Authors: Jim Kelly
The Skeleton Man
Praise for Jim Kelly
‘Kelly is fast gaining a reputation for his literate, atmospheric
‘A significant new talent’
‘A rare combination of poetic writing and a gripping plot’
‘The sense of place is terrific: the fens really brood. Dryden,
the central character, is satisfyingly complicated… a good,
‘A masterful stylist, Kelly crafts sharp, crisp sentences so pure,
so true, they qualify as modern poetry’
‘A sparkling star newly risen in the crime fiction
firmament’ Colin Dexter
‘Superb… Kelly has produced another story rich in plot and
character, with a bit of history as well’
‘A thriller debut of genuine distinction. Kelly is a name to
watch… a compelling read’
‘Beautifully written… The climax is chilling. Sometimes a
book takes up residence inside my head and just won’t leave.
The Water Clock
did just that’ Val McDermid
‘An atmospheric, intriguing mystery with a tense denouement’
‘Kelly goes from strength to strength’
‘One of the most exciting British mystery writers of
‘Excellent no-frills thriller with a real bite. 4 stars’
‘Kelly’s evocation of the bleak and watery landscapes provide
a powerful backdrop to a wonderful cast of characters’
The Good Book Guide
The Water Clock
’s praise is well deserved… highly
Jim Kelly lives in Ely with the biographer Midge Gillies and their young daughter.
The Skeleton Man
is his fifth novel, following
The Fire Baby
The Moon Tunnel
The Coldest Blood.
He has been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the CWA John Creasey Dagger for
The Water Clock
, and Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for
The Fire Baby.
In 2006 Jim Kelly was awarded the Dagger in the Library by the Crime Writers’ Association for a body of work ‘giving greatest enjoyment to crime fiction readers’.
To find out more about Jim Kelly and other Penguin crime writers, go to
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
First published by Michael Joseph 2007
Published in Penguin Books 2008
Copyright © Jim Kelly, 2007
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
In memory of
Robert J. M. Gillies
A proud son of the Rock, and a great reader of books
I owe a debt to many in the writing of
The Skeleton Man
. The village of Jude’s Ferry is a fiction but its story was inspired by that of a real-life community. I must therefore thank Rex Sawyer for his affectionate history,
Little Imber on the Down: Salisbury Plain’s Ghost
. My lost village is a patchwork of many places real and imaginary. I stole the name from the Jude’s Ferry Inn at West Row, near Mildenhall, and anyone wishing to drink in the true atmosphere of the watery fens can do no better than to stop a while at this inn on the site of a Roman port. The Five Miles from Anywhere pub I describe doesn’t exist, although the name was once popular in the Fens.
The live Peytons in my story are also fictitious, though the Peyton family tombs are real enough; they lie in the church at Isleham, near Ely, and are well worth a visit.
In my career as a provincial journalist I have on several occasions been the guest of the Territorial Army – particularly during Operation Lionheart, the largest troop exercise in Europe since D-Day. I would like to thank the TA for their welcome in the past and for providing valuable background information. All
my military characters are fictional, but their diligence and courage are real.
My thanks to Paul Horrell for lending me his expertise on cars generally over the years and particularly for offering an insight into the left-hand-drive market.
One of the most bizarrely named institutions I have ever described is the Oliver Zangwill Centre for Neuropsychological Rehabilitation in Ely, but it is most certainly real and does a wonderful job. Of course, all characters and episodes related to it here are fictional.
Dr Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge provided some jargon-free advice on DNA identification within families; Jane Kennedy, Surveyor of Fabric at Ely cathedral, delivered an invaluable primer in medieval tombs; and Roger Steward, of Anglian Water Services, took the time to show me round the magnificent Soham water tower.
As always, this book would not have appeared without the support of the team which has so far ensured the publication of five Philip Dryden mysteries. Beverley Cousins, my editor, Faith Evans, my agent, and Midge Gillies, my wife, are a triumvirate without whom I would be lost. Trevor Horwood, my copy-editor, and Jenny Burgoyne, who read the manuscript, allow us all to sleep easier at nights.
Lastly, the landscape. Anyone trying to follow the plot using an Ordnance Survey map will go mad in the attempt. I have shuffled the real world to make the most of the wonderful treasure house of Fen nomenclature, and to keep one step ahead of the libel lawyers.
It was a child’s high stool, commandeered for the execution.
I stood with my back to the wall, part of the crowd, not the mob, but even then I knew that such a line could not be drawn: a line to separate the guilty from the innocent.
