Read Malice in the Cotswolds Online

Authors: Rebecca Tope

Malice in the Cotswolds (11 page)

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
13.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Still Thea said nothing, her throat tight with shock at the attack. Shamefully she took refuge in her dog, who had come enquiringly up to her. She bent down and fondled the long ears, which were sprinkled with grass seeds. ‘You’re wrong,’ she managed to choke out. ‘There’s nothing at all between me and Drew.’

‘So why are you here?’ Maggs flashed back, repeating her earlier question. Thea had noticed the young woman’s involuntary softening as she noticed
the dog, and instinctively increased her attentions to the ears. If anybody could defuse a hostile situation, it was Hepzibah.

But there was no convincingly ingenuous reply to be made to Maggs’s question. ‘I told you – he asked me to check it was all right. And I knew Greta,’ she reiterated weakly.

‘Oh. Right. Best friends, I suppose.’

They were going round in a circle, hostility sparking off Maggs in an incontinence that Thea had only seen in children. It was debilitatingly alarming.

‘Listen,’ she managed. ‘Just listen. You’re completely wrong. I don’t understand your problem.’

‘You would if you saw how Karen is,’ Maggs said bitterly.

‘I heard you just now, talking about her,’ Thea said bravely. ‘It sounds dreadful.’

The husband took his chance. ‘Maggs is upset,’ he said quickly. ‘She’s been with Drew and his family since Steph was a baby. It’s the only job she’s ever had.’

‘Don’t! Don’t
defend
me. I don’t need that. Let me speak for myself.’

He sighed gently and put a hand on her shoulder. He was some years older than her, Thea noticed, with a fatherly air about him. She struggled to remember the admiring things Drew had said about Maggs – that she was wise and funny and fearless, that he could never have kept the business afloat without her and the children relied on her like a second mother.

‘I’m sorry you’ve got such a poor idea about me,’ she said. ‘I really don’t think I deserve it.’

Maggs shook her husband’s hand away. ‘You don’t understand how Drew sees you. His home life is such torture at the moment, he’s bound to be tempted by an escape to somebody like you – somebody who doesn’t know Karen, who’s pretty and bright and amusing.
Plus
,’ her eyes glittered furiously, ‘you’ve offered him the one thing he finds totally irresistible.’

Thea interrupted, assuming she knew what was coming. ‘You’re wrong there – I’m not in any distress, and haven’t been at any stage since I met him. It was
him
, actually, who needed somebody to speak up for him.’

‘I wasn’t going to say that. What you might not realise is that Drew Slocombe has always fancied himself as an amateur detective. He loves mysteries and complicated motives, and ferreting out people’s secrets. And you, bloody Thea Osborne, seem to be perpetually at the heart of the very thing he most enjoys.’

The glimpse of humour, the girlish exasperation, and the unmistakable desire to squat down and make a fuss of the spaniel all gave Thea some encouragement. ‘I see,’ she said calmly. ‘I mean – I do see how it must look. But why can’t he have a bit of distraction, if that’s what he wants? I’m in no doubt that he’s a brilliant husband and father, before anything else. You really don’t have to protect him from me, I promise you.’

Maggs continued to scowl, but her husband, who belatedly introduced himself as Den Cooper, cleverly took the lead in petting the dog and eventually she relaxed enough to follow suit. Hepzie played up to their attentions, to the point of rolling over and displaying her vulnerable pink belly. Sensing that this was the closest they would get to a rapprochement, Den wordlessly encouraged Thea to go.

She found herself ploughing stiffly through the long grass which had turned from a natural glory into an annoying impediment in the space of half an hour. She was angry by the time she reached the car – with herself, with Drew and with Hepzie who panted with goofy joy on the back seat, with no inkling of her mistress’s state of mind.

She found the straight route back, without even thinking about it. Inwardly she reran Maggs’s accusations a thousand times, increasing her own emotional reactions in the process. Although she was pleased at the way she’d defended herself, rather than spinelessly agreeing to all the charges against her, that didn’t ameliorate the feelings of victimisation. She had been attacked as severely as if Maggs had taken a cudgel to her. There had been no civilised half measures, no polite concealments within velvet tones. The girl had laid into her without restraint. The man beside her had been unable to prevent her from having her say, and had done very little to dilute the aggression. Maggs
hated
her, before she had even met
her, and saw no reason why her feelings should remain hidden. If the encounter had ended on a slightly easier note, that did little to soften the genuine feelings that had been exposed.

