An excerpt from

The Lifers' Club

Francis Pryor


The building shook. Windows rattled. Just outside in the quarry, five tons of stone smashed into a dumper truck. Next another, and another, then the turbo-charged diesel screamed into life, as the laden dumper pulled away, passing them close by. Mugs of tea rippled. But nobody in the stuffy Portacabin took any notice. For them, it was routine.
For weeks the rain had been pouring down. Outside, on site, the ground was wet and slimy. Lethal. Inside, water had seeped through the door and formed a little puddle, which slowly drained through a crack in the floor, where the doormat should have been. Condensation ran down the windows, two of which were boarded-up after an attack by vandals the previous week. But as site-huts went, it was pretty good.
Alan Cadbury and his twelve diggers were sipping hot drinks, their hard-hats and hi-viz waterproofs hanging, dripping on a row of pegs by the door. One or two read newspapers. No-one said much. They all just wanted to dry off for a few minutes and relax in the steamy warmth, while outside, in the gravel pit’s washing plant, more stones thundered into yet another dumper, which revved-up and roared away, to shed its load round the back, in the flooded area quarried out the previous year.
Like two of the others in his small team of contract archaeologists, Alan was rolling a cigarette, which he’d light-up as soon as he went back to work. As roll-ups went, it was very slim. More paper than tobacco. He’d only have time to grab a few quick drags while they walked across the quarry to their excavation. Then he’d have to stub it out when he reached the trench. Site rules. Radiocarbon contamination.
He swore under his breath as his last fag paper slipped from his hands. Carefully he leant forward to retrieve it from the floor. Earlier that rainy week, they’d put down thick layers of newspaper to absorb the worst of the wet. Thank God, he thought, as he watched his Rizla float down towards the puddle, it’s landed on a dry patch. He reached out, leaning forward. As his fingers grasped it, his eye was caught by a story on a soggy sheet alongside it:

Honour killer at Blackfen?
Rumours are circulating that the so-called ‘honour killer’, Ali Kabul (25) is now at HMP Blackfen. The Governor’s office was unable to confirm or deny these reports to our reporter. The victim, Sofia Kabul (16), was the murderer’s younger sister who was killed at the family’s business premises at Flax Hole Depot, Leicester, over seven years ago. The case caused a national outcry. Kabul was convicted at Leicester Crown Court last January and was sentenced [continued p. 32]

That’s all there was. Alan glanced up to the top of the sheet: it was page 4 of the Fenland Mercury for two weeks ago. Rapidly he tore it off and read it again, frowning Then he looked around on the floor for the rest of the paper, but it wasn’t there. Nowhere. He sat back and sighed. Flax Hole Leicester. Must be the same place. Can’t be two Flax Holes – not possibly. Memories started to flood in: another wet season, but winter and much colder. He counted back in his mind: seven years ago, nearly eight. Then his phone alarm went off. Back to work. He put the scrap of newspaper into his pocket.
‘OK folks,’ he said, rising stiffly to his feet, trying to inject some energy: ‘Tea-break’s over. Back to it.’
Nobody moved.
‘For Christ’s sake people, it’s time we got back…’
Slowly two figures near the back of the hut rose to their feet, yawning widely. Nobody said anything as they struggled into mud-spattered waterproofs. It was Friday afternoon. POETS day: Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday. He’d told them that when they started the site back in June. Some of youngest students hadn’t heard it before. One or two had even smiled. But now it was late August and the rain hadn’t let up for ten relentless weeks.
‘Fuckin’ poets day...’ someone muttered resentfully as they kicked the door shut behind them. They’d had a bellyful.

Alan dropped a couple of diggers off in Waney, then took his Land-Rover north and east across the county line into Lincolnshire. After half an hour bouncing across subsiding Fenland roads he arrived at the bungalow he currently called home, in the little village of Tubney. There were one or two picturesque houses in Tubney, but this wasn’t one of them. A couple of nights ago a friend, who’d come home with him after the pub, had described it as: ‘Pokey rooms downstairs and bugger-all upstairs.’ That about summed it up. Like most 1930s detached houses, it had once possessed a garden, but the last tenants had been scrap dealers and had used it to store old lorry engines which had leaked oil and diesel everywhere; so the garden grew nothing, and on warm days the entire place smelled like a garage. Still, it was very cheap.
