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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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Her phone warbled as she pottered around the kitchen idly tidying up, the bright screen telling her it was Drew. A pity, in a way, that technology insisted on spoiling almost every surprise in life, good or bad. ‘Hello,’ she said, unable to conceal a certain wariness.

‘It’s Drew.’

‘Yes. How are you? I mean, how’s Karen?’ She forced her thoughts onto him and his troubles, sitting down at the table, speaking softly.

‘Much the same. Listen, Den’s just told me how awful Maggs was to you this morning. I’ve spoken to her about it, if that’s any comfort.’

‘Well …’ There didn’t seem to be anything she could say, apart from an insincere assurance that she hadn’t minded. She felt a flash of embarrassment.

‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you she’s sorry. We’re all under strain here. That’s the best I can offer as an excuse.’

‘She meant well, I suppose. She’s obviously terribly fond of you. And Karen. Especially Karen.’

‘We are very close. It’s a family, really, the four of us. Six, with the children. But I wanted to ask you about the murder. Den told me a little boy was killed in the village you’re in. Is that right?’

‘I found the body,’ she said, with a sad little laugh. ‘Again. I’m afraid I’m very much involved.’

‘No!’

‘It was rather horrible.’

‘Obviously. A child is the worst.’

‘Yes. It’s completely different.’

‘Had you seen him before? When he was alive?’

‘Actually, yes. He wasn’t a very nice kid, which somehow makes it worse. Well – maybe not exactly
worse
, but you can’t help worrying when there’s ill will floating around. I don’t think anybody liked him, except for his mother.’

‘Den says she must be the one who did it.’

‘Wait a minute. Let me shut the door.’ She went to push the door closed, hoping there were no peculiar sound-carrying crevices up to the main bedroom. When she spoke again, it was in little more than a whisper, despite the need for emphasis. ‘No! No, she wasn’t. I’m convinced of that.’

‘Why are you whispering?’

‘Because she’s here, in the mistress of the house’s bed.’ She snickered at her own description of Yvonne. ‘She arrived an hour or so ago, and couldn’t face going home. Her house is very near here.’

Drew kept to the main point. ‘So who did it?’

‘Somebody in the village who’d had enough of him, I suppose. Just saw red and tied a length of washing line round his neck to shut him up. Then they dumped his body outside this house, behind my car. I expect it was just a horrible coincidence that I happened to be here.’

‘Was he an only child?’

‘Sadly, yes.’

‘Poor woman.’

‘That’s pretty much it, yes. Makes me realise how precious Jessica is. Who, by the way, is also unhappy just now. That beastly Paul dumped her.’

‘Did he? Just as well, in the long run, I imagine. We didn’t really like him, did we?’

Thea closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the surge of pleasure the
we
evoked in her. Here was somebody who understood, who had shared enough time with her to know what she thought and what he could say to her.
Dear Drew
, she sighed inwardly. What a good friend he was.

‘No, but she did, and it came as a complete shock. He sent her a text.’

‘I thought he had a cruel streak. Probably never occurred to him that it would hurt so much more than telling her properly.’

‘I don’t think she’ll take long to realise what she’s escaped. But it’s a pity they work together. It makes everything much more embarrassing for her.’

‘We are a sad lot these days, aren’t we?’ he said, audibly losing interest in the Snowshill murder. ‘I don’t know how much longer I can go on like I am. I can’t be away from the phone, in case they call about Karen. Even if I go out with the mobile, I have to stay within a few miles of the hospital. And the kids need me even more now they’re not at school. Luckily Karen’s mother has come here for a bit. I’d be totally sunk otherwise. As it is, the days fly past with nothing done, nothing changed. I’m in no state to officiate at
funerals. I turned down two last week.’

‘I heard Maggs and Den talking about it. I got the impression he thinks there isn’t much hope left, but she was insisting Karen might yet recover.’ Was there another person in the world to whom she could speak in this way? Not her mother, certainly. Possibly her sister Jocelyn. But Drew deserved unvarnished remarks. He even invited them, in some way.

‘Nobody knows one way or the other. Maggs is setting us an example, being so positive, I suppose. I know I shouldn’t give up, but I can’t see how it can turn out happily, now. When she was injured originally, she was only unconscious for a day or two. This has been weeks and weeks, and I can’t see anything of the real Karen there any more. I feel as if she’s already gone far beyond recall. I think the children feel it, as well.’

