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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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‘Like my dog,’ laughed Clara. ‘But the pigeons come back to roost in the end. We had an irate woman turn up with a boxful of mongrel pups, a year or two ago. Her bitch was a prize breeding golden retriever, and we’d cost her thousands in lost income, or so she said.’

‘She should keep her dog indoors, then,’ said Thea, thinking she could never have managed it herself. If
Hepzie hadn’t been spayed, there would probably have been three or four unplanned litters by this time. Besides, she had only recently come across a mismatched litter of pups in Cranham, and had a sneaking liking for such disobedience on the part of the dogs. They might be ‘slave animals’ as some would say, but they did get their own way sometimes.

‘She says she did, and Boris jumped in through a window. Anyway, we digress.’

‘Yes,’ Thea agreed reluctantly. She would far rather discuss dogs than the wretched Gudrun. So she chose another subject. ‘How well do you know Yvonne?’

‘Vonny? Oh, not very. She works all the time, never seems to have a minute to spare. Teaching must be grim, don’t you think? All that bloody paperwork. She strikes me as a bit lonely, no real friends that I know of.’

‘Have you seen all the stuff she’s got in the house?’

‘A couple of times, yes. Very old-fashioned way to carry on. Must be worth a bit, I imagine.’

‘I doubt it, actually. It’s mostly just cheap knick-knacks. It’s as if she can’t bear to see a clear surface. The garden’s the same.’

‘Don’t go psychological on me,’ begged Clara. ‘We’ve all got our quirks.’

‘You seemed to know where she’s gone and why, when we talked before. Did you know Victor?’

Clara rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, I knew Victor. Self-important little braggart was Victor. Vonny’s
much better off without him. Did they get Belinda’s wedding sorted out, then?’

Thea shrugged her ignorance. ‘Their son came here yesterday morning, saying something about his mother, worried that she’d gone missing. She doesn’t seem to have kept him and his sister very well informed.’

‘Oh, Mark. Take no notice of him. He’s as daft as Gudrun. Seems to think he’s Oscar Wilde most of the time.’

‘Oh – is that who he was being? I never did manage to work it out.’

Clara laughed cheerfully. ‘Well, better go and catch that damned dog before he gets himself shot. Who’d have them, eh?’ She eyed Thea’s docile spaniel with something like envy. ‘Though yours seems okay.’

Thea bent down and stroked the soft mottled head of her pet. ‘Yes, she’s very good,’ she said. ‘Although she’s had her moments.’

 

Gladwin still hadn’t called back by the end of Tuesday afternoon, an omission that Thea felt was slightly insulting. Not that she could say with any real justification that Victor Parker was actually of any significance to the Gloucestershire police in their quest for the killer of Stevie Horsfall. Even so, she did think she had grounds for insisting that somebody check up on the violence she had heard, having presented the gift of the London address where it had presumably happened.

There was a growing accumulation of anomalies surrounding Victor and his family which ought surely to be of interest to the police. Perhaps other things were developing quickly in the investigations, with DNA analysis under way or key witnesses providing hard evidence of somebody’s guilt. She assumed she would only hear about it afterwards, if so. That should, by rights, come as a relief, but instead she felt unfairly sidelined.

 

It was time to feed the cats when she got back, and then find something for her own supper. Julius and Jennings were waiting for her and she gave them their Felix on the kitchen floor. Hepzie stood back, making much of her own obedience, liquid eyes bulging with the effort, one or two soft squeaks emerging from her throat. ‘Okay,’ Thea told her. ‘Yours is coming.’ She filled the bowl they always carried with them, mixing the meat and milk and biscuit to just the right tempting consistency, and gave it to the dog. The simple satisfaction of providing for domestic pets never palled. There was something reassuring about their dependence. While you had a dog, you had to get out of bed in the morning. You could not sink into depression or ME or general inertia. You owed it to your animal to continue to function. Farmers, of course, took this to crazy extremes, with hundreds of beasts just waiting to die if you neglected them for a moment. Everybody knew that farmers got up
at 5 a.m. because otherwise they would never get everything done.