Even the bloody phone smelled of oil. He hesitated before dialling. Was this such a good idea, after all? He had first met Detective Inspector Richard Lane when they were both on the Forensic Archaeology MA course at Saltaire, just over ten years ago. Although he was twelve years older than Alan, they’d become good friends for the two years they were together on the course. By then Lane was already a successful career policeman, and it was his idea to do the MA, if only to find out what the new, and much-heralded, branch of forensic science could achieve. As he said at the time, there was little point in employing extra staff or consultants, if the police themselves had no idea what they could learn from them. But once he’d begun the course, he realised his lack of excavating experience put him at a big disadvantage. So he was delighted when he became friendly with Alan. In his darker moments Alan still wondered to what extent their friendship was accidental, unplanned.
Alan was on the staff of the course and had been employed to oversee the fieldwork side of things. Although it was just a temporary contract it had come in the nick of time: he’d been out of work for a couple of months after failing to complete his Ph.D. dissertation. People said he was pig-headed and should have made the changes the external examiner demanded. Instinctively Alan disliked the man: Dr Peter Flower. Posey and superior. Alan’s supervisor had pleaded with him. But no. He was damned if he would. So he lost his grant and his post-graduate studentship. He was out of work. By then it was July and all commercial digging jobs had been filled. Frankly, the outlook was bleak and he was about to start stacking supermarket shelves when an old friend at Saltaire, hearing of his plight on the grapevine, offered him a temporary position on the Forensics MA course. To someone with Alan’s experience there was nothing to it: just the basics: trowelling, laying out trenches, section-drawing, soil-sampling, surveying, GPS – all familiar stuff. He didn’t exactly feel stimulated by the course, or by the list of students. Frankly he’d much rather had been out on a real site getting his hands dirty. But he had enough sense to know when to bite the bullet. Then he’d met Richard Lane and they’d hit it off.
Strange that. Alan could even remember thinking at the time it was all a bit unexpected. Their lifestyles were so different: his chaotic, the policeman’s organised and efficient. Then it came to him. Maybe it came to both of them. As they worked and talked they began to grasp the point of it all. It wasn’t just about clever scientific techniques. Arresting criminals. Bang to rights. That sort of stuff was fine on TV. No, it was bigger, more fundamental than that: why some things mattered and others didn’t. Good and evil: basic stuff that makes us human. And of course neither Alan nor Lane suffered fools gladly. Or did they? Sometimes Alan’s confidence would slip.
Soon they were both working on various digs in vacations and on weekends. As they trowelled together on their hands and knees, Alan was surprised at the policeman’s natural ability and he took much trouble teaching him the nuts and bolts of practical excavation. Rather to his surprise Lane too discovered that Alan had an extraordinarily tenacious analytical mind. He wouldn’t let problems die. He was like a terrier and always managed to sort them out. But would they have made a two-man team? Lane thought they would. In fact he suggested it once or twice and Alan agreed – but only sort-of.
After the course ended, Alan’s life became more complicated. Lane tried to persuade him to train as a full-time police consultant, which he resisted for instinctive, gut reasons. Lane tried to make him change his mind. But soon gave up. No, Alan was a hopeless case: he shied away from permanent commitment and didn’t like the idea of working with non-archaeological material. He seemed hooked on the special appeal, the magic even, of old things and long-lost times. They stirred his imagination like nothing else and he couldn’t set them aside. Lane couldn’t see they were part of Alan’s life.
Directly after Saltaire Lane had been transferred to the Cambridgeshire force. In those days they maintained contact, although not closely – the odd drink at weekends. There’d been a series of unpleasant murders in and around Whittlesey, a small Fenland town east of Peterborough. Alan was able to advise them about Fen farms, Fen farmers and their hired help. He made several scene-of-crime visits, all of which brought-in welcome consultancy fees. In the end they never caught the murderer, which didn’t surprise Alan, who was far from convinced that the killings were the work of a single individual. The press, on the other hand, were completely convinced – as indeed were the police – at least as soon as the first stories began to hit the headlines. Then it all fizzled out, not that anyone in the area seemed to care much. Life continued much as before. Maybe the killer or killers moved away, who knows?