‘She’s young, though. That must give her a better chance than some. And they still haven’t precisely identified the cause of the coma, have they?’

‘They assume there’s a bleed somewhere deep in the brain, but it doesn’t show on the scans. It’s been happening slowly but surely over the past three years, like a dripping tap, draining away her energy and personality. Bullets do appalling things to soft tissue over a wide area. I think some incurable shock was inflicted at the time, and it’s finally caught up with her. Such an awful waste. She had so much to offer, before all this.’ His voice was tightly
controlled, and she had an impression that he had been searching for a chance to say these things.

‘Don’t give up,’ she urged him. ‘Maggs is right. There has to be some hope, or how can you bear it?’

He made a wordless sound, close to a moan. ‘Hope’s so
exhausting.
People don’t realise. And it’s like a cage, or a prison cell. I’m getting worn out with hoping.’

‘Oh, Drew,’ she soothed helplessly.

‘It’s nice to talk to you. And I wish I could come and help you cope with this dreadful murder. I suppose the police are all over you, if you found the body?’

She snorted, remembering Drew’s hapless encounter with the police in Broad Campden. ‘Not quite. It’s my friend Gladwin, thank goodness. She and I get on extremely well. She’s blessedly unprofessional when she’s with me. Says the most outrageous things. But she’s amazingly good at the job, for all that.’

‘Always gets her man, eh.’

‘Pretty much, yes. And she’s sane and decent and energetic. You’d never guess she was a top detective.’

‘I must meet her sometime,’ said Drew forlornly. Then he seemed to rally. ‘Tell me about the suspects,’ he invited.

‘Blimey! How long have you got?’

‘I don’t know. If there’s an incoming call I’ll have to go. The little light’ll flash at me if that happens. So fire away.’

She told him everything, from the first sighting of Stevie on Saturday. She told him about Blake Grossman and his bisected garden; Mark Parker and his sister; Janice and Ruby across the road; Clara Beauchamp and – for good measure – Charles Paget Wade, who was possibly a local ghost. ‘And hornets,’ she concluded. ‘There’s a hornets’ nest in the roof.’

‘Janice and Ruby,’ he said. ‘They sound interesting. If I’ve got it right, they’d have means, motive and opportunity galore.’

‘That’s true. But they’re very nice ordinary women. I can just imagine Janice strangling the boy in a fit of fury, but not dumping the body and keeping quiet. She’d call the police and own up.’

‘People panic. And she’d have to go to prison, even if she confessed. Nobody wants that.’

‘Funny how it always keeps coming back to a woman having done it.’

‘It’s because it generally is the mother,’ he said. ‘Although I can see how that doesn’t really fit in this case. Why would she move the body?’

‘Good question.’

They talked for forty minutes, before Drew seemed to realise the time and decided he had gone on too long. ‘Thanks for all that,’ he said. ‘You’ve distracted me very effectively. It’s just what I needed – something else to think about.’

‘Any time,’ she said lightly.

* * *

The house phone rang next, just after nine, and a male voice barked, ‘That the house-sitter again?’

‘Yes, this is Thea Osborne. Can I help you?’

‘Victor Parker. Vonny not back, I suppose?’

‘No.’ She wanted to add
Lost her again, then
?
but controlled the urge. She could also have told him that Yvonne had expressed an intention to go to France to join her sister, but did not. If he didn’t know, then she must assume his wife – ex-wife – didn’t want him to.

‘The woman must be mad, that’s all I can say. She was here for half a day and then disappeared off somewhere before we’d had a chance to settle anything. The thing is, she left her car just up the road here, so I can’t work out what’s happened.’

‘Are you sure? I mean, sure it’s her car? That sounds very strange.’

‘Of course I’m sure. I bought the bloody thing five years ago. I told her it was time she got another one, and she said she couldn’t afford it. Pleading poverty, as if I’d swallow that nonsense.’

‘Well, perhaps she didn’t want to risk losing the space, if she’s popped into the West End or something.’

‘Gone to a movie or something, you think?’ His tone was less forceful as he gave this his brief consideration. ‘Has she said that was what she’d do? The car’s been there since yesterday, though. I don’t know where she spent the night.’

