Read Malice in the Cotswolds Online
Authors: Rebecca Tope
Nothing felt any better after Gladwin had gone. The forces of cruelty and ignorance and prejudice and salaciousness were going to be very hard to resist in the coming days, she suspected. Something was still simmering out there, waiting to turn the screw a bit tighter. Since Saturday morning, almost nothing pleasant had happened. Even the reputedly generous Blake had been insolent and patronising. Clara Beauchamp had also carried an air of superiority in her local knowledge and refusal to offer any enlightenment about any of it. Stevie had been a little beast and his mother defiant.
Then Jessica had splurged her troubles and Drew had made a demand that she had, so far that day, forgotten almost completely.
She could perhaps go over to Broad Campden and
do Drew’s bidding. It would be nice to have a reason to speak to him again, when she gave her report of the state of his field there, containing one solitary grave. She had no obligation to play detective and start questioning villagers about Stevie Horsfall. She could leave all that to Gladwin and her team. It was definitely none of her business, as virtually everybody she knew would tell her.
Except possibly Drew Slocombe, who understood the uncomfortable mixture of curiosity and outrage that all too often led to undue interference with police business whenever an innocent victim demanded retribution.
Opening her trusty Explorer map, she was startled to discover that Broad Campden was effectively within walking distance of Snowshill. Four or five miles, connected by a road in a virtually straight line, once clear of Snowshill. She wouldn’t walk it, of course. The round trip would be beyond her comfort zone especially along small roads with nowhere safe for pedestrians. But it confirmed her sense of the whole Cotswolds region as deceptively small. The villages – hundreds of them – were densely packed into an area measuring roughly thirty miles square. And yet the distinctiveness of every single settlement was undeniable. No two were the same, even where their names suggested otherwise. Upper and Lower Slaughter were quite different from each other, as were Bourton-on-the-Hill and Bourton-on-the-Water.
The land twisted and heaved in giddy directions, with huge extended vistas one moment, and tiny hidden dells the next. Snowshill was a prime example of that. The lowest point, just south of the church, was shaded by trees, the road leading mysteriously out of the village, only to bring you within seconds to a sweeping upland expanse of cornfields and views to Broadway and beyond.
She made herself a sandwich, filled a plastic bottle with tap water, and gave the dog the good news that they were going out.
Only then did it occur to her that she might not be allowed to use her car; that it might comprise part of the forensic examination that was plainly set to last for a long time yet. She thought about it for a moment, and then went to speak to one of the robotic officers meticulously collecting invisible flecks from the ground outside Yvonne Parker’s fence.
‘Is it all right if I take my car?’ she asked.
He stood up and stared at her with dark eyes. The mask over his nose and mouth gave him a medical aura, and she half expected to see a scalpel in his gloved hand. ‘I have no idea,’ he said in a muffled voice. ‘Jimmy – can the lady use her car?’ he called to a colleague.
‘What – the Fiesta? ’Spose so. The kid wasn’t in it, was he? Nobody’s said.’
wasn’t in it,’ Thea asserted with some force. ‘He was
it, that’s all.’
‘Might have prints on it, though,’ mused Jimmy. ‘Let’s have a quick look.’ He walked the few yards to where Thea had pulled her car onto the roadside grass outside Blake’s fence. He produced a gadget that she couldn’t properly see and ran it expertly over the car’s paintwork. How, she wondered, could any criminal ever hope to get away with anything these days? There were technologies for everything now, where invisible specks of blood, sweat, hair, and skin could be detected and identified and used as evidence against you. In theory, at least, every move a person made could be traced, which should, of course, have made crime obsolete. The reality was quite astonishingly different. All the technologies cost large sums of money, the operatives were fallible and let their own flakes of skin contaminate the samples. The criminals could still outwit the forces of the law if they managed to conceal the crime in the first place, or to frame somebody else by judicious sprinkling of their DNA at the scene.
And Gudrun’s DNA would be there in abundance, because she had huddled on the grass with the body of her child. She had very probably touched the car, as well. Surely the search was already hopelessly compromised.
