Stephen Booth

Dying to Sin



The mud was everywhere at Pity Wood Farm. It lay in deep troughs under the walls of the house, it surged in wet tides where the cattle had poached the ground into a soup. And it was all over Jamie Ward’s boots, sticky and red, like blobs of damson jam. His steel toe-caps were coated with the stuff, and smears of it had splashed halfway up his denims — long, fat splatters, as if he’d been wading in blood.

Crouching in a corner of the yard, Jamie stared down at the mess and wondered when he’d get a chance to wipe it off. He couldn’t remember if he had a clean pair of jeans back at his parents’ house in Edendale, whether his mother had done his washing this week, or if he’d thrown his dirty clothes behind the bed again, where she wouldn’t find them. She’d been complaining for the past month about the amount of dirt he brought into the house, the number of times she had to clean the filter on the washing machine. He wondered what she’d say about this latest disaster when he got in.

And, as he heard the first police sirens wailing up the valley, it occurred to Jamie to wonder whether he’d actually be going home tonight at all.

Damn it, boy. Why didn’t you just cover it up again? It would have been for the best all round.’

Jamie shook his head. You couldn’t just do that, could you? No matter what anyone else said, it wasn’t right, and that was that. He’d done the only thing he possibly could, in the circumstances. He’d done the right thing, so there was nothing to regret.

Throw some dirt on it and forget it. There’s no need for all this.’

He felt bad about it, all the same. It was bad for Nikolai and the other blokes. This was a nightmare they didn’t want, and some of them couldn’t afford. Just before Christmas, too, when they needed the money more than ever, he supposed. He was going to be popular, all right.

Jamie felt his muscles beginning to stiffen. The longer he stayed in one spot, the more he felt as though his boots were sinking into the ground. If he stayed here long enough, perhaps the blood-tinted earth would slowly close in and swallow him. His own weight would bury him.

Of course, he knew the mud only looked red because the soil here was clay when you got a few inches down. It was so unusual for this part of Derbyshire that he’d noticed it as soon as he started digging. Clay and mud, tons of crushed brick and corroded iron. It had been a nightmare of a job, almost impossible for his spade to deal with. Jamie’s rational mind told him that the colour was only because of the clay. And if the stuff on his boots looked too red, too dark, too wet … well, that was just his imagination, wasn’t it?

Jamie Ward thought he had plenty of common sense. He was educated, after all — not like most of the other lads on the crew. He would never be a victim of superstition and ignorance. He wasn’t even particularly religious — he didn’t cross himself when they passed a church, or hang a statue of the Virgin Mary over the dashboard of the van, the way Nikolai did.

But this mud was so sticky, and so smelly. It stank as though it had been rotting for centuries. Now, when Jamie finally straightened up, he saw a thick gob slide from his boot on to the ground. It formed a sort of oozing coil, like the dropping of some slimy creature that had been living on the old farm, left to itself when the owners moved out and the cattle disappeared. He pictured something that only came out at night to feed on carrion, scavenging among the ruins of pigsties before slinking back into a dark, damp corner between those abandoned silage bags.

Damned fool. Kretyn.’

He remembered the way Nikolai’s fist had gripped his jacket, the feel of the older man’s face pushed against his, rain glistening in his thick eyebrows and on his moustache. Jamie couldn’t believe how angry Nikolai had been, not over something like this. The foreman had tolerated his bungling and his ignorance of the building trade with raucous good humour — until now. Yet suddenly this morning he’d been a different man, a wild thing, dangerously on the verge of violence. And all over a muddy hole.

Jamie swallowed a spurt of bile that hit the back of his throat. He’d been trailing backwards and forwards over this same patch of earth for days now. Shifting stacks of breeze block for the brickies, unloading bags of sand from the lorry, stopping for a quick fag behind the wall. Damn it, his boot prints were all over the place. Anyone who cared to look would see the pattern of his rubber soles, pressed deep in the mud. His eyes followed the criss- crossing trails he’d left, curving in long arcs that stretched twenty yards or more. His tracks were so numerous and extensive that they were probably visible from space like the Great Wall of China, place-marked on Google Earth. They were so distinct that they might as well be the swirls of his fingerprints. Jamie Ward’s signature on the job, perfectly clear and complete.

Soon, people would be talking about him and pointing at him. Before much longer, he’d be answering questions, endless questions, re-living over and over the moment he was trying to forget. He’d seen the TV cop shows, and he knew they never let you alone once they had you in one of their little interview rooms.

He could hear two sirens now, their yelp and wail teasing playfully against each other, fading and getting louder as the cars took one of the bends in Rakedale, dipping behind stone walls and clumps of trees until they reached the top of the hill and turned into the farm.

Jamie thought back to the morning he’d got out of the van, stretched his legs and stepped on to Pity Wood Farm for the first time. It was strange to think there had been grass growing here when the crew arrived on site. Now the whole gateway was churned up, and the soil either side was bare and exposed. In one corner, a wheel rut from a reversing truck had sliced through his boot prints.

He didn’t remember noticing anything unusual that first time. Well, maybe there had been a slight difference in the level of the ground just here, a low bump that was only noticeable if you happened to be pushing a wheelbarrow load of sand over it. And perhaps the grass had been a bit greener, too — only a tiny bit, if you looked closely. Perhaps the blades had gleamed with faintly unnatural health in the winter sunlight. He wouldn’t have looked twice at the time, and he’d never made anything of it. No one would have done.

But then Nikolai had asked him to start digging a trench for the footings of a new wall. Jamie had dug barely more than a few inches into the ground before the soil changed colour. It had taken him a while to get even that far down, though. There were so many stones to be prised free with the spade and lifted out, not to mention lumps of concrete and long splinters of rusted metal. Without his gloves, his fingers would have been raw by now.

After half an hour, he’d been starting to think that Nik had given him the job as a punishment for something, or just because he was the youngest on the crew and a student at that, the one they called ‘The Professor’. Or maybe it was on account of the fact that he didn’t understand what they were going on about when the blokes started joking around on site, and they were taking advantage of him. Probably there wasn’t going to be a wall here at all. Nobody had ever shown him the plans for the new development, so he couldn’t be sure. But during the last few days Jamie had made his own plans. He reckoned that if he’d bought the farm himself, he’d have kept the old dry-stone wall and turned this bit of ground into a nice patio. All it needed was a few yards of paving, not a fancy brick boundary wall that needed some idiot to dig a trench for twelve-inch footings.

Damn that trench. Just the thought of its moist, slippery sides made Jamie feel like throwing up. If it weren’t for all the other blokes standing around gabbling to each other in Polish, he’d have lost his breakfast ages ago.

Even in his distracted state, Jamie noticed that one or two of the labourers were looking a bit nervous as the police sirens got nearer. No papers, he supposed. Illegal workers. Well, it wasn’t his business, and he bet the cops wouldn’t care either, not today.

Nevertheless, Jamie automatically counted up the men. Nine, all present, but standing behind Nikolai for safety.

And all of the crew were looking in the same direction now — at the cluster of objects Jamie had accidentally uncovered with his spade. There wasn’t much to look at, not really. A strip of plastic sheeting and a scrap of rotted

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