A couple of years passed. Alan and Lane kept loosely in touch: the odd phone call or drink when either of them was nearby. Then things got worse. Like the start of their friendship it was unexpected: Alan had always suspected that the police’s approach to the Whittlesey murders was a result of political pressure from higher up. A case of political correctness, as all the talk at the time pointed to an immigrant gang. Several were known to be working in the region, but none had yet killed; their thefts were all about pink farm diesel, heating oil or scrap metal. Anyhow, one night, after a few too many beers, he told Lane as much. He knew as he said it, it hadn’t gone down well. And he was right. The scene of crime visits and police consultancies stopped, and for a few years they lost contact.
Then a year ago they met up at the retirement reception for the professor who had conceived and run the Forensics course. There were a number of policemen there; some mixed with the academics, others kept themselves to themselves. Alan couldn’t help observing, as if from afar. He found Lane’s body language interesting: he made a point of staying close by his colleagues. But this was new; in the past he’d have gone straight over and mixed with the archaeologists. Alan also sensed some kind of a force field. It irritated him: he didn’t mind excluding himself from any group, but resented it if people tried to exclude him. In the end, and after too many glasses of Chilean Merlot, he decided it was all absurd and brazenly marched up to Lane and made a poor joke about a Force field.
One or two policemen smiled politely, which was better than Alan had expected. Lane, however, remained distant. Alan looked hard into his eyes and couldn’t detect any hostility there. It was as if he, Alan, had somehow slipped off Lane’s radar, following the Whittlesey cases. They chatted for a few minutes and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. Alan didn’t expect to hear from his old friend, and he was right, until, that is, the following Christmas, when he received an official card (a fuzzy watercolour of the city under snow) from which Alan learned that Lane had been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector and was now with Leicestershire CID. Destined to be a high flyer, Alan thought.
To the world at large Alan’s ‘career’ hadn’t been flying at all. He’d managed to screw-up or turn down several offers of long-term jobs. He didn’t want them. At least that’s how he rationalised it. In reality he couldn’t face getting on the ladder he’d seem so many of his friends start to climb. But it never went very high and they all ended up as Project Managers in commercial units, sitting in front of computer screens and talking to suited women in HR. They grew fat guts and endlessly droned on about how they missed ‘being in the field’. Like Hell, he thought: They couldn’t have survived a month out in a gravel quarry in February. They’d lose weight fast: freeze their balls off.
So he’d drifted into being a freelance Site Officer, supervisor one dig after another, winter, summer, autumn and spring. Not exactly high-flying, but he was proud of what he was doing, even so. He knew he was the best and enjoyed the challenge of surviving on his wits. It was like other things in life; he liked the danger, the ever-present and lurking precariousness of it. It was better than growing old.
But he knew he had to do something to re-establish contact with Lane. It wouldn’t just happen. So he went out and bought a card – something he’d only done once before in his life – and sent him a reply, posting it on Christmas Eve; but there wasn’t much to say. He mentioned a few of his sites, and left it at that. And he’d heard nothing since. Not a word. Alan thought back: he’d sent that card at the end of 2001. Over eight years ago. Now he found he was standing in the bungalow’s single empty corridor, looking down at the phone. The newspaper cutting lay beside it.
Lane’s lack of outright hostility was what Alan was banking on now – that, and their close friendship over the two years of the Saltaire course. He knew Lane wasn’t malicious and he also knew he didn’t harbour grudges. But on the other hand, nobody likes to be told that they’ve given into political pressure, especially in an organisation as supposedly independent as the police. Anyhow, that was why he now hesitated before dialling. He took a deep breath, picked up the phone and rang a number in Leicester.
Lane answered:
‘Hello, Richard Lane here.’
It’s Alan…’ No response, ‘Alan Cadbury...’
Alan wasn’t surprised Lane hadn’t recognise his voice.
‘Oh, hello Alan,’ In the background Alan could hear the sound of Lane’s wife Mary talking to their daughter, who was now grown-up. There was a faint clink of cutlery. He continued: ‘it’s a bit difficult now, we’re about to eat supper, can I phone you back in an hour?’
Alan gave his number, then they rang off. It wasn’t a promising start. Although he knew Richard Lane wasn’t a rude or unpleasant man, but being a busy policeman he could easily invent some excuse. Or something might crop up. Alan half expected he might never return the call.
He went out for a take-away Chinese, which he had just finished, when the phone rang. Alan glanced at his watch, it was precisely an hour later. It could have been someone – a client or a specialist – with an interminable question about contexts, flints or pottery, in which case he’d have somehow to get them off the phone, but rather to his surprise, it was Lane:
‘Sorry about that,’ he began, ‘but it’s Jane’s 20th today, and Mary wanted to make a fuss of her. You know how it is: away at university, never at home, so make the most of her when you can.’ He paused. ‘Anyhow, how can I help?’
