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Authors: Rebecca Tope

Malice in the Cotswolds (14 page)

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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‘Good. Because you’re married, and Karen’s going to get better, and that’s all there is to it.’

‘Right,’ he said, with another great sigh. Maggs was still so young, he reminded himself, although their long acquaintance often made him forget her youth. She had been seventeen when he first met her, not quite
nineteen when they set up Peaceful Repose together. Her entire adult life had been spent in his company, and he had watched as she and Den Cooper found each other and quickly recognised how well they fitted together. Cooper had been a police sergeant at the time, but within a few months had resigned from the force, and taken a succession of low-paid jobs – some of them effectively voluntary – in the caring services. Impossibly tall, he carried an air of calm reliability that made him useful in a wide range of situations. He grew up in mid Devon, slowly identifying where his own strengths and weaknesses lay as he found himself dealing with cases of murder that entangled him emotionally as well as professionally. He could not extricate himself from the sadness of people’s lives, the unnecessary suffering they inflicted on themselves and each other, the cunning and malice they nursed within themselves, often for years. When he met Drew, he was introduced to a new way of seeing death that calmed and reassured him and made him see that he was no longer fit for police work.

Drew felt responsible for the austere life that Maggs and Den were forced to live. Their income was risibly small, thanks to him. Maggs owned almost half of the business, which meant nothing in terms of bread on her table. Den had spent years trying to decide where he ought best to direct his efforts, and even now, the idea of teaching felt lukewarm and tentative. He might enjoy much of the studying, but would struggle with
the written work. Nobody felt confident that he would finally land a permanent full-time post, with pensions and holidays and sick pay and promotion. And like Drew, he was not so very far from his fortieth birthday – a time when all good men should feel themselves finally grown up.

Maggs had always insisted that she never wanted children, a position nobody argued with while she was still only in her mid twenties. Time enough, they all thought, for her to change her mind. But Den was a different matter. It was easy to visualise him with a baby over his shoulder, or calmly talking a toddler down from a terrifying tantrum. For Den not to have his own children struck his friends as a waste.

 

When Maggs had gone, Drew accessed the BBC news website and tracked down the story about the Snowshill murder. A boy, nine years old, had been found dead outside a house in the village. Neighbours had suggested he was a child out of control, capable of malicious acts of destruction, and if ASBOs hadn’t been abolished, he would undoubtedly have received one by the age of eight. He lived with his mother in a cottage close by and was her only child.

‘Poor woman!’ moaned Drew. ‘I wonder if Thea has met her yet.’ There was no doubt in his mind that Thea Osborne, house-sitter and compulsive amateur detective, would have got herself involved in some way. And he, Drew Slocombe, found himself wishing
he were free to go there immediately and find out more. Because he was another compulsive solver of mysteries, and here was one he already found deeply intriguing. But he was not free, and that evening, he would again take his place at his wife’s silent bedside, while their grandmother sat in his house with his children.

Monday evening found Thea with a suddenly friendly cat on her lap in the bizarre living room, as the daylight disappeared. Hepzie rumbled jealously beside her, but the cat – Jennings, she thought – smugly kept its place, purring defiantly. She had spent some minutes working out the various features of the television, and now had it tuned, perhaps oddly, to Radio Three, which played
Così Fan Tutte
softly to her. Yvonne’s only radio was in her bedroom, she had discovered when she searched.

Her thoughts returned compulsively to the hour on the previous afternoon before she found Stevie’s body. Why had she not heard anything? If she had only had the good timing to look out of the front window at the right moment, she might have seen the killer depositing the body beyond the wall. A car must have
drawn up, bundled the little boy out and then driven off again. Didn’t everybody subconsciously note the sounds of such a happening? If Thea didn’t, then her dog surely should have done.

It had to have happened while she was speaking to Jocelyn, as she and Gladwin had already concluded. What an irony, that the impulse to phone her sister should have come at precisely the wrong moment. She might otherwise have been in the garden, in a spot ideal for witnessing events out in the road.

