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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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‘They’re beautiful animals,’ Thea had said admiringly. One was a dark chocolate colour (‘That one is Jennings,’ said Yvonne) and the other a pale yellowy-grey. ‘Are they from the same litter?’

‘Yes. They were rejects, actually. The breeder wanted females, and got landed with all boys. She kept the best one and sold these off. She insisted they were neutered. They were done last week, poor things.’

Thea had made no comment, hoping there would be no delayed reactions to the surgery, under her care. ‘I assume they’re never allowed in the living room?’ she asked.

‘One at a time is okay. They’re very careful, moving so delicately it’s like magic, but if they’re playing, things can get a bit rough. Are you happy with that? It does mean keeping the door shut all the time.’ Both women had eyed Thea’s dog and its long plumy tail.

‘That’s fine,’ said Thea heartily. ‘And Hepzie’s not tall enough to cause any trouble.’

If their roles had been reversed, she did not think she’d have agreed to the inclusion of a spaniel in the house-sitting deal. Dogs knocked things over – everybody knew that. But it was July, and with any luck they could spend almost all their time outside.

On the map, Snowshill had looked tiny, with a pub, phone box and the prominent National Trust manor. Contour lines suggested chaotic sweeping slopes and rises, and there was little evidence of woodland. Her previous house-sitting commission had been at Cranham, to the south, a rather untypical village containing numerous post-war bungalows, surrounded by dense woods. The contrast between the two was dramatic. There did not appear to be any houses in Snowshill under a century old. It was a very contained little settlement, with none of the straggle that had enlarged such places as Blockley and even Broad Campden. No major roads came within two or
three miles, which Thea supposed made it more of an adventurous goal for many of the tourists who found their way to Snowshill Manor. Hyacinth House was to the south-west of the village centre, on a small road leading up to sudden wide expanses of cornfields. There was a patch of grass outside the gate, between the garden wall and the single-track road, with space for two or three cars. There was no garage, although Blake-next-door had found space for one on his side. A track ran at right angles to the road, passing Blake’s house, and giving him access to his garage. Yvonne’s front garden was adjacent to a small field which rose to a patch of trees. Beyond that was the village.

It was eleven on a Saturday morning, and hazy sunshine lent a typical muted light to the landscape, as Thea slowly scanned the hills around her.

Yvonne’s beloved front garden included a tiny patch of lawn, furnished with a somewhat utilitarian wooden seat. Thea made herself a mug of coffee and went out to sit on the seat, intending to savour her surroundings. The low front wall was adorned with a vigorous climbing rose, which had ventured over onto the broad grass verge beyond, where she had been ordered to leave her car. A little group of people walked past, pausing to admire the garden and the handsome old house. Although the parking for Snowshill Manor was on the other side of the village, she realised she could expect to be included in the impromptu sightseeing tours that people took while
waiting for it to be time for lunch at the pub. The whole settlement was so small that a five-minute walk in any direction would take people well beyond the actual village. As she watched the strollers disappear, she heard a tuneless whistling approach from the track beyond Blake’s garden. Peering curiously across the flower beds, she caught sight of a short blond haircut on a boy who seemed to be aged about ten, coming in her direction.

Before she could call out a greeting, or ask herself whether he was with family or friends, there was a sharp zipping sound, of air being torn apart by rapid movement. A
thwack
followed, and then another.

‘Hey!’ she shouted, jumping to her feet. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

The boy met her eye, full on, his face taut with ill will and triumph. He uttered a syllable that sounded like
Yah
! and broke into a run.

Thea went to the gate and surveyed the verge below Yvonne’s garden wall. Six or seven bright-red roses lay murdered on the grass. She went out and gathered them up, holding them to her nose for a final valedictory sniff. They smelt of joy and love and long sweet summers.

With tears in her eyes, she carried them back to the seat on the lawn, shedding petals in her wake.

She sat holding the flowers and thinking about wanton destruction, when a voice hailed her from somewhere over her right shoulder. ‘Oh, hello?’

‘Who’s that?’ said Thea, twisting round on the wooden slats. ‘Are you calling me?’

‘It’s me. Blake. Next door. Hang on. I’ll come over.’ And before she could respond, he was standing in front of her, grinning like a labrador.