‘Go on, then,’ said Jimmy, after a minute or two. ‘This isn’t going to be any help to us.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, carefully unlocking the car and putting the spaniel onto the back seat. ‘Stay there,
Heps,’ she ordered. ‘Not long before you can have a nice run.’
She had to think about the first stage of the route, emerging onto a road she wasn’t sure about. Snowshill was bordered by a grid of small single-track roads, and it was all too easy to start charging off in quite the wrong direction. But turning left would only take her back to the upper level of the village, so she went to the right. Then left, at the sign for the place that grew and sold lavender, then right at a small insignificant crossroad. ‘No, wait!’ she told herself aloud. ‘This isn’t right. This goes to the place where the A44 meets the A424.’ She rummaged in her bag for the map, which she had sensibly left folded to the right sheet. ‘Yes, darn it. But there’s nowhere to turn round.’ Besides, it was a pretty route, with ripening corn on either side, and she could remedy the mistake quite easily when she reached the main road.
And so she turned left again onto the A44, and right onto the B4081, and everything was well after all. She smiled at the thought of a satellite tracking her journey, wondering at the zigzags she had performed when there was a perfectly straight route from A to B.
Let them wonder
, she thought defiantly.
It’s none of their business
. Sometimes she acknowledged that she might be growing very slightly paranoid about the age of surveillance she was living in.
Broad Campden was almost startlingly familiar as she approached from the north-west, passing a house
in which she had spent a dramatic evening, as well as one she had called home for two weeks or so. The flamboyant yew hedge with its topiary, the odd little church, the pub that refused entry to dogs – nothing had changed. She took the road towards Blockley, and there was Drew’s field, still innocuously anonymous, apart from the laminated council notice pinned to a tree by the gate, in which Drew’s intention to establish a green burial ground was announced in such language as to make the idea unremarkable. Whatever the planning department might think of the suggestion, they would prefer not to attract much interest. When the public got wind of any new project, they were liable to cause trouble. Much better to just discuss it amongst themselves and let it through on a nod, if possible.
The road helpfully widened at just the right spot for parking, not far from the gate. When they had buried Mrs Simmonds, four or five vehicles had managed to squeeze themselves in, without obstructing passing traffic. In fact, it appeared that a de facto parking area was already forming itself, the grass flattened and sick-looking, the hedge somehow yielding ground.
She let the dog out and together they went into the field. Conscientiously, she closed the slightly rickety gate behind her.
The most obvious change since March was the length of the grass. Clearly unmown, it stood knee-high, dotted with buttercups and a few purple
thistles, but mostly a delicious variety of feathery seed heads. Butterflies flickered in the sunshine, and Hepzie went yapping off after what was probably a rabbit.
She stood in rapture at the scene. It was a small area, with trees on two sides, sloping very gently upwards to its southern edge. The sun had emerged after a cloudy start, bathing the whole field in a light that turned golden as it fell on the ripened grass. She knew little more than the rudiments of agriculture – that grass was cut for hay, in early summer, or kept as grazing for animals. Either way, you seldom encountered whole acreages of gone-to-seed grass heads like this. She plucked a few and arranged them in her hand, three distinct sorts, with a faint idea of laying them on Greta’s grave.
The grave itself had no grass growing on it, suggesting that somebody had been to keep it clear. There were relatives, as well as local friends, who evidently missed Greta enough to render her remains this small service.
What a wonderful place to lie
Thea thought, almost enviously. How much nicer than a churchyard with its obsessive tidiness and constant irrelevant visitors walking past without knowing or caring who you were. How clever and wise and brave of Drew Slocombe to find a way of making this possible for people, and how foolish of the majority that they did not avail themselves of his talents.
She tried to remember just what it was he wanted her to do. She could find the message again on her phone,
but the peace and ancient beauty of her surroundings made her reluctant to introduce modern electronics into it. The phone was in her pocket, but she chose to leave it there. All he wanted was that she come and have a look, as far as she could recall. Graves could be vandalised, with terrible consequences. There could be cattle in the field, having broken through a fence, trampling the tidy mound of earth, which had still not quite settled after four months and a bit.