Except, she realised, the boy would still have been dead – killed at some other spot, and brought to Hyacinth House for some grim reason that was still obscure. And if the killer had had the least suspicion that someone was watching from the house, the body would surely have been dumped somewhere else. She could have done nothing to prevent it, however irrationally an inner voice insisted she might have.

Outside, Snowshill continued to be beautiful and serene. If there were ghosts of ancient travellers and mad collectors hovering there, they manifested no horror or outrage at the crime just perpetrated. No doubt they had seen such things before – the monks who sheltered the voyagers would have heard terrible tales from the wider world. Charles Paget Wade must have witnessed violence and misery in the slave plantations of the West Indies. But had anybody ever before been murdered in this tiny jewel of a village? As far as her computer could inform her, they had not.

Hepzie heard the garden gate before she did, which was unusual. Thea was slow to get up, not wanting to dislodge the cat. But then she heard the footsteps and knew she must move. Looking out of the front window, she could see a woman standing on the doorstep, waiting, unmoving. It wasn’t difficult to recognise Gudrun Horsfall.

For twenty seconds she dithered indecisively. Did she want to admit the woman and vicariously endure the anguish of her loss? Was she feeling strong enough to offer a shoulder for Gudrun to cry on? She had no choice, of course. Her car was there in full view, the dog had yapped revealingly when the knock sounded. Silently, she went and opened the door.

‘They let me out, you see.’ The defiance in the words was pathetically outweighed by the ravaged face. ‘Couldn’t make me say I’d killed my own boy.’ Tears glittered in the light from the hall, and thickened the woman’s voice.

‘Oh, gosh, come in and sit down.’ It was obvious, of course, that Gudrun would want to sit with the woman who had found her child and witnessed her collapse. Thea Osborne, if anyone, must be certain of her guiltlessness. Which only made Thea feel a sharp pang of shame at the way she had allowed Gladwin to shake her confidence. ‘You poor thing,’ she added.

‘I can’t go home, not with it so empty. They said I could have that policewoman with me as long as I
liked, but she’s no company. She treats me as if I’m a wild animal. Hardly says anything. One night of having her around was more than enough.’

‘You were at home last night?’

Gudrun nodded. ‘Been answering questions all morning, mind. They don’t mean to be cruel. I understand that.’

‘They want to get to the truth.’

‘Funny how I can’t feel that it matters. You see those people on telly, baying for the blood of their kids’ killers, as if that’ll make things all right. I don’t get it myself. It’s not going to bring him back, is it?’ She slumped into silence for a few moments, before going on, ‘It was washing line – did you know? A length off somebody’s washing line.’

‘Was it? I thought it was just some odd sort of string.’

‘No, it was washing line. Doesn’t rot in the rain, see. Plastic. Strong. You can’t break it. The sort those whirligig things have. They told me that, and I said I’d never had one. I’ve got a string across the back, with a long stick to hold it up in the middle.’

The old-fashioned arrangement almost made Thea smile. She had only seen such a line in photographs, as far as she could recall.

‘I suppose most people round here have the whirligig sort. “Rotary”, that’s the word for them.’

‘Yeah. Rotary.’

‘Gudrun – who is Stevie’s father? Does he know
what’s happened? Is he going to be upset?’ Were these cruel and intrusive questions, she wondered uneasily? Or was it the most natural and obvious thing to ask?

‘No father,’ was the short reply. ‘Stevie’s mine, all mine. I stole him,’ she added, with a quick flash of pride. ‘I wanted him and I got him. Easy.’

‘You mean …’ Of course she didn’t mean it as it sounded. But what exactly
did
she mean?

‘I won’t say. Too late for all that now. Didn’t turn out as I wanted, anyhow, not really. Serves me right, according to some. Taking what wasn’t rightly mine, going against nature. There’ll be plenty saying that today, when they hear what’s happened. Someone taking him away from me again, just to teach me a lesson.’