Twelve of us then, and the accused on the stool, the rope tight to the neck.
Again the question. ‘Why?’ Each time marked by a blow to the naked ribs, blood welling up beneath the skin.
I could have answered, ended it then. But instead I pressed my back against the cool wall, wondering why there were no more denials, wondering why life had been given up.
The victim’s knees shook, and the legs of the stool grated on the cellar’s brick floor. Outside in the night there was a dog’s bark, heard through the trapdoor above, and twelve chimes from the church on the hill.
Then the ringleader did it, because he had the right that was in his blood. Stepping forward he swung a foot, kicking the stool away.
The body, a dead weight, fell; but not to earth. The plastic click of the neck breaking marked the extent of the rope, followed by the grinding of shattered vertebra as the body turned, its legs running on air. The moment of death stretched out, calibrated by the rattle in the throat. Urine trickled from the bare feet, yellow in the torchlight.
I fainted, standing, for a heartbeat. When I looked again the arms, bound and ugly in death, were lifeless.
It was justice, they said, licking parted lips.
Justice in Jude’s Ferry.
The Capri shook to the sound of snoring, and through the fly-spattered windscreen of the mini-cab Philip Dryden contemplated the Fen horizon. Humph, the driver, slept peacefully, his lips brought together in a small bow, his sixteen stone compressing the seat beneath him. Around them the drained wasteland that had once been Whittlesea Mere, an inland lake the size of a small English county, stretched beyond sight. Overhead a cloud the size of a battleship sailed across an unblemished sky.
The cab was parked in the cool shadow of a hawthorn, the only tree visible to the naked eye. They’d presented themselves at 9.00am precisely that morning at the checkpoint to Whittlesea Mere Military Firing Range, and been directed down a potholed drove to the assembly point: the wreck of a wartime tank, ferns hanging from the dark observation slit. They hadn’t seen another human being since they’d been waved through the gates, which had not stopped Dryden imagining they were being watched.
The reporter smoothed down his camouflage tunic and felt the familiar anxieties crowding round. This isn’t a war zone, he told himself, it’s a military exercise.
And I’m not a soldier, I’m a reporter. I’m here to write about it, not take part. But the sight of a line of soldiers marching towards them, raising a cloud of desert-red peat dust, made his heartbeat pick up. A trickle of sweat set out from the edge of his thick jet-black hair, down towards his eye. He brushed it aside, aware that another one would quickly take its place.
Dryden checked his watch: 10.15am. The time had come. He fingered the webbing inside the blue combat helmet he was holding. The neat carved features of his medieval face remained static. He got out, the Capri’s rusted door hinges screaming, and circled the cab to Humph’s open side window.
‘You can go,’ he said, waking the cabbie, watching as he struggled to remember where he was and what he was doing.
‘Really…’ said Humph, wiping his nose with a small pillowcase. ‘Can’t I stick around until they start trying to kill people?’
Dryden tried to smile. ‘Just remember. Same place, five pm. And for Christ’s sake don’t leave me here.’ Boudicca, Humph’s greyhound, dozing on a tartan rug in the back seat, yawned in the heat, trapping a bluebottle. Humph turned the ignition key, the engine coughed once and started, and he pulled away at speed, leaving an amber-red cloud as he raced towards the safety of the distant checkpoint. Dryden, alone, felt the hairs on his neck bristle.
The soldiers approached the tank and at a word
from an officer made temporary camp. They sat, feet in the ditch, and broke out water bottles while a billycan was set up on a portable gas ring. Winding chimneys of white smoke rose from cigarettes in the still, hot air. Dryden sensed their collective antagonism to the presence of the press, and watched, oddly fascinated, as one soldier dismantled and oiled an automatic rifle. Another stood, walked a few yards downwind and urinated into a ditch.
Sensing the calculated insult Dryden looked away and heard laughter at his back, then footsteps approaching. He turned to face a heavy man with a crown on his jacket. The officer made his way through the gorse, picking up his legs and arms as he walked, a self-conscious compensation perhaps for the onset of middle age. Dryden guessed he was in his late thirties, but a military uniform had never made anyone look any younger. The major’s hair was boot-polish black and shone unnaturally, but his complexion was poor, blotched as if his face had been scrubbed with a nailbrush. Cross-checking his position on a handheld GPS with a map in a plastic see-through wallet he noticed Dryden, and was unable to hide a frisson of annoyance.