‘Hello,’ said Thea, without enthusiasm. ‘Yvonne told me about you.’

‘Oh dear! What did she say?’

‘Only that you were a good neighbour.’
Too good
, she thought sourly,
if you come over like this every five minutes
.

‘That’s nice.’ He was in his late thirties, she thought, and not bad-looking. His mouth was fleshy, his black
hair rather long, and he smiled too much. He struck her as an improbable owner of a substantial Cotswold residence. ‘She’s such a sweet lady, isn’t she?’

‘Well … I don’t really know her. She seemed very pleasant.’

‘She’s had a hard time. I do what I can for her – electrics and so forth. The wiring in this house isn’t very modern, I’m afraid.’

‘Are you an electrician?’

He laughed merrily. ‘Oh, no. But I’m reasonably handy. Eloise always says so, anyway. That’s my girlfriend,’ he added, in response to Thea’s raised eyebrows.

‘Does she live here as well?’

‘Sort of. She’s doing a degree, so she’s away in term time. And now she’s gone off to Palestine of all places. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. My parents would go ballistic if they knew. Not that they’re Zionists or anything, but even so—’

‘You’re Jewish,’ said Thea with a nod. ‘Right.’

‘Guilty as charged. Metropolitan intellectuals, for the most part. My uncle is something very impressive at the LSE and he lives in Hampstead.’

She had no idea how to reply, although it seemed her unduly direct reference to his race had caused no offence. Since her daughter had taken up with a black police detective, she had become far less wary about the whole business. She had discovered that there was no need to positively discriminate in favour of certain
groups. Some people from ethnic minorities could be every bit as repellent as those of her own colour.

‘My name’s Thea Osborne,’ she told Blake. ‘And this is Hepzibah. She always comes with me when I’m house-sitting.’

‘Sweet,’ he gushed. ‘Eloise can’t wait to have a dog, but I’ve told her not until we’re married. It gives me a hold over her, you see.’ He grinned again, to indicate the lack of seriousness in this remark.

The massacred roses lay in a pathetic heap on the seat, wilting rapidly. ‘A boy chopped the heads off some of the ramblers,’ she said, hoping to dispel her own sadness by passing it to somebody else.

‘What?
Ramblers?
My God! How many? Where are the bodies?’

Hysteria gripped her, without warning, and she giggled helplessly for some moments. ‘No, no. Rambling
roses.
Look.’

‘How beastly. But I suppose boys will be boys. Summer holidays just started and he’ll be bored already.’

‘He looked as if he’d escaped from an outing from the local remand centre,’ said Thea tightly. ‘He’ll be off into the woods, setting snares for unwary wildlife next.’

‘Sounds like young Stevie Horsfall to me. Did he have yellow hair and freckles?’

‘I didn’t notice freckles, but the hair was right. Who is he?’

Blake shrugged, with a hint of rebuke at the question. ‘He’s just a boy. Lives down the track – see?’ He indicated a point behind his own house.

‘Not really. Where does it lead?’

‘Down to a farm, but his mum’s got a little house halfway along. It’s only a minute or two from here. But don’t worry – I don’t imagine he’ll bother you again. He generally concentrates on tormenting Janice and Ruby over the way.’

Not very sociable,
Yvonne had said about the two women. ‘Oh?’

‘He’s got nobody to play with. But I would keep an eye on your dog, all the same. There’s something about boys and dogs, isn’t there?’

Thea had visions of tin cans tied to her spaniel’s tail, and worse. ‘Heavens! That sounds terrible.’

‘No, no. He’s just a boy,’ the man repeated, absently. He was staring at the sky somewhere behind the house. ‘There’s a lark – can you hear it?’

Blake was sounding evasive to Thea, but she chose not to demand further detail. She listened to the joyous bird for a minute, in silence. ‘It’ll be August next week,’ she observed inconsequentially. ‘It’s been a nice summer so far.’

‘Have you been busy with the house-sitting work? Flitting from place to place, never resting long in one spot?’

She gave him a narrow look. ‘Something like that,’ she nodded. ‘But I generally get three or four weeks at
home between commissions. I don’t do it full-time.’

