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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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Gladwin turned up at half past three, and without
even asking, Thea made strong tea and found an unopened pack of flapjack in the bread box. ‘I bought it on Friday, before I came here. Seems a lifetime ago now,’ she said.

‘There’s a mystery,’ Gladwin announced portentously.

‘Um … yes, I suppose there is,’ frowned Thea.

‘No. I mean a
new
mystery. We can’t get anybody to tell us who Stevie’s father is – was … whichever. His mother just clams up and shakes her head. Not that she’s said more than twenty words to us since it happened. None of the local people will say anything either, although I’m sure they know.’

‘I get the impression they really don’t know. I was talking to Ruby across the road, earlier on, and she implied that it was the same for her and Stevie – neither of them ever knew a father.’

‘It happens, of course – but I’m not sure I’m convinced by
two
of them in one small village.’

‘Then it must be the vicar, or Gudrun’s brother, or something dreadful like that.’ The possibility of flippancy when Gladwin was around did much to improve her mood.

‘Don’t,’ begged the detective.

‘Clara Beauchamp told me he was a mistake,’ Thea offered. ‘I suppose that implies that she knows who the father was. And Ruby’s mother used an anonymous donor.’

‘We spoke to the Beauchamp woman this morning. She says she has no real idea of Stevie’s parentage.
Just heard some story about Gudrun turning back at the door of the abortion clinic, and the whole village thinking she did quite the wrong thing.’

‘Well, it’s not Blake-next-door,’ said Thea absently.

‘Why isn’t it?’

‘His hair’s too dark. The boy was almost white-blond. That couldn’t happen genetically, surely.’

Gladwin raised a hand. ‘Don’t get into genetics again. Remember Temple Guiting,’ she warned. ‘Besides, you’re not necessarily right. If Blake Grossman had a fair-haired parent, it could happen.’

‘Have you found where he is?’

‘He’s not responding to our efforts to contact him,’ said Gladwin, absently.

‘He went away for a few days. I’m not sure where. His girlfriend’s in Palestine, and he’s Jewish. Doesn’t that mean he’s unlikely to have a fair-haired parent?’

‘Not really. Some Jews are very fair. But why are we talking about him? Did he even live here ten years ago, when Stevie must have been conceived?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Who else have you met?’

‘Mark Parker.
He’s
fair. It could be him, although he’s umpteen years younger than Gudrun. She’s over fifty and he’s thirty. I imagine she could be quite magnetic if she tried. Somebody a boy could learn the basics from.’

‘More like the embellishments, I’d have said. The basics come naturally.’

‘True,’ Thea giggled. ‘There must be a hundred possible men, though. Aren’t there any clues?’

‘She twitched a bit when we asked about money.’

‘You think the father gave her some maintenance? The bank would have the details, surely?’

‘She hasn’t got a bank, just a post office account that doesn’t do electronic transfers. She lived very much like a peasant – if we’re allowed to say that. Grew her own food, wove her own blankets, mended her own fences. The house is rather nice – simple, fairly clean, like something from the 1930s.’

‘As different as possible from this place, then,’ said Thea ruefully. ‘You’ve seen the clutter.’

Gladwin nodded. ‘Are you meant to be keeping it dusted?’

‘She said I didn’t need to, but I suppose I will. There’s not much to do, after all. She’s got two cats, which pretty much sort themselves out.’

Gladwin asked the inevitable question. ‘So why pay you to be here at all?’

Thea shrugged. ‘Scared of burglars, I guess, or intruders who’d break the things. She does seem very timid. Did I tell you she just chickened out when she saw where Victor was living? Rushed off to gather her courage and tried again next day.
He
thought she was lost, when he phoned me.’

Gladwin frowned more deeply. ‘I don’t think I’m fully understanding all this. Can you start again from the beginning?’

Thea recounted everything she had gleaned from Yvonne, ending with a laugh. ‘I don’t know why we’re wasting time on her. She’s got nothing to do with anything.’

‘She has, though,’ Gladwin corrected. ‘A body was dumped outside her house. You’re her house-sitter, and you met the dead child and his mother the same day.’

‘Yes, but she was
away
.’

‘So she says. We can check road cameras for her car, maybe. Just to make sure she was where she said she was.’ Her voice was slow and thoughtful, her eyes flickering from side to side, as she followed ideas and connections.