Maggs’s plain purpose had been to ensure that Thea and Drew had nothing more to do with each other. Maggs saw Thea as a threat, not only to Drew and Karen, it seemed, but to the children and probably herself as well. Even in her shaken self-pity, Thea could dimly see that there was a logic to this. Obviously she was ‘the other woman’ in Maggs’s eyes, poised to snatch Drew up the moment his wife abandoned her struggle. There was a small kernel of truth to this, of course. That was the problem.

Maggs might lay claim to a number of justifications for her behaviour. She was desperately upset about Karen’s condition, frightened that it would be decided to switch off the supporting machinery and let her die. From what she had gathered, Karen was a nice person, a good mother, a faultless wife. Her loss would be a major tragedy for all who knew her. All that was transparent and unarguable. But for Maggs, still young and prone to uncompromising judgements, it was unbearable, mainly because of the effect on Drew. Maggs loved Drew, even while she was cheerfully married to Den and utterly loyal to Karen. And Drew, needless to say, loved Maggs.

Which left little or no space for Thea Osborne.

* * *

Hyacinth House looked untidy and self-conscious with its swathes of police tape around the gateway. Thank goodness, Thea thought, there was no reason for them to actually go into the garden with their fingertip searches. The verge outside was already much too close. The reverberations from the day before were loud and intrusive – the limp body of the child, the ravaged features of his mother, still all too vivid to Thea’s mind.

She parked further away than before, and attached the lead to the dog’s collar. Experience had taught her that Hepzie could stick her nose in just a little too efficiently at times, and find things that might be best left undiscovered.

She hadn’t intended to come back so soon – it was still not midday – but after the verbal assault from Maggs, all she wanted was to crawl into a quiet corner and lick her wounds. She was having a very nasty time, she thought miserably. Everything was out to get her, nobody liked her, she had nothing to do for the next twelve days and she had not developed any sort of affection for the house. Even Blake-next-door, who would have been better than nothing, had gone off. Everything was actually
his
fault, she thought unreasonably. If he hadn’t been going away this week, he could have watched over Vonny’s house and there’d have been no need for a sitter.

On a Monday, it seemed, very few people had time or inclination to loiter outside, despite – or maybe
because of – the fact of a brutal murder in their midst. One or two neighbours had come to stare at Hyacinth House for an hour or so the previous afternoon, before dispersing, presumably to discuss the few facts they had managed to glean in hushed and fearful tones, and then getting on with their lives. Thea had watched the police keeping them at a distance, and wondered how many had actually managed to identify the dead body before it was covered up with one of the white police tents that reminded her of medieval warfare, for some reason. Whatever the locals believed about Gudrun and her son, Thea was never going to learn about it. They were not going to tell her, even if she found the courage to go and sit with some of them in the Snowshill Arms.

She made herself a mug of strong coffee and nibbled at the sandwich she had prepared earlier, only to find swallowing difficult. She was so churned up by the encounter in Broad Campden that her throat had ceased to function. It felt as if her whole upper body was full of slowly congealing cement, as the psychic wounds quietly bled. Normally she would have found ways of recovering her balance quite quickly, finding arguments in her own defence, devising small revenges for the harm done to her. This time, there was nothing of any consolation. Maggs was right in all essential points, and she, Thea, should sever every link with Drew. She had nothing to offer him but complications and divided loyalties. His business must be in
difficulties already, if he was spending most of his time at Karen’s bedside. His children must be terrified at the uncertainties surrounding them. He was such a nice man, so well intentioned and good-humoured, it wasn’t fair to do anything to make his life even harder. Maggs was right. Hadn’t he once told her that Maggs was
always
right?

She could perhaps send him a warning text –
Seen Maggs at grave. Realised I’m superfluous
. Something like that would surely be permissible. But then she heard the self-pitying appeal to him for reassurances, and scrapped the idea. There was nothing she could do that wouldn’t make her even more guilty as charged by Maggs. She wanted to talk to Drew, that was the truth of it. Not only about Broad Campden and Karen and Maggs, but about the events in Snowshill and her role in them. Again, Maggs had been right. Thea knew only too well that she had the power to engage Drew’s attention, merely by uttering the word ‘murder’. And knowing that meant she couldn’t do it. And that made her very unhappy.