‘Even so,’ he said doubtfully. ‘It’s an unusual existence. Living out of a suitcase, as they say. Not to mention your dog.’ Hepzie was sitting a small distance away, ignoring the visitor in favour of something interesting in her own rear end. Her coat had grown shaggy over the past few months and there were a few lumps in the skirts at the back. ‘Who could do with a trim, if I might venture to comment,’ added Blake.

Thea resisted the temptation to make a snappy defence. ‘True,’ she admitted. ‘I know it’s perverse of me, but I prefer her a bit unkempt. She becomes a completely different dog after a haircut.’

She thought fleetingly of Phil Hollis, her former boyfriend, who had also nagged about getting the spaniel tidied up. Now there was no boyfriend, and it seemed that total strangers felt justified in filling the gap.

‘I gather you and Yvonne are good friends?’ she changed the subject.

‘You gather correctly.’ His smile could only be perceived as patronising and she felt a stab of resentment. There was a sense of being played with, or teased, and this was not something she had ever enjoyed.

She waited in vain for further elaboration. This man, then, was no gossip, which was cause for mild regret. It would have been interesting to learn more about the estranged husband and his circumstances. ‘I suppose
I should come to you if there are any problems, then? She didn’t leave any other names or numbers other than a farmer called Pippa. I’ve just got her mobile for emergencies.’

‘I’d certainly have been happy to help if needed,’ he agreed, with a little inclination of the head. ‘But I’m afraid I won’t be here after tomorrow. I’m going to be following Eloise out to hotter climes, actually.’

‘Oh, well,’ she said. ‘Let’s hope everything will go smoothly.’

‘It’s only two weeks, isn’t it? I don’t imagine anything much will go wrong in that time.’

Thea shuddered inwardly.
Don’t say that,
she wanted to shout at him. Instead, she sighed and smiled and said nothing.

 

Sporadic clusters of exploring walkers went past all afternoon, an experience Thea had never had before in the Cotswolds. She had stayed almost entirely in small villages on the way to nowhere, where every visitor was an event. Not only did Snowshill boast the eccentric Manor, but there were extensive gardens that attracted their own swathe of trippers. The car park was a long walk from the Manor, a deliberate ploy beloved by the National Trust to force everyone to use their legs and traverse the grounds before reaching the main attraction. ‘We’ll go and have a look next week,’ Thea promised the dog. ‘If you’re allowed in, which is doubtful.’

The interior of Hyacinth House grew no more inviting as the day progressed. Outside was warm enough to make the garden a far better prospect, despite the people having a good look at the flowers over the wall. Where most Cotswold properties had the larger area of garden at the back, this one was almost entirely at the front. Only a shady patio, a clump of trees and a high hedge offered themselves in the rear, making it an unappealing place to sit. On the map, a footpath was marked plunging down a steep hill to some woodland on the other side of the road, but she was in no mood for exercise, especially where such a declivity was involved.

The best aspect was definitely from the front. The views were harmonious in all directions. Even turning one’s back on the landscape gave a pleasing picture of the facade of the house with its mellow colours and balanced shapes. The windows were set at exactly the right points, the roof suitably weathered, the size ideal for an ordinary family. Everything about it looked perfect. Only Yvonne’s excesses had spoilt the rooms inside, making them hazardous in the clutter of fragile objects and unrestful to the eye.

She was just deciding that it must be almost time to feed the cats, when the telephone rang from the hallway, a few feet inside the open front door.

Yvonne had left no instructions regarding messages, but common sense ordained that she must answer it.

A man’s voice burst loudly in her ear, before she
had managed to utter more than a syllable. ‘Vonny? Where the hell are you? I’ve been watching out for hours now. You said you’d be here by two. It’s nearly five, and there you are, not even left yet. Couldn’t you have called me, instead of keeping me hanging around here all afternoon? I have got things to do, you know.’

‘This is Thea Osborne, the house-sitter,’ she eventually succeeded in telling him. ‘Yvonne left here at eleven.’

‘What?’

‘She left Snowshill at eleven. Even with Saturday traffic, she ought to be in London by now.’