‘You don’t want to think it was Gudrun, do you?’ Thea challenged. ‘You’re grasping at any other straw you can think of.’

‘I’m just being thorough,’ Gladwin sighed. ‘There’s a chance the unknown father wants the kid out of the way for some reason. Or it might be he was some kind of psychopath and Gudrun was scared Stevie would grow up to be like him, and did the only thing she could to prevent it.’

‘That’s impossible,’ argued Thea. ‘It doesn’t fit at all with how she is.’

Gladwin was holding a small screen on which she made a note with a plastic pointer. Thea recognised it from an earlier encounter. At that time, only a year or so ago, it had seemed futuristic and slightly
ostentatious. Now it was barely worthy of remark. ‘Mm,’ the detective said vaguely. ‘But I’m still going to check any sightings of Mrs Parker’s car.’

Thea said nothing, accepting her ambivalent position in relation to the police force. Gladwin had become a friend, which led to a greater sharing of her suspicions than was strictly professional, but Thea had no direct influence over her. Nor would she have wanted to. She did, however, feel free to express her own ideas. ‘I still can’t see how it could possibly work that Yvonne had anything whatsoever to do with it.’

‘We’ll have to see. I can think of one or two scenarios that would implicate her. If Stevie was in the habit of slashing her roses, and probably other invasions as well, she might have planned to dispose of the little swine, and worked it all out meticulously, giving herself an alibi and everything.’

The phrase
little swine
made Thea wince. You really shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, who could not defend themselves or set the record straight. It led to a fleeting thought about Drew and his graves and his absolute decency in all matters involving the bodies he buried.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said mildly. ‘Vonny Parker just hasn’t got what it would take for all that. And whatever Stevie did to the flowers, it couldn’t possibly be bad enough to make her want to
kill
him. Besides, I gather he made far more mess of the garden across the road. That Janice is a lot taller and stronger than Yvonne.’

Gladwin drained her tea and doodled on her electronic pad. ‘There are too many gaps,’ she complained. ‘As usual. Presumably Stevie never got to see his dad, even if he knew who he was. If there’d been visits, the neighbours would know about it. You know what villages are like.’

‘I’m not sure about this one. From what I’ve seen of the Cotswolds, people don’t snoop on each other as much as you might think. And they might have met on neutral ground, in a leisure centre somewhere or a park.’

‘We’ll have to speak to the school, see if he said anything in class. It would have to be the holidays, of course.’

‘Medea,’ said Thea softly. ‘Isn’t that the story of the mother who kills her children and makes them into a stew to feed to their unfaithful father?’ She shuddered. ‘The most gruesome story of them all, by a long way.’

‘Does that mean you’ve come around to thinking it was Gudrun, then, after all?’

‘No, not really. It’s just that I guess we shouldn’t underestimate what people are capable of, especially if they’re feeling wronged,’ said Thea, thinking of Maggs. ‘I’ve forgotten Gudrun’s surname,’ she added, out of the blue. ‘Not that it matters, I suppose.’

‘Horsfall. Without an
e.
Good old Anglo-Saxon name, I suppose.’

‘Probably descended from Hengist and Horsa.’

‘Were they Saxons?’

‘If I remember rightly, yes they were.’

‘Pity,’ said Gladwin. ‘It would fit better if they were Vikings. Gudrun’s one of the most Viking women I’ve met for a long time.’

Neither of them laughed.

Monday afternoon drifted to a close, with the feeding of the cats the only real task. Both animals were considerably more approachable by this time, and permitted a few moments of fondling on Thea’s part. Their dense coats were sleek and warm and slightly dusty, from a day spent on a sunny window ledge in the main bedroom upstairs. They spent their nights on Yvonne’s bed, curled together, as far as Thea knew – the cat flap in the back door only allowed them free range in the daytime. Hepzie ignored them, thanks to a judicious separation in feeding stations on Thea’s part. She shut the dog out in the hall with her feeding bowl, and let the cats have the freedom of the kitchen.

She had no firm plans for the rest of the day. She could find more information on Snowshill and
decide whether or not to visit the Manor. She even contemplated the alarming idea of walking up to the pub and buying herself a glass of wine, in the hope of falling into conversation with one or two locals. Now that the news was out that a local child had been murdered, there was likely to be plenty of discussion on the subject. If she could cleverly elicit the identity of young Stevie’s father, that would earn her a big gold star from DS Gladwin, and make her feel her time wasn’t being wasted.