This was encouraging. Alan got straight to the point:
‘Yesterday I read something in an oldish copy of the local rag about one of those ‘honour’ killings. It seems the man that did it, Ali Kabul, came from Leicester …’
‘That’s right. It was a big case. You must have heard about it? Every newspaper, let alone TV and radio, was full of it.’
‘No, sorry, missed it. The last few months have been a bit frantic. I’ve been digging everywhere. And you know what it’s like, you don’t see papers very often when you’re in the field…’
Lane was astonished that a case as big as the Kabul killing (as some tabloids dubbed it) could completely have passed Alan by. But again, he did know what Alan’s life could be like.
‘It was very high profile,’ Lane continued, ‘Not just here in Leicester, but nationally. It was one of the first of the big ‘honour killings’. Between you and me I think one reason it went so big was the young victim: Sofia. She was stunning, and her face was on the front face of every paper…’
‘Tabloid and broadsheet?’ Alan asked, trying to work out how he could have missed it.
‘Well,’ Lane conceded, ‘mostly the tabloids, but the story was run by everyone.’
‘The clip I saw mentioned the killing happened at Flax Hole Depot. Is that right?’
‘Yes,’ Lane replied, ‘it’s off the Market Harborough Road, at the city end.’
A short pause, while Alan thought. Then:
‘That’s the one – and there’s a big café near it, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, ‘Mehmet’s’. Named after the owner, I think.’
Lane was surprised that Alan seemed knew the place, which was otherwise off the beaten track.
‘Why, d’you know it?’
‘Very much so. In fact I think I must have been there when the killing happened.’
‘February, 2002?’
‘That’s right. I was running a dig there. I’d set up a small contracting partnership with a colleague. Nothing grand – just a way of earning a crust. There was plenty of work around at the time. Anyhow, we were part of a sub-contract for a larger job run by the City Archaeological Unit. The Depot was being completely redesigned, rebuilt and modernized by the owners.’
‘The Kabuls?’
‘That’s right.’
At the other end of a rather poor line Alan heard Lane mutter:
‘Hm, that’s interesting…’ but Alan continued, regardless:
‘…Then, at the pre-Planning stage, the City Archivist found documentary evidence for a flax-processing workshop complex there in the 17th and 18th centuries. Flax sites are rare in the east. So the project was delayed, while we did an assessment, followed by excavation. It turned out to be quite important.’
Lane’s interest had clearly been aroused.
‘I wasn’t involved in that case. Not the sort of thing I normally deal with. We’ve officers with more specialist knowledge who deal with crimes like forced marriages and ‘honour killings’. But was there anything in particular you wanted to know? I can always find out.’
Alan hadn’t expected that. A good sign.
‘Maybe there is. While we were digging we were visited by two teenagers, both Turkish-looking, but almost certainly born over here. Both bright and intelligent. Brother and sister, I’d guess. They were also about the right age, and I’m fairly sure the boy was called Ali – although it was seven years ago and I never got to see him after the dig. I didn’t find out the girl’s name, but she was wearing a green school uniform…’
‘…that’s the High School.’
‘ and I’m sure I’d recognise her face if I saw it again. Very pretty. Her brother was good-looking too. Any chance you could get me pictures of them?
‘The brother and the sister?’
‘Yes. The thing is, I’ve got to be certain I’m talking about the same people.’
There was a pause before Lane replied.
‘I don’t see why not… I assume you have a good reason for all this?’
Alan reflected for a moment. Best not to give too much away at this stage.
‘Yes, Richard, I think I do. But those pictures are crucial. It all depends on them.’
* * *
Alan put the phone down and looked out of the window. It was only mid-August and already the nights were drawing in. Across the open fields he could see a man with a pitchfork get out of an old tractor parked alongside a reed-filled dyke. Then he climbed into the dyke, reaching into the back pocket of his overalls. Alan knew what was coming next, as he’d helped his dad do the same thing hundreds of times when he was a lad. As he expected the flames soon appeared, fanned by a light evening breeze, licking along the sides of a dyke as the dead reeds and rushes caught fire. When he was young they’d done it in daylight, but nowadays people complained and the busybodies at DEFRA didn’t approve. So it was yet another thing that was best done at night. He was about to step into his wellies and have a few friendly words with the farmer, when the phone rang. It was Richard Lane, again.