‘Of course she ought. There’s no problem with the traffic. The silly cow’s probably got herself lost.’

For six hours
?
Thea seriously doubted that. ‘Surely not,’ she said mildly. ‘She would have called you.’

‘Precisely. That’s what I
said
.’

‘But sometimes it can take ages, if there’s an accident holding up the traffic. I assume she’s using the M4. You know what motorways can be like.’

‘She’s not answering her mobile. I tried it. Three times.’ Only now was he starting to sound worried. ‘Where the devil has the idiot woman got to, then?’

‘As far as I could tell, she had every intention of driving directly to you. I mean, she’s gone to the trouble of employing me to watch over the house. I really don’t know what to suggest.’

‘Well, I don’t see how she can be lost. It’s easy enough to find.’

‘But she hasn’t been there before – is that right?’

‘Actually, no.’ His voice faltered. ‘No, she hasn’t.’

‘Oh, well …’ Her own voice was losing conviction. Six hours really was a long time to spend trying to get to north London. Nobody went silent for that long in these days of perpetual communication. Except when they couldn’t get a mobile signal or the battery died. That could happen, of course. ‘There’s probably been some sort of hold-up,’ she repeated feebly, thinking that unless Yvonne herself had been injured, she had no justification for allowing so much time to pass without making contact. Although she could very easily have lost her nerve, changed her mind … been abducted? Of course not. There was no need to invent wild explanations of that sort.

‘Thank you for your help, anyway,’ he said, suddenly formal.

‘Will you ask her to call me when she turns up? Just to put my mind at rest?’

‘Of course,’ he said, leaving her doubting that he would do anything of the sort.

She spent the next hour restlessly moving from kitchen to living room, upstairs to her bedroom and out into the garden, holding her phone as if it were welded to her hand. Yvonne or her husband would use the landline in the house to call her, but somehow the mobile made her feel connected to the wider world – a feeling she had acquired only in recent months. Before that she had regarded it as more of an irritation than
something useful. Since her daughter had given her a new model last Christmas, she had been discovering more and more functions in its repertoire, designed to give her access to virtually everything that was being done, thought or said across the entire globe. Almost against her own nature, she was finding it intoxicating. There were apps for things she had never dreamt could be provided so quickly, and for so little cost.

‘Hello again,’ came a man’s voice, the second time she found herself roaming restlessly around the garden.

‘Oh … Blake. Hi.’

‘Everything okay?’

‘Not really. It seems that Yvonne never reached London. Her husband’s worried about her.’

‘My God!’ The reaction did nothing to soothe Thea. ‘She must have got into trouble, then. She’s been gone
all day.
’ He made it sound like a month.

‘Yes. I thought perhaps she’d called in on somebody on the way, as a sudden whim. Or just … changed her mind.’ She shrugged at this temptingly normal idea. Something about the failed marriage, Yvonne’s nervousness that morning, the husband’s tone, made it seem rather plausible that the woman had deviated from her original plan, that she had got cold feet and decided instead to go and stay with a distant cousin in Beaconsfield or Haslemere.

‘She’s been psyching herself up for this for ages,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘The final showdown with bloody Victor.’

‘But aren’t they divorced? Wasn’t that the time for a showdown?’

He wrinkled his nose. ‘She just signed everything that was put in front of her, whether it was fair or not. It didn’t do much to sort out the emotional side of things. She hasn’t been able to face up to a meeting ever since … well, for years. We talked it over endlessly. She wouldn’t chicken out of it now. I know she wouldn’t.’ He sounded less certain than his words.

‘If she hasn’t seen him for a long time, it must be hard for her.’ Thea fumbled to express her vague understanding of the situation. ‘I mean, that sort of thing – it looms bigger and bigger in your mind, doesn’t it?’

‘She wouldn’t do it now, if it wasn’t for Belinda.’

Thea nodded. ‘Yes, she told me. She wants him to come to the wedding.’

‘She wants him to
pay
for it. I’m not sure anybody wants him to show up as well.’ He laughed, and added, ‘I’ve got something of a similar problem myself, as it happens. Eloise’s dad is almost as out of favour as Victor is. All we can think of is to get married in the Caribbean or somewhere, with no family at all.’

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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