It was a cloudy evening, the light outside uninviting. Indoors the usual obstructions to any sense of relaxation presented themselves. She could phone Jessica; watch television; read a book; send texts to Drew. None of these options felt right. Jess would probably prefer to make the call at a time of her own choosing. Television was seldom very engaging. Books were for bedtime and Drew was off-limits.

Passing through the hallway, heading for the kitchen, her eye fell on the bureau tucked in beside the foot of the stairs. She remembered the drawer she had hurriedly pulled open when looking for Victor’s address, which had been full of notebooks. It wouldn’t hurt to have a quick look to see what they were. The drawer wasn’t locked, the bureau not hidden away in a bedroom. It was undoubtedly an intrusion, but no harm would be done by it. At least, no further harm – she had already discovered the key to the bureau flap on a hook by the telephone and opened it to discover Yvonne’s car documents. That was intrusive by many people’s standards. Now she would merely be compounding a felony already committed. Besides, she would put everything back exactly as it was, and Yvonne would never know. Was there a house-sitter in the land who would resist just having a little peep?

The packed desk drawer called to her, once
everything was finished in the kitchen. She had no sense of solving mysteries or unearthing secrets. She merely wanted to take a closer look at the contents of the books. ‘Lesson plans, probably,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Or account books.’

The covers of the notebooks had been the initial attraction. Brightly coloured swirly designs suggested bright and interesting material inside as well. Carefully, Thea removed the top left book, ascertaining that there were three more in the pile, with another five similar piles – twenty in total. Perhaps they were unpublished novels, or poems. She could well imagine Yvonne Parker writing reams and reams of bad poetry.

The first page revealed a diary.
10
th
March 2000. My forty-fifth birthday. Victor gave me a bracelet. Mark gave me a clock. Belinda gave me a pair of slippers. I went to work as usual, and bought a cake for the staffroom. None of the children knew about my birthday, of course. Young Isaac Simpson played up again and I sent him to the head. Victor and I went to the pub in the evening and had steak.

Hmm,
thought Thea.
Just as you’d expect. A dull woman with a dull life.
The slippers were almost ludicrously dull. Isaac Simpson would be into his twenties by now and probably couldn’t speak a word of French. She flipped through the book, the handwriting consistently small and neat, some entries extending to half a page, but never more. There was something for every single day, as far as she could
tell. The final page read:
19
th
December. Bought the turkey, fresh from Mr Gordon. Finished the last of the cards, just in time. Term ends tomorrow, thank goodness. Victor’s mother phoned from Lerwick, saying the weather’s lovely there. Pouring with rain here. Belinda’s boyfriend dumped her last week, she’s just told us. Mark’s results abysmal. Victor shouted at him. Had a letter from Mary saying Daniel’s left her.

Poor Belinda and poor Mary,
thought Thea. Unkind men on all sides, it seemed. The scanty lines with their near-complete absence of emotion nonetheless managed to conjure ordinary family life. So ordinary, in fact, that there was very little sense of transgression in reading them. It was simply a record of daily events, with potentially useful details such as Victor’s mother being alive and apparently well in Lerwick, that particular December.

She put the book back, just as she had found it, and selected the top one from the adjacent pile, thinking there had to be a more stimulating way to spend an evening.

9
th
Feb 2006. Letter came for Victor, with a printed letterhead. He wouldn’t let me see it, but it’s obviously very bad news. I thought he was going to be sick or cry or something. Looks as if it might be something medical.

Flood in the girls’ toilets at school. Lexie Jones slipped and bruised her hip.

Had estimate for new boiler – £2475.

This came halfway into the new notebook. Did Victor have gonorrhoea or something, Thea wondered wildly? Did they get the new boiler? 2006 was surely close to the date when Victor left home. Had it been connected somehow to this letter? Did Yvonne find it, discovering something terrible about her husband in it, and kick him out of the house?

The suddenly interesting entry nudged her conscience. She really ought not to be prying into secrets. It was none of her business, by any reckoning. If the roles were reversed and she learnt that Yvonne had been reading her diaries – not that she had any – or emails, she wouldn’t like it. It was an indecent thing to do. Firmly she replaced the book and closed the drawer. Intimate as the position of a house-sitter might be, given the freedom of somebody’s house and trusted with their cats and keys, the boundaries were clear. You definitely did not read people’s personal diaries containing suspicions about their husband’s state of health.