‘No!’ Thea cried out involuntarily against the notion of such a ghastly way to get at someone. ‘Who could hate you as much as that?’

‘Stevie annoyed a lot of folk around here. He
was
a bad boy, I won’t deny it. You saw for yourself. But I’d have brought him round. The teachers were just saying, at the end of term, how he was turning a corner, growing up a bit, listening to them a bit more.’

‘And nobody would deliberately kill him, just for being a bad boy. That’s ridiculous.’

‘Somebody did,’ said Gudrun, unarguably.

‘Do you want to stay here for the night? I’m sure
Yvonne wouldn’t mind, if she knew. We needn’t even tell her, come to that. She’s not home until the end of next week.’

Gudrun tried to form a brave face, tried to get out of the soft chair, but sank back. ‘Maybe just the one night,’ she accepted weakly. ‘Now it’s getting dark. I’ll be better in the morning.’

‘Are there any animals that need you at home?’ The cottage seemed a natural environment for chickens, goats, dogs, cats, but she couldn’t recall seeing anything by way of livestock.

A painful expression flooded Gudrun’s face, and she shook her head. ‘Stevie didn’t get on too well with creatures,’ she muttered. ‘Wasn’t really safe …’

Thea turned away to hide the horrified look she couldn’t avoid. If that boy was so out of control and violent that he would harm or terrorise animals, then maybe … well, maybe things were a lot worse than she had yet grasped.

‘Gudrun – you know I asked whether there was something the matter with him? I know it was rude of me, and I was angry – but what you just said. Well, it doesn’t sound very good, does it? What exactly did the school say about him? There must have been reports or statements or whatever they call them.’

She tossed her head as if to shake away the whole business and clear herself some mental space. ‘They never said he wasn’t right. They talked about his behaviour being
unacceptable
. That’s the favourite
word these days. And then they
did
accept it, daft idiots. Couldn’t do anything else. In the old days, they’d have taken a stick to him and taught him better.’

‘But you never—? How did you keep him in order?’

‘I never hit him, if that’s what you mean. Shouted, bribed, nagged. Usual stuff. Worked well enough, mostly. Him and me – we were
together
, just us.’ She dissolved into inarticulate gasps, the tidal wave of loss and grief submerging her. She struggled back to the surface long enough to add, ‘It was only outside he was bad. Sweet as pie when we were indoors.’ The defiance melted away as she added, ‘Well, mostly, he was. So long as he had something to do.’ The gasps turned to sobs and Thea’s heart contracted with the pity of it all. She waited for the storm to subside before speaking again.

‘It must have been difficult, all on your own. Didn’t the father ever help? With money, at least?’

Gudrun’s upper lip curled in a sneer. ‘He tried to force me to have an abortion. Shocked rigid he was when I told him. Said he couldn’t go through all that again.’

‘Again? What does that mean?’

Gudrun shrugged. ‘Seems I wasn’t the first. Never asked him for names. It wasn’t difficult to guess, but I never said anything. Never heard that it got out, either. Men like that – they ought to be castrated, for everybody’s sake.’

‘So … he washed his hands of you?’

‘No!’ Her head came up, and she met Thea’s gaze with reddened eyes. ‘It was me – I told him to forget all about it, that I’d got what I wanted from him and he could go back to his wife.’

‘Ah.’

‘Not that he’d ever left her. They don’t, do they?’

‘Were you in love with him?’ It sounded crass, even in her own ears. She smiled awkwardly. ‘Sorry – that’s a daft question.’

‘We were good in bed, that’s all. I was over forty and wanted a kid. He never thought to do anything to prevent it and I let him think I was taking care of all that. Easy. It was so easy, I thought it must be meant.’

‘But it wasn’t easy for long?’

