked up on a grass verge as she pulled up behind it on the rural track known as Wellfield Lane. Culverhouse got out of his car at the same time as Wendy and Steve, the two of them both surprised to see the DCI in attendance.
‘Didn’t expect to see you here,’ Wendy said, trying to gauge his mood.
‘You know me, Knight. Never one to pass up a chance for some hippy bashing. Any sign of the bosher?’ he called to the two uniformed officers at the main entrance gate to Hilltop Farm.
‘No, sir. But it shouldn’t be long.’
The bosher, or Enforcer, was the colloquial police term for the piece of equipment better known as a battering ram. Culverhouse looked up at the wrought iron gates that led into a small walled courtyard. The courtyard had a huge wooden gate behind it. Culverhouse wondered what good the bosher would do in this instance.
‘You tried this?’ Culverhouse asked, pointing to the intercom box on the wall.
‘Yes, of course,’ the young uniformed officer replied.
Culverhouse jabbed the button on the box. ‘Police. Open up,’ he barked.
‘I’m sorry, but this is not a public area,’ came the muffled and distant reply. ‘Please vacate the driveway.’
‘Sorry, no can do. We’ve had a report of a crime and we need to enter the farm.’
The tinny voice returned over the intercom. ‘This farm is the land of Christ. No-one has committed a crime here. We are people of God.’
Culverhouse leaned forward and spoke into the intercom. ‘I couldn’t give a rat’s arse if you’ve got Noah and St Peter in there doing the fucking can-can. We’ve got two ways of coming in, and one of them means you’re going to need to get a new gate. Do I make myself clear?’
There was silence for a few moments.
‘Perfectly,’ came the eventual reply. ‘Someone will be with you in a few moments.’
It took longer than Culverhouse would have liked for someone from the farm to make their way to the front gates. The high walls made it impossible to see inside the farm. It looked more like a prison than a working place of agriculture.
One thing was for sure, though: It was huge. The wall seemed to go on forever, and Wendy considered what they might find behind the gates. Should they have called for even more backup? She could see now why the two uniformed officers felt a little out of their depth when they first arrived. But further backup needed to come from around twenty miles away. It would be some time before they’d have any more strength in numbers.
Going into a place like this was always a risk. Most police officers would put their lives on the line most days. Granted, the same couldn’t really be said of CID. But, once again, Mildenheath was different. Here, plain-clothes detectives did a lot of the legwork, as opposed to uniformed officers. Mildenheath and the surrounding area had a high level of crime in general. With the government slashing policing budgets left, right and centre, a different approach was often needed just to cope.
But that wasn’t the biggest concern at the forefront of anyone’s minds as they waited for someone to open up the farm. The largest worry was that someone could be hiding or destroying evidence during the ensuing delay. That could jeopardise any future investigation, and was one of the main reasons for searching the property as quickly as possible.
When the solid wooden gate opened, a large man appeared. He seemed to be of African origin, and looked to Jack and Wendy more like a bouncer than a vicar. They watched him as he walked through the first gate and went to open the wrought iron ones at the front of the farm. Culverhouse leaned forward to get a better look. The man’s hand disappeared from view for a moment, and seemed to be fiddling with the wall.
‘Don’t worry,’ the man said. ‘I’m turning a key. The gate’s locked with electromagnets.’
‘Electromagnets? On a church?’ Culverhouse asked.
‘It’s not a church,’ the man replied, offering no further information as he opened the gate and stood aside.
‘Whatever it is, don’t you think it’s overkill? That sort of security tends to make us think people are hiding something.’
The man just smiled.
‘Where are we meant to be going?’ Culverhouse said aside to one of the uniformed officers.
‘The old grain store, apparently,’ came the reply.
‘It’s over there, to the right of the white building,’ the man said. ‘Let me know if you need anything else.’
There was something in his tone that told Wendy they were being set up for a fall. Whatever evidence there was — if any — would have been hidden or destroyed by now. There was no other reason why the man would be so helpful all of a sudden. She’d almost discounted the possibility of an ambush. Almost. The small chance was something that played on her mind as she walked a couple of paces behind Jack Culverhouse, toward the grain store.
What struck Wendy most was that there seemed to be no-one else around. There were many buildings scattered around the vast farm, but no people. The only people she could see were her own team and the man who’d opened the gates and was now leading them towards the large, looming grain store. The whole place just felt spooky and wrong, somehow.
It was clear that no-one had used the building for storing grain for quite some time. At least, that’s what Wendy hoped. The missing tiles on the curved roof and the white paint flaking off the exterior walls gave the grain store a feeling of neglect. Indeed, the whole farm seemed to feel somewhat forgotten and abandoned in some ways, but fresh and invigorating in others. She supposed that was one of the hallmarks of a community locked away from the outside world.
The door creaked as the man unlatched it and swung it open, that being the only sound save for the officers’ own blood thumping in their ears. Wendy swallowed as her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she tried to take in the sight in front of her.
Ben Gallagher scratched at his beard and stared through the gap in the curtains, watching the unfolding scene at the grain store. He knew exactly what the police would find there, and he knew it would make no immediate difference. But that was the whole point. It would plant a seed in their minds. It would open a paper trail. And there might well be something they’d spot while they were here — something which could start to unravel the whole operation.
He hadn’t expected them to spring into action so quickly. He couldn’t even be certain his messages were getting out — until now. That was a good thing, though. If he couldn’t be sure his messages were getting to their intended target, there was little chance of Father Kümmel or his henchmen finding anything out.
Father Kümmel must have believed he was pretty secure. Hilltop Farm had been shut off from the outside world for as long as Ben could remember — long before he’d arrived here, anyway. Save for very few trusted members, referred to as missionaries, nobody got out. Sometimes new people came in, but that was increasingly rare. Ben often wondered why that was.
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