But she couldn’t face it. She might be expected to account for herself, to describe the discovery of the child’s body, to risk being identified as the house-sitter who had found herself in the midst of a number of violent crimes whilst homeowners were away. She felt shy at such a prospect, reluctant to put herself in a situation where people knew more about her than she realised.

She opted to call her daughter for an update on the state of her emotions.

Jessica answered quickly, breathlessly. ‘Oh, Mum – it’s you,’ she said, covering the disappointment well.

‘You sound much better,’ Thea said.

‘Do I?’

‘Aren’t you?’

‘Not really. He’s texting me, really nasty stuff. And he’s putting things on Facebook about me. I’m trying to ignore it, as I’m sure you’d advise, but it’s not easy.’

‘Good God! Can’t you report him? It must be completely against regulations.’

‘He’s not breaking any laws. It’s not specific, just general abuse. God, Mum, how could I ever have thought I loved him? What sort of fool have I been?’

The outburst had tears in it, and Thea’s heart swelled with helpless rage. ‘He’s trying to make himself feel better, I suppose,’ she said, knowing this was far from what her daughter wanted to hear.

‘What do you mean? You’re not
defending
him, are you?’

‘Of course I’m not. But he’s not a total monster. He must have some reason for behaving like this.’

‘He says I showed him up in front of his friends, made him look stupid. It was
one time
, when he didn’t know who Lloyd George was, and I teased him about it. He never did history, apparently. I mean – there are millions of things I don’t know that he does. He surely must realise that.’

‘Fragile male ego,’ murmured Thea.

‘What about
my
ego? He’s mouthing off about me to all my friends, he dumped me without having the decency to face me in person, and now I’m starting to think all men must be the same, and I’ll never find one I can trust.’

‘It’s good that you’re angry about it. You know he’s got his own problems, really – whatever they might be. Nothing to do with you, except you’re too good for him, and he’s finally come to that conclusion. It’s not your problem.’

‘But I have to
work
with him.’

‘Ah. Well, yes, that’s going to be difficult, I can see.’

‘And don’t say it was always going to be a bad idea to take up with somebody from work. I never
meet
anybody anywhere else. What choice do I have?’

‘Maybe he’ll ask for a transfer, or get promoted or something.’

‘Maybe he’ll be given the boot. The way I’m feeling, that would suit me very nicely. Except it’s never going to happen. He’s quite a good detective, apparently. But not enough to make inspector for a good few years yet.’

‘All you can do is brave it out, then. Stay dignified and do a good job. You know what they say?’

‘What?’

‘The best revenge is to live a good life. Show him you’re better off without him.’

‘Right,’ said Jessica doubtfully. ‘Except, I’m not sure the others are going to see it that way. They all think he’s wonderful, and that I must be a cow to have made him act like this.’

‘They’ll soon realise. Nobody really approves of malicious postings. They always rebound on the person writing them, in the end.’

‘I hope so. Anyway – how’s it going with you?’

‘Fine,’ said Thea bravely, knowing from the question that Jess had no idea about events in Snowshill, and determined not to compound her worries by mentioning it. ‘Now go and have a nice hot bath and
read a soppy book, and then sleep tight.’

Jessica laughed feebly. ‘It’s not even seven o’clock yet.’

‘So watch a DVD for a bit first.’

‘Yeah. I might do that. Thanks for calling, Mum.’

After that, it was easy for Thea to follow something approaching her own advice. She took the dog out into the garden, staying well clear of the flower bed where the hornet had attacked her, and listened for sounds of life. A plane flew high overhead, a solitary bird sang in a tree across the road, and no traffic passed. She focused on her breathing, and small details of her surroundings. Death had left no long-term physical trace. The grass went on growing, the stone walls would stand for centuries to come. Nothing, in the long run, actually mattered. It was a mantra she had adopted after Carl had died, finding it both a consolation and grounds for despair. And it wasn’t true. It
did
matter every time a life was cut short. It couldn’t help but matter, whatever words a person might repeat to herself.

There was not a breath of wind to stir the treetops. The stillness began to feel ominous, something waiting to attack, some wickedness biding its time. ‘Come on, Heps,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and find a radio. There must be one somewhere.’

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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