‘Everybody thought I’d been on the game, making a business of it. I was a looker then, in spite of my age. Men fancied me. They thought I’d got caught, and decided to go through with it because it was my last chance. Not far wrong, either. Except I didn’t go to bed with just anybody. Do you know’ – again the proud look as her eyes met Thea’s – ‘I’ve only slept with four men in my whole life. I married at nineteen, the first boy I ever had anything to do with. He ran off in the end, don’t know where he went to. Never even got a proper divorce, as far as I know. Then I took up with a couple of older blokes for a bit, nothing very definite. Tried to make me go and live with them, wanting somebody to cook for them, mainly. First one, then the other, and now I
can hardly remember which was which.’ She spoke flatly, reciting her history as if reading from a page. ‘Never got pregnant in all that time – thought there must be a blockage or something. Always did like babies, though.’

‘And his wife never found out? Stevie’s father’s wife, I mean.’

‘Seemingly not.’ A watery smile flickered over Gudrun’s mouth.

‘And did Stevie ever meet his dad?’

The woman shook her head ambiguously, leaving Thea none the wiser. It was more a warning not to pursue such questions than a specific reply.

But there was more she wanted to know. ‘How did you manage for money?’

Gudrun blinked. ‘Hasn’t anybody told you? I was a competitive swimmer – youngest in the national team – and got a bronze medal at the Olympics when I was still in my teens.’

Thea focused on the muscular shoulders and thought she could still see the powerful athlete Gudrun had been. ‘Gosh!’ she said. ‘I had no idea. So you went professional?’

‘Not exactly. There were a lot of ways of earning some cash as spin-offs, and then I taught for a bit. People wrote stuff about me and I got a share of the proceeds. Then I broke my shoulder and got a lot of compensation. It’ll last me out if I’m careful.’

‘That was before you had Stevie?’

The reminder came as a visible blow to the bereaved mother who had for a minute forgotten her loss.

‘Ten years before. I’d got a few little jobs since then, but my confidence was gone. I didn’t dare dive again, not even from the side. My arm’s always going to be stiff.’

‘So you bought your little cottage and dropped out?’

‘Something like that,’ agreed Gudrun thickly. ‘It was my cousin’s before me, and I got left a quarter share of it when he died. I bought the others out. Didn’t leave me with much, but I grew up around here and it’s home. I can’t stay here now, though. Not now they’ve taken my boy away from me.’

It was far too early to ask her about any plans for the future. Instead, Thea led her up the stairs, and without a qualm offered her the use of Yvonne Parker’s bedroom, knowing from her own experience that sleep would be a capricious disrupted luxury in these first days of horror. The fact of the bedroom’s rightful ownership seemed a minor unimportant detail. The niceties of home ownership and authorisation had ceased to apply in this most terrible crisis. Gudrun needed a haven where nobody would find her or bother her.

She crawled onto the bed fully clothed and closed her eyes. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

The agony of the present moment was all-consuming, the temporary distraction of Thea’s questions barely
scratching the surface. But she wasn’t quite ready to fall silent and leave the woman alone. ‘Who exactly do you think it was?’ she asked from the doorway.

Gudrun flapped her hand vaguely towards the window and the road outside. ‘Them. The people he annoyed. Out there. They ridded themselves of a nuisance, as if he was a fox or a badger they didn’t like.’

‘No!’ The suggestion of ancient remedies for a timeless problem brought a stabbing sense of fear to Thea. Fear and horror. It was simply not possible that a respectable property-owning community could take such a step. She shook the idea away as ridiculous. ‘No, that isn’t possible. You think they conspired to do it?’ She put a hand to her own throat. ‘In cold blood, to kill a child they all knew? Absolutely impossible.’

‘Somebody did it,’ Gudrun murmured. ‘We saw him there, dead. And he didn’t strangle himself, did he?’

At some point during the past hour Thea had become completely convinced of something immensely important: Gudrun Horsfall had certainly not killed her own child.

She went downstairs quietly, her mind blank. Gudrun’s agony was beyond words, the coming days of endurance likely to be made worse by police suspicions. A sense of doing the most that anybody could, by giving the woman a bed and a listening ear,
did little to satisfy her, but it was something.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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