‘Glad I’ve caught you Alan...’
Alan mumbled something suitable,
‘I couldn’t help thinking about that newspaper story...’
‘Oh yes?’
Suddenly Alan felt his spirits lifting. Richard was now sounding more like his old friend from Saltaire days.
You did say the young man was being sent to Blackfen didn’t you?’
‘Yes, that’s right. It’s not far from here...’
‘Yes, I thought so. Well it just occurred to me...’
There was a short pause. Alan couldn’t bear the tension:
‘Go on.’
‘You don’t happen to know Norman Grant, do you?’
Alan was about to deny any knowledge of the man; but then a thought struck him:
‘…Yes, the name sort of sounds familiar… I think I may have met him at a Department reunion in Leicester. Why? Should I know him?’
‘Yes, he told me he’d met you at a university reception a few years ago. He was a neighbour of ours and good friend for many years. Then recently he moved over your way. The thing is, he read archaeology too, but about ten years before you, then he got a job in the Home Office…’
‘That’s unusual...’
‘I mention it,’ Lane continued, ‘because he’s long known I’m also interested in archaeology. Anyhow, last week he’d been over at Gartree for a meeting, and called in here for a quick chat on his way home. He told me he’ll be coming to the two lectures you’re giving in Peterborough Museum next month. He said he’d like to meet you again.’
Alan felt uneasy at this.
‘The talks, I hope they won’t be too general for him. They’re aimed at amateurs, you know, not archaeology graduates.’
‘I wouldn’t worry. He’s been in the Prison Service for twenty-five years and he confessed his archaeology is now pretty rusty…’
‘That’s a relief. Both talks were organised by a professional fund-raiser. She’s even made us a list of local worthies and potential donors – I mean ‘partners’. One for each talk.’
‘Is ‘partners’ another name for the local rich-list?’ Lane asked.
‘Yes. Got it in one.’
Alan didn’t like to admit that he hadn’t yet looked at the list of attendees for either lecture. They paused for a moment. Then Lane asked:
‘When’s the lecture?’
Alan put the phone down and rummaged through the heap of books and papers on the kitchen table. He found his diary.
‘A couple of days after the Bank Holiday. September 3rd.’
‘And how are ticket sales going?’
All Alan knew was that the fund-raiser had phoned to say they’d sold-out.
‘They both look like being sell-outs, which is good.’
Lane sounded genuinely pleased.
‘Oh that’s excellent’ Then, almost as an afterthought he added. ‘Well do give my best to Norman when you see him. He’s just found a house near Westrea – that’s not far from you, is it?’
Suddenly Alan made the obvious connection with the Home Office. There was only one prison anywhere near Westrea. It seemed superfluous to ask:
‘Is he something to do with Blackfen?’
‘Sorry, didn’t I mention it? Yes, he’s the new Governor. He’s been in post a few months now.’
Alan felt like a thousand volts had been fired up his spine.
‘So this Mr Grant is keen to see me?’
‘For what it’s worth,’ Lane continued, ‘he’s still dead keen on archaeology and a bit of a fan of your work in the Fens – though I probably shouldn’t have said that. He and I go back a long time. He was a good friend of my brother David when we were kids in Melton…’ Alan could sense he was about to start talking about his childhood, but he changed his mind. ‘Anyhow, once you’ve seen those pictures I could have a word with him about your man Ali. See what he knows.’
‘Oh thanks Richard, that would be great.’
‘OK I’ll see what I can do about those images. But there’s a limit to what I can email you. Security won’t be too impressed. I think we need to have a proper talk. You going to be in Leicester, any time soon?’
‘Whenever – the sooner the better. My current dig ends next week and then my time’s my own. To be honest, I’ll have nothing better to do, and this Ali business is beginning to bug me.’
‘I can see that. But why?’
Lane thought he could surprise Alan into revealing his sudden interest in the case, but Alan wasn’t fooled. He was smiling when he replied:
‘I’ll explain that, Richard, when I see those pictures. And not before. When can you get hold of them?’
‘I can down-load them tonight, but I’d rather not trust them to email. Better if I showed them to you here. I’m on duty tomorrow, so why not come over Sunday afternoon? I know Mary would love to see you again, and it’s been ages since we’ve had a good talk.’
Well, Alan thought as he replaced the phone in its charger, that could have gone worse. A lot worse.