She wandered out into the garden, only to see someone standing at the front gate. Identification took a few moments and then came as a surprise. ‘Hello – Ruby, isn’t it? Are you all right?’

It was a pertinent question. The graceful teenager had transformed into a tense pale figure with large eyes and hunched shoulders. She seemed ten years older than the day before.

‘It was Stevie, wasn’t it? Somebody killed Stevie.’

It seemed churlish to the point of cruelty to pretend ignorance. ‘I’m afraid so,’ Thea nodded. ‘Yesterday afternoon.’

‘The police came. They asked us where we were, how well we know Gudrun – whether we saw anything. But they wouldn’t tell us what had happened. Just fobbed us off, like little children. Mum was furious.’

‘It’s a terrible thing to happen.’

‘It’s a terrible thing somebody
did
,’ the girl corrected. ‘It didn’t just
happen.
He wasn’t run over, was he? It wasn’t an
accident
.’

‘No,’ Thea acknowledged. ‘It seems not.’ She was acutely aware of the events of the previous day, the anger directed against the boy, the exasperation at his behaviour that mother and daughter had manifested. She had a feeling that Ruby was thinking exactly the same thing.

‘Everybody knew we were his main victims. It was always
our
garden he ran wild in,
our
fences he broke,
our
cat he tormented. They’ll be thinking horrible things about us.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Thea instinctively. ‘Everyone knows the difference between finding someone a nuisance and … well …’

‘Killing them,’ finished the girl flatly.

‘Right.’

‘They asked us a lot about Gudrun,’ Ruby repeated
with a tentative little frown. She obviously wanted to say a lot more, but couldn’t find the words.

‘They need to get a full picture,’ Thea explained, conscious of a desire to avert the oncoming hypotheses or accusations. ‘Family background – that sort of thing.’

‘What family? She’s like us – Mum and me. Just the two of them.’

‘Mm …?’ was all Thea permitted herself by way of encouragement.

‘Absent fathers. I mean – nobody has any idea who Stevie’s father is … was. Same as me. Anonymous donor, is all Mum tells me when I ask her.’

Thea had wondered from time to time how that would feel; how a deliberately fatherless child would react when it got old enough to demand information. Did the mystery leave a gaping hole that could never be filled, or was it readily pushed into a file marked
irrelevant
? Both, probably, she’d concluded, depending on the character of the person concerned.

‘And me, in a way,’ she offered. ‘I mean – my daughter and I were left on our own as well, when my husband was killed.’

‘That’s not the same, is it?’ said Ruby, with a flicker of sarcasm. ‘Stevie and I – we never knew anything at all about our fathers.’

Stevie and I
hung in the air as a phrase resonating with unintended significance, until Thea felt her phone buzzing in her pocket and made her apologies. ‘Come
 over any time, if you’d like to talk,’ she said rashly.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the girl. ‘You’ve told me all I needed to know.’

 

The phone had been alerting her to a text message, and she had been immediately convinced that it must be from Drew. But she was wrong.

Thnx for msg. Feeling a bit better now. Starting to get angry. Hope that’s a good sign. Love Jess. xxx

Well, that was something, Thea supposed. Her daughter was bouncing back from her broken heart, and in the process setting her mother a good example. No use in stewing over past mistakes, or yearning for what you couldn’t have. If anger helped the process, then it definitely was a good thing and perhaps she could shelve any worry about Jess for the time being.

She could not stop thinking about the murdered boy. He had been out of control, destructive, perhaps even sadistic, but for all anybody knew, he could well have turned out to be a model character – a valiant soldier, an efficient butcher, a conscientious gamekeeper. There were plenty of roles in society that called for steady nerves and an ability to be cruel where necessary. However outrageous his behaviour, it was impossible to fully believe that that could have given anyone cause to actually kill him.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
13.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Alternities by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Hotblooded by Erin Nicholas
Lies and Prophecy by Marie Brennan
The Thai Amulet by Lyn Hamilton
Heirs of Grace by Pratt, Tim
Whispers by Dean Koontz