And he could perhaps really have wanted just to make contact with her, using the grave as an excuse. Or, more worthily, he might have wished to remind her of Greta, who had been a very nice person and deserved to be remembered for a while longer.
Having spent many minutes simply soaking in the atmosphere, she heard a car approach, more slowly than was normal for the relatively straight road. It then unmistakably stopped, close to hers, thirty or forty yards away, beyond the thick screening hedge. Was somebody else coming to visit Greta? Her immediate involuntary leap of guilt surprised her. She had every reason to be here, after all, even without her connection to Drew. It was more a feeling that any human presence was an intrusion, that the grave was in fact best left alone, as Greta herself would have wanted. She had severed most of her intimate ties with the living, before she died. If they persisted in tending her grave, then she might well have maintained that they were doing it for their
own peace of mind, and not from any concern for her.
Two people were talking, at the gate, and would see Thea at any moment, even if she didn’t stand up. The long grass went a long way towards concealing her, but still her head and shoulders were in plain view. And her dog was around somewhere, all too liable to run and greet the newcomers by scrabbling at their legs.
But the couple were so caught up in conversation that they paused before opening the gate. In the still summer air, Thea could hear almost every word.
‘It isn’t going to come to that – of course it isn’t. I don’t know how you can even think it.’
‘Sorry, love, but I think we’ve got to. It’s been eight weeks now, with no change.’
‘But she’s still there, inside. You can tell by the way her eyes flicker when you talk to her. What are you suggesting we do?’
‘It won’t be up to us, will it? There isn’t a
here, Maggs, however much you might feel part of the family.’
Thea’s heart contracted in a painful spasm. This was Maggs? Maggs, business partner of Drew, wife of an ex-policeman, very nearly part of the Slocombe family, whatever the man might be saying now. Thea’s initial guilty instinct magnified a thousandfold. She contemplated crawling, Indian-style, towards the sheltering trees, hoping the tall grass would hide her.
But it was much too late for that. She heard the gate drag open, the welcoming yap of her dog, the surprised sounds as they realised somebody was already at the grave.
Mustering what dignity she could, Thea stood up and faced them. The man was well over six feet tall, his wife much much shorter. They were a comical pair, visually, and it seemed they knew it. ‘Hello!’ called Maggs, slightly too loudly. ‘That’s your car out there, then. We did wonder.’
‘Yes,’ said Thea. ‘Hello.’ She might yet, of course, conceal her identity. She had never met either of these people before, and could easily pretend to be a niece or friend of Greta Simmonds. But the spaniel might give her away. She imagined the conversation back in Somerset, when Drew asked for a report.
We met a woman, small, with a cocker spaniel. She didn’t say who she was
. He would know immediately, and wonder at the secretiveness, and feel a shadow of the guilt that led to it. By silent mutual consent, Drew and Thea were determined to do nothing that could cause feelings of guilt. It wasn’t what they’d
that sent her emotions into freefall, she realised helplessly. There were aspects of oneself that remained stubbornly beyond control. ‘I’m Thea Osborne,’ she said, feeling as if she’d just jumped off an uncomfortably high cliff.
Maggs’s eyes widened and then narrowed in her dark face, her mouth doing much the same as astonishment was followed by something like rage.
‘What? The house-sitter who’s been trying to get your claws into Drew? Why are
‘He asked me to come and have a look at the grave. And I knew Greta.’
‘Oh yes, and you had a secret rendezvous with him in Cranham, not so long ago. Stephanie told me all about it. When his wife was so ill, you had him running after you – and taking his kids along as well.’
Retention of dignity became the prime necessity. Thea said nothing, but caught the eye of her accuser’s tall husband, and thought she saw the promise of rescue in it. ‘Maggs,’ he said gently. ‘Go easy, now.’
‘No!’ she spat. ‘It needs saying. She’s taking advantage. You know Drew’s always been a soft touch for a woman in distress. There was that Genevieve, years ago. I saw the way he looked then, and now it’s happening again.’ She was addressing her husband more than Thea, despite fixing her angry black eyes on Thea’s face throughout. ‘And it’s not right,’ she finished.