The warbling of her mobile came to her rescue. She wouldn’t think any more about Yvonne and the volumes of her daily life. ‘Mum?’ Jessica’s voice was thick with emotion. Thea’s heart lurched.

‘What’s the matter?’ she demanded.

‘Paul. He’s been attacked.’

‘Attacked?’ The word summoned ferocious mad dogs, or a horde of cartoon savages with spears tearing into the man’s body. ‘How? What happened?’

‘A bunch of BNP morons, or something. Nobody seems to know for sure. They stamped on him. His pelvis is shattered.’ The words came in breathless jerks.

‘My God!’ She had no notion of what to say or how to feel. ‘Have you seen him?’

‘No. It was
racist
, Mum. They did it because he’s black. He’s probably going to be crippled, for nothing more than his skin colour.’ Sobs clouded the last words.

‘He won’t be crippled,’ Thea assured her recklessly. ‘It’ll heal up.’ But already she could visualise the crushed kidneys and testicles, the complex pelvic area never fully functioning again.

Jessica rallied enough to voice her rage. ‘It’ll be on the news, any minute now. The whole of the north-west is going to be doing overtime until they catch the bastards. They’re not going to do it to anyone else.’

Thea could almost hear the vengeful macho comments from Jessica’s colleagues, closing ranks in the face of this attack on one of their own. At the same time she heard Drew saying
We didn’t like him much, did we?
For a flickering second she accused herself of bringing this damage on Paul by her own ill-wishing. ‘They won’t get away with it,’ she said, as firmly as she could. ‘What a horrible thing to do. At least it sounds as if all his friends will rally round.’

‘They might.’

Thea heard doubt. Did Paul Middleman
have
friends, she wondered? Would it be left to Jessica to nurse him through a long convalescence? She knew better than to ask.

‘And what about you, Mum?’ Jessica asked valiantly. ‘What’s going on there?’

‘Quite a lot, as it happens. I suppose you’ve seen Snowshill on the news?’

‘What?’

It struck Thea that she was closely connected to two major headlines in a single week, which seemed excessive to the point of embarrassment. ‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘Let’s just say I’m seeing quite a bit of Sonia Gladwin again.’

‘Oh,
Mum
!’ Jessica reproached.

‘It’s not my fault. Things happen. I went to London today,’ she added, for no good reason.

‘Shopping?’

‘Of course not. Playing detective with Drew, actually.’

‘With Gladwin’s blessing, I hope?’

‘More or less. Anyway, darling, it’s ghastly about poor Paul. Nobody deserves that.’

There was a soft snort before Jessica opted to quell any indignation. ‘No,’ she agreed. ‘Not even Paul deserves to be crippled by a bunch of ignorant racists.’

Except, thought Thea, perhaps they weren’t so much ignorant racists as people who knew Middleman for what he was. But even then, he hadn’t deserved it. Of course he hadn’t.

‘So Gladwin’s letting you in again, is she?’ Jessica reverted to her mother’s news, her voice thoughtful. ‘She’s not supposed to, you know. What was it this time?’

‘A little boy was killed.’

Jessica breathed an exhalation of distress and concern. ‘So can’t you just butt out this time and leave it to the cops?’

‘Not really. It was me who found his body.’


What?
You didn’t, did you? A child’s body? That must have been horrendous.’

‘Yes.’ She pushed back the memory of just how horrendous it had been. ‘Poor little chap.’

‘Who did it?’

‘Somebody local, probably. Gladwin hasn’t ruled out his mother. He was a bit of a tearaway. Nobody seems to have liked him.’

‘Not even his mother?’

‘Oh yes. She loved him.’

‘So she couldn’t have killed him, could she?’

‘I hope not,’ said Thea.

Gladwin finally phoned at nine. ‘This is becoming a habit,’ said Thea. ‘Shouldn’t you be at home with your family?’

‘I am, but I can still make phone calls. I don’t regard calling you as work, either.’