Thea made an impatient sound. ‘Mr Parker, I
hardly know her. I certainly don’t keep track of her movements. If you think she’s come to some sort of harm, then you’d better report it to the police. Otherwise, I don’t think I can help you.’ Was she being excessively discreet, she wondered? Should she just tell him the woman was probably on her way to France by now? ‘Did you part on bad terms?’ she asked.

‘Not really. Not that I noticed. She just went off without a word. Now I’ve got Belinda raging at me, for good measure.’

‘Your daughter,’ Thea noted, with a flash of pride. ‘She phoned me as well. And Mark came here this morning.’ She might choose to protect Yvonne from him, but she didn’t see why she should conceal the movements of his children. ‘None of you seem to know what the others are doing.’

‘That’s families for you. Oh, hi, babe. Where’ve you been?’ His voice grew fainter as he greeted someone who had evidently just joined him. Thea hoped, with little grounds, that it was Yvonne, although the
babe
seemed somewhat improbable as a word he might use for his ex-wife.

‘Hello?’ Thea called, after some seconds in which muttered words were exchanged and the distant sound of a closing door reached her. Victor did not return to the phone. Instead a buzzer went and she heard indistinct voices. Then there was a sudden loud cry, which she was sure came from him, followed by
a long silence. Pressing the phone tightly to her ear, she tried to work out what was happening. A door slammed shut, and then another silence filled the universe, until she thought she should just put down the phone and forget the whole thing. But the shrill scream from a female person apparently standing very close to the telephone sent shockwaves through her. Screams, cries, wails of ‘Victor! Oh, Victor!’ confirmed that something seriously bad must have happened. Repeatedly, she called ‘Hello? Hello!’ in vain.

At least there weren’t any gunshots
, she thought as she finally replaced the receiver. Briefly, she lifted it again, hoping somehow that contact had been resumed. All she got was a dialling tone. Moments later, she called Gladwin on her mobile and reported something very disturbing taking place in a Crouch End apartment.

‘Do you know the address?’ the detective superintendent asked her.

‘Um … no, but it must be here somewhere. Hold on a sec.’

She went out to the spacious hallway containing an oak bureau, the top of which was crowded with a collection of glass
millefiori
paperweights. When she tried to pull down the flap, it resisted. Locked, she realised. Beneath the flap were two drawers, the upper of which came open easily. Inside she discovered neatly stacked notebooks, perhaps twenty in total, all
with pretty art nouveau covers as far as she could see. The lower drawer was less tidy, the contents a motley assortment of brochures, leaflets, catalogues and other papers.

She retrieved the phone from the kitchen window sill and reported her failure. ‘I don’t know where else to try,’ she said helplessly. ‘Where do people generally keep their ex-husband’s address?’

Gladwin gave an impatient snort for reply.

‘Sorry. But you’ll find him easily enough. Victor Parker in Crouch End.’

The next snort was almost angry. ‘Thea – we’ll have to involve the Met in this, if you think there’s been violence. Can you backtrack and just see if you might have got it wrong, before we do that? Couldn’t it just have been a bit of a domestic? After all, they’ve been separated for years, with quite some acrimony, from the sound of it. A bit of shouting isn’t so surprising, is it?’

‘I don’t know that it was Yvonne. It probably wasn’t her. He called somebody “babe”. Then I think he answered the door, after the babe person came in. It must have been a man, who attacked Victor.’ She racked her brains for the right sequence of events. ‘Yes, that was definitely how it was. You didn’t hear that scream,’ said Thea urgently. ‘I
know
something awful happened. And I never said it was Yvonne there. He called me to say he’d lost her again.’

‘Okay,’ Gladwin sighed as if the whole story was
well beyond her area of interest. ‘Look, go and do 1471 on the phone and see if you can get his number.’

Again, Thea put down the BlackBerry and did as she was told. ‘It’s a mobile number,’ she reported back and recited it.

‘Have you tried calling it again?’

‘No,’ said Thea. ‘I don’t really think it’s for me to do it.’

‘Well, if he’s hurt, it’ll be reported soon enough, I imagine. The screaming person will call for help. I will of course make some enquiries, but I am rather occupied.’ She spoke with restraint, but Thea could hear stress and impatience in her voice. ‘And I can’t see this has anything to do with the case,’ she added. ‘The man hasn’t lived in Snowshill for five years. What can he possibly have to do with anything?’

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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