A quaintly rural town — little more than a wide main street flanked by stone cottages and sagging two-storey buildings — Kilbeg was a hive of activity. Situated twelve miles from Kilkenny, it was home to a peaceful, contented community, most of whom still preferred to listen to local radio than tune into the Godless outpourings from commercial stations. Today they went about their business with increasing curiosity about the influx of police and media to the town.
The grapevine had been busy, and the consensus held that whatever had happened in Drohola Wood had its origins way beyond the boundaries of their town. Amid the invasion of cars and trucks, a dusty black Mercedes drew little attention as it drove slowly along the main street and parked outside the only hotel. A moment later, the driver emerged, opened the back door and retrieved an overnight bag, which he hitched over his shoulder as he mounted the steps and entered the Kilbeg Arms to meet with Sgt. Peter Conlon from Thomastown Garda Station.
“Matt!” The waiting Sergeant greeted him with a smile, extending a hand in welcome as he approached the reception desk. He wore the full navy uniform of the Force, with his peaked hat tucked under his arm. “It’s been a while. How are you?”
“Pullin’ the divil like everyone else,” Matt returned with a smile and a vigorous handshake, dropping the leather valise to the ground beside him. “It’s good to see you. I appreciate you taking the time to meet me.”
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see how the last Casanova is holding up after all these years,” he said jokily. “You broke a few hearts down here, you know.”
“Not intentionally,” Matt returned. “I was young and innocent back then.”
“Young, maybe. Innocent, never!” Pete countered. “What’s your involvement here?” His eyes narrowed and a frown of curiosity gathered.
“My client, a Dublin solicitor, represents the estate owners,” he explained. “They’re worried about possible legal implications surrounding the discovery. That’s the official line. Truthfully, I know nothing more than what the news bulletins are giving out. Can you fill me in?”
The Sergeant considered the man before him: an ex-Garda detective, former work colleague and friend, but there was a policy of silence, as always, in developing cases. “You know the drill as well as I do, Matt,” he told him.
“Yes, I do,” Matt replied with a smile, “and I also know you’ll be sharing the best bits over a dram with your favourite innkeeper tonight. So come on, Pete, give.”
Glancing warily around him, the Sergeant moved closer and lowered his voice. “There’s not much to add to the official reports,” he said. “This Butler kid went missing yesterday evening. A couple of his friends had been with him in the late afternoon after school, but when they left to go home, young Butler decided he wanted to stay. He does it often, but when he didn’t turn up by eight o’clock his grandmother got worried and called us. We spoke to the gamekeeper — an old gent called Fowler — who told us that the last he’d seen of the boy was when he shouted to him and he took off into a section of the woods that’s a private part of the estate. He decided to leave him to find his way out rather than go after him, because he knew the lad was already frightened and he had little hope of catching him. We gathered a search party and went looking.
“Honestly, Matt,” he went on, “without lights in there you wouldn’t be able to see a hand in front of your face. We didn’t locate him until after ten and it was by pure chance. It looked like he’d tripped and fallen into a hole. He was out for the count and when we lifted him, we spotted bones. It turned out to be a sunken grave. An ambulance took him to hospital to be checked out. Other than a few scratches and bruises, he seems to be alright, but they’re keeping him under observation for a few days.”
“Any idea how old the grave is?” Matt asked.
“Forensics think somewhere around twelve to fifteen years, but it’s an early estimate. They’re still in there gathering evidence.”
“Male or female?”
“Female — young, somewhere between eighteen and thirty.”
Matt shook his head in sadness and sighed. “Any missing persons on your books that might fit?”
“Sorry, that’s as much as I can tell you,” the Sergeant said firmly.
“Thanks, Pete,” he replied acceptingly. “I owe you one.