‘How nice. What am I, then?’

‘Don’t ask me. I’ve been wondering how to describe you in my report.’

Thea laughed. ‘I’m an anomaly. I quite like that.’

‘So – what did you want to tell me about the Parker man? All I got was an address.’

‘And did you tell the London police? Have they been to check?’

There was a small silence, into which Thea read a cooling of the initial friendly words. ‘Sorry. That sounds as if I’m telling you how to do your job, doesn’t
it? But I can’t just let it go. I heard something horrible happening. I know I did.’

‘You went to London today – is that right?’

‘Oh, yes. Drew and I went to Crouch End to look for him and we found Yvonne’s car and a South American childminder who said Victor lives there with a girlfriend. She hadn’t seen him since Sunday.’

‘And was that unusual?’

‘I don’t know. Probably not,’ Thea admitted.

‘And he lives there with a woman – is that right? So wouldn’t she report any trouble? Listen, Thea, I did pass on the address to the Met, and suggested they have a look, or at least make a phone call. But you must see that it’s not going to be high on their list.’

‘The woman screamed,’ Thea repeated doggedly. ‘And nobody came back to the phone.’

‘Yes, I believe you. But things like that happen all the time, with no harm done. People hit each other more than we like to think. Even in Crouch End. It will all have been patched up by bedtime. I’m amazed you went to the bother of going all the way to London. It seems crazy. And who’s Drew? Is that the name? Drew who?’

‘Drew Slocombe. He was involved in that murder a few months ago in Broad Campden. He’s my friend,’ she added childishly. ‘He’s an undertaker. I told you before.’

‘So you did. I’m not sure I believe in him, though.
People don’t have undertakers for friends. Although I suppose
you
might, come to think of it.’

Thea finished the story, despite a growing understanding that Gladwin really wasn’t very interested. ‘Anyway, we found the car. She said she left it in a quiet street before going off on the Eurostar, and there it was. With a resident’s permit and everything.’

‘Whose child does the South American person mind?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. That isn’t relevant.’

‘But there’s no Victor Parker registered in Crouch End. I told you.’

‘I guess your London colleagues didn’t look hard enough. Maybe they just fobbed you off and never even tried.’

‘They wouldn’t dare,’ said Gladwin without conviction. ‘Anyway – I think we might forget the Parkers now. Listen to me, Thea. I should have told you before all this Parker stuff diverted me. We’re charging Gudrun Horsfall with the murder of Stevie. There’s new evidence, which I can’t really reveal. It’s very damning, I’m afraid. The CPS are going to accept it as enough for a prosecution, I think.’

‘Oh no!’ The shock and grief came like a physical blow. ‘You can’t. She
can’t
have killed him. I won’t believe it. You must tell me what the evidence is. I might be able to explain. It must be a mistake.’ She was gabbling mindlessly, desperate to change the collective opinion of the police. ‘I mean – she’s his
mother
. Her DNA would be all over him, and his on her. So it can’t be that.
What
evidence could there be? Her footprints, and fingerprints as well, were at the scene here, because I went to fetch her and she picked him up.’

‘It’s something in her house, that’s all I can say.’

Thea’s thoughts raced over all the possibilities. Things knocked over? Something about the washing line? Bodily fluids? Everything she could think of was easily explained away by the fact that Gudrun and Stevie lived there together.

‘Please tell me,’ she begged. ‘What harm can it do?’

‘It would spell the end of my career if it got out that I’d disclosed something like that to you.’

‘It won’t get out. I won’t tell anybody.’

‘You absolutely mustn’t. Not even your undertaker. If you do, I’ll never speak to you again.’

‘Trust me.’

‘Did you notice his feet?’

‘What? Stevie’s? No, I don’t think so. They were practically under my car.’

‘He was only wearing one shoe.’

‘Oh-h-h.’ The thought took no time at all to form. ‘And the missing one is at the house? Shit.’

‘Exactly. Explain that if you can. It was just inside the back door. I expect you can picture it.’

