I’ll give you the full story. Not some half arsed tabloid version. Okay?
I’m a rambler – I enjoy daily walks with Bran, my shaggy coated terrier. Lucky enough there’s a huge forest ten minutes drive from home. So we head there a lot, me to clear my head after the night shift, Bran to clear his bowels. No, I don’t pick up his crap (unless it’s on a proper pathway and even then I generally just flick it into a hedge with a stick). Yes, my wife says I’m a bad person.
We generally ramble off the main pathways. It suits better, Bran’s over enthusiasm to sniff other dogs is less of a problem as we rarely meet anyone. Equally I don’t get sucked into small chat and I get lost in my own thoughts, listening to the radio or whatever. I’ll lead the way: Bran unleashed and revved up would happily lead me through a shuck* full of shit if he was let. So we roam along, crisscrossing from animal paths to overgrown service tracks for timber extraction and back across the freshly gritted pathways laid down for pedestrians.
One morning we noticed a freshly dug hole to the side of a narrow track. I just assumed some creature was digging a burrow but in the days that followed it became apparent that the hole was made by a person.
On the first morning I noticed the hole, we had turned off a mossy track to cross a small gurgling stream. The water level was low from the dry weather and with the summers growth dying back I could see a narrow trail leading away on the far side so I was curious. I stepped across easily despite Bran doing his best to knock me off balance and then I followed his idiotic prancing onward through a thicket. I figured we were on a fox path or the like – it was wide enough for one foot only. Grass, weeds, brash and brambles rubbed off my trouser legs and the morning dew licked my boots. The forest grew darker as leafy evergreen shrubs shaded out daylight and the ground became mucky underfoot. Several branches hung low so I crouched forward. Then the path began to rise.
And there, just to the side of the path was the hole. Small enough. The next day we went back it was definitely bigger. I put both feet in and went down to my knees. And it was a few foot wide. Squarish. Bran lifted his leg against the freshly dug soil but took little interest in the hole itself. However I studied it for a moment.
It struck me that the removed soil was more than a shovels length away away from the side of the hole. It was further than it needed to be, especially if the person was ultimately planning on refilling the hole. On the other hand when there’s space between the mound and the hole you don’t need to worry about excavated material falling back down the hole if you extend it in any direction. And it had already been extended.
I’ve never actually dug a hole in the woods but I’m guessing that it’s back breaking unless you’re used to heavy labour. Dig a hole in a field and you shouldn’t have much roots to contend with. In the woods you’ll hit root after root which means cutting or hacking. There was lots of that. There were also quite a few big rocks in the hole which added to the physicality of the task. Then it occurred to me that it was a fair hike to carry tools through a public park to the spot. So I guessed the tools were hidden somewhere nearby. I was curious all day so I went back out again before nightfall. But there had been no progress in the intervening time.
On the third morning I was a little apprehensive approaching the area, half expecting to meet someone but that wasn’t the case. Just silence. However the hole was once again bigger. It now formed more of a rectangle shape. And deeper too, you’d go to your waist if you stepped in. I thought it strange that someone had returned to the hole during the hours of darkness to dig. That realisation sent shivers down my arms and I stepped back and quickly walked on, much to Bran’s satisfaction.
That night during break time, Ben, a work colleague in his early twenties, ushered me over to a table in the corner of the factory canteen. I had mentioned it in passing to him the previous night but I had hoped he would forget. The forest was my sanctuary, my space. This was my mystery. But no chance. He eagerly produced a laptop and loaded Google Maps. He got me to place a grid point reference on the rough spot and he was able to overlay old ordinance survey maps on the location. He thought it might throw up a clue but nothing. Ben then produced a pen and paper and rated the possibilities on a scale of one to ten.
A) The hole is being dug by a lunatic for no particular reason. (We quickly ruled this out as too much work for even a lunatic).
B) Someone wants to bury something that they don’t want anyone to find. 5/10
C) Someone is trying to find something that was buried. 7/10
Other notable factors: the work is being carried out during darkness – secret?. The work has been split over a number of nights? Why?
Ben was animated: the slim possibility that there could be buried treasure was sending his brain into overdrive. When I mentioned I’d go out again the following morning he just invited himself. He said he had a torch, metal detector and a few digging implements in his car on chance that we’d go after our shift finished at 5 am. I felt cornered. I’d already made arrangements to drop Louise, my wife, off at the car garage at 7 am. Still, it felt awkward to dodge him so we agreed to meet at the forest car park at 8 am.
For the rest of the night shift I couldn’t help feeling a bit pissed. Ben was a work colleague and no more. Certainly not a rambling partner. The thought occurred to me that if we found anything of value that I’d have to share it. But then again, what were the chances?
When I arrived at the agreed meeting place Ben’s car was parked up but he wasn’t in it. To be truthful I immediately thought that the clown had gone on without me – not in any angry way. Just surprised as you would be. His phone didn’t ring either when I tried it so I unleashed Bran and set off. It was misty and I wrapped my coat tight around my neck.
Ben wasn’t familiar with the forest but he had the grid point reference from the map search. I felt a bit tricked but blanked it. Walking on I remember hearing Louise’s voice in my ear telling me to turn back. I really wish I’d listened now.
Getting closer I stopped more than once. I’d kneel, straining my ears for any sounds. Above the beat of my heart I could hear the faint gurgling of the stream behind me and in the branches above my head, the chattering of small birds. I got the feeling something was wrong. I moved forward again. At a distance of twenty foot or so I could see the mound of soil. The hole itself wasn’t visible but there was certainly no one in the vicinity. So I stepped on. Bran lowered his head and shoulders and paced closer to the hole, a low growl bubbling in his throat. I moved next to him where he crouched at the edge of the hole. Hairs stood on my neck.
Down in the gloom of the hole was a body, face down. Instinctively I slid myself down, it was deeper than before. With a trembling hand I turned the chest around towards me. Ben. His face a bloody mess, eyes rolled upwards. Dead. But still warm. There was blood on my hands I remember feeling numb. This couldn’t be happening. I pressed the torch app on the phone. Bludgeoned on both sides of the head. I think I went into shock at this point. In the corner beside his blood soaked hair I noticed the earthen imprint of something flat, squarish. Whatever it was, it looked as if it had been wrenched out and up. Then Bran began to bark ferociously above me so I turned to stand up; that’s when I heard the thud and brief squeal and felt Bran’s limp body thump down on top of me. Dazed and starting to panic I scrambled to get back to my knees. Then a hooded figure appeared at the mouth of the hole holding a heavy stick. My memory get blurry after that.
shuck*: ditch / drain