‘Yes,’ Thea admitted, running the scene where the murderous mother lifted the heavy inert child, his feet dangling awkwardly, perhaps getting wedged in the
door somehow, a shoe coming loose, unnoticed. Then she carried him up the lane and round to the front of Hyacinth House, and dropped him behind Thea’s car, before running home and sitting in the kitchen to await whatever came next. ‘You think he was dead an hour or more before she moved him?’

‘About that.’

‘So you’re not looking for anybody else?’

‘Witnesses. She must have carried him in broad daylight, about four hundred yards.’

‘If only I hadn’t been on the phone.’

‘Right.’

‘Um … she might have brought him across the field, behind this house. It slopes downhill, so nobody overlooks it. She could have risked coming through the gate at the end of the garden without me seeing her and maybe heaved him over Yvonne’s front wall. She’s probably strong enough to do that, even with her bad shoulder.’

‘Bad shoulder?’

‘You surely must know about that. She gave up her swimming because of it, and it’s never really been right, apparently.’

‘Hmm.’

‘You didn’t know?’

‘No.’

‘You should probably check it out, then.’

‘Yes. Thanks.’

Thea could hear that the detective wanted to leave
it there, but she wasn’t ready to endure the rest of a lonely evening without giving voice to some further feelings. ‘It’s horrible!’ she burst out. ‘I don’t see how she could possibly have done it. She’ll make an awful witness,’ she realised, with a further sinking of her spirits. ‘I can’t bear for it to be true.’

‘Well, we have to go with the evidence,’ said Gladwin, slightly stiffly. ‘That’s how it works.’

‘It’s wrong,’ persisted Thea. ‘I just know it’s wrong.’

‘We’ll have to see, then, won’t we?’ came the deeply unsatisfactory reply.

 

The news seemed to put a stop on all productive thought. All Thea could manage was a repetitious internal protest against the horror of deliberate infanticide. Even though inadequate incompetent women occasionally abused and starved their wretched children, barely knowing what they did, it remained a vanishingly rare event. She had met Gudrun Horsfall, spoken to her, felt she had some slight rapport with her. She had complained to her about her son, as one mother to another, before he died, without meaning anything very much by it. The following day, the boy was killed and Thea would have sacrificed a lot to have her own words unsaid. Had she been the final straw, the last inescapable demonstration that the boy was incorrigible? If a stranger, who knew nothing of the history, found him objectionable, then perhaps, even to his mother’s
hitherto rose-tinted eyes, he really was a hopeless case.

Still she worried at the actual details of how it could have happened. She had been right there, only yards away. How could she have been so unobservant, so unsuspecting of the horror unfolding just beyond the window? If she had listened properly, she might have heard the screams of the dying boy in the cottage beyond the field. Perhaps Gudrun had begun by reproaching him, cuffing his head, chasing him up the stairs and down again, grabbing at him, enraged beyond all reason by his insolence and quicksilver movements. Would she seize the length of washing line at random, wrap it around the infuriating little throat and pull it tight? Would she? Would any mother ever be capable of that? And if so, would she achieve some tiny vestige of atonement by confessing it all, in the end?

She sat quietly in the restless living room, the dog on her lap, thinking dark thoughts about the evil that people are capable of. The monsters who had stamped on Paul Middleman’s pelvis; the person who had shot Karen Slocombe three years ago; all the cunning malicious murderers she had heard Phil Hollis describe and actually encountered herself now and then. Even Stevie, who had thrown stones at harmless defenceless cows, had corrupt tendencies, it seemed. Somehow he had become brutalised, had opted to inflict pain and damage as his source of diversion, in this place
of calm beauty. Shaking her head at her own naive assumptions, she had to concede that it was very far from unusual for a boy to be like that. Hadn’t they pulled the wings off flies and tied things to the tails of cats for centuries past? Had Stevie really been so much worse than the average underoccupied ten-year-old?

And then there was Drew, who had been so glad to play truant and desert his family and business for a few hours. Whatever bit of irrelevant nonsense they might have indulged in on their brief trip to London, she hoped it had done him good. He would just have got back in time for the funeral, assuming the train behaved itself. The children would get home from school, supper would be consumed, and probably a visit to Karen’s bedside during the evening. She could not expect him to contact her, with so much going on. Their findings concerning Victor Parker were impressive in one sense, but completely unimportant in another. It had been a Famous Five kind of expedition, a defiant challenge to constraints laid on them by others, more than anything else. They had done it because they had realised it was possible, and they were the sort of people who took action against all logic. It made them feel special, different, refusing to succumb to ordinary pressures. She hoped it had done Drew some good, in the midst of his anguish over Karen.

The realities of the Parkers and their marriage remained obscure, and would probably continue to
do so. Curiosity had been piqued by the two staccato phone calls from Victor, and the very different ones from Yvonne. They had both opted to involve her, by making those calls, and she had risen to the call beyond anything either of them could reasonably have expected.

 

Nothing more happened that evening to disturb her meditations. She slowly got ready for bed, taking the dog out, making sure the cats were in their rightful place and the cat flap locked. Poor things, she thought, prevented from their natural nocturnal prowlings, for no good reason that she could see. But they seemed resigned to it, presenting themselves unfailingly at nine-thirty or so, and curling on their cushions for the night. They were wonderfully low-maintenance, especially compared to some of the creatures Thea had been asked to care for in the past. One of them was pawing repeatedly at a small space between a cupboard and the wall, in the scullery, perhaps at a small toy or morsel of food, while his brother ignored him. When Thea turned off the light and left them to it, it was with the small consolation that they at least had shown her no malice – unlike the hornet in the garden.

 

In North Staverton, Drew Slocombe was having a far less peaceful evening. Worse than any jealous wife, Maggs had insisted on a full explanation of why he
had been catching a train at ten that morning. Where had he been, why and with whom?

‘It’s that woman, isn’t it?’ she had accused. ‘Where did you go with her this time?’

‘It’s not your business,’ he repeated, quietly. ‘There’s nothing whatsoever for you to be concerned about. I got back in time to bury Mr Anderson, I played with my kids and ate supper with them, and tonight it’s your turn to go and see Karen – if you want to. I won’t be going. I’ll stay at home and be a good father. I did want to try to talk to you about Karen, as it happens, but only if we can both be sure it’s safe to do so. At the moment I don’t feel that at all.’

‘Safe? What the hell do you mean,
safe
?’

He closed his eyes, feeling very old. ‘It’s too serious to risk either of us flying out of control. I suppose you could say it’s the most serious thing that will ever happen in my whole life. I’m never going to forget the next few days or weeks, whatever else might occur to rock our sinking boat. Last night I finally understood that Karen isn’t going to get better, and I managed to get some way towards accepting it.’

She shook her head impatiently. ‘I don’t get it. What does this have to do with you going on some mysterious train journey?’

‘Nothing directly. It’s something to do with my inner state. I can’t explain without using silly New Age jargon, unless I can feel that you’re with me, that you do understand. And I can’t feel that, Maggs. It’s not
your fault. Karen isn’t your wife, Steph and Timmy aren’t your children. You’re very young. I know you had to watch your Auntie Sharon die, when we were first here, and that was awful, but I don’t think it’s really prepared you for this.’

‘You’ve given up on Karen?’ She glared at him in horrified rage. ‘Just like that – given up on her?’

‘Not just like anything. It’s about as hard as anything can ever be. But yes, I’ve lost hope for a recovery. She isn’t going to get better, I know that. Whatever the doctors might do, however long they keep her heart beating, she’s never going to know us again. And I’m not giving up – this is just the first step in a long and ghastly process. Don’t say anything, please don’t. Go home and talk to Den about it. See if you can put yourself in my place. Just don’t shout at me any more, or demand anything of me.’ He met her eye, unsmiling, revealing his naked emotion. ‘I need you to be kind, Maggs. Don’t make me fight you, as well as this horrible thing that’s happened to me and my family.’

He had not seen her cry since her beloved Auntie Sharon had died of stomach cancer, the same week that Timmy was born. Now she simply stood there, tears flowing down her dark cheeks, her eyes reddening and her nose a mess. ‘I haven’t got a hanky,’ she choked, wiping a hand across her upper